Coefficient of Fiction

A Transmedia Travelogue

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Transmedia Twitter Tips

A big part of the immersive transmedia experience for “Fury of Solace” has revolved around creating a social media presence for our characters, to give our fans the chance to interact directly with the characters.  Now, obviously, there are certain media properties that simply don’t lend themselves to this.  Period pieces set in the distant past or the far future, for example.  Or a show like “Lost,” where the main characters are marooned on an island without access to social media outlets like Twitter or Facebook (though that didn’t stop “Lost” from having a transmedia experience of its own: “The Lost Experience” was helmed by my friend and talented writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and I’ll probably delve into that in greater detail in a future post).

In “Fury of Solace,” the primary social media outlets we’ve used are character Twitter accounts and character blogs.  And for today’s post, I’m going to focus specifically on Twitter.  Now, there are two primary ways to use Twitter to support your projects.  One is straight-up marketing, but I’m not going to talk too much about that here; Maybe I’ll address it in a future post, but for now, there are plenty of other  sources on the internet for ways to market your products on Twitter, written by people who are far more marketing-savvy than me.  No, in today’s post, I’ll be focusing on using Twitter to develop characters and enhance your story.

One very important aspect of developing a character on Twitter is how they use the social media platform to interact with their fellow characters, and the fans.  But historically, it has been notoriously difficult to follow conversation threads on Twitter.  When “Fury of Solace” began, Twitter didn’t even have an official “reply” function that threaded user interactions, and this made the prospect of following a conversation thread on Twitter a dicey proposition, even for people who were fairly Twitter savvy.  Now, this wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal for fans who were following the exchanges in real time, but I didn’t want fans who came to the show after the fact to have to pore over multiple Twitter feeds to painstakingly recreate plot-pertinent character interactions themselves.  So in those early days, I employed a method of archiving the conversations that was decidedly low tech: I favorited all of the relevant Tweets, took screen grabs of my favorited-Tweets page, and Frankensteined them together in Photoshop into a kind of Twitter timeline.  Fortunately, now there are sites like Storify that help me streamline that entire process.  Check it out if you haven’t already, it’s an extremely useful tool for creators in our rarified profession, allowing you to create a handy narrative out of Facebook status updates, Tweets and tumblr posts, etc.  I was able to use Storify to search for Tweets by specific users, easily drag the relevant Tweets into my timeline and then embed the entire thing on our website.  And unlike my old ad hoc method, clicking on one of the Tweets in a Storify project actually links back to the Twitter account from whence they came.

When I archived the story-relevant Twitter conversations, I didn’t only include Tweets from the characters, I included relevant fan Tweets as well.  And just by dint of being a completionist, I stumbled upon an added incentive for fans to take part in the story on Twitter: It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the fans whose Tweets were included were excited to be immortalized in “Fury of Solace” canon.

Now, I should point out that if Twitter conversations between characters are an integral part of your story, and if you’re trying to foster organic discovery of secondary character Twitter accounts as we have been, there is an important aspect of @replies that you should be aware of.  When Twitter first started, any and every Tweet you sent out would show up in the Twitter streams of all of your followers, regardless of the content.  But Twitter eventually instigated a new system to determine whether or not your followers see your @replies in their Twitter stream: In short, the only people who see your @replies in their stream are the people who both follow you and the person you’re sending the @reply to.  If your followers physically click on your Twitter page, they can see all of the Tweets you’ve ever posted, but failing that, @replies sent to lesser-known characters can very easily fly beneath your audience’s radar.

But there is a simple way to get around this.  The only tweets that stand to be omitted from your followers’ Twitter streams are ones that begin with the @ symbol.  So nowadays, when Twitter users want their conversations to be public, it’s become common practice to include a period as the first character of your Tweet, before the @ symbol.  The person you’re sending the @reply to will still be notified that they’ve been mentioned in a Tweet, but all of your followers will see the exchange in their Twitter streams as well.

That’s going to be it for this week.  Next week I’ll take a break from “Fury of Solace” to discuss Transmedia L.A.’s groundbreaking  “Miracle Mile Paradox,” which wraps up this Saturday.

Retroactive Continuity

Retcon is a comic book term, short for retroactive continuity.  It grew out of the fact that the stories of certain iconic comic characters were told over an incredibly protracted period of time, 60 or 70 years in some cases, without the characters getting appreciably older in the process.   In much the same way that classical mythology was re-appropriated and revised from one society to the next, each successive generation of comic creators has made subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) alterations to key elements of a character’s backstory, to keep the character relevant to contemporary society.  And not only do the story points themselves change, but as so much time has passed, the time periods change as well.  If you don’t have the luxury of a character who was trapped in suspended animation since World War II, moving a character’s origin forward in time is often the only way to explain how a character from that age now inhabits modern times.

