October 5, 2009
Futures of Entertainment 4 - The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Parts 1 - 3)

The Futures of Entertainment 4 website has been live for a few weeks, and you can now register for the event, held here at MIT on November 20 and 21.

This year, the entire first day of the conference will be dedicated to interrogating some of the issues around the creative and business practices behind transmedia projects.

In order to review some of the concepts and implications of transmedia, we've reproduced a recent and interesting three-part essay published by Henry to his blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan. In these three posts, Henry responds to an article written by his graduate-school mentor, David Bordwell, and discusses the concepts of world building and seriality as elements of the artful nature and potential of transmedia. The three installments are available below, after the jump.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part One)

David Bordwell, my graduate school mentor and one of the leading figures in academic film studies, joined the conversation about transmedia storytelling the other week with a typically thoughtful and engaging entry that explored the strengths and limits of transmedia as an expansion of the cinematic experience. Personally, I read Bordwell's analysis as a friendly amendment and generous "shout out" to the work I've been doing on this topic, not to mention a timely one since it arrived on the eve of the start of my Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment class at USC. His greatest contribution here is to raise a series of constructive objections and challenging questions any filmmaker would need to think through before moving their film -- mainstream or independent -- in a transmedia direction. To keep the conversation on these topics flowing, I thought I would respond to some of Bordwell's arguments.

Bordwell writes:

Transmedia storytelling is very, very old. The Bible, the Homeric epics, the Bhagvad-gita, and many other classic stories have been rendered in plays and the visual arts across centuries. There are paintings portraying episodes in mythology and Shakespeare plays. More recently, film, radio, and television have created their own versions of literary or dramatic or operatic works. The whole area of what we now call adaptation is a matter of stories passed among media....

What makes this traditional idea sexy? ... Some transmedia narratives create a more complex overall experience than that provided by any text alone. This can be accomplished by spreading characters and plot twists among the different texts. If you haven't tracked the story world on different platforms, you have an imperfect grasp of it.

I can follow Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories well without seeing The Seven Percent Solution or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. These pastiches/continuations are clearly side excursions, enjoyable or not in themselves and perhaps illuminating some aspects of the original tales. But according to Henry, we can't appreciate the Matrix trilogy unless we understand that key story events have taken place in the videogame, the comic books, and the short films gathered in The Animatrix.

I would certainly agree with Bordwell that transmedia storytelling does not begin with The Matrix. When Jeff Gomez (Starlight Runner) spoke to my students last week, he repeatedly used the phrase, "mythology," to describe the structure of transmedia narratives and others adopt a long-standing industry term, "Story Bible," to describe the documentation that organizes the continuity. Both metaphors pay tribute to earlier forms of branching or encyclopedic narrative. In Gomez's case, we might trace the concept of "mythology" backwards from the D&D games he played as a young man into the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien who clearly conceived of Lord of the Rings as modeled on structures found in folklore and mythology. I'd also argue that C.S. Lewis's writings on stories contain a lot of great insights onto the value of telling details in fleshing out fictional worlds, suggesting that modern transmedia fans might have enjoyed a rich exchange if they were able to sit down in the faculty room at Oxford in the early part of the last century.

If I was having an imaginary conversation about the origins of this concept, I'd also want to include L. Frank Baum, who unfolded the world of Oz across a range of media platforms. What we now might read as a series of novels that fleshed out the Land of Oz began life as short films produced by Baum's studios, Broadway musicals, and comic strips. (See the recent republished edition of The Marvelous Land of Oz which collects the comic strip elaborations of his "mythology.") Indeed, you could argue that the shifts across media give the book series a kind of wacky incoherence, involving radical shifts in tone or theme, inconsistent conceptions of characters, and so forth.

I might also want to invite Cordwainer Smith, a science fiction writer who I've long been convinced was a time traveller, since his works prefigure many of the key themes and motifs of cyberpunk. Smith developed a complex and interlocking "mythology" which links together dozens of short stories published across a range of different magazines, and he specifically depicted many of his stories as "versions" or "installments" of a narrative the reader is already presumed to understand from encountering it across a range of previous media incarnations. Smith himself wrote only prose narratives, but in his fictions, he imagines explicitly how his tales would take shape on stage or television.

