Today we have an indepth interview with Caitlin Burns, Transmedia Producer for Starlight Entertainment. Her career has featured work on such franchises as Avatar, The Pirates of the Caribbean, Tron Legacy, Halo, and more. Her latest project is a 3D broadcast series called Battle Castle on The History Channel. It's regularly promoted that what ultimately makes or breaks 3D in both cinema and gaming is the story...so who better to share their insights on MTBS than a professional story writer?
Tell us about Starlight Runner Entertainment. What do you guys do?
Starlight Runner Entertainment is a New York-based entertainment studio that specializes in transmedia development and production. We do original work and co-productions internationally, but we’re most well known for our work with major feature film and game franchises. Our job is to make sure that the story you see in the theatre, on your game console, on TV, in a book, or a comic are each different from one another, and that they all fit together so they make sense and add something to the story world.
It's easy to assume that when you watch a movie like Avatar or Tron Legacy, there is a central story to follow, and that's it. Is there more to this storytelling than meets the eye? Please elaborate.
The story is key. It’s fairly simple to understand, the strongest narratives for this kind of work have broad story worlds, so not only is there the story you see for 90 minutes onscreen, there is a past, present and future in this world. There is a richness to the narrative that understands that when someone is out of the audience’s field of vision, they have stories of their own. There are a variety of places where these characters have been before a player picks up a controller and guides them through a story.
These are all fairly comprehensible concepts. They have to be or else they wouldn’t be enjoyable. Telling a story well in a specific medium is an incredible feat, it’s what makes a movie or a game or a novel fantastic, it’s why we want to watch or play or read them to begin with. Once you add those things together and add more and more creative artists into the mix, the storyworlds get very complex very quickly, so you need someone like a transmedia producer to have their eye on the Canon – the core truth, the themes, the messages, the meaning of this story world– so that everyone working in the story world understands what it’s about at its core, and can hear what everyone else is working on and how they can create stories in that framework.
So let's say you have this "story canon" to work with. What's your role in managing this? What materials do you have to work with?
The first step is always going as close to the source of the creative vision as possible. That means speaking with the visionaries that created the story world to begin with, whether that’s James Cameron or the core creatives at Bungie, or the people who are working on set to create something wild and new at the moment.
We have to sit (or often run around next to them) and understand why this world, this narrative, has captured their attention. Once we have a sense of that, we can articulate the themes, messages, aspirations and the basic chronology of the story world as we know it. We start in a platform-neutral space so we’re just talking about the story, and create robust resource guides called Mythologies that cover the encyclopedic Canon of each world.
From there, we look at how these stories are being told: film, games, 3-D, 2-D, and where they’re going (film + games, novel + comics, etc…) - and figure out how these stories branch from one another, how they all fit together, and how they can allow for the best storytelling, and most engaging experiences possible.
It all really does come back to understanding that core essence of the story. You can work with an artist who is expert in creating specific kinds of games, or animation, or entirely new experimental creations and learn how those processes work, and know the end-product will be amazing - if you both can talk about the story, what its about and why you’re telling it. If you’re coming from the other direction, where you have this phenomenal tech, but don’t know why you want to use it and have no idea what your story is about, it’s a lot harder to get an amazing piece of work out in the end.
Can you elaborate on some of the franchises you have participated with in this manner?
Starlight Runner has gotten a chance to do this work for a variety of really fantastic franchises, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Fairies, and Tron Legacy for The Walt Disney Company, James Cameron’s Avatar for Twentieth Century Fox and Lightstorm, Halo for Microsoft, The Happiness Factory for The Coca-Cola Company, and Transformers for Hasbro. As well as a number of others including Sony, Showtime, Scholastic, and other groups more focused on documentary or social issue campaigns.
These projects are always very different - even stories that on the surface might seem similar have a lot of difference when you break them down to their core themes and internal cosmologies.