And believe it or not, in the relatively short period of time that “Fury of Solace” has been on the world stage, we’ve had to resort to both varieties of retcon.  Due to the realities of our indie production, we’ve been forced to revise the timeline of our story several times already.  This is, of course, a direct result of the cross-platform, transmedia story that we’re trying to tell.  If this was just a traditional narrative, with only live-action content, we could (though it would be far from ideal) have a hiatus of several years between one installment and the next without any significant alteration being necessary, the audience would just assume that the much-delayed new content occurred right on the heels of the old.  There are a number of elements of our story, however, that make these production exigencies problematic.

For one thing, our characters live and breathe in what purports to be real time on social media sites like Twitter.  With a blog, you can change the date after the fact (and believe me, that we have done), but so far, at least, a Tweet is indelibly timestampped for now and forever, a snapshot of a particular moment in time.  So here was our dilemma: in telling this story, we realized two things.  One, unlike most web series, “Fury of Solace” is very serialized.  It’s not the kind of thing you can release every so often and expect people to be able to follow the narrative flow.  So after telling the beginning of our story in fits and starts, we decided that the best approach was to produce a significant chunk of material all at once, and to release it as back-to-back as possible.  But with the reality that all of the cast and crew were fitting in production amidst full-time, gainful employment, time marched ever forward without the story progressing in kind.

And the thing is, I wanted to have our cake and eat it too.  Through social media, I wanted to give the illusion that these characters not only do exist, but have existed for some time.  In some ways, that is the only silver lining to our production being as drawn out as it was (that, and the fact that we had the foresight to create Twitter accounts for characters well in advance of them actually being introduced in the narrative).  But at the same time, when our last new material was released in 2010, it simply did not make sense story-wise that the 2 years of real-time that passed in the interim between then and our 2012 release would have passed in the story-world of “Fury of Solace” as well, given that the story had not progressed at all during that time.  This is exactly why we wound up retroactively claiming that the material we shot at San Diego Comic-Con 2010 featuring the character of Uroboros was taking place concurrently with the material we shot at Comic-Con 2009 featuring Fury of Solace.  And why we subsequently retconned both events again, to pretend they occurred at Comic-Con 2011.  For new viewers, hopefully the transition is relatively seamless.  From their perspective, the only real evidence of our time jumps will be if they scroll back through the characters’ Twitter timelines and realize that the dates don’t match up.  But ultimately, I think having an archived, social-media history between these characters is worth dealing with those kind of discrepancies.

When you put something on celluloid, or our modern-day digital equivalent, I still feel like that ought be considered verboten.  I certainly bemoaned George Lucas’ “Star Wars” special editions as much as the next fanboy.  So maybe I’m being hypocritical when I say this, but this format we’re using for “Fury of Solace” not only encourages retroactive continuity, it actually almost requires it.  Especially since we’re trying to develop characters that exist with some autonomy outside of the story.  It eventually dawned on me that since we have character blogsites that exist autonomously from the website for the show, those blogs have to be complete in and of themselves.  There has to be a blog entry, for instance, that says “This is my first blog.”  And since we’ve backdated some blog entries to make it seem like they started before the series did, this requires us to have a pretty good handle on what blog-worthy events would have occurred in that pre-show time period.  And I know my co-executive producer Matt Hartman is rightfully wary of us locking ourselves in to certain plot points by introducing these backdated blogs into canon, and while that definitely can be a slippery slope, I walk a fine line as far as the blogs are concerned.

The way I’m currently approaching it is, as our story continues to unfold, if a detail here or there about a certain backstory needs to change to suit the overall story, I would not hesitate in the slightest to revise a written blog after the fact.  I guess what I’m saying is, if you hear a character says something in live-action, it’s canon.  If you read it in a blog, maybe that “fact” is a little more fluid.  Over the course of the show, I’ve also retroactively gone in and added blogs that weren’t there before, chronologically in between blogs that had already been published.  Is this potentially-confusing and perhaps unfair to longtime viewers who were there when those surrounding posts were originally published?  Perhaps.  Unfortunately, until we have a little bit of money in our coffers and can shoot this stuff roughly in real time, I don’t see as we can avoid it.  I regret having to make these changes for the sake of the viewers who have been with us since the beginning, but hopefully, in the end, the changes won’t leave too many people scratching their heads.  And I promise, we’ll try to hit the retcon button as infrequently as is humanly possible!

