The Mediasmith Project

Transmedia documentary as research: telling new stories in new ways

Live Blog: Methods & Media: Documentary R & D

6 years ago, Written by , Posted in Mediasmith Blogs

Thanks to Andrew Casey, a current student on the MA in Creative and Media Enterprises, for capturing the first Mediasmith Project workshop here.

Wednesday 29th January 2014.

Today we’re hosting the first of the three Mediasmith Project workshops, in which we brought together a small group of academics from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds to explore innovative approaches to research and teaching – specifically exploring the ‘transmedia’ documentary as a method of research. Throughout the day’s activities we all learnt a lot – by familiarising ourselves with both filmmaking techniques and technical jargon (‘scrubbing the playhead’, anyone?), and by beginning to look at the world around us in a number of different ways. We had the pleasure of being joined by freelance film producer and director of Paper Bird Productions, Rachel Carter, and theatre practitioner and technical guru, Rob Batterbee – who both eased us into the process of documentary filmmaking and helped illuminate some of the ambiguities surrounding ‘transmedia’. What follows is a summary of the day’s proceedings:

9:54: Everything is now just about set up for our first workshop, and we’re all very excited. Terezie, a Creative and Media Enterprises student, will be filming the day’s activities for us with the view in mind of making our very own transmedia documentary about the workshops – how meta!

10:00: Preliminary discussions are focussing on the motives for setting up the workshops. We want to challenge the definition of research and start to think about the process of research in new and innovative ways. Ruth has even suggested the possibility of having students submit a documentary as an assessment, instead of a traditional essay – how would we go about this?

10:20: We’ve got a really interesting set of participants attending today’s workshop, representing a wide range of disciplines: TV Production, Politics, Statistics, Engineering, Sociology, Literature, Theatre Studies, and even Supply Chain Management! We’re all interested in how ‘transmedia’ projects can help us pursue our research questions. That being said, everyone inevitably has a number of different motives for attending – which is what makes it all so exciting!

10:47: Everyone is getting involved in a great discussion about the powers of social media, and how best to harness it. It’s clear that social media can be utilised in a vast number of different ways. Platforms like Twitter (@Mediasmith_film) are excellent for networking and connecting us to others with similar interests – enabling us to participate in an international conversation from our smartphones. However, participants also share some reservations, including the difficulty of managing the boundaries between what is private and what is public, and whether Twitter is perhaps too ‘fast’ for academic research. How useful are these platforms for use in a professional capacity? How can social media platforms be exploited in the name of ‘transmedia’?

Alex LeMay, CEO and executive producer of The Shadow Gang, has some tips for integrating social media into transmedia campaigns here:

10:57: Let’s rewind for a second – what exactly is transmedia? Well, in fact, there isn’t one tidy definition – the concept of transmedia is very fluid. Let’s try and break down the confusion. Here are some definitions that we explored:

Transmedia [is] a fancy word for a simply concept: telling stories across multiple platforms (Tim Kring, executive producer of ‘Heroes’)

[You can read more on what he has to say here:]

Transmedia is the name we’ve given to R&D in content production

(Pierre Cattan – Producer and Founder of transmedia studio Small Bang)

Transmedia isn’t so much a genre as a method, an ambition, an experiment…

Transmedia is about telling a new story, in a new way.

For more information on transmedia, take a look at Indiewire’s ‘Ultimate Guide to Transmedia’, which is regularly updated, here:

11:05: Ruth is introducing us to the four key “I’s” surrounding a transmedia documentary, which are:

IMMERSION – Think about how the viewer/audience can ‘enter the world’ you’re creating

INTERACTIVITY – Think about how the audience/participants can play their own part in the project

INTEGRATION – Think about how you can pull all the elements together in one unified project

IMPACT – Think about how to reach new audiences, and how to engage people in different ways

A transmedia project focuses on the audience’s participation in the project, and as such, it redefines what it means to be an author. This means that there may be some loss of control in the authorial voice. Even so, the creator is ultimately the one who puts everything together, and as such has to think very carefully about the structure of the project across the various platforms.

Be sure to check out Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on The Danger of a Single Story (, which warns us about the risks in hearing only one story – a transmedia approach to storytelling definitely lessens this risk!

