Bolton Storyworld – towards a Screenplay/Prototype for a Transmedia Production

 

Author: Anna Zaluczkowska
Format: Transmedia production
Duration: 90mins
Published: April 2016


Research Statement

Bolton Storyworld is an online entertainment media environment that has been created and developed by students and tutors at the University of Bolton in association with Bellyfeel, a transmedia company based in Manchester. Our aim was to produce a trial of the work, a blueprint for a more extensive production, a concept that has been referred to by Kathryn Millard (2011) as a ‘prototype’. In creating this script/prototype we were trying to find a form or a methodology that would be appropriate for the construction of a transmedia work.

Research Questions
How to design effective transmedia work?
How to create prototypes for larger programme ideas?
How to maximise immersion?
How to involve audiences in devising work?
How to work effectively on projects with students?

Assessment Criteria
Is this work an effective screenplay/prototype/proof of concept for a transmedia series?

Overview
The story told in Bolton Storyworld, in the interactive sequenced delivery, is similar to the X Files but instead of the FBI being in the know it is a bunch of university students who are less well equipped and informed. The drama centres on four students, Lizzie, SpOOn, Derek and Annabel, who all attend the University of Bolton. The series follows the everyday lives of these students as they make their way through the academic year and experience testing and life-changing experiences. Of course, all is not as it seems at the University of Bolton, and the four students call on the audience’s help to uncover and investigate a series of unusual happenings. You can see all the story material for the project in the link to the story ‘bible’ (the concept of a narrative ‘bible’ in the United Kingdom refers to a document that contains all of the information on the story’s characters and settings and can include storylines relating to the programme).

There are many reasons why we wanted to set up this project and these have been detailed in an article (Zaluczkowska, A & Robinson, L 2012: 257) many of which are to do with investigating and teaching the transmedia form. However we also wanted to study how effective it would be to mix fictional stories and real events and real life stories in order to create more immersive experiences for audiences.

We created 3 different prototypes that involved the creation of a diorama model of the story characters on show at the university, a geo-locative website, a Facebook page with character interactions and competitions, a live student event, an online game, and an interactive sequence delivery of series 1 of the story via email and text message. We have tried to show the extent of these prototypes in our video submission but also to detail some of the processes that took place in its construction via the podcast.

Our research started by asking how we could construct a script for this new transmedia endeavour. Our approach was to work in a writer’s group (more the American model then the British model) for a period of time to build story. This writer’s group was made up of producers, directors and key production staff as well as writers. Together we created a series ‘bible’ for the project in much the same way as TV writers create ‘bibles’ when working in teams on long running series. In addition we also later created product – little snippets of visual and sonic information that would be needed to tell our stories. The real challenge then became how we would feed out this information so that it engaged audiences, building character, plot and theme. We engaged in scheduling exercises and flow charts to try and get to grips with this practice but such scheduling only gave a rough guide to the story structure and did not help us understand how to effectively fragment the narrative. What we did discover was that it was useful to break down the story into short manageable pieces. We started by using Facebook to test out our ideas. Would anyone believe in these people? It appeared they would and so we set about placing characters at events within the university (a party or a fund raising event) so that people could begin to get to know them, think that they knew them or had come across them. We also created competitions that the characters entered material for so that students could see their work. Finally when we had built up enough momentum we made a story event (someone disappeared in suspicious circumstances) and so started the drama. Thereafter we created visual material that would tell the story of this event. All of this was then scheduled together for a trial delivery.

The first result was something of a mess if we are to be honest. Many of the students were worried about being associated with a project that seemed to be very disjointed and as a result didn’t develop their involvement. Those remaining persisted and analysed the outcomes and processes and set about finding additional ways to develop the project. Much of the original material was remixed and re edited in this version although some new material was also added. The next iteration was much more story focused. We made Sp00n the leading character and had the story run from her perspective. Here we were falling back on tried and tested film and TV story structures and character arcs. We started at the call to action and worked back to reveal the mystery and then sought audience help to solve that mystery.

This structure, although more coherent and story focused, didn’t engage audiences in the same way. Further analysis through interviews and audience studies suggested that what was missing was the more participative elements of the previous iteration. This in turn led us to a 3rd version where the gaming mechanism and story structure where better inter-related. What resulted (and what you can see in the submitted work) was restructured, re written and worked more effectively. We discovered that a gaming element central to the main character’s story helped engage audiences and drive the story from Sp00n’s POV. This strong drive left us room to be able to introduce tangential material that participants could either discover or ignore. A more tightly controlled editorial practice produced work with higher production values. Taking a number of the production responsibilities outside of the university and housing them within Bellyfeel who acted as the showrunner for the project better facilitated these activities. We were able to hire students to work for this production company. It’s a sad fact but working within the university isn’t seen by students to represent a professional environment.