I would argue that the contemporary moment of transmedia has heightened our awareness of these earlier moments of authors unfolding stories across media, much as the rise of digital media more generally has led to a revitalization of the study of "old media when they were new" or the history of the book. We certainly want to understand what is new about our current push for transmedia entertainment, which to me has to do with the particular configuration of media systems and the push towards a more participatory culture.

Tolkien, Lewis, Baum, and Smith all sought to model contemporary fictions on the dispersed, episodic, yet interlocking structures of classic mythology -- creating a folklore for a post-folkloric society. And so, yes, there are going to be many resemblances to be drawn between transmedia stories, informed by these creative figures, and traditional religious or mythological works.

That said, many of Bordwell's examples above are simply adaptations of works produced in one medium for performance in another platform. And for many of us, a simple adaptation may be "transmedia" but it is not "transmedia storytelling" because it is simply re-presenting an existing story rather than expanding and annotating the fictional world. Of course, this distinction assumes a pretty straight forward adaptation. Every adaption makes additions -- minor or otherwise -- and reinterpretations of the original which in theory expands our understanding of the core story. These changes can be read as "infidelities" by purists but they may also represent what I describe in CC as "additive comprehension" -- they may significantly reshape our understanding of what's happening in the original work. Still, I think there is a distinction to be made between "extensions" to the core narrative or the fictional universe and adaptations which simply move content from one medium to another.

Bordwell continues:

The "immersive" ancillaries seem on the whole designed less to complete or complicate the film than to cement loyalty to the property, and even recruit fans to participate in marketing. It's enhanced synergy, upgraded brand loyalty.

For the most part Hollywood is thinking pragmatically, adopting Lucas' strategy of spinning off ancillaries in ways that respect the hardcore fans' appreciation of the esoterica in the property. Caranicas quotes Jeff Gomez, an entrepreneur in transmedia storytelling, saying that for most of his clients "we make sure the universe of the film maintains its integrity as it's expanded and implemented across multiple platforms." It would seem to be a strategy of expanding and enriching fan following, and consequent purchases.

As best I can tell, then, in borrowing this academic idea, the industry is taking the radical edge off. But is that surprising?

I've long ago given up trying to separate the creative and commercial motivations of transmedia entertainment, but then, all popular culture, no, all art depends on a complex balance between the two. From the start, most transmedia has been funded through the promotional budget rather than being understood as part of the creative costs of a particular franchise, even where it has been understood as performing key world building or story expanding functions. This was a central issue in the Writer's Strike a few years ago. Indeed, in so far as Hollywood has grasped transmedia, it has been in the context of a growing awareness of the urgency of creating "consumer engagement" that has been a buzz word across the entertainment industry in recent years. This is why the transmedia chapter in CC follows so closely after the discussion of "affective economics" and American Idol.

Yet, as I suggested in my recent discussion of District 9, one man's promotion is another man's exposition. Increasingly, transmedia extensions are released in advance of the launch of major franchises and do some of the basic work of orientating us to the characters, their world, and their goals, allowing the film or television series to plunge quickly into the core action. Yet, even at this level, they can do other things -- creating a more layered experience by introducing us to conflicting points of view on the action (as when we learn more about alien rights protesters through the District 9 promotional materials). Most of the people in the industry who take transmedia seriously are open about the fact that they are highjacking parts of the promotional budget to experiment with something that they think has the potential to refresh genre entertainment as well as reward viewer investments.

On another level, I'd say we are still at a moment of transition where transmedia practices are concern. Each new experiment -- even the failed ones -- teach us things about how to shape a compelling transmedia experience or what kinds of tools are needed to allow consumers to manage information as it is dispersed across multiple platforms. In some ways, the transmedia stories may need to be conservative on other levels -- adopting relatively familiar genre formulas -- so that the reader learns how to put together the pieces into a meaningful whole, much as the first jigsaw puzzles we are given as children take shape into familiar characters and do not have the challenges found in those designed for hardcore puzzlers.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part Two)

Today, I continue to share my responses to David Bordwell's recent blog post on transmedia storytelling. It is worth stressing that these are still early days in the evolution of transmedia narrative practices and even earlier in terms of our theoretical understanding of those practices. Exchanges like this one have the potential to help both critics and practitioners think more deeply about these developments. Every time I step in front of my transmedia class at USC, I feel like I am playing without a net and that's what makes the classroom experience so exciting. We are really thinking through a relatively new phenomenon together. And each set of questions which get posed will push all of us to dig a little deeper.

