What Dinosaurs Taught Me about Media Literacy

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In preparation for my digital storytelling session in Anaheim, I wrote this short reflective piece. However, the workshop involved a much different exercise than I anticipated, so I wasn’t able to develop the script any further. Thus, I’m sharing it on the blog in case I ever want to translate it into a digital narrative later on. Here it is:

“Everything I learned about media literacy, I learned from dinosaurs. Throughout my childhood, I was obsessed with them  – I couldn’t get enough of the rich, expansive, seemingly mythological world. So I read book after book from the library, re-watched movie after movie, and collected an array of cards/toys/and merchandise. It wasn’t long until I could tell you exactly which dinosaurs were prevalent in the Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous periods. I could tell you about any species’ diet, behavior patterns, and mating rituals.  And I would definitely tell you that there is no such thing as Brontosaurus – it’s an Apatosaurus. Brontosaurus was the result of incorrectly matching the head of Camarasaurus on the body of Apatosaurus, a blunder which took 100 years to correct. These kinds of stories were so exciting for me. I became a kind of information archaeologist,  hunting down and uncovering  data from an array of sources and piecing together the clues to formulate my own interpretation. We might think of those skills as the beginning of literacy today, but not the complete picture.

Dinosaurs became not just a personal hobby, but also a subject for connecting and collaborating with other people.  At my Dinosaur themed birthday parties, I expected guests to research and act like their favorite dinosaurs. The idea was that if we each reenacted a different species, we could explore some fascinating interactions together.  This was great fun, until one time I caught a supposed herbivore eating pepperoni pizza. (There’s the door)  I also put on various dinosaur shows for my parents, complete with balloon props, colorful hats, and sound effects cued up on the tape player. My parents would film me prance around, rattling off factoids and roaring loudly. I then could share the video with my friends and family, despite a lack of any clear coherence.

Nevertheless, the important lesson was that rather than merely consuming media for myself, I was producing it, sharing it, and performatively demonstrating my findings. I could teach an audience as the expert on a topic. This turned out to be a powerful learning tool for mastering the dinosaur universe, contributing to my success in the classroom later on.  And now, with the ubiquity and accessibility of digital media technologies, it’s never been easier to tell stories to and with people from around the world. So even though I’ve grown past dinosaurs, (and given my height perhaps into one) , my passion for storytelling, media technology, and digital literacy allows me to re-experience that same sense of excitement, creativity, and imagination all over again.”


Modern Retrogaming in Tron’s “Flynn Lives” ARG

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This is a re-post of my In Media Res article on Tron: Legacy’s transmedia design. I intend to flesh out these ideas once the entire campaign concludes:

The 1982 film Tron, known for its spectacular special effects at the time, transported audiences inside the then foreign and unfamiliar realm of computer technology. Director Steven Lisberger has described the original Tron as portraying a certain “naïve idealism,” since he was freely able to imagine the vast, glorious potential of the digital world. However, Disney’s Tron: Legacy promises to reflect a more nuanced, modern view of technology and its impact on our civilization. In an effort to hype the sequel’s December release and fill in narrative gaps between the two films, 42 Entertainment launched an ARG marketing campaign entitled “Flynn Lives“. One of the chief strategies of this paratext is to revive the nostalgic sense of wonderment emanating from the Tron era of early computing, but then re-contextualize its aesthetics, content, and style into a more evolved and sophisticated gaming culture.

The premise of Flynn Lives is that Kevin Flynn, the famous game developer, has gone missing and Encom International, the fictional mega-corporation profiting from Flynn’s games, appears to be withholding key information about his disappearance. Participants decipher clues, hack into the Encom website, and attend live events as they begin to piece together the mystery. The ARG has already incorporated puzzles with pixelated graphics and simplistic color palettes reminiscent of the early 80s arcade games. But so far, we can see the most interesting interplay between the modern and the retro happening around Encom’s newly released Space Paranoids Online (SPO).

For many casual players, SPO serves as nothing more than a throwback to the original Tron. The in-browser game does a terrific job of maintaining the ‘feel’ of Space Paranoids, which had previously never existed outside the film. SPO maintains the same visual style, from the glowing neon labyrinth to the green targeting box, yet revamps the graphics to be slicker and smoother.  The Recognizers  (flying staple-shaped vehicles) not only look remarkably similar to the originals, but their escalating rumble as they hover towards your position remains consistent as well. SPO also makes explicit allusions to the original  Tron. The leader board features Flynn’s untouchable high scores from 1982. And on some levels, we see a white particle-flowing square resembling the memory stream traveled through by Flynn’s hack program, Clu. More importantly however, Space Paranoids provides a framework for the Tronverse logic.  As we can see in the opening scene of Tron, recognizers and tanks are not just part of an arcade game; they are an integral part of how the Tron computer system functions as a whole. Thus, at its core, the gameplay of SPO reinforce the rules and physics of the Tron world, providing a better sense of what’s at stake when we meet these vehicles again in Tron: Legacy.

At the same time, SPO works on a much deeper level. Within hours of the game’s release, ARG players began noticing secret walls with bar codes on them. They worked together to map out the game space and offer strategies for completing the levels. Utilizing a barcode reader to extract the corresponding numerical sequences, players posted the full codes on Unfiction.com. Entering these codes into Encom’s virtual server ultimately yielded new Tron: Legacy photos and concept art. Clearly, SPO functions not just as a vintage emulator for reliving fond memories, but also as a data mine for uncovering secret messages. Casual players might view Flynn’s high scores as playful allusions; ARG players approached them as potential codes. Thus, whereas traditional arcade games promote social interaction through competition and spectatorship, SPO encourages collaboration and collective intelligence by embedding new insights or “rabbit holes” within the underlying structure.  The trailer for SPO claims to be “classic gameplay for the 21st century,” indicating an appeal to generations both before and after the original Tron. Indeed, participants of Flynn Lives can take pleasure not just from revisiting arcade culture, but from seeing how those nostalgic elements are remediated and repurposed to fit contemporary gaming ambitions.

