The Evolution of an Idea, Part 2

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As explained in my last post, I’m doing a series on my series, Radio Room, specifically how the idea for my piece, Queens of the Sapphire Sea, evolved over time to the point where it could go into production. My first attempt at pitching the idea hadn’t worked, but I liked the core of the piece and wouldn’t let it go.

How long do you think I worked on Queens before it came up again? A year? Two? Try four… with another thrown in for writing and production. It wasn’t that I ever stopped working on it, but that it went into the background, along with my many, many other projects that will hopefully see the light of day but (as of this writing) have yet to emerge from the fertilizer that is my subconscious.

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And you know what fertilizer is made of, right?

I knew that something was there, but considering that it was so niche, where could I pitch it? I worked on versions that were designed to be YA fiction, a video game, a feature-length screenplay, and more. Each wasn’t really working, however, because I was so focused on the pitch that I’d forgotten about the fundamentals. For any franchise, those fundamentals come down to message.

I’m not talking about didactic Aesop stuff. I’m talking about the emotional impact that a piece has on someone who experiences it. What was Queens of the Sapphire Sea saying about our world? How were the characters going to express it? What was it really all about?

For me, that boiled down to the basic nugget of an idea: a tough-talking older woman and her wide-eyed young niece. Experience vs. youth. Pessimism vs. optimism. The past vs. the future. The natural conflict in each episode (or issue or whatever) would emerge from how these characters viewed the world, as well as how they dealt with each other in the process.

That meant that I had to explore who these characters were. If a whole series was going to be built on them, I had to know just who they were. I looked into Regina and Beatrice, and found them… not quite as deep as I needed them to be.

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This has more depth.

It wasn’t shocking (I was just pitching an idea at first) but if there was going to be growth, both characters would need a place to grow from. That is, they needed to be flawed and retain some of those negative attributes throughout the course of their adventures. Regina couldn’t just be the lovable cigar-chomping grandmother-type. Beatrice wasn’t going to be the sweet, capable, spunky young upstart with something to prove. I tempered the personalities of both so that I could bring other aspects to the front, fleshing them out so that there would always be something new to explore.

I’d argue that this is an issue that every creator deals with. Like in life, we all want our heroes to be perfect. Like in life, this is does a disservice to them and to us. The people we look up to–our parents, political idealists, sports figures–are not superior because they never make flaws but that they can grow from their flaws. From a narrative perspective, this makes them interesting. From a human perspective, it makes them believable.

Because I wanted to focus on this believability, I dropped the high fantasy angle. It was a bit too off-the-wall anyway, and besides, there are real eras in history that were just as fun to explore (and didn’t require nearly as much world-building, to boot). I tamed the villains, roped in the overt themes of sexism, and focused on airplane combat rather than grandiose political intrigue, too. All of those elements are still there but they are much less on the nose. Like in life, the more insidious aspects of them are those elements which are unspoken, that people can pretend to ignore.

When I say believability, I don’t mean hyper-realism. I still wanted this to keep the swashbuckling adventure that bent the rules from time to time. I chose to keep a certain rose-colored romance and humor because I simply didn’t have the time to do as much in-depth research into pre-WWII France as I would have liked. It also allowed for emotional exploration and a reflection of that conflict between “idealism vs. realism” that I was talking about earlier.

Finally, I tapped into this via the framing device: having Beatrice reflect on her past by telling stories to her granddaughter, decades after her adventures in France. It allowed for a little fudging of the facts–is this real or just her memory of the event?–and gave a mirror for the older/younger dichotomy that was central to the story.

With that in place, I finally had something that I felt could hold together over the course of a series. You can find the near-final logline here:

The French Riviera is protected from high-flying brigands by the finest seaplane bounty hunters in the world: Belle Bernassi and her niece, Beatrice. The pair escaped the suffocating social mores of Paris to set up shop with the rest of the oddballs that roam from Genoa to Barcelona, but trouble is afoot. Suitors, mercenaries, the mafia, gun runners, and the rising tide of Fascism all threaten to rob the Bernassis and their comrades of the freedom and peace they’ve found in the air, but if there’s anybody who can stave off war, it’s the Queens of the Sappire Sea!

There were still issues that needed to be ironed out. I wound up renaming Beatrice (her name was just too similar to Belle) and would touch up some of the history as I worked on the actual stories, but the touchstones are all there. Adventure, society vs. individualism, romance, a hint of outlandish humor, and a real world setting that reflects bits of our own without being a direct mirror. Plus, I managed to keep the sky pirates.

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Because who doesn’t like sky pirates?

Did I manage to pull it off? Find out this week, as I continue this series and head towards April 15th and the release of episode one! Next up: construction of the series and scripts themselves!

 

Platform Atheism

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When I was a kid, I saved up a lot of money to buy a crappy Samsung handheld camcorder with which to shoot my high school movies. The battery barely ever worked. The onboard mic sounded like it was caught in a rainstorm. The video screen gave everything a greenish tint. The final product always came out looking like some Indonesian Soap Opera due to the frame rate.

boom_mike…as well as my storytelling sensibilities at the time.

My new Samsung Galaxy S6 can do the following things:

  • Play video games (just downloaded Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic)
  • Shoot movies and films
  • Play/download music
  • Control a GoPro
  • Record sound
  • Edit together visual and audio media
  • Save things automatically to the cloud.
  • Display directly to my television or computer
  • Schedule my air conditioning cycle

external_heat_pumpYou can tell where my priorities lie.

In short, it’s a one-stop-shop for all things entertainment and/or comfort related. A smartphone allows anybody with an internet connection to create content that can reach billions of people. That this has happened alongside the rise of the YouTube celebrity is not a coincidence: people are seeing themselves in the PewDiePie’s of the world because the set-ups are almost exactly the same. Quality means less than the expression of ideas.

