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STORY IS EVERYWHERE - The Multi-Platform World of Caitlin Burns

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Tuesday, November 29, 2016

There is a moment in my conversation with transmedia producer and PGA member Caitlin Burns when I wonder whether she might know… everything. It is after she has walked me through the intricacies of treating acute childhood malnourishment in developing countries but before she has explained the mythology of the video game Halo. “Pretty much everything I talk about is somewhat complex,” Burns tells me when she sees my slightly-awed expression. “But that’s because the world we live in and the ways audiences engage are complex.” 

Burns’ task as a transmedia producer is to tease simplicity out of complexity, ensuring that the multi-platform products of a narrative project or franchise—video games, social media content, animation, novels and everything in between—are produced as part of a cohesive story. She began her career at Starlight Runner Entertainment, where she worked her way up from intern to full-blown producer on big-budget projects for the Walt Disney Company, Microsoft and Coca-Cola.

After 10 years there, she is now an independent creative producer, serving clients both small (like Serial Boxes, a company that releases serialized novels digitally) and large (Disney). She also serves as the Vice Chair of the PGA’s New Media Council and the Co-Chair of PGA’s Women’s Impact Network, and this summer was awarded the PGA’s Mark Levey Distinguished Service Award.

The term “transmedia” may have a tech-y, futuristic ring to it, but whether the product is books or virtual reality, Burns is adamant that her work is about how humans interact with technology and not the other way around. This belief bleeds into her side projects too—this fall she and her husband will be launching an online magazine, titled Pax Solaria, which focuses on humans in a high-tech future. “The real key is that all of my work is centered on the story,” she says. “Even when I’ve worked in nonfiction, it’s thinking about the ‘story- world’ and how to execute it as part of the narrative.”

Currently much of her attention goes to her role as the Entrepreneur-In-Residence at the US Fund for UNICEF, where she is a narrative designer and consultant for UNICEF Kid Power—an ambitious project aimed at increasing activity among American children while also fighting childhood malnourishment abroad. Burns describes it as a “21st century Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF.” Children wear a pedometer around their wrists, which is synced with an app, and the steps they take unlock funding for ready-to-use, therapeutic food packets around the world. Burns is responsible for the in-app content, as well as the social media, digital initiatives and live events.

Complex indeed. “As a transmedia producer, I am intimately aware of the challenges of explaining what I do,” she says after explaining the layers of the UNICEF project—just one of many that she has a role in. As it happens, she is very good at explaining things. Listening to her thread together ideas and cultural references is like watching someone stitch together a giant quilt, and it seems only fitting that before she was one of the first people to be formally credited as a transmedia producer, she studied costume design as a drama major (and environmental systems minor) at NYU.

When it came time to look for a professional internship to fulfill her major, she initially focused on costume design. “I went through all of these rigorous you-can-work-for-me-for-free applications and no one wanted me to work for them for free,” she says, laughing. “Through a series of twists and turns,” she ended up at the newly-formed Starlight Runner, which had only just begun its experimentation with multi-platform storytelling.

“When Caitlin came in to sit and talk with us, she just blew us away with this encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything,” says Jeff Gomez, founder and CEO of Starlight Runner. I share how my mind had similarly been blown.
“Ah,” he nods sagely. “So you’ve experienced the Burn.”

He clarifies: “She literally could talk about any subject you brought up with a degree of authority, and if there was something she didn’t know that much about, within a matter of hours she would come back knowing everything.”

Soon after Burns joined Starlight Runner, the Walt Disney Company walked through the door with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, looking for some help in managing the books, games and upcoming films that were unspooling from their unprecedented 2003 blockbuster. Burns was immediately hired as the company’s first employee, “and all of the incredible nerdy skills that I had brought in with production design and systems science suddenly clicked with the work we had to do with the Walt Disney franchises.”

For many of the franchises they work on, Starlight Runner produces a “mythology” of the story world: an honest-to-God book that is passed on to executives, game designers, writers and anyone else working on the project. Burns wrote large swaths of the first one the company ever produced—an 11” x 16 “ leather-bound tome imprinted with a skull and crossbones, a compendium of all things Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of the research Burns did on piracy—especially on pirate codes of law—ended up feeding back into the films, as well as fueling a blog about pirates that she wrote for seven years. Now, she adds, “I know more about ransoming than anyone who’s not directly involved with that really needs to know.”

