March 29, 2010
Talking TronsMedia with Steven Lisberger

A few weeks ago, I sat down for a conversation with Steven Lisberger, director of the original Tron, to discuss our shared passions for science fiction cinema and transmedia entertainment. Mike Bonifer organized the meeting, filmed the exchange, and edited the footage. He has gradually been rolling it out in short three to four minute chunks via YouTube ever since.

I have to say that it was thrilling to me to meet Lisberger -- having long admired how far forward the thinking behind Tron had been about the directions games and digital culture might take. In the first few installments of this conversation, Lisberger shares with me some of his experiences in making Tron and also considers the current project to re-engage with these characters, their world, and their stories for the next generation. In case you've missed the news, a new Tron movie is going to hit the theaters later this year, and we are already seeing a fair amount of buzz build around it.

Tron took advantage of cutting edge digital graphics to imagine forms of computer gaming which were not yet technically possible at the time. Many of us struggled to even understand what was happening in the movie because it was so far out beyond our previous experiences with things digital. In many ways, subsequent generations of game designers and digital effects artists have helped to design and fully realize many aspects of that vision. So it is interesting to imagine what Tron would mean for today's generation.

This second section discusses Tron's light cycles and the challenges of communicating how they worked and what they could do to people who had yet to have an immersive digital experience. Along the way, he gives us a taste of what it was like to work with futurist designer Syd Mead.

In this next installment, he describes his meeting with one of the "old men" on the Disney animation team and what a break Tron felt with what Disney had done before.

And in this installment, he gets into the ways that the new Tron movie engages with the franchise, including the decision to make the new film in 3D.

By the fifth and sixth installments, we begin to broaden the discussion outward from Tron to the larger context of contemporary digital culture. In part five, I hold forth about the concept of participatory culture and how it is changing the way media gets produced and circulated.

And in part six, we discuss Avatar's impact on the culture, including beginning to talk about the coming wave of 3D films emerging from Hollywood in its wake. I should note here that I discuss Alice in Wonderland as a film conceived in 3D but I have since learned it was shot in 2D and thus does not fully exploit the potentials of 3D cinematography.

Part Seven includes some discussion of political activism that has originated around James Cameron's Avatar and the way popular culture can become a catalyst for social change movements and Steve talks about how Cameron brought together radically different aesthetics from previous science fiction and fantasy films.

In the next installment, we get into the construction of the alien in contemporary science fiction and how this may reflect some shifts that are occuring in American society around race and culture.

By Part Nine, we are back onto transmedia, discussing the ways advanced publicity may help frame and shape audience expectations and how different audiences bring different kinds of knowledge with them into the theater when they engage with the new Tron movie.

This is not exactly My Dinner with Andre, but I think you will find it interesting. I will run a second installment when the rest of the material is up, but you can follow them as they are posted, one a day, on Mike Bonifer's Game Changers YouTube Channel.

More Talk of TRONSmedia

You never know what people will pick up on once your brain children move out and get their own apartments. Over the weekend, Ain't It Cool News picked up on the series, focusing on a brief exchange early in the conversation where I referenced the Scott Brothers returning to Bladerunner as a parallel to Lisberger's return to Tron. From there, fan speculation has grown that somehow I have inside information about the state of the Bladerunner sequel or that we were both confused and really meant to be refering to the Aliens sequel in production.

I can't speak for what Steve was thinking about or might know, but for my part, I was drawing on a panel we did about Purefold at the Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT last November. Here's the panel in question which went into some detail about their plans for this project. Unfortunately, the project has apparently been dropped, or so I learned by reading some of the fan blogs which were responding to this speculation. In this case, like so many others, fans were much more immersed in what was going on than the academics are and thus were closer to the truth than they realized.

I was bemused by the idea that I somehow had access to the inner workings of Hollywood. This blog is not focused on scoops, folks; my focus is on analysis and insights into long-term developments. I am having more and more conversations with Hollywood types since moving to LA, but they rarely tell me anythng that isn't already public knowledge. Those exchanges look more like this conversation -- the trading of insights about media change and larger entertainment trends rather than the sharing of secrets. I am not the guy to go to if you are looking for spoilers, sorry. In any case, it would have been clear that we were talking about Purefold if people had watched the full conversation, since there was a segment devoted to it later in the series.

We finally start to dig into issues of transmedia in this segment, which uses District 9 and its park benches as a taking off point. In what sense are those benches part of the exposition for the movie and how do they help to shape our experiences before we enter the theater?

Here, we talk more generally about the basic functions which transmedia extension plays, including some consideration of what it might add to Tron and also why Avatar is less successful at deploying transmedia than District 9.

What does it mean to "geek out" on culture? And what do we learn by looking at cultural experimentation as both a fan and an academic?

We talk about what it means to make transmedia as James Cameron and what it means to make transmedia as Lance Weiler, i.e. as the producer of Hollywood blockbusters and as the creator of low budget independent genre films.

This next section deals with what we can learn about world building by looking at Martin Scorsese and the Three Stooges (I kid you not!).

Here, Steve and I talk about what it would mean to establish the basis of a story on the web rather than via a major film release.

Steve worries about the "democratization" of the arts and what it does to the creative process, while I talk about continuity and multiplicity as competing tugs on transmedia properties.

We finally get back to Bladerunner and discuss Purefold as a model for collaboration between fans and professional storytellers.

Steve talks about the way Hollywood calibrates around the Zietgeist and I connect this to the conception of genre.

Here, Steve builds out on the differences between science fiction focused around the alien and outer space and science fiction based within cyberspace.

And this leads us to a larger consideration of the politics of fantasy and fan engagement, using the Harry Potter Alliance as a point of entry.

And finally, we return to Tron with Steve explaining what sets his film apart from other science fiction works in terms of its exploration of inner space and our moral responsibilities as humans over what we create.

All told, this was a fascinating meeting of two minds, both obviously immersed in the worlds being created by science fiction cinema, each excited about expanding the expressive capacities of amateur and professional storytellers. I hope you enjoy watching some of these segments half as much as Steve and I enjoyed talking through these issues.

Thanks once again to Mike Bonifer for all the work he put into bringing this material to the public. This whole exchange was Bonifer's brain child: he wanted to bring the two of us into the room to see what would happen; he made all of the arrangements and did all of the production work. And we all have him to thank for all of the creative labor which made these videos possible.

The author of GameChangers-Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, and the co-founder of GameChangers‚ LLC, Mike Bonifer has consistently been in the forefront of emerging trends in media and communication. Beginning with his role as the publicist for the gamechanging movie, Tron, through his work as a writer, director and creative executive, his work has explored new technologies and business processes, and has always been informed by storytelling. He has studied and performed improvisation at I.O. West Theater in Los Angeles. Mike is a really cool guy who has been very involved in the launch of a Transmedia LA meet up group and has been a big supporter of the work I am doing here at USC.