Haley Moore: Tangible Storytelling and the Laser Lace Letters

Haley Moore is an artist and designer who specializes in using technology to tell stories with objects. She is also the cohost of the Transmedia Talk podcast, and has covered the ARG and transmedia scenes for the Workbook Project, among other outlets. Haley’s wealth of experience in conceiving and fabricating story artifacts (including the flags, medals, and other swag we commissioned for Reality Ends Here) has established her as an expert in what she calls “evidentiary fiction” or “tangible storytelling.” Her most recent project, The Laser Lace Letters, exemplifies the kind of care, detail, and depth present in Haley’s object-driven storyworlds.

Hi Haley! Thanks for doing this interview. I thought we would start with the big picture first. Could you tell us a bit about “tangible storytelling,” and how you ended up working in this space?

Tangible storytelling – that’s easy, it’s telling stories through physical objects. It can be a supportive art that sets the mood for a story, like dressing a set, costuming a character, or choosing just the right presentation for your mailers. Often it’s the first thing people experience in a transmedia campaign, through an object they get in the mail or something set up in a public place. Some projects rely more on tangible, some less.

At its deepest, tangible storytelling ties in closely with the idea of story archaeology. When we’re asking the reader to dig up some fossils, I’m the person who designs the bones.

I started doing tangible work on my very first Alternate Reality Game, which was a fan ARG for the TV show Alias. Shortly after, I was recruited to build some key artifacts for Dave Szulborski’s second Chasing the Wish ARG, Catching the Wish. By then, my reputation for being a jack-of-all-trades craftsperson was settled, and my artistic development became hopelessly entangled with ARGs.

Describe the Laser Lace Letters. How do people experience the story world you have created? How does it differ from other kinds of fiction?

Every few days, I’m coming up with a new way to describe Laser Lace, and at the moment it’s this: Laser Lace Letters are short stories that you explore by pawing through other people’s stuff.

In Laser Lace Letters, you’re tasked with piecing together the evidence related to a disappearance – and by evidence, I actually mean physical artifacts. Diary pages, sketches from the journals of inventors, pages torn out of childrens books, deeds, manifestoes, photographs, love notes, suicide letters.

The cool thing is, all this evidence comes from an alternate steampunk Victorian era, so you aren’t just looking at beautiful handwritten letters, but ones that talk about clockwork powered tiny robots and how you can use them to assassinate people, or what it’s like to be an airship captain, or the challenges of being a stage magician in a world where technology is already a bit magical. It’s like this fell out of time and into your mailbox.

At the center of each story, we have a unique central artifact. I’ve been working on these for about a year now – felt laser cut cameos that represent the central character in each of our seven stories. When you’re done with Laser Lace Letters, you come away with a wearable momento.

These things are made on a hobby laser cutter that I’ll be buying with the money raised in the Kickstarter. They’re amazingly detailed – for example, one of them features an airship fleet, complete with little windows on the sides of the cabin. We have one cameo that’s surrounded by crimson gears, daggers, and a bloody red heart.

Obviously, there are a lot of things in this approach that are different from film or a novel. There’s no third person omniscient and no proscenium. Each story has at least one character who’s a bit of a narrator, but it’s very much about reading between the lines and putting the pieces together. Voice and intertextuality are extremely important, and because we can’t see our characters, context and style become part of the narrative language. Even the color of paper each character writes on becomes significant.

What were your inspirations for the project?

Ah, Jordan Weisman, how do I love thee? I was utterly enchanted with Cathy’s Book, and I dug on Personal Effects: Dark Art. Like most people, I was also in love with the Jejune Institute, even though I never got a chance to play it in person. Those are tangible, tech-light experiences that present really deep rabbit holes to fall into.

I’ve been tossing the idea of a steampunk project around ever since I met Yomi Ayeni at Storyworld last year and found out he was interested in partnering with some other artists for Clockwork Watch. That’s exactly what ended up happening with Laser Lace, it’s the first big Clockwork Watch spinoff.

A couple of other things spurred it on. Girl Genius is a fantastic comic that influenced the way I think about steampunk. David Malki does a series called True Stuff From Old Books, which is full of very real weirdness from the same era that steampunk stories exist in. I’m a huge fan of the Phoenix Wright games, which often involve closely examining evidence. I’ve been knee deep in the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, and also following the work of Lea Redmond, a killer tangible artist who runs World’s Smallest Postal Service and was involved with Jejune.

The cameos came directly out of some experiments that I did at the Dallas Makerspace last December. I’d finished my annual donation to the Desert Bus for Hope Craftalong. Last year was a giant soft mosaic made from laser cut felt, and afterward I started experimenting with self-forming woven shapes using the leftover felt. The story grew out of the design process, and has a lot of close ties to the real origins of the cameos.

This kind of work seems to have so much potential, especially in the age of the ebook. It’s almost like this is where physical book publishing in general needs to head — that is, toward providing readers with more than just pages of text, but with real artifacts that can’t be duplicated digitally. In that sense, do you consider this a kind of publishing project?

It’s an ironic question, because Laser Lace straddles the border between digital and physical. Everything has a digital origin – even the cameos, which are made from parts cut out by a computer-controlled robot. And yet, so far on Kickstarter, people have shown that they want the physical version of the stories rather than the digital version. Designers have to set out to create a specific physical experience, in order to get audiences to not take the “shortcut” to digital.

Yep, it’s a publishing project. It’s most similar to a comic book series, except we have a digital book instead of a trade paperback.
I think we’re in a transitional era right now, where the safest thing is for publishers to stick with a straightforward content design that they know how to push to both print and digital efficiently. I can’t wait to see what happens once we get a good standard for introducing interactivity in a traditional reading flow on a tablet. Then, I have a feeling digital artifacts are going to become extremely common, just as they are in video games.
There’s no doubt that publishers can profit from integrating tangible in the right way – but I’ve imagined what this project would look like in the hands of a big publisher, and it involves manufacturing everything in China and leaning on economies of scale; it’s a big investment for a publisher to make.

