Immersive Storytelling: Moving from Transmission to Transaction

Above: Immersive storytelling workshop homework assignment (Image by Connie Rock)

Like the avalanche it documents, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, an interactive story appearing in the New York Times in 2012, came barreling into the world of journalism, forever disrupting the terrain. As a result, storytelling will never be the same.

Scott Macklin

Scott Macklin, Associate Director of the Communication Leadership graduate program at the UW (Image: Scott Macklin)

As Scott Macklin, Associate Director of the Communication Leadership graduate program at the University of Washington, said in his recent workshop, Immersive Storytelling: Snow Fall – How and Why, “A shift from transmission to transaction occurred.” Storytelling as we know it is morphing through an avalanche of innovation. It is evolving from a one-way street, or funnel, to a universe of limitless possibility determined by the interaction of content producers and their audiences. And those interactions are occurring through a variety of media.

In the first of two workshops held at the Seattle Transmedia & Independent Film Festival headquarters, Macklin conducted a concentrated dive into the strategy and skills needed to develop and use collaborative, interactive and immersive storytelling techniques. He laid the groundwork for the workshop by explaining that interactive storytelling is about both the narrative of the story and the community involved.

“Build it, and They Will Come” Becomes “Build it With Them”

The “Build it, and they will come” approach commonly used in traditional journalism is not applicable to the immersive genre. Building an immersive story with the community involved requires a process of “deep hanging out.” Building the story, and also trust, involves directly engaging the community being served by the story.

One example of immersive storytelling that relies on solid relationships with a community includes Hollow. Released in June 2013, Hollow is an interactive documentary that portrays life in a rural county of West Virginia that was decimated by the decline of the coal-mining industry. Another example of strong immersive storytelling is Firestorm, which was released in May 2013. Firestorm follows the Holmes family as they flee from a violent bushfire in Tasmania, at one point taking refuge in the sea.

Screen capture from the interactive documentary Firestorm

The interactive documentary “Firestorm” recounts the story of a violent bushfire in Tasmania and its impact on a family and a community (Screen capture: the Guardian)

During the workshop, Macklin also demonstrated Quetzanimales, a site that he is developing with the Grammy® award-winning band Quetzal. The interactive site is meant to serve as a complement to their latest album, or as Macklin puts it, “A call for all to play in the pulsating sonic soundbox of our souls by getting behind the scenes of their groove making.”

Screen capture of Quetzanimales

The interactive site Quetzanimales complements the band Quetzal’s latest album. (Screen capture: Scott Macklin)

Macklin explained that not every story benefits from being immersive. But for those who choose to use an immersive approach, a range of possibilities exists. While the vocabulary is evolving, currently recognized genres include alternate reality, immersive journalism, interactive documentary, participatory narratives and transmedia.

Immersive Storytelling Is a DIWO (Do It With Others) Endeavor

A do it yourself (DIY) mindset offers an alternative to dominant forms of media making. DIY means not needing permission from a studio or a label. The tools are ready at hand to produce the story that you want to share. As Macklin states:

“The shift from transmission to transaction is the shift from telling a story about a community to telling a story with a community. Therefore I like the phrase DIWO (do it with others), which means taking into account the shared responsibility of answering the question ‘whose interests are being served’ through the creation and dissemination of a story.”

Immersive storytelling requires the same foundation required by any story: An action-idea that conveys the dramatic story, identifies a protagonist, defines a goal and describes the obstacle, or antagonistic force in the story.

Scott Macklin showed how his rolling carry-on-sized suitcase contains the equipment he needs for creating video, photos, and sound for immersive storytelling productions.

Scott Macklin showed how his rolling carry-on-sized suitcase contains the equipment he needs for creating video, photos, and sound for immersive storytelling productions. (Image: Donna Manders)

And, just as with any media production, the right tools are a necessity to capture quality images and audio. Lenses, lighting, audio recording devices and camera stabilization are basic requirements. To demonstrate that you don’t have to have a tremendous amount of gear to get great results, Macklin unpacked his carry-on-sized rolling suitcase holding all of the equipment he needs for lighting, filming and collecting audio for multimedia productions.

Easy-to-Use Storytelling Platforms Are Available

A variety of multimedia storytelling platforms are now available, including some very user-friendly apps suitable for beginners. Macklin quickly covered the basics of four:

  • Creatavist was developed by Brooklyn-based Atavist, a monthly collection of interactive multimedia pieces for purchase. The full version of Creatavist is available by subscription and is easy-to-use.
  • Storehouse is a free iOS app with a minimalist layout that is friendly for beginners.
  • Medium is a cross-platform and share-friendly blogging platform that easily incorporates a variety of media.
  • Sway is a beta version of a Microsoft Office app that can use any browser on a PC, Mac or tablet to create interactive, web-based stories. Use it and you can help develop the platform.

Our Homework: Produce Our Own Immersive Storytelling Content

At the end of the first two-hour workshop held on January 31, we received our homework assignment:

  1. Identify a challenge.
  2. Develop an action-idea for a story.
  3. Develop a storyboard to lay out the core storyline with visual assets.
  4. Create a multimedia story asset that captures the action-idea.
  5. Use a multimedia storytelling platform to weave the story’s elements together, keeping in mind the platform’s affordances and constraints.
Scott Macklin and immersive storytelling workshop participants

Scott Macklin and workshop participants at the close of “Immersive Storytelling: Snow Fall — How and Why.” (Image: Scott Macklin)

A week later, we presented our ideas and shared feedback on each other’s work. The presentations covered a range of topics, including a multimedia exploration of the work of Ryan “Henry” Ward, the Seattle artist beloved by many, and a study of the man himself; an interactive documentary about the intrepid travels of model and portrait artist Caroline Mytinger, who journeyed to the South Sea islands in the 1920s to capture “vanishing primitives” on canvas; an ethnographic story covering the key events in the life of a 100 year-old woman; and a demonstration of a plan for a platform that would allow users to easily generate content and post it in a multimedia production.

In all, Macklin’s workshop provided a great hands-on opportunity for participants and a comprehensive, compelling and captivating glimpse into the future of storytelling.

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