Bordwell wrote:

For one thing, most Hollywood and indie films aren't particularly good. Perhaps it's best to let most storyworlds molder away. Does every horror movie need a zigzag trail of web pages? Do you want a diary of Daredevil's down time? Do you want to look at the Flickr page of the family in Little Miss Sunshine? Do you want to receive Tweets from Juno? Pursued to the max, transmedia storytelling could be as alternately dull and maddening as your own life.

There aren't that many films/franchises that generate profoundly devoted fans on a large scale: The Matrix, Twilight, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, maybe The Prisoner. These items are a tiny portion of the total number of films and TV series produced. It's hard to imagine an ordinary feature, let alone an independent film, being able to motivate people to track down all these tributary narratives. There could be a lot of expensive flops if people tried to promote such things.

Well, actually, my bet is that Diablo Cody's penchant for snarky one-liners might have been better served if Juno had unfolded via Twitter rather than on the screen, there are many excellent comic book stories which center around the "downtime" of superheroes and thus focus on their alter egos, but I catch David's drift. I don't think that every fictional work should become a transmedia franchise, though I think the approach lends itself to a broader array of genres than simply the fantasy and science fiction franchises that have been its primary home to date.

For me, the core aesthetic impulses behind good transmedia works are world building and seriality. For this reason, the transmedia approach enhances certain kinds of works that have been udged harshly by traditional aesthetic criteria because they are less concentrated on plot or even character than more classically constructed narratives. It's long been a charge directed against science fiction works that they are more interested in mapping complex environments than in telling compelling stories. Many of my favorite SF novels -- Snow Crash for example -- break down into near incoherence by the end, yet they offer us richly realized worlds which I would love to be able to explore in greater detail than any one narrative allows. I might make the same argument about Martin Scorsese's The Gangs of New York: Marty got so invested in the historical background of his film that it sometimes swamps his characters and as a history buff, I kept wanting to stop the film and chase background figures down the street so that I could learn more about who they are and what they are doing. In some scenes, I was more interested in the extras than the protagonists.

I recently read an outstanding dissertation written by a recent UW-Madison graduate, Derick Johnson, who talks about "overdesign" as a principle driving contemporary media franchises: his example is Battlestar Galactica, which he suggests overflows with throwaway details which convince us that the depicted vents are unfolding in a world as rich and complex as our own. Speaking at last year's 5D event, I argued that the art director takes on new importance in transmedia franchises, becoming almost as central as the screenwriter or the director, in terms of adding to our understanding of the fictional world. We could go back to Syd Mead's contributions to Bladerunner for an example where much of our appreciation of the film stems from a complex and well considered rendering of a plausible future society. So, we can see many of the extensions around transmedia narratives as examples of this "overdesign," adding greater "texture" (to use a concept Johnson draws from Ron Moore) to our over-all experience. Such extensions may or may not add something key to the unfolding of the narrative, but they nevertheless impact our overall aesthetic experience.

All of this is to say that not every work should become transmedia, but we may not yet know enough to prejudge which works can be meaningfully enhanced through such an approach.

Bordwell writes:

film viewing is already an active, participatory experience. It requires attention, a degree of concentration, memory, anticipation, and a host of story-understanding skills. Even the simplest story gears up our minds. We may not notice this happening because our skills are so well-practiced; but skills they are. More complicated stories demand that we play a sort of mental game with the film. Trying to guess Hitchcock or Buñuel's next twist can engross you deeply. And the very genre of puzzle films trades on brain strain, demanding that the film be watched many times (buy the DVD) for its narrational stratagems to be exposed.

Here, I can only agree. Indeed, Bordwell's teaching shaped my own investment in the cognitive and social/cultural activities of film consumers, giving me a theoretical vocabulary to make sense of some of the things I'd experienced in and through fandom. I don't buy the "Lean back"/"Sit Forward" distinction offered by many transmedia advocates. That said, I do think that there is an increased awareness of audience activity driving the push towards transmedia storytelling.