The flipside of the internet age is that, even though it’s pulling the traditional reading experience to digital, it’s also connecting suppliers and creators. Today, a small outfit can do a project like this, which would have been impossible without a publisher ten years ago. It’s the same reason we don’t necessarily need big apparel companies, toy makers, or technology companies to bring great stuff to market today – although it certainly helps. Small creators can bring an artisanal dimension to the art – everything in Laser Lace Letters has been put together from start to finish by an artist, whether its weaving the lace or putting the wax seal on the package.

I’d love to see a publishing partnership with a group like a hackerspace. Some very interesting and innovative stuff would come out of that.

This question has two parts. First, who is the intended audience for Laser Lace Letters? And second, how broad is the audience you imagine for tangible story projects in general?

If you like steampunk, ARGs, or mystery stories, you’re going to love Laser Lace. Though we’re doing some online teasers/expansions, the core experience is no-tech, so anyone who can pick up a book can enjoy one of these stories.

That said, while Laser Lace is a reading experience for adults, I think the audience skews a bit younger, with people who are more familiar with things like the Harry Potter franchise that has all sorts of artifacture surrounding it. The steampunk audience is in about that age range as well, so I’m reaching out to an audience that has a sweet tooth for this kind of thing.

I’m really trying to introduce some diversity to steampunk and break gender norms. Too often, the genre seems like an endless parade of white men. So, when we went to create an in-game advert to appear in the new Clockwork Watch comic, the art we created was of an Indian woman. She’s wearing period costume and some stylish goggles, and she’s utterly gorgeous. Again, we can’t see the characters in the main story, so most of them we have no idea what their race is. I want to open it up a bit, so everyone can come and play in our world.

The breadth of audience for tangible stories depends a lot on the type of story. You have the best shot by working in a genre that has a popular appeal, just because so much of the story is tied up in stye. I’m inclined to think that kids who grew up on things like Harry Potter and the Ologies books are going to be more disposed than the current average to start reading things like Laser Lace, as they move out of their teens and into their twenties over the next five years.

Of course, as extensions of a bigger story world, tangible stories are a pretty easy sell to fans of the larger project. They’re like merchandising and spinoff fiction rolled in one.

What can readers do to support this project?

If you like the idea, you can check out all the stories and pledge on our Kickstarter page, or if you’re broke, you can spread the word on your various Twitters, Facespaces, and Mumblers.

Any surprises you can tease us with?

We’re slowly rolling out teasers for each of the stories at LaserLaceLetters.com, but we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of four of those stories. Pretty soon you’re going to meet our mad science character and get a load of his special brand of quackery.

Also I highly advise you watch the stream for Desert Bus for Hope. A bunch of comedians play the worst video game ever made until you stop giving them money for charity. It’s a blast and well…you’ll just have to see.

Finally, what’s next for you?

If all goes well, I’ll be lasering and writing for several months. I hope to take Laser Lace to trade shows and conventions in the Spring and Summer of 2013, including at least one event with the Clockwork Watch crew. After that, so very many projects. I’m still working on an object-augmented book called Research and Developments, as well as a tangible city exploration project.

Innovation Ecotones

An ecotone — literally, a place where ecologies are in tension — is a transitional area between different biomes, such as the boundary between grassland and forest or between different kinds of forests. Such places are sites for evolutionary dynamism, conflict, and experimentation. Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, draws on the ecotone as analogy and inspiration in her provocative essay regarding the future of design education and other institutional systems, Innovation Ecotones (.pdf).

Here, Pendleton-Jullian outlines the continuum between linear (“twentieth century”) and elastic/non-hierarchical (“twenty-first century”) learning and innovation models:

The left side of this continuum corresponds to models, methods, and mechanisms associated with twentieth century learning and the right side corresponds to how we are beginning to conceive of knowledge construction for the twenty-first century. A twentieth-century approach to education holds fast to the notion of teaching as a systematic delivery of knowledge—knowledge that is vetted and sanctioned and delivered in discipline-based packages from expert teachers to students. It is education in which one learns about specific stuff and how to do specific things.

In contrast, twenty-first century learning environments are about learning that extends far beyond the classroom (it scales), which in turn promotes elasticity and agency. The assumption is that we need to prepare for futures in which the specific things we will be doing, and specific stuff we will need to know, do not yet exist. Implicated in an education for the twenty-first century are all sorts of new mechanisms—cultural, social, and intellectual mechanisms—that are either directly or indirectly affiliated with the digital age as a global phenomenon.

Intuitively, we understand that a twenty-first century approach to learning is radically different from education that focuses on the accumulation of information and the simplistic transfer of culture and ideas associated with this information. But what is it more precisely? I would suggest that it begins with an epistemological shift in which learning how to learn and act (learning to be), in a highly situated manner, replaces learning about something. And then it is about how this scales, so as to create elasticity and agency.

Agency is the key word here. In the staid and siloed ecologies of traditional education, everyone has their place. Agency is reduced to choosing which silo you’re going to set yourself into — a choice which can drastically scale back your exposure to what’s going on in other silos. As a result, your world — your learning ecology — becomes smaller and less diverse over time. And the less diverse a given ecology becomes, the slower its pace of evolution and innovation.

In an “ecotone culture,” what once was siloed begins to collide, mix, and cross-pollinate, opening new vectors for discovery and collaboration. The results are unpredictable, but rich:

Because the students of the ecotone culture share the space and their work with others unlike themselves – with diverse species – there will be those cases in which one enters as one thing and evolves into something else: an architect, for instance, evolves into a musician/architect; or an astronomer evolves into an astronomer/environmentalist. Like the Greenbul [a bird whose song pitch and aeronautical capabilities adapt in response to its environment], though, it is not a change of song but a new tonality that honors both the song structure and the new context. This means that this new talent will acquire the ability to contribute in more than one field and maintain a key presence in multiple camps.

