Experimenting with Stories: An Interview with Transmedia Storyteller Andrea Phillips


Angelique Toschi smallWhen I was first asked to write for “Ms. In the Biz” I knew that I wanted to be able to provide articles with some amazing female transmedia and cross-platform creators. One of the names that immediately jumped to mind was Andrea Phillips, who (as you may remember from last week) wrote “A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling”. Andrea has worked on educational, commercial and indie projects in the transmedia storytelling world including “The Maester’s Path” for Game of Thrones, “Floating City” for Thomas Dolby, and “The 2012 Experience” for Sony Pictures.

Angelique: How did you become interested in transmedia and alternate reality games?

Andrea: Long ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a weird website — it was for a hate group against… robots. We eventually figured out it was one small piece of a whole web of sites, puzzles, emails, and story. It was The Beast, of course, the alternate reality game for the film A.I. It was an intense and revelatory experience, and after that I wanted to have more of it — and maybe provide that kind of experience of others, too.

Angelique: What do you think is the most compelling thing about cross-platform (transmedia) storytelling?

Andrea: I love the possibility of evoking emotions of agency. It’s one thing to make someone laugh or cry; it’s actually not such a difficult trick, books and movies do it all the time. Even commercials do it! But there are a whole range of emotions you can only feel when you have some responsibility for a situation: pride, frustration, guilt. You can create an entirely different emotional texture, simply by creating the feeling that your audience has some control over the story — even if it’s not strictly true.

Angelique: Would you like to weigh in on the “What is the Definition of Transmedia debate”?

Andrea: You know what… I will!

andreaphillipsA transmedia story is a mosaic — a big story made up of many smaller stories. One of the classic examples is Star Wars, where the films tell part of a story (for example, the story where Princess Leia and Han Solo fall in love) but the books tell other pieces of that same story (like how they get married and have twin babies).

Some transmedia projects have pieces that are so small that they don’t even make up a whole story on their own, though. For a project like Laser Lace Letters, Cathy’s Book, or even Lizzie Bennet Diaries, those pieces of the bigger story may not be a whole story on their own, though. They could just be a news clipping, a photograph, a birth certificate, a conversation on Twitter.

Angelique: Can you tell us about your writing process?

Andrea: Every project is a little different. But the first thing I usually try to do is establish what I’m trying to do and what resources I have to use. That helps to decide the overall structure of the thing I’m making, which in turn shapes the story I write.

Right now I’m working on a fun pirate adventure serial called The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart. The goal of that was to create a discipline where I’m constantly writing and releasing new material over a long period of time, and maybe create a modest revenue stream. Since it’s just me, planning out something with comics and Flash games and live events wouldn’t have helped the overall goal of putting a stuff out there — instead I’d have had to recruit a team, locate funding, etc., etc. Not what I was trying to accomplish at all. So instead it’s a simple thing: monthly ebooks with a puzzle in each one, a website where you can enter the solve and get another piece of story for your effort.

With Lucy, after I established the structure, the actual writing is a kind of a gonzo process where I have a bunch of images and moments in my head. I write those down and then link them together into a story that more or less makes sense. But it’s not always like that; I’m also working on a (secret) project right now where I’m working from a very clear scene-by-scene outline, and once that’s done we’ll look over it to see where to hook in extra pieces of narrative to make the whole thing a little richer.

There’s really no right or wrong way to create, there’s just whatever works for you and whatever doesn’t work for you.

Angelique: What do you find are the differences between working on your own projects and working on larger campaigns?

Andrea: The nice thing about working on your own stuff is control — you own what you make, and you can pursue your own vision. But generally indie stuff is lower-budget, so it can be hard to make something really massive and amazing. And of course the payoff is a lot less certain than when someone is paying you a set amount of money to do a set amount of work!

On the other hand, the client work I do is usually a lot more polished. There’s always more money to throw around for design and coding, and there’s also a whole team to tell you when something isn’t quite there yet. Working on your own can be comparatively lonely, and sometimes you don’t hold your own feet to the fire the same way, so the quality doesn’t reach quite the same level.

Maybe one day I’ll reach a happy compromise and have a team of collaborators for my own projects. Best of both worlds!

Angelique: How would you make the argument for a larger, storytelling promotion for a new movie, as opposed to a marketing campaign?

Andrea: The point of a transmedia marketing promotion is to make an audience feel invested in the events of the film. Billboards and TV spots can get your attention and maybe even make you feel interested in seeing a movie — look at the incredible single-shot stuff coming out for Gravity right now.

