In Conversation with MCM, Redefining Storytelling with the multi-narrative “Dirt”

19 Dec

By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

201699_10150171129933450_3208833_oMCM (Michael Milligan) is a prolific and progressive-thinking author, screenwriter, computer programmer making waves with his mobile app, Get Dirt. It redefines how a story can be told. Instead of reading a book, the tale is told through a different kind of “found footage.” Unlike the cinema approach which locks viewers to a sequentially edited product, all the information is at the user’s disposal and he or she has to shift through it to discover the tale. There’s also a comparison to a Victorian-age book, but more on that later.

Part of his approach comes from a condition he has. Aphantasia is a rare problem where folks are unable to mentally visualize images. “I can’t see things in my mind’s eye,” said MCM, “It’s actually a brilliant thing, I think, for script writing especially because a scene or any event is built out of key components that you need to focus on for its execution to make sense, and everything else is extraneous because I don’t know what it looks like.”

When writing for animation, especially at the preschool level, the formula is simple: educate the viewer. Often, the piece involves teaching a lesson the youth can take to apply in everyday life as they grow up. As with many programs developed in this television entertainment medium, they are done in a boardroom in a roundtable discussion. Ideas are pitched and in what’s developed, it’s made into a 23-minute show. This writer’s task is to develop a focused script that gets to the point.Also, this multimedia craftsman does not limit himself to any genre, as he’s recognized for other works which include live writing (taking feedback from readers in real time to put in an unfolding story) works like The Archivists, offering youth related titles like Amazeballs, writing apps in his spare time (mostly through HTML, Javascript and CSS coding, the language of the World Wide Web), looking to space in science-fiction books like Eviction Notice and challenging what copyright is and means with his breakout work, The Pig and the Box.

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This short story is a fable where the main character learns not too greedy and has to share with folks everything the box can repeatedly reproduce ad nauseam.

“I guess I poked the nerve at the right moment and it took off everywhere, and it got translated into so many languages. People would make versions of it, I had somebody in Brazil translate it and give it away at a conference just because it spoke to so many people … That really got me thinking. I can make a living out of this, and feel accomplished on the fringes [of topics] where people fear to tread,” said MCM.

This particular work was not the only product that helped this once Victoria, BC based author get known in the animation industry. He lives out of Toronto now. and it was there when he met Kris Pearn, co-director of Cloudy and the Chance of Meatballs 2. “He was a friend of a friend, and after a bizarre story of us working together in a hotel room, brainstorming ideas, people were willing to listen to me,” revealed Milligan.

“It’s funny, Preschool is a specific space in the TV world. It takes a special kind of mind to be able to write a story that can get little kids to completely wrap their minds around,” said MCM, “To be able to do sometimes dozens of these stories and not go insane it’s a very specific kind of person that kind of do that. Luckily I was already insane, so they [the producers] didn’t know.

Two animated pre-school programs MCM is well known for include Rollbots (YTV), MCM's homage to G1 Transformers, and Shutterbugs, which is slightly modelled after Scooby Doo. The former looks at life in a floating city where its robots enjoy spinning around, and when spider-bot invaders invade, they have to deal with this threat. The latter is on Knowledge Kids featuring mystery-solving insects who look to uncover the truth about the terrors that make the rest of the town scared. The goal is to help kids conquer their own fears.

Two animated pre-school programs MCM is well known for include Rollbots (YTV), MCM’s homage to G1 Transformers, and Shutterbugs, which is slightly modelled after Scooby Doo. The former looks at life in a floating city where its robots enjoy spinning around, and when spider-bot invaders invade, they have to deal with this threat. The latter is on Knowledge Kids featuring mystery-solving insects who look to uncover the truth about the terrors that make the rest of the town scared. The goal is to help kids conquer their own fears.

This writer is still producing products for young minds and he is aware of needing to be cautious with the topics being discussed. Eventually, as any author can tell another, there’s a reservoir of inappropriate things (ideas) that you really want to write about. There’s corruption, sex, drugs and murder in the real world and they need to be explored — especially if it’s in response to a news story heard in the media. There’s also having fun with a concept that comes through as amazeballs.

“I built up this idea for Dirt — which is mostly an experiment in form — for the audience to watch a story unfold through text messages, emails and photos so that they are close the action. It’s not the same as a novel where everything is described. You have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks.”

Much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, told through letters, log entries, newspaper articles and recordings, the work is almost similar. Hypertext (Choose your own Adventure) fiction is a very large untapped market. Hypermedia is an expansion of a concept to include sound, pictures and video. MCM’s latest work, Dirt, belongs to this medium and it can be expanded upon. He reveals he is working on a 2.0, where there will be two character’s journeys to follow. You have to bounce between them to see where the tale will unfold. “[But for a real interactive nove], I have been toying with building an engine to basically rewrite the universe as you play it, but it will constantly adapt as you make decisions, and it can be mind-blowingly fun,” said Milligan.

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(click on image to expand)

He believes there will be someone who will eventually and properly merge those two worlds in a blockbuster sort of way. Non-linear storytelling is hard to accept, especially when storytelling in the virtual reality medium is still young. Directors, authors and people creating it are still struggling to decide who is governing the action being presented, especially if it’s unfolding in real time. The future is uncertain, and while MCM is innovating by bringing the technology back to the fore, he does not think it’ll have the same traction as those products made by authors or screenwriters who spent a lot of time establishing their world. He believes losing too much control of how creative product (like a web page or hypermedia created world) looks, based on the reader’s input to make that basic red look darker for example, can be a scary idea.

For his own work in Dirt, which is a detective story, he says you need to have that visceral connection. The biggest challenge in that type of format is to make the audience react. You can tell a story in a removed medium, but between the moment where the reader puts down that tablet or e-reader something is happening. you don’t know what that is. The threat is in what you don’t see.

This app is available on both iOS and Android. A catalogue of his works can be found listed on his webpage, mcm.1889.ca

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