Uroboros Rising

Many of the characters in my web series “Fury of Solace” have evolved along the lines of what I like to call the Cantina Effect.  We all know that when George Lucas shot the infamous “Star Wars” Mos Eisely Cantina scene back in 1977, he did not have names and exhaustive back stories for every single random alien in that bar.  But all of those characters are certainly fully fleshed-out in the here and now.  Likewise, when I created Max Mason for Episode 2 of the series, he was only supposed to be a one-off, Lex-Luthor-esque villain archetype, to pit Fury of Solace and the Orphan’s moralities against each other.  Needless to say, Max Mason quickly evolved to become the central villain of season 1.

The character of Uroboros comes from similarly modest origins.  When the “Fury of Solace” writing staff was conceiving of the story for what would become episode 5, we wanted to have a “low-rent villain” crash a Mason International event.  That low-rent villain became Uroboros, the character who now has a written blog with more than 90 entries, and by the end of our most recent cycle of videos will have had more individual screen time than any other character.

This actually gave way to an interesting narrative experiment.  In a perfect world, where I had countless writers at my disposal and endless resources with which to pay them, I would assign each member of our ensemble cast to one particular writer.  That writer would write all of the character’s blogs, the character’s Tweets, etc.  That would free me up to handle all of my other writing and producing duties, and ensure that the characters had a unified social media voice.  So, for a while at least, I assigned the Uroboros character to the immeasurably-talented writing team of Josh and Juliana Weiss-Roessler.  The pair wrote untold dozens of blog posts, all of the Uroboros vlogs, and the script for episode 5 which features Uroboros prominently.  Ultimately, as production dragged on, some of the blog-writing duties had to be farmed out to other writers, but the core of the character was handled by one unified voice, which turned out to be very cool, and very beneficial.  Hopefully I get the opportunity to try that again as the series continues.

As Uroboros grew more and more prominent, it became increasingly apparent to me and my Co-EP Matt Hartman that his first vlog was a little bit too out of the blue.  He just showed up, talking at the camera, and it would have been asking a lot of the audience to drop them into the deep end like that.  So we conceived of another Comic-Con event to provide what would hopefully be a more satisfactory introduction to the character, so he’d be better established by the time we released his first vlog.  This Comic-Con event wasn’t an ARG per se, it didn’t really give fans the opportunity to directly participate outside of bearing witness to what was happening on Twitter, it was just a story event we happened to stage at Comic-Con in 2010.  For one thing, we wanted to explain why this conspiracy blogger was wearing a home-made superhero mask, because this was not addressed in any of the material we had previously produced.  Now, we had already established during the 2009 Comic-Con ARG that Mason International had allegedly been interviewing potential superhero bodyguards at Comic-Con that year.  So for the first time in the history of our series, we employed the age-old comic book staple of the retcon.  Retcon is short for retroactive continuity, and I’ll be publishing an entire post dedicated to that idea next week, but for now, suffice to say that we had the crazy idea to shoot some material with Uroboros at Comic-Con 2010 and present that material in such a way as if it had been happening concurrently with the material we shot at Comic-Con 2009.

So that’s exactly what we did.  So while Fury of Solace was accosting Sara Ward at a seafood restaurant across from the San Diego convention center, Uroboros donned a home-made mask in an attempt to infiltrate Mason International’s superhero recruitment drive.  Confusing?  Absolutely.  Why was it a necessary evil?  For the answer to that, stay tuned for the next entry!

Finding Sara Ward

The first episode of my web series “Fury of Solace” was release in October of 2008, and our first Twitter-based ARG (chronicled in the last post) went live in early July, 2009.  And the proximity to Comic-Con was not an accident.  Our first, purely virtual ARG was such a success that come Comic-Con, we were going to kick it up a notch and organize our first real-world ARG.  Obviously, this was logistically a little more difficult.

