6½ Questions With: Robert Pratten (Part 2)
Earlier in the week I began a discussion with filmmaker and transmedia developer Robert Pratten; we talked about why transmedia is more than a buzzword and why forward-thinking filmmakers should be planning for their next project to reach across multiple mediums. In this second part we talk about the initiative as an artist to develop not just "products" (e.g., feature films) but also "byproducts" (e.g., transmedia software) in order to self-sustain. In case you missed it, here's part one of the interview. And here's part two:
4. What films are you working on now, and can you give us some examples of how you are putting TransmediaStoryteller to work on those projects?
Right now the things I’m working on have rather modest uses of the platform but there are people more creative than me ready to go live with some very cool interactive fiction and audience-driven stories - all of which is made possible with TransmediaStoryteller.
For me though, I’m currently working on a project called Lowlifes. It’s a novella, web series and a blog. The novella is in 13 chapters, we’ll have 10 videos and maybe 20 or more blog posts. Each media is from the perspective of a different character and while each media stands on its own as an entertaining read or watch, the best experience is achieved by consuming it all.
With this project I wanted to explore story structure more than the experience design. In many ways its delivered as three stand-alone traditional media but the difference is that the story for each media - while interlinked and related - doesn’t have to be consumed concurrently or in any particular cross-platform order. What I mean by that is you could read all the novella and then watch all the videos; or read a few chapters of the novella and watch a video, then read more novella, then finish off the videos and so on. There’s a multitude of consumption patterns and each will give you a different emotional reaction to the story without spoiling the climax of the story in either media.
TransmediaStoryteller will be used to release the content episodically, manage subscribers and send tweets about the popularity of particular videos. In the LowLifes novella there’s a character called Holy Joe who pays homeless people to spot UFO sightings over San Francisco. He’ll have his own website with a Twitter feed of sightings. We’ll be encouraging people to @reply with their own sightings and we’ll have exclusive content and prizes for those that spot UFOs in certain hot spots. The only thing we’re concerned about is that aliens may intercept his Twitter stream and use if for their own encoded propaganda!
Another project I may work on next year will place the audience at the centre of what was a real-life experience. It’s tentatively called The Last 7 Days of My Dad’s Life. There will be eight blog posts (or emails for subscribers) - one for each last day of his life plus one for the day after - and Twitter profiles for a mother, a brother, a cousin and a wife. My father’s own thoughts will be expressed through a Flickr profile that shows photos of his memories with his thoughts in the description field.
The blog posts will cover the major events of each day - as I experienced them - while Twitter will show the internal thoughts and feelings of each of those other characters (at the exact time of day it would have been 5 years ago, the week before he died). It’s like re-living the experience again and eavesdropping on the significance my father had on the lives of these people. It sounds rather morbid, I know, but I’ve never come to terms with his death and I think this is a way for me to deal with it. I also think it could be a very powerful learning tool for people dealing with loss; helping them understand the emotions they go through and understanding the reactions of others. I’m aiming for it to be an enriching experience a bit like a Raymond Carver short story... except that it’s a transmedia experience written by me. I’d like to include some interactivity around text messaging too but I’ve yet to work that through. If I add it, it will need to feel integral to the experience and yet be optional too because I’m looking to pass on the cost of the text messages.
5. How long have you been actively developing TransmediaStoryteller? How large is the team?
About a year. It took me a while to find the right people to start the venture and I went through several designs of the user interface - each time trying to make it more easy and intuitive to use. There’s three of us, me, Alexey (the chief technical officer) and a third guy that’s doing the coding.
6. I'm interested in the "artist-entrepreneur" aspect of this endeavor, in that you work on your own "products" -- in this case, films -- but also the resulting "byproducts" -- in this case, the web site TransmediaStoryteller. At what point did you realize that you could or should develop your own tools instead of relying on what was available from others?
Well there are no tools available from others. Other technology of this type is hidden behind closed doors by a handful of agencies because it’s their leverage to win consultancy or design work. This is a new category of product and there’s not even an agreed description for it because it crosses so many functions from content management through publishing to measurement.
I became acutely aware of this when I wanted to develop my Parasites project back in the summer of 2009. As I started compiling my needs and writing them up into a functional specification I realised how much I enjoyed the work and I got a thrill from the feeling of being ahead of the curve. I hope to continue creating transmedia content in the future but I suspect that it’s going to be more of a hobby than a career choice as I put myself more into TransmediaStoryteller.
7. A ton of people are going to be working in transmedia in the future, at which point it will probably go back to being known simply as "media." But right now, transmedia storytelling represents an opportunity because --
-- it’s something that independents can dominate and really make a name for themselves. The competition for attention that I mentioned earlier affects Hollywood just as much as indies. They fight against it with their huge marketing budgets - going for attention by shouting louder - but we can use transmedia storytelling to make stronger, authentic, responsive, rewarding and engaging audience relationships.
With the Internet providing cheap distribution, low-cost HD cameras and post-production software and the popularity of user-generated content, there’s now a premium on creative ideas, not production skills. That totally plays to the indies’ strengths. Rather than play the game the way Hollywood defines it and shooting 3D or shooting with the RED camera, indies should write the rules of a new game and set new audience expectations.
Indies can’t compete on budgets but they can compete on time investment, quality, creativity, interactivity and participation. All of that says transmedia storytelling is where independent filmmakers should be.
Robert Pratten is an experienced marketing consultant and transmedia producer. Before the Internet boom and crash of ’99 he was an internationally recognized expert in the field of Intelligent Networks having advised clients such as Ericsson, Lucent, Telcordia and others on international pricing, positioning and market entry strategies. Since that time he trained at the London Film School and has written, produced and directed two award-winning, critically acclaimed feature films - London Voodoo and Mindflesh.
He works with independent producers, writers and directors advising them on cross-platform storytelling, marketing and distribution. He is currently working on LowLifes, an original transmedia entertainment property with a social activism component and is the founder of Transmedia Storyteller a subscription-based service for cross-platform audience engagement. Robert’s exploits are usually documented at Zen Films.