The ecotone analogy is extensive and highly productive. Diversity of species, new species development, keystone species as engineers, distribution of nutrients, corridors for transfer of creatures and stuff—even the idea of microhabitats (smaller habitats within larger habitats, like a tidal pool)—are all intensely relevant in terms of conceiving, designing, and implementing organizational structures and mechanisms for this innovation ecology model. Each component might independently have an impact and add value to the system, but the fact that the ecotone is a system, rather than a collection of components, means that their collective impact scale.

It should be noted that establishing an innovation ecotone in an institutional setting does not mean that one must completely change the entire system overnight. As I’ve observed over the past few months, a lightweight and entirely opt-in pervasive game geared around peer discovery and collaborative production can have transformative effects on an otherwise siloed educational environment. Once the channels for agency and disciplinary elasticity have been opened, it’s hard to close them again. After all, young media artists, theorists, and designers (among many others) are eager to find their niche in the world, to discover their identities, and to make a contribution — and in diversity, there is opportunity.

Download the complete text: Innovation Ecotones (.pdf)

Henry Jenkins interviews me about Reality Ends Here

Special thanks to Henry Jenkins for conducting a wide-ranging two-part interview with Simon Wiscombe, Tracy Fullerton, and me about my dissertation project, Reality Ends Here (A.K.A. SCA Reality, “The Game”, etc):

All of this cloak and dagger stuff was part of an innovative game — an Alternate Reality Game of sorts — which is being conducted amongst the entering Cinema School undergraduates this year. If my own experiences are any indication, the game is proving to be enormously successful at getting students involved, excited about entering the Cinema School, more aware of its resources, more connected to its faculty, more engaged with its research, more connected across different divisions. It is also getting them involved in collaborative and production like activities than most entering students who have had to wait for a bit before they would be allowed to take production classes. I’ve seen lots of discussion over the past few years about the potentials of using ARGS for pedagogical purposes. But, this is the first time I’ve seen such a large scale experiment in integrating ARG activities across an entire school to orient entering students to a program and to serve a range of instructional goals. The passion the game is motivating in USC students is palpable. And I can tell you that many of the faculty, who have gotten pulled into the game through one play mechanic or another, are feeling a real pride in their school for its willingness to embrace this kind of experimentation and innovation. (henryjenkins.org)

Read the full interview.

More info on the game here.

Radiation cats and atomic priesthoods: the Human Interference Task Force

The question of how to mark the places where we store nuclear waste such that people in the distant future won’t do things like build towns or nurseries or farms on top or inside of them is one of my favorite transmedia design challenges. It’s a thought experiment that asks us to imagine a way to communicate with a diverse and unknowable range of cultures and attitudes across a vast gulf of time. Nuclear waste can take upwards of 20,000 years to decay.

Solutions to the problem, such as those proposed by the Human Interference Task Force, a workgroup formed in 1981 by the US government, include the construction of monumental reinforced concrete architectural elements (obelisks, pyramids, and so on, all inscribed with a range of frightening DANGER! symbols), the breeding of super-friendly genetically-engineered cats that change color in the presence of radioactivity, and the establishment of a multi-millennium-scale religious order or “atomic priesthood”.

More info: Wikipedia: Human Interference Task Force, Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia

16 June 2014: Tunisian transmedia campaign

16 Juin 2014 is a participatory transmedia event that took place in February of 2011. The project engaged the Tunisian public via a variety of platforms and interactions in playfully imagining the country’s post-revolution future. 16 Juin 2014 was spearheaded by ad agency Memac Ogilvy Label:

Memac Ogilvy Label decided to show everyone how bright Tunisia’s future could be if everyone all started building it now. The agency convinced six brands and five major Tunisian media outlets (one radio, one television, two newspapers and one online magazine) to participate in the June 16th 2014 campaign. During a whole day, the media acted as if it were June 16th 2014 and presented Tunisia as a prosperous, modern and democratic country. To further engage people, the agency launched a hashtag on Twitter [#16juin2014] and 16juin2014.com, a website with all the content and where people could share their own vision of the future. (The Inspiration Room)

Spontaneous transmedia combustion: collaborative storytelling, Cooks Source, and the Talking Dead

Online collaborative storytelling is an idea that people seem to get excited about in waves. At the peak of a given wave, designers and observers rightly express confidence that wholly new and powerful kinds of storytelling are just around the corner (or, indeed, are already happening all around us). Given the affordances of the Web and social media, this enthusiasm is perfectly justifiable. But in the troughs between these waves of excitement, cautionary voices express the very real difficulties of mobilizing, structuring, and sustaining collective storytelling practices. These voices question the ability of user-generated content to create the kinds of focused and meaningful narrative figures that can be found in more traditional storytelling forms. And then, inevitably, something happens that throws this pessimism into question, and the cycle continues.

Part of the reason the energy around collaborative storytelling moves in these cycles is that we’re still in the midst of a rapid and fumbling expansion of our understanding of the scope and potential of networked transmedia production. Our anxieties about the practicalities and capabilities of collaborative storytelling are a product of our natural tendency to seek out the familiar: by looking for ways that the interplay of crowds can create the kinds of feelings and experiences we get from single-author or closed-team texts like films, novels, and plays, we can sometimes lose sight of the fundamentally new kinds of narrative structures and experiences made possible by social media and pervasive computing.