The conceit of the event was that Mason International had a booth at Comic-Con, and according to Fury of Solace, the pharmaceutical company’s true purpose in attending the convention was to recruit real-life superheroes to keep their CEO safe from Fury of Solace.  So Solace tracked Mason to San Diego, intent on thwarting the CEO’s plans.  And fans of the series attending the convention were going to get a chance to help him.  We staged the ARG on Saturday, July 25th, and after establishing the setup, Fury of Solace tweeted that Max Mason was staying at the San Diego Omni.  Solace himself would have investigated the lead, but he was pinned down by the cops in another part of San Diego, so he enlisted the aid of his followers, asking them to pay a visit to the lobby of the Omni hotel and see if there were any messages for Max Mason.  Of course, there was a message for Max Mason, because we had left one: the message said that a woman named Sara Ward would meet Mason for dinner at a seafood restaurant across from the San Diego convention center.  At the risk of giving a very minor spoiler, Sara Ward is a character who will be important in “Fury of Solace” further down the line.  That night, we made a reservation for two at the seafood restaurant in question, and posted the actress who plays Sara Ward there on the patio, supposedly waiting for her dinner date, Max Mason, to show up.  After learning Mason’s plans thanks to the help of his followers, Fury of Solace arrived at the restaurant and accosted Ms. Ward, convinced that she was the frontrunner for the Mason International superhero bodyguard position.   We had friends of ours film the entire encounter on their flip phones, culminating in a chase through downtown San Diego, and edited it all together to make it look like found-footage shot by actual witnesses.

Ultimately, this first real-world ARG was also a success, and many of our fans who were unable to attend Comic-Con that year wished they’d been able to participate.  And this brings me to another important aspect of the way I try to handle these ARG’s: chronicling them for posterity.  I didn’t want our “Fury of Solace” ARG events to just be flashes in the pan, one-off events that you only knew about if you happened to be paying attention at the time.  I wanted to find a way to record them for posterity, so future fans who were so inclined could follow those parts of the story after the fact.  This marked the beginning of a storytelling device I’ve been referring to as a Third-Person Narrative, which basically consists of the blow-by-blow of the whole event, told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, which contextualized the whole affair, and brought together all of the disparate mediums we used in telling the tale, live-action videos, Twitter, etc.  To see what I mean, click here for a Third-Person Narration of the our first real-life ARG on the “Fury of Solace” site.

This Third-Person Narrative device went on to become a staple of the entire series, not just the ARG recaps.  Because at a certain point, we realized that we were going to have to find a way to guide viewers through the story we were telling.  For instance, one of our characters called Uroboros is the proprietor of conspiracy blog called “The Flashlight.”  Now, when I set out to create character blogs for the series, I had two mandates.  One, I wanted to back-date entries to make it seem like the blogs existed before they actually did, before the show officially began.  The second thing I wanted to do with these blogs was to include some entries that weren’t necessarily plot pertinent, to give the illusion that these characters are real people, leading lives that don’t always revolve around the core story we’re trying to tell.  Now, admittedly, in the case of “The Flashlight,” we may have gone a bit overboard.  At the present time, that blog has about 80 entries, back-dated 4 years.  Now, we certainly don’t expect the casual viewer to read all of those blogs.  Hell, even particularly avid viewers probably won’t delve that deeply.  But there are plot-pertinent blogs peppered amongst all of that flotsam and jetsam, and the trick becomes, how do we direct viewers to read those blogs, when they’re buried amidst all of this other noise?  Our answer at the moment is this Third-Person Narrative device.  So now, each of our videos are accompanied by a Third-Person Narrative, some of which act like footnotes that link to relevant supplementary content, like blog posts, Twitter conversations, etc.

Next up, the play-by-play of our second Comic-Con based event, introducing Maxwell Glick’s character Uroboros.

When Towers Fall

When I created the three-minute video that was to become the pilot episode for my web series “Fury of Solace,” I knew I had a larger story to tell with the character, but I didn’t know when or if I would ever get the chance to tell it.  That first video was actually a contest entry for the “Dr. Horrible” DVD release.  Joss Whedon’s three-part, web-based superhero musical starred Neil Patrick Harris as the title character, a supervillain hell-bent on gaining admittance to a group called the Evil League of Evil.  At Comic-Con in 2008, at the “Dr. Horrible” panel, Whedon and co. unofficially announced the contest: fans were invited to create villains of their own, and shoot a three-minute video application to the Evil League of Evil.  The best entries would be features on the “Dr. Horrible” DVD, which was scheduled for release in December of that year.

I pulled together a terrific team of collaborators to produce what became the first episode of “Fury of Solace,” and promoted our contest entry far and wide.  We received great accolades amongst the “Dr. Horrible” fandom (garnering a few mentions on Whedon’s official Fan Site Whedonesque), and though we weren’t ultimately singled out for inclusion on the DVD, the glowing response we received made me realize that the “Fury of Solace” journey couldn’t end there.

