Principles of Transmedia

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Previous Page: “What is Transmedia Storytelling?”
Spreadability | Drillability
Continuity | Multiplicity
Immersion | Extractability
Worldbuilding | Seriality
Subjectivity | Performance
Next page: How Games and Networks Tell Stories

Only a few months before the Producers Guild sanctioned the role of transmedia producer, Henry Jenkins, the professor who was among the first scholars to define transmedia, assembled a list of “seven principles of transmedia storytelling” in a pair of late-2009 blog posts. In them Jenkins fleshed out concepts introduced first in a column for Technology Review, then in his notable book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. His definitions continue in the posts, distinguishing between what is and what is not a transmedia extension of the narrative: “We need to distinguish between adaptation, which reproduces the original narrative with minimum changes into a new medium and is essentially redundant to the original work, and extension, which expands our understanding of the original by introducing new elements into the fiction.” He continues: “…I think we can agree that Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is an adaptation, while Tom Stoppard’s Rosencranz & Guildenstern Are Dead expands Shakespeare’s original narrative through its refocalization around secondary characters from the play.”

Jenkins then establishes his seven principles: Spreadability vs. Drillability, Continuity vs. Multiplicity, Immersion vs. Extractability, Worldbuilding, Seriality, Subjectivity and Performance. I am unconvinced that three of these principles should be oppositional pairs, however. Their qualities are not mutually exclusive in transmedia productions and are simply a part of the array of options that may or may not be sought in the same project. I will examine them individually.

With Spreadability stories are spread through fan interaction. Those readers actively engage in the distribution of the material through their social networks and in the process expand its economic and cultural value. “Going viral” is an Internet-age term for an idea or production that spreads like a benevolent or malevolent microbe through the mediascape. Often these viral phenomena happen accidentally. Jenkins in his seven principles blog post cites the case of Susan Boyle, the operatic singer who drew an enormous number of fans for the contrast between a beautiful voice and a homely appearance. Her album outsold that of the winner of American Idol by some seven to one due to the viral video of her Britain’s Got Talent performance.

The USB flash drive found in a concert venue bathroom for the Nine Inch Nails Year Zero tour.

But spreadability can also be engineered, as industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails proved. As a promotion for their album Year Zero, the band left a small USB flash drive in a bathroom before the concert. On the drive was a previously unreleased song that was immediately shared by the woman who found it. This action contributed to the advance promotion of the album to a global fan base.

With Drillability the story captures a fan’s imagination or interest sufficiently to encourage deep investigation into the details, the periphery and contexts of the story much as The Matrix franchise did. “The deeper you drill down,” Jenkins notes about the franchise, “the more secrets emerge, all of which can seem at any moment to be the key to the film.” For example, the number on the apartment door of the central character Neo is 101, a number that reappears throughout the films connecting events and characters. Billboards in the background of scenes contain cheat codes for the Enter the Matrix computer game. And license plates such as DA203 or IS5416 refer to context-appropriate Bible verses — Daniel 2:3 and Isaiah 54:16. The franchise is game-like in its tug on fans to explore for themselves, seeking answers to obscure questions unnoticed by the casual viewer.

Enter the Matrix game

(Click to Explore)

