How Sound Can “Unify” Transmedia: Christy Dena on AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS

Today, we are going to continue this week’s focus on transmedia with the following guest post by Christy Dena. Dena’s PhD dissertation transmedia really put her on the map for those of us who closely follow developments in this space. Dena is a gifted designer/theorist or theorist/designer depending on one’s priorities at a given moment: someone who has a deep knowledge of the historic evolutions of theories of multimedia, intermedia, and transmedia, as she aptly demonstrates in the piece below, someone who can move between avant grade experiments and the commercial mainstream in her consideration of examples, and someone who can have a model for a transmedia design document on one page and a discussion of renaissance theories of art on the next. Transmedia has become a place which attracts artists who are also theorists, designers who are also intellectuals, and it has emerged through conversation across all of these spaces. I have come to think of Dena as someone who consistently sharpens my own thinking, since she is unafraid to critique anyone but also knows of what she speaks.

You can read her PhD dissertation here.

I recently learned that she is seeking crowd funding for an exciting new project — AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS — which explores the use of sound — including something like radio drama — as the center piece of a transmedia franchise. It is the kind of project that needs to be done as a thought/design experiment that will help us to better understand some of the potentials of transmedia, but it is also the kind of project that it will be difficult to fund through commercial or state sponsorship. The crowd funding scheme is in its final hours and they are painfully close to meeting their goals, so I’m rushing this post out today in hopes some of you will read it, help spread the word about an interesting project, and kick in a little cash to support a worthy cause.

Here’s where you can go to help Christy meet her goals.

Everything below here is Christy Dena describing — in her own words — the thought process that led to the development of this project. Dramatically, she wrote this on a laptop with dwindling battery juice in a house that had lost its power somewhere in Australia. Or, at least, that’s the story.

HOW SOUND CAN “UNIFY” TRANSMEDIA
by Christy Dena

I’d like to take the opportunity with this guest post to talk about how my research into transmedia has greatly influenced my creative project AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS. Here’s what I like about where transmedia is moving now — we’re seeing both practitioners and researchers take on their own approaches more and more. Not everyone is thinking the same way about transmedia. While in the past this was a sign that no-one had a clue what was going on, it is now a sign that people are making it their own. There are universals that can help newcomers understand the area, but when transmedia is under your skin, once it is a relatively unconscious activity, we start to see personal difference. This is because people are bringing their own influences and experiences to the table. We’re seeing more of themselves in their works rather than the imitative approach that is necessary when learning. So this post is about some of the influences on my transmedia thinking.

One of the criticisms of transmedia that raises it’s head every now and then is the idea that fragmentation is bad, that transmedia does away with wholeness. So during my PhD research, I trekked back to look at the notion of “dramatic unities” — an approach to theatre that began with Aristotle and was extended later by Italian scholars. Dramatic unities includes unity of action (plot), time, and place:

Aristotle argues that tragedy must have a “unity of plot” (Aristotle 1997 [c330B.C.], 16). What this unity of plot means is that not all “incidents in one man’s life” should be included, for they “cannot be reduced to unity” (ibid.).

Unity of time, on the other hand, was introduced by Cintio Giraldi in 1554 with his Discorso sulle Comedie e sulle Tragedie publication, where he “converted Aristotle’s statement of an historical fact”—that “Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun” (Aristotle 1997 [c330B.C.], 9)—“into dramatic law’ (Spingarn 1963 [1899], 57).

And then it was Ludovico Castelvetro in his 1570 edition of Poetics, who introduced the theory of unity of place based on the idea of the unity of time (ibid., 61). It was considered proper dramatics, that a whole month of actions should not be represented (performed) in two or three hours. “This principle,” Spingarn explains, “led to the acceptance of the unity of place”: “Limit the time of the action to the time of representation, and it follows that the place of action must be limited to the place of representation” (ibid.).

As Gilbert Highet further explains, the “action of the play must seem probable,” and it “will not seem probable if the scene is constantly being changed” (Highet 1985, 143). In the end, scholarship on dramatic unities was “an attempt to strengthen and discipline the haphazard and amateurish methods of contemporary dramatists—not simply in order to copy the ancients, but in order to make drama more intense, more realistic, and more truly dramatic” (ibid.). So the notion is that a performance will be better if it has a unity of action, time, and place — and that means focusing on small events that are linked by probability, at a certain time, and place.

Anyone who has worked on a transmedia project — whether it be an alternate reality game or book, TV, film, and console experience — knows that it is difficult to have your audience or players engage with all the multiple texts or touch-points you create. I remember Evan Jones observing in the early days that we could expect about 10% of our audience to continue to each touch-point. And so for some, this difficulty is in some way associated with the notion of unity. People cannot experience unity if the media texts are fragmented across time and space (and probably include many plot elements). But I’ve chosen to see this as a design challenge rather than impossibility. How can we have unity across media?

To answer this question, the other research area I looked at was “intermedia”. In 1965, Higgins introduced the term intermedia to “offer a means of ingress into works which already existed, the unfamiliarity of whose forms was such that many potential viewers, hearers, or readers were ‘turned off’ by them” (Higgins 2001 [1965], 52). It is a significant notion to discuss because its introduction coalesced a long-standing aesthetic approach, as Jack Ox and Jacques Mandelbrojt explain in their introduction to the special issue on intermedia in Leonardo: “Higgins did not invent these doings—many artists before him had achieved ‘intermediality’—but he named the phenomenon and defined it in a way that created a framework for understanding and categorizing a set or group of like-minded activities” (Ox and Mandelbrojt 2001, 47). Now, as Fluxus artist and theorist Ken Friedman explains, Higgins coined intermedia “to describe the tendency of an increasing number of the most interesting artists to cross the boundaries of recognized media or to fuse the boundaries of art with media that had not previously been considered art forms” (Friedman [1998]). Intermedia works brought together what had been artificially estranged:

Much of the best work being produced today seems to fall between media. This is
no accident. The concept of the separation between media arose in the
Renaissance. The idea that a painting is made of paint on canvas or that a
sculpture should not be painted seems characteristic of the kind of social
thought—categorizing and dividing society into nobility with its various
subdivisions, untitled gentry, artisans, serfs and landless workers—which we call
the feudal conception of the Great Chain of Being. […] We are approaching the
dawn of a classless society, to which separation into rigid categories is absolutely
irrelevant.
(Higgins 2004 [1965])

The creation of works that combine conventionally separate artforms and/or media is a
somewhat political as well as aesthetic act:

Thus the happening developed as an intermedium, an uncharted land that lies
between collage, music and the theater. It is not governed by rules; each work
determines its own medium and form according to its needs. The concept itself is
better understood by what it is not, rather than what it is. Approaching it, we are
pioneers again, and shall continue to be so as long as there’s plenty of elbow room
and no neighbors around for a few miles.
(ibid.)

Not all practices that bring together different media and artforms are intermedia though.
Higgins distinguishes between mixed media and intermedia according the degree of
integration. Opera is an example of mixed media for it has “music, the libretto, and the
mise-en-scene” which are “quite separate: at no time is the operagoer in doubt as to
whether he is seeing the mise-en-scene, the stage spectacle, hearing the music, etc.”
(ibid.). On the other hand, intermedia practices involve a fusion to the degree that
elements cannot be separated.

In her essay discussing her father’s theory of intermedia, Hannah Higgins reinforces this notion of fusion with her argument that intermedia “refers to structural homologies, and not additive mixtures, which would be multimedia in the sense of illustrated stories or opera, where the various media types function independently of each other” (Higgins 2002, 61). An example she cites of fusion is the blending of musical and visual techniques in Jackson Mac Low’s A Notated Vocabulary for Eve Rosenthal (1978).

It is important to note too that the distinctions from opera are, among other functions, an
attempt to distance intermedia from German opera composer Richard Wagner’s
“gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art”:

The true Drama is only conceivable as proceeding from a common urgence of every art towards the most direct appeal to a common public. In this Drama, each separate art can only bare its utmost secret to their common public through a mutual parleying with the other arts; for the purpose of each separate branch of art can only be fully attained by the reciprocal agreement and co-operation of all the branches in their common message.
(Wagner 2001 [1849], 4–5, original emphasis)

The difference between Wagnerian practices and intermedia has been further articulated
by Jürgen Müller (Müller 1996). Since Müller’s writings on this topic are not in English,
I refer to Joki van de Poel who, in his dissertation on intermediality, discusses Müller’s
argument about the difference between the “multimediality” and “intermediality”:

He makes, like Wagner, a distinction between multimedia and intermedia along
the lines of the functioning of media next to each other (Nebeneinander) and with
each other (Miteinander). With Nebeneinander he means that the separate media
function within a larger production but maintain there own qualities, concepts and
structure, whereas in the Miteinander variant the different media function in an
integrative way. The media take over each others structure or concepts and are
changed in this integrative process.
(Poel 2005, 36, original emphasis)

This notion of separation, or more appropriately retention of separation, is actually a key
trait of transmedia projects. So what I surmised is that while transmedia projects do share a concern with bringing together media and artforms that are distinct, in transmedia projects each distinct media retains its manifest nature. Fusion does exist in transmedia projects, but it happens at an abstract level. It is characterized by a conceptual synthesis of separate media rather than an assemblage or transformation at the expressive or material level. The peculiar challenge of this approach is to bring together elements that are disparate, incompatible or isolated, in a way that retains their independent nature. This approach does not try to change that which is manifest, but tries to find connections at a level that reconfigures them conceptually. The objects change, but that change happens around the materials, within the minds of those who design and experience them. Unity is perceived, variety is manifest.

For a few years, I concentrated on this idea of abstract unity through the use of content techniques: how can we motivate activity across media with a call-to-action? What role does character and worldbuilding play in this activity? And so on. But then I had a moment when I suddenly realised there was another kind of abstract unity that can happen with media. I had also been researching simultaneous media usage or multitasking. I read novels that came with music CDs to be played at certain chapters; and read studies on what media combinations people find the most complimentary, such as having a documentary on TV when surfing the Internet. And then when I did the Da Vinci Code audio tour of The Louvre it hit me. Audio. Audio is this media element that has an intangible manifestation, it can be used in conjunction with other media and help bind them together.

