Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: The Remaining Four Principles of Transmedia Storytelling

3. Immersion vs. Extractability These two concepts refer to the perceived relationship between the transmedia fiction and our everyday experiences. At the Studio Ghibli Museum outside of Tokyo, there's a fascinating exhibition on the history of motion pictures. Much of what is there could have been in a western museum on the same topic - various motion toys designed to capture and exploit the persistence of vision. Yet, there are also panorama boxes - little minature worlds which you have to kneel down to look inside, worlds constructed of plastic figurines in front of cellophane backdrops. On the wall, there's a quote from animator Hayao Miyazki, who explains,

"just as people wished to make pictures move, they wished to look inside a different world. They yearned to enter a story or travel to a faraway land. They longed to see the future of the landscapes of the past. The panorama box with no moving parts was made much earlier than the Zoetrope."

Miyazki is making the case, then, that immersion - the ability of consumers to enter into fictional worlds - was the driving force behind the creation of cinema and has fueled the development of many subsequent media. It is certainly not hard to move from the microworlds constructed in the panorama boxes to the microworlds created for contemporary video games. But if we step outside the museum proper and into the gift shop, we see another principle at play. Here, one can buy tiny figures and massive models of key characters, props, and settings from Miyazki's films, or we can buy props and costumes which can become resoures for Cosplay. Ian Condry has made the case that the toy industry in Japan and its need for extractable elements has dramatically shaped the development of anime and manga.

In immersion, then, the consumer enters into the world of the story, while in extractability, the fan takes aspects of the story away with them as resources they deploy in the spaces of their everyday life.

Again, neither principle is new: just as we had panorama boxes in Japan, the movie palaces which sprung up in the United States in the 1920s were instruments of immersion, offering fantastical environments within which to watch movies which were themselves often exploring exotic or faraway worlds, and we might extend immersion to include more contemporary amusement parks, such as the soon to open theme park that seeks to reconstruct the world of Harry Potter or the Dubai based theme park focused around Marvel superheroes to open in 2012 (assuming either Dubai or the world doesn't end before then). On the other end of the spectrum, we can see early examples of extractable content growing up around Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Buster Brown, or Charlie Chaplin, to cite a few examples, even around Nanook of the North (which helped to introduce the Eskimo Pie to the American buying public).

4. Worldbuilding.

In Convergence Culture, I quoted an unnamed screenwriter who discussed how Hollywood's priorities had shifted in the course of his career: "When I first started you would pitch a story because without a good story, you didn't really have a film. Later, once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories. and now, you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media." This focus on world building has a long history in science fiction, where writers such as Cordwainer Smith constructed interconnecting worlds which link together stories scattered across publications.

We can point towards someone like L. Frank Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz books, as someone who had a deep investment in this concept of the author as world builder. For most of us today, The Wizard of Oz is a story - really reduced to a single book from the twenty or so Baum wrote and from there, to only those characters and plot elements that appeared in the MGM musical. Baum would have understood Oz as a world and indeed, he presented himself as the "geographer" of Oz, giving a series of mock travelogue lectures, where he showed slides and short films, which illustrated different places within Oz and hinted at the events which had occurred there. Oz as a place got elaborated not simply through the books but also through comic strip series (recently reprinted), stage musicals, and films, each of which added new places and characters to the overall mix. Some of the Oz books were novelizations and elaborations of stories introduced through these other media. And consistently, the logic of these stories were focused on journeys and travel, so that the Oz franchise was constantly uncovering more parts of the fictional world.

This concept of world building is closely linked to what Janet Murray has called the "encyclopedic" impulse behind contemporary interactive fictions - the desire of audiences to map and master as much as they can know about such universes, often through the production of charts, maps, and concordances. Consider, for example, this map of the character relations which have unfolded in the X-Men universe over the past 40 plus years and compare it to the complex social dynamics ascribed to the great Russian novels, such as Tolstoi's War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Pushing back even earlier, we can see this world building impulse at work in something like the Sistine Chapel Ceiling Murals, which seek to stitch together characters and stories from across many different parts of the Bible into a single coherent representation.

The concept of world building seems closely linked to the earlier principles of immersion and extractability since they both represent ways for consumers to engage more directly with the worlds represented in the narratives, treating them as real spaces which intersect in some way with our own lived realities. Witness the production of travel posters for fictional locations, for example. Many transmedia extensions can be understood as doing something similar to Baum's travel lectures as offering us a guided tour of the fictional setting, literally in the case of a real estate site created around Melrose Place, or simply flesh out our understanding of the institutions and practices.

Increasingly, transmedia producers are creating the media which exists in the fictional world as a way of understanding its own logic, practices, and institutions - so we see, for example, the production of fictional pirate comics within Alan Moore's original Watchmen graphic novels to show us the fantasies of a world where superheroes are a reality, or the newscasts created around the film version of Watchmen, which help us to understand the altered history created by the superhero's intervention into 20th century events.