What Will They Do? Transmedia Producers as Narrative Architects

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For a long time, this blog has been dormant. While I have been busy writing elsewhere, regrettably I never felt compelled to post my thoughts here. That is, until this week when the Producers Guild of America officially announced the “Transmedia Producer” credit. The news inspired a revelation, an awakening, an epiphany of sorts. It suddenly hit me: this is really the future and I need to be more active in shaping it.

There are many exciting implications about officially sanctioning a transmedia profession. Beyond legitimizing an area of personal interest, I can now finally point to a job description and say, “this is what I want to do when I grow up.” In that regard, I am very grateful to people like Henry Jenkins, Christy Dena, and Jeff Gomez (and others) who, by promoting knowledge abundance in this area, helped provide storytellers all over the world with a new kind of career aspiration.

There are also a lot of questions swirling around the transmedia producer buzz. What will the transmedia producer do that the traditional producer doesn’t already? Why do we need a new position that overlaps with the function of marketing executives and show runners? (there’s also the question about the role of independent producers, but that’s for another post)

It’s true that some producers oversee the development of narrative extensions as they relate to their property. However, there are also many producers who are either better at management and financing, or whose expertise pertains solely to a specific medium. Not every traditional producer knows the transmedia environment. Not every marketing executive knows how to tell a story (in one platform or multiple) The transmedia producer thus holds a different type of skill set, one that draws connections across media forms and one that involves conceptualizing, analyzing, and designing experiences at the macro-level. It is a person that does not just dive into the transmedia realm with a laundry list of media to explore, but actually has a deep understanding of the relationship between content, context, and culture.

Though incomplete and over-generalized, I like the metaphor of an architect for several reasons. First, architects are in the business of merging theory with practice to make art. Jeff Gomez has argued all along that transmedia storytelling, in its purest form, is a technique. Just as an architect aims to design something to be marveled at,  transmedia producers specialize in bridging narrative materials, sculpting intriguing mythologies, and embedding satisfying revelations for those who want a closer look at the details. Thus, the main difference between traditional producers of today and transmedia producers of tomorrow is that the former tends to understand transmedia in terms of preserving business-as-usual, while the latter will approach transmedia on its own terms, creating its own set of aesthetics and modes of engagement.

In addition, just as architects must consider the limitations and affordances of every material in order to ensure a sturdy, functional building, transmedia producers must understand the unique storytelling potential behind each media platform. Certain stories lend themselves to particular media and vice versa. And as more narrative complexities threaten to impede comprehension , transmedia producers guard against blatant inconsistencies and contradictions. The narrative structure they design must be durable and organized, all while allowing room for future construction and additions.

The best architects draw on a range of influences, disciplines, and perspectives, taking into account history, theory, and criticism to develop innovating concepts. Likewise, I see a similar approach to the emerging field of transmedia studies, which cannot be limited to a single historical era, country, genre, style, or industry. Transmedia producers possess storytelling talent, yes, but they should also appreciate the complex relationship between story and game, author and audience, openness and closure, art and commodity. They are as well versed in any sector of the entertainment industry as they are in popular culture and fandom as a whole. In other words, as story architects, transmedia producers understand how their IP edifice, whether a high rise or low rise, will fit within the larger cityscape.

Finally, when they’ve done their job right, transmedia producers design spaces not just for people to admire, but also to interact, play, and collaborate.  It seems so celebratory and cliche to talk about this now, but the transmedia producer will have an incredible knack for activating communities and rewarding collective intelligence. As the influential architect Philip Johnson once said, “All great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” While we could argue all day about whether transmedia storytelling empowers or exploits, for me, recognizing the transmedia producer is a major step towards realizing the potential for great, masterful architecture.

I hope this means I’ll be back blogging again. Thanks for reading!

Digital Story: The PSA

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In my previous post, I examined video’s unique storytelling potential. Now I’d like to focus on specific variations of digital narratives, beginning with the public service announcement (PSA). A PSA is a short 30-60 second commercial that informs the audience about a public concern, while also triggering an emotional reaction (ideally leading to action).  In the United States, the Ad Council is perhaps the most famous producer of such content.  To demonstrate how a student might think about translating raw information into a story, I’ve tried to outline the creative process here. In this case, I tackle the danger of Hypertension (High Blood Pressure).

Step 1: Do the research.

Ex: -About 1 in every 4 American adults has high blood pressure, also called hypertension, which is a major risk factor for heart and kidney diseases, stroke, and heart failure.
-People are most likely to develop Hypertension when they are over the age of 35, overweight or obese, not active, drink too much alcohol, eat too many fatty or salty foods, excessively stressed.
-High blood pressure is especially dangerous because it often gives no warning signs or symptoms.
-You can find out if you have high blood pressure by having your blood pressure checked regularly.

Source: http://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/guide/hypertension-overview-facts

Step 2: What message do you want to get across? Try to articulate it in a single sentence.

Ex: High blood pressure is a silent killer.

Step 3: Brainstorm general ideas, taking into consideration style (music video, documentary, interview-based) and tone (comedic, dramatic, shocking).

Ex: We see a man go about his everyday life while hearing the sound effect of a ticking time bomb. A narrator provides some information about blood pressure as we see the man eating breakfast, going to work, greeting his children, cleaning his house: he’s living a normal life. However, whenever he eats salty foods or drinks caffeine or decides not to work out, the ticking gets faster and faster. This builds up until the end, when the timer suddenly ‘Dings’ and we cut to a black screen. Text: “High blood pressure causes heart diseases and strokes without any warning. Take the time to check it, before time is up.”