I’ve since implemented that epiphany into a full-fledged creative project: a web audio adventure called AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS. I’m mixing together the apparently dead artform of radio drama, with web navigation and online storytelling. I’m playing with having an ensemble cast that guide players across fictional websites (multiple touch-points) with the use of humour. It is a mix of storytelling, gaming, radio drama, alternate reality gaming, and electronic literature. It is a mix of audio and vision. So we have a content and medial unity without disturbing the distinct nature of each of those websites. It is an experiment, it is exciting to me, and it is working. This is all, I guess, an example of how one can draw on research, critical reflection, theory, and practice all in one to produce something…and that something is for me both a project and an insight into how we can unify in a world of diversity.

Christy’s crowdfunding page for AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS: www.pozible.com/project/11529

References:

Aristotle. 1997 [c330B.C.]. Poetics. Mineola: Dover Publications.

Friedman, Ken. ([1998]). Ken Friedman’s contribution to “Fluxlist and Silence Celebrate
Dick Higgins. Fluxus. http://www.fluxus.org/higgins/ken.htm (accessed Jan 26,
2008).

Higgins, Dick. 2001 [1965]. Intermedia. Leonardo 34(1): 49–54.

Higgins, Dick. 2004 [1965]. Synesthesia and Intersenses: Intermedia. UbuWeb
http://www.ubu.com/papers/higgins_intermedia.html (accessed April 25, 2007).

Higgins, Hannah. 2002. Intermedial Perception or Fluxing Across the Sensory.
Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media
Technologies
8(4): 59–76.

Highet, Gilbert. 1985. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman influences on Western
Literature.
New York, Oxford Univ. Press.

Müller, Jürgen E. 1996. Intermedialität. Formen modener kultureller Kommunikation.
Münster: Nordus Publikationen.

Ox, Jack and Jacques Mandelbrojt. 2001. Special Section Introduction:
Intersenses/Intermedia: A Theoretical Perspective. Leonardo 34(1): 47–48.

Poel, Joki van de. 2005. Opening up Worlds: Intermediality Reinterpreted. PhD diss.,
Universiteit Utrecht.

Spingarn, Joel Elias. 1963 [1899]. A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance.
New York: Harbinger Books.

Wagner, Richard. 2001 [1849]. “Outlines of the Artwork of the Future,” The Artwork of
the Future. In Multimedia: from Wagner to Virtual Reality, ed. Randall Packer
and Ken Jordan, 3–9. New York: Norton

Christy Dena is a writer-designer who worked on global alternate reality games such as Nokia’s Conspiracy for Good, Cisco’s The Hunt, and ABC’s Bluebird AR. She recently created a phone story for the pervasive gaming event Fresh Air Festival. Her web audio adventure for the iPad, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, was nominated for “Best Writing in a Game” at the 2012 Freeplay Independent Games Festival and is currently in production. Christy wrote her PhD on transmedia practice, and presents worldwide on transmedia writing, design, and philosophy.

What Transmedia Producers Need to Know About Comics: An Interview with Tyler Weaver (Part Two)

I was interested in your description of transmedia audiences as “absorptive.” Explain what you mean by that concept and describe some strategies by which producers might support these desires to absorb your story, especially as they seek to also maintain a relationship with more “passive” viewers who can feel overwhelmed by a dense mythology or elaborate story arcs.

An absorptive audience will seek out as many pieces of a transmedia experience as they can and absorb it into their lives somehow. Some will take it to the (wonderful) extreme of creating their own stories within the storyworld. This is different from a passive audience. Some people simply want to sit back and be entertained. Both have are essential. The key with transmedia design going forward will be to give both passive and absorptive audiences something to chew on.

In my own highly unscientific poll while I was researching the book, I found that there are two sticking points keeping a more passive audience member from becoming absorptive. One we can’t do anything about. The other we can.

The first sticking point is time. We talked about it a bit in the first question. Time is the unspoken transaction in a creator-audience relationship. Money is the secondary transaction, given when time is available.  A movie may ask two or three hours of your time in a single sitting. A video game anywhere from four to a hundred hours. A fully absorptive transmedia experience that may continue indefinitely? Who knows.

There is one thing that we can control, and I hate to belabor the point, but the story has to be worth absorbing. People will invest time and money if they are first emotionally invested in the story being told. I talk a lot about irresistible – not expectant – transmedia in the book. We have to give the audience a complete story within each medium so that they want to absorb more pieces of the story experience, not force them into a hunt for a complete story across media they may not normally use in their lives.

As you note, Superman went transmedia – or at least the character was appearing across multiple media platforms – within a few years of his first appearance in comics. What is it about the superhero genre which made such transmedia extensions a logical and compelling development?

The superhero genre is an iconic representation of being more than we are and of tapping into the best qualities of human nature, the mythological potential in all of us. With that in mind, there are aspects to the superhero genre that are more visceral in other media. There’s nothing like seeing Superman fly on the big screen. I was giddy when I saw the new “Man of Steel” trailer and saw and heard him fly, a visceral, emotional experience that you don’t get from turning the pages of a comic (usually). Even in his radio appearances, there was something “super” about Bud Collyer’s voice. He sounded like Joe Shuster’s drawings brought to life. The representation of superheroes in other media can inform our perspective of the ongoing adventures in comics – sometimes as a detriment, sometimes as a positive.

Extending a superhero into other media – in the best cases – utilizes the inherent characteristics of that medium to present the mythological potential of the superhero genre in its most visceral form, thus forming an emotional investment and bond. Comics can offer the wild and crazy, budget-free ongoing adventures and a deep fan community. Movies give us the chance to be the “man on the street” in the comics, experiencing the wonder that is inherent in the genre (much like Kurt Busiek’s masterpiece, Marvels). Video games give us the chance to be that hero – and be rewarded for it. Want to BE Batman? Play Arkham City, then read the accompanying comics to find out how things became what they became in the gap between Arkham Asylum and City – if you so choose. I would argue that the reason that all other Batman video game adaptations were so awful in the years prior to Arkham Asylum was that they failed to satisfy that urge to embody the hero, a hero that is actually human. Perhaps the reason Superman video games haven’t been that great is that there’s actually a possibility (no matter how remote) of us being Batman – much moreso than the possibility of us physically being Superman.

Comic fans are often obsessed with the ideal of a perfect “continuity,” yet comics publishers have found it difficult to maintain total consistency in a story which has extended over 40-50 years and which unfolds across multiple titles. What might other kinds of transmedia producers learn by looking more closely at the comics industry’s decades-long struggle with fan effort to police continuity?

 

As is often the case, reality interferes with the ideal. When something is explored and mined by human beings over the course of decades, hiccups are bound to occur. Chains are great in spurring creative solutions to problems, but when pulled too tightly, they can cut off circulation. One way forces you to be creative, the other makes you a prisoner (as I talked about in our first question).

As for what transmedia storytellers can learn about fan-policed continuity? Embrace it. Make it part of the experience. The Marvel Universe of the 1960s is the single best effort at a shared universe put to paper. The Marvel Universe was the superheroes yes, but it was more than that. It was a family that contained the fans and foragers of the second generation of comics fans. And Lee, Kirby, and the Marvel Bullpen, while they took the work seriously, never took themselves seriously – at least outwardly. Look at the brilliant No-Prize (in its early incarnation) for example. An empty envelope for spotting a continuity error. Simple, cheeky, but effective. Most importantly? Fun and engaging.

As you note, comics production involves deep collaboration between artists and writers, a situation which closely parallels the challenges transmedia producers are facing in bringing together artists who are used to work within very different media. What might producers learn by studying more closely the “Marvel Method” or some of the other strategies for collaboration developed within the comics industry?

The Marvel Method is a leap of faith in the abilities of your collaborator, sort of the creative (and less humorous) version of “trust falls” at corporate retreats. But we have to look at where and when the Marvel Method worked best: it arose out of a need to get comics released on a reasonable schedule with a small team. It didn’t hurt that the “small team” consisted of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Wally Wood, John Buscema – all master comics storytellers.

Kurosawa had a saying that I love, and can be applied to any collaborative effort – not just film. It was something along the lines of “if it comes out just the way I envisioned it, I’m unhappy.” The point of collaboration is to work with great people and let your vision become more than you envisioned in the first place. Otherwise, what’s the point in collaborating?

The lesson for producers? Work with the best and let them do their job.

Right now, there’s a lot of buzz about Marvel’s plans to develop a television series based on S.H.I.E.L.D. as part of its ongoing effort to build out a series of franchises, all linked together through The Avengers. What do you think has worked about this strategy for Marvel? Are there any concerns you might have about this approach?

I’m intrigued by the S.H.I.E.L.D. series and hope that it’s successful. It’ll be fascinating to watch it play out – both as a critic and a fan. It sounds like they’re on the right track, though I do have a few questions, which I try to keep updating   as new information becomes available. http://comicstoryworld.com/whedon-and-shield/.

As a whole, Marvel’s done a lot of things right with their “Cinematic Universe.” They’ve brought the concept of a shared universe to the mainstream in a way that no other film company has. They’ve brought some fun to the superhero film genre. Plus, they FINALLY got The Hulk right.

There have been missteps along the way – Iron Man 2 being the most egregious. By having a shared universe and distinct continuity within a non-serialized medium, Iron Man 2 felt more like Avengers .5, setting up plot points necessary for The Avengers to the detriment of the film as a whole.

I’m curious if there’s an endgame in mind for this iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With a reliance on a tight continuity between films, the longevity of the respective individual film franchises is questionable unless they take the James Bond series continuity as an inspiration. The James Bond series is a perfect example of a series that has both endured and achieved longevity through a loose continuity, sliding time scale, and different actors taking on the role. In a way, the Bond series is approached like a comic book series, but instead of pencillers changing the look of the character, actors change. But then again, there’s always the magical reboot button somewhere down the road. Either way, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a fascinating experience and experiment that gave us Joss Whedon’s Avengers, so I’m in for the ride.

TYLER WEAVER is a writer of stories in (and across) books, comics, radio, and film. He is the author of Comics for Film, Games and Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld and the writer/co-creator of Whiz!Bam!Pow!  a story experience of family, forgery, death rays, secret codes, laundry chutes, and the Golden Age of Comics. You can find him on Twitter under the creative handle of @tylerweaver.

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For another perspective on the relationship between comics and transmedia, check out this video essay produced by Drew Morton as an expansion of his PhD Dissertation from the UCLA film school. Here, Morton offers a critique of transmedia storytelling (primarily based on the limits of The Matrix model) before delving deeper into the forms of remediation he associates with the comic book film. Using the translation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World across media, he introduces the concept of transmedia style as a unifying factor, showing how aspects of comics, video games, popular music, and cinema merge to create a unique look and feel for this property. I was lucky enough to be on Morton’s dissertation committee so I am proud to be sharing this video with you today. It’s another great example of the kinds of video essays that UCLA faculty and students are exploring right now. Again, I think the compelling use of visual and audio evidence makes scholarly concepts more broadly accessible, and it produces something that can be taught in classes or as here, embedded into blogs where it will reach audiences that would never look at an academic journal.

