Transmedia, Worldbuilding and Weird German Words

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Remember when the entertainment industry was pushing the term “transmedia?” Yeah, neither do I but I do know what it means, because all I really need to know I  learned on Wikipedia. 

Transmedia storytelling “is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies.”

The entry was first created in 2015, back before the prefix “trans” took on the cultural heft of gender issues and the term “media” became a rapidly deflating political football. Plus, “transmedia” always sounded like one of those meaningless corporate constructions like “multichannel” or “accountability.”

So, how do we refer to the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms? Richard Wagner used the term Gesamtkunstwerk but the scope of media at the time didn’t reach beyond 15 hours of the Ring Cycle. Besides, gesamtkunstwerk sounds like something to say after a sneeze.

I bring this up because I’ve been creating an immersive transmedia experience within a self-consistent fictional universe. Think Tolkien’s Middle Earth or that galaxy far, far away. Or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or even the the Dublin of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the intertextuality of Kurt Vonnegut’s Midwest and you get the idea.

In my case, the scope is narrowed to my own particular take on Petaluma, CA, where I grew up and, 20 years later, repatriated. I realize that sounds like the premise of a terrible TV show wherein the protagonist lives in the big city, gets knocked on his ass, and returns to small-town Americana and reconnects with old friends, lost loves, and forgotten dreams — and maybe even himself. That’s not my story.  The fictional Lumaville is a sort of psychic space laid over the topography of the places that have long haunted me. It operates as a kind of imagined parallel universe inhabited by a protagonist who is, likewise, a parallel version of its author. But with a far darker world view. 

I like to put it like this:

“I create autobiographical fictions that draw on my experiences as a small town reporter – but with more drinking, danger and death. They’re semantically-engineered to make you feel better than I do. And, let me tell you, I feel just fucking great.”

Conceptually, I consider the endeavor literary performance art and I’ll swear up and down that it’s a true story if asked. Because, depending on your brand of quantum physics, it is – somewhere. In a way, creating this fictional, alternate universe isn’t an act of fiction so much as reporting the history of another reality – one that I call the Lumaverse. 

This is the context in which I wrote my genre novel experiment Quantum Deadline as well as the screenplay for Pill Head, our upcoming feature film in which a pill-addicted young woman undergoes an experimental sleep treatment and awakes wayyy later to find she’s on the verge of a psychic breakthrough …or psychotic breakdown.

“But, Mr. Howell,” you ask, “Besides your obsession with prescription drugs and inability mature beyond the environs of your youth, why do this all this work in different media? Is it just massive ADD?”

Good question. This is how I got started:

Seven years ago, I attended an entertainment industry symposium helmed by Henry Jenkins, Provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts, Annenberg School of Communication, USC.

Among other books, Jenkins is the author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, in which he describes transmedia storytelling simply as “the art of world-making.” You know, like God. Or George Lucas. Or me. 

Another panelist,  Louisa Stein, head of the TV and film critical studies program at San Diego State University, explained that mythologies are created that adhere to “bibles” which describe the law of fictional lands with an eye to creating an “aesthetic that is specific and archetypal simultaneously.” 

That’s the nut of the notion, right there – the specific but archetypal. Or, as video essayist Kirby Ferguson put it in his piece, Everything Is a Remix: The Force Awakens, “The familiar and the novel both appeal to us, think of them as two halves of a spectrum.” And the sweet spot is in the middle of that spectrum.

And so that’s where I’m aiming with my own private multiverse – a world we didn’t know we knew. Petaluma, with all the psychic burrs it has for me, is a paint-by-numbers American home town. But I’m using my own palette to paint. It’s like that old trope, we correct in art what we don’t get right in life. And sometimes, art is where we experiment with the wrong. And, yeah, I’m sure there’s a German word for that.

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Storyboarding Pill Head: The Process Begins

Drawn by Karen Hess.
Drawn by Karen Hess.

With the script (all but!) locked and pre-production well underway, production designer Karen Hess/Hell has started sketching the storyboard for our upcoming feature Pill Head

The scene depicted above is an early one, which comes soon after our heroine’s overdose (there’s a joke in there somewhere) wherein she asks her nurse “I’m not dead, right?” Moreover, the framing is a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s apparent obsession with one-point perspective (see the supercut below)…

…And my favorite scene in Amadeus in which a freshly “repentant” Salieri is wheeled through the corridor of an asylum:

 “Mediocrities of the world, I absolve you!” says F. Murray Abraham as Salieri — a benediction I can use as I inch ever closer to my feature film directing debut. Somehow, I think the notoriously exacting Kubrick would be less forgiving of any filmic foibles.

That Time My Fear of Artistic Inauthenticity Met The Fear Doctor

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Before I walked the plank into indie authorship, I did time as a small town newspaperman. As my affiliations grew, so did the amount of press releases I received in my inbox. I still receive them, and one arrived today that served as an ironic reminder of an issue I’ve been facing — a pervading feeling of inauthenticity.

Maybe it’s a Gen X thing, or an artist thing, or a byproduct from all the Fake News we read. Maybe it was because Nirvana’s bassist played a Guild B30E Semi-Acoustic Bass for the Unplugged album, which technically is not totally unplugged.

So, imagine the deep soulful sigh I released when some flack from West LA beamed me a release for a premium, naturally-alkaline, spring water from some nordic country that hopes to inspire individuals to find their own “pure authenticity,” you know, by drinking imported water. 

Side note: When I lived in L.A., I visited the FAQs on the municipal water company’s website. The answer to the question “Is my water safe to drink?” was a shruggy “Probably.”

Fortunately, I was fortified against the pitch thanks to art. Not in the hippy-dippy “art will save your soul” kind of way but rather through an art installation at the stARTup Art Fair in San Francisco last Friday.

The fair took over the entire Hotel Del Sol and each guest room was converted by an artist into their own exhibit space. Situated in the courtyard by the pool was an artist named Hunter Franks, who was in a booth described the event’s organizers as a space to open up to a stranger and share a fear to receive a custom, typewritten philosophical prescription from a certified Fear Doctor. So, I sat down and told the Fear Doctor about my fear of inauthenticity. 

This is my prescription:

Instead of washing up writing press releases for water or drowning in printer’s ink, I’m gonna dog-paddle in those two tablespoons of “faith in the process” until I’m safely ashore. Meet me there?

About Hunter Franks, per his website: “creates art that intervenes in the social and physical landscape of our urban environments. His participatory installations in public space break down barriers and help us reimagine our relationships with each other, our neighborhoods, and our cities.” I heartily encourage a visit. — DH