November 23, 2008
FOE3 Liveblog: Session 4 - When Comics Converge: Making Watchmen

For the first panel of Day 2, we opened with a case study of the making of The Watchmen film, based on the foundational Alan Moore graphic novel with Henry Jenkins, production designer Alex McDowell, and Alisa Perren from Georgia State University.

Liveblogging services this time around were provided by CMS grad student Lan Le.

Comics are now reaching us through multiple channels. We aren't just going to comic book stores to get our comic stories anymore. They're coming to us through movies, bookstores, online. So too has the image of the comics consumer changed to include larger, general audiences in addition to the core comics fans.

We began the talk by screen two different trailers for Watchmen, which is Alex McDowell's latest project. The first trailer was screened at Comic-Con, which was aimed at the fans of the comic book. The second trailer was constructed with a larger, general audience in mind. These trailers were to help us begin thinking about how the movie visually adapted the comic book material.

Alex: The movie is remarkably visually faithful to the book. Snyder is definitely a fan of genre and comic books first. Watchmen spent 20 years in development at various studios. The film has finally come into existance at time when, coincidentally or not, the satirical parallels have cycled back into political existance. While time has elapsed between the writing of Watchmen and it's film, Snyder has updated the film through layers of cultural reference and art design. Examples of the film's awareness of other pieces of science-fiction stories are echoed in the set design, referencing films such as Dr. Strangeglove and The Man That Fell to Earth. Working on the world of Watchmen was a great opportunity to "rip off every movie you ever liked."

Henry: It's no accident that the film is coming out now with the explosive of revival of the superhero genre in film.

Alisa: The film was greenlit October 2001, a month after 9/11. Cultural factors did exist to propel comic books into the cultural mainstream, yes, but industrial issues also shaped this revival. At first, it seemed that the growth of comic books in movies must have been due to a prior growth of comics. It's actually the opposite. Comic book sales declined or stayed very low during this period. The sales, it turns out, were driven by studios - not the reverse. Horizontal integration factors into this scenario. But there are also a new generation of exectives, writers, and artists who came of age in an era where sophisticated or literary comic books were the rage. These creative producers had greater appreciation for the source text and insisted on a greater fidelity to the source material. They tapped into an interactive fan culture that appreciates this too.

Alex: Hollywood is often a fan of the material.

Henry: The shift in what can be accomplished through digital effects must be a factor in this revival as well.

Alex: Far more immersive experience are possible now through special effects, allowing ways of capturing the fantasy of these superhero's worlds. Filmmakers understand what can be done now. Dr. Manhatten is very difficult to pull off believably and with emotional connection. Even 5 years ago it would have been hard to accomplish.

Henry: There's an enormous gap in readership and viewership of comics. 20 times more people saw the Spiderman movie than read the comics in the past.

Alisa: The change in readership coincided with a move of comics to specialty stores. In the late 70's and 80's - they went from news stands and convenience stores to specialty stores. It became for a niche audience. Culture of specialty stores is not embracing of newcomers. Marvel is obssessed with the exploitation of characters in crossover stories. Top-selling titles that appeal to the core fanbase are necessary, but you need so much context and back story that it alienates the new reader if they aren't already immersed in the content.

Henry: Continuity can run amok. Vieres can't find a point of entry because of the accumulation of history. This is a transmedia issue, the creation of more and more layers of content.

Alex: The Matrix property spread out in a very comic book mentality. The Wachowski Brothers began with a 300-page graphic novel storyboard. Their intent was always to spread it out via transmedia. Snyder also tapped into the fan network, putting to work people already obssessed with the text. Alan Moore assumed a very sophisticted reader, and he layered a great many details of the world into the book. I agreed with Moore's resistance to adaptation. I felt that he designed the text for the medium of comics. There was no need to adapt the story. But given that the film is being adapted, you need to pay attention to the detail that Moore's put in. There is away of making equivalence to Moore's level of detail if you pay attention to the density of the text.

Alisa: David Gibbons (the artist of Watchmen) was also responsible for adding a great deal of world-building detail to the book and the movie. The writer is attributed with a great deal of authority over the comic book. The writer is held up as the inspiration, but the artist has an equal contribution. Comics are a visual medium. Gibbons was just as important to the Watchmen, and he came over to work on the movie. A script as visual as it is narrative. We often forget the visual when talking about films.

Henry: There's a justification for the adaptation of comics to film, and it's that comics are a kind of storyboard.

Alex: It's true that the medium can be driven more by visuals than performance or effects or even story. The visual crosses cultural divides more easily.

Henry: They say that any market in the world, you will find a storyteller with a crowd. I actually think that any market in the world, you will find a magician with an even bigger crowd. Spectacle and performance plays across language and culture and globally. Highly visual and spectacular materials tend to go global more easily.

Alex: Watchmen is interesting, because Alan Moore uses a populist form to create social satire. These are some R-rated comic books. No one thought that people would accept such a dark superhero genre interpretation. But under the cover of spectacle, you bring the story and the message and the satire.