 

What Transmedia Producers Should Know About Comics: An Interview with Tyler Weaver (Part One)

From the very start, one of the powers of the superhero has been the capacity to leap across media in a single bound. Part of what cemented Superman’s role in the American popular imagination was the degree to which he came at consumers from multiple media at once — as a character who moved from comic books to comic strips, radio, animated shorts, live action serials, all in a matter of a few years, and then, television series, feature films, and computer games. This process of extending the mythology by absorbing elements associated with these other media has refreshed the character over time and made it feel that much more vivid in the minds of its fans. We will soon be seeing yet another transmedia reboot of the Man of Steel with the release this summer of a new feature film and all of the other stuff that is being constructed around it.

Tyler Weaver’s new book, Comics For Film, Games and Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld represents the latest in a growing series of books that seeks to explain the still emerging and evolving practices associated with transmedia. In this case, Weaver combines a healthy dose of transmedia theory and production advice with a rich history of the American comics tradition (one primarily focused around the evolution of the superhero as the now dominant genre in mainstream comics production). The book also provides us with thoughtful analysis of specific transmedia products and franchises, including some that represent the movement of comics into other media (such as Batman: Arkham City or Batman: The Animated Series), some representing the movement of other media franchises into comics (such as Halo and Star Trek), some representing the attempts of other media to create their own superhero characters (The Incredibles), and finally, a few (such as The Fountain) which have sought to create and integrate original narratives across comics and other media. The result will be a treat for those of us who have been life-long comics readers, but it may also be a revelation for those who are just discovering how central comics have become to the operations of contemporary popular culture.

More than that, Weaver makes a strong case that many of the practices of contemporary transmedia were prefigured or had their origins in the ways that DC and Marvel have managed their extended universes over the past half decade or more. A better understanding of comics, for example, might help us to think through the shifting balance between continuity and multiplicity, the challenges of maintaining seriality over an extended period of time, the risks of balancing the veteran’s fascination with mastery with the new comer’s interest in accessibility. Over the course of this interview, Weaver speaks to each of these issues and much more.

You cite the adage, “every comic book is someone’s first,” several times across the book.  Yet, while comics publishers often acknowledge this truism, there are also wide spread complaints that many current comics are impenetrable to first time readers, since they assume a hardcore fan deeply immersed in the continuity and mythology of the publisher’s own fictional universe. What does this suggest about the challenges of transmedia design?

I’m not convinced that the impenetrability of continuity and mythologies is at fault for keeping “new readers” away from the experience of buying comics on a regular basis. First, there are more demands on time and greater competition for attention from other media. Video games are to this generation what superhero comics were to kids in the 20th century, with many featuring deep continuities and mythologies with the added appeal of “you are the hero” immersion and the opportunity to demonstrate expertise through accomplishments, rewards, and completing the game on heightening levels of difficulty.

But the problem goes much deeper than demands on time. While continuity is a chain that produces longevity, unlocks story potential and gives fans something to dig into and a means to demonstrate expertise, it can strangle innovation and storytelling when it is wielded in the name of nostalgia and isn’t in line with the values and storytelling tendencies of the current generation. I think that’s what we’re seeing now. I’m a lifelong comics lover, and I hate to say it, but the story offerings of the biggest and most visible publishers (there are exceptions) aren’t that compelling.

A great continuity and mythology gives audiences something to dig into and a reason to hunt for back issues and return month after month. The only way stories — be it a transmedia story experience, video game, comics, television, novel –– inspire that sort of emotional and time investment is through incredible storytelling and characters that the audience wants to revisit again and again.

Your book includes an extensive history of the notion of seriality, a principle which I have long contended is central to understanding contemporary transmedia. Yet, it has been surprisingly absent from most accounts of the arts of comics and graphic storytelling, appearing no where, say, in the work of Scott McCloud and Will Eisner. What do we gain by emphasizing the serial nature of American comics publication and what might we learn by seeing the expansive and interlocking narrative structures of long-form superhero comics as an exemplar for what contemporary transmedia practice might look like?

Seriality is an essential component in a storytelling equation:

Seriality plus Elasticity (or, Evolutionary Ability of a Character) plus Craft equals Longevity.

Spider-Man just celebrated his 50th birthday. Batman? Going strong at 74. Superman? 75.  Superman alone has been published regularly for nearly 900 months, usually more than once a month in a variety of books (in the 1990s, he was up to five solo books including the quarterly Man of Tomorrow). When something is published for that long on a regular basis, the confines of reality and human lifespan make it inevitable that the original creator won’t be with the character all those years. Again, there are exceptions, such as Will Eisner and The Spirit, though I would argue that The Spirit is more known for the craft and innovations Eisner brought to the medium through that character than the character himself.

But, in most cases – such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man – this is where the elasticity of a character – the evolutionary ability of that character – comes into play. Each creative team can build upon, pay homage to, deviate, stretch, and bring their own vision to the character because of the serialized nature of American comics and the reality of reality.

Seriality and elasticity require great storytelling craft to connect with an audience.  There has to be some sort of primal connection between audience and mythology. I would argue that in the case of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, it’s their simplicity. Orphan from doomed planet (shown most brilliantly in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman in the space of four panels), through the love of a kindly couple, becomes symbol of truth and justice and Earth’s protector. Boy witnesses murder of parents, vows that no one will feel the same pain, dedicates life to war on crime. High school nerd bitten by spider, with great power comes great responsibility. All are vibrant mythologies and iconic representations of popular culture created by simplicity and populated with memorable characters that connect to audiences on a primal level.

Transmedia storytellers should understand this equation and consider it in the construction of their stories. How long do they want the experience to last? Is it a finite experience? An ongoing one? How can they craft enduring characters that can evolve – both with technology and with the vision of new creators (like Halo and the leap from Bungie to 343 Industries)?

TYLER WEAVER is a writer of stories in (and across) books, comics, radio, and film. He is the author of Comics for Film, Games and Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld and the writer/co-creator of Whiz!Bam!Pow!  a story experience of family, forgery, death rays, secret codes, laundry chutes, and the Golden Age of Comics. You can find him on Twitter under the creative handle of @tylerweaver.

There She Blows! Reading in a Participatory Culture and Flows of Reading Launch Today

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Today marks the release of not one but two closely related New Media Literacies publications. The first is a new print book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom, which is being published by Teacher’s College Press in collaboration with the National Writing Project. I have not seen the completed book yet myself, but we are told that they will starting shipping copies as of Feb. 22.

The second is Flows of Reading, a digital book, which I have developed with Erin Reilly,the Creative Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, and Ritesh Mehta, a PhD candidate in the Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication here at USC. Flows of Reading is online and freely accessible, so check it out here.

This project started back when I was at MIT and these two release represent the culmination of more than six years of work. We tell part of the story in the opening chapter of the book, which you can read here. Here’s an excerpt:

 

At first glance, playwright, youth organizer, and community activist Ricardo Pitts-Wiley might seem like a peculiar inspiration for a book about digital media and participatory culture. Although Pitts-Wiley is enthusiastic about the potential of new media, much of his work is distinctly low-tech.  He writes and produces remixed versions of such classics as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a traditional venue: the community stage.

 

But something magical—something participatory—happens on that stage. First, his plays’ universal themes are seasoned with immediacy, with issues that resonate with his community. His play Moby-Dick: Then and Now, for example, intermingles the themes of Captain Ahab’s obsessions, his fatalism, his willingness to place his crew in peril, with contemporary urban gang culture. In Pitts-Wiley’s retelling, Ahab becomes Alba, a teenaged girl whose brother has been killed by a “WhiteThing” a mysterious figure for the international cocaine cartel; she devotes her life to finding, and killing, those responsible for her brother’s death.

In Moby-Dick: Then and Now, Pitts-Wiley chose not simply to revise the story, but to incorporate aspects of Melville’s version in counterpoint with Alba’s quest for vengeance. As the young actors pace the stage, telling their story in contemporary garb, lingo, and swagger, a literal scaffold above their heads holds a second set of actors who give life to Melville’s original tale. The “then” half of the cast are generally older and whiter than the adolescent, mixed-race “now” actors. The play’s meaning lies in the juxtaposition between these two very different worlds, a juxtaposition sometimes showing commonalities, sometimes contrasts.

Reading in a Participatory Culture reflects an equally dramatic meeting between worlds. Project New Media Literacies emerged from the MacArthur Foundation’s ground-breaking commitment to create a field around digital media and learning. The Foundation sought researchers who would investigate how young people learned outside of the formal educational setting–through their game play, their fannish participation, “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” (Ito et al. 2010). The goal was to bring insights drawn from these sites of informal learning to the institutions—schools, museums, and libraries–that impact young people’s lives. Right now, many young people are deprived of those most effective learning tools and practices as they step inside the technology-free zone characterizing many schools, while other young people, who lack access to these experiences outside of school, are doubly deprived because schools are not helping them to catch up to their more highly connected peers.

Project New Media Literacies—first at MIT and now at USC–has brought together a multidisciplinary team of media researchers, designers, and educators to develop new curricular and pedagogical models that could contribute to this larger project.  Our work has been informed by Henry Jenkins’ background as a media scholar focused on fan communities and popular culture and by the applied expertise of Erin Reilly, who had previously helped to create Zoey’s Room, a widely acclaimed on-line learning community that employs participatory practices to get young women more engaged with science and technology. Our team brought together educational researchers, such as Katie Clinton, who studied under James Paul Gee, and Jenna McWilliams,  who had an MFA in creative writing and teaching experience in rhetoric and composition, with people like Anna Van Someren, who had done community-based media education through the YWCA and who had worked as a professional videomaker. Flourish Klink, who had helped to organize the influential Fan Fiction Alley website, which provides beta reading for amateur writers to hone their skills, and Lana Swartz who had been a classroom teacher working with special need children, also joined the research group.  And our development and field testing of curricular resources involved us in collaborating both with other academic researchers, such as Howard Gardner’s Good Play Project at Harvard, with whom we developed a casebook on ethics and new media, and Dan Hickey, an expert on participatory assessment at Indiana University. We also worked with youth-focused organizations such as Global Kids, with classroom teachers such as Judith Nierenberg and Lynn Sykes in Massachusetts, and Becky Rupert in Indiana, who were rethinking and reworking our materials for their instructional purposes, and with scholars such as Wyn Kelley who had long sought new ways to make Melville’s works come alive in classrooms around the country.

