The last two years have seen catastrophic changes in the traditional publishing industry at the hands of Amazon, Smashwords and thousands of digitally enabled self-published authors. The music industry faces similar growing pains as MP3s and the digital distribution of music continue to create piracy and other intellectual rights headaches for recording labels in the new millennium.
Meanwhile, a quieter revolution has taken root in the opportunities afforded by powerful, inexpensive production and editing tools available in today’s consumer electronics market that allow narratives to unfold across a wide range of media platforms. These productions are collectively known as transmedia stories, and while the term transmedia may be relatively recent, the idea is nothing new. Star Trek is a classic example. Stories about the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise have appeared in television, film, comic books, games, and novels since the 1960’s. Many other media franchises have done the same with their own properties.
What has changed is the idea that narratives can be specifically designed as transmedia stories unto themselves. This differs from the traditional model, where a story begins life as a movie or television program and then grows over time to add new stories in the realms of print media, games, and other merchandising to exploit a franchise’s marketability. The reverse has also been true, where faux blogs, websites, and YouTube videos have served as transmedia narratives that provide viral marketing campaigns for film and television properties.
Mike Vogel’s Phrenic is a science fiction and transmedia narrative that approaches cross-platform storytelling as a medium in its own right. Phrenic tells the story of Alison Taylor, a woman either on the edge of mental breakdown or the cusp of a revelation that will change her world forever. In seven days Alison Taylor will kill her husband. The first seven episodes of Phrenic tell the story of Allison’s journey through madness—or revelation—to that fateful seventh day. Each episode is two to four minutes long and designed as a story unto itself rather than a single episode chopped into seven pieces. While most of Phrenic can be viewed on YouTube and the Phrenic World website, the series was created primarily for portable devices as part of an iPhone app. We asked Mike to talk to us about creating Phrenic and the current state of transmedia storytelling.
Dan Berger: You mention The Twilight Zone and Lost as sources of inspiration when discussing Phrenic in the app’s “Making of…” section, as well as in interviews. There also seem to be shades of The Prisoner, Donnie Darko and Blade Runner coloring the mix. How big of a science fiction fan are you?
Mike Vogel: The type of SFF I enjoy most takes place in what appears to be the real world or in an imagined near future like Blade Runner or Gattaca. I knew nothing about Donnie Darko before I saw it and thought it was going to be a drama about relationships. Then there’s that scene early on when the sky sort of opens up and it felt like “That just destroyed the reality I thought I was in.” I love that feeling of thinking everything is normal only to have the rug plausibly ripped from under you.
DB: What are your favorite SFF stories and who are some of your SFF favorite story tellers, across all media?
MV: I grew up with Star Wars and all that stuff from the 80s like Tron, Battlestar Galactica, Last Star Fighter, Alien Nation, Enemy Mine, and V. I recently finished reading Ready Player One, which references a lot of 80s sci-if, and loved it. I try to avoid the danger of nostalgia though. I once indulged my nostalgia by watching both The Black Hole and Tron but there’s no way they could compete with the movies I remember watching as a kid. Right now, I’m enjoying working my way through Saga. I like time travel and Time Crimes is probably my favorite movie in that genre, even though I know I should say Primer. I like when certain independent directors make their “space movie” too. Solaris, Sunshine, and Moon are good, fairly recent examples of this. Gravity looks like it could fit that genre too.
DB: Phrenic latches onto themes of identity and reality break-down from almost the very first frame. What drew you to those specific themes?
MV: Early on, I knew I wanted Alison to seem insane with things like a doll telling her to kill her husband and her reflection talking to her. I didn’t have a good way of explaining why those things would be happening though, which is where the nanotechnology and cloning came from. If you only watch the episodes, you see a glimpse of that cloning world, but I’ve put it in other places, like the Life Identical website and the interactive story called The Doll. It’s a bigger part of where the story is going. I think when you start to get into things like nanotechnology—which I admit I learn about from Wikipedia and also invent to fit my needs—it helps you focus on an audience but it also limits your audience. So using more accessible themes like “What if my entire world changed overnight?” and “What if I couldn’t trust my own decisions?” gives people an entry point into the story.