Each project also plays out differently in terms of where the stories go. As most people who play video games know, there are a lot of different kinds of games: a first person shooter is very different from an RPG. While they often get lumped into the “games” category, more casual tablet or online games may be a better fit for one story or company than licensing a first person shooter. Combine those pieces with Toys, Consumer Products, Marketing, ARGs, Advertising, Publishing, and the need to tailor stories to International Markets and the need to understand what the story means first gets immediately important to hundreds of different people. Having a group whose job it is to help answer questions from all those groups about the story becomes vital. Let’s face it, the person making the movie or producing the game has their hands full doing just that.
The obvious application I could see for this is a movie being transitioned to a video game format. So, Avatar had Avatar: The Game, and Tron Legacy had Tron Evolution. What experience have you had with transitioning movies to video games, and how has this impacted your story telling process? What challenges have you run into?
The biggest challenge with the Film to Video Game or the Video Game to Film transition is that while they can often be treated intellectually like the same kind of production, they have very different production processes. It’s very rare to find people who are truly experienced in both methods of production.
The experience of sitting and watching a film versus playing a game are hugely different, and the way stories play out in both mediums is also quite different.
Most people who have played licensed video games of movies have experienced a bit of this translation issue, where 1) you’re playing a story you’ve seen before in the movie, and 2) it’s not really getting you excited about the gameplay because you’re tripping over the movie’s story - or the movie’s story doesn’t seem to fit with the amount of action the game is trying to place into the experience.
The good news is that more and more people recognize this as problematic in both the film and game industries. One of the big ways this is being corrected is through transmedia storytelling: creating stories in the story world that fit around films but are more suited for the needs of gameplay and that sort of “active experience”. In the next few years these will be rolling out, it takes longer for new games to be created since games take longer than films to produce, and I think that people will be pleasantly surprised by the results.
I understand you worked on the Halo game for Microsoft. Do tell! What was your role with this?
We were brought in as Transmedia Producers after Halo 3 to help Microsoft make sense of this sprawling fantastic 100,300-year story world that had been created centering on Master Chief’s discovery of the Halo Installations.
Microsoft was already in production on a number of different platforms and game styles with a number of different groups. Obviously Bungie, publishing houses, comic book groups… Microsoft was in the middle of creating 343 Industries to oversee them all.
Microsoft came to us to help consolidate and understand the full breadth of their Canon and to help strategize their seven year plan to help them get to Halo 4 that was recently announced. As a franchise with such great creative energy and such effusive fan and audience interaction, everyone involved wanted to make sure that the story was satisfying and made sense in the phenomenal universe that had already been created and to build from that point of understanding.
I think the results have been phenomenal. Halo Reach brought me to tears and I really enjoy the novels - both the Forerunner Saga and the others created to expand the Halo Universe.
For years, it has been argued that 3D is a tool for story telling, and it's not just about the technology. Story this, and story that. As a professional storyteller, has 3D impacted the way you do your job? How so?
When one approaches a story, it’s very necessary to understand how you’re telling that story. This may seem like a ridiculously obvious statement but as I’ve mentioned before, one type of story cannot fit comfortably on every media. Even within media, the experiences can vary quite widely.
If you’re accustomed to writing for a medium where your audience has no chance to explore, or you’re accustomed to writing for theatre where your characters exist only in a box, 3-D may be a bit of a leap from your writing or producing experience.
The reality is that 3-D adds a layer of complexity to how you think about executing your story. If you are creating a movie with a clear, single plot, you’ll be able to use forced perspective to tell your story visually in new ways. If you’re creating a sandbox game where the player can now explore a world in 3-D, there are a lot more layers of story to add in. Your core story will be good or bad on its own, and the ability to execute the specific narratives that an audience will experience through 3-D is the challenge.
For me, understanding and learning about 3-D production and how story points can be expanded in 3-D versus 2-D is part of the job. As a transmedia producer, one has to take an interest in why each media is different. What are the strengths of doing this story in 3-D, and making strong, intelligent arguments one way or another? It’s not harder to write or create stories for 3-D, but it requires an understanding of how it will affect the end experience.
Not every story is well suited for every medium, and shoehorning a story into 3-D because it’s nifty isn’t always the best idea - but when creators start out with 3-D in mind, the story and the presentation can fit together beautifully in a way no other technique provides.
We will be hearing more from Caitlin shortly! The next piece will be about Battle Castle, its 3D availability, and yes...it has a video game component too.