Reading in a Participatory Culture is targeted primarily at educators (inside and outside formal schooling structures) who want to share with their students a love for reading and for the creative process and who recognize the value of adopting a more participatory model of pedagogy. Our approach starts with a reconsideration of what it means to read, recognizing that we read in different ways for different goals and with different outcomes depending on what motivates us to engage with a given text.  Literary scholar Wyn Kelley, Theater director/playwrite Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, actor Rudy Cabrera, and myself, writing as a fan and media scholar, each describe our complex and evolving relations with Moby-Dick, and encourage teachers and students to reflect more about their own experiences as readers. We use the idea of remix as a central concept running through the book, exploring how Pitts-Wiley remixed Moby-Dick, how Herman Melville remixed many elements of 19th century whaling culture, how other artists have remixed Melville’s work through the years, and what it might mean for students and fans to engage creatively rather than simply critically with literary and media texts. Along the way, we provide a fuller explanation and assessment of what worked as we moved towards a more participatory culture oriented approach to teaching classic literary texts in the high school classroom.

Here’s a few early responses to the book:

“In Reading in a Participatory Culture, Media Studies meets the Great White Whale in the English Classroom. This book is one of the most exciting and breathtaking works on English education ever written. At the same time it is must reading for anyone interested in digital media, digital culture, and learning in the 21st Century.”
— James Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Arizona State University, and author of The Anti-Education Era

 ”An inspirational approach to democratizing the cultural canon and restoring classrooms to expansive educational purposes grounded in a participatory ethos. It explains in clear, accessible, and practically informative terms the New Media Literacies philosophy of reading and writing to prepare today’s students for the world they must build — together, collaboratively — tomorrow. Reading in a Participatory Culture provides rich descriptions of experiences and perspectives of readers and writers, teachers, and learners who understand Moby-Dick as itself an instance of cultural remix and, in turn, a living creation to be remixed by all who take delight in it — especially those who can come to take delight in it by being introduced to it as part of their education.” — Colin Lankshear, Adjunct Professor, James Cook University, Australia

 

Flows of Reading takes this process to the next level. We have created a rich environment designed to encourage close critical engagement not only with Moby-Dick but a range of other texts, including the children’s picture book, Flotsam; Harry Potter; Hunger Games; and Lord of the Rings. We want to demonstrate that the book’s approach can be applied to many different kinds of texts and may revitalize how we teach a diversity of forms of human expression.  We look at many different adaptions and remixes of Moby-Dick from the films featuring Gregory Peck and Patrick Stewart as Ahab to MC Lar’s music video, “Ahab” and Pitts-Wiley’s Moby-Dick: Then and Now stage production to works that evoke Moby-Dick less directly, including Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Battlestar Galacitca‘s “Scar.”

We share videos produced by the Project New Media Literacies team dealing not only with Moby-Dick but a range of cultural practices, including cosplay, animation, graffiti, and remix in music, but we also share many other clips, including a great series of videos on fan bidding produced by the Organization for Transformative Works and others produced by the Harry Potter Alliance. Altogether, there are more than 200 media elements incorporated into Flows of Reading.

 

We share classroom activities which were part of the original curriculum and we share “challenges” produced using our new PLAYground platform.  The PLAYground platform is designed to allow teachers and students alike to produce and share multimedia “challenges” and to remix each other’s work for new purposes and contexts. Think of it as Scratch for culture rather than code. In this case, it allows us to take the participatory pedagogy approach to the next level: this is not simply a book or a multimedia experience teacher’s consume; it is a community of readers within which they can participate and we are creating a space where they can make their own contributions to this project.

This digital book was built using Scaler, a project of the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at USC, and we are sharing the clips through Critical Commons, another USC initiative, which is intend to promote fair use of our shared culture for academic and creative purposes. We see this project as one which fuses traditional approaches to literature instruction with ideas drawn from Cultural Studies and Media Literacy, and we hope that the project provokes others to think about what can be learned at the intersection between high and popular culture.

And we also are using this project to explore how a classic work by a “dead white male writer” can contribute to multicultural education. Pitts-Wiley argues that Moby-Dick is already a multicultural work: as he explains, “everyone was already on that boat!” but we also show many different strategies for bringing alternative perspectives to bear on the book — from a discussion of how artists and critics have responded to the absence of well-developed female characters in Moby-Dick to an exploration of contemporary Maori culture inspired by what Melville tells us about Quequeg’s background. Along the way, we consider everything from the history of white appropriation of black music to the ways that Japanese and American subcultures build community and identity through cross-cultural borrowings.

Finally, we have some sections which deal directly with the representation of violence in literary and popular culture texts, recognizing that anxieties about media violence are concerns that teachers regularly must confront in their classrooms.  We hope that you will check out Flows of Reading and even more so, we hope that it offers practical models and resources that educators may use to remodel how they teach Moby-Dick and other texts in their curriculum.

This project remains a work in progress. There are still some elements we hope to add or fix in the coming weeks, but it is now open to business, thanks to the hard work of Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, and the other members of their team. (See the acknowledgements section in the digital book itself.)

Check it out. Participate. Spread the word. Share your insights with us.

Before and After Mickey: An Interview with Donald Crafton (Part Four)

Much has been written in recent years about the persistence of racist stereotypes and caricatures in studio era animation, especially as we are encountering fuller versions of cartoons which had been re-edited to match more contemporary sensibilities when they were aired on television. What might a performance studies approach to animation contribute to our understanding of this issue?

 

Well, again, the distribution of old cartoons was not that different from old mainstream movies that, when shown on TV or released on VHS, had minstrel, blackface, and race gags edited out. That such imagery and performances were racist is beyond doubt; the question revolves around whether its usage was “innocent” or hurtfully intended, which is complex. My thought is that racism is never benign, but may not have been instrumental, that is, intentionally hurtful. I also think that racism is a historical and cultural product and so must be contextualized.

 

In the book I discuss the racism in animation within the framework of the vaudeville aesthetic, which included acts, gags, and personae imported from minstrel shows. There are literal performances of race, as when Mickey “blacks up” to play a part in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Mickey’s Mellerdrammer).

And there are aspects of films that are racially performative in the sense that being a toon is itself a figure of otherness with potentially racist dimensions. (I pointed this out about Felix the Cat in Before Mickey too.) Race stereotypes, along with national, ethnic, gender, and sexual stereotypes, are excellent examples of figurative performances because these roles depict nonindividualized characters who stand-in for the entire group.

 

Characters like Betty Boop are often discussed alongside Greta Garbo as “stars” and they often got represented side by side in studio era cartoons. In what ways is this an appropriate or inappropriate description of the kinds of functions they play in the studio era?

 

Trying to explain stardom has left many distinguished scholars scratching their heads. I add another dimension to the debates by insisting that toons have the same claim to stardom as human movie stars like Garbo, or stars from stage and athletics as well. The reason, as I mentioned earlier, is that all star personae are media constructions. While theorists like to point out the tension between the on- and off-screen lives of movie stars, in fact, this is specious because those alleged off-screen lives are fictions as much as the on-screen lives. The humanness of stars actually is irrelevant, since the public creates stardom, not the actor, studio, or publicity machine.

Lots of cartoons, from Mickey’s Gala Premier to What’s Up, Doc?, give us intelligent critiques of the animated character within the star system and show how it was rigged against toons.

 

Donald Graham turns out to be a recurring figure across the book. Who was he and what role did he play in shaping studio era American animation?

 

While the credit for defining the new approach to animation in the 1930s rightly goes to the directors and animators, the conceptual and visual artists who inspired and taught them have been forgotten. That’s the case with Don Graham at the Disney studio. In the late 1920s he was an art teacher at the Chouinard Institute of the Arts, the predecessor of Cal Arts. When Disney was beginning the process of retraining his animators in what would become the embodied approach, he brought in Graham and other instructors from Chouinard to set up art classes on the studio premises. Graham gave them the classical training that most had never had. There were lectures and classes on lighting, shadows, composing in space, perspective, and the relation of the character’s psychology to its environment. Graham was also a big advocate of embodied personalities, telling the animators to think of the motives, story functions, and outcomes of an action before beginning to animate it. He insisted that the characters must appear to be thinking. I believe that it was Graham who was primarily responsible for realizing Disney’s West Coast style, and since that was so influential, Graham became a major contributor, but unsung.

 

“Right Wing Talk Radio Duck” is a widely circulated remix of Walt Disney cartoon footage mashed up with Glenn Beck’s radio commentary, which re-opened debates about the kinds of “ideologies” at work within Disney animation. In the book, you use Three Little Pigs to explore the competing claims made about the political and social effects of cartoons in the 1930s. What roles have cartoons played in our ongoing debate about the politics of entertainment?

 

Thanks for alerting me to this brilliant piece. Hilarious! Actually, Beck’s response is also hilarious, since it basically confirms the satirical points made about his manic irrational outbursts in the cartoon. What fools these mortals be.

 

Cartoons have always been overtly or covertly produced to spread propaganda. Dziga Vertov wisely set up an animation unit in his Soviet film studio to produce propaganda cartoons, and all the American animation studios cranked out patriotic films for the war effort. WWII was truly Popeye and Donald Duck’s finest hour. Of course the Japanese had propaganda animation too, some of which we are just now seeing.

 

Disney, although the corporation resists it, has become “vernacular,” an element of our everyday lives. Therefore it’s also a target for all manner of parodies, satires, and counter-cultural attacks, as in the notorious “Air Pirates Funnies” comics that wound up in the courts for years.[2] As vernacular texts the studio’s output is susceptible to counter-readings by fans or anyone else.