DB: What was that evolution like from “video series for mobile devices” to “transmedia project?”
MV: I wanted a story that could expand in many different directions over time. I didn’t really know what that meant specifically at first, I just had a feeling that I should focus on something bigger than a feature or a web series. I used to be one of those people who dismiss transmedia as disguised marketing. In some cases, it is, but transmedia as a way of telling a single story across many technology platforms is completely liberating for a writer. For Phrenic, sometimes the content is unique to a platform, other times it serves as an entry into the larger story. I wrote a choose your own adventure story called The Doll which is available in the Kindle store. It’s also on the website and in the app, but I want it in the Kindle store in case someone stumbles on it, enjoys it, and wonders “What else is out there with Phrenic?”
DB: What structural challenges did Phrenic present as a transmedia narrative?
MV: Some transmedia theorists think the content on each platform should be unique to that platform, so your audience has to access the story on all of those platforms to get the whole story. I think it’s better to give the audience the freedom to choose how they get the story. People look at a lot of different screens every day, so I do what I can to make sure the story is available on whatever screen they happen to be looking at.
DB: You have also said that you are interested in opening up Phrenic to the fan community so they can add to the story. How would that work from a production perspective?
MV: I would like to let people contribute their own stories that would be published on the site and have the best ones appear in the app. My brain is one year ahead of what audiences can see and read in Phrenic now, but I know Phrenic has this really expansive world that covers everything from cloning, memory implants, insanity, space colonization, evil corporations, and more. I’d love to give fans the ability to contribute a story or video or artwork.
DB: How would that work from an intellectual property rights holder perspective?
MV: That’s honestly the only thing stopping me from doing it right now. I’ve seen massive backlash when people try to crowdsource creativity. There’s also the risk of being accused of plagiarism. For instance, I plan to write a first person story from the perspective of a clone. If a fan-submitted story did that before I published mine, it would be easy to say I ripped that person off. So there’s a lot of risk and I’d probably have to run everything by a lawyer before I actually open it up.
DB: What has been your biggest challenge in producing Phrenic so far?
MV: Probably figuring out the right model. There isn’t a clear model for telling a story using videos and fiction and games and websites, where each of those is a unique narrative element or experience. That’s also what I enjoy about it though. You can buy fifteen different books that tell you the proven formula to write a screenplay, but for transmedia projects like Phrenic, you’re in the lab inventing the formula with a bunch of other mad scientists all over the globe.
DB: What has been your favorite moment in making the series so far?
MV: The day we were finally available in the App Store. After a year of effort, to finally be able to tell people to go download Phrenic was so rewarding. In the first month, Phrenic was installed on devices in something like 33 countries. I probably can’t even name 33 countries.
DB: In your interview with Jen Begeal you said that the App Store rejected your initial submission because they felt Phrenic was “primarily a movie,” that you weren’t “creative enough on the app side” with your first attempt. Did that rejection turn out to be more of a speed bump or a happy accident?
MV: My focus was admittedly too narrow. I had bigger plans but just wanted to get the app out and add to it over time. When it was rejected for being “primarily a movie” I was crushed for days and felt like I’d failed everyone who helped make it. I knew we could always post the episodes to YouTube, but I felt what we were doing was bigger than being yet another web series. The rejection really helped accelerate the interactive pieces in the app though and I feel like having the elements together like that is what makes Phrenic unique. The next release does a better job of highlighting the games and stories, so it doesn’t appear to be so video-centric.
DB: Why did you decide to release Phrenic primarily as an app?
MV: The whole idea to make something for mobile came out of an interview I did with Amanda Lin Costa for PBS Mediashift. It started as doing something different geared for mobile devices, and then evolved into transmedia almost naturally because I wanted to add different types of content. There’s still this frontier aspect to telling stories on mobile devices that appeals to me. As I create more content, I make sure that the older content ends up on the website. It’s also really hard to get people to pay for entertainment content online. Phones have built in stores where you just type a password, no credit card needed. I feel like apps offer the best opportunity for creators to take advantage of that impulsive purchase that hopefully leads to a new fan.
