It isn’t every television series that’s afforded the opportunity to ripen, mature and end gracefully in an honorable act of thematic and theatrical sepuku. Most aren’t produced, and many are abortively cancelled. Friday Night Lights managed its termination nicely. It’s interesting that both commentaries on the final DVD disk for the fifth and final season are delivered by producers who happen to be relentless stammerers; “uh. uh. y’know…the uh, uh reason for this — y’know thing is almost self-evident. It’s that y’know uh uh uh…” and listening to them yammer is unbelievably annoying. On the other hand, several interesting points about the show were made, generally anecdotally.
Lead actor Kyle Chandler’s part (as Coach Taylor) in a given scene (according to the commentator) was beautifully written to provide the actor with wonderfully poetic and philosophical talking points that were intended to be delivered verbatim at an extended crucial moment. And the actor spoke privately with the writer/producer asking for permission to slough the words in order to ddliver the information nonverbally. They tried the actor’s approach, and printed it because the nonverbal approach was significantly better than the scripted, wordy alternative version.
The point I’d like to make here is that the television medium is loaded with powerful, influential verbal-communicators. It’s the platform that celebrates writers (whose scripts are customarily regarded as inviolable) because showrunners, producers and writers are the creative power in television — unlike cinema, in which money and directors generally rule supreme, and writers are valued like toilet paper.
I have a number of qualms and misgivings about the 3cameras-constantly-shooting scheme of Friday Night Lights. This “performance-based” storytelling design requires camera operators to work handheld, and insists that operators “find the action” in the scene. Despite my skepticism, every season of this show has delivered moments of intense emotional tension and release that make it difficult to argue against an innovative design that has worked admirably. Nonetheless, I’ve never enjoyed looking at the unfocused backs of actors’ heads, the jiggle, the interminable seconds that pass as the camera moves past posts, lampshades and irrelevant objects before “finding” the face of the person who’s been speaking all along. After four years, I ought to have known that this show was never really about football, and the ways they photograph/edit games illustrates constantly how little the sport matters in this context.
Perhaps someday somebody else will noticed that every important problem in every season invariably revolved around the choices and eccentricities of female characters in a layered, overlapping subtly-misogynist show ostensibly devoted to the primarily-male enterprise of Texas high school football.
I think television writers have a tendency to hammer home their points in words, rather than trusting actors and directors to stress necessary connections for their not-particularly-perceptive audience. It’s a point that’s made in the commentaries for season one of Treme, that standard network approach to televised storytelling is significantly more didactic and on-the-nose than the ways Simon says it, and the cast of Treme appreciates the respect both they and the audience are accorded.
One last point gleaned while watching Robin Hood; the prince of thieves last night. It’s that the physical action and stunts are recognizably, ridiculously improbable/impossible…and despite the obvious intention to make Kevin Costner appear to be wonderfully deft, they can’t give him a fraction of the charismatic virulence of Errol Flynn, who generally lacked the gravitas of Russel Crowe. The most (perhaps only) delicious line in the Costner version was that nobility isn’t a birthright, it’s what you do with what you’re given. And television’s artistic nobility depends on a small minority of gifted writers who trust their audiences and the actors who play to them more than they trust blather, network executive notes and the forces that counsel scaled-back ambition.
Actors are louder than verbs. Arrested Development‘s narrator is measurably louder than its dialogue. Maybe that’s a meaningful observation, Maeby not — but the place where experienced and admirable practitioners of the various and sundry skills necessary to successful crossmedia production of radio, cinema, gaming, comics, literature and televison entertainment talk to one another is damned hard to find. If it ever does appear, I’ll happily shut up and listen as they debate the theoretical and practical parameters of telling/showing stories across platforms. I suspect those platforms aren’t as fluidly interoperable as transmedia evangelists theorize. And that the obvious proprietary barriers that prevent Wonder Woman from joining the Avengers (transnarrative collaboration) also throw phantom blocks at transmedia narrative — as though corporations that own IP simply can’t own cultural archetypes, and that actors who move from role to role are the realest adversaries of transnational media conglomerates.
