How to Create a Peculiar Transmedia World

I caught up with Randall Jahnson recently to talk about the world of transmedia storytelling—or, as it turned out, the peculiar world of transmedia storytelling.
First, a bit about Randall. He’s taught film and new media classes in Portland for several years, including one coming up at the Northwest Film Center in early 2017. A working screenwriter for thirty years, he’s best known for The Doors, The Mask of Zorro, and Tales from the Crypt. His feature script about pop singer Dionne Warwick is slated for production in November. He also wrote the story for the award-winning video game Gun (2005).
So, what is transmedia storytelling? Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture (2006) and Spreadable Media (2013), defines it as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”
PW: Okay, Randall, walk me through this.
RJ: One of the things about new media is that it’s participatory-based. People want to participate in your stories. They want to be able to find the forum and discuss it with other people who are into the same stuff. And they may actually want to influence the story’s creators, or simply chime in. They want to be heard. And I think that’s a strategy that you as the creator have to begin with. You have to have that in mind at the very beginning. Let’s say it’s a world that I’m building, as opposed to just a straight narrative. Where are they going to enter the story narrative? We’re looking at a dimensional kind of storyline, and there may be multiple entrances to this story. There’s no beginning and no end. It’s an ongoing thing, and you can enter at any point and join the parade.
PW: So how do you do that?
RJ: You’ve got a lot of tools at your fingertips now, and you can integrate them: animation with live action, with text and still photographs, music—maybe some sort of collage that pulls you in for ten or fifteen minutes. It’s not film and it’s not animation, per se, but it’s engaging. It’s cool. I want to see another one. It doesn’t necessarily advance like a novel.
I look a lot at children’s books. They have definite formats: visually driven, usually highly illustrated, and a little bit of text. Stories are self-contained and immersive. And I think there’s something there in terms of these short little narratives that are fun to venture into, and boom! You’re out. They’re fun little desserts or snacks to have.
PW: Do you think children’s literature transcends children?
RJ: Totally. Some of the best literature around has been children’s books and YA stuff, too, like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (2011). He’s a guy who went to USC film school, and he made his living for quite a while making trailers for other authors’ books. He finally figured out, “Well, hell. I’m just gonna write my own.” So he started collecting these old photographs at swap meets and flea markets, and he went through boxes and boxes of them and found these really strange, anomalous photographs. Then he contacted other curators and bought some of their photographs, and ultimately he settled on about a dozen of them that, collected together, gave him the notion for Miss Peregrine’s. So the novel was illustrated with those photographs. He made the book trailer, and he did this mini-documentary, or essay, I would call it—it’s a filmic essay about these old mansions in Europe that he visited as research for Miss Peregrine’s. And the camera glides around and it’s creepy and moody and compelling. It makes me want to go back, read the book, and start again.
What’s fascinating to me is that he created this central narrative, but it was spawned by visuals—old photographs which became a novel which became a film which he diverted and created documentaries around and promotional things for. And suddenly it’s a brand. And this is a really interesting use of all the tools. So what is he? Is he a filmmaker? Is he a novelist, an essayist, a documentarian? He’s all these things.
PW: So when you talk about dimensions, it sounds like it’s not just the story that needs them—the storyteller needs them too. At least, if you’re going to build a world.
Look for more of my conversation with Randall in a future post. (Portions of this interview have been edited for transmedial clarity.)