For its 50th anniversary, the New York Film Festival, which wrapped up this weekend, went transmedia.
Matt Bolish of the Film Society of Lincoln Center said the transmedia focus — to which the entire opening weekend late last month was devoted in the NYFF Convergence program — came to fruition because of a desire to not just break new ground but break new ground in a new way.
“Convergence was born out of a desire to explore how technology was changing the way stories were told and consumed,” Bolish said. “We didn’t want to focus on new apps or break the news on hot new platforms. We wanted to lay the groundwork for a program that would explore immersive storytelling from a critical perspective, to consider the work as art, the creator as artist, and try to help define a grammar of transmedia.”
NYFF Convergence brought together an eclectic mix of panels, workshops and screenings. The Producers Guild of America and Writers Guild of America East both hosted panels adding legitimacy to the buzz of transmedia. For those creators looking to dip their toes into transmedia for the first time, a lively workshop titled “Transmedia on $8 a Day” with Brian Fountain was a how-to guide to utilizing free and low-cost social-media platforms and technologies to tell stories.
The Convergence weekend gave me an opportunity to speak with and hear from several trailblazers in transmedia. Here are a few of the highlights from those conversations.
Tommy Pallotta and the Rabbit Hole
Tommy Pallotta launched the event as one of the keynote conversations. Perhaps best known for producing “A Scanner Darkly” and “Waking Dreams,” his speech emphasized how his trailblazing of new formats and technologies was driven by his drive to tell better stories. He shared that his signature computer-generated rotoscoping animation originated from a need for a quick, down-and-dirty solution to speed up the animation process.
The highlight of his talk was when he pulled a young boy from the audience to demonstrate a new interactive technology he’s developing that allows average computer users to place themselves into an animation as various characters. He shared that this also grew from a need he saw in the marketplace to make animation more accessible to the general public.
After his presentation, Pallotta shared with me his thoughts on transmedia storytelling and his love-hate relationship with technology.
Having never been to film school, Pallotta shared he was “late in life to even get a computer.” Regarding technology, he likes to call himself a “neo-luddite” and confesses, “I don’t like tech. I don’t have an iPhone. I don’t want to read about an iPhone. I’m not on the social networks. I would love it if I got rid of my computer completely. I don’t want it in my house.”
He sees technology as a tool to further his storytelling and draws a parallel between traditional storytelling in film and storytelling utilizing new technologies.
“You don’t have to know anything about cameras to be a director, but it helps,” he said. “You don’t need to know anything about technology to do anything in this field, but you need to be able to find those tools or ways to express what you want to say.”
Perhaps at the heart of the matter, Pallotta is disappointed with the present state of technology, or the technological future he dreamed of as a child.
“The premise of technology is that it would make our lives easier and connect us together better, a utopian view, but it didn’t happen. I grew up in a dusty Texas town around horses and NASA in the ’70s,” he said. “I thought we would be in hovercrafts. My idea of technology was we were going to be the Jetsons. Now you go to the doctor and they try and figure out how they are going to treat your cancer and I’m like, ‘You don’t have nanobots that shoot lasers at it?!’ It’s not like cancer’s new.”
Pallotta has worked creatively in many mediums but believes one of transmedia’s benefits is that it allows one to explore the details.
“Movies are cool, but basically you tell a story in a three-act structure. We are all film critics. I’ve been in focus groups of my own movies and they’re like, ‘In the second act…’ and I’m like, ‘Really dude?’ But with transmedia everyone is just trying to figure it out,” he said. “Movies have to be about this big thing, but I’m interested in the small things too. When I go on the web, I’m completely gone and have no idea where I’ll end up. If there is a way you can harness that power and someone is able to go down that rabbit hole, and you can navigate that, it can be really interesting … I like the minutia.”
For Pallotta, the real premise and promise of transmedia is that it is experimental and fun. He felt his transmedia project, Collapsus, because he assumed he’d fail.
“I love this form of storytelling and that there is no right way. If you have something to say and you’re a storyteller, you just want people to engage with it and it doesn’t matter how or when. People get obsessed with resolution and frames per second, but the audience doesn’t care about that,” he said. “They just want a good story and characters they care about and can identify with. They want to feel not alone in the world. That’s what we are all looking for.”
Green Room Confessions
After a lively Writing Transmedia panel, panelists John Esposito, Nick Bernadone and George Strayton piled into the Green Room of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center for an exchange of “war stories” and shared insights into wearing many hats as a transmedia writer and the challenges of creating transmedia projects while satisfying the marketing objectives and criteria and dealing with tight budget restrictions, all while never disappointing the fans.
Bernadone said he wishes he had the textbook definition of transmedia. Bernadone not only writes the webisodes for “30 Rock,” but he also is a staff writer on the show. Entering the show’s last season, he said there’s been an emphasis on capturing behind-the-scenes moments this year for the online content — an example of the changes one can expect when writing transmedia content for a television program. On set, every day holds a new adventure, and that’s just the way Bernadone likes it.