Two recent collaborative storytelling events illustrate how a shift in the way we conceive of stories being produced and consumed can open up a world of new possibilities. The first of these is the latest in Jay Bushman’s Halloween-themed massively collaborative Twitter experiments, “The Talking Dead.” Bushman describes the project as an “interactive story event where you play a ghost that haunts social networks.” Players are invited to create fake Twitter accounts for dead people — usually celebrities, though Jay is careful to say that any kind of dead person will do — and then post status updates from beyond the grave. Andrea Phillips has written some brilliant coverage and analysis of the project, so I won’t delve much further into a description here.

What I find important about “The Talking Dead” and Jay’s other collaborative Twitter dramas is that they tackle the high-bar-to-entry problem that plagues so many collaborative storytelling ventures by letting go of the desire for central authorial control. True, Jay sets a very specific tone and frames the participation in a variety of ways in order to productively constrain the creativity of the participants; but he does not (indeed, largely can not) “police” the contributions: players are free to post whatever they want, and the tone and direction of the improvisation emerges through an organic push and pull. Further, all this collaboration is facilitated using free and popular web tools — Twitter for the status updates and Tumblr to aggregate and archive the content that gets created — which means that even a smallish turnout is more than worth it in terms of bang for the producers’ buck.

The second example I’d like to point out here takes the principle of emergence in collaborative storytelling a step further. In this case, the constraints for the collaboration themselves were created and iterated through a collaborative process, emerging out of a sense of outrage shared by the readers of a post submitted to Reddit and other link sharing networks. Obviously, it’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened on the interwebs, but it’s a great example of how a multimodal networked storytelling collaboration can emerge almost out of thin air:

The tale of writer Monica Gaudio hit the Web on Wednesday after she reported that her story, “A Tale of Two Tarts,” was apparently lifted and published by the print magazine Cooks Source with her byline, but without her knowledge or any compensation. After tracking down the editor at the magazine, Gaudio asked for an apology on Facebook and in the magazine, as well as a $130 donation to the Columbia School of Journalism.

Instead, she said she received a rather unexpected response from the editor, Judith Griggs, quoted in-part below:

“But honestly Monica, the Web is considered ‘public domain’ and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offense and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!”

After Gaudio went live on her blog page with details of the transaction, and other blogs picked it up, it didn’t take long for the viral nature of the Internet to take hold. Cooks Source’s Facebook page, which had only around 100 “friends” beforehand, took on a whole new popularity, though probably not in the way the magazine wanted. (CNET)

A quick search of Facebook for “Cooks Source” now reveals a plethora of fictional oddities and improvisational story bits created by people for whom the story of Monica Gaudio struck a nerve. Some of the content unsettlingly straddles the line between comedy and a kind of cyberbullying; but in the mean, the tone of the improvisation is surprisingly unified: Cooks Source went too far and is now being snarked into submission via sarcastic comments posted to its Facebook page and fictional Facebook groups and pages like “But honestly Monica, the web is considered ‘public domain’.”

In contrast to “The Talking Dead,” participants in the Cooks Source intervention (for want of a better term) did not come to the activity in the spirit of “let’s pretend”; rather, their initial motivations were something like, “let’s do something about this” or “let’s punish this company for its thoughtlessness.” Storytelling and performance — across a variety of platforms and modes — was just the most natural and fitting way to achieve this objective. No one framed or guided the experience, but in the end, a miniature transmedia archive emerged, remixing the intended messaging of Cooks Source magazine [ed.: hey, shouldn’t there be an apostrophe in there?] to create a variety of satiric and comedic figures.

Neither of these examples tell stories in the manner we’re used to from our experiences with most other kinds of media artifacts — but the aggregate effect is undeniable: the spontaneous creation of a story world out of the bits and pieces of a collective improvisation.

Transmedia: New Platforms – The Games of Nonchalance

[This post originally appeared at In Media Res as a part of the Transmedia: New Platforms theme week.]

This video is a trailer for “The Games of Nonchalance,” a four-part transmedia experience “woven into the fabric of San Francisco.” Participation in “The Games of Nonchalance” begins with the discovery of one of the project’s many “rabbit holes,” some of which can be found online (such as at the mysterious Jejune Institute’s website), and some of which are physically embedded in the Bay Area (such as posters pasted to telephone poles, performers appearing at live events, player-created get-togethers, low-power FM radio signals, and even “hobo coins” distributed in the local economy). Once a prospective player has tumbled into one of these rabbit holes, they quickly discover a rich story world that quite literally makes a theme park out of the city, layering story and interaction across living, breathing urban space-time. Readers who are interested in a more complete description of the experience can find one here, or can read my interview with the group’s founder, Jeff Hull.

“The Games of Nonchalance” testifies to the notion of transmedia as a flexible praxis that can function across a wide range of techno-social contexts. Put differently, transmedia’s true referent is not a constellation of convergent technologies, but rather a mindset put into practice. The platform for Nonchalance is the world in general, and the city of San Francisco in particular. Within these broad constraints, anything capable of carrying story and/or facilitating participation and performance is fair game. Narrative figures emerge through the aggregate effect of the creators’ exploitation of the affordances of many different media forms, old and new. Immersion in this sense is a tangible reality — that is, since elements of the story-world could appear in just about any context at any time, the player’s experience is one of being surrounded. This contrasts sharply with more literal-minded “immersive technologies” that operate in tightly constrained (usually screen-based) contexts and appeal to a narrow slice of their players’ sensoria.

Taking risks and dancing with audiences: Andrea Phillips on writing for transmedia and ARGs

I met Andrea Phillips at this year’s SXSW, where she delivered a smart, wide-ranging talk about the representation of women in ARGs. Andrea is a veteran ARG writer, designer, and player, and is the current chair of the IGDA ARG Special Interest Group. In this interview, Andrea discusses her creative process and the formal and technical limitations (and possibilities) of ARGs and other playful forms of transmedia storytelling:

You’re a self-identified science fiction writer working in a very hard-to-pin-down storytelling medium. How did you end up writing and designing ARGs?