These extensions may take physical forms, as in the park benches for District 9, which helped us to experience the segregation between humans and aliens. They might include mock advertising campaigns, such as those for Tru-Blood, or political posters, such as those created in support of alien rights in District 9 or vampire rights in True Blood. And they might extend to the production of fictional media franchises and fandoms, such as Jesse Alexander has created for Sargasso Planet in his upcoming Day One miniseries.

5. Seriality

The idea of seriality has an equally long history, which we can trace back to 19th century literary figures, such as Charles Dickens or the Dumas factory, and which took on new significance with the rise of movie serials in the early 20th century. Indeed, Kim Deitch's Alias the Cat graphic novel uses this earlier historical moment to comment on our current push towards transmedia entertainment, with his protagonist gradually drawing connections between events depicted in movie serials, comic strips, live theatrical events, and news stories, suggesting ways that an earlier media system might tell a story across multiple platforms.

We might understand how serials work by falling back on a classic film studies distinction between story and plot. The story refers to our mental construction of what happened which can be formed only after we have absorbed all of the available chunks of information. The plot refers to the sequence through which those bits of information have been made available to us. A serial, then, creates meaningful and compelling story chunks and then disperses the full story across multiple installments. The cliff-hanger represents an archtypical moment of rupture where one text ends and closure where one text bleeds into the next, creating a strong enigma which drives the reader to continue to consume the story even though our satisfaction has been deferred while we await the next installment.

We can think of transmedia storytelling then as a hyperbolic version of the serial, where the chunks of meaningful and engaging story information have been dispersed not simply across multiple segments within the same medium, but rather across multiple media systems. There still is a lot we don't know about what will motivate consumers to seek out those other bits of information about the unfolding story - ie. What would constitute the cliffhanger in a transmedia narrative - and we still know little about how much explicit instruction they need to know these other elements exist or where to look for them. As we work on these problems, there is a great deal we can learn by studying classic serial forms of fiction, such as the serial publication of novels or the unfolding of chapters in movie serials or even in comic book series.

Early writing on transmedia (mine included) may have made too much of the nonlinear nature of the transmedia entertainment experience, suggesting that the parts could be consumed within any order. Increasingly, we are seeing companies deploy very different content and strategies in the build up to the launch of the "mother ship" of the franchise than while the series is on the air or after the main text has completed its cycle. So there's work to be done to understand the sequencing of transmedia components and whether, in fact, it really does work to consume them in any order. We are, however, seeing some very elaborate plays with time lines and seriality occurring as the stories of television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, or Supernatural extend into comics, or consider the ways that each of the Battlestar Galactica films has added some new chunk to the timeline of that particular universe.

6. Subjectivity

Transmedia extensions, then, may focus on unexplored dimensions of the fictional world, as happens when Star Wars games pick up on particular groups - such as the bounty hunters or podracers - and expands upon what was depicted in the films. Transmedia extensions may broaden the timeline of the aired material, as happens when we rely on comics to fill in back story or play out the long term ramifications of the depicted events (see for example the use of animation in the build up to The Dark Knight or The Matrix Reloaded). A third function of transmedia extensions may be to show us the experiences and perspectives of secondary characters. These functions may be combined as they were with the Heroes webcomics, which provided backstories and insights into the large cast of characters as the series was being launched. These kinds of extensions tap into longstanding readers interest in comparing and contrasting multiple subjective experiences of the same fictional events.

We may learn a good deal about this aspect of transmedia by looking at the tradition of epistolary novels. Works like Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, or Dracula, constructed fictional diaries, letters, even transcripts. While they are contained within a single binder, they can be described as transmedia works insofar as they imitate multiple genres, including both manuscript and print forms of prose, and thus invite us to construct the fictional reality from these fragments. Typically, the author constructed himself or herself as having found these documents rather than constructed them, much as ARGs often refuse to acknowledge that they are games or works like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity pretend to be constructed from found footage.

As we read such works, we are encouraged to be aware of who is writing and who they are writing for, thus using the letters or diaries to help further construct the relationships between characters. Something similar occurs when we look at the mock websites constructed around transmedia fictions - for example, District 9 was accompanied by a website for an alien rights organization which directly challenges some of the claims made by the government characters in the film and in some cases, we are seeing mock government propaganda footage as it is being "read against the grain" by these resistant organizations, thus creating a layered subjectivity. If Ghost Whispererr, the television series, is about a human woman who speaks with ghost, the webisode series, "The Other Side," shares the perspective of ghost who speak to human women. The promoters of 2012 recently sparked controversy when they created a mock educational website that while clearly marked as tied to a fictional film represented "scientific" perspectives on why the world was ending, a site which provoked responses from NASA who were concerned that it might be misleading the public about actual scientific thoughts and theories about the state of the universe.

This focus on multiple subjectivities is giving rise to the use of Twitter as a platform through which fans (Mad Men) or authors (Valmont) can elaborate on the secondary characters and their responses to events represented in the primary text. We even saw this focus on multiple subjectivities extend into reality television this season when Project Runway, which focuses on the designers, added a second series, which focused on the same events as experienced by "The Models of the Runway."

