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Live from Transmedia Hollywood 2: Visual Culture and Design

by Sydney Levine
April 8, 2011 6:00 AM
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Another entry by guest blogger, Meredith Levine. Meredith Levine is a second year MA student of Cinema and Media Studies in UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television. She has been working on the Transmedia Hollywood conference since its inaugural year in 2010.

This post will be updated in sections according to the program schedule. The event is also being micro-blogged on twitter by @transmediahwood and #TH2

Transmedia is at its core, telling a story over multiple platforms. It is not new, but with the proliferation of new technology and ease of consuming media it is a trendy, if not, occasionally mis-used word. At today's conference we will be dealing with storytelling on a variety of platforms and across media including: film, television, the Internet, comic books, theme parks, video games, alternate reality games, and more.

9:20AM- Registration has begun, but doors are not yet open. We are still testing our material. Chairs have been set up and there is an energy in the air. People are running around and making last minute details.

9:40AM- The foyer is filling and I just caught a couple of minutes to chat with Bruce Vaughn about theme parks and experience design. To be posted later.

10:01 AM- Introduction:
Denise Mann is introducing everyone and the event. Her interest is as a media industry scholar she is looking forward to new scholars use production studies to engage with media creators to help unravel the intricacies of this new and exciting industries. She is also excited for her MFA students to understand these new frontiers for production. This subject (transmedia properties) has been a topic of debate for many of the guilds.

Henry Jenkins in his opening remarks is presenting a working definition of "transmedia." as flushed out in Convergence Culture and deals with his seven factors of structure of a transmedia property and today we will deal with the logic of design of four of these: world building, subjectivity, seriality/narrative, fan interface/performance.



10:15AM- Panel 1:"Come Out 2 Play": Designing Virtual Worlds--From Screens to Theme Parks and Beyond
Scott Bukatman, Rick Carter, Dylan Cole, Thierry Coup, Craig Hanna, Angela Ndalianis, Bruce Vaughn.

Denise man asks about Disneyland being designed simultaneously with a television program and the first of its kind, and elaborate on theme parks as immersive environment. Scott Bukatman's essay "There is Always Tomorrowland" deals with this issue. Bukatman is elaborating on Tomorrowland as being cuddly interface for new technology. This land gave guests opportunity to encounter new technology in a familiar way and helped people deal with the future. Bukatman argues that "story" might not be the best word for describing this experience. He argues that it is less "story" and more "kinetic immersion" and "experience." Disneyland is described as being an interface that people could experience.

Bruce Vaughn responds by saying that although Imagineers use the word "story" they really are creating "experiences" to be experienced with a group of people, be it family or friends. There may be a narrative of the day, or the ride, but Disneyland and theme parks are really "experiences." You can't really tell a story in the amount of time that an attraction takes. What can happen is the attraction triggers memories and software that is already installed of these stories and people fill in the gaps, or the mood is triggered, like "adventure" and the genre rather than a story arc. Tomorrowland is the hardest land to deal with.

Rick Carter responds with having, "been to the future three times," and that technology does not equate to the future. Steve Jobs is not changing the future. The content drives so much of the future where as the concept of "tomorrow" is something significant. He tells a story about his grandmother not being able to conceive of an airplane at the turn of the century and living to see space travel.

Dylan Cole asks, "Is part of the problem of Tomorrowland that there is not an original IP?"

Angela Ndalianis offers the Pine and Gilmore version of the "Experience Economy." The guest is in a sensory experience that they navigate.

Scott Bukatman notes that technology is really today or tomorrow, not the future and the park can't be updated that quickly and presents the idea that story is a part of form, and is not always content. He presents Avatar as

Dylan Cole mentions that the world of Avatar was designed like a theme park, and sensory experiences are conceived for the world of the film. They had to understand, as visual designers, the smells and sounds and what it was like to be in that space.

