Transmedia “Pandemic” by Lance Weiler, story architect

Lance Weiler is a well-known transmedia “story architect”: more than a story, with this new type of narrator, viewers get immersed into an abounding world, a true multiplatform universe.

Acknowledged as a pioneer because of the way he makes and distributes his work, WIREDmagazine named him “One of twenty-five people helping to re-invent entertainment and change the face of Hollywood” the author returns at Sundance with a short in the “New Frontier” section.

Pandemic 1.0 is a fictional story on a virus that took the festival by storm. This universe unfolds itself through film, mobile, online, print and live events during 120 hours. Lance Weiler answered our questions on Pandemic 1.0, the transmedia experience he created for Sundance Festival.

 How would you pitch Pandemic story for Transmedia Lab readers ? What are the media involved in the narrative?

A Pandemic has broken out at one of the largest film festivals in the world. People are starting to exhibit strange nocturnal behaviors and things are slipping into chaos. Together those online must work with people on the ground in Park City to stop the spread of the Pandemic. They have 120 hours to stop it and in the process save as many people as they can. The storyworld experience that I designed was intended to enable those not at the festival to be there.

So people online could collaborate with people in the real world to accomplish the overall goal and the story was told via film, mobile, online, social gaming, data visualization, connected toys, hidden objects and real world experiences.

You’ve mentioned in one filmed interview “the collective storytelling”: did you build Pandemic 1.0 as a collective story? How would you describe the design work ?  How did you manage to keep things together, to keep the unfolding narration true and respect the franchise property across media ?

The design of Pandemic 1.0 took careful thought and planning. I wanted the storyworld to be expansive but at the same time design so each of the elements had a beginning, middle and end. It is important that a viewer / player can walk away with a whole emotional moment within the story. If I’m building compelling moments that emotional weight then I often find that it helps to establish the story bridges that I need to enable someone to move from one story element to the next. I look to design with layers of interactivity that allow a viewer / player to go as deep as they want. I work from a principal that I call the “bullet hole in glass” theory.

In the center where the bullet hole would be is my singular vision for the story but as the glass cracks out I leave room for the audience to participate. Similar to the way software is developed with alpha and beta releases I want the audience to test it, to break it so then I can see in real-time what is working and what is not. The experience at Sundance was a story R&D (research and development) effort. I’m utilizing transmedia to enrich the stories I want to tell by putting them out into the world and testing them. We wrote software that enabled us to time shift elements and unlock parts of the storytelling based on the audiences’ actual interaction with the story.

Pandemic central room

Where do Pandemic’s universe roots come from ? Do you see a link with Cinemart (The Rotterdam Festival) winner HIM ?

Pandemic was born out of HiM. The script for HiM came first and helped to establish the rules, feel, and look of the storyworld and then Pandemic was designed to take place at the beginning of the outbreak. Where is the script for HiM which is the feature film component of the world takes place ninety days into the outbreak. So we worked backwards which help us to inform the whole storyworld.

Engaging the audience is a key element of your storytelling practice: what levers did you use to engage the audience in Pandemic ?

I’ve found that if you place the stakes on the table meaning that the audience understands that they are working against a degree of odds that tends to be an amazing way to get them engaged. So in the case of the design for Pandemic 1.0 I worked a 120 hour time limit into the game design. It was a race against the clock which ended up getting the audience very excited to participate.

The other design element which provided to be an excellent engagement driver was releasing 50 Nexus S phones that we’re NFC enabled into the wild. They we’re placed in bio hazard bags and distributed with hand cranks to keep them charged. They were passed from person to person. Along the way people took photos and shot video – creating a whole real-time document of the festival. I’ve found that people like stories about people. So capturing that element was well received.

How would you qualify the outcome of Pandemic 1.0? What does this project bring you from a creative point of view ?

It was a major success for a number of reasons. It gave me a chance to explore the storyworld with a test audience which was quite large.  I was able to work with actors and develop some interesting ways to script and shoot within a live environment like Sundance. It’s interesting to note that while most filmmakers were at the festival in search of distribution I was using it as a testing ground for a storyworld. There is nothing better than playing with an actual group of players getting to do research and development in a real world environment. And as we gear up to take it to a major museum in New York City I’ll continue to refine the experience and test new methods and UX design.

Pandemic at Sundance


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