Transmedia texts often rely on secondary characters because it is too costly to bring the primary actors over to work in lower yield media like mobisodes and webisodes. Yet, we have a lot to learn about how to turn this into a strength by exploiting the audience's desire to see through more than one set of eyes. Battlestar Galactica's webisode series, "The Face of the Enemy," showed some of this potential in focusing around Felix Gaeta, a previously marginalized figure on the series, and creating interest as they lead into a season where he was going to play a much more central role; the episodes fleshed out his backstory, explored his motivations, and hinted at some of the future developments, all within a short and largely self-contained storyline.

7. Performance

In Convergence Culture, I introduced two related concepts - cultural attractors (a phrase borrowed from Pierre Levy) and cultural activators. Cultural attractors draw together a community of people who share common interests - even if it is simply the common interest in figuring out who is going to get booted from the island next. Cultural activators give that community something to do. My classic example would be the map flashed in short bursts in the second season of Lost. Hardcore fans were motivated to create their own screengrabs, share them online, construct their own maps, and try to decipher the cryptic text and figure out how it related to the depicted events. Increasingly, producers are being asked to think about what fans are going to do with their series and to design in spaces for their active participation. Sharon Marie Ross discusses these as invitational strategies, suggesting that these can be explicit (as in the appeals to vote on So You Think You Can Dance) or implicit (as in the depiction inside the series of fans in The O.C. or mobile social networks in Gossip Girl.)

But even without those invitations, fans are going to be actively identifying sites of potential performance in and around the transmedia narrative where they can make their own contributions. Indeed, much of the discussion at Futures of Entertainment this year centered around various ways that producers were engaging with these fans, supporting, "harvesting," or shutting down their own creative contributions. In my original talk, I refer to "fan performance" but it was pointed out through these discussions that producers are also "performing" their relationship to both the text and the audience through their presence online or through director's commentary. We typically think of these director commentaries as "nonfiction" or "documentary" breaking down the fiction to show us the behind the scenes production process, yet some authors - Ron Moore in the case of Battlestar Galactica or JMS in the case of Babylon 5 - deploy these platforms to expand our understanding of the fictional worlds, the characters, and depicted events, suggesting that they may also be understood as an expansion of the narrative and not simply an exposition on its conditions of production.

As Louisa Stein noted at the conference, there's still much to be explored as we expand the discourse of transmedia entertainment to engage more fully with issues being raised by those working in the fan studies tradition. I can't fully elaborate on these issues now, but in the talk, I simply pointed to some examples of these fan-made extensions, such as the performance videos on YouTube where fans re-enact or lip sinc musical numbers from Glee which Alex Leavitt discussed on the Convergence Culture Consortium blog recently, or The Hunt for Gollum, a fan constructed extension of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, or Star Wars Uncut, where each fan is allowed to reconstruct a single shot from the George Lucas film, which no unfolds through a giddy array of representational strategies (claymation, lego, drag queens, manipulated or re-enacted footage).

I also suggested that we can understand transmedia activism, such as that illustrated by the HP Alliance, which deploys themes, characters, and situations from the J.K. Rowling narratives to motivate real world social change, as a logical extension both of performance and of the tension between extractability and immersion. All of these represent unauthorized forms of extension which are not directly acknowledged in the primary text. Yet, a central theme running through the conference centered on how these fan productions and performances might feed back into the creation of the commercial transmedia franchise itself, with Purefold being held up as an emerging model which deploys crowdsourcing and Creative Commons liscensing to encourage viewer contributions to thinking through future directions in the series.

So there you have them - seven core principles of transmedia storytelling. Is this an exhaustive list? Probably not. Some of them weren't even fully on my radar at the start of the semester. These represent insights into the various transmedia experiments we've seen so far. Some of these have drawn a good deal of critical attention, while others represent new and unexplored spaces. Most point to ways that transmedia connects to historic cultural practices and thus can draw insights from historical and critical writing on those practices. Most point to ways that the study of transmedia narrative needs to reconnect with the study of commercial industries and fan communities if we are to really understand the dynamic being created by these interventions. And most of them point to new spaces for creative experimentation.

If you are enjoying this discussion of transmedia, stay tuned. More is coming next week including some previews of the work we are doing on transmedia activism. For now, you can check out two more of the sessions from Futures of Entertainment 4 which deal with transmedia issues.

Session 1: Producing Transmedia Experiences: Stories in a Cross-Platform World

Moderator: Jason Mittell - Middlebury College

Panelists: Brian Clark - Partner and CEO, GMD Studios; Michael Monello- Co-Founder & Creative Director, Campfire; Derek Johnson - University of North Texas; Victoria Jaye - Acting Head of Fiction & Entertainment Multiplatform Commissioning, BBC; Patricia Handschiegel - Serial Entrepeneur, Founder of

Case Study: Transmedia Design and Conceptualization - The Making of Purefold

Moderator: Geoffrey Long - Gambit-MIT

Panelists include: David Bausola - Co-founder of Ag8; Tom Himpe - Co-founder of Ag8; Mauricio Mota - Chief Storytelling Officer, co-founder The Alchemists; C3 Consulting Practitioner; Leo Sa - Petrobras