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.

Comments

  1. https://services.mozilla.com/openid/dl says:

    Henry out of the three posts I think this one for me personally gets to the heart of the matter. Portals and dead space and choosing to engage or leaving it for and eventual filling by someone else when the story hits the interactive interface of the web. The idea of dead spaces being portals to other storycubes is the essence of the architecture of this new medium this new story inclusive structure…in my not so humble opinion.

  2. I can’t agree that “dead spaces” are the essence of transmedia storytelling.

    It seems to feed off the inclusion of multiple creators, which I think is ultimately detrimental. The greatest potential transmedia experience is going to come from a singular creative force. Be that a group of people or one person, the design of the entire web of interconnection must be mapped out before the creation of any one branch.

    Excuse the mixed metaphor.

  3. scottellington.wordpress.com says:

    I wonder whether Norman Corwin might be prevailed upon to contextualize this discussion of the interoperability of platforms, media, collaborators and the influences of commercial/governmental interests?

    I’d like also to note that this conversation has dealt almost exclusivley in fictional properties. That seems unduly limiting, when the barriers between history, fact and fiction are currently dissolving around us, and the exigencies of quarterly profits (and newsrooms run by producers) trump truth in practically every medium.

  4. Geoffrey Long says:

    @Henry: thanks for the shout-out! I can’t wait to continue our discussion of this stuff when I’m in town. I’ll also try and respond more at length as soon as I’m back from my current Singaporean adventure.

    That said…

    @nick: the two aren’t at all mutually exclusive. If you look at how the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics did in sales, there was a massive, massive spike when Joss Whedon took up the reins and started up the ‘canonical’ season 8. Building these strategic entry and exit points into transmedia narratives is key for success, yes, but it’s also imperative that those extensions are considered canonical – ‘authored’, not just ‘authorized’. You’re completely right that all components should be produced by “a singular creative force”, but we need to think of it as a writer’s room in television under the guidance of a showrunner like Whedon who serves as the ‘author’. The difference now is that said room has a seat for the game writer, the comic writer, the film writer, the theme park maker, the musician, the hypertext writer, and so on. The writer’s room should be comprised of a number of experts each working in their own medium of strength, cooperating in a synchronized effort to unfold the narrative vision of the “author” – and how they shepherd audiences from one component to the next comes down to the skillful use of these onramps and offramps.

    @dl: I’d argue that ‘negative space’ is a much friendlier term than ‘dead space’ for obvious reasons, but also because of how it ties into how visual artists use negative space in their compositions. In my 2007 Masters’ thesis “Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics and Production at the Jim Henson Company”, I refer to this as ‘negative capability’, but I’ve since refined my use of the term to only mean the capacity of the human imagination for filling in such negative spaces. When the book comes out, I’ll go into this in much greater detail.

    @Scott: I’m unfamiliar with Corwin. Where would a man start to explore his work? You’re right that this exchange has focused on fictional universes, but don’t for a second think that transmedia storytelling is similarly limited – I’d imagine that limitation only exists here because only so much can be contained within a certain number of words! A great deal of exploration is being done into the transmedia space as applied to newscasting and documentary filmmaking. Chuck Tryon from Fayetteville State has gone into a little bit on this ( http://www.chutry.wordherders.net/wp/?p=2222 ) as has Ted Hope ( http://trulyfreefilm.blogspot.com/2009/09/plea-to-new-generation-embrace.html ).

  5. scottellington.wordpress.com says:

    Geoffrey,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Corwin

    and

    http://normancorwin.com/index.php

    I’d hate to wake up and realize (one day) that two of the most insightful, inspiring and influential students of media in the 20th and 21st Centuries failed to meet at USC simply because of a namedropping oversight.

    And thanks tremendously for the links!

  6. scottellington.wordpress.com says:

    On a pragmatic/cautionary note, this week Jeff Gomez said, at the end of another interesting interview, here:

    http://narrativedesign.org/2009/09/creators-of-transmedia-stories-3-jeff-gomez/

    “…transmedia narrative is going to play a major role in addressing social, economic and political issues. To that end, it’s vital that all of us, especially young people, become literate in this new form. We need to understand its power and teach ourselves how to wield it. We need to make certain that it retains its integrity, because if we allow producers of transmedia to drop the interactive and participative components of the narrative, at best we have old-fashioned storytelling and elaborate commercials, and at worst we have dangerously potent propaganda.”