I was one of the moderators for the Cloudmakers, back in 2001. As a writer, it was like a lightning bolt falling from heaven. I went through the experience and thought, “That. I want to do THAT.” It took a few years to go anywhere, though. Finally my fellow moderators, Dan and Adrian Hon, started talking about forming the company that would later become Mind Candy. I begged them to let me help out so relentlessly that they had no choice but hire me. I’ve been in the business ever since.

One of the things that is quickly becoming an issue with game and transmedia writing is the sometimes tenuous position of the writer in the apparatus of production. How do you think being an ARG writer differs from being, say, a TV writer or a novelist?

At its best, writing for an ARG is a performing art. When you write a novel, you work in isolation; you won’t get feedback from the bulk of your readers until it’s completed. And with a TV show, production schedules mean the writing is completed sometimes months before a show airs.

With an ARG, though, you can dance with your audience. If they take a shine to a minor character, you can boost that character’s role midstream. If they’re bored with a plot thread, you can catch it early and fix it. And that kind of feedback is addictive to a writer. It can be difficult to get that kind of feedback in other media at all. But in an ARG, you’re doing something close to watching their faces as they read along, so you know when you’re succeeding and when you’re failing.

In the larger realm of production and transmedia, though, I think this causes some logistical problems. A great transmedia experience requires an agility that traditional means of production just don’t have, and the writer can be placed in a difficult position, trying to maintain the integrity of the experience while working within the framework of your production schedule.

In a recent post on this issue on your blog, you wrote that sometimes “there are so many writers working on a project that it’s hard to know whose hand [is] guiding the wheel. But these are solveable problems, and solving them would benefit us all.” What kinds of first steps do you think need to be taken to advance the cause?

The first step would be looking at the kinds of roles game writers and transmedia writers fall into right now, to see if we can find common structures. In games, there’s a lot of support for the title ‘narrative designer’ right now. That’s the person who comes up with the spine of the story, whether or not they ever write a word of player-facing copy. Maybe we need to go in that direction, and separate the narrative designer from the world designer.

And given the performative element of an ARG, maybe we need to be crediting writers alongside actors. ‘The character of Alice Liddell was performed by Ada Lovelace, and written by Marshall Thurgood.’

Shifting gears a bit, I’m curious about how you tackle the complex demands of ARG writing and design. After meeting with a client, where do you begin? What comes first for you, the formal constraints (ie, the kinds of interactions you want to produce) or the story material?

Everything I do begins with a big idea. Sometimes that’s mine, and it springs into existence fully-formed — “What if everyone wrote about waking up with superpowers?” Sometimes it’s the assignment given to me by a client. “We have XYZ requirements and assets. What do you have for us?”

From there, I do a little research and a little bit of what looks from the outside like nothing at all. Going to the gym, walking to school, cooking. The important thing is that I leave my brain unoccupied so it’s free to come up with stuff, like particles popping into existence in a vacuum. As the idea simmers in the back of my head, everything about what the project should look like becomes obvious to me. It feels very much like discovering something that was already there.

Specific story elements come last for me. Tension and pacing and structure are the first things that come to mind, and the specific plot and story elements flow out of that. It’s the opposite of the way I did things a few years ago. I used to think of story and plot detail first! I’m not sure why it’s changed, but I’m helpless to do it any other way, now.

Historically, most ARGs have been event-driven time-released stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. One of the nice things about this narrative structure is that it allows writers to plan (and re-plan, as conditions on the ground shift) their stories in much the same way that they do in more traditional forms: that is, via character arcs, acts, orchestrated patterns of conflict, and so on. However, these kinds of ARGs are usually not replayable, and many people — for many reasons — feel that this is an area where the form could stand to experiment a little bit. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree that we need to experiment more. But the good news is that the experimenting is going on now.

Not to toot my own horn, but one of the things my project Routes did was creating a weekly webisode from the events in the ARG, so you could interact with the live experience while it played out, but there is also an artifact of the experience that gives the project a long tail it wouldn’t have otherwise. In the metaphor of the ARG as a live concert, that’s creating a recording you can listen to at any time. You won’t be able to do all of the same things — you won’t be able to throw your underwear up on stage or smell the guy in front of you — but you’ll get some sense of what it was like to have been there. I think this technique could definitely move into wider use.

And there are a number of entirely replayable experiences, too: Smokescreen, the Cathy’s Book series, etc. The downside of this is that you lose some wonder, some discovery, a ton of reactivity, and the camaraderie of a single community playing along together. It transforms into a different kind of experience.

So can a system for storytelling — that is, a set of story-world parameters and rules of engagement — be considered a kind of fiction? If so, how does this change our understanding of what a writer is?

Oh, it absolutely can. I’d consider My Super First Day to be a set of very loose story-world parameters that I’ve set, and I consider it a work of fiction. It doesn’t make me a writer, though; I only get to be a writer if I also participate. But I’m indisputably the creator.

You may also be familiar with Ghyll and The Song of the Sorcelator, both arguably just frameworks for writer-participants to play around with. This is one of the things I keep playing around with in my personal work, actually; where is the line between a creator and a participant, and how can you blur it in a way that will be rewarding to everybody?

As time goes on, I think the boundary will become ever more nebulous. We’re already seeing major entertainment franchises take a kinder, gentler stand on fanfiction and fanart. That’s the first step in building collaborative culture. The secret, of course, is that once you’ve given your audience official permission to collaborate with you in any meaningful sense, they’re yours forever, hook, line, and sinker.

Where do you see all this going in the next five years? And what’s next for you?

