The art of casting in the era of digital storytelling

In the world of digital storytelling, the characters of scripts take on several incarnations, and are guided by several voices. Web, television, film and videogames intersect. We create characters—real or fictional—who can then live under several identities, belong to many people, and be fleshed out by the collaborative creative work of creators, producers, broadcasters and actors.

This post sets out some examples of this new reality, in which the world of the characters intersects with those of their creators, and those who play them.

When the major studios turn to YouTubers

Often self-taught and self-produced, YouTubers, a new generation of creators, are a big hit with young audiences. They could even carve out some space among the industry giants. That’s what Lionsgate is betting: it turned to YouTubers to promote the launch of the third instalment in the Hunger Games saga. The mega studio asked five YouTubers to create a series of original capsules set in the fictional world of the Hunger Games. The capsules are to be broadcast on a fake propaganda channel, CapitolTV, in this case a YouTube channel that is a TV channel in Hunger Games. Although Lionsgate spearheaded the project, the five web personalities participated in every step of creating their capsules, which are scrupulous in keeping to the respective niches of their YouTube channels.

For example, a YouTube duo, TreadBanger, who usually spend their time creating do it yourself costumes, have become high-fashion designers for the richest of the rich in the Capital. YouTuber fightTIPS, who shares self-defense tips on his usual channel, gives martial arts lessons to the Peacekeepers, the Hunger Games police force.

This brilliantly executed case demonstrates how much the work of creating and casting could evolve. Until now, the starting point was the script and production treatment, then roles were built, followed by the search for talents to bring them to life. Here, the starting point is the talents and some strong personalities, and then we find a way to put them into a fictional universe by co-creating characters.

Web-based spinoffs

When the casting for a supporting character in a TV series is good—or perfect—we sometimes see a spinoff develop. A new original work is created to focus on that character.

However, this can be perilous work: writing a script that doesn’t sound warmed over and meets fans’ very high expectations. A poor spinoff can have a negative impact on the original work. Several channels have tried, often with mixed results, to expand their programming with spinoffs based on popular characters in cult series, like Joey, drawn from the Friends series, or Private Practice, which centres on Grey’s Anatomy’s Kate Walsh. Huge financial risks are associated with these kinds of TV “tests,” which are a curb on this type of production.

The Web is emerging as a very positive channel for bringing characters to life in new contexts and testing the water for other projects. Web productions do not generally involve the same magnitude of financial risk as TV or film productions, so they offer greater freedom—and the true luxury of being able to manage audience expectations.

The series Pretty Little Liars, for example, led to the web series Pretty Dirty Secrets. Created by two new writers, it takes place in Rosewood in the run-up to Halloween, and puts several series characters on stage. Saul Goodman, the lawyer from Breaking Bad, is currently alive on the web on the page Better Call Saul, ahead of the spinoff to be broadcast on AMC starting in February 2015. When on the air, True Blood, Dexter and The Walking Dead also turned to web series to share some characters’ background with fans.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg: beloved fictional characters will be able to stay alive online in many ways, going well beyond the constraints of their participation in the original production.

Characters transplanted into new contexts

Renowned for its famous recommendation algorithm, in November, Netflix created lists of suggestions based on the personality of certain characters in its original series.

Netflix users have access to a list of recent shows watched by Claire Underwood, of House of Cards, and Pennsatucky, from Orange is the New Black. In this way, Netflix promotes its catalogue by playing on the personalities of some strong characters in its series.

Claire Underwood watches movies that showcase powerful women. Pennsatucky loves productions with a Christian, “born again” emphasis. It would be interesting to know how these lists were put together: did Netflix’s algorithm create customized lists for its characters? Or did the producers and writers study the productions and link them with their characters?

Who is in charge of creating a character’s psyche, deciding what they drink, what they eat, and what they listen to? We may also wonder how they are transposed from one fictional universe to another, sometimes in perverse or indirect ways.

A recent example of this type of transposition occurred with the console game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, in which actor Kevin Spacey “plays” a character very close to Frank Underwood, protagonist of the popular House of Cards. The wink at Underwood is especially enjoyable because the latter regularly appears in the Call of Duty series.

Spacey had an active hand in building his Call of Duty character, and he takes his ersatz Frank to the frontier between two fictions. This gives an entirely new perspective on the work of actors, the casting director, and the character as a real entity.

This post was inspired by a conference given by Catalina Briceno and Gabrielle Madé at a Femmes du cinéma, de la télévision et des médias numériques members breakfast.

Anne-Marie Archambault
Anne-Marie Archambault is the Strategy and Content Experience Director at Akufen. Versatile and centred on the user experience, she considers herself as the bridge between content and container, between strategy and emotion. She has worked as a freelancer for many years in television and digital, working in creative teams in experimental and interactive. Anne-Marie is fascinated by the process of creation, the clashing worlds and the ideas that come to life.
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