    I like to think of it as remedial entertainment with fascinating properties that cure old ills. But anything that powerful can also be weaponized.

  7. This has been a fascinating discussion.

    Going back to Bordwell’s first (quoted) comment, about how not everything can–or deserves–to get the full transmedia treatment, it came to me that there are several issues here.

    1) Is this just an issue of ‘quality’ or ‘popularity’, or are there more general rules for “what makes a good transmedia property?” Are we (for example) going to lose entire genres that don’t invest in the key traits of ‘world building’ and ‘seriality’, or can we imagine, for example, a transmedia Rom Com where fans devote enormous time to filling in spaces in [I] All About Steve [/I], or creating alternate histories for [I] The Notebook [/I]? Are filmmakers going to have to overdesign the set of next political thriller? Adding historical fiction (GoNY or [I] Mad Men [/I]) to the SF/fantasy club doesn’t seem to promise THAT much future genre inclusivity, which–not that I’m defending [I] All About Steve [/I]–is not necessarily a good thing.

    2) I realize the Diversifying Participation conference will deal with this, but the sheer effort and time required for fans to gain access to–much less participate in–the various parts of a transmedia property would seem to limit its growth (assuming we’re talking about a multi-layered TRANSMEDIA approach here, and not simply films with websites). However, transmedia clearly fits RIGHT in with the hoary Blockbuster/sequel strategy of Hollywood (what could be better for diversifying your financial risk than to develop a franchise across various media?) Therefore, would the seductiveness of transmedia at a marketing level end up limiting product diversity in media? In Film terms, at least in the US, we are already basically assured that popular or ‘quality’ films only get released at certain times (summer/xmas and award season, respectively). Anything that fits the Blockbuster strategy as closely as transmedia has to be viewed with at least some suspicion, if only because more production resources might potentially end up going to fewer properties.

    3) Fan investment in transmedia properties has clear democratic, subcultural-identity-building implications, noted at least since the days of slash fiction (why limit the shout-outs to your work on Twin Peaks???]. It has always been a concern for me, however, that to some extent fan fiction writers, video world builders, videogame players, and etc., share one thing in common: we are fulfilling a Conglomerate’s marketing plan. The intellectual property concerns seem old hat now: the major media companies (if not always the creatives behind the work itself) WANT ‘obsessed’ fans to rip apart and live in these properties. The previously shat upon Star Trek or Star Wars fan is now the primary market, the highest goal of every media company. Perhaps this sounds very Frankfurt School, but there is something suspicious to me in simply following the marching orders of media companies. Sure, J.K. herself might hate (well, to be fair, might ‘have a complex relationship with’) her fanfic followers, and might in fact add ending chapters to limit fruitful areas for fans to populate, but Scholastic and Time-Warner LOVE them. Transmedia fans are their wet dreams. And, well, maybe the fan/conglomerate relationship is somewhat more complex than this implies, but I think the basic description works.

    Anyway, again, fascinating discussion and I’m sure the conference will be amazing.

    Michael Quinn

  8. scottellington.wordpress.com says:

    Michael,

    http://www.pbs.org/pov/blog/2009/09/outside_the_frame_great_docume_1.php

    suggests that the measure of greatness in participatory media may now be determined in ways that don’t rely quite so heavily on box office receipts.

    The advocacy of behaviors that conflict with the conduct of business-as-usual may be a logical consequence of media conglomerates facilitating fans becoming producers.

    Transmedia treatment of The Hundred Days Strike seems like ideal material that probably won’t find funding.

  9. worldman2000 says:

    Mr. Bordwell’s analysis of storytelling typologies is very salient in that he seems to capture the little cruxes that are essential to a good narrative experience.

    His point on the ubiquity of “frames” for pictures is interesting. Even in the world of architecture (which I think applies very much to film), frames must be established and used as a guiding system to have a rich narrative of a certain structure.

    I think the potential in transmedia storytelling is considerable, as long as one doesn’t rely on doo-dads or gimmickry (which may be self-evident in this discourse).

    Geoff, http://www.hccmis.com

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