The resulting material was much more akin to a prototype development rather than a screenplay although both can be considered as a blue print for the production. Scharge suggests ‘Prototypes tend to be physical models of a product’ (2000: 7) and our taster is really a physical manifestation of part of the product that was designed as much for collaborators and participants in the development process as it was for the small audiences that we attracted. We followed established design practices as suggested by Donald Norman in The Design of Everyday Things and altered our work as a result of feedback to ensure that players could understand the navigation of our stories and that all story actions had immediate results for audiences. We introduced some constraints so that audiences didn’t become frustrated by following any wrong paths. But we also wanted to give control to the user by letting them decide where to put their focus. Laurel, B (2013: 33) argues that human–computer interfaces and activities are about ‘creating imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality – worlds in which we can extend, amplify and enrich our capacities to think, feel and act’. This was at the heart of our intentions. We were interested in discovering new design practices for the interactive medium as part of investigations into the storytelling practices of the transmedia form. ‘A transmedia story – unfolds across multiple platforms, with each text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole’ (Jenkins 2003: 95-6.).

Our work closely followed that of Janet Murray (2012) who investigates the affordances of digital media in an evolving medium. From the very start of our project we were keen to ensure the project used all the aspects of digital media – those that are afforded by the computer, so we built in opportunities for maps and navigation, for archives and information, for games and controls and for activities that offer participation. We wanted to use the medium to its full. In so doing we are contributing to what Murray describes as ‘Inventing the Medium’ and finding new and useful design processes and practices for the medium that utilise the spatial, encyclopaedic, procedural and participative affordances of the computer. While this was a useful starting point in the end we revised and altered our practices so that we were only using those techniques that we considered to be most effective. The other wider work that was carried out was not wasteful or wasted as we were able to use much of it to provide context and background in our world building so that our storyworld became convincing. The concept of a storyworld is central to the idea of transmedia production as Jenkins suggests

“When I first started, (in the business) you would pitch a story because without a good story, you didn’t really have a film. Later once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories. And now you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media.”

(Anonymous screenwriter, quoted in Jenkins 2006: 57)

Context
Millard (2011: 148-150) describes many film and TV projects where prototypes of different types have been used to sell or raise funding for an idea. They include mapping ideas, creating proof of concept videos, presenting the story in different forms such a comic books and the digital video prototype made for Time in the City (2008) by Terence Davies and Liza Ryan Carter. In much the same way and working with Liza Ryan Carter we have written work, revised it, filmed it, edited it and re edited in a process of discovery until we arrived at something that we could be happy with and could form the basis of a complete project. Dominic Mitchell has suggested that in his series In The Flesh (2012) he often designed aspects of his series, such as a leaflet on the effects of medication for Zombies, as part of his writing work to give a fuller picture of the world of the series. We have gone much further with this approach and designed a whole range of objects and events that have built our world, enough to sustain a longer running version of the idea. Murray suggests that many of the conventions associated with older media have been disrupted leaving us confused about which conventions to employ. Our work in devising this prototype is a contribution to the designer’s task – ‘It is the designer’s task to work at all three levels of media making – inscription, transmission, and especially representation – to accelerate the collective project of inventing a new medium by creating and refining the conventions that will bring coherence to new artefacts and enhance their expressive power’ (Murray, 2012: 15). The design and processes inherent in our prototype are an attempt to contribute to the invention of the interactive transmedia form. In creating Bolton Storyworld we have been looking at portraying the student experience in a novel way, asking for student feedback in helping develop the story and its content and analysing the meaning created from this endeavour. However we had all imagined something much more interactive would result from this project. The prototype offers participation but that participation is controlled and dictated by the various authors involved.

The work on Bolton Storyworld has been highly collaborative in nature and has been carried out by hundreds of students, many members of staff and experts and professionals from various industry settings. It’s not the work of one person but it fits into my area of study and has helped develop my own PhD project that aims to produce a new and unique transmedia fiction script set in Northern Ireland with the help of potential audiences. My work moves the lessons of Bolton Storyworld further to investigate what I call ‘Negotiated Narratives’. Red Branch Heroes works with audiences to select a new hero for Northern Ireland through a game like construction based in a fictitious reality TV setting to build and test characters and storylines. Improvisation, gaming and performance are used to create an audience feedback loop central to its operation resonating with Laurel’s (2013) arguments for an emotional and theatrical connection to the computer. The resulting production is ephemeral and performative utilising experimental and participatory theatrical techniques to create a relationship between author and audience. I would argue that the development of this complex narrative can more effectively mirror the complicated political situation in Northern Ireland – a project where form and subject are explored and work in productive and synergistic harmony.