 

Social theorists tell us that everything happens for ideological reasons whether we recognize them or not, and the “culture industry” is where political motives are the most pervasive and the most pernicious because they’re readily disguised and misrecognized. Because they’re so popular, Disney cultural products have always been prime suspects as proponents of ideology. There’s the famous analysis of Disney’s alleged efforts to shape the consciousness of Latin American comic book consumers called How To Read Donald Duck.[3] The authors argue convincingly that the Spanish language versions of Disney comics in the 50s and 60s were doctored to promote the US and capitalism and to paint Communism in a bad light. In more recent animated features there are many viewers who have seen the studio’s efforts to define female adolescents by the portrayals of Wendy, Alice and eventually the princesses. Various other groups (who usually are against these things) perceive pro-gay, pro-sex, pro-feminist critiques hidden within modern Disney films. Simply asking such questions, especially when they’re disseminated via the Internet, shows that consumers’ readings have the power to ignore or re-write the producers’ intended messages. It also reveals that ideology isn’t easy to read. I show how The Three Little Pigs‘ reception from 1933 to the present has moved all over the political spectrum. Even now, what that film “means” and what secret agendas, if any, were hidden inside it remain open questions. (A riff on Pigs, appropriately, was the first installment in the “Air Pirates” comics series.) It turns out that it’s hard to program ideology in mass cultural products because audiences can’t be relied on to decode the subliminal meanings “correctly,” and tend to do their own programming.

 

With the release of the UPA cartoons on DVD, and the publication of books such as Cartoon Modern,[4] there has been a growing interest in the more stylized and abstracted cartoon spaces of the 1950s, which are often read in opposition to supposedly more “Classical” styles, especially that associated with Disney in the 1930s. What might your book contribute to our understanding of the relationship between studio-era animation and modernist movements in the art world?

 

Although the economic troubles associated with WWII usually are given as the cause of Disney’s troubles in the 1940s, I point out that the studio’s commitment to highly labor intensive and mechanically sophisticated apparatus succeeded in producing films that rivaled Hollywood, but the acting in these expensive ventures like Bambi didn’t please the public as in the old days. In fact, critics complained that the emotions were saccharine and over the top, especially the shooting of Bambi’s mother—which still sets my students weeping.

The embodied performances were becoming unsatisfying or even detrimental to the films’ popularity. At the same time, the simplified visual style of mid-century modern art is being picked up by art students and disseminated to the public through many outlets. Even in the Disney product, one sees infusions of “New York Style,” not only in Dumbo, but also in the compilation films released during and just after the war, starting with Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros.

After the war, Disney films slowly start looking more like Warner Bros. cartoons and even UPA cartoons. I think that the studio realized that embodiment did not necessarily require massive engineering, and that visual minimalism could still generate emotional engagement and audience participation if the story was good.

 

The video game, Epic Mickey, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Kim Deitch’s Waldo the Cat comics are among a much wider array of recent popular narratives which mythologize the history of American animation. Each acts as if animated characters were, in some sense, real personalities who exerted a strong influence on the production process. What do these contemporary works owe to a much older history of attempts to portray what you describe as the “agency” of animated characters?

 

Yes, toying with who has the agency, that is, the ability to control themselves and others, including their creators, or to resist control, is one of the original animation themes. I describe agency as a power grid, with the currents flowing from various sources—producers, creators, consumers, and the toon characters themselves to the extent that their animators and viewers imagine them as having it. Waldo takes the trope to an extreme and I love the mind-boggling complexity in Deitch’s comics. Another example you’d like is McCay: La quatrième dimension,[5] a graphic novel where Gertie the dinosaur is a living animal as well as Winsor McCay’s cartoon creation. There are lots of modern cartoons that play with the conflict between animator and animated, but one that’s especially wonderful is George Griffin’s Lineage (1980), an artistic autobiography that combines animation history, his animated character, and himself back to their common ancestry in the days when cinema was a vaudeville attraction.

 

I’m certain, Henry, that there’s a toon version of you out there, somewhere.

 

T-T-T-That’s All Folks!


[1] “The Veiled Genealogies of Animation and Cinema,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6:2 (July 2011), 93-110.

[2] Bob Levin, The Pirates and The Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2003.

[3] Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic. Amsterdam: International General, 1984.

[4] Amid Amidi, Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in 1950s Animation. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006.

[5] Thierry Smolderen and Jean-Philippe Bramanti, McCay Volume 4: La Quatrième Dimension. Paris: Guy Delcourt Productions, 2006.

 

A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.

Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.

Before and After Mickey: An Interview with Donald Crafton (Part Three)

You write in the opening of the book that animation created a new kind of film performance, and you suggest throughout that it may seem radical or counterintuitive to discuss animation as a kind of performance. In what ways must performance studies be rethought in order to apply to animated film? And conversely, what might the study of film animation contribute to our understanding of live action performance in films?

So many questions, Henry! Good ones, too. I maintain that theatrical animation is a version of cinema and not some completely different form of expression or medium. As you know, it’s trendy now to claim that all cinema is a subset of animation and now that cinema’s dead, animation has made a phoenix-like return as digital fx and CGI.[1] I don’t think so. There have always been uses of animation techniques outside of cinema—for instruction, for avant-garde expression, scientific imaging, advertising, etc.—but for me “cinema” is a constellation of things. Things like a social experience (especially in the twentieth century), an entertainment enterprise (in the business sense of the word), storytelling and spectacle, a cultural barometer, and potentially an art, to name the most obvious. Borrowing an excellent term from Thomas Lamarre, cinema has always been a multilectical performance, capable of many readings and participating in various social orders. CGI may be subsumed inside that performance in films like The Life of Pi, or it may enable performances outside the cinematic experience as a video game, Internet avatar, or whatever. I really don’t see a conflict here.

 

The discipline known as performance studies is almost unknown to most film studies specialists. And most performance studies scholars seem to be oblivious to or in denial of the possibility that movies, television, video games, virtual reality, etc. are also performances. (There are some enlightened exceptions, like Noël Carroll.) One of the devious schemes in Shadow of a Mouse is to break down the disciplinary walls between these two pursuits of knowledge. I’d like us to consider media performances and stage performances using the same tools and criteria. For example, I insist that human actors on stage or on film and toon actors in media are all fictive and imaginative constructions, and whatever can be said about one class of performer may be said about the other. I provocatively claim that toons are as “live” as any other movie actor. After you read it, I know you’ll be convinced!


In Before Mickey, you suggest that the trope of the hand of the animator played important roles in explaining and foregrounding the process of animation for early film audiences. Yet, your examples throughout the book suggest that the relationship between the animator and his characters remains a central concern well in the 1930s. What kinds of meanings get attached to this relationship in these studio era works?

When I first conceived of animated cinema as a performance art (it was in a talk I gave at DreamWorks Animation about a dozen years ago), it became clear to me that the “hand of the animator” trope was much more pervasive and persistent than the rather short shelf life I originally had ascribed to it, and that it was best understood as a performative gesture and not some vague anthropological or psychological expression (although those are performances too). Actually, “the hand of the artist” is a figurative performance because it casts the animator or artist as a conventional symbol of the act of creation that is manifested in all cultures and times. Although the image of the hand endowing its creation with “life” has religious connotations, the trope doesn’t have to be mystical or theological. Usually it’s just a convenient artistic device, a stock way of starting a film. As a performance it serves two functions. It says, “I, the animator, am creating this toon being for your edification and so you should assume that I have godlike or artistic mojo.” And it says, “Imagine that you, the movie watcher, are also an animator and you are bringing this being to life.”

 

In the earliest films the hand of the artist-animator or his performing body often was shown literally making the film. Think of Winsor McCay and his Gertie, or Max Fleischer and Ko-Ko the clown. But this seldom happened during the classicizing of the cartoon that I mentioned earlier—although the literal hand motif never went away altogether. Instead the interventionist filmmaker became either an implied absence (invisible but making us aware of him/her) or a symbolic creative presence in the narrative. Quick examples would be the adaptation of the mainstream cinema convention of voice-over narration, as when the animator-narrator explains the faux-travelogue locales in Avery’s The Isle of Pingo Pongo, or Bug’s off-screen hanky panky in Duck Amuck.

As I read your book, I found myself thinking about the role of personification and anthropomorphization in 1930s animation. There are scenes in the Fleischer Brothers films where it seems every element on the screen has agency. How might our inability to separate figure from field impact an understanding of animation as performance?

 

This is very perceptive. As I think about it, your idea of universal agency in cartoons is another reason for regarding these films as performative. Unlike a non-animated film shot with actors before a camera, in animation nothing is an accident. Everything is motivated, even if its motive is to create the impression that it’s unmotivated or accidental. The jokes in cartoons that the frame has slipped in the projector or that there’s a hair in the film gate are carefully scripted and executed “accidents.” So yes, everything has agency and participates in the show, even the reporter’s pen in Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame that grows a butt and starts dancing the hula along with Betty. That also suggests that everything has the potential to be anthropomorphic, which is another way of saying to perform as if human.

 

There is non-anthropomorphic animation to be sure, like industrial films showing how to assemble a motor let’s say. But it’s hard to imagine what a non-anthropomorphic cartoon or animated feature would look like, isn’t it? As the great Robert Benchley short The Sex Life of the Polyp shows, even simple animated squiggles can be personified as human.

 

You write, “If Hollywood cartoons have a soul, it is vaudeville.” What does screen animation take from vaudeville? Why do you think vaudeville images were so pervasive in studio-era animation?

 

My historical research revealed that vaudeville and studio animation were deeply intertwined. There were material connections. Cartoons, especially Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fables series (which were funded by a vaudeville circuit), were regularly screened as “acts” on live programs. And vaudeville acts were frequently represented within cartoons. Mickey’s early appearances often depict him as a stage entertainer. And the Fleischers filmed actual vaud performers such as Cab Calloway and the Royal Samoans.


But the connection also extends to animation’s adherence to a vaudevillesque aesthetic (a concept I borrowed from you when you discussed early sound comedy. Thanks!). The short films pack a punch, they are structured like stage business (sometimes but not necessarily on an actual drawn stage), with repartee between figurative character types, slapstick, singing and dancing, and a “wow finish.” The films assume that their viewers had either contemporary experience with vaudeville forms or a memory of them (perpetuated by the movies and radio as much as by studio cartoons).

A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.

Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.

Before and After Mickey: An Interview with Donald Crafton (Part Two)

Tell us more about the distinction you draw in the book between figurative and embodied performance. What assumptions about the nature of acting and spectatorship are implicit in these different styles of animated performance? What accounts for the shifting popularity of these different models over time?

 

Whether a performance is figurative or embodied stems from how the behaviors were intended by the animators and understood by the viewers (which often are not the same experience). They aren’t opposites; they are registers that may overlap, like bass and treble adjustments. Figurative performances are given by cartoon characters (which I call toons, as used in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) whose interest derives mainly from their exaggerated physical traits. These could be a funny walk, caricatural references outside the film, or a distinctive way of talking (like Goofy’s “Uh-hyult, uh-hyult”).