Craig Hanna brings up design inbreeding in the theme park design, as coming from theater and cinema, and bringing film-makers into designing physical spaces, and theme park designers teaching other theme park designers. Thierry Coup worked with not only the original author of the story of Harry Potter, but the production designers from the films and theme park designers. For set designers on the film, having them work with theme park designers was a dream come true because they wanted to make complete sets, rather than partial sets that get broken down, they designers got to build the way they dreamed. He goes on to describe the shops in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter are designed in opposition to retail designed because they are small, cramped, have bad flow, bad lighting, and more props than merchandise, yet people wait to see them because it is part of the Harry Potter experience that people had read and watched for over a decade. Butterbeer is frequently listed in guest surveys as being in the top three attractions at the land even though it is one part of food and beverages. It is the visceral experience of being transported into a familiar story.

Denise asks people to speak to the future of theme parks and films. How do industries in the future deal with immediacy and interaction?

The best cities are comfortable because they are designed well. Delivering a place that has been thought through to bring people through a set of largely pleasant emotions. Bruce Vaughn addresses if the medium cares about the audience. Television programs don't care if you are actually watching, or distracted; movies don't care if you leave the room; actors care if audiences leave in live theater, but barring stand-up comedians, the script won't change if you walk out, video games can't be played without players, but in theme parks, things are changing. Yes, in Pirates of the Caribbean the animatronics will go on regardless of if the boat is full or not, but there is also Turtle Talk with Crush, where the whole show is this character interacting and recognising people as individuals. Disney is playing with alternate reality games that are pirate themed, that take people through this real time adventure with live actors and playing with other guests in the park that they might not previously know. The new hitchhiking ghosts in Florida are increasing personalization by being able to take off the heads of guests and swap them and do all sorts of interactive effects with guests and groups of guests. Bruce Vaughn mentioned that he wants the pirates in the ride Pirates of the Caribbean to be aware of the guests in the boat.

What happens if you are dealing with a real space, like Coney Island?

Craig Hanna describes Coney Island as being a nostalgic place that never really existed, and the challenge in designing it is to meet that fictional image, where now lies lots of medical waste and not so pleasant experiences. He goes back to the height of "transmedia storytelling" being starting on one platform, transitioning to a second, and finishing on a third, where each platform is aware of where you have been and options for where you are going.

Rick Carter mentions "portal" moments in cinema as being able to provide experiences of immersion and transcendence and transference.

Denise Mann asks if it is a generational thing being comfortable with first person perspective, video game structure, and multiple iterations of characters over multiple stories and platforms.

The challenge with this in America is that if a fan gets interested in a franchise from a film there are too many options of comics that overwhelm and confuse these new guests. The fans who can jump from one story or aesthetic to another are a shrinking demographic.

In the instance of Sucker Punch, the film is being rejected so fiercely, and Rick Carter, who worked on the film, is impressed with the articulate nature of the rejection of the film, and about 90% of the audience rejecting it, and the nature of the "mode jerk" moment.

Bruce Vaughn goes on to note that he thinks we will be able to add to narrative journeys that have arcs, but there is an openness to consuming narrative in fragments. People have the ability to handle many things at once like texting while having a conversation and watching a movie. The absorption rate of information while multitasking is up for debate, but his nieces like that kind of experience, in addition to singular narratives and theme parks.

Rick Carter asks Dylan Cole how he comes up with the visuals he makes, and it comes down to, as Cole says, is his desire to fulfill childhood dreams of places he wants to go to. He deals with skills of matte painting as concept art to show a director a more finished product earlier in the design process to help create a more real and immersive setting. Carter responds with turning these matte paintings into a three dimensional space that is able to be navigated, with lighting and movement. You run tino funny places as to what reality is. When something is asked about, like size of a waterfall, the response to "how tall is that waterfall?" is the question " do you mean in feet or pixels?"

Theirry Coup wants to be in that design process early on in the theme park process too. He suggests perhaps a simultaneous design of the film and the theme park. Bruce Vaughn says the same thing. Theme park elements are being designed at the same time as films, and working with films instead of copying from films. He uses Star Tours as an example from the world. Star Tours was not in Star Wars but it is in the world of Star Wars, with key characters and setting. Where things fail a bit, is when a story is re-told in a theme park style, but the original story mode is likely better than the ride. Theme parks succeed, not in re-telling stories, but rather contributing to story worlds.

11:40AM- Open to audience questions.