11:10: We’ve just been having a look at the Cloud Chamber Mystery, a transmedia entertainment project in which the audience can enter the immersive world at a number of different points. Not only do you watch the ‘film’, you are also a part of it – you can determine outcomes by the choices you make. Check it out here:

Ruth also proposed two other kinds of transmedia projects. The first of which she described as the ‘house party model’ (see an excellent article which expands on this idea borrowed from Henry Jenkins by Chuck Tyron here)

In this model a text e.g. film, lecture, art installation, performance etc. becomes the catalyst that generates a wider community of engagement around a social, political or cultural issue which in turn generates new stories. Two examples of this are

Lisa Harewood’s Auntie – which started out as a short film and an outreach transmedia project is developing out of it:

James Lees’ The Apology Line – which started out as a Freephone chat line and was subsequently made into a short film:

The other model which Ruth termed as ‘integrative and collaborative’ or ‘360 degrees’ are projects that are collaborative in their design involving audiences and multiple stakeholders in the creation of the narrative which is multi-layered and spread across different platforms. We looked at some great examples:

Highrise: Out of My Window:

Bear 71:


12:11: We now have the honour of being joined by film producer Rachel Carter, who is enlightening us about the process of documentary filmmaking – sharing with us some crucial knowledge that she has learnt in the trade.

Rachel has asked us to consider a number of key points before making our documentary:

  • Whose ‘story’ is it? Who is the storyteller?
  • What is the purpose of the documentary?
  • How true is the old adage ‘the camera doesn’t lie’?
  • Why are we using film? What does it tell us that words can’t?
  • How does filming change/enrich the experience? Will the changes affect the “truth”?
  • Who is your audience? How can you widen this?
  • What style do you want? Will the interviewer be on or off-screen? Formal or informal? Leading?
  • How will you retain authorial control (or not)?

She also has a number of fantastic key tips for us for the process in general:

  • Always keep your research question in mind
  • Always keep the camera rolling – you never know what you might miss! Documentaries have a huge ‘high shooting ratio’ (the amount of raw footage compared to minutes in the edited film)
  • Become familiar with the basics of your camera/sound kit
  • PLAN, PLAN and PLAN. Have a list of questions to ask, prepare the scenario, and source the best contributors. Time management is absolutely key.
  • Pick appropriate environments – think about locations, logistics, permissions and bookings
  • Keep a log of what you think are the best pieces of footage as you go (though this may change!)
  • Think about which resources are the bare essentials, and which are “nice to have” to keep yourself on budget.
  • Brief all contributors carefully to put them at ease.
  • Think about the legality of your filmmaking – you will need clearances and release forms for interviewees/contributors, permissions for filming in some public spaces, and to risk assess any activity.
  • Try to watch everything before making decisions – and bring in others during the edit to watch with fresh eyes.
  • Think about what can be added to the film after filming – voice-overs, music, graphics etc.
  • Make the film three times over – in pre-production, production, and post-production.

2:07: Workshop participants are now getting their hands dirty! Everyone has just been partnered up and given a field exercise: to go around campus and explore a specific theme, documenting their findings as they go with still photography, with the idea of converting them into a rudimentary film! This will help these future documentary-makers develop the skill of looking at the world through a particular lens, and soon we’ll all be introduced to video-editing skills!

3:05: We’ve now reconvened in the computer lab, where Rob Batterbee is introducing our participants to WeVideo, a free, online video-editing tool. We’re all learning how to upload our media, and edit it together to tell our desired story. Rob is walking us through some of the finer points of post-production – familiarising us with some of the technical terminology, and revealing how to make transitions, from simple fades to the ever-presen ‘Ken Burns’ effect. We’ve had some absolutely brilliant results from just an hour of tinkering!

WeVideo have a blog series on narrative and digital storytelling, which can be found here – it’s full of useful hints and tips:

 4:30: As the day’s events are drawing to a close we are discussing the minefield that is Intellectual Property law – what can and can’t we use in our films? There are certainly some morally grey areas in the age of the Internet, where everything is almost instantly available for copying, so we need to be careful about what material we use! There are a number of digital databases that make content freely available for us, such as the Wellcome Collection, and there is also a huge amount of content available for use under Creative Commons licensing. If you’re in doubt about whether you are allowed to use some content always ask! Some perhaps inevitable anxieties about engaging with new technologies and ways of thinking have resurfaced but enthusiasm and curiosity levels seem to be high. Hopefully we are all feeling empowered and inspired enough to make a start on our individual projects.

 5:00: And that’s a wrap for today! Thank you to our wonderful facilitators Rachel Carter and Rob Batterbee for all their help and advice. We have all left with plenty to think about. Our next workshop will be on 5th March, and will explore digital storytelling.


Ruth Leary

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