Think of early Mickey or early Bugs. They were beings who were types (small-town boy and slick trickster, respectively). Their behavior was hostage to the collections of attributes, quirks and attitudes that constituted their actions. So Mickey was a caricature that blended recognizable traits borrowed from Charles Lindbergh and Buster Keaton; Bugs was hyperactive and nutty. Several have pointed out that he’s a schnorer, a friend or guest who takes excessive liberties. The repetition of their singular mannerisms was part of the humor. The figurative performance mode wasn’t limited to animation. Comedians like Harry Langdon, Jacques Tati, Roberto Benigni, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen in his first films exploited it too.

 

Embodied performance reflects animators’ Stanislavskian goals and their expectations (or hopes) that viewers’ empathetic understanding and belief in the temperament and uniqueness of the character would understand, accept, and “complete” it. The later ‘thirties Mickey, say in Moose Hunters, integrates him into a believable environment. He responds to it as the viewer or any individual might, with some degree of unpredictability. He engages in banter and give-and-take with Donald and Goofy, who are foils with their own individuality. The animators and we spectators readily imbue them with characteristics that go beyond their simple existence. We care about the fate of the chums and the outcome of the story.

 

It may be too complicated to explain the mechanics of the change here, but the figurative and embodied modes complemented and competed all through the 1930s and 40s. Although Disney took his filmmaking far in the embodied direction, Langer shows that the figurative New York style could intrude even in that studio, as in the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number in Dumbo. Most of the Disney princes are figurative too—necessary placeholders in the plots in need of some “princeness” to redeem the princesses.

 

For various reasons, the public and critics grew tired of the embodied approach. The popularity of films from Warner Bros., MGM, and later from UPA avoided the embodied style or actively parodied it (Avery’s Screwy Squirrel, Jones’ What’s Opera, Doc?).

It also became clear that the enormous investment in hardware (such as multiplane cameras) and the immense animation infrastructure of the Disney studio was not necessary to achieve empathetic characters. There’s Wile E. Coyote, naturally, but UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing might be the best example. Jones’ geometric romance in The Dot and the Line, seen in this light, tested the minimal graphic investment needed to “embody” character.

 

Today there are plenty of examples of embodied acting in animation—Disney/Pixar’s Up or Brave, for instance, which have a retro feel because of it, and despite their sleek digital surfaces.

The vast majority of animation, though, is figurative and exists in work for television and video games. These are stock characters in conventional roles doing conventional things. The personality is supplied imaginatively by the viewer/user, or programmed as a combination of preselected attributes.


Your titles call attention to the degree to which Walt Disney has dominated our understanding of American animation, even as your books make a concerted effort to discuss a much broader range of animators and studios. Why do you think animation history still remains so deeply under the shadow of the Mouse?

 

Having just done some holiday shopping at the Disney store, I’m inclined to say that it’s all about character. The Disney formula for “toons” always has and continues to emphasize a certain definition of personality. There’s limited individuality, meaning that certain expressive behaviors are allowed—let’s say Ariel’s rebellious actions—but never exceed the tightly enclosed limits of the character as a figure—those defining the role of “princess” in the mermaid’s case. Another aspect that makes Disney characters eternal, to borrow the marketing lingo for a moment, is that they are believable versions of people, acting out childlike behaviors. We all know (or maybe are) someone like that. Peter Pan is one of those types. Disney films also are full of adolescent folks playing at being grownup—Ariel, Tiana, Wendy, and Snow White (and Remy, if rats have adolescence). But even that is regressive, since their behaviors are clearly childish. They’re playing house. They are not believable performances of adulthood (which can be relatively boring).

 

Cartoon characters, Disney’s especially, succeed because they are designed to invite consumers to complete them imaginatively and to fully embody them. These characters often are diminutive versions of imagined selves. The possibilities are endless—aggressive, passive, maternal/paternal, sexy, smart, and even plush avatars. There was a stuffed Pumbaa in the store that I found particularly sympathetic…. Now conglomerate Disney enters our lives at some level almost daily, and whether these entertainment commodities are cinematic, or athletic in the case of ESPN, or the transcendental fantasies of the theme parks and cruises, or the plastic princesses, the company’s in the business of selling mediatized bodies performing, whether real, simulated or virtual.

 

Of course, Mouse, as Variety calls Disney, has been perfecting the machinery for bringing this concept to consumers by way of various points of retail merchandizing for about 80 years. As for the animated films, the studio during its successful periods has been adept at anticipating and reacting to consumer interests. The immediate embrace of Winnie the Pooh as a collectible object and then the gradual acceptance of “Princess” as a desired existential category. On the contrary, we could cite the lack of traction for other franchises like Merlin and King Arthur (The Sword in the Stone), or “Kevin Flynn” (Tron). This suggests that animated filmmaking is like other Hollywood enterprises in the sense that box office trends ultimately are unfathomable because consumer response remains largely unpredictable.

 

A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.

Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.

Before and After Mickey: An Interview with Donald Crafton (Part One)

When I was in graduate school, I was lucky enough to be a teaching assistant to Donald Crafton. At the time, Crafton had recently published two important books on the history of animation — Before Mickey (which explored the role of the cartoon in silent cinema) and Emil Cohl, Caricature, and Film, which dealt with one of the great animation pioneers from Europe. Taken together, the two books made a significant contribution to opening up the space of animation as a major field for scholarly research.

Now, several decades later, Crafton has released a new book, Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making. As the book’s title suggests, Crafton’s latest project expands the time line of his earlier work, allowing us to understand more fully how he might apply his analytic approach to think about sound era animation, especially the works of Walt Disney, but also a range of his contemporaries. Second, as the title suggests, Crafton’s focus here is on what performance studies approaches might tell us about the study of animation and vice-versa. The result is contemporary genre criticism at its very best — drawing on a broad corpus of works, combining history and analysis in imaginative ways, providing new ways to look at films we thought we knew well, and in the process, rejiggering the cannon to focus our attention on people and projects that have largely faded from view. As always, the writing is a pleasure to read and there is a sense here of someone bringing a career’s worth of classroom insights into a form which can be shared with a larger public. I know because I had a chance to take Crafton’s seminar in animation at the University of Wisconsin back in the day and came away with an appreciation of the work involved in plowing through multitudes of animated shorts and features to develop a deep appreciation of how the form evolved over time.

In this interview, Crafton offers us a guided tour of a diverse range of examples of classic studio-era animated works, helping us to see the core differences in how they think about the animation process — especially the construction of character and the figuration of the cartoon body. Along the way, he offers us some insights into the ideological work that cartoons have performed and the ways contemporary popular culture, including games and comics, still lives under “the shadow of a mouse.” Enjoy!

Your earlier work Before Mickey recounted the first few decades of animation, while The Shadow of a Mouse takes us into the 1930s. What do you see as the major transitions (beyond the obvious one, sound) that take place in animation between these two periods?

 

The big change was in the performativity of 1920s and 1930s cartoons. I mean that just about everyone at the time understood that the basic concept of the films as performances was changing. Unlike in mainstream cinema, which accommodated the transition to sound over the thirties’ early years and settled back into a modified “classical Hollywood” style, American animated cinema became transformed fundamentally. The earlier cartoons tended to incorporate characters that pre-existed in comic strips, like Krazy Kat, or that were simulacra of comics characters, like Farmer Al Falfa and Felix the Cat. I call these performances figurative because the characters are formulaic, caricatures, refer to characters outside the films, or behave as conventional stock characters. The films consisted of interchangeable gags—what you call “accordion” structures in What Made Pistachios Nuts?, Henry.

In the 1930s, though, this freewheeling approach began giving way to more complex cinema structures in which character depth, gags, pictorial space, and emotional engagement were unified. There was a classicism analogous to what had developed in mainstream non-animated filmmaking in the late ‘teens. This was something new in cartooning.

 

Studio animators often spoke of the “personality” of animated characters. What did they mean by that term and what strategies did they use to give drawn figures “personalities”

 

“Personality animation”  was a phrase that emerged mainly from Disney’s shop. I think the term embodied animation captures better what the animators were aiming for. The embodied character has distinctive features of expression and patterns of idiosyncratic movement—“personality”—but also develops individuality over the course of multiple film appearances through repetition and variation. He or she can think and act spontaneously, that is, have their own agency aside from the animator’s influence.

A good example is Popeye. He was imported from the comics too (“The Thimble Theatre”), and the cartoons had plenty of anarchistic gags, and his early performances were highly figurative. Eventually, however, Popeye came to have a complex character built around making the right ethical decision to change the outcome of the plot. Audiences came to learn of his quirks, idiosyncratic behaviors and surprising attitudes—like his dislike of children, but his paternal affection for baby Swee’Pea. But they also started appreciating his moral authority and the degree to which his lower-class “swab” character was capable of sophisticated ideas. Not to mention his fistic prowess. So his personality is just one aspect of the character’s role in the stories. Not that these Popeye stories were always coherent; sometimes the narratives were pretty choppy.

Comparing a relatively fully embodied Popeye performance from the mid-to-late 1930s to figurative Ko-Ko the clown from the mid-1920s says it all about the evolution of personality outside Disney. Betty Boop’s performances, in 1930-33, were transitional, as in Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle, from 1932, which is chockfull of eye-popping, show-stopping effects, but still tells a story—although it’s a simple and rather perfunctory one. All three examples, I hardly need to mention, come from the same studio: the Fleischer brothers.

Historian Mark Langer has proposed that there was a geographical distinction between the two attitudes toward performativity (without using the word). He sees a more figurative New York Style in contrast to the embodiment trending West Coast Style. He characterized the filmmakers in the big NYC studios (Fleischer, Sullivan, Terry, Van Beuren) who worked mainly in a high-contrast black-and-white comic-strip style as continuing their graphic media connections to comics and popular illustration. The movement in such films was rubbery and gag-filled (redolent of the animators’ love affair with vaudeville). These films also were surreal and fantastic.

Disney, once they settled in L.A. (the Silver Lake area specifically), exemplified the West Coast style, which evolved into the embodied performance approach. Although his roots were in Kansas City, not New York, he and his partner Ub Iwerks had begun drawing in this comics style in their 1920s silents and early sound films. But Disney wanted product differentiation and so began emphasizing storytelling, character development, and less “cartoony” constructions. The pictorial space of his films became more rational, often observing proper Renaissance perspective, lighting, and color for creating convincing depth. This was necessary to support a character-based approach to performance.