Q.How to you juggle traditional issues of time and duration in theme parks?
A. Average dark ride is 4 minutes, but the queue and pre-show is used to tell most of the story. A full and complete story is near impossible to complete in the time of a ride, so rides try to be timeless. Theme parks must look to the future because average time of development and construction is five years. Technology allows for rides to be upgraded rather than overhauled. Disney refers to queues as "Scene 1" and guests want to wait through the queue line at least once. The whole process contributes to the story.

12:10pm- Panel 2: "We're Looking For Characters": Designing Personalities Who Play Across Platforms
Panelists : Geoffrey Long, Alisa Perren, Kelly Souders, Francesca Coppa

In Media Res shares film clips with critical commentary.
Organization of Transformative Works, made online by fans for fans to help fans control exchange of stories.

Each panelist was asked to provide an example of characters designed for a transmedia world.
Geoffrey Long: inclusion of negative space that allows people to fill in that space with their imaginations. Providing this space allows authors to come back later and fill in those spaces. The spaces allow for discourse and fan communication. Long uses Darth Vader as an example of a transmedia character. Vader has distinct sihlouette even without details. Vader has a distinct voice. Vader has identifyible actions (force choke, etc). If you are thinking about a model for character design, these elements are necessary.

Alisa Perrin looked towards non-genre transmedia franchises: Law and Order. This poses the question of what is included as a transmedia franchise. There are Law and Order video games, and books that add back story to the characters. How do we expand how we think about transmedia outside of genre fare.

Kelly Souders stumbled into transmedia blindly, without knowing what online content was. She has seen impact with publicity and can use online to reach out to fans in having things like "The Chloe Cronicles." Nine out of ten fan letters about Smallville are about the character Chloe Sullivan. The second way transmedia properties have helped Smallville are by having something to lean on and draw from when ideas start to slow around 180 episodes. They brought comic book villains into the television show because they had built in fans.

Francesca Coppa works with the Organization of Transformative Works to deal with legal and cultural impact of fan work. They are currently building a fan archive for material like fan fiction, vids, and such, with features fans want. They are also involved with the largest all-female coding project to date. Fans want to move characters in cross overs and mash ups bringing characters into other universes. Fans think in transmedia in that they move, extend, and expand stories from mass media to other modes.

If characters are not being commercially produced in transmedia, they are being put there by their audiences. If you have recognizable core components of a franchise then they can be tweaked to appeal to multiple audiences and made and re-made in multiple ways. The idea of multiplicity is not in conflict with core components, and fans always want more. Part of the problem of filling in holes in Star Wars is that what fans create are often more interesting and complex stories. When there is a long time between a "door" being presented in terms of an event or character, and the door being opened, then expectations might not be met, yet audiences are content to not fill in holes completely. An example of a "door" is the Boba Fett character from Star Wars. Fans had a long time to speculate about the character such that, when there was a definitive answer close to 20 years later, fans had filled in the holes themselves.

What makes a "Smallville" version of a character from the comic books?
Doomsday had a specific look that was not possible in television for budget, and so they focused on the character more than the aesthetic of the character. There is a pressure to have all of the parts of Smallville line up and there are fans for each component and previous version and so long as depth and new information is introduced and the stories are good, with the hope that they might line up later, then bringing things over will survive the initial fan push back.

There are reasons why certain stories are told in a certain medium because of the structure of the medium. Radio programming fleshed out the Krypton storyline of Superman, where as the televised serials told the reporter story because the form of television was more equipped for it. If you start planning for transmedia then more characters will be more Darth Vader like because they can be transported. Being able to recognize the original version as a point of emphasis gets challenging when there are several points of entry to the franchise.

The Smallville buzz word in the writers' room is frequently "homage" in order to stay respectful of what came before in the Superman franchise. They shy away from other TV programs because it is the same format, where as the films and comic books have different elements. People are not working fully in the medium they are in. Television fails in size and budget but provides seriality and intimacy that isn't seen in film. This allows creators to say "What can we do to this character unique to the medium I am working in?" You can make different meanings in different formats.

Tailoring to the medium is seen in comedies on television right now, by having their characters on Twitter and get deeper understanding of characters in 140 character or less. Kelly Souders the producer considers transmedia heavily when working, but when in writer mode, does not at all and works strictly within the story.

What does television do as a medium?

