When Caitlin Burns was in elementary school Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the coolest thing in the world. Yet all was not well on the schoolyard. Every playtime brought with it a crisis:
“The cartoon had one storyline and the movies had a whole ‘nother one,” says Burns. “So when we were playing on the playground, me and my friends, we had to make a decision: whether or not we were playing in the world of the animated series, or if we wanted to play in the world where MC Hammer was singing.”
Burns has turned this conundrum into a career, as a transmedia producer.
Formally recognized by the Producer’s Guild of America last year, the job of a transmedia producer is to weave one story- or a set of entangled storylines- across multiple platforms to create a greater tapestry.
Burns works at Brooklyn’s Starlight Runner Entertainment, one of the industry’s leading companies. Giant media franchises like Halo and Tron: Legacy come through the Starlight Runner shop.
The transmedia experience for Tron— which unfolded through all of 2010, right under our noses— makes a good example of what they do. The stories tied into Tron: Legacy have run across comic books, video games, iPhone apps, and into events produced by Alternate Reality Game pioneers 42 Entertainment. Starlight Runner’s work on the Tron franchise will continue to be revealed in cartoons and potential film sequels.
While many key techniques in transmedia were developed as part of marketing efforts for large media franchises, the opportunities for transmedia producers go beyond commerce.
Shari Frilot, programmer of the Sundance Film Festival’s experimental “New Frontier” said she is “starting to see filmmakers who are crossing [her] desk who are interested in doing this and artists who are exploring,” transmedia. 2011’s festival program is slated to include two large transmedia experiences from established indie filmmakers.
Burns didn’t set out to be a producer. She studied costume design and was involved in organizing large events before landing an internship at Starlight Runner. Soon after it became clear she had walked into something special. After a few months of reading scripts for the company, work for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise came in. “It suddenly dawned on me,” she says, “that this was the single coolest job I could imagine, and that I had to work so hard to keep it; and I worked very hard and I’m still here now.”
While theatre majors joke that their diplomas are worthless (disclosure: a theatre major wrote this), Burns’ skills have actually paid off.
“Being able to go in and get really detailed about a particular costume or a particular character has proven to be one of the greatest skills I can put into the transmedia production analysis,” she says. “Similarly in theatre you have to be able to talk to a wide variety of different people, people who are working in lighting and electrics, sound designers, actors, and they all have a different language. The same can be said for people who are working on video games, people who are working in publishing and people who are working in films.”
Burns is hoping to inspire more people to start creating transmedia projects of their own, without the support of big studio budgets. To that end she and her creative partner Steele Filipek started Jurassic Park Slope, a tongue in cheek story about hipsters trying to make it to the ultimate loft party in a dinosaur infested Brooklyn.
Burns and Filipek spent the summer building costumes, cutting trailers and staging parties for Brooklyn’s hipster population (including one with a giant Slip n’ Slide) as a way of gathering footage for a film. Yet what gained them the biggest buzz amongst trend hungry bloggers was a flyer campaign to recruit Bill Murray for a role in the film.
Not that their homage to Steve Speilburg’s blockbuster is entirely serious. Burns says her goal was to “create something extremely low budget that’s totally attainable. that will inspire people to go out and do it better than I did.”