References:
Jenkins, H (2003) ‘Interactive Audiences? The “collective intelligence” of media fans’, http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/collective%20intelligence.html Accessed 7th March 2014
Jenkins, H (2006) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York: New York University Press
Laurel, B (2013) Computers as Theatre 2nd edition, USA Addison Wesley
Murray, J (2012) Inventing the Medium, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press
Nelmes, J ed. (2011) Analysing The Screenplay: The screenplay as Prototype, London: Routledge
Norman, D (2013) The Design of Everyday Things revised edition, USA: MIT Press
Schrage, M (2000) Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press
Zaluczkowska, A. and Robinson, L. (2013), ‘Bolton Storyworld – You make the story? Assessing a transmedia narrative/work in progress’, Journal of Media Practice, 14: 4, pp. 257-277, doi: 10.1386/jmpr.14.4.257_1

Methods
We used Action Research methods for our project enquiry.  This method was particularly successful due to the educational nature of the project.  We identified a problem – how to design effective transmedia work? Alongside that we devised a questionnaire for all the students at the university and collated the results.  We then set about planning a prototype using these results, a prototype to test our ideas.  We worked in association with established transmedia producers and used some of their methods, we investigated the work of new media theorists such as Henry Jenkins applying some of his theories and finally we took advice from established practitioners such as Andrea Philips and narratologists such as Janet Murray.

Having created the prototype we tested its effectiveness with audiences by initially running a Facebook group where comments could be posted. We then called meetings with the students who had worked on the project and evaluated the processes used through screenings and discussions.  We interviewed each group of student makers (writers, directors, technicians etc) and recorded the results on video and audio. As we were not satisfied with our initial results we started the prototype process again studying the problem systematically and ensuring  interventions in storytelling were informed by theoretical considerations.  For the 2nd interaction we interviewed the creative personnel further and presented results at conferences where the process could be further commented upon. The final and 3rd iteration of the prototype was better received by audiences due to its game like structure which we tested through student focus groups at the university.   Throughout students carried out this research alongside staff.

Outcomes
Project Website: www.boltonstoryworld.com

Transmedia storyworld bible:
https://sites.google.com/site/bswdefinitive/

Podcast: (20 Min Interview Further Describing Bolton Storyworld): http://www.boltonstoryworld.com/podcast/Anna_Zaluczkowska_BoltonStoryworld_Podcast_2014.mp3

Viewing Conditions
The play out of the first series of Bolton Storyworld can be experienced through the webpage. The video material is an overview of the process of production and the different aspects of production that make up the prototype. The podcast describes some of our research practices, but it is worth noting that I no longer work at Bolton and some of the bigger aims have not happened as a result.

Impact
The work was funded by HEIF funding with the intention that knowledge sharing be at the centre of the practice. It has been given 3 trials at the University of Bolton and was redesigned once again for a further trial before being shown to audiences and submitted to competition.

The work has been shortlisted for a Learning on Screen Award 2016, and has been presented at a number of conferences:

Digital Mix 03 Bath Spa University 2015
BFI conference, London 2015
CEMP Conference, Prague 2014
Salford Media Festival 2013
Salford Media conference 2013
University of Bolton R & I Conference 2012
Creative Hive, University of Salford 2012

The following articles have been published:

Zaluczkowska, A and Coles, J. (2015) ‘Let me tell you a story – teaching transmedia in HE’, The Media Education Research Journal, 6. 1.
Zaluczkowska, A. and Robinson, L. (2013), ‘Bolton Storyworld – You make the story? Assessing a transmedia narrative/work in progress’, Journal of Media Practice, 14: 4, pp. 257-277, doi: 10.1386/jmpr.14.4.257_1


Peer Reviews

The original submission invited formative feedback and has been edited in response to the reviews that follow:

Review 1: Accept subject to minor revisions of the Research Statement
This is an innovative project with a very clearly stated set of aims and outcomes. It is a work in progress, articulated as a practice-led research project, which has already been through several iterations. The content presented for submission incorporates a website from which people can sign up to the storyworld, a Video trailer, a written research statement and a podcast in which the executive producer talks about the project’s aims and achievements thus far. As executive producer, the author articulates this research as being linked to her teaching at Bolton University as a scriptwriting specialist and to her own ambitions to create a separate transmedia project as part of her PhD studies. There is already a published article on the project in the Journal of Media Practice on this project and it is clear that it has potential to received further funding within the context of knowledge exchange in the Higher Education sector. I am impressed by the clarity of purpose and vision articulated here and can see that this project has already generated a good number of knowledge exchange outcomes.