Since we didn’t even know for sure that “Fury of Solace” was going to be a series at the outset, the immersive transmedia experience and the ARG elements didn’t come until later.  First came the Twitter accounts.  Obviously, the first one out of the gate was the account for the title character, Fury of Solace.  Now, it occurred to me at the time that in a perfect world, there would be a twitter account for the character, and a twitter account for the show, and never the twain shall meet.  Because nothing breaks the fourth wall more than your character saying “check out our new episode!”  But at the time, I resigned myself to combining those two functions into one account: the thought being that I couldn’t guarantee that everyone who followed one account would follow the other, and it seemed more efficient for everyone to follow the one account that would be a one-stop shop.  Now, in recent years, web series like “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” have had some success keeping a strict division between the Twitter accounts that exist in the world of the show and the official series account, but for the time being, I’m sticking to our original model.

There are a lot of cool things about creating a social media presence for your characters.  First of all, the level of audience involvement it facilitates is unprecedented.  Since “Fury of Solace” is a superhero musical, no one is under any illusion that these characters actually exist, but on a regular basis for the past several years, thousands of people have enjoyed pretending that they are.  Also, these social media profiles are great for character development: we’re taught that the attention span of the average internet-video viewer is all but nil, so conventional wisdom for web video has always been the shorter the better, and sometimes that means being brutally efficient with the content we’re conveying in the live-action episodes.  We don’t always have the luxury that hour-television dramas enjoy to explore character in our actual episodes, so giving those characters lives outside of the show, using blogs, vlogs and Twitter accounts, makes that part of our job that much easier.  More than that, the social media profiles can actually be used to tell a story!  And this is where I’ll finally segue into the origins of “Fury of Solace’s” first ARG.

I made a decision early on that “Fury of Solace” was not going to live in live-action only.  This was due in large part to the involvement of my friend Evaun Wallington, who came onto the project at the very beginning.  Evaun designed the look for our two lead characters, the now-iconic series logo, and helped me out in countless other ways along the way.  Evaun is a phenomenal artist, and an aspiring comic book illustrator, so it seemed to me that part of the “Fury of Solace” tale needed to be told via online comics.  It is a superhero story, after all, so I didn’t want to stray too far from the medium that spawned the genre.  Plus, there were aspects of the story that we were simply never going to be able to afford to shoot on an indie-web-series budget, so making some of the installments comics freed us up to tell whatever story we wanted.

I won’t pretend however that I wasn’t a little bit unsure whether or not our fans would latch onto this format, only because I’d never seen it done quite this way before.  We’re all accustomed to comic books being adapted to movies and vice versa, but it’s rare (if not entirely unprecedented) that a narrative switches back and forth between the two, some episodes told in live action, some told in comics.  Our second episode was slated to be an 8-page online comic, and before that was ultimately released, I wanted to make sure that the transition from our first live-action episode to our first comic book installment was as seamless as possible.  So I came up with an idea: To explain it, I’m going to have to give you a barebones description of the show and its characters (for a more detailed look, hop on over to www.furyofsolace.com).  Fury of Solace is a supervillain terrorist who targets corrupt politicians and corporate moguls for extermination.  There to thwart him at every turn is the superhero called the Orphan, who holds all life sacred and can’t condone Solace’s murderous ways.  Solace’s current target is Max Mason, president and CEO of pharmaceutical giant Mason International.  Episode two, our first 8-page comic, tells the story of the Orphan foiling Solace’s latest plot to assassinate Max Mason.  Solace had taken Mason captive in his corporate headquarters and rigged the building to explode.  But the Orphan showed up in time to save the evil CEO’s bacon.  But how did the Orphan know to show up in time?  That’s where our first ARG comes in.

First off, we produced a “Fury of Solace” video not unlike the typical terrorist ransom video.  We tied the actor who plays Max Mason to a chair, and had a silhouetted Fury of Solace deliver a diatribe about why Max Mason deserved to die.  Then, we posted the video to the website, protected behind a password.  The Orphan then proceeded to entreat her Twitter followers to help her uncover the password, so she could learn of Fury of Solace’s latest plot and put a stop to it.  And to my delight, our social-media savvy fans played along and ultimately did solve the puzzle!

The Orphan promptly thanked her followers for helping with the password, and, upon watching the video and learning that Solace was holed up with Mason on the penthouse of Mason Tower, she rushed to save the day.  And the successful completion of our first ARG triggered the release of Episode 2, the online comic which told the story of what happened when the Orphan arrived.  The narrative of our first Twitter ARG is chronicled here on the Fury of Solace site.

This whole exercise was tremendously fulfilling to us as creators, and proved to us that the audience would be willing to accept this storytelling format.  Additionally, the Fury of Solace terror video was our first in-world video, and as the show developed, videos like that, which ostensibly exist within the world of the show, would become a very important part of our storytelling repertoire.

Stay tuned for next week’s entry, when we delve into our first attempt to kick things up a notch with a real-world ARG.

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