Since then, Burns has produced “about 16” mythologies, including an ethnography of the Na’vi for Avatar. More broadly perhaps, her time at Starlight Runner taught Burns how to use transmedia to engage fans and build a community. Gomez says that Burns truly understood from the beginning that “fans were going to play a pivotal role in the success and the sustenance of entertainment properties.”

Perhaps that’s because Burns is herself a fan of the projects she works on. Speaking about her time working on Pirates of the Caribbean, Burns said she had to watch the 143-minute film 45 times “in quick succession” to make sure they had gotten everything right. “And I was exactly the kind of nerd that really, really, really loved it.” More recently, she worked as a franchise strategist for Disney’s Descendants, and spoke enthusiastically about reading the books with her daughter.

Growing up in Arizona, the first thing that Burns was ever a true fan of—“hands down”—was Jurassic Park. Her fandom is very much alive. In 2012, she and co-producer Steele Filipek launched a feature-length parody of the film, set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and titled McCarren Park. Made for $3,500, the film was released via app; viewers could “go from location to location and see another scene.” The app launched at the Tribeca Film Festival. Overall, she marvels, “It came out much better than it had any right to.”

Burns puts fan development front and center in her work, but sees transmedia as far more than a marketing tool. “A lot of people, when they’re thinking about [the transmedia] part of the producing team, they’re thinking about it as, ‘How do we reach the audience and engage them in a promotional way or in a simply outreach way?’” she tells me, “as opposed to thinking about the real power of what you can do […] when the narrative is building out into all of these platforms so that people can find it. And that sort of creativity ends up paying off hugely in fan development, rather than just audiences.”

Jenni Magee-Cook, an executive producer on the Descendants franchise, echoes this. “You don’t have to go practical anymore. You don’t have to do ad campaigns and marketing in the same way,” she says. “To me, [Caitlin] opened my eyes to accessing how millennials and younger actually consume information, and how you can actually speak to them and communicate with them. I think Caitlin had so much awareness of that.”

“Caitlin understood fairly early that transmedia storytelling was going to be important,” Gomez tells me. “Not just in terms of making more money for big movie studios, but in terms of how the world was changing in terms of communication.” That understanding has allowed Burns to apply transmedia techniques to not just entertainment, but social justice projects as well. That passion is currently manifested in her work at UNICEF, but it began at Starlight Runner, where she and Gomez worked on community development and population activation projects in Mexico and Colombia. Doing that kind of work “gave me the opportunity to work with cognitive scientists and ethnographers,” Burns tells me. “And that’s something that feeds into the work that I do today very strongly.”

And when it comes back to the entertainment industry, diversity is a priority for her. She’s excited about her involvement in the PGA’s Women’s Impact Network but also sees transmedia itself as a way to address Hollywood’s diversity problem. For one, franchises can be ever expandable with the help of transmedia. “The canvas is bigger,” Burns observes of the current landscape. “We don’t have to be stuck.”

She encourages her clients to test more diverse characters in ancillary novels and games, just to see how well audiences respond. “As attitudes toward diversity and representation have changed, they can also be supported by less high-budget experiments where [one] can see: ‘Is a female character going to be interesting?’ Yes, she is.” Later she adds, “It’s not just better business to think in terms of diversity, it’s an inescapable reality. Ignore it at your peril.”

A transmedia producer is an inherently forward-thinking role—the PGA credit itself includes those who have worked with “technologies that may or may not currently exist.” So I ask Burns what she thinks is next. “Honestly—I’m so excited about immersive theater,” she answers immediately. She begins painting a future where immersive theater experiences like Sleep No More will incorporate virtual reality technology. “We’re going to hit people with emotional and exciting and transcendental experiences in a very physical way, both in virtual universes and the real world, in theatrical experiences. And that’s when we’ll really have something cool.” She pauses. “And after that, I have no idea.”

Virtual reality is another field that Burns is intimately acquainted with. She is one of the co-founders of a design and production company called Datavized, which uses web-based virtual reality (3D websites that can be viewed on a desktop with or without a virtual reality viewer) to create innovative data displays. While Burns is still continuing to produce web VR for Datavized, she is walking away from the day-to-day operations to focus on creative producing. “Even though I’ve been working with production teams in gaming and on different applications of digital technologies, wearable things¬—I really love the story,” she admits.

And so for now, Burns is back to focusing on what she enjoys most: storytelling and combining the basics of narrative with the cutting edge of technology. “For me, the most interesting things happen when we connect people and technology and stories. That means I deal with new stories on old platforms, and old stories on new platforms,” says Burns. “I’m lucky I’m curious.”

 

- This article originally appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of Produced By magazine

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