Alisa: The use of comics in pitching movies -- comic artists are commissioned to take scripts and mock them up as comics. Comics are supplanting storyboards as a form of pitch. The ease of access and easy of visualization is preferred in the comic format. Comics become a shorthand method at the outset.

Henry: High concept films used to follow the mantra "Look, book, and hook." Best-selling books can drive the release of a film. Anything with unique feel will sell well. Hook is part of the concept. Watchmen has these, but did not outsell Twilight, which doesn't. Clearly, books do not drive the film. Decisions are made based on the studio's familiarity with it in other media. Superman, Spiderman -- these have transmedia existance outside of the book. Daredevil, The Hulk -- the movies without transmedia presence did not sell as well.

Alex: The Crow tapped into a new kind of market based in punk music and a music driven audience. It reversed the conservative trend of industry. It had a niche appeal that expanded the audience for the book and not the nother way around.

Alisa: Global appeal is crucial. The adaptation of comics is the perfect risk averse strategy for Hollywood. It's a pre-sold property, even if it is niche. Comics provide a visualized world with a built-in audience that really helps to promote and market if they approve of what you've done. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to have this audience. There's an infrastructure of Comic-con, etc. that help to promote these films. Even the press jumps on the bandwagon and helps to promote too.

Henry: Is there a value of fan leadership? Is there positive? There are certainly negatives that come about from fan backlash.

Alex: Definitely. The fans are a huge resource. You need to pay attention to the fans. It's clearly a transaction. If the fan-base gets behind the movie, it rolls forward. Media responds to fan response. Opinions disseminate everywhere. If the response is negative, it can kill the film. The second Crow film is an example of that.

Henry: I am the dorm master of a dorm at MIT, and I observed how Watchmen spread through the community. It began by introduction from one person to another, until the entire community was asking me to host a workshop on the book. Fans are the advanced troops. Media spreads from early adopters in anticipation of the film.

Alisa: DC/Warner is exploiting this effectively for Watchmen. They ran more volumes in anticipation of Comic-Con and sold thousands of copies. October was the first month to show increase in comic book sales in recent months. Tradebook sales at bookstores increased dramatically. They're much bigger and much more profitable.

Back Channel Question: How much does fan desire guide design?

Alex: Fans didn't drive design so much as the fact that Snyder was a fan. It comes to the same thing. The empowerment to dig into the world detail had the effect of satisfying the fans. The journalists were all fans too. We were showing the fanbase that we were paying attention. It's really good to have that great a demand on you as a film maker. Every piece is important. I've never had such a huge graphics department. We had to layer a weave of real and Watchmen history into the sets. We built 3 city streets in the backlot. Usually we have to convert a street that was already made, which results in big compromise. Here, we could recreate an Englishman's view of New York in the 1980's.

Audience Question: What is Alan Moore's relationship to the film? What was the consequence of more involvement from him?

Alex He was reEally against involvement. The sense of people on web was that Moore not being on board meant you shouldn't do the film. But Gibbons' involvement was important to balance that antipathy.

Henry: 300. How does Snyder relate to comic book styles in his work? 300 was one of those films that flagged the fact that the visuals come from comic books. Should you erase or foreground book in a film?

Alex I'm not behind the emulation of the book automatically. 300 felt thin. It was simply a mapping of one medium onto another. Watchmen was a leap from comic books of the time into a different kind of comic book. Watchmen added layer of realism that hadn't been seen in comics before. Within the frame, the world there was projected as a real world. To copy that into film stylistically would feel artificial. What we needed was the equivalent of a stylized reality. You need to be able to stylize it and control it. We wanted color control. Dick tracy, it ejects you from the world rather than immerse you in it.

Henry: Watchmen versus Batman. You can sellBatman as one person. Watchmen is an ensemble movie that you need to sell. The world they live in is as important as any character. What do you think about selling a movie based on world rather than a single charcter?

Alex: We are interested in world building. That's the basis of a transmedia space. Minority Report - example of world building. We built the world first, which set the narrative into motion. We didn't have a script to begin with. W had to sell the movie based on a visual represenation of a complete world. We built an entire world and then let the narrative find a place in it. It had an interior logic. It's a world that appears benign and relatable. It was future reality versus science-fiction. Deep research was necessary to get real texture with urban planning and a world whose logic is that of DC. Rapid expansion created a vertical city, which required a different transport system. The writers became inspired by that vertical transport system. Strong visuals stimulated writing. Producers and directors often don't go deep into the world. They use comics because the world is already there. It's much harder to exploit that world if you don't build it yourself. The shame of Minority Report was that there was huge databank fo world building that could have bene used in a game or something, but never was. We wanted to give eneough layers to frame the story so that you get a "repeateable" film. We anticipated that fans must be able to see film 5 times to get all the detail. You don't have to reveal everything the first time. It's the easter egg.