In essence, this project takes up the challenge from the Australian academic (Kathryn Millard) that scriptwriters need to extend their practice to create prototypes as opposed to conventional written scripts if they are to make work that is relevant to the evolving context of transmedia storytelling. Seen from that perspective everything that follows has a strong coherence and logic as an evolving process. I was pleased to find that Janet Murray’s work on Inventing the Medium has been referenced as a core text, as this gives the project wider context and situates it within a valid field of academic practice. I would also recommend that the team look at Donald Norman’s work on the Psychology of Everyday Things and Emotional Design and at Benda Laurel’s work on Computers as Theatre – two key interaction design pioneers whose work interfaces strongly with new possibilities for storytelling. The author also references Henry Jenkins, thus opening up another key strand to this research in relation to participatory storytelling. As such, I am happy with the research context within which this project is playing out and with the author’s ability to negotiate this territory in the service of advancing new knowledge and new forms of practice.

My only concern with this submission is that it is difficult to comment on the extent to which the work itself represents a proof of concept. As a process yes, as a product – well it’s early days and hard to say. I would have liked to have been given more information on how the story actually plays out once an audience member has subscribed. I enjoyed the Vimeo trailer and was intrigued by the character-based introductory clips on the website but was left none the wiser as to the actual mechanics of how the plot plays out within the storyworld. I was reticent to actually sign up because I was given no indication as to what degree of commitment would be required from me in terms of my time. I did pick up that the story would play out over a series of days and frankly just haven’t got the time right now to commit to such an activity. This is not an uncommon issue in projects of this nature but I really do think that not giving a reviewer (let alone audience participant) a clear sense of this is an issue that ought to be resolved in some form or other. Whilst I acknowledge that the sense of mystery and intrigue has its own aesthetic, I do think that it would put most people off committing to engage.

It may be that I am just the wrong audience, as my understanding is that is a local story aimed at students in Bolton University. However, it does leave me unable to comment on the actual story beyond my appreciating the design process and feeling confident that there are good outcomes being generated in terms of knowledge exchange. I would like to suggest therefore that a little more information on the story and its mechanics in the research statement would be helpful. In an ideal world, I would also like to see the transmedia bible that was written for this project but appreciate that the authors may be reticent to share this.

Review 2: Invite resubmission of Statement

To answer the questions set out in Anna’s research statement: Is this work an effective screenplay/prototype/proof of concept for a Transmedia series?

Well – it is and it isn’t.

What’s principally absent is story, and an appreciation (or at the very least, an understanding) of what story is being told. What comes through very clearly is a foreground focus on the form – which is being handled as I’d expect, and a collective amnesia about the content. The team are not alone in this – the majority of Transmedia project want everything, and eschew restraint:

Ursula K Le Guin put it eloquently in From Elfland to Ploughkeepsie:

“There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed. To create what Tolkien calls “a secondary universe” is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.”

Ursula Le Guin

Transmedia – when it is led by technology rather than story – wants to have its cake and to eat it. It wants the construct to be provided – the fabric of its world exists, ready to be populated with tweets and status updates, with diary entries found pinned to the wall of a child’s bedroom, with knowing asides to the camera – and it wants the pact between author and reader to be easy, to be smoothed by this plasterwork and nails built by other hands.

That’s an oblique – but is a counter to “From the very start of our project we were keen to ensure the project used all the aspects of digital media – those that are afforded by the computer, so we built in opportunities for maps and navigation, for archives and information, for games and controls and for activities that offer participation. We wanted to use the medium to its full.”

The writer’s group process described here is probably effective – not enough detail is given in order to be definitive – but never gets under the skin of, for example, how they transposed approaches to story planning, narrative construction or character arcs.

It’s telling that the team went out of house for the digital elements. What comes through from this is a lack of understanding as to the relationship between form and content. To what story elements are foreground, secondary, or background. To the purpose and tonal qualities in any media channel. The finished prototype (as Anna terms it) is overly reliant on grabbing whatever reference comes to mind (and that they found as they go along) in order to justify a decision. There are references to Janet Murray and Henry Jenkins, but these don’t arise as the project is being designed – they’re added because the team see the need to underpin – after the fact – some of their decision-making.

It doesn’t feel cohesive. It tells us something about prototyping, but doesn’t appreciate what prototypes do. Rapid prototyping might be a better way to go about things, rather than develop something that’s a whole object and test it. Make small things and test those, rather than the whole that’s going to fall over no matter what you do or how well you do it.

It would be interesting to see what this can become where it to be managed. A show runner – a role mentioned on the podcast interview – carries a specific responsibility for the vision of the fiction, the synthesis of the whole and the manner – in regard to transmedia works – in which it is executed and communicated. What I’d propose is that a much more thorough and critical examination of Bolton Storyworld is submitted to Screenworks, using either Jenkins or Murray (there are more critics available, but start somewhere) and pull the prototype apart. This work, in concert with some initial designs and thoughts for the Northern Ireland proposal contained at the end of the commentary, would offer Screenworks – and the authors – some really valuable learning.

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