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POV Interviews Transmedia Expert Anita Ondine

Point of View magazine recently spoke with the internationally renowned transmedia expert Anita Ondine about the challenges and opportunities of transmedia. Ondine is in Toronto this week to headline Merging Media TO on January 19 to 20 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

POV: Transmedia requires content creators to completely rethink how they engage their audiences and to rethink the concept of ‘media consumption.’ It’s a big task to grapple with...

Ondine: Yes, transmedia is a different paradigm altogether. I hesitate to use the word ‘consumption’ or I use it broadly. The word I like to use most is participation. Not every member of the audience will become a participant but it’s my sincere hope that we get a large number of audiences to move from the lean- back mode of consumption and go even beyond the interactive stage. I like to make this distinction, that what we’re moving through right now is something of a continuum, which started a century ago with the lean-back consumption of [visually created] stories. When the first silent films came out, people would sit there and watch them. And as that moved through TV and broad scale film distribution, we still were in that lean-back mode of accepting content in a very uni-directional manner. Then, depending on where in the world you’ve been, in the last five to ten years there have been increasing efforts to make stories interactive. There have been some really good examples out of the UK because Britain in my opinion has been one of the leaders in the world [in this activity] and the BBC has been behind a lot of these projects. But there has been more and more emphasis on interactivity.

Interactivity is a state where the audience chooses to interact with the story but the interaction has always been contained in a specially predefined set of potential outcomes. What I mean by that is the storyteller--the documentarian, the director, the producer or whoever is defining it---knows what the potential set of outcomes can be. That’s interactive. Now transmedia, I believe, takes that a step further and we move from interactive to truly participatory storytelling. What that means is we enable the audience to step into the shoes of a protagonist and actually become storytellers themselves.

To me that is one of the very, very exciting elements that makes transmedia so powerful. It really flips the whole concept of what distribution means altogether. It’s a different paradigm. It allows for engagement. I can see looking at Point of View magazine, for example, that you’re very socially aware, so there are often stories about socially conscious storytelling. Transmedia is fundamentally such a powerful tool for those kinds of topics to be aired and to be discussed and to gain support and to get people actually active in taking the change forward. Not only do we tell people about what’s going on, but we give them tools to participate. Whether this means participation in a purely entertainment mode, or it goes further than that and it has an activist element which is also entirely possible. One of my major projects has an activist orientation to it. So what we do instead of giving people purely entertainment based participatory experience is we say: ‘so you have heard about this, now this is how you can participate in the change.’

POV: The possibilities opened up by transmedia can be very exciting for some filmmakers and others may be more cautious.

Ondine: For documentarians, I feel that transmedia takes everything to a whole new level. It makes the scale and reach broader and it takes the potential outcomes further for people who’ve seen the story and are wondering what to do. Now they see the story and they have 1, 2, 3 steps for what to do next.

When a movie came out five years ago, at the end, before the credits, there would be a website link shown so people knew where they could go online after to follow up with action. That was good because it introduced people to the idea that you could link activism and documentary in a very immediate and direct way with campaigns. Now what we’re doing is more sophisticated. We’re actually doing what transmedia does more broadly, which is to borrow from the game development world and use specific game mechanics to incentivize and reward participation by the audience and experience. When you apply game techniques to a socially orientated cause or experience you instantly get an amazing result because you’re making people want to do it and feel rewarded for their participation. People get tangible feedback on their participation. We’re so early in understanding what can be done, but to me combining story, activism and technology is an incredibly powerful tool for documentary and entertainment more broadly.

And yes, it does raise challenges. It means documentarians need to think a little more broadly and challenge preconceived notions. In Canada, a lot of your government bodies and agencies are supporting this through funding more transmedia project and even requiring it. One of the things I would encourage in Canada is to see it as an opportunity, not something that has to be done to satisfy the funder. Ask yourself, ‘since I have to do this, how do I maximize the opportunity and really stretch the reach of the story? How do I convert it from being just a website to something that really reaches out and grabs my audience and gives them a way to participate and take them to the next level?’ Canada is one of the places I’m looking at to see what the next great transmedia experiences can be. The European Union through their Media Fund supports more on the fictional side but they’re also expanding rapidly into the documentary side.

POV: Do you have any standout Canadian examples of transmedia?

Ondine: I’m sure you’re familiar with the NFB's  Highrise project. It’s definitely of a quality I’d say is situated very favorably on the world stage. It’s an example I’ve used in the UK, in Europe and in the USA. It’s a quality production that people can look at it and see how certain aspects of the story process can be innovated.

POV: What can participants at Merging Media TO expect?

Ondine: The first morning is a seminar that we hope will attract as many people as possible. It will have an introductory flavor so that people who’ve probably heard the word ‘transmedia’ but aren’t sure what it is and want to know more, can benefit from it. This is an ideal opportunity to come along, get a high-level view and an understanding of the framework and the terminology. Lab participants will attend the morning too. In the lab, we do a hands-on style of learning which is very intense and immersive. We use case studies, specific to the city I’m teaching in, and participants will work in teams to create mini-transmedia projects that they’ll pitch on last day. I’m a practioner but I love teaching as well because I’m always, with out a single exception, blown away by the results you see in such a short period of time. The creativity in the room is sensational. Participants always say: ‘I had no idea I could do that,’ and see their own potential growing in the room through the theory, framework, tools and techniques.

POV: Tell me about your workshop audiences. Specifically, do you work with a lot of “traditional filmmakers” and how do they take to the methods of transmedia?

Ondine: My sweet spot is taking seasoned, credentialed professionals who have a track record in their own field of expertise and working with them to expand and broaden the possibilities of storytelling, whether in a documentary format or fictional format, as any kind of story can be transmedia-ized. And then taking that and expanding all the possibilities that go beyond the traditional single screen experience of that material.

A lot of people ask, ‘ why don’t you teach a university course?’ I’m open to doing that but I’ve always found that the most exciting results haven’t been with people who are fresh out of school or still in college but actually are with known people in the industry who have developed their own distinct style and awareness---people who have told stories successfully---including in the documentary field. I find that those people are the ones most in need of and looking for that bridge between where they are today and where they could be, and what the potential is of transmedia. Whereas students coming from film school, for example, already see this as a natural extension of filmmaking; they’ve grown up with the technologies, so they think transmedia, ‘that’s normal, that’s natural.’ Whereas documentarians who have a few docs under their belt are asking, ‘what can you tell us to make our work better?’ I thrive on a degree of skepticism because then you see the light bulbs going on, and you know they’re thinking, ‘oh wow, this is very cool’.

Registration is still open for the Thursday, January 19th Merging Media TO morning Seminar with Anita Ondine. Point of View readers can use this code to receive 10% off registration.