Conversations about transmedia rose with highly serialized shows like LOST and Heroes, but since franchises since then have been less successful, then reconsidering transmedia is necessary. There is a range of shows from very episodic to very serial and each serves a different function.

Each part of a franchise should not feel like an advertisement for the rest, but rather be a hook, or ambassador for the rest, then it can draw you in, as a novel, or television program to engage audiences to seek out more. Many of the most popular franchises came about transmedia accidentally, like Sherlock Holmes novels and illustrations if his hat (which was not mentioned in any of the books). Novels and films as mediums frequently have closure, where television might be lacking, and in not having closure or an idea that the future is predetermined is sometimes a detriment. Television does add depth over time. There seems to be a rule in television that the first ten episodes condition audiences to what the show is about and how it is formatted and then story can get more complex after that point. Once characters have strong followings, more risks can be taken because they want to know more about the characters they love.

Characters on television hardly ever exist in happy sexual relationships while still fighting crime/monsters/the world, which makes them barely human, and hard to identify with. The reaction shot is also a large component, in visual style, that tell about characters without having to say things. Having those shots and reactions makes characters more relatable but understanding their actions and reactions. Unwritten stories can be created in the editing room by organization of glances and moments.

Fan vidders often rely on reaction shots and blocking to tell other stories. Television relies on nonverbal ques. Reality television has impacted character development to the point of wanting to go somewhere real (like Top Chef and going to the restaurant of the chefs). Behind the scenes work is often lacks quality to enhance character development in a meaningful way. Reality shows seem to integrate soliloquies and provide consistency of characters where fiction often fails. One person must have oversight to maintain quality control. The confessional seems to be tied to reality television that doesn't work in fictional work. It takes a lot for someone to be compelling enough for five minutes to combat the temptation of the refrigerator.

What does the web add to character that can't exist in a serial drama?

There can be deeper focus on character rather than action or plot. The emphasis could be placed in the margins, such that the web can understand individual preferences and shift focus accordingly. What is happening on the web and what can happen with the web are two different things. There can be behind the scenes type details online that provide extra information, but they could add in more content seamlessly and according to preference drawing no distinction between platforms and merely having content accessible in any way possible.

1:25PM Audience Questions

Q. How do the sum of the parts create something greater than each component as a whole?
A. They create a universe that no one creator can do on their own. One person might not be able to, or one corporation, might not be able to make a universe as round as some might. Audiences are rewarded for going to an unfamiliar medium with a better understanding of story, character and worlds. If we think of this from an aesthetic point of view we can start with referring to The Wire as "Dickensonian." Expanding to a whole world is what gets done and there is a greater range of point of view, outside of the economic imperatives. The world is a character and explorable and so in having different perspectives across different platforms allows for a better understanding of the world as a character in addition to the characters. Exploring multiple platforms still must be rewarded.

Q. where does a new concept of ownership come in. who owns a story and what do they own?
A. When it was just a television show, audiences were voyeurs but with participation comes ownership, even if it just emotional, or original content. The flow goes the other way too. More than one time, writers are inspired by fan work and it goes back into the show. Kelly Souders looks at the fan fiction and attests to ideas going the other way and being inspired by fan work.

Fandom is how people sell television to Francesca Coppa. Fans have been doing transmedia for a long time and know how to do it. A text is like a song, and fans want to sing it and not be told that they are doing it wrong or badly. There might not actually be a desire to own content from fans, but they want to use the content. Fans don't want to be told they have to have rights to sing a song in the shower.

Q. Fanfic group mind as being powerful to creators and negative space as being powerful. As a creator you want committed fans. How to you harness power of negative space and a corporately sponsored platform to organize, sponsor and provide space for fans is this viable?
A. If there had been a sandbox technique supporting stories of other schools in Harry Potter, would that have worked. An intermediate creative commons section. It is not an either/or. Should there be authorized sandboxes. Works are successful because they are tapping into a subcurrent, and as a creator you might not want to have that thread excavated, but should be dug up anyway rather than repressed. Fans dig this up. Coppa would not want to see creators policing fan activities.

Dr. Who as a case study in fan support and business model. When the original series got cancelled the BBC provided legal outlets for fans to produce lower cost stories like novels and comics, until there was enough buzz to start up the series again and some of the top fan writers became show-runners on the reboot.

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