Bordwell and others in the formalist tradition make a distinction between story and plot. The plot of the film is the sequence in which we encounter specific bits of information, while the story of the film is our mental construct which rearranges that information into a coherent sequence. So, a mystery may begin with the discovery of the body and work backwards (to show us the events which motivated the death) and forward (to show us how the detective put together the clues.) If we take this distinction between the sequencing and structuring of information, transmedia storytelling simply expands the scope of the process, allowing us to continue to collect and assemble clues once the specific unfolding of the film is completed.

Yet, in a networked culture, this ongoing process of information gathering, hypothesis testing, and interpetation/evaluation takes on a more profoundly social dimension. It is no longer something that occurs in a single mind during the two hours the film is unfolding; it is something which we do together, pooling resources, and comparing notes. Mimi Ito describes this as the "hypersocial" logic underlying Japanese media mix. Clearly this process is most vividly suggested by the Alternate Reality Game, where the information scavenger hunt becomes the driving force of the entertainment experience, but we can understand the dispersion of videos about the world of District 9 as also setting a similar process in motion.

Bordwell writes:

No narrative is absolutely complete; the whole of any tale is never told. At the least, some intervals of time go missing, characters drift in and out of our ken, and things happen offscreen. Henry Jenkins suggests that gaps in the core text can be filled by the ancillary texts generated by fan fiction or the creators. But many films thrive by virtue of their gaps. In Psycho, just when did Marion decide to steal the bank's money? There are the open endings, which leave the story action suspended. There are the uncertainties about motivation.....Many art works exploit that impulse by letting us play with alternative hypotheses about causes and outcomes. We don't need the creators to close those hypotheses down.

Geoff Long, a CMS graduate, has long advocated the use of the concept of "negative capability" to understand how gaps in the fiction incite certain forms of aesthetically pleasing speculations and anticipations. There is of course a complex dance between gaps and excesses where we are talking about narrative information. Johnson's "overdesign" may seem to provide "too much information" about the story world, yet for every new bit of information given, there are new spaces for speculation opened. We become like nagging five year olds who follow every explanation with a new question.

That said, most good transmedia artists know that there are certain gaps which should not be filled if they want to maintain interest in the series as a whole. There are certainly reasons to create ambiguities and uncertanties. We may offer more clues through other media, but we certainly don't want to destroy the mystery which makes such characters and worlds compelling in the first place. Fans resent the addition of information simply to close down avenues for speculation -- take, for example, the closing chapter of the last Harry Potter novel which amounted to J.K. Rowling spraying her territory telling us who married who and what they named their children even though most of that information had limited narrative impact and simply felt like she was trying to foreclose certain strands of fan expansion. In some cases, authors are better off allowing fans to create their own narratives, since the community will generate multiple explanations, much as critics will offer multiple accounts of what motivates Hamlet or Travis Bickle to do what they do.

Bordwell writes:

Storytelling is crucially all about control. It sometimes obliges the viewer to take adventures she could not imagine. Storytelling is artistic tyranny, and not always benevolent.

To me, the key word here is "sometimes." Bordwell is describing a particular kind of storytelling. It's no accident that critics of transmedia and interactivity almost always fall back on Alfred Hitchcock to illustrate their point. Hitchcock's works are certainly about control, shaping not only the sequencing of events and unfolding of information, but also playing around with the hierarchy of knowledge between the characters and the shaping of the point of view shots through which we see each moment of the film. Hitchcock famously slept on the set because he had thought all of this through before the cameras roll. So, yes, let's give Bordwell Hitchcock.

But, then give me Tim Burton, whose films are often sprawling messes, because he is so much more interested in art direction and world building than storytelling. I have limited interest in the plot of his version of Planet of the Apes, say, but I never cease to be amazed at the complex thinking which went into every aspect of the Ape cultures -- a classic example of Johnson's "overdesign" and "textures" in action. The human characters amount to cursers we deploy to navigate the fictional space and in that case, I would be quite happy to be free to explore this world on my own, digging deeper into details that don't happen to be required for the unfolding of a particular story but which deepen my experience of this imaginary culture. We can call Tim Burton a bad filmmaker because he doesn't need to exert this kind of "tryanical control" over the unfolding of information, but then how do you explain the pleasurable anticipation I have for his version of Alice in Wonderland, even though I know he will once again disappoint me as a storyteller.