Okay, it’s a little morbid, but I think it would get the message across.

Step 4: The next step is to write a working script, exactly what we see on the screen. You don’t have to use screenwriting lingo, just write cinematically–so only things the audience will see and hear. This might be a sample:

Ex: Scene 1: An older man, about 40 years old, wakes up in his bed. We hear the noise of a single tick while soft orchestra music plays in the background. The man glances at the treadmill in the corner of his room. It’s dusty and dirty. We hear another tick. He hesitates, as if he’s going to use it, and decides to shower instead. Again, another ticking noise.  The man sits down at the kitchen table, dressed in a suit, eating breakfast with his kids. He eats a McGriddle delightfully. The ticking noise now gains a steady pace.

Step 5: This is the storyboarding phase. Envision what your video might look like. You don’t have to be a talented artist (or an artist at all, as you can tell), just include enough information so that when it’s time to start shooting, you have a clear plan. Even better than drawing, take a camera and shoot photos of how you want to frame your shot. You can also use any clip art at your disposal.

storyboard.jpg

Then you’re ready for production! Maybe someday I’ll get around to actually filming this PSA, but in any case, I’ll leave you with one of the most effective and provocative PSAs I’ve ever seen:

Integrating Digital Storytelling into the Classroom

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Chris Millet recently wrote a post about how Digital Storytelling can enhance college students’ ability to retain information and synthesize research. He argues that creating effective narrative-based videos–ones that elicit an emotional response from the viewer–can be a powerful tool for teaching and learning across disciplines.

To understand why, and Millet outlines a number of reasons, we might look at our response to a natural disaster from across the globe. Reading about the number of fatalities from an earthquake may startle us, but it’s not until we see the photos from the destruction and hear people’s stories on the news that we respond to the tragedy on a visceral, gut level. This potent combination of narrative and imagery, what I’m referring to here as “digital storytelling,” humanizes factual statistics, giving them real meaning. And so rather than having students robotically regurgitate dates, or rush through an essay for a single reader, we are asking students to dive deep into their topic, discover the most compelling narrative elements, strategize how their message can best be conveyed through video, and convincingly show a public audience why we should care. Thus, the students become more than the experts; they become the teachers.

This may see like an intimidating task, but the learning process involved is multi-layered, collaborative, and often times, enjoyable. In fact, faculty who already incorporate digital storytelling into their coursework have told me the most challenging aspect of the project has little to do with technical knowledge. Indeed, with user-friendly Media Commons equipment (flip cams, iMovie, Kaltura) and user-friendly Media Commons support, students quickly learn how to shoot and edit moving images. The real problem occurs on a more abstract level—how to conceptually develop an engaging video narrative. This issue deserves significant attention. Just as students need to be able to string together sentences in a coherent fashion, they need to be able to organize multimedia content meaningfully, especially now.

In light of this, there is a crucial step in the planning phase of digital storytelling that I think we need to emphasize more as educators. Most students begin with some sort of written essay that they then must adapt into their final movie.  This process of translation, from text to video, is not a manner of recording one’s voice reading over the essay and then inserting random images. Because video operates differently as a medium than print, students must understand its unique limitations and affordances. And to maximize a video’s storytelling potential, students must rework their papers so as to “translate” it for the language of cinema.

The 39 Clues: The Future of Children’s Stories?

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Once upon a time, there was only one way for children to dive into worlds of wonder, magic, and fantasy, and that was to read books. The beloved tales of The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Golden Compass brought hobbits, witches, and dæmons off the page and into millions of children’s imaginations. These popular childhood adventure novels, once intended to be pure literary works, now exist as major multi-platform franchises, spanning films, videogames, web pages, social networks, fan fiction, mobile content, and merchandise.

In the digital age, our youth has come to expect these kinds of multimedia dimensions out of their favorite books, especially on the Internet, and publishing companies have noticed. On September 9th, Scholastic Media will release The Maze of Bones, the first installment of the highly anticipated “The 39 Clues.”

The series is Scholastic’s follow up to   the mega hit Harry Potter. Except, unlike  Harry Potter, which evolved into a transmedia powerhouse after the books’ rising popularity, The 39 Clues will be a massive multiplatform adventure right from the get-go.  In fact, on Scholastic’s homepage a message appears next to The Maze of Bones: “WARNING: This book could take  over your life!”

Aimed at kids ages 8-12, The 39 Clues will be a 10 book series with a single story arc. It will be released over two years with each book written by a different best selling author. The franchise will be about uncovering the secrets of the most powerful family in the world, the Cahills, of which Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Napoleon and Houdini are relatives. It all begins when the Cahill clan matriarch, Grace, changes her will five minutes before she dies, giving her descendants the choice between $1 million or a clue. Amy, 14, and Dan, 11, the series protagonists, are two young Cahills who must compete with other branches of the family to uncover the 39 clues and discover the family’s ultimate power.

Here’s an excerpt from Rick Riordan’s The Maze of Bones (you can read the first two chapters online here):

“The children are old enough.  They are our only chance,” Grace said to William, her attorney and closest friend for half her life.  “If they don’t succeed, 500 years of work will have been for nothing.”  And with that final statement, Grace Cahill closed her eyes for the last time.

 On Sept 9, when 500,000 prints of The Maze of Bones hit bookstores simultaneously in the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the official online interactive game will launch as well. This multimillion dollar marketing campaign features a contest where kids will follow the clues and hunt for answers. Scholastic promises more than $100,000 in prizes during the duration of the series. And participants who find all 39 clues and uncover the Cahill treasure will compete for the $10,000 grand prize.

To assist kids on this epic scavenger hunt, Scholastic will offer hundreds of collectible game cards as well as websites containing thousands of pages of background information, blogs written by characters in the story, online games, maps, treasure hunts, and numerous geographical and historical videos.  Needless to say, this will be a much different childhood story than Nancy Drew.