DB: Why did you choose Apple for the app platform?
MV: The developer I collaborate with only worked on iOS at the time.
DB: Will there be a Phrenic app for Android any time soon?
MV: We’ve talked about doing an Android version but the two issues with Android are still the fragmented state of different app stores, devices, OS versions, as well as the perception that it’s harder to get people to buy apps on Android. I think that’s changing but in the meantime I made sure the Phrenic World website looks great on mobile. You can still get 80% of the content for free without having to download the app.
DB: You mentioned the “choose your own adventure” book format of the 1980’s as a strategy you adopted both for Kindle and the Phrenic app with your short story The Doll. The creation of fictitious business websites, activist’s blogs, and YouTube news stories have seen mileage in other transmedia ventures such as the viral marketing campaign for Cloverfield (2008). What other media and technologies do you see as avenues for the artistic exploration of interactive narrative structures?
MV: On one hand, I like imagining things like the possibilities in location based information combined with augmented reality as a way to create persistent story experiences in the real world. In another sense, I feel like the technology is the least interesting part of storytelling. People connect to stories, not technology. But they usually connect using technology. It’s like that saying about how good writing or filmmaking is invisible. It shouldn’t draw attention to itself. When I’m marketing Phrenic, I try to be aware of when I should say “In seven days, Alison will kill her husband” versus “a transmedia app that combines video, games, and fiction.”
DB: As an individual working with a small budget, how do you manage all of the differing pieces of a transmedia project?
MV: Limitations actually free you up to be more creative. It really helped me to figure out the structure, both in terms of how the world of the story was structured and how the technology platforms delivering the stories were structured. The way I’ve set it up, I can decide I want to write about space and I’ve got a plausible way to tie that in. Or if I want to write something violent or erotic or funny, I can create a story that fits inside the Phrenic universe and is somehow tied to the cloning company, Life Identical. I think of the idea first and figure out if it should be a video or story or something new.
DB: Given your limitations, what becomes your most important resource?
MV: The enthusiasm of the people who help create Phrenic. I rely on actors, a developer, a cinematographer, and people who let us film in their homes or use their artwork.Phrenic is only possible because there are people who say “yes” even when it would be so easy to say “no”.
DB: Stories told across multiple platforms have been around as marketing and merchandising tools for decades. “Transmedia” is a comparatively recent term. How settled do you think that term is?
MV: I have a joke about transmedia.
Q: How many transmedia producers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: First of all, should we call it an illumination orb?
DB: Ha! So why not call it “multiplatform storytelling” or something else?
MV: I’m one of the people who believe we should just call it transmedia and get on with it. I think there is a lot of new interest in this idea of a transmedia story, and I think that’s wonderful. But as you point out, people have been telling stories across multiple types of media for decades. For me, it was Star Wars. I watched Empire Strikes Back, read a novel about Han Solo and Chewbacca, and then acted out my own stories with the action figures. More recently, I’ve been watching Doctor Who with my daughter and we get the graphic novels and play the mobile game. In terms of defining it, some people will say “That mobile game isn’t part of the narrative, it’s just marketing.” But I think anything that allows you to live the world of the story is more than just marketing.
DB: Where do you see the line separating transmedia as an artistic medium independent from its roots in marketing and merchandising?
MV: I always think of transmedia as having a very academic origin, which is why you get a lot of Master’s thesis language and overly complicated narrative charts. Marketing has always been about telling a story and has usually been multi-platform, but that doesn’t automatically make it transmedia. The purpose matters and audiences can tell when someone is telling a story to bolster a brand rather than a story designed purely to entertain them.
DB: Artistic purposes aside, do you see transmedia’s capacity to market and merchandise entertainment as an essential built-in feature allowing these projects to become self-sustaining? Is there any separating the marketing from the medium?
MV: The story is my merchandise and being able to sell it as an app or ebook is great. Technology is making it easier for people to buy entertainment. If someone can pay you by typing a familiar password instead of deciding whether to enter their credit card, that makes the transaction piece easier. If I could make money selling action figures of the characters from Phrenic, I’d do it in a second. But right now, I’m just trying to get people to give me one dollar.
