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Understanding the Medium of Your Project

So if you’re here, chances are you’re interested in storytelling through a visual medium. This means film, television or the web. Maybe you’ve heard of transmedia too, but think it’s just a term for trendy communications majors. Even if transmedia is a marketing buzzword, it’s also an opportunity to expand your story in ways you probably haven’t even considered.

Photo: Public Domain | Evert F. Baumgardner

Film

Film is a great medium for a story with a well-defined beginning, middle and end; you just have to make sure you can cram it all into 90-120 minutes without sacrificing too much. Unless you’re trying to spawn the next big franchise, you generally want to resolve the main conflicts by the end (or leave them unresolved in a poignant, thought-provoking fashion). Film also tends to give you more flexibility in terms of locations, number of scenes and scene length. Most movies revolve around one or two central characters, though there are plenty of examples of great ensemble films. Just think about how much time and how many scenes you might be able to devote to your characters, because in a film, time is finite and sequel deals are never guaranteed. In theory, there are few limitations on the content allowed in films. However, there are practical obstacles to film. If you’re writing a studio film, you’ll need a studio to finance and distribute it. A low-budget indie film means financiers willing to take a risk, then probably a lot of festival submissions to find distribution after you actually shoot the damn thing. Micro-budget films require less money, which makes crowd-sourcing and DIY fundraising more viable options.

TV

Television is better for stories that don’t have a well-defined beginning, middle and end, or can’t be told in the confining format of 90-120 minutes. While each episode should resolve, or at least evolve, some sort of conflict, there doesn’t need to be a true resolution until the final episode. In fact, each episode should make the audience want to spend more time with the characters. While most shows have a few main characters, the series format also allows storytellers to give more attention to minor characters. Even shows with strong leads such as “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” take time to develop the supporting players into fully formed roles. Television can also be a more natural medium for ensembles, as shows like “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones” have told complex stories without a clear main character or protagonists. While the structure of TV shows tends to be a little more rigid in terms of length and scenes, a show like “Louie” plays around with both shorter vignettes in single episodes and longer arcs that span across multiple episodes. However, TV shows still need TV channels for distribution. Each episode will have to fit that half-hour/hour-long format, often with content censorship and story breaks to sell cars and pharmaceutical products…unless you’re fortunate enough to be on a paid premium channel like HBO or a digital platform like Netflix.

Web

A web series allows more freedom to experiment in terms of content and length. Because the web is still a relatively new medium, there are fewer rules and limitations to what can and can’t be done. However, web consumers tend to like their videos short and sweet, so that’s a consideration to keep in mind if you care how many people your story reaches. A “webisode” generally only has room for one or two moments of conflict, resolution or character revelation. As most web series are self-financed, it also literally pays to think about what locations and actors you are able to use. This will help determine your characters and scenes. For instance, unless the running joke is that the main character gets replaced by a new actor every few episodes, you want to make sure you can rely on your lead; of course, if you’re talented enough to star in the series as well, this isn’t really an issue. Even if you think film or TV might be the ideal medium for your project, the opportunity to tell stories without boundaries might actually make the web a better fit. Sure, crazy felines, vlogs and adolescent sketch comedy have dominated this medium, but shows like “High Maintenance” and “Eastsiders” have proved the web can be a home for genuine stories and characters. As digital video takes over, viewers eventually might not differentiate between watching feature length or 30-minute/hour-long stories in bite sized chunks. And unlike film and TV, the web series also offer a pretty straightforward self-distribution model: post and click.

Transmedia

Transmedia, as the name implies, actually gives you multiple media through which to tell your story. In transmedia projects, almost anything is fair game – web sites, animations, social media, comic books, video games, etc. For these kinds of stories, think about how you might use different platforms to challenge and engage your audience members. Maybe a web video refers to a character’s social media page that features an important detail that unlocks the video mini-game which gets the audience to the next chapter that they have to download the comic book from your web site to read. Of course, you’ll also want to think about whether these are practical. A fake social media account is no big deal, but can you illustrate a comic or program a game on your own? Do you know people who can? Another approach to transmedia storytelling is thinking of giving the audience more. Maybe your main story takes place in one medium, but there are side narratives. For instance, a colorful character who appears in a single scene could receive an entire backstory in another medium. If you want your audience to get really involved, transmedia provides more opportunities for them to spend time in the world of your story.

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