Transmedia – 1000 volts for the dying documentary film

“The audience for documentary is dying.”

– Press release of Collapsus, (released 2010)

Part 1

It has been called the future of storytelling. Moving up from clumsy titles like “interactive docu-fiction hybrid projects” (description of Collapsus in 2009, released by the Submarine Channel), to cross-media to transmedia. “The dying audience” refers to numbers that show the average age of the traditional documentary film audience creeping up past 60 years old. Transmedia documentary film as a format is fast-growing . At barely ten years old, it has been heralded as the answer to the decline of the traditional documentary film, and the way to reach younger, digital age audiences with documentary-style content, tailored to an internet-based, mobility-hungry, short format, non-TV watching generation.

Is it gaming? Is it storytelling? Is it just a website with fragmented short films?

The term transmedia, as it relates to documentary filmmaking, was coined by award winning gaming developer Stephen Dinehart. An extension of his VUP (viewer/user/player) concept created in 2006, Dinehart’s transmedia storytelling model relates back to Richard Wagner’s concept of “total artwork” (“Gesamtkunstwerk”), which invites the spectator to became and actor/player inside a work. In transmedia documentary storytelling, a story is told across a multitude of platforms – mostly digital. Dinehart’s model proposes “entrypoints” into a story thorough these various media platforms by which a viewer can experience a narrative. Each entrypoint or medium functions as an independent piece of the narrative, yet serves as a critical part on the viewer’s experience and understanding of the piece as a whole.

Early transmedia projects used their cross-platform or interactive aspect to keep a viewer engaged once they had completed the traditional documentary viewing experience. The projects sought to engage a viewer in a film after the film, making the first baby steps of documentary film outside the screen. This often included a web site with additional information about a subject featured in a film and its characters, lectures, online “games” or other interactive activities inside the world of the film.

These earlier works, often referred to as “cross-media” documentary films, grouped together a variety of content, sometimes repurposed from other sources, to support and reinforce the world of a film, or offered a simple call to action at the end of a film, directing viewers to a website or event. More recently, the emphasis is on the total integration of a multitude of media and platforms tightly woven together in the development and execution of a narrative. Although clear and compelling storytelling remains the one critical element to a film and its success, building upon and integrating transmedia intelligently has clearly become a revolutionary part of the documentary filmmaking landscape and the success of documentary film itself. Content remains king.

Many transmedia documentary films originate on a website, which has coined yet another name – “web docs”. The viewer is introduced to a particular place, character or characters (ex: Bear 71, Always in Season Island or Fort McMoney) and from there, the story unfolds, or rather, in many cases, we are engaged to take a journey into a story. This offers a certain level of flexibility in navigation and in the types of content that can be hosted.

This simple web-based form extends to mobile apps, performance and public interactive installations, often providing the viewer some kind of interaction with other people: the characters of a film, it’s crew, experts on a topic covered in a film or other viewers.

Next Month: Transmedia documentary film in the current landscape – development, landmark projects, funding and distribution.