But they just can’t hold your attention over the months that a movie campaign usually unrolls. If you take just a small portion of a traditional film marketing budget and create something that people can play with, a story they can follow, then you’re increasing the size of their mental footprint for your movie. They’re going to care about you more. They’re going to talk about you with their friends more. There’s much less a chance that the movie launch will slip their minds and they’ll wind up not seeing it.

People see a lot of awesome stuff every day on the internet. A great trailer can wind up being just one awesome thing they see, and then forget about. You’re competing against Gangnam Style and Macklemore, cat videos, Downfall videos. If you want to keep someone’s attention for more than the couple of minutes they’re actively watching your trailer, you have to do something unusual and interesting to earn that attention.

Angelique: What do you feel is the best way to introduce an audience to the idea of a cross-platform story?

Andrea: Elan Lee once told me, “If you want somebody to know something, tell it to them.” In the early days of ARGs, we were really hung up on the idea of organic discovery — putting a mysterious clue somewhere in the world and hoping people will solve it and follow a trail of breadcrumbs all the way through the internet to find a whole story somewhere in there.

It turns out that’s a really bad design if you want an audience, though, because the general public at large isn’t going to notice a clue, or isn’t going to care enough to follow up on it, or might get confused and not find the whole story. There are too many possible points of failure. So you should just be straightforward about it and create a centralized public face of your story where you explain how the story is structured, and how you’re meant to engage with it.

It’s not quite as elegant, and maybe one day we’ll outgrow the need for that, as audiences become more sophisticated. But for right now: Just tell them.

Angelique: What is the best advice you would give to creator who are interested in developing their own project?

Andrea: Just go for it. Make what you can with what you have, and don’t waste your time looking for investors. The investment wringer is a pretty awful one, and it has a lot of sad outcomes. One is: you waste a lot of time searching for money, never get any, and you’ve lost a lot of time with nothing to show for it.

Even if you do get investment, you’re suddenly beholden to whoever holds the purse strings. And they’re going to want to make a profit — usually sooner rather than later. So you may find yourself pushed into developing a project in ways that benefit making more money over the short term, but are detrimental to what you’ve set out to achieve. And at the end of the day you may even find you don’t wind up owning what you’ve made, if the investor decides to take their money and go home.

Organic growth is where it’s at. Make what you can with what you have, and slowly keep building onto that audience. Reinvest in yourself. Put your own skin in the game. It’s a lot harder to hit it big with organic growth, but it’s a terrible practice to plan your career with the same mentality as buying a lottery ticket. I’d rather be a working artist with a modest but fiercely loyal following than a CEO who’s scored a $5 million VC round any day of the week. Slow and steady wins the race.

Angelique: What do you find the most fulfilling outcome of a project?

Andrea: A story is inevitably a deep expression of something inside you, even if you don’t mean it to be. You can’t help it. In a way, telling a story is a way to bridge the infinite gap between people, to feel closer for a little while. And when somebody cares enough about what you’ve made to talk about it, to keep reading or watching, to reach out to other people and even talk to them about it… it feels like you’ve succeeded.

Angelique: What’s your favorite transmedia property from the past few years?

Andrea: Hands down it’s Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern-day web series adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. I do a lot of dabbling looks at transmedia projects, but time is short for me and I rarely get the chance to follow one from start to finish. I watched every second of Lizzie Bennet. Can’t recommend it enough.

Angelique: What current (or upcoming) projects are you excited about?

Andrea: Right now the Lizzie Bennet team is doing an adaptation of another Jane Austen work, Welcome to Sanditon. It’s the sort of thing you can only do if you have a very enthusiastic fan base to begin with… but they have that in spades. I also just got my first installment of Laser Lace Letters, a gorgeous project told with tangible artifacts, though I’m not sure you can still buy in now that the Kickstarter is over. It’s beautiful, though, and people should be howling at Haley Moore, the creator, to make it more widely available. And of course the Defiance show/game hybrid is a really interesting project, and it’s worth keeping an eye on that to see where it goes.

Angelique: Which other women in the transmedia/cross-platform storytelling do you find inspiring?

Andrea: There are so many I couldn’t possibly name all of them! Off the top of my head I’d say Maureen McHugh, Margaret Dunlap, Haley Moore, Sara Thacher, Dana Shaw. Between them they’re an incredible mix of both landmark achievements past and really interesting work in progress. I’d go out of my way to look at basically any project any one of them announced.