Some people would say that this is platform agnostic-ism taken to the consumer extreme. That is, it ignores the platforms for which elements of media and temperature control were created. Software integration is so widespread, now, that anything from a Keurig to a music editing suite can talk to one another. Developers have designed code that runs equally well across multiple distribution channels so that the consumer can access it regardless of their preferred device.

This is just the beginning, though, because of that last issue of preference. Some human beings will always prefer their films on the big screen. Some will always want to game with a keyboard and mouse. Some will always want their books made from pulped wood. These are not just people who grew up with that method of media delivery: Urban Outfitters is the number 1 venue for vinyl in the world, and I doubt their target demographic is aging music lovers.

Of course, most people aren’t lovers of all media. We are alternately film buffs, hip-hop heads, cookbook collectors, and air conditioner . Most of the time, however, we want to be entertained, and if we are not an aficionado of a particular artform, we’re okay with basic service, so long as it has decent quality.

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Hulu HD? Not sure I need that for The Bachelor.

This also has an effect on our buying habits. Why spend $21.99 on a Blu-Ray/DVD combo of Monsters University unless we’re desperate to complete our John Goodman voice-over collection? We all know consumers are switching over from physical goods ownership to subscription-based models. This is a solid play for the average audience member and for producers of content: the former pays less for more content, while the second gets a steady stream of income.

Meanwhile, producers of traditional media are getting back to the roots and language of what made their platform unique in the first place… even if the old platforms are having to adjust. Radio channels are struggling, but radio dramas are hotter now than they’ve been since the 50s. Movie theaters are having to justify $20 ticket prices with spectacle… or they’re going the customer-first route by providing higher quality food and beverages in order to make the evening a “night out.” Comic books are reaching out to audiences that have traditionally been underserved, while the split between Indie Games and AAA-titles grows ever larger by the day.

Some people bemoan this split. Somehow, they argue, we’re losing out on the magic of a certain kind of mass experience while shackling ourselves to contracts that sell our information to third-parties via EULA’s. There’s definitely an element to consumerism and corporatism there that is too deep for this particular essay to handle, but I think if we put aside the “ownership v. leasing” argument for the moment, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For less than $30 a month, people can get a Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime membership: all the couch potato fertilizer you could ever want. This model is forcing producers to compete, to produce better ideas. Some of us want spectacle, but most of us want fun, regardless of how we get it.

Our phones are leading the way, but soon, even that delineation is going to fade. What makes a phone a phone except it’s ability to call? My computer does that. When I can fling from my iPhone to my Mac to my Apple TV to my tablet, the distinction is largely academic.

Modern consumers want experiential entertainment rather than ownership. This generation is loaded with debt; we’re shifting our priorities to accommodate this. We are buying fewer cars, houses, and extraneous “stuff.” We’re buying more trips, time shares, and entertainment packages. We want something that speaks to our ideas, and when we find something we love, we’re willing to go the extra mile to hold it in our hands. Otherwise, a screen–any screen–will do.

We don’t believe in platforms because, ultimately, they don’t affect us unless we choose to allow them that access. We have agency in our choice of media. We control how we want to participate. So, for the most part, we are platform atheists.

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Except when it comes to climate control. That platform is immutable.

Passive Media, Active Media, and The Five Building Blocks of Every Good Story

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A key feature in any transmedia roll-out is the ability to utilize each medium’s core strengths. A campaign tries not to reiterate the same story over and over again not just because it’s boring and not just because you want to reach new fans, but because, say, a story that’s best told in film doesn’t necessarily translate well to the video game environment, or vice versa.

Sounds simple, yet you’d be surprised by the amount of people who don’t understand this concept.

Sounds simple, yet you’d be surprised by the amount of people who don’t understand this concept.

This can be intimidating to the media fledgling. A producer has to oversee an entire array of platforms and content creators in order to establish a coherent and profitable story world. That requires connections, of course, but also an often intimidating amount of knowledge of production across a wide variety of distribution points. Does he or she really need to understand how every media works in order to create a great roll-out strategy?

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Be Users, Not Consumers

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People always complain about the youngest generation, but I actually love the Pluralists. These are the kids who were born near or after 2001, the peeps who have never known a world without the internet, who have grown up post-9/11, who have the information of our entire history at their fingertips.

When they’re not posting image macros, that is.

When they’re not posting image macros, that is.

I mean, let’s just look at the Pluralists as a whole. They:

  • Are the most published generation in history
  • Follow the breadcrumbs laid out to them by companies and their peers
  • Reward authenticity and quality above all
  • Have grown up in a multimedia atmosphere
  • Understand how to utilize interactivity, intuitively
  • Celebrate an infinite amount of diversity

That’s a pretty accomplished list for me! There’s just one small issue…

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Gone Home: Complicity and Subconscious Agency

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Spoilers ahead. Thou hath been warned.

There’s a lot to talk about in Gone Home, The Fullbright Company’s award-winning “story exploration video game.” The subversion of horror that it presents, the “is it really a game” argument, LGBT issues that it brings up, or any of the controversies surrounding it. But this is a transmedia blog, and so what I’m interested in is how the title makes use of multiple media platforms to make the player complicit in how the narrative unfolds.

Sorry for being long-winded on this one, but we’re talking about art, so I get to act all hi-falutin’.

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Sonic’s New Multi/Transmedia Push

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He's back, and this time, he's... kind of concerned, I guess.

He’s back, and this time, he’s… kind of concerned, I guess.

It’s been a tough road for Sega’s fast blue furball. Sales of his games and merchandise have never come close to hitting the peak of his 16-bit heyday. But Sega has just announced a brand-new take on the franchise, complete with a TV show and not one, not three, but TWO new games: one for the WiiU and the other for the 3DS.

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