So maybe Planet of the Apes is not a film I would go to the mat for. But if we shift media, I would argue that works like War and Peace or Moby-Dick or Dante's Inferno are much more invested in world-building than story-telling and that their authors seemed content to stop their novels dead in their tracks for pages on end as we wander through their fictionalized geography, trying to map its contours or understand the connections between scattered events. In both cases, what frustrates high school students who want them to get on with their stories is what has made them of lasting interest to critics who want to better understand the realms they are depicting. (It's no accident, I think, that some enterprising producer out there is trying to adopt the Divine Comedy into a transmedia franchise. Surely, that was Dante's plan all along.)

Clearly the author always exerts a certain degree of control over the unfolding of story information, but there are some authors who seek to create a more open text and others who seek to close down varying interpretations. I would say that so far transmedia storytelling has appealed to storytellers who want to open up greater freedom of interpretation rather than those who want to totally shape the reception of their work.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part Three)

This is the third and final segment of my response to David Bordwell's thoughtful analysis of some of the pitfalls and challenges associated with transmedia storytelling. Thanks to David for sparking what has been a fascinating exchange, one which has forced me to sharpen my thinking about certain key issues that I am working through for my class.
Bordwell writes:

Another drawback to shifting a story among platforms: art works gain strength by having firm boundaries. A movie's opening deserves to be treated as a distinct portal, a privileged point of access, a punctual moment at which we can take a breath and plunge into the story world. Likewise, the closing ought to be palpable, even if it's a diminuendo or an unresolved chord. The special thrill of beginning and ending can be vitiated if we come to see the first shots as just continuations of the webisode, and closing images as something to be stitched to more stuff unfolding online. There's a reason that pictures have frames.

Again, I'd argue that Bordwell is describing a specific kind of filmmaking, one that may gain very little from transmedia expansion. Yet, as I said earlier, the aesthetic properties of texts that lend themselves to transmedia experience are world-building (as we've been discussing) and seriality. By definition, a serial text is not self-contained. It resolves one chapter and immediately plants the book that will draw us into the next. It is, as Angela Ndalianis stresses in Neo-Baroque, a work which pushes beyond its frame. Now, to be clear, the cliffhangers which have shaped many classic serial forms do depend on an understanding of where one text stops and another begins. But we can see this as an art of chunking rather than framing. They know how to break the story down into meaningful chunks which are compelling emotionally within themselves but which gain greater urgency when read in relation to the other installments of the story. We still have a lot to learn about how to create meaningful chunks and link them together across media platforms. As such, I am watching more and more vintage serials to see how they balance between self-containment and openness.

This may be why transmedia seems so far to work best in relation to television, which is increasingly relying on seriality (and back story) to create a particular kind of aesthetic experience, and where it is applied to film, it seems to work best for franchises which will have a series of increasingly preplanned sequels. No one would take away the aesthetic pleasures of closure and containment, but there are also aesthetic pleasures in seriality, openness, and especially, for me, a pleasure in suddenly understanding how a bit of information consumed in one medium fits into the puzzle being laid out for us in a totally different platform.

So far, transmedia texts have been most compelling while they are mid-process and have tended to disappoint when they reached their conclusion. This phenomenon may tell us something about the degree to which they rely on open-ended and serialized structures rather than the kinds of closure which is the pleasure of a different kind of fiction. The anxious fan wants to know that the producers of Lost isn't making it up as they go along, though of course, on one level, every storyteller is making it up as they go along. The hope though is for a certain level of integrity and continuity between the pieces which allows us to find the coherent whole from which the many parts must have once broken adrift.

For me, though, I am also intrigued by the moment when the story is rich with possibilities, when fan speculations span out in many different directions, and when each of us has taken the parts as resources for constructing our own fictional world. I wrote about this almost 20 years ago in response to Twin Peaks: I was much more interested in the hundreds of complex theories about who killed Laura Palmer that invested fans constructed individually and collectively than I was in the official version which David Lynch and Mark Frost were forced to add under pressure from the networks.