I think Star Wars is an excellent model of oldschool transmedia (merchandising) narrative, perhaps Arab Spring is a better model of the new one in which an unexpected audience rises to participate in the production as though the membranes separating news from fiction from means from will from commodities from people were old habits in need of change. What if unsubstantiated rumors of revolution fomented hopes that resulted in a North African snowball? What if the most powerful human force on Earth were inadvertantly unleashed by evolving technology’s crossing an unanticipated threshold of instantaneous global communication? What if that force were the normally-adversarial/contradictory will of The People for whom cohesive, coherent action becomes possible through interactive communication? What if FDR and Churchill broadcast better shows than Hitler — remember to consult Nielsen — no don’t.
A few nuggets of coincidence from Vince Gilligan; dated one day later than the junk I wrote above:
Were there particular things that Carter taught you?
Well, I became a better writer, and things that he taught all of us that I still carry with me are: Show your story, don’t tell it. Try not to depend too much on dialogue. Try to remember that it’s very much a visual medium and that sometimes more can be said with a look between characters than a whole spate of words. I also learned how to tell a story economically. If they’d shot the first draft of my first script for The X-Files, it would have cost 20 or 30 million dollars! So, all the tools that I have in my toolbox now, I got them on The X-Files.
What show do you wish you had created?
The Twilight Zone, and I wish Rod Serling hadn’t died so young. That’s a man I truly would love to have met. He was the first showrunner whose name the country at large actually knew.
How much do you care about what fans think?
I care greatly. We wouldn’t have a show if not for the viewers. But having said that, I don’t think that equates with a need on my part to constantly check in with what the fans are saying. I hear about it anecdotally at best. Because on the Internet, you get what are often, I think, unrealistic responses — you get the highs and the lows; the people who love something enough to type something into their computer about it, and you get the people that hate it, but you don’t get the great vast middle. So, it’s an interesting gauge, but not necessarily an accurate one.
Can fans ruin shows?
I don’t think fans are capable of ruining anything. I think only the showrunner and their writers and actors are capable of that. If a showrunner logs on to the Internet and a fan’s telling them to add a lovable robot to his or her ensemble, they’ve only got themselves to blame if they take that kind of advice.
…and in the same series of New York Magazine interviews with showrunners:
ONE THING I’D CHANGE ABOUT NETWORK TV
Episodes would vary in length from week to week.
I’m not sad that there are commercials, but every episode of our show has to be exactly 21 minutes and 17 seconds long. It’s unlikely that the optimal length of every episode of our show is exactly 21 minutes and 17 seconds.
No more notes from the networks.
Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one who says “No more notes.” If that’s the case … ha ha, just kidding, guys. I’m not Spartacus. I’m just some gladiator. Hail, Caesar!
Take more risks and assume the audience will go along.
In a world where everyone can watch anything all the time, and where we spend all this money making lots of shitty pilots, why don’t we have special website events where all the pilots are aired and people vote for their favorites? Make this populist medium genuinely populist.
The wonderful Mad Men, in its first four seasons, has made as many episodes as we made in seasons one and two of Grey’s Anatomy. After twelve episodes, I’m tired, the crew is tired, everyone is tired. The break of a few months that cable shows get would be amazing.
Thirteen-episode cycles twice a year would also allow the writers to write all their scripts before shooting starts. It would raise the level of storytelling, you’d have more time to prep, and that would make the show less expensive to produce. And you should be allowed to say “Jesus” and “goddamn.” How offensive is it? I guess it is. I guess I don’t understand it all.
Don’t be so quick to cancel shows.
Stop making decisions based on research data, and hire development executives with degrees in art, literature, and theater instead of marketing, business, and law. If people followed those two rules, TV would be a fuckload better.