Remember when it took decades for the most popular childhood adventure stories to successfully hit the big screen? (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia) Over the last decade, technological advances have made it possible to bring classic children’s novels to life with stunning visuals. Now children’s series become film adaptations before anyone has time to finish reading the books.  Sure enough, before The 39 Clues could hit bookstores, Dreamworks acquired the film rights, signing Jeff Nathanson (The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones 4) to write the first installment and possibly Steven Spielberg to direct it.

Spielberg told Variety in a statement that The 39 Clues takes “creative leaps to expand the story experience from the pages of the books to multiple stages of discovery and imagination.”

It seems as if the future of children’s publishing is headed towards multiplatform experiences.  And Scholastic isn’t the only company hoping to cash in on the trend. Fourth Story Media has teamed up with HarperCollins to launch the The Amanda Project, an interactive mystery series targeted at girls ages 12 to 14 that is told across books, web sites, social networks, and blogs.  CSI creator Anthony Zuiker has signed a deal with Dutton, a division of Penguin Group (USA), to write “digital novels” in addition to an interactive Web site. And Simon & Schuster will release “Spaceheadz,” a series of books coauthored by Jon Scieszka and Francesco Sedita which also relies heavily on Internet sites.

Sciezka, the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, told CNN in this article:

“In the past we’ve made the mistake of demonizing other media, saying all TV is bad, all computers are bad, and all books are good. Kids know that it’s not true; there is great television and there are great games. I just also want to make sure that we don’t forget what’s unique about a book, losing yourself in an extended narrative.”

The question is, does transmedia storytelling encourage children to read books? Rick Riordan thinks so. He’s crafted the narrative in The Maze of Bones to stand on its own while also recognizing that the complimentary game helps to expand the expierence. As a result, Riordan hopes to attract both readers and gamers. As he points out in this New York Times article:

There’s a lot of commonality between what makes a good game and a good book. Whether you’re a gamer or a reader, you want to feel immersed in the story and invested in the action and the characters, and you want to care about the outcome and you want to participate in solving the mystery.

Some kids are always going to prefer games over books. But if you can even reach a few of those kids and give them an experience with a novel that makes them think, ‘Hey, reading can be another way to have an adventure,’ then that’s great. Then I’ve done my job.

Riordan’s comments highlight a fundamental change in the way children engage with fictional universes. Increasingly, children immerse themselves in literary stories not only by mentally constructing how characters and events might look but now also by interacting and participating with them. At times, they are hunters and gatherers in an effort to expand their understanding of the world, other times they are directly contributing to it.  Children have taken a much more involved, community driven role, thanks to the Internet. Without a doubt, transmedia storytelling is revolutionizing children’s imaginations, redefining how they access storyworlds and how they interact with them.

Yet the Huffington Post asks an important question, “can a phenomenon be conceived by a publisher rather than created by the public?” Manufacturing a Harry Potter-type blockbuster is an enormous risk. Although, one could argue that  the 39 Clues is more like a kid’s ARG than a literary series. Each book will come with six collectors’ cards that can be used to find further clues in the online game. Now we don’t know how prominent a role the contest will play in the franchise, but clearly Scholastic assumes their multiplatform approach will be a mega-hit. And if it is, how much of that success will have to do with the gaming and prize components? I mean, even The Maze of Bones’ cover instructs us to “Read the book. Play the game. Win the prizes.” That should almost be followed by “See the movie. Buy the merchandise. Make us rich.”

Is that what it takes to get kids to read? Do children really need a more involved, active experience in their literature, or is that just something publishing houses say in order to make the big bucks?  How has multiplatform entertainment changed the role of the novel? Does it make kids more eager to participate in someone else’s storyworld (the publisher’s) rather than creating their own?

There are many more questions than answers when it comes to The 39 Clues. But I am excited to see how the franchise develops. I will be following the clues, not just in the context of the story, but also in observing how transmedia storytelling affects the children story experience. This could very well be the next Harry Potter, but whether that is decided by the publishers or the fans remains to be seen.

Note:

Just to be clear, Rick Riordan has clarified this on his blog, The 39 Clues has no magical or fantastical elements. It is a realistic adventure, though it holds plenty of mystery and wonder.

Here’s Riordan explaining the series:

The Case for Digital Storytelling

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Next January, I will be co-teaching a workshop on Digital Storytelling (DS) at Winterfest 2010. In just two hours, we will cover everything from writing the story, to gathering images from Creative Commons, to publishing the final video on the web. Because we can’t possibly delve into the intricacies of DS during one brief workshop, I’d like to share some thoughts on the craft over next few posts here. So consider this the teaser trailer for the training session…

Though the definition is purposely open-ended, digital stories are generally considered to be 2-5 minute videos featuring multimedia elements, such as still-images, music and voice-over narration, as well as video-clips, animation, and comics. Many organizations, like the Center for Digital Storytelling, specialize in the aesthetics of this craft, recognizing its potential for driving introspection and formulating communities. At its finest, DS merges a compelling, well-written story with an engaging vocal performance and visual style. Scissors, by Daniel Meadows, is one that caught my eye. Whether a story is about family histories, personal discoveries, cultural practices, or social movements, a person’s unique perspective can inspire some truly inventive, surprising, and astonishing work. The key is to provide students the opportunity and the platform to create it.

I like to think of digital storytelling as representing a culture in opposition with that of YouTube. To be sure, both involve amateur videos. Yet instead of instilling quick, instant hits of satisfaction and entertainment, digital stories aim to promote reflection and contemplation. We might look towards Ohio State’s excellent digital storytelling showcase for some examples.