These beings in the Silly Symphonies, let’s say the ones in Father Noah’s Ark, moved more gravitationally and less rubbery. Sometimes, as with the dancing porkers in The Three Little Pigs, they moved with choreographic grace.

Most important, the Disney studio tried to transform the older style characters from caricatures and comic types (often inspired by minstrels) to individuals with uniqueness and psychological depth. There might have been some surreal fantasy, but it was kept in check within the story.

 

The most influential force on the emerging West Coast style was the Russian acting theorist Konstantin Stanislavsky, whose ideas about how the stage actor must “inhabit” the fictional body to bring life to it was a model for Disney animators as well as for other “live-action” film directors in the 1930s. Eventually these ideas would give rise to “The Method.” If you ask me, the 1950s Method acting of Dean, Brando, Monroe etc. is kind of cartoony. But that’s another blog.

 

After the talkies came in, there had to be a new attitude towards sound, as you say. Early 30s animation for commercial reasons had to be anchored in music performance. Hence the references to “tunes,” “symphonies,” “melodies” etc. in the 1930s series titles were tie‑ins with the music publishing industry. We should think of these films as intermedial because often they were structured around and animated to a pre-existing track, usually the instrumental version of a public domain melody in the case of Disney, or of a currently popular song in the cases of Fleischer and the Schlesinger studio (Warner Bros.). So the structure of the music interacted with the gags to create a new sensation.

 

These are the major transformations, to give a long answer to your short question, but all the different aspects boil down to changes in the underlying performances presented on screen. As for Disney, there was never any doubt about his motives: he wanted his films to be like Hollywood shorts and then features so he could rent them for more revenue, and he felt that cartoons had to have the look and feel of a big studio production if they were to compete.

 

A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.

Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.

Announcing Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television,
and
USC Annenberg School of Communication &
USC School of Cinematic Arts

Transmedia, Hollywood 4:
Spreading Change

Presented by The Andrew J. Kuehn, Jr. Foundation

Friday, April 12, 2013
James Bridges Theater, UCLA

9:00 am – 6:00 pm

 

Transmedia, Hollywood is a one-day public symposium exploring the role of transmedia franchises in today’s entertainment industries. Transmedia, Hollywood turns the spotlight on media creators, producers and executives and places them in critical dialogue with top researchers from across a wide spectrum of film, media and cultural studies to provide an interdisciplinary summit for the free interchange of insights about how transmedia works and what it means. Transmedia, Hollywood is co-hosted by Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins, from UCLA and USC, two of the most prominent film schools and media research centers in the nation.

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

Transmedia entertainment has been advanced within the Hollywood system primarily through a logic of promotion, audience building, and engagement, offering the ideal tools for capturing the imagination of networked audiences through the creation of immersive and expansive imaginary worlds. As transmedia has spread around the world, especially to countries with a much stronger tradition of public media, these same practices have been embraced as a means not of building fictional realms but of changing the world:

  • As advertisers seek to construct their own “brand communities” as a way of forging strong affiliations with their consumers, many are embracing cause-based marketing. In the process, these brand marketers are recognizing young viewers’ capacity for civic engagement and political participation, one of the hallmarks of the millennial generation. While sometimes these brand messages end up advancing cultural movements, in other instances, they simply coopt these shared generational concerns.
  • Educational approaches to entertainment, popular across the developing world, are now extending across multiple media platforms to allow fans to develop a deeper understanding of health and social policy issues as they dig deeper into the backstories of their favorite characters. Alternative reality games, which seek to encourage grassroots participation as a marketing tool, have shifted from solving puzzles to mobilizing players to confront real world problems.
  • Fan networks, organized to support and promote favorite media franchises, are taking on the challenge of training and mobilizing the next generation of young activists, using their capacity as thought leaders to reshape the attention economy by increasing public awareness of mutual concerns.
  • Nonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters.

Each of these productive, participatory, community-based activities have been facilitated over the past decade by a widening web of 2.0 social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. The millennial generation’s mastery of “play” has now expanded to include a growing number of apps, casual games, short-form digital entertainment experiences, and expansive alternate reality games. Millennials, who have been acclimating themselves with the tools of connectivity in times of play, now have at their disposal the means to harness a global community to solve such pressing issues as global warming, ethnic, racial or religious genocide, labor unrest, the inequities associated with class, and countless other modern-day assaults. Many of today’s thought leaders—baby boomers that witnessed an earlier social revolution during the late sixties—marvel over the subtle but pervasive shift that is underway in the web 2.0 era and beyond as social connectedness is becoming reframed as a means for large-scale community action.

Transmedia producers in Hollywood have much to learn from a closer examination of these other forms of entertainment and educational discourse, which we might describe as “transmedia for a change.” When is it appropriate for the big media companies to incorporate such themes and tactics into their pop culture franchises? And when should they tolerate, even embrace, the bottom up activities of their fans which have used their content as vehicles for promoting social justice and political change? What does it mean to produce entertainment for a generation which is demanding its right to meaningfully participate at every level — from shaping the stories that matter to them to impacting the governance of their society?

For more information, see http://www.liquid-bass.com/conference/

For conference Registration, see : http://transmediahollywood4.eventbrite.com/#

Also, that same weekend, 5D Institute, in association with University of Southern California, invites you to join us in The Science of Fiction, our first Worldbuilding festival. This groundbreaking event will take place on April 13, 2012 in honor of the unveiling of the new USC School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media complex. For more information, see http://5dinstitute.org/events/science-of-fiction

9:00—9:10 am: Welcome and Opening Remarks – Denise Mann & Henry Jenkins
9:10—11:00 am: Panel 1 Revolutionary Advertising: Cultivating Cultural MovementsIn the web 2.0 era, as more and more millennials acquire the tools of participatory culture and new media literacy, some of this cohort are redirecting their one-time leisure-based activities into acts of community-based, grassroots social activism. Recognizing the power of the crowd to create a tipping point in brand affiliation, big media marketers, Silicon Valley start-ups, and members of the Madison Avenue advertising community, are jumping on board these crowdsourcing activities to support their respective industries. In other words, many of the social goals of grassroots revolutionaries are being realigned to serve the commercial goals of brand marketers. In the best-case scenarios, the interests of the community and the interests of the market economy align in some mercurial fashion to serve both constituencies. However, in the worst case scenario, the community-based activism fueling social movements is being redirected to support potato chips, tennis shoes, or sugary-soda drinks. Brand marketers are intrigued with the power and sway of social media, inaugurating any number of trailblazing forms of interactive advertising and branded entertainment to replace stodgy, lifeless, 30 second ads. These cutting edge madmen are learning how to reinvent entertainment for the participatory generation by marrying brands to pre-existing social movements to create often impressive, well-funded brand movements like Nike Livestrong, or Pepsi Refresh. Are big media marketers subsuming the radical intent of certain community-based organizations who are challenging the status quo by redirecting them into unintentional alliance with big business or are they infusing these cash-strapped organizations with much needed funds and marketing outreach? Today’s panel of experts will debate these and other issues associated with the future of participatory play as a form of social activism.Todd CunninghamFormerly, Senior Vice-President of Strategic Insights and Research at MTV Networks.

Denise Mann (Moderator)      

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Associate Professor, Head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Rob Schuham

CEO, Action Marketing

Michael Serazio     

Author, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing

Alden E. Stoner     

VP, Social Action Film Campaigns, Participant Media

Rachel Tipograph

Director, Global Digital and Social Media at Gap Inc.

 

 

 

11:10 am—1:00 pm: Panel 2 Transmedia For a ChangeHollywood’s version of transmedia has been preoccupied with inspiring fan engagement, often linked to the promotional strategies for the release of big budget media. But, as transmedia has spread to parts of the world which have been dominated by public service media, there has been an increased amount of experimentation in ways that transmedia tactics can be deployed to encourage civic engagement and social awareness. These transmedia projects can be understood as part of a larger move to shift from understanding public media as serving publics towards a more active mission in gathering and mobilizing publics. These projects may also be understood as an extension of the entertainment education paradigm into the transmedia realm, where the goal shifts from informing to public towards getting people participating in efforts to make change in their own communities. In some cases, these producers are creating transmedia as part of larger documentary projects, but in others, transmedia is making links between fictional content and its real world implications. 

Panelists

Henry Jenkins (Moderator)     

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC Annenberg School for Communication

Katerina Cizek     

Filmmaker-in-Residence, National Film Board, Canada

Katie Elmore Mota     

Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren

Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi     

Founder, BoomGen Studios

1:00—2:00 pm: LUNCH BREAK
2:00—3:50 pm: Panel 3 Through Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY CultureA recent survey released by the MacArthur Foundation found that a growing number of young people are embracing practices the researchers identified as “participatory politics”: “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” These forms of politics emerge from an increasingly DIY media culture, linked in important ways to the practices of Makers, Hackers, Remix Artists and Fan Activists. This panel will bring together some key “change agents,” people who are helping to shape the production and flow of political media, or who are seeking to better understand the nature of political participation in an era of networked publics. Increasingly, these new forms of activism are both transmedia (in that they construct messages through any and all available media) and spreadable (in that they encourage participation on the level of circulation even if they do not always invite the public to help create media content).

Panelists

Megan M. Boler     

Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education OISE/University of Toronto

Marya Bangee

Community Organizing Residency (COR) Fellow, OneLA, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)

Erick Huerta     

Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh

Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

Sangita Shreshtova (Moderator)

Research Director of Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism

Elisabeth Soep     

Research Director and Senior Producer at Youth Radio-Youth Media International

 

 

4:00—5:50 pm: Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New PhilanthropistNonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters. While the boomers treated the cultural movements of the late sixties as a cause, today’s e-citizens are treating their social activism as a brand. They are selling social responsibility as if it were a commodity or product, using the same strategies that traditional business men and women used to sell products.

Sarah Banet-Weiser

Professor, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and Department of American Studies and Ethnicity

 

Sean D. Carasso

Founder, Falling Whistles

 

Yael Cohen

Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

Milana Rabkin     

Digital Media Agent

Sharon Waxman (Moderator)

Editor-in-Chief, The Wrap

 

 

6:00—7:30 pm:RECEPTION

Let Us Now Praise Famous Monsters: A Conversation (Part Three)

Studying Monster fandom places a new emphasis on issues of collecting, which have remained marginal to the studies of fan culture, but which are a very large part of the phenomenon itself. What existing work do you think provides the best insights into collecting cultures and what questions do you think still need to be addressed?