Here’s a little Roseanne Barr-based razor-edged (holy crap, this is almost exactly what I was asking for!) bonus:
I’ve just spent an hour or two with Herbie Hancock: Possibilities. I selected the film from a load of badly-suggested movies that NetFlix figured I’d love (based on my enjoyment of Ken Burns’ Jazz, Ninja Scroll and No Direction Home — a really odd extrapolation). I did love it, in spite of my expectations. (Have I even seen Ninja Scroll? I sure don’t remember liking it.)
I loved the beginning because a famous jazz musician confessed to himself that he was tired of making recordings for the familiar expectations of people who buy them; that making the same creative decisions he’d made countless times before was getting profoundly dull. I think it wasn’t Yoko who killed The Beatles (’twas expectations of their fans).
So Herbie Hancock set out to bridge a lot of gaps in the usual scheme of expectable collaborations by playing individually with Christina Aguilera, Sting, Paul Simon, Annie Lenox, Brian Eno, John Mayer, Wayne Shorter, Joss Stone…because nothing much (apart from inertia) prevented him from doing so.
I loved the middle because stuff I never knew about Herbie Hancock’s interaction with Miles Davis got talked about; that Miles paid his collaborators to practice on stage, exploring unknown aspects of their personal and collective musicianship to see what together might be made of moments when remarkably competent players exceed their competencies in an environment of suspended judgmental resourcefulness, focused on the primacy of radical innovation.
And I loved the end that brought me back to something I read through earlier today:
which leads me to see a single narrative throughline crisscrossing the qualitative/categorical gaps that separate technology startups from feature films from musical collaborations from blogs, fiction and autobiographies:
Media are environmental gaps between A and B. Whether hostile to or facilitative of communication (between A and B) is only a matter of degree, but the ability/inability to connect competent practitioners of one discipline with another can be determined only by building bridges, recognizing story-commonalities on both sides of the gap and overcoming inertia.
I really like the comments that reply to the AndreessenHorowitz post because they emphasise the difference between hired-gun-CEOs and people whose self-assigned mission is to realize possibilities. And I find it amazing how similar are the post’s itemized characteristics of exemplary founders and admirable artists:
- Comprehensive knowledge
- Moral authority
- Total commitment to the long-term
I also got off on the music. Check it out. Stories are people too.
Eleven months later:
I just realized that I forgot to specify any meaning to the term Transnarrative Media. It’s threads of meaningful and valuable sense that run through stories owned by competing entities, and reveal themselves clearly to those of us who regard storytellers as brands, even if some of us are clearly delusional.
Christy Dena and Jeff Gomez have long been powerful and effective advocates for innovation in the structure of entertainment. Following her Tweets, I found reference to people like me, here:
“For all the newcomers to the area who are excitedly exploring #transmedia – a big welcome! Go for it! I hope you create great projects!” (about 9 hours ago via web)
“It is just the people who have suddenly entered the area or have been quiet all these years and are suddenly public experts that irk me.” (about 9 hours ago via web)
While I don’t mean to imply that Christy is chastising my latecomer’s remarks disparaging the recent success of transmedia advocates in gaining a measure of recognition from mainstream media , the shoe fits perfectly well. I might as well wear it proudly.
I’ve been dropping my goofy opinions around the internet for years, frequenting places like Henry Jenkins’ aca/fan blog, Lessig space, and six years of critiquing photgraphs over at photosig.com. Most of the stuff I’ve contributed, logical and coherent or otherwise, persistently questions definitions and assumptions that signify the current tide of expert and popular opinion.
I’ve confused and irritated a lot of professional and amateur photographers by asking (for example) why so many of them repeal the law of gravity by cocking their cameras at peculiar angles in order to take “visually dynamic” pictures. How can fetish photography be deeply personal when most of it dwells on fashion statements about mass-produced materials; latex, piercings, wigs…? And a thousand other questions bent on connecting authorial intent to uncommunicative execution. In six years, I spoke with lots of gearheads whose rationale for making photographs had surprisingly little to do with the people they photographed, the people who viewed their pictures, and nothing in particular to do with communication. It was about costly hardware, advancing technology and gadgety stuff…leaving the heavy lifting of making sense of the image to the viewer because the photographer generally didn’t know or care how a given image was interpreted. I cared.