DB: What have you done to market Phrenic?
MV: I’ve done small advertising campaigns in Facebook, YouTube, Google, and Twitter. There are some good options for mobile app installation ads but they didn’t work with my current model (free app with a .99 in-app purchase for all episodes). In Phrenic 1.1, I’ll charge .99, but you’ll just get everything after that free. I was losing money for every installation done via advertising but in the future, I hope I’ll just break even on the ads.
I should probably be doing more to market Phrenic, but that takes time I’d rather spend creating more stories. New people install Phrenic every day, so even though I’d like that number to be more, it seems to be working organically.
DB: “I should be doing more marketing” is a common lament among independent artists. Is some formal background in marketing becoming a mandatory skill set for success in the arts community?
MV: Independent artists aren’t typically the best people to market their own work but they usually don’t have a budget to hire someone more qualified either. So in that sense, it’s a mandatory skill. Marketing is actually very creative and there’s a puzzle solving aspect of trying to figure out which image or headline will improve the click-through rate on an ad or status update.
DB: Do you feel that the multiple demands placed upon independent artists to produce and market their own work is driving a fundamental change in the arts and the kind of people who aspire to be artists?
MV: Maybe it attracts a few people who are better at conducting Kickstarter campaigns and promoting their unfinished work on social media than they are at actually producing or making something. But it’s also a great opportunity for people who want control over all those marketing elements. They don’t want to surrender control of the trailer or how the poster looks. Sometimes when you have a vision for a story, that vision includes how the movie and website and trailers will be presented. That doesn’t mean you’re the best person to do the marketing, but it’s part of your vision.
MV: With a feature film, people have a checklist in their head: Are there famous people I like in this movie? Was it in Sundance or Cannes? Was it covered by my favorite magazine or blog? You end up competing against this week’s new releases in theaters and on Netflix.
For an app, I’m only competing for a few minutes of your attention instead of 90, although if you like Phrenic, you could give it the same amount of attention as you would a novel. Phrenic was designed for how you’d want to waste time on a mobile device: watching videos, reading stories, playing games. That in itself becomes a marketing angle. When you market a feature, everyone already knows what they’re getting. A transmedia app is sort of a gift wrapped box with a giant question mark on it. New types of entertainment like Phrenic don’t need to come from the familiar world of Hollywood, but audiences expect them to be surprising and different. Playing around with both the story and the way the story is told is what makes Phrenic so exciting to me.
DB: What can we expect in Phrenic’s future?
MV: Phrenic will start to incorporate cloning and nanotechnology into the storylines more. It will also hint that maybe all of this cloning and nanotechnology is imagined in Alison’s mind. I’m also hoping to create videos that tie directly to short stories. For instance, a video about a corporate executive explaining why he needs enhanced clones for his manufacturing business, followed by a short story that goes into how things go wrong once he gets those clones. Two parts of the same story, told with video and fiction, and released at the same time.
DB: What will we see in the future for Phrenic’s app?
MV: A cleaner user interface for one. There’s a new short story that explains the reference to the coded message Invasion Rainstorm Sandwich from the sixth episode. The next videos on my to-do list include seeing Frank in the cloning facility at Life Identical, interviews between the CEO of Life Identical and people who want to purchase cloning services, a video blog by activists against cloning who try to infiltrate and kidnap a clone, and a few videos with Alison in a room that may either be a laboratory at Life Identical or a mental hospital for the criminally insane.
DB: Where can people find Phrenic on the web?
MV: If you don’t have the app, the best place to go is PhrenicWorld.com. There’s also a Facebook page and there will be an email subscription for people who just want to be notified when new story elements are released.
DB: Sounds great. We’re looking forward to more.
Mike Vogel is a father, husband, and independent film maker living in Portland, Oregon. When he’s not busy cloning people, he can usually be found tooling around town on his bicycle. Find out more about him at http://mikevogel.com/.
Dan would like to thank Mike Vogel for taking time to answer the e-mail armada of questions sent to him over the last three weeks.
For further reading, you can find the Foes of Reality interview with Phrenic actor Steve Mattsson here.