Mark: I think that matters of collecting have been tangential in part because the background so many media scholars have in Marxist /Frankfurt School criticism still makes a lot of us reticent to look at conspicuous consumption as anything other than totally negative–I know I’m leery of being accused of false consciousness or bougie-ness when making a case for collecting as a form of amateur cultural preservation. That said, I’ve been relieved to encounter an increasing number of writings which take a more complicated approach to the consumption of commercial product. I would specifically mention Sara Gwenllian-Jones’s essay “Phantom Menace,” Alan McKee’s “How to Tell the Difference between Production and Consumption,” and Matt Hills’s concept of performative consumption, presented in Fan Cultures, and which I apply to Chaney fans in my essay. I’m also interested in the idea of creative consumption proposed by Jean Burgess and Joshua Green in their book on YouTube, although I wish they would have developed the concept for the reader a little more. I think Jose van Dijck has many interesting ideas about material culture and collecting in Mediated Memories, and I just discovered a book by Richard Cox on the practice of personal archiving that looks promising and is on my reading list. As far as questions that still need to be addressed, I’m interested in distinctions between the physical object and the digital–is downloading digital artifacts collecting in the same sense as “having” tangible objects? There’s been work done in this area in museum studies, which may provide an inroad for looking at this matter in media studies.

Bob: A great list, Mark — I’m making notes! I’d add Baudrillard’s System of Objects and, less abstractly, Jonathan Gray’s Show Sold Separately as ways of understanding collectors and collecting in conversation with mass media marketing. Lincoln Geraghty’s upcoming book with Routledge on “cult collecting” will also be useful, I’m sure.

Matt:  As a collector of Silver Age comic books and vinyl records, the issue of collecting is rather personal to me.  In terms of questions to pursue re: collecting, I’m particularly interested in issues of commodity value and “collectability” of an object.  I have a friend who is intensely proud of his collection of early Silver Age issues of The Justice League of America.  They are all of very high grade (virtually untouched warehouse copies in some cases) and are “slabbed.”  For him, they retain a nostalgic value (he owned copies as a kid) but he mostly values them as a financial investment.  On the other hand, my collecting has always been motivated by a desire to read or listen to something and am much less concerned about condition.  In fact,  I frequent comic book conventions looking for “reader copies” of old comic books in part because they are much more affordable but also because  I’m very interested in objects that bear traces of their use-histories.  Usually with comic books this comes in the form of a signature of ownership on the cover or the first page but sometimes there are surprising traces left behind, such as an attached personal object.  I once found a nearly incoherent response to a ‘Dear John’ letter tucked inside an LP.  It provided a strange resonance to the love songs on the record.

 

Natasha: As a former product developer who designed collectibles, I am very compelled by this question.  I’m shocked there hasn’t been more work done on collectibles in relation to fan studies.  Enormous amounts of time, capital and passion are put into collecting.  I believe that closely studying the motivations, desires, patterns, and strategies of fan based collectors can provide valuable insights and new ways to think about fan cultures.   A couple of edited volumes I’ll add to the list are: Acts of Possession: Collecting in America (ed. Leah Dilworth) and The Cultures of Collecting (ed. Roger Cardinal).

 

 

A key claim here is that Famous Monsters and its fans shaped the canon of which older films mattered and also informed the ways we made sense of those movies. What are some of the films or performers that got reappraised thanks to being featured in this publication?

Matt: More than anything, I think FM is notable for spotlighting special effects artists, especially Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, and make-up artists like Jack Pierce.  Ackerman’s narratives regarding individual artists foregrounded the tactile labor involved in filmmaking that inspired so many readers to create their own make-ups and make their own films.  The visible traces of these artists translated to the visible traces of the artist(s) of the amateur film.

Mark: Certainly FM played a major role in making Chaney appear intriguing to a generation of monster fans who may have never actually seen any of his films, and in shaping his remembrance as a star of horror films rather than as a more versatile character actor. FM was particularly instrumental in keeping one of Chaney’s lost films, London After Midnight (Browning, 1927), in memory, and of touting it as a masterpiece of horror. Ackerman may have been one of the last surviving people with a clear memory of having seen the film, and he spoke glowingly of it to the end–as he did at a Monster Bash convention Matt and his brother and I attended in 2006. In doing research for this essay, I was also fairly amazed at some of the stills and information found in the pages of FM on obscure, foreign, and/or avant-garde films like Dreyer’s Vampyr, the 1930s French version of The Golem (even now hard to find), and non-western films like Kwaidan.

 

Ackerman, as several of you note, was an important bridge figure — between fans and the industry, but also between fandom and a range of other alternative cultural movements, and perhaps between childhood and adulthood. What kind of role model did Ackerman provide for what a mature fan identity might look like?

Matt:  Ackerman’s liberal attitudes about life are, I believe, quite relevant to his fannish affections for science fiction.  I am particularly intrigued by how certain aspects of his life are very problematic for some fans (in particular his practice of nudism in the 1950s and 1960s).  More than anything, Ackerman modelled tolerance and the necessity to think about new ways of living with one another.  Interestingly, this model is seemingly lost on some fans, who reduce Ackerman to the status of “grand collector” and nothing more.

Mark: In addition to the inclusivity and progressive perspectives Matt refers to, I think Ackerman also modelled sincerity, generosity, and kindness. One of the things I discovered while looking through old issues of FM was a series of announcements by Ackerman about an upcoming cross-country road trip he was taking, with the offer to readers that if their parents gave permission, he would visit them en route and show them some of the monster memorabilia he had with him. Imagine that! Ackerman also demonstrated a respect for children that is admirable. While I still find his sense of humor hard to take, he seems like he would have been a genuinely nice person to know.

Bob: Actually, it’s Ackerman’s sense of humor that most appealed to me as a kid; it set up a lovely counterpoint to the horrific imagery the magazine often featured, and went a long way toward “defanging” some of the primally upsetting stuff that I was drawn to, but disturbed by, in other formats (cf. the 1974 Exorcist coverage I mention above). In addition to signalling geniality and likeability, as Mark points out, Ackerman’s prose voice also delighted in its own corny panache, and encouraged me — not always for the better — to emulate his punning, Mad-magazine-style in my own writing.

Natasha: Ackerman’s quest to promote respect, understanding and acceptance of all people regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation or age is what I have always admired most about his cultural legacy.  Not only was Ackerman a prominent and outspoken supporter of female-produced science- fiction work, but he was also a stanch advocate for gay rights.  He was dubbed an honorary lesbian by Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization in the U.S. He believed that monster films and science fiction had the capacity to take viewers out of their comfort zone and imagine alternative realities that could challenge existing sexist, racist, sexist, and ageist thinking.  Ackerman had the foresight to know that fan participation is not whimsical and irrelevant, but can be a very powerful thing that can change the way people see and interact with each other.  Best of all, he always did this with a sense of humor.

 

Matt was lucky enough to have had a chance to interview Ackerman before he died. If the rest of us had a chance to ask “Uncle Forry” a question, from beyond the grave (of course), what would you most like to know about his life, his magazine, or its cultural impact?

 

Mark: I’m curious as to how conscientiously he promoted his social politics in the pages of FM: he absolutely influenced genre fandom and formation of a canon of stars and films, but was he also trying to influence readers’ perspectives? More than asking him specific questions, though, I would’ve really liked to just talk about horror films with him, and get more of that first-hand view of London After Midnight.

The recent film, Super 8, offers some glimpses into the world of amateur filmmaking and model building which Famous Monsters inspired. To what degree do you think the film adequately captured the cultural milieu we are documenting through these essays?

Matt: Super 8 overwhelmed its superficial take on 1970s monster kid culture with sci-fi spectacle.  Joe Dante’s Matinee, while not a great film, is more successful at capturing the spirit of horror fandom because it shows us why kids loved this culture.   Super 8’s computer-generated spectacle is absent of the trace evidence of an artisan and thus distances us from the affective connections we make with classic horror and science fiction films.  In the end, the film’s nod toward kids’ amateur films of the period feels just like that, a nod.  There’s nothing substantive behind the title reference to home movies/amateur films or the storyline of the kids making a movie, no clear reason as to why they want to make a monster movie.

Bob: Funny, when I gave a talk based on my article recently, I started with a clip from Super 8: it shows the young protagonist at work painting one of Aurora’s Hunchback of Notre Dame kits. I wanted to contrast the plastic monster’s humble cameo against the movie’s CGI “star,” which was — and here I agree with Matt — a dispiriting genuflection to the state of the art. (If only J. J. Abrams and crew had had the guts to give us an actual creature of late 70s special effects — a Rob Bottin or Carlo Rambaldi creation of latex and servomotors.) Its false notes aside, I respect Super 8 for what it’s trying to do (and be), and in the film’s enshrining of an earlier moment in the evolution of fantastic media — the late 70s/early 80s golden age of Spielberg and Lucas — heard curious nested echoes of other, prior golden ages: the late 50s-early 60s monster culture in which Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, Zemeckis, Dante, and others came of age, as well as the period 20-30 years before that, when the classic Universal horror films were first released. Famous Monsters bridged at least three generations in this fashion, and overgrown “monster kid movies” like Super 8 are to me a way of carrying that tradition forward: revisiting and rearticulating shared, nostalgic pleasures while driving the continued industrial production of fantastic media.

Mark: Super 8 is nostalgic, in the way David Lowenthal uses the term to describe “memory with the pain removed.” There’s an implication that the young filmmakers/adventurers are misfits, or aren’t performing masculinity “correctly,” and that this somehow lends itself to their shared interest in monsters. But even though they’re misfits, they are in a group of friends, and all appear to be in a position of class privilege (except the Elle Fanning character, but she’s the exception in multiple ways). The film doesn’t really address the isolation, loneliness, ostracization, or queerness that has led many a young person to interest in fantasy, monsters, science fiction, role playing games, ancient mythology, the goth subculture, the occult, etc. But of course, isolation, loneliness, and queerness aren’t topics one sees addressed too often in big-budget Hollywood action films.

 

Mark Hain is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, and is currently working on his dissertation, which is a historical reception study looking at star image and how audiences interpret and find use for these images, with a specific focus on Theda Bara.

Bob Rehak is an Assistant Professor in the Film and Media Studies Program at Swarthmore College. His research interests include special effects and the material practices of fandom.

Natashia Ritsma is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. Her research interests focus on documentary, experimental and educational film and television.

Matt Yockey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theater and Film at the University of Toledo. His research interest is on the reception of Hollywood genre films.