Arriving close on the heels of the final cinema installments of The Matrix in 2004 was ABC’s Lost, a story of an air-crash marooning described by Frank Rose as “so convoluted that the audience had little choice but to work together to decipher it communally online.” By building the show in non-linear fragments, the producers created what Rose described as “a kind of participatory fiction.” by selectively releasing information within the story in timed bits. It created an illusion of interactivity. Fans exchanged thoughts and ideas on message boards until an Anchorage, Alaska computer programmer built Lostpedia, a wiki to collect clues and aid in deciphering the puzzle. In April 2011, the site listed 7,200 pages in 17 languages. The forum connected to the wiki boasted 2.7 million posts from 74,000 members, 9,000 of whom are listed as “active” a year after the show’s end. Pages in the wiki are divided among topics like “economics” in which academic fans analyze the survivor’s resource allocations. Others include “leadership,” “symbolism,” “literary techniques,” and topics like “flash-sideways characters.” The phenomena of the show, the social behavior of the fans and its resulting wiki all became academic and mathematical research when Peter Pirolli, a researcher at Xerox’s Palo Alto, California facility asked the question, “How do the semantic representations of a community engaged in social information foraging and sensemaking evolve over time?” Pirolli’s workmathematically modeled the content, structure and trends within the wiki’s articles, and how they relate to real world events. In productions Jenkins describes as drillable, the engagement comes with commitments that vary from the passive to the obsessed and from a broad cross section of fans.

Continuity is a familiar storytelling technique, and in the transmedia realm, though a story may unfold in separate lines and across diverse media, it still should maintain the coherence and plausibility of the story as a payoff to fans. Continuity is often the first place a franchise or storyline might lose the serious fan, and as a story builds in complexity it can be difficult to track many of the details. Lucasfilm maintains a database of the minutia of the Star Wars saga called the Holocron. In it 30,000 items and ideas are classified by canonicity, with the highest level marked as “G” for George Lucas himself. The effort to maintain story continuity is often reciprocated by the most serious fans, who, in the case of Star Wars, built the Wookiepedia, a fan-generated online encyclopedia of the saga’s elements. The Luke Skywalker entry alone runs 31,000 words.

Multiplicity refers to those varying story lines within the same continuous and coherent realm. As an example one might look at the vast Star Trek universe in which different fictional ships, crews and stations explore the same galaxy from different perspectives, in different time periods and facing different issues. Multiplicity can also refer to broad breaks of continuity that may enrich a transmedia universe, such as in the 2009 re-imagining of the Star Trek story. Official or unofficial authors may create an alternate universe where the unexpected collide, such as in the recent series of mashup books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Android Karenina.

Through Immersion the fan enters into the world of the story, if even briefly, suspending disbelief and forgetting their real-world circumstances. In the way a good movie seen in a darkened theater can swallow us and make us feel present in that scene, transmedia design should aim to draw a fan in deeply enough to forget his- or herself. As mentioned earlier, James Cameron’s Avatar pushed the technical capabilities of cinema far beyond the reach of amateur producers with motion-capture animation techniques and seamless 3-D technology a 1950s B movie producer could only dream of. Cameron’s goal, according to Rose, was to draw the viewer deeper into the world he had created, eliminating the artificial frame created by the movie screen. Cameron hoped to pull viewers through the proscenium, past the artificial visual plane of the screen and into his world. Cameron partner Jon Landau explained to Frank Rose in an interview, “3-D is about immersing the audience in your story, and the screen plane has always been this subconscious barrier.” Once there, they hoped, the most engaged fans would find a fractal-like complexity. “The casual viewer can enjoy [the film] without having to drill down to secondary or tertiary levels of detail,” Cameron told Rose. “But for a real fan, you go in an order of magnitude and boom! There’s a whole new set of patterns.”

Games, while also a tool for expanding a story or looking at that story through different eyes, are also immersive experiences. Why So Serious? was an alternate reality game launched in late 2007 to promote the upcoming Batman film The Dark Knight. Several thousand fans had applied earlier online to be henchmen to the Joker, and they started receiving cryptic messages to decode and upon which to act. Clues led the most savvy players to bakeries to collect cakes held for “Robin Banks,” a name derived from the Joker’s fictional bank-robbing aims. In the cakes were cell phones that rang with further clues and instructions. The tasks designed by the game’s creators aimed to let the participants feel they had helped the Joker steal a school bus used in a key plot element of the film. “The cake phones were a mechanism that enabled thousands of people to step into the fiction long before the film’s July 2008 premiere. The 12-hour cake hunt involved only a few dozen people on the ground, but some 1.4 million gathered online to see what would happen,” described Frank Rose of the response to the game.