Five years is an incredibly long time. Five years ago, there was no such thing as Facebook or Twitter, and when you walked into a digital agency and said ‘interactive’ they thought you were talking about banner ads and SEO. I think in five years, the entire entertainment landscape is going to look so profoundly different that anything I have to say on it is worthless.

As for me, I have a couple of things cooking right now. I try to do enough professional projects to keep the rent paid, and enough personal projects that I feel I’m always pushing my own limits. But my personal projects are largely microscopic in scale and experimental to the point of self-indulgence. I’m thinking about trying to do a bigger, more ambitious experimental personal project toward the end of the year, and possibly funding through Kickstarter or some such thing. I’m not sure what it would look like, but I feel like it would be a shame not to try. The creative life is all about taking risks.

Thanks, Andrea!

UPDATE: get your own copy of “How to Win at Anything” (pictured above) here

Trans-Canada transmedia: Christopher Bolton’s multi-platform search for identity, sound, and story

Christopher Bolton is a Canadian writer, producer, and actor, best known for his award-winning comedy series, Rent-a-Goalie. A few months ago, Christopher — AKA “Bolts” — contacted me asking for feedback on his latest project’s transmedia strategy. After a few minutes of chit-chat and an exchange of development documents, I realized that the project, a comedic exploration of Canadian landscapes popular and physical, entitled In Search of Gordon Lightfoot, was much more than a TV series with a few transmedia extensions tacked on just for the hell of it; no, this was something different, something much more integrated — transmedia from the get-go. And, as it happens, it was also something that sounded quite funny and more than a little community-minded in its direct engagement with audiences and Canuck mythology. Naturally, I wanted to be a part of it. A few web chats later, we came to an agreement — I would consult on the project and shadow Christopher as he worked his way through the development process, and in return he would share what he learned with me, here, in the form of a series of interviews.

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This first interview is a snapshot of Christopher’s thinking as the project moves through the funding process and into the first stages of pre-production. It reveals a considered and well-informed view of transmedia and the new storytelling landscape. It is an inspired and often very funny view of the future of entertainment, and I look forward to speaking to Bolts more as his work on the project progresses.

You’ve worked in the Canadian film and television industry for a while now. What’s your background, and what’s changed since you got started?

My background is varied. Until my mid-20’s it was solely acting. In ’93 I took a stab at writing and that landed me at the CFC in 94 as a writer. I did the directing curriculum at nights and on weekends and directed my first two – and only two – short films there. In 2003 I teamed up with a fella goes by the name Chris Szarka and we formed a company to develop and ultimately produce a cable ½ hour comedy up here called Rent-A-Goalie. In there somewheres I did a few stints as A.D. and Props Man.

As for how it’s changed since I began…televisions are colour now and very crisp and clear.

It was during the production of RAG that I became interested in Transmedia though I didn’t know it was a concept with a name. I suggested ideas to the broadcaster, ideas intended to drive traffic to and from the mother ship – some UGC, a genre bending prequel movie, some mobile applications – but it was always met with a no. It was a licensing issue and I get that but…well…I’ll leave it there. I blame myself. I should have pushed harder.

When I began developing In Search of Gordon Lightfoot I met a woman named Jill Golick, a digital pioneer in Canada. She began my indoctrination into this world.

Man-oh-man, forget how the industry has changed since I started; in just 7 years, dated to when we began development on RAG, it has broken almost to the point of no-fixee. I was at a card table recently of smart broadcasting folk with impressive CV’s discussing the future of our industry. The hardcore estimate for conventional broadcaster life expectancy in Canada was 2 years and the optimistic guess, if you’re said broadcaster, was 10 years. Basis or not to such speculation I was rocked. The consensus was that cable isn’t going anywhere fast because subscription is consumer-choice. It just won’t look like pay cable does today.

The web has blown shit wide open. Access, audience contact and engagement, community building, social media, distribution platforms, the very nature of what content is (stop calling it a Television show for cryin’ out loud) is so drastically different that it needs to be called something new. There is a good and big explosion at the point that industries are colliding – tv/film/branding/communications/tech – and where the smoke clears is an opportunity to re-imagine and develop content specifically to meet the unique demands of all interested parties and, more importantly, audience. The excitement for content creators lay in the exploration of new ways to tell story. A fractured media landscape is exactly what I needed as it helps to make sense of how I think and speak.

This is a frontier and frontiers benefit the entrepreneurial spirit greatly. I think it was Ted Hope who said that it’s the era of Artist as Entrepreneur and it behooves anyone taking that notion seriously to look at how those industries conceive of and deliver content and will do in participation with one another.

The logline for my new company, Forty Farms, is…

The client is the brand is the consumer is the experience is the entertainment.

…and that could just as easily read…

The experience is the consumer is the client is the brand is the entertainment.

Ruminating on this one-hand-clapping-esque driver is a good way to get inside the headspace necessary for making resonant, profitable entertainment going forward.

What is In Search of Gordon Lightfoot?

ISOGL is the title of two of six platforms in an as-of-yet-unnamed Transmedia Project about searching for an identity, a sound, a connection to a landscape, and a warm dry spot to pitch camp for the night. The first is a 13 x 30 minute comedy that sees Ed Robertson (frontman for the pop-rock outfit Barenaked Ladies) and myself flying around Northern Canada in an iconic bush plane looking for reclusive rock legend Gordon Lightfoot. Why? Because he has something that belongs to us. We just miss him everywhere we look and become embroiled, instead, in some small town, wilderness related mayhem before a narrow escape back to the skies to search for another day. The second is a tribute record to the man himself. Our guest stars in the series will be well-known Canadian music acts who will do double duty – act their asses off for the show and then sing them back on covering one of Gordon’s tunes for the album. These two properties are designed for distribution together but that ain’t prescriptive.