Henry: Do you enhance the commercial viability of a film through the "easter egg?"

Alex: It really comes from having fun. It's not just commercial. It's got real appeal for the art department. We tried to take the easter egg further than the comic book in Watchmen. Night owl - he carries his predecessor's book with him in the ship with 8-track cassettes, etc.

Henry: Transmedia extensions in the film worlds - how does planning for the transmedia affect film making? Make things that you know will be DVD special only?

Alex: The director wanted some pieces to be available, but couldn't put in film. So Snyder made sure it made it into the DVD. That's the problem of a wealth of material and only one shot to do it right.

Audience Question: We've heard of the Watchmen video game. Was the production team involved in the movie?

Alex: That's a problem in film. Game-film translation has never been successful. There's not enough time to make the game. You get lead time on film, but the game needs even more time than that to develop. We were not involved in the game, but we have a detailed archive to help games as well as our own work. Studios need to change their mindset. They do not understand the game community. They separate us into different departments and never the twain shall meet. Film creates digital assets but we never give it to the games. There's all this extra work that the game could tap into, but can never take advantage of. Game, film, comics are one entity. One space, instead of fragmentation.

Alisa: It needs to be intiated by the production team. Studios are not able to conceptualize the cross over. The Dark Knight lost opportunity in not having game ready for release.

Alex: We had Watchmen toys featured in the film. We forced the studio to talk to the publishers at DC. We needed rapid prototyping. The toys became an asset for DC. But it only happened because Snyder wanted toys in the film.

Audience Question How is transmediation of film managed?

Alex There is a necessity for a sophisticated director. Studios will support a director, but the director drives it.

Henry: Tim Burton is very interested in world building than storytelling.

Alex: Tim - the world is his own. It's very interior. He has a really clear vision. He has a passion for his own material and will not allow anyone to touch it unless it goes through him.

Audience Questions

Technological change and collaboration -- the traditional linear way of making films starting in the art department is becoming more irrelevant. We are turning to a fully immersive workspace to allow for greater collaboration. Creative process this way is very nonlinear and freeing. It's effective. All Information is shared. This changes the relationships between the departments. Before, it was strands working linearly, but without contact. Now, you can all work together - explore all possiblities. There is no reason for difference between pre, present, post production. Decisions are followed through the entire process. The purity of vision is preserved. Nonlinear process allows for increasing sophistication and collaborative creation. There's a quorum of intent. Everyone is pointing in same direction because everyone has always been involved. Henry: Wanted. Adapted from comic. From superhero to assassin. Moves from comics to action.Interesting example of calculations that hollywood made. Most comic elements stripped out for the screen.

Audience Question: Will rethinking the production process help to bring "soul" back to storytelling? Bring emotion to the film? Avoid losing the story in the shine of the action?

Alex: There is confusion. Technology is a method of execution. Versus a method of creating content. We need to see tech as way of getting to the story, give you creative power. We know how to use it now, but educating people how to use the tools rather than allowing the tools to use them.

Henry: There is a lot of talk about sequels causing emotional exhaustion. Are audiences getting bored? Or are critiques just getting bored? Why would comics drive stories that we can care about over decades, but Hollywood be unable to sustain the material?

Alisa: Hollywood's always looking for the next big thing. They keep rebooting to the next new thing. They are diversifying to lesser known superheros and concentrating on world-building. We'll see more types of stories and less action.

Alex: World building is key to this question. Demands of the comic book are different. You can change the style and you can get into the world easily. You don't need to maintain it in the same way. There was a world built in the first film that was vast and developmentally rich. If you really want to invest in a franchise, you need to put effort up front into this world.

Henry: We've all heard about the Media Lab's Center for the Future of Storytelling. Is storytelling really in danger and is technology really the solution?

Alex: We can liberate narrative through technology. Turn the tools to your creative use, think about things differently. Storytelling is core to this space between games and film. We need to think about how to embedd narratives in environments. Use physical architecture to drive narrative. Give people an opportunity to go further than quest games. Create an immersive social space that is mediated in narrative terms. Collaboration needs to go towards expanding the richness of narrative.

Henry Let's talk about the IP issues around 20th Century Fox's role in Watchmen.

Alex: They can't stop us from making the movie. Fox was contributing to the press and campaign. It's almost spoof-y feeling, and in the end a lot of money will be changing hands. Audiences won't known the difference. It doesn't seem it will impact the release of the film.

Henry: There's some interest in Minority Report and the whole design process.

Alex: Spielberg convened science advisors and consultants for Jurassic Park. A dozen people for two days -- a think tank. He set in motion something that spread out through the entire production. It opened doors into the Media Lab, Microsoft, etc. He brought in many voices. We got a direct science relationship -- they wrote a white paper for a prop that drove the construction of the prop. Arts and science together driving storytelling. Like the gesture recognition system from Minority Report. Now it's a startup company and a functioning piece of technology.