What the hell is transmedia?

From advertising campaigns to online video series, the term ‘transmedia’ gets quite the work out. But what does it actually mean? Cathie McGinn trawls the media landscape for a definitive definition. 

Transmedia, all media and multiplatform are terms often used interchangeably when referencing modern storytelling techniques. Yet, depending who you speak to, there are distinct differences between them.

According to industry experts Encore spoke to, the key elements that define transmedia can be summarised as follows: platform, time, audience, adaptation, and creative collaboration.

Transmedia project Storm Surfers began as a TV series with a 3D movie in the works

“Transmedia projects involve the use of more than one medium to tell multiple stories from the same story world,” says Christy Dena, author of the first PhD on transmedia practice. But the main differentiation between transmedia and multiplatform is whether the content is adapted for each platform or simply syndicated. Each storytelling element must be shaped for individual platforms, operating independently but contributing to a richer experience of the whole. Mike Cowap, investment manager of Screen Australia’s All Media fund, says: “One of the main problems with the term ‘transmedia’ is that the terminology is over-thought to the detriment of the advancement of storytelling techniques. We prefer the term ‘all media’ because it implies the consideration of any media.”

Another factor is the idea of contemporaneousness; in general a transmedia production has the intention of telling the story across several channels from the outset. This could be a re-engineering of a piece of content, but still adhering to the idea of extension across platforms, along with a focus on audience. For example, the South by South West award-winning SBS-funded documentary Goa Hippie Tribe began life as a Facebook community but the story unfolds through film and online.

Marcus Gillezeau, producer of transmedia project Storm Surfers, which began as a TV series with a strong online presence and has a 3D film currently in the works, says: “Transmedia isn’t a noun; it’s almost a verb. It’s the notion of transferring a story across platforms.”

“Unlike the traditional Hollywood system, where you make a film then a game of that film, here we think about the whole universe from conception. Consider the audience first, not as an afterthought,” says Frank Verheggen, co-founder of production house Chocolate Liberation Front. It has recently been nominated for global interactive awards the Webbies as well as commended by the UN for its project Asylum: Exit Australia, an online interactive simulation, developed in tandem with the SBS documentary Go Back to Where You Came From.

“Understand how users connect with that service and create content to fit,” says Cowap.

One misconception that dogs discussions of transmedia production is that it requires a bewilderingly complex set of skills. “Traditional producers find the highly technical nature of multi-platform production confronting,” says Gillezeau. Cowap agrees: “One obstacle to successful projects is a lack of technical understanding on the part of the producer, a lack of knowledge about who to partner with. Producers overestimate how difficult it is – the best approach is to jump in and try. Bringing a good multi-discipline team together can produce the richest work.”

As Ridley Scott’s innovative approach to the release of new feature Prometheus demonstrates, content and commerce can work cohesively. By releasing teasers online and on mobile platforms, bringing characters from the film into the real world alongside traditional marketing, the principles of transmedia production are applied to marketing efforts and advertising becomes a part of the story itself.  “Transmedia production is about creating a universe you can get lost in, engage with characters, where you really feel you’re a part of the story. Don’t start with the limitations; first think of the possibilities,” concludes Verheggen.

  •  This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here

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