Charettes: Jump on This Cart With Your Transmedia Story

This article is cross-posted from the Washington Filmworks blog.

Science Trak's Norma Straw (left) consults with Comm Lead students Katya Yefimova (center), Sarah McCaffrey (right) and John Hellriegel (back to camera)

Science Trak’s Norma Straw (left) consults with Comm Lead students Katya Yefimova (center), Sarah McCaffrey (right) and John Hellriegel (back to camera)
– Photo by Scott Macklin

When Scott Macklin visited our Advanced Multimedia Storytelling class in the University of Washington’s Communications Leadership (Comm Lead) graduate program to introduce the idea of participating in a charette, I have to admit I was on squishy ground for a second. A minute. I imagined the NPR “Says You” panel having a field day with that one. A type of chewing gum? A small, charred object?

Of course architects and land-use professionals would suffer no confusion on hearing the term: they’ve been conducting the multi-stakeholder design sessions known as charettes for years. Originally derived from the Ecole des Beaux Artes in Paris is the 18th century, the charette was a horse-drawn cart that, depending on who you believe, carried the still-glistening-with-wet-ink projects of architecture students to their waiting professors for final grading. The competing version has the students themselves splayed on the bed of the cart, hastily adding the final touches to their projects as the driver hastened toward the waiting professor’s office.

Comm Lead students (l-r) Britt Olson, Daimon Eklund, Bill Wright, and Alex Montalvo

Comm Lead students listening to project pitches
– photo by Scott Macklin

Technology is vastly different today, but the value of meaningful critique and brainstorming are still just as valuable for today’s creative innovators. Film makers, combining the age-old practice of storytelling with the latest technology, build dreams rather than buildings. Without an audience, their work isn’t relevant.

And just as we no longer turn in work by horse-drawn cart, reaching that audience through yesterday’s marketing and advertising methods is not only out of reach for most independent film makers, it’s not the most effective medium for promoting independent films. Those big dollar campaigns, happily, also are no longer necessarily the gold standard for getting a message out quickly to a diverse audience. Furthermore, transmedia is itself increasingly an element of storytelling.

What this means for independent film makers is that effective transmedia marketing is becoming essential. It turns out that the same aids to creative success that can lift architecture to great heights also show promise for independent film makers who look to transmedia marketing to kick off funding campaigns, as well as getting the finished work in front of audiences.

During this year’s Seattle Interactive Documentary Summit, the themes of collaboration and competition came up repeatedly. Film makers face an interesting dilemma that is perhaps unique to the discipline: having their work in front of the maximum number of eyes is how success is ensured. While modern technology has made exposure possible on a level not dreamt of a short time ago, it also has increased the competition. Cutting through that competition has considerably raised stakes for film makers even as it’s given them never-before dreamt of ease of exposure.

Despite the intense competition, content creators who spend so much time working solo can benefit enormously from collaboration – many minds make better ideas, to paraphrase the old saw. Applying this technique to transmedia marketing for independent film makers made sense to UW’s Communications Leadership faculty and fellows (alums chosen to share their own expertise to continually enrich the program).

That is why this past fall the program partnered with Washington Filmworks and the Seattle International Film Festival to conduct a transmedia design charette. UW Department of Communication instructor Alex Stonehill introduced the five recipients of Washington Filmworks Innovation Lab funding to his Advanced Multimedia Storytelling students on a October evening.

Prior to the collaborative session about storytelling, transmedia and emerging models of distribution and engagement, students had been briefed about the projects under consideration. These span a tantalizing range, from a tablet app that engagingly teaches science to kids (“Science Trak”) to eco-documentary “The People of the Salish Sea”, and into the realm of ‘deranged serial adventure’ – “Rocketmen”. Also included are documentary/mystery “The Maury Island Incident” and “Emerald City”, described as a ‘neo-noir’ story based on “The Wizard of Oz”.

After hearing the pitches, groups of 4-5 students were assigned to each project and immediately met with the producers to dive more deeply into the goals and needs of the project. Ideas for transmedia strategies were pitched back to the producers on the spot, and the student groups then further considered and developed ideas over a two-week period. Results were consolidated and sent back to the project teams.

Watch this video by Scott Macklin to get a flavor of the session:

Alycia Delmore, producer of “Rocketmen”, arrived at the charette “hopeful that we’d leave with a bag of tricks”. Typically for an independent film, the series is an ambitious project being shepherded by a small group. “We’ve been focused so heavily on generating content and planning the production that not a whole lot of energy had gone into how many ways there are to tell our story,” said Delmore. She and her partner, Webster Crowell, the creator, writer, and animator of the series, felt a need for a transmedia strategy and even had a few ideas, but lacked the time to develop or implement them.

Delmore is pleased with the easily-implemented ideas that were generated on the spot. “One thing that came up that evening was an idea to use our Facebook timeline to tell the Municipal Rocket Agency story. It’s easy, it’s something I can do once and not have to maintain.”

How would she improve the process? Notes that came back a couple of weeks after the evening were a summary of the process that had happened. Some of the promising ideas that had come up lacked the degree of development that would make them more readily usable. She appreciates the trans-marketing kick start, though. “It’s all bonus for us,” she said.

Using the charette process for transmedia design in the film industry is a new idea. Hopes are high that the process can help the Innovation Lab funding recipients to jump start their transmedia campaigns, and that it will continue to improve and evolve.

Comm Lead Associate program director Scott Macklin is confident about the future role of charettes – and about film making in Washington state. “We are in the midst of the messy emergence of transmedia and interactive story-making,” said Macklin. “The Communication Leadership graduate program and thus our students are deep in the process of giving shape to this mess. We believe that the Pacific Northwest is the place for this emergence based on its talent, infrastructure, and ability to collaborate across sectors.”

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