Also new on the scene for fictional transmedia franchises is the theme amusement park, like the recently opened Harry Potter park at Universal Orlando in Florida, where fans of the stories may make immersive, first-person explorations in the Hogwarts school and buy personalized wands from Ollivander’s Wand Shop. Before the park opened in 2010, Tom Felton, who plays Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy, told the New York Times in an interview, “We always say on set, ‘If this place was real, it would be absolutely fantastic. To actually walk into this world and be able to touch it and taste it and smell it — well, it’s just going to be fantastic.”

Extractability provides something for that fan to then take aspects of that story with him or her into the spaces of his or her everyday life. Those aspects might be physical, the way the Eskimo Pie™ was an early example of merchandising for the film Nanook of the North, or in the millions of Star Wars action figures sold in the 34 years of the franchise. In the 1950s Disney’s Davy Crockett launched a frenzy among kids for coonskin caps which, at their peak, sold 5,000 a day. But in theory they could also be philosophical or behavioral. The creators of the films Avatar or District 9 might hope for the byproduct of better intercultural understanding from films that show discrimination, insensitivity and the dark side of humanity.

Worldbuilding provides a rich enough tapestry on which the main story can unfold, allowing alternate stories based on different characters and circumstances. No longer, Jenkins illustrates, does a good Hollywood pitch center only on a good story, or even a character that could reappear across multiple films and books, but it must develop an entire world where multiple good characters can have multiple good stories in an endless array of possibility. An early practitioner of worldbuilding was L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 13 fellow novels, comic strips, multiple short stories and stage and screen productions on that fictional world. Jenkins describes Baum offering mock travelogue lectures where he showed slides and short films about his world. This technique of world building by the likes of Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis has carried over into the 21st century with James Cameron’s Pandora world in Avatar.

At the Transmedia Hollywood 2 conference at UCLA in 2011, Geoffrey Long, a media scholar and program manager for Microsoft, noted, “As we move toward the next generation of connectivity and we get to the notion of entertainment for ‘the cloud,’ that’s when you really start getting into this idea that the story world is abstracted from the medium in which it’s delivered. Any given component, like a television show or a comic or whatever is actually just a window through which you look in order to understand this external world.”

With Seriality the story unfolds not only in multiple segments of one medium — as it did for writers like Charles Dickens or in serialized films like the Zorro franchise, but across multiple media. For example Zorro’s story now lives in the original 1919 serialized pulp magazine stories, 59 other novellas and novels by creator Johnston McCulley as well as a dozen other books, five serialized film series, four television series, three animated series, seven feature films starting with Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power and ending more recently with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas. More films have been made in French, Japanese, Italian and Spanish. The story has spread several times to comics and anime, video games, the theatrical stage, music and now to a newer novel by award-winning Chilean author Isabel Allende. Through all these permutations the story stays largely the same, with only a few grand departures from the story of a rich effete Californian who battles tyranny behind a mask in early 1800s colonial California. Traditional television soap operas are also thoroughly serial, with series lasting decades on U.S. television.

At Transmedia Hollywood 2, Craig Hanna, CEO of the Thinkwell Group, a transmedia production company that worked on the new Harry Potter theme park in Florida, outlined the future of serial transmedia storytelling: The “Holy Grail” will be to, “…start the story in any portal, whether it’s your iPad or a book, or a movie or an online experience, or a game or a theme park; have that experience continue in another device… and then finish on a third. And then have those recognize where you started, where you went and have it alter itself to allow you to finish that story with a beginning, middle and end.”

