Story Hack: Beta, Part 2

In just under eight hours, the first hackathon dedicated exclusively to narrative transmedia gets underway at Lincoln Center; here’s Part 1 about what it is and who’s sponsoring it. There are seven teams of four, so 28 participants total, and if the other groups are anything like my team U.S. Maple, they’re all already feeling tired  and well worked.

I’ve written sample bibles and transmedia proposals before, as evidence of my versatility as a writer and ability to work in transmedia, but I’ve never finished an actual project. So this Story Hack is my first chance to develop something cross-platform beyond the page and it’s already been really educational, mostly of the fact that I don’t know anything about transmedia. There’s a whole new vocabulary that filmmakers used to working in traditional productions have to pick up – puppetmasters don’t have puppets, for instance — and just thinking about the possibilities of things like web design has made me really stretch myself as a writer, looking at new avenues that have never been open before.

So this week all the teams have been refining their narratives, outlining their workflow, and lining up their assets. We’ve had several Skype calls since last Saturday’s pre-orientation orientation (Google Hangouts gave us a bit too much static the first time we tried it). Where a screenwriter generally has to think just about things like narrative structure and character arc, here that was passed through the prism of platform and delivery. Working with an updating of the Orpheus myth, we therefore had to decide which technologies were most compatible for which portion of the story; does Social Samba work best with Act I, before Orpheus gains admittance to the Underworld, or would it work better later as he progresses downward through the gates of hell? How shall we approximate his musical ability? How can we depict Eurydice following him out, and how can we make that portion interactive with a specific space? How can we integrate Twilio into a large group experience? In that live event, what’s the scalability, i.e. do viewers experience it in groups or individually? For a filmmaker, such a question is largely moot, even with today’s distribution technologies, but for a transmedia designer it’s one that has an immense impact on the work’s structure. In a way, it’s a bit intimidating to start thinking of story in all these new technology-specific ways, but at the same time it’s also quite liberating and exhilarating. I’m feeling a lot like we’re in Jorgen Leth’s The Five Obstructions, because each limitation is actually a great new creative opportunity. And that’s what a hack event is all about.

So after spending most of the week behind our keyboards, tonight Team U.S. Maple hit to the streets to gather our visual and audio assets. This meant picking up our dress from Free People, recruiting three actresses, finding locations, and otherwise doing everything that a traditional film shoot requires — just in fast motion. We were really lucky to get Laura Butler to play our lead as Eurydice, especially after another actress proved unavailable just last night. It was serendipitous, though, as Laura, who’s recently been seen in projects like Men in Black 3, Boardwalk Empire, and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, nailed everything I asked her to do, from showing the terror and determination of a lost young girl to finding a playable motivation in a direction like “Walk around like a zombie and don’t look at the light.” I also got to try out my $40 DIY Steadicam, and we performed our first official hack by using my 7D’s hot shoe mic mount to hold a flashlight — our key light for the ascent from hell. Nice to start bending technology to our own purpose…

Tomorrow at 10:00 is a keynote address and the introduction of a new story element to keep us on our toes, followed by the hacking proper at 11; Lincoln Center will stream the teams’ presentations Sunday at 4:30. Tomorrow I’ll write about what a filmmaker can do sitting at a table with a group of people all programming websites.