“I was making crappy movies on VHS cameras when I was 7 years old. I’ve always been one of those who would rather make something rather than just write something, so I kind of do it all,” Bernadone said. “The more people embrace the opportunity to wear all the hats, things get done faster and more efficiently.”
He does advise that while he can write, direct and edit something, he still will bring in a better shooter, or as far as interactive technology, rely on those more knowledgeable than himself.
“I could study that my whole life and never get it. I think there are some areas you just have to rely on the people that are good at it. Finding a comfort zone creatively is all you have to do,” he said.
Esposito’s path to “The Walking Dead” is a similar tale. He started out making films on Super 8.
“I was obsessed with movies at a very young age. In school, I started getting recognition for short stories, but I knew I wanted to direct. I went to SVA [School of Visual Arts] and ended up optioning a script at a young age. This led to a couple of assignments, which is how it all got started.” He added humbly, “It took me years to actually call myself a writer.”
Strayton, on the other hand, began as a game designer. Not the video games most think of when they hear that term, but tabletop games — “Dungeons and Dragons” to be specific. For Strayton, these had an interactive element and still allowed him to get his feet wet with storytelling.
“I always enjoyed telling stories and thought I’d be a novelist, then quickly realized, ‘No, that’s not my medium,’” he said.
He smiles and shares that once he fell in love with film and television, he “just moved to L.A. one day.” He did a variety of jobs at a studio, until eventually he became a director of marketing.
“I went to film school much later and eventually got a job on a TV show. When transmedia came around, I had a lot of skills sets that I could bring together,” he said. “The head writers of one of the shows I worked for, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers and producers of the ‘Transformer’ movies, said to me, ‘Hey George, you know this kind of stuff.’ This allowed me to use everything I did up to that point.”
On the topic of budget, they shared that the first thing to grasp is that a fan will never understand that you don’t have the same budget the core content does, so you have to pick and choose your battles in order to have your content stand up and not disappoint. They all nodded their heads in agreement when Esposito said, “You can’t tell a fan, ‘Hey look how cool this is and we shot it in only two days!’”
Their diverse skill sets come in handy, they agreed, because as writers on these projects, they actually are also involved in most arenas of the productions, often creating content last minute or because a particular actor, set or props is available to them that day. They are not simply sitting at a desk or in the writers’ room.
Esposito shared an example of this from the “The Walking Dead” webisodes:
“We were shooting a prequel, and I wrote in helicopters and they say, ‘No. No budget’. A traffic helicopter keeps flying over the shoot so we used that. It appears over and over again in the webisodes. Later, we needed a car accident, and we were just gonna fake it when we saw a car damaged and paid the owner to let us push their car into a tree.”
The challenge of low-budget filmmaking, though, is to stay true to fans’ expectations.
“You have to gear the story to your limitations, understand the fan mentality. I’m a fan and I don’t like being cheated,” he said.
Both Bernadone and Strayton seconded that. They said they couldn’t emphasize enough the importance of maintaining strict continuity to the core content. For the first Transformers movie, Strayton said, they weren’t allowed to show the robots until the very end because no one had seen them yet.
“It was be a big reveal, and I was really excited that the first time the audience saw them was through the transmedia. We shot at a Marine base where one of the Transformers comes down and wrecks a Humvee. It takes off and then when it lands next time, it is in the movie. For the transmedia audience it was like, ‘I know what the robots look like and nobody else does, and then when they saw the movie they were like, ‘I know where he just came from!’”
The act of finding easter eggs that lead to a sneak peak, is a common reward for the “uber fan.” For Transformer fans participating in the transmedia/ARG (alternate reality game), they were able to “hunt down” passwords hidden in a variety of places (a single frame of the movie trailer, a Transformers comic book issue, a variety of websites, etc.) that granted them access to different parts of the Sector Seven mainframe.
For Strayton, writing transmedia for a film is similar to working within the parameters of a TV show.
“To me it always goes back to the story. If you don’t have a good story, you have nothing. It doesn’t matter if you’re on Twitter, Tumblr or whatever the newest randomly named technology is,” Strayton said. “I’m creating a story with a first, second and third act, or, if you want to take it up to the climax and find out what happens, you have to watch the movie.”
All three writers work on projects with avid fan bases, but knowing they were fanboys in their own right, I asked them what would they most like to create a transmedia project for. Bernadone was quick to answer: “Game of Thrones.” Esposito answered, “Star Wars” but added that it would be a terrifying burden to write for one of his favorite worlds. Strayton shared he’d actually worked for LucasFilms and had to keep tabs on fans posting incorrect “Star Wars” facts. For him, the ultimate would be “Lord of the Rings.”
As with most forms of storytelling, transmedia storytelling resonates with audiences when it delivers a sense of connection to the characters and their world — and at its most elevated form reminds us, the fans, we are not alone. The Film Society of Lincoln Center will be posting videos of the Convergence events on their website.
Note: Strayton shared with MediaShift readers the final password to open up the final scene that leads directly into the opening action sequence of the Transformers film. The password is “deceptibot.”
Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She writes a series called “Truth in Documentary Filmmaking” and is currently producing the documentary, “The Art of Memories.”