Sue Maslin @ Transmedia Victoria


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"Herding Cats: a survivor's guide to producing transmedia work" was presented at, Jan 27th 2011

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  • I am a screen producer and I work across all screens – large and small. In the 27 years that I have been making film, the screens have changed significantly. Cinema, television, web, mobile phone and right now I am currently producing a transmedia work including augmented reality and a full dome feature for planetariums.   My job is to fall in love with an idea; champion it against all odds; support the writer and director by ensuring they have all the resources they need – my complete faith in them as well as time, money, crew, archival etc - so they can best articulate that idea on the screen; and finally do everything in my power to ensure that the idea ultimately reaches its intended audience. I am sure this sounds like familiar territory to many of you.
  •    Today I want to talk about the role of the producer in bring together creatives – writers, directors, designers, animators, composers, sound designers – into the sphere of transmedia work and the opportunities and the very real challenges that are involved. I want to open up the discussion on “Why are so few content creators of traditional media embracing the transmedia landscape?” This session aims to interrogate the different working methodologies, business models, scheduling, budgeting, fee expectations, creative challenges, communication processes, content management systems – and look at ways to improve the dialogue between traditional and digital native practitioners. As a producer of cross-platform projects, you need to straddle the digital divide. Few producers are doing this at present and it is rapidly leading to parallel and separate cultures between 'heritage' and 'new' media. This is not good in the long run and will lead to missed opportunities for content development in an NBN enabled environment.
  • Firstly, a short background journey that charts the course of my own creative practice from traditional – heritage – media into a more cross-platform approach using digital media.   I was introduced to digital media via a Broadband Production Initiative developed by the ABC and the Australian Film Commission in 2004 aimed at bring filmmakers together with digital media practitioners – a convergence of methodologies – an see what emerged. Writer/director Daryl Dellora and I had made many documentaries together and we responded by devising an interactive documentary about William Bligh. We worked with a small team that included, for the first time for us, an IT developer and digital designer/animator. We worked in a virtual studio for the next two years. That is, Daryl was in Italy, I was in Fitzroy, the designer was in country Victoria and the South Melbourne based developer set us up a studio on-line which is one of the interesting opportunities in this work. Creative teams don ’ t necessarily need to be geographically proximate.  
  • Re-enchantment became the first genuinely cross-platform work I produced and this started as a conversation at the end of 2005. Re-enchantment is an immersive journey into the hidden meanings of fairy tales and is delivered by an interactive website for ABC On-Line, a series of 10 x 3 minute documentary animations for television and a series of story readings for Radio National. Writer/director Sarah Gibson had been thinking of making a documentary about fairy tales for a number of years given the significance of their themes and symbols in both her practice as a Jungian analyst and as a filmmaker. When she told me about her idea, I asked if she had considered doing it as an interactive documentary. She asked, ‘What's that?’ and we had a huge amount of fun at first exploring the possibilities. It seemed a perfect approach for a work about exploring multiple interpretations of fairy tales. It also offered a two-way interaction with audiences – or users ­– and, very early on, Sarah conceived of a Gallery whereby users could contribute their own re-imaginings via artworks, clips, etc. SHOW TRAILER URL –       
  • The starting point for Re-enchantment was preparing an electronic proof of concept - a kind of digital animated storyboard. It ’ s essentially a walk through the content, functionality, space and navigation to see if the concept actually works. Sarah prepared an outline which led to a week of brainstorming between Sarah, me and the initial digital media developer, Catherine Gleeson. The electronic proof of content was funded by the Australian Film Commission.   From there, Sarah started writing scripts for six fairy tale story spaces that, in turn, were developed into maps - the navigational architecture of the site – and this became the technical blueprint for the website design. Sarah also wrote the scripts for the interstitials. We then had the tools to raise the production finance.  
  • We worked with a designer from a film and television background, Rose Draper and one from digital media, Keren Moran and very quickly discovered that the parameters of the software and platforms significantly constrain what you can do in design. There was a steep learning curve as we found ways to balance good design with low resolution and small digital files that could be tolerated in an on-line environment. Without high speed broadband, the use of rich (audiovisual) media is severely curtailed…the sooner we get an NBN, the better! The other major thing we discovered was that the developer had an enormous influence on the creative process, yet it was not possible to engage in a collaborative process. By and large, the relationship between the content creator and developer is one of client and service company. The client is expected to provide a brief that the developer will respond to with a scoping document that in turn becomes the project ‘ bible ’ . Then a content management system is set up and every single decision around content and functionality is assigned a ticket that is assigned to the relevant project team member.  