Indeed, we live in a world that is saturated with media and overflowing with information. Rather than using technology superficially, as a means to multitask through life at warped speed, digital storytelling requires you take a timeout, pause, and utilize the tech tools to think critically and express oneself meaningfully.

Digital Stories are also about perspective, about seeing experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes and hearing listening to their message. For example, in the story “Take a Walk in My Shoes,” Jamaine Del Rosario describes what it’s like to care for a family of seven, all of whom live in a one-bedroom apartment in the projects.

If you’re that person who says, “I don’t really have any stories worth telling” then, well, you are incorrect. Everyone has their own individual experience, their own point of view, moral values, beliefs etc, yet we also share together a collective experience by virtue of being human–our curiosity, emotionality, self-consciousness etc. The trick is to capture our own personal journey in order to convey a universal truth. Thus, digital stories are about understanding other people, about learning how they view the world, and realizing that is there is far more that unites us than divides us. And that is a story worth telling.

New York Times and Web Shows

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The New York Times has taken an interest in web shows the last few days.

In “Television Keeps a Hand in the Online Game with Serialized Shows,” Mike Hale reviews a number of web series, including Gemini Division and Stephen King’s N.

And in the article “For Web TV, a Handful of Hits but no Formula for Success,” Brian Stelter highlights the challenges for web series while also noting their potential.

These articles come a week after Viriginia Heffernan’s piece in The New York Times Magazine entitled, “Serial Killers,” was blasted by commenters, as well as Tilzy.Tv and NewTeeVee.

For anyone who finds an interesting article on web shows, specifically serials, please do share them.

Mulholland Drive and Art Cinema

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When I watched Mulholland Drive on my own the other day, I noticed that the DVD came with a viewer’s guide:

David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller
1. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits.
2. Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
3. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
4. An accident is a terrible event… notice the location of the accident.
5. Who gives a key, and why?
6. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
7. What is felt, realized and gathered at the club Silencio?
8. Did talent alone help Camilla?
9. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.
10. Where is Aunt Ruth?

Because I had never seen Mulholland Drive before, I was immediately cued for interpretation and investigation. Knowing David Lynch, that was not surprising. But I wonder: Does Lynch’s 10 cues contradict or reinforce the film’s art cinema tendencies?

On the one hand, this is perhaps the most explicit form of authorial address. Some of the questions (where is Aunt Ruth?) point to certain ambiguities and ask the viewer to hypothesize about them. On the other hand, the author is literally telling us what to think about. Art cinema, while soliciting a higher interpretation, is often not made to be figured out, solved, or “unlocked.” As Bordwell writes, “narration is more complex than art can ever be, the only way to respect this complexity is to leave dangling and unanswered questions.” So what is the usefulness of these questions when many of the answers remain ambiguous? Art cinema is supposed to be about unfocused gaps and less stringent hypotheses. Do we really need to find answers to these questions or can we allow them to be unanswered and dangling? It is possible that directing the viewer how to unlock the film may render certain interpretations while limiting others.

Thus, while Mulholland Drive deals with dream logic, loose causal relations, a self conscious style, and heavy interpretation, it still calls on the viewer to, as Murphy says, “piece together the various strands of what has been deliberately constructed to be a mystery.” But does playing detective fit with the mode of art cinema, where narrative comprehension is not the primary concern?

Bordwell vs. Chatman: Can there be only one?

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I have a tough time deciding whether I agree more with Bordwell or Chatman on the issue of the implied author. The problem is this: I can think of times when I consider narration to be constructed by a real author and times when I consider narration to be a product of the text’s intentions, the implied author. As you will see, I can’t come to a concrete conclusion that adequately explains why. The purpose of this post is to express my confusion on the concept of implied author, not to offer a sound analysis. In any case, I’d like to present three factors which may contribute to whether I understand a film as having an implied author or not.

1.) Familiarity with the Real Author
I went into The Singing Detective with quite a bit of extratextual knowledge. I had seen Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, I knew he was diagnosed with psoriasis, and I knew this was supposed to be the greatest masterpiece on television. So naturally I had Dennis Potter in the back of my head. During the mini series, I often compared The Singing Detective with Pennies from Heaven in terms of Potter’s mise en scene, dialogue, and genre play. I thought about how the plot related to Potter’s own life. And I wondered how Potter was going to tie the whole mini series up in the most mind blowing manner.

Let’s say I went into The Singing Detective knowing nothing about Dennis Potter but having seen Pennies from Heaven. Undoubtedly, I’d know the texts would be related. In addition to a downbeat tone and a slow pace, both involve musical numbers which alter the typical musical conventions, usually representing some Freudian psychological desire. In this case, if a friend said to me, “I really liked The Singing Detective,” I’d say, go check out Pennies from Heaven. I wouldn’t say “you should look at other works by the director.” Would my recommendation be based off Chatman’s concept of a career author, suggesting the film based on similarities shared by the implied authors, or based on the narration’s similarities, independent of any author at all (implied or real)? It’s hard to know.

2.) Level of Engagement
I found myself focusing on Potter’s role in creating the narration only at times when I was either confused or bored. Sometimes I wasn’t feeling very receptive to cues in the fabula construction and sometimes I just had no idea how to interpret those cues, no idea how to form a plausible hypothesis. In either case, I stopped hypothesizing…and drifted off. I thought about Potter’s overall goals in telling the story and why this was supposed to be so brilliant. I started to wonder why Potter was making certain choices (which admittedly, were disengaging me).

Conversely, when the narration offered interesting and thrilling scenes, I blocked out any concept of a “real person” prompting the narration. My favorite sequence in The Singing Detective was the scene where Marlowe’s teacher interrogates the class. Because I was so invested in what would happen, I wondered, why did the text include this? What is it trying to tell me here? In this way, when I was deeply involved in the story, I felt as though the text was communicating to me, not the real author. Or was I so engaged in the process of narration that I forgot about any author at all, implied or real? Again, it’s hard to know.