Bordwell writes:

In between opening and closing, the order in which we get story information is crucial to our experience of the story world. Suspense, curiosity, surprise, and concern for characters--all are created by the sequencing of story action programmed into the movie. It's significant, I think, that proponents of hardcore multiplatform storytelling don't tend to describe the ups and downs of that experience across the narrative. The meanderings of multimedia browsing can't be described with the confidence we can ascribe to a film's developing organization. Facing multiple points of access, no two consumers are likely to encounter story information in the same order. If I start a novel at chapter one, and you start it at chapter ten, we simply haven't experienced the art work the same way.

Transmedia storytellers are becoming increasingly skilled at deciding when extensions should be rolled out in relation to the franchise's "mother ship." Some plot developments do require careful sequencing. There's a pleasure to be had in watching Robert Rodriquez's Shorts in making fun of a schoolboy who claims that sharks ate his homework in an early scene and then looping back in time to discover that he is telling the truth. Even though the plot of the film shifts around the story information so we see events out of sequence, there is still a larger rationale determining why we experience these events in a particular order.

The same may be said for the difference between materials released to the web before we encounter the film or television series, which often are designed to help us manage the complexity of an unfamiliar world or an ensemble-centered narrative, and those which come later in the unfolding of the franchise. Enter the Matrix comes at a particular juncture in the film series, while the multiplayer game based on The Matrix comes only after the film series was completed and the Wachowskis wanted to cede greater creative control back to the consumers to take the world in new directions. The Battlestar Galactica webisodes , "Face of the Enemy," which came on the eve of the final season went back in time to refocus us on the character of Felix Gaeta, who had been a secondary figure for most of the run, showing us the events from his point of view and revealing previously unknown aspects of his motivation, just in time to set us up for the character to play a much more central role in the series's final year. This is why transmedia "chunks" often tell us explicitly where they fit into the larger time line and why many of us prefer to read those chunks within a narrative sequence.
So, we may simply be over-stating the degree to which the dispersal of information is open-ended. Certainly, once the information moves beyond the borders of a single text, there's no control over what order the spectator encounters it. And it may not matter in which order we encounter certain aspects of the world building. But it may still be the case that the release and roll out of transmedia content is carefully timed and structured to construct a preferred reading sequence. Geoff Long has called for navigational tools that help viewers to find relevant content and to identify at what point it fits into the unfolding of the larger transmedia story. Given this, I believe that it would be possible to do a formalist reading of a transmedia narrative which mapped the functions of different bits of information and for me, that would go beyond simply a list of joints and citations. It would simply be a task of enormous complexity. Much as Roland Barthes could apply his methods to only a small segment of a Balzac story, Geoff Long has been able to apply the narrative analysis to only a short segment of Jim Henson's transmedia texts.

Bordwell writes:

Gap-filling isn't the only rationale for spreading the story across platforms, of course. Parallel worlds can be built, secondary characters can be promoted, the story can be presented through a minor character's eyes. If these ancillary stories become not parasitic but symbiotic, we expect them to engage us on their own terms, and this requires creativity of an extraordinarily high order.

Well, yes, and these are the functions of transmedia extensions which interest me the most -- and for that matter, the ones which spark the most excitement in the industry types who seem to grasp the concepts the best. It isn't simply about the narrative; it isn't simply about filling in gaps in the plot. "Gap-filling" seems to be a special case: the parlor trick that The Matrix franchises plays with the delivery of information from the doomed Osyrus which unfolds across three different media platforms. More often, transmedia is about back story which shifts our identifications and investments in characters and thus helps us to rewatch the scenes again with different emotional resonance. More often, it is about picking up on a detail seeded in the original film and using it as a point of entry into a different story or a portal into exploring another aspect of the world. And yes, to do this well is creativity of an extraordinarily high order, which is why most transmedia extensions disappoint; they fail to achieve their full potential. Transmedia is appealing to artists of a certain ambition who nevertheless want to work on popular genre entertainment rather than developing avant garde movies or art films. It appeals to intellectually engaged viewers who are more at home with popular culture than with gallery installations.

I'm curious to hear what other transmedia critics and creators are thinking about this exchange.


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