Sara Thacher 10/15/12
We continue our month of Transmedia Storytelling interviews with Sara Thacher. As a transmedia producer and experience designer, Sara makes adventures that often meander between the physical and the digital. Her diversity of projects and skill-sets give her a unique perspective on interactive storytelling. She shares with us her take on the naming controversy, the challenges of this medium and tips on diving in to this fast-changing artform.
What is the role of the transmedia experience designer and how does being a transmedia producer differ from being a producer of traditional media projects?
You guys just cut to the heart of the matter, don’t you? No messing around. You’ll probably hear “transmedia producer” more often than experience designer – I credit the PGA for the newfound popularity of this title. There are about as many deﬁnitions for “transmedia producer” as there are for “transmedia,” but I’ll tell you what I mean when I wear that hat.
A transmedia producer has a lot in common with the producer on other storytelling projects. They’re the people who translate a creative vision – the script, design document, treatment, etc. – into something actionable. They ﬁgure out answers to: “How long will it take?” and “How much will it cost?” and often “Who will do what?” Answering these questions on any project means having a thorough understanding of how the pieces ﬁt together – down to the smallest details – while keeping an eye on the big vision.
I’m not a watchmaker, but I imagine it’s similar to being a transmedia producer. The fun part of producing for transmedia narratives is seeing the pieces as individual components, but also as parts of a whole.
“It means looking at the creative vision for the project, breaking it down into into its component pieces – a custom CMS website here, a two-camera video shoot there, a live event over here, a Twitter feed over there – and then making sure that those come back together into a cohesive whole.”
Everything is contingent. Often you’ll be working with experts in each particular area. The experts will be heads down in their own specialty. They’ll be making the best website or animation or social media plan, but they need you, the producer, to make sure that their decisions make sense for the larger project.
An experience designer is also all about the connections. Instead of looking at these connections from a production point of view, the experience designer puts themselves in seat of the audience. You’re considering how the audience moves between different media. What threads need to be built so that the audience that’s following your YouTube channel will also play your SMS text adventure? It’s also the experience designer’s job to think about why the platforms/media/storytelling mediums are being used to convey different parts of the story.
What is your deﬁnition of transmedia and what is your take on the heated debate to deﬁne it?
I used to say that, as a freelancer, it was a useful term in that it got me in conversation with potential clients or collaborators. It got us one step closer to the same page. Sometimes it even got me paying gigs. It still does.
But now that deﬁnition has come to determine who can get PGA guild beneﬁts and to which tax laws companies like Stitch Media are subject. There’s more at stake ﬁnancially and professionally as more awards, ofﬁcial accreditation, and incubators crop up that deﬁne what it means. When I talk about transmedia storytelling, I side with the deﬁnition of “a single narrative told through multiple channels.” Using “channels” instead of “platforms” is a hedge to future-proof this deﬁnition. As our devices become more networked and more equally powerful, our TVs begin to look like our computers, which begin to look like our phones. This technology singularity is rapidly undoing many current deﬁnitions of “separate platforms.”
In light of this, it’s useful to think about a deﬁnition in terms of the experience of these projects.
“Transmedia storytelling is, for me, about giving your audience a way to exist inside the story instead of peering at it through a window.”
Many traditions of storytelling start from that window; the audience gets to spy on the characters through a proscenium or the covers of a book. The impetus behind the transmedia storytelling projects that interest me the most is an effort to put the audience, if not directly in the center, at least somewhere closer to the action. This can take a lot of forms – it encompasses everything from a narrative that unfolds over a slew of social media sites (The Lizzie Bennett Diaries) to an app that turns your phone into the lost cellphone of a character from your favorite TV show (Malcolm Tucker: The Missing Phone).
Your project with Thomas Dolby seems fascinating. This transmedia project tapped into the rich storyworld that had grown organically from his fans. Talk about your role on A Map of the Floating City and what were some of the big challenges and successes.
You’re right in saying that the project owed it’s success in part to the legions of enthusiastic Thomas Dolby fans (new and old) who participated. It also wouldn’t have been possible without the vision of both Andrea Phillips and Thomas Dolby himself who worked together to craft an experience that provided a rich canvas for participants to tell their own stories while also providing a solid base of game mechanics to propel action forward.
When I came onboard, many parts of the project were already in full swing. Thomas was serving both a creative role and a project management role, so I took many of the latter responsibilities off his hands. The largest challenge was the scale of our budget: small. The site was built on Google maps, but it used the technology in ways for which it was deﬁnitely not designed. This meant we occasionally had to rebalance or re-design portions of the game to make sure we kept our development budget and timeline in check. It was also a truly international team spread out over four time zones – another challenge that often meant very early or late Skype meetings.
