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.

(Two More Installments To Come)