  • Everything hinges on what is in or out of scope and this gets locked off very early in the process. You must stick to the scoping document unless you are prepared to incur major financial consequences. There is no such thing as, ‘We'll fix it in the edit’. I understand where this is coming from. The creative model is different in digital media. A non-linear project, by definition could go on forever. The iterative process involving a recurring set of production cycles where each one informs the next can potentially lead to blow outs in schedule and budget. Therefore cost and time limitations that need to be imposed. But I feel that the process of making digital content in this way at times mitigates against the creative process. The business model is also profoundly different for IT companies. We discovered that They will expect remuneration at far higher rates than those in the film and television industry ($150-300/hour). They will not necessarily be motivated by or even interested in the content. They may not even want to read scripts! They will readily communicate via a content management system but can be more resistant to face to face meetings, phone calls and even e-mails. The only meaningful communication is via tickets.
  • The development process for Re-enchantment was very long and meant that it could be months or years before Sarah as director could see anything closely resembling her initial scripts and visualisations. There is no such thing as looking at rushes and a rough cut. By the time the sound and visual files reached the developers it was usually too late to make changes in design and content. However, it is not until it reaches the developer that you can see them working in context. It is not surprising then that these departments tend to be under the one roof in IT companies and it can create problems if you want to work with outside designers. Needless to say, I am particularly interested in what happens to the creative process, the “What if?” question that invites constant refining of the ideas, when the IT systems methodology forces you to lock off on a brief and scoping document so early in the process.
  •     As for finance and marketing... if every new film is a start-up business, then every cross-platform work is grappling with three or more start-up businesses at the same time. There are challenges but there are also wonderful cross-promotional opportunities, not to mention the possibility of multiple sources of finance. Re-enchantment was financed by a combination of investment from Screen Australia, the ABC, Film Victoria together with in-kind support from the University of Technology Sydney and the ABC. This means following the launch of Re-enchantment at the Adelaide Film Festival on 2 nd March, we can market the project by way of social media, television publicity, radio and web cross-promotion where we have significant content available for each platform.   The idea for 10 x 3minute television interstitials came out of discussion with Amanda Duffy at the ABC Arts and Entertainment. She was keen on the interactive website but we also discussed the concept of television content. The television content meant the project became eligible for the 20% Producer Offset rebate. In-kind support was also eligible for the producer offset rebate – following the exchange of tax invoices – a very important factor in the finance plan. UTS was a significant partner. Sarah Gibson is a senior media lecturer at the UTS and the project became a research project under the auspices of the university School of Media and Communications. In return, valuable studio space, servers, camera equipment, editing facilities as well as a production offices were provided. Partnerships with universities and public institutions can be invaluable to working in this area for all of these reasons.  
  • However, financing content based digital media projects remains a problem. For a start, there are not many viable on-line financial models, except perhaps for pornography and games. There are no adequately funded development models that take on board the significant labour costs, nor are there sensible broadcaster licence fees for websites. Despite the agenda setting work of the ABC and SBS in this area, they simply don ’ t have the financial resources to support the work in a commercially viable sense unless it is produced in-house. Even then, they do a phenomenal amount with very small on-line departments. Screen Australia and Film Victoria are significant sources of crucial development finance but again have limited resources in the face of enormous and growing demand for on-line content.
  • All that said, I am now at it again – this time with screen based visual artist Lynette Wallworth. RE-KINDLING VENUS is a transmedia work including augmented reality for mobile phone, an interactive website and an immersive installation environment developed for planetariums that will be launched globally to coincide with the next Transit of Venus on 6 June 2012. The first stage will be launched at Adelaide Film Festival from 24 February and has been financed by Screen Australia and the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund. This is Lynette ’ s first cross-platform project and again came out of a conversation in which I asked “ What if her amazing and beautiful works could be experienced outside of a gallery setting? ” We are working through all of the same kinds of issues faced by re-enchantment. There have been a few false starts in the journey of navigating the creative process with digital media practitioners and it is interesting that we have now settled on the first group of developers we have come across who are happy to have the “ artist in the room ” . Hitlab. It is no coincidence that they are a research lab connected to another university – University of Canterbury in Christchurch – and once again we are working in a virtual studio.
  •   In conclusion, I would like to summarise by saying that p roducing digital media is profoundly different to producing linear works on every level you can think of:   1.     Creative collaboration practices 2.     Engagement with audiences or users 3.     Development and production methodologies 4.     Finance and revenue models 5.     Business models and marketing strategies 6.     Motivations for entering and continuing in the industry   As for my own motivation, it ’ s not IT in itself that interests me – what inspires me is the challenge of identifying stories and content that can be enhanced through the use of these new tools. We need to improve the dialogue between these very different sectors recognise the possibilities for enhancing creative practice by bringing together the cultures in holding more forums such as this.
  • Sue Maslin @ Transmedia Victoria

    1. 2.
    2. 3. The Life, Times and Travels of the extraordinary Vice-Admiral William Bligh <ul><li> </li></ul>
    3. 4.
    4. 6. Re-enchantment Navigational Architecture
    5. 7. Content Management System <ul><li> </li></ul>
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    7. 13. 1. Types of content   2. Creative collaboration practices 3. Engagement with audiences or users 4. Development and production methodologies 5. Finance and revenue models 6. Business models and marketing strategies 7. Motivations for entering and continuing in the industry