Your epic interactive narrative for the Jejune Institute spanned two and half years and was replayable. It was written up in The New York Times, WSJ and Wired and was by all accounts well received. How did video play a role in both the experience and documentation of this project?
Video was an integral part at many stages throughout the experience. It gave you your ﬁrst introduction to the history of the pseudo-science of the Jejune Institute and allowed you to meet its founder, Octavio Coleman. As you watched this video in the “induction room” of the Jejune Institute, you realized that the last portion was shot in that very space. Because the project was primarily based in physical, brick and mortar world interactions and exploration, we used that to our advantage when composing our shots. We used this technique throughout the project – shooting in the locations in which our participants would be viewing the video or locations where their explorations would lead them. To make the experience replayable and scalable, we did not use live actors. Shooting video using locations in this way allowed our participants to feel a close connection to the characters – even simulate interaction – without having the actors present.
We built the project in replayable “chapters” or “episodes.” It took about three to four months to release each one, and while they were designed to be experienced at any time (like getting the DVDs of a TV show), some participants experienced them in real time, as we released them (like watching new episodes of a show as they air for the ﬁrst time). To help keep our real-time participants engaged, we did a few live events to bridge the gap between the release of the new episodes.
“Video also served as means to document these one-time events for participants to share the experience with those who were not there.”
Other than that, we didn’t make as much of an effort as we should have to capture the episodes themselves on video. Fortunately, documentary ﬁlmmaker, Spencer McCall decided to take on the project of capturing what we created on tape. The result is a feature called The Institute.
You’ve worked on a wide variety of transmedia projects over the years. How does your approach differ when you work on big commercial projects vs. smaller ones that are less commerce driven?
I try to approach each one by asking two questions: “What is the story we’re telling?” and “How does the audience experience this narrative?”
Clearly with commercial projects there are additional briefs from the client, just as there are additional goals with educational “games-for-good” type projects. With those, I try to ﬁgure out how to make the above two questions also answer the client briefs. Big versus small enter more into how strategic the teams needs to be when choosing the scale of the project. There many off-the-shelf solutions that can look quite polished – especially when it comes to the Web – so with smaller budgets it’s often a matter of leveraging existing platforms. That can mean using WordPress instead of building a custom CMS or relocating your event because a friendly local business will host in exchange for the extra trafﬁc.
What was the key moment in your professional evolution when you saw the power of interactive storytelling?
I come from a studio arts background, so the work of Janet Cardiff was enormously inﬂuential. She took the genre of an audio walking tour and turned it into a cinematic experience that felt instantly personal. Her early work was not interactive in the sense that you had any agency, but it placed you at the center of the story.
What are the top skills or traits a person should have to be an effective transmedia producer?
Producing is absolutely a learn-by-doing kind of pursuit. Acquiring particular skills will only get you so far, so I’ll give you ﬁve things to do that will make you a better producer:
- Be curious. Keep asking questions so that you’re always learning. The fun part of producing is ﬁguring out how to solve problems that no one has solved before.
- Be omnivorous. Cultivate a wide range of interests. With transmedia storytelling, you never know what might come in handy.
- Try roles other than producing. Try your hand at writing a ﬁctional character on Twitter. Design a game at a game jam. Build your own website. Be a generalist. Learning a small fraction of the process for making things on as many platforms in as many ways as you can.
- Be a stickler for the details. Good producing has no space for hand waving or “we’ll ﬁgure it out later.” Look for the places where the creative vision has gaps or unexplained bits. Ask questions and make a plan to ﬁll these spaces.
- Love stories. Experience as many of them as you can in as many formats as possible.
What advice do you have for video editors interested in working on transmedia projects?
The best way to get involved is to make your own. It doesn’t have to be big and expensive.
“Think about the story you want to tell and look for ways that it can leak out off a single screen.”
Often when you hear this advice, the next part involves making a Tumblr for your main character. It’s true that the Web has a lot of off-the-shelf tools to offer and an easy way for video makers to start interacting in character with their audiences is in the comments section. Aside from your time, these are virtually free tools and a great way to dip your toe into the transmedia waters. Andrea Phillips wrote an excellent primer called A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling that goes into much more depth on these techniques.
It’s also good to remember that you can experiment with a small audience as well. Maybe you tell a story using physical postcards that are linked to videos. Making and mailing a large quantity of these would be costly, but if you limit your initial audience it doesn’t need to break the bank. For a great example of what a low-budget indie project can look like that’s created for a speciﬁc neighborhood, check out Caitlin Burns and Steele Filipek’s “Jurassic Park Slope.”