3.) Film Major vs. Regular Moviegoer
Not to seem elitist, but studying film allows us to view movies differently than other people. In my experience, when I watch a film for class, I usually have the real author in the back of my head. I know there is someone “behind the curtain” making choices, cuing the narration. I recognize how much time, money, and effort goes into making the film. But is the regular moviegoer as aware of this? I would assume they go to the movies to see whether the text will deliver an enthralling experience, not the real author. I don’t know though, does this matter at all?

There are other factors that may affect our understanding of who is the author, such as the level of ambiguity and self consciousness of the narration, the medium of the narration, and other general extratextual knowledge. But where I get caught going in circles is when I try to distinguish between the implied author and the narration. In much of what I’ve said so far, I could replace my use of text, implied author, and text’s intent with Bordwell’s narration. I can’t decide whether the real author makes choices which cue me to construct the narration or whether the cinematic narrator makes choices and sends me a message, which I then reconstruct and encode to form a narrative.

I guess one main question that I am grappling with is this: does narration exist from the viewer’s mind, the real author’s mind, or from the text itself? You might say there is an interaction between all three. But does the text fit into the equation? Can it “invent?” Bordwell would say no way. Perhaps then, because I am so indecisive, it’s best to side with Bordwell. I can’t assign a trait to the implied author that I can’t assign to narration, so it doesn’t really improve our understanding of narrative fiction at all. Yet something “feels right” about an implied author too. Maybe because that’s the way I think about literary fiction. I honestly have no idea.

The Intersection between Film and New Media: Narrative Databases

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In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich introduces the concept of a database as a term normally antithetical to that of narrative. A database involves many trajectories through many possibilities of a text. A narrative has one trajectory-a beginning, middle, and end. Yet Manovich says films can be both a database and a narrative, noting the machine-like structure of The Man with the Movie Camera. I’d like to explore films which are based on a database logic and compare them to the databases/narrative structure of hypertexts.

Jim Bizzocchi discusses Run Lola Run as adopting a narrative database since it is “a highly structured set of parallel plot events…[compelling] the viewer to examine the relationship between the consistency of event iteration and variation in event outcome.” Ultimately Bizzocchi decides of Run Lola Run: “if cinema does not afford explicit physical interaction, it can and does support implicit psychological interaction.” Certainly all films generate a degree of interactivity (in the most general sense) But I aim to research ‘higher level interaction,’ where films more closely resemble hypernarration than traditioanl film narration in the way they present time, space, and causal relations. Besides Run Lola Run, other examples include Short Cuts, Time Code, The Norman Conquests, and Rashomon. (all briefly mentioned by Bizzocchi, but not thoroughly examined) (Perhaps Mulholland Drive and Slacker would be interesting to look at as well) These films involve the construction of a complex narrative database requiring viewers to work harder to make plot connections. What can we learn from these films in relation to new media narration? How does their form and style tailor the story and to what effect? I wish to research how the films relate to Salen and Zimmerman’s four levels of interactivity in Rules of Play and how they compare to various hypertextual works such as Afternoon, Hot Norman, and Patchwork Girl.

Preliminary Thesis: Films containing narrative databases are useful tools in understanding the potential for new media narration since they provide a framework for introducing a higher degree of interactivity without compromising narrativity.

Sources:
Bizzocchi, Jim. “Run, Lola, Run: Film as Narrative Database.” MIT Paper.

Harries, Dan. The New Media Book. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

King, Geoff, and Tanya Kryzywinska. ScreenPlay: cinema/videogames/interfaces. London: Wallflower Press, 2002.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1997.

Rieser, Martin, and Andrea Zapp. New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design and Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.

Scholder, Amy, and Eric Zimmerman. Game Design and Game Culture. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Pat Harrigan. First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Objective vs. Subjective Reality in Barton Fink

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Barton Fink’s unique style and texture certainly made it aesthetically pleasing. I particularly loved the Shinning-esque hallway, the slow pan following Charlie when he first bangs on Barton’s door, the whoosh every time the door opens or closes, and of course, the character Lipnick. But beyond admiring some fantastic mise en scene, acting, and sound design, I couldn’t help but wonder: What was that movie about?

To help me with the question, I found an article called “Barton Fink, Intertextuality, and the (almost) unbearable richness of viewing” by Michael Dunne. The article mentions a number of theories on how to interpret the film; Barton Fink could be an allegory on creativity, a satire of Hollywood, or a piece about a man who sells his soul and goes to hell (aka the Earle Hotel).

Ultimately, Dunne concludes that reducing Barton Fink to a single interpretation does the film an injustice. For it is a film that blends the aforementioned theories in interesting ways, never completely confirming or disconfirming any of them. Thus, Barton Fink is a film less about the intentions of the author and more about the perceived meanings by the viewer. Dunne writes:

In keeping with these critical insights, we may understand that to encounter a film like Barton Fink, to feel conscious of parallels and contrasts to our prior aesthetic encounters, to feel uncertain just how it all fits tidily together, and to accept this uncertainty happily as part of this cinematic encounter-is to experience the (almost) unbearable richness of viewing.

The main uncertainty in Barton Fink is the question of what is real and what is not. So I’d like to run with this a little bit. George Wilson talks about the impersonal subjectivity in his essay, “Transparency and Twist in the Narrative Fiction Film.” He defines impersonal subjectivity as “non-POV shots that are subjectively inflected but do not share their vantage point with the visual perspective of any character in the film.” Sometimes, as is the case with Fight Club, the viewer may consider such subjective impersonal shots to be objective, especially when there are no explicit narrative cues to tell us otherwise. These impersonal shots are a subjective representation motivated by some psychological significance, like a character’s thoughts or emotions.