The remaining platforms are a game, feature, feature documentary, and graphic novel. Our point of identification in the meta-narrative is a guy, a creative guy, who stumbles, flies, loves, fishes, hikes, and writes his journey. It’s a walk through time, media, story and Canada with a fella trying to make sense of it all. Taken together it will serve as a big ol’ love letter to this country as well as warm, beautiful, funny and musical showcase of Canada to the rest of the world. The idea is to entice more Germans – as if that were possible – to come canoe our rivers and lakes.

Do you conceive of the project as a show with a Transmedia experience, or a Transmedia experience that includes a show? Is there a difference?

I’m reluctant to answer this question because it implicates me by rendering the project’s history a little less pure than I’d like it to be. The series was to be my sophomore ½ hour effort. Discussions with broadcasters were frustrating me – one guy’s problem with it was that he didn’t like flying so he bumped on the aviation part – and I figured that it was the right time to dig in the dirt of new business models and alternative modes of storytelling. I began thinking of an extended narrative for Search, ideas I wanted to implement but that didn’t fit in the series as well as different platforms that interested me. Writing for gaming for instance has particular cache. Are you kidding me? No limits storytelling? It was like my head exploded and I knew my time in traditional would serve me well here because what that did teach me was restraint. Restraint, I think, is key to navigating a world as full of opportunity as No Limits Storytellingville.

That’s the long way round to saying that, though I didn’t conceive of it as such, I absolutely consider this project a Transmedia Experience that includes a show.

I love that you call it a Transmedia Experience because that is key to how I frame this thing. It’s a creative and production process experience and the user can consume it soup-to-nuts or in parts. Empowering the audience to participate breeds pride of ownership and I think people will respond to that. What’s really blowing me away is people contacting me with platform ideas of their own as well as reach-outs that I initiate bearing fruit as well. This dialogue between you and I is a prime example: a) it helps us both in our respective missions b) it is content c) it will drive traffic to our mutual benefit. That’s some performing shit in my opinion.

As to whether there is a difference between a Transmedia experience with a show or a show with a Transmedia experience? Abso-lute-ly and it’s as important a distinction there is in defining Transmedia. It’s essential that TM design be ground up rendering every platform essential to the broader stroked narrative. Tacked on properties will feel like tacked on properties and your audience will at best dock you points for that and at worse abandon the project altogether. It seems to be the mistake producers are making in trying to design additional platforms for their fleshed out traditional properties – done in this order it becomes re-purposed material as opposed to original, non-linear content that is platform-specific.

What got you thinking about developing a Transmedia strategy for Lightfoot? Why not do things the same way you’ve done them in the past?

What gets me excited about Transmedia is the belief that the present (past) model is broken and that the opportunities inherent in being an early adopter to this kind of storytelling are huge. It seems simple: a fractured media landscape begs a splintered approach and a savvy user demands that it be robust. I leapt at the chance to create within those parameters. And some of the best minds I know, people who’ve made good, albeit waning, livings in Traditional are meeting in dingy bars to discuss how to make ground-up changes in their industry because they don’t feel they have anything to lose. It’s electrifying to hear the talk. And it’s not griping ‘make the writer matter’ or ‘actors are people too’ stuff either. These are talented and frustrated professionals, who’ve read the writing on the wall, discussing a renovation of the system that values what they do and has everyone thinking creative + business + tech from step 1. Who was it said it feels like 1911 and we’re the guys learning that different angles and editing are good? Oh right, that was you. Spot on Mr. Watson. Makes me crave a cigarette and I don’t smoke.

Reminds me of a joke about lemon meringue pie. I’ll have my friend Jeremy deliver it to camera and post it on my site when I get a site.

Canadian TV productions have notoriously low operating budgets. How are you going to pay for all the different components of this project?

F@#ed if I know.

Kidding. Sort of.

Yes we have tiny budgets up here and they are getting tinier by the day. We shot Rent-A-Goalie for a half million bucks an episode in 3rd season and that was extraordinarily high then. Today you’d probably have to bring in a CSI for that. Not quite but, y’know, almost.

In my opinion the answer to low budgets is to go lower. Don’t try to make a $200,000 show look like a ½ million bucks because it’ll suck. Make a 100 K per episode show and don’t apologize for it. Don’t try to stretch the dollar. Don’t try to stretch anything. Just make the most awesome content you can possibly make with what you have and concentrate on what hooks – story. Necessity is the mother of invention and with today’s technologies you can make it beautiful for peanuts. The key is knowing how to make it beautiful and that is art as it’s always been. Ted Hope again – he tweeted recently that ‘A return to less could be more.’ Yes. Just plain yes indeed.

The agencies that help us make entertainment in Canada are trying hard to keep up with the changes and, on the business side of it, are thinking progressively. We’ve pitched the project to the Funds with no real ask other than a dialogue. We ask whether the model makes sense and how could they see being involved? They appreciate it because they’re trying to wrap their heads around new models as well and we appreciate the response because it helps us create accordingly. Assuming we get the Funds, and if we keep the thing indie-spirited, there will be shortages to make up but they aren’t prohibitively huge. For that we’re looking at brand relationships plus some crowd-sourcing options and a bit of private investment to top off. I’m not frightened by the financing plans yet. But then I’m the guy who writes fart jokes in these partnerships.

How has taking a Transmedia approach changed the way you’ve gone about raising development money and securing licensing agreements?

The absence of a broadcaster has cleaned rights up immensely. And, again, the wild west of the Internet means very few precedents so we’re kind of making it up as we go along. Talks with musicians, writers, performers have been positive – everyone seems to want to see it work. A western spirit of Kereitsu – a Japanese business model based on industries working with one another to the benefit of all – is what we’re looking to build. There’s power in that. The power of community.