Subjectivity is defined differently than in journalism where subjectivity of the reporter is considered anathema. In Jenkins’ definition the story is given complexity through the views of multiple characters or dimensions within the story. This may come about by building backstory and character through other media such as comics, as was done with The Matrix or the Heroes television series. But it can also simply use multiple personal perspectives to tell a story, as Bram Stoker used in his epistolary novel Dracula, constructed simply of letters between several correspondents and featuring their views on the same events. In Dracula Stoker makes the reader feel her or she has come across a cache of letters where those opposing views build the story from frequently contradictory viewpoints. The story changes shape as much through our understanding that we are reading a singular viewpoint on events as it does because of the events or setting themselves.

At Transmedia Hollywood 2, screenwriter Jane Espenson described a scene in a movie installment of the recent Battlestar Galactica television series in which scenes were retold through the perspective of different characters than those used on the original broadcast show. “…We were playing with your perception of scenes you’ve already seen. We were re-contextualizing and recreating those scenes, and reinterpreting them. They meant something different this time around.” Espenson also described using Webisodes to change straight characters into gay ones in what would combine the principles of subjectivity and multiplicity.

Twitter has become a platform for fictional characters to express personal viewpoints on events that transpire in their respective fictional worlds, as Jenkins points out (2009, December 12). Many of the characters on AMC’s Mad Men have tweeted through the fingers of fans. Character Betty Draper, who as of April 1, 2011, still had 13,562 followers despite not tweeting since August of the previous year, hinted at events that take place on the central TV show: “Want to buy my @joan_holloway has asked for a donation… Strange. Still, I’ve never had a good time in that dress.” Tweeting from these characters, as Frank Rose illustrates, was an independent act by fans that was initially misunderstood by the show’s producers. The authors found the accounts closed less than two weeks after they started, but fan uproar soon showed AMC the engagement the unauthorized tweets were producing and efforts to stop the tweets were dropped. Rose asks, “What happens when viewers start seizing bits of the story and telling it themselves?”

Fans telling bits of the story is an act Jenkins’ identifies as Performance. Here the story encourages, if not provides, action from the fans. This may take the form of cryptic clues that appear briefly in a medium that inspire investigation or decoding by fans or open plot holes that inspire fan fiction. Performance could be as direct as asking a viewer to vote for participants on a program like So You Think You Can Dance or American Idol.

Sharon Marie Ross, a media researcher at Chicago’s Columbia College, categorizes three types of invitations made to fans of a television franchise. The first, “overt,” is clearly understood by anyone watching a program like American Idol, in which the viewers are invited to vote. The second she describes as “organic,” in which the invitation to what she calls “tele-participation” is carefully designed to appear natural, assuming that the fans are already somehow participating with the show. She cites Canadian teen school drama Degrassi: The Next Generation for how it chooses episode topics that encourage discussion among an age group already comfortable with online and digital communication media, and the aim of the series is to influence the choices those fans make in their own lives. Without prodding, the fans develop strong social networks online and role play the characters on MySpace. The show itself reflects that world by delivering information in the shorthand style of SMS messaging or internet chat, a language particular to the show’s target demographic. The third category Ross describes as “the messiest due to its complexity and ambiguousness.” Using a style she calls “obscured,” an entity like ABC’s Lost or The Matrix franchise may simply leave so many questions open or holes in the story line that a dedicated and intrigued fan feels required to sleuth out the answers. Finding those answers grants an “insider status” to those who have completed the puzzle and unlocked the next level of the virtual game.

Degrassi is also an example of the structures of transmedia entertainment moving away from their origin in science fiction and fantasy franchises. As transmedia storytelling continues to grow it is spreading to other genre, like the cable channel FX’s situation comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or the upcoming Australian television teen drama series SLiDE. From the start, noted transmedia producer and Hoodlum CEO Tracey Robertson, SLiDE was planned for multiple platforms from the start, including outlets for fan creativity.

At Transmedia Hollywood 2, communications scholar Avi Santo noted that complex world creation in transmedia is now being parceled out to fans. The valuable product a media company has is no longer just its property and staff to generate content. It now has is the environment in which fans can create on the story’s behalf.

Next Page: How games and networks tell stories.

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