In Barton Fink, it is hard to pick out the impersonal subjective shots (that aren’t POVs) as there is no clear distinction between reality and fantasy. Upon first viewing, all events seem to be objective because they make logical sense within the story: Barton is given the assignment to write a screenplay and he works on it in his hotel. But how real is the hotel, really? It seems to be more like an artificial hell than a realistic place. The entire atmosphere is eerie and ominous. The seemingly friendly neighbor turns out to be a serial killer. The slogan of the Hotel Earle is “For a day, a lifetime.” And the fire doesn’t burn anything nor does it concern anyone in the hotel. But we don’t question the authenticity of any of these things because we attribute them to the “as if logic” of an eccentric place. That is, until the perplexing ending.

The pleasure of this film, as Dunne noted, is indeed hypothesizing (on subsequent viewings) which scenes, events, or characters are real or not real. If I were to pick out instances of impersonal subjectivity in Barton Fink, I would probably choose almost all of the hotel scenes. Why? Because every conversation, object, and character in the hotel could have some psychological significance to Barton’s feelings or thoughts as they exist outside of the hotel.

For example, Charlie’s deceptiveness-his transition from someone who wants to help Barton to someone who ruins his life- parallels Barton’s experience with Lipnick. Audrey’s confession to Barton may represent a hidden desire of Barton’s: he doesn’t want to admit that the author he respects is actually a drunk. The mosquito on Audrey may represent W.P. Mayhew’s parasitic relationship to her. As for the painting on the wall, Dunne projects that it “is probably intended to represent everything Fink lacks-sex, beauty, social acceptance, innocence, the healthy outdoors, the appeal of the West Coast.” So I think it’s reasonable to suggest that everything in the hotel is a manifestation of Barton’s consciousness or unconsciousness; all of it is subjective.

I don’t know what any of this means, (and I won’t attempt to analyze it in light of Dunne’s analysis) but I do think that in order to clear up the relationship between the subjective and objective, we must draw on our understanding of Barton’s psychology and personality. I guess what I liked so much about this film, and I usually hate feeling confused, is that the viewer must add subjectivity in the way they feel most appropriate (as oppose to Fight Club which reveals the objective truth in the end). This film would be a great candidate for the video essay. I’d like to alter how we perceive subjectivity in the film-what if the last scene in the movie came first?

Update: Leslie wrote a great response to this post so I’ll post my comment here:

Perhaps the beauty of Barton Fink is that it counts on our natural and involuntary tendency to read the film like we read The Singing Detective–to separate the objective fabula from the subjective. But in Barton Fink, such a task is impossible. Ultimately, because we can’t distinguish between reality and the fantasy, we may consider the entire film to be subjective. Perhaps the message, if there is any, is that all filmmaking is subjective and that it is the role of the viewer to construct objectivity from it. Even though there are always filters and slants in film, we still consider impersonal shots to be truth. (unless we know for sure that the character is dreaming, thinking, or hallucinating)

Distinguishing between the real and the not real is important to me, no matter how fruitless, because it changes how I construct the objective truth and the fabula at large. And I need to find some shred of objective truth. I can’t consider the whole thing to be imagined because I’d feel cheated. (like discovering it was all a dream) So I find it very intriguing to make a hypothesis about the film and then find proof to support it. (like the process of viewing any film) The film’s meaning may be indecipherable, but I refuse to write it off as such. Frustrated that I can’t get all the answers from Barton’s mind, I’m forced to speculate about the minds of the Coen brothers. I depend on the author (and my perception of their intentions) to help me find meaning in a text; I simply cannot rely on the text alone. Thus, for me, it is virtually impossible to enjoy the film without making some effort to figure it out.

New Media Narrative and Gemini Division (coming soon…)

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Last Friday, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Gemini Division preview screening and phone conference with executive producer and creator Brent Friedman. After watching the first two episodes (which are now posted on the website), I got a chance to ask Brent some questions about the show’s narrative structure and aesthetic value. More on that later.

Set five minutes into the future, Gemini Division is the story of Anna Diaz (Rosario Dawson), an NYPD undercover cop, who investigates a global conspiracy involving “simulated soldiers.”(kind of like replicants) These SIMs were created to fight in the Iraq war but then mysteriously went AWOL. The Gemini Division is an agency formed to hunt the renegade soldiers and destroy them…before it’s too late. Meanwhile Anna, after discovering her fiancé was not human, becomes caught in the middle of the war.

It is too soon to tell whether Gemini Division will actually be any good. The first two episodes had their highs – seamless product integration, stylized CGI effects, and of course the stunning Rosario Dawson – but also their lows – the cliché creepy-stalking-stranger and some objectionable acting from Justin Hartley. Gemini Division has been labeled the ultimate test of web video because it boasts all the ingredients for success – big time celebrities, high profile advertisers, and a major studio distributor. As NewTeeVee writes, “if a web show like Gemini Division fails, why bother investing in online video at all?”

Yet whether Gemini makes or breaks web video history will not come down to any of aforementioned ingredients, but something far more essential to the final product – the story. Without a compelling story, there is no breakout hit. And Brent is very conscientious of that.

In my next post, I’d like to focus on the Gemini Division’s narrative construction (it may be too early to do so, but I will update as the season moves forwards). Because web video is very much in experimental form, there is no precedent to follow. As a result, the show is a blend of old media and new media, a mixture of narrative ingredients already proven to be effective and new Internet-based elements yet to be mastered. Gemini Division can thus be seen as an amalgamation of narrative devices from a variety of media, including comics, video games, novels, and TV Shows, all of which allow the show to potentially branch out into any of those platforms. For Gemini Division, the web series could be the perfect incubator for a transmedia franchise. But like I say, it all comes down to story.