We’ve received some development money from regular avenues for traditional deliverables like series bibles and pilot scripts for the 13 x ½ hr. I’m writing the feature script during the month of April as part of a month long script competition. With no dough attached to its development I am hungry to work completely and feverishly to reduce the time it takes to develop. That platform is a No-Budget film we want to make as a Canadian nod to the Mumblecore tradition. We were soft-offered some development dough for it but it would be recoupable so what’s the point? I’d rather put it on the screen down the road. That property sits with a different producer than the one who has the series, which is a different producer than the one who has the feature doc. So you see how the heavy lifting is spread out while the creative remains central. So there’s a bit of my own money – well, my wife and children’s too – in play on this one but that’s not a bad thing because I’m positive we can make a business out of it.

Here’s a two-parter: 1) What role, if any, do you see for the audience in producing and developing content for Lightfoot? and, 2) as an artist, how do you feel about opening up parts of the creative process to audience participation?

It is my sincere hope that the audience will do the lion’s share of the work. My favourite thing, by far, of having a popular show was that, love it or hate it, everyone had something to say about it. Inviting them to voice those opinions netted us feedback and story fodder. When I began developing Lightfoot I continued to invite that input. Everyone I talked to had a Lightfoot story – some were first-person accounts, some were major life events with Lightfoot as the soundtrack and some were tales of mistaken identity. They were all fantastic though and enthusiastically told. There is one that stands out – a guy nearing 40 now told me about a Sunday morning in the early 80’s where he and a buddy were playing hockey in an alley, taking shots against a neighbour’s garage. The puck-on-metal clang is a very common ruckus up here but it might be a little much for a rock-star early on a Sunday morning. This grizzled dude walks out in his robe and asks the children, in a charming and patient manner no doubt, to stop interrupting his sleep. The storyteller’s friend told him that was Gordon Lightfoot. I told Gordon the story and he swore it was his dad who tromped around city alleys in his robe.

An aside re. the organics of this thing – that story got back to Gordon and Gordon commented on it. Commenting is content.

So I wondered if it was possible to formalize this relationship between creator and audience and that’s the plan for ‘Search’. We are opening up the process, inviting anyone who has been touched by the subject matter to chime in. I want tales of bush piloting gone wrong and small town yarns, the instances where a song played over a formative time in one’s life. And then we want to be invited to shoot in the places where the story was originally set. We want to engage the people who helped develop the content in producing it as well. Maggie Ancaster of Herring Neck, Newfoundland gets to be prop master for a day or two. The result here, we hope, is to make shooting the show as much of a celebration of this country and it’s people as the content is. Totally 360.

This isn’t a new idea. One of the great Canadian storytellers of this generation, Stuart McLean, has been doing exactly this forever and a day. His material resonates because, beyond being talented, he sits with the people and listens to them. Gordon too. He says it’s dialogues with the people who consume his art that shapes it. Sure, he loves to play because he loves to play but it’s more than that. It’s an exchange.

Writing tv and film in the traditional manner doesn’t offer that opportunity exactly.

I’ve been warned off what this means to me as an artist but I don’t buy it. There’s a quote from Martha Graham posted above my desk that says, paraphrased – don’t be a donkey, you’re no genius. You’re a dude who types for a living. Just stay open and let flow through you what will. What I want flowing through me are the stories of the people I want to write stories for. If I can conceptualize a boundary that resonates with people, inspiring them to tell their version, my job simplifies to merely taking good notes. And ain’t it nice for Maggie Ancaster to get a credit on some quality Canadian content? Story by: Maggie Ancaster has a good ring to it don’t ya think?

I made the name Maggie Ancaster up. Any similarities to any living persons, dead or alive…yadda yadda yah.

Are there any touchstones that serve as inspiration for this project?

Stuart McLean’s stories for sure. Properties that have been sent my way since I began talking about it – Murray McLauchlan’s ‘Floating Over Canada’ is a good example. Specific properties have specific inspirations: the series is homage to John Lurie’s ‘Fishing with John’; the feature is inspired by films like ‘Wendy and Lucy’ and ‘Old Joy’; the feature doc by Werner Herzog’s Encounters At The Edge of the World; the record was a Rick Rubin inspired thing; and the graphic novel is egged on by the likes of Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Seth.

Is this the future of TV?

It’s the future of entertainment for sure. The single media property is done and so are sloughs of other givens we ‘know’ about entertainment. The audience is now referred to as the user and respecting them as a client will take us a long way. The power they have in pressing little buttons is unprecedented and so creating experience and empowering them to participate are paramount moving forward. In the not so distant future Networks will be of people around people not corporations defining content and retaining sole authority to distribute it. Speaking of which…has anyone tackled the David and Goliath story in the new era? They should.

About Christopher Bolton: Christopher Bolton began acting in his teens appearing in feature films Global Heresy, Killing Moon, A Colder Kind of Death, Dead By Monday and The Third Miracle, as well as the Showtime television movies Hendrix and Our Fathers. Additional television credits include roles on the series Northwood, Mutant X, Blue Murder, Little Men, PSI Factor, La Femme Nikita, Street Legal and The Outer Limits. Bolton earned a Gemini nomination for his guest-starring role as ‘Joey Williams’ on the award-winning series Cold Squad.

His work in film and television led him to try his hand at writing. This effort landed him a spot at the esteemed Canadian Film Centre in the Resident Programme. He entered as a writer, but left having written and directed his own short film entitled The Tooth.

He then completed a two-year stint acting on the highly regarded Showtime Network television series Street Time. It was on Street Time in 2002 that he met producer Chris Szarka, forming a partnership to create and produce the multiple award-winning television series Rent-A-Goalie for Showcase.

Bolton is the executive producer, star and creator/writer of Rent-A-Goalie. He is represented by DF Management in the US and Celia Chassel/Gary Goddard in Canada. His new Transmedia Production House, Forty Farms, will launch in May, 2010.

[This interview is cross-posted at the fabulous Culture Hacker]

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