I’m going on vacation tomorrow so I won’t be able to return to this post for a little while. (Consider this the teaser trailer) Until then, if you want more info on Gemini Division, head over to Prime Time For Change, where Tim provides a nice summary of what went on in the Q&A with Brent.

On a completely different topic, I plan on blogging about this article from the Boston Globe, which I found quite interesting. Bye for now!

Hollywood and Web Video Follow Up

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Soon after blogging about Hollyood’s potential to have a strong, profitable relationship with web video, I came across Beet TV, a video blog by Andy Plesser. Plesser posts interviews with media executives and clips from various conferences, focusing on the “rapid emergence of online video and its impact on industry and society.” As I browsed through the site, I found many videos which related to my previous arguments.

In the post “Creative Producers will Grab Advertisers with Original Sponsored Videos“, Saul Berman, strategy partner of IBM, discusses a few of the issues surrounding web video monetization. At one point he mentions IBM’s global CEO study, which found that outperforming CEOs have a knack for “disrupting the market before someone else disrupts it for them.” Now, a growing trend in the digital age is that consumers are expecting higher quality content on the web, in terms of production value and level of engagement. That is exactly why I argue Hollywood needs to be more aggressive in the web video marketplace. While the studios have begun experimenting with digital media creatively and economically, in general, they have yet to effectively distinguish their content as superior online entertainment. Here’s the interview:

Berman also talks about a product placement business model, which has become increasingly viable. I’m going to take a look at this in more detail as Gemini Division unfolds, but it seems like a popular approach for producers, advertisers, and consumers, as long as the brand is subtly integrated within the story as a realistic element, not a distraction. Jigar Thakarar of CBS Interactive sees this brand integration as a much more profitable business strategy than offering pre and post roll ads. Here’s his interview from “CBS Sees Sponsored Web Video Programming as Viable Model“:

Because viral videos don’t carry advertisements as they travel through YouTube and other video hosting sites, I can see why product integration would be a practical solution. But it will be interesting to monitor exactly how producers handle a brand’s identity within the context of a story. Will the narrative, mise en scene, and characters always be faithful to the integrity of the show, or will they be heavily adjusted and obscured to land sponsorship? Ultimately, it comes down to finding a balance, but I still wonder if both parties will always be open enough to compromise.

As far as the consumers go, on the one hand nobody wants to feel as though a studio’s production is an excuse to advertise. That perception ruins all credibility. But on the other hand, young adults (ages 18-34) have become trained to avoid and ignore brand messages. So often the best way to reach them is through highly innovative, seamless product placements, allowing a brand to be more easily absorbed. It’s just another example of convergence – branded content and unbranded content merging together. And hopefully, when done correctly, everyone involved will win.

Another interview comes from the Dmitry Shapiro, co-founder of the Internet TV site, veoh.com. Shapiro argues that the future of television is in fact Internet TV. Using veoh as a “virtual digital video recorder,” viewers can consume Internet TV as they do broadcast TV, sitting back on the couch eating potato chips. Take a look:

Shapiro contends that users can get the same experience from Internet TV as they do with broadcast TV. However, unlike TV programs, web shows typically do not enable viewers to sit back, relax, and watch. They are designed to be seen on the fly, as a daily installment. But what if they were both? If there is one complaint I had with Afterworld, it’s that I was not able to plow through the episodes quickly and easily, since every 3 minutes I had to select the next video. Given the show’s twists and turns, I wanted the option of getting comfortable and sinking into the story. It may sound ridiculously lazy, but returning to my computer so often detracted from my suspension of disbelief and the overall immersive experience. (Not to mention the annoyance of hearing, “My name is Russel Shoemaker, I sold technology to the world..” for 130 episodes.)

Web shows do need to be short in length, no doubt about that. For many people, after about four minutes, streaming quality diminishes and their attention dwindles. But I’m a viewer who wants to watch the story as a “couch potato.” That’s why I think it’d be useful to fuse 10 episodes or so together in a half an hour format so that I can have more options: watch it on the go or on the couch. In this way, web shows could function as a medium independent of TV (in terms of style, format, and distribution) but also function, courtesy of Shapiro’s veoh application, as an extension of TV, as Internet TV.

To date, there has not been a breakout mega hit in original web programming. Web content still only appeals to fragmented audiences and studio executives still worry web content will cannibalize their audiences and revenue. Perhaps those problems will be mitigated when more consumers watch Internet video on their 42 inch flat screen TV in addition to their iPods. The bottom line is this though: Hollywood should not be complacent and wait for the future – they must disrupt it before someone else disrupts it for them.

Hollywood’s Web Shows: The Future of Television?

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I have argued before that the television industry would benefit from transforming its business model to enhance consumer engagement and adapt to new technologies. That is not to say that broadcast TV is in danger of disappearing (in fact a May 2008 Nielsen Report pdf found Americans are watching more traditional TV than ever) but DVRs, digital cable, and online video all make it increasingly difficult for networks to secure consistent viewers and advertisers. As a result, pilots, even beloved shows, either produce immediate results or face extinction. The system has become so reliant on statistics that a show whose viewership falls below 93% of its networks’ average viewers will be flat out NEXTed. (source: tvbythenumbers.com)

Wait a second. What about the people watching the show on DVD, on the Internet, or on mobile devices? How are they accounted for? And, if you’re like me, you don’t want to invest in a show when you know it’s likely to be abandoned without warning. But it is the nature of the business that a series won’t survive without the initial ratings. It’s a vicious cycle and breaking it would mean one of two things. Either audiences gain enough trust in the networks to risk their time and energy to invest in a new series, or the networks trust the audiences to improve the ratings of a show even after a poor start.

What we have here is what smart people call a Hegelian dialectic, the idea that the tension between two opposing forces is resolved through a synthesis. In this case, the tension between the networks’ old consumption expectations and the viewers’ new consumption habits has resulted in a new Hollywood experiment: web shows.

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