A similar set of questions arise for me in cinema. Early in the course of writing this blog I tried to express my confusion concerning the very long cinematic tradition of photographing and editing human interaction from multiple visual angles. Robert Montgomery’s 1946 film, The Lady in the Lake is an fascinating, disciplined and failed attempt at bringing Raymond Chandler to the screen through the eyes of Philip Marlowe. An enormous 1946 movie camera is only one technical part of the problem, the filmmaker chose to completely eliminate the streaming voice of Marlowe’s thought, which is Chandler’s cardinal virtue.
If the holy grail of modern entertainment is “audience engagement”, maybe the traditional practices of multiple-camera/quick-cuts and counterintuitive point of view is an enormous impediment industry leaders need to dispense with. The most effective means to communicate the difference (that these words don’t really convey) between a camera’s coherent point of view and what Hollywood’s been doing for 90 years is neatly expemplifed in With the Angels, webseries I found at strike.tv:
At Lawrence Lessig’s blog, in mid-2008, I asked why the Highlander ethos (“there can be only one”) applies to the American presidency. There and at Huffington Post (somewhere) and at Bill Moyers’ blog I asked if anyone know how large a percentage of my contribution to the Obama campaign was instantly consigned to the very deep pocket of the magnates of mainstream media — the same names that turned out empty pockets when the writers’ strike highlighted their conviction that the internet was strictly a promotional medium possessed of indeterminate commercial potential.
About 90% of the questions I ask go unanswered. No matter. Irking Christy Dean is not one of my objectives. Much higher on my to-do list is the task of simply understanding what the hell she and an easy dozen of highly-qualified experts have to say about transmedia.
A few hours after Christy mentioned being irked, Nina Paley Tweeted a link to this:
Mike Masnick’s article suggests, perhaps only to me, that the marriage of art and commerce, copywrite and professional recognition…is based in our collective (suspect) faith in avarice as the driving social force that fosters culture. Hellboy 2, I learned from the commentary last night, was budgeted at $85million. The superhero films with which it was slated to compete for the attention of audiences averaged $175million, each. Maybe money matters. Maybe insanely generous compensation packages for executives in failing industries and institutions makes some kind of sense. And maybe nobody’s questioning nutty perceptions of business-as-usual. I care…not about health insurance, my reputation as a media analyst (I spitshine other people’s desktop telephones for a living), and not about lots of adult concerns that bother other people. For some unaccountable reason, I care about transmedia, creative freedom and the apprehension authorial intent, among other things. And I’ll probably go on questioning authorities (who very rarely respond/participate/interact) anyway.
Christy Dena is certainly not specifically irked at me. This blog is slightly less influential than a germ in a flea on the tail of a dog that wags for other reasons, but to anybody who happens to be listening, I think it’s time to dissolve the bonds in our thinking that elevate professionalism in art over artists’ more-amateur pursuits; choices not guided by money. Something’s going to wag this dog differently.
Let’s go to irk, if necessary.
Each of us gathers and spends these three things differently. Possibly uniquely. And the weight/importance we percieve in our jobs, our fascinations, our stuff — varies from decade to decade just as it varies from person to person, creating recognizable patterns of similarity that make some of us nostalgic about StarWars, summer camp or band practice. The measure is personal…satisfaction.
“The hours I spend with a cue in my hand are Golden. Help you cultivate horse sense and a cool head and a keen eye…” Attention, time and money…invested, squandered, earned, stolen…
The Producers Guild of America, this week, was the first professional entertainment organization yet to create an official designation recognizing the Transmedia Producer as a legitmate occupation. You can look up the definition of the job, but by the time you get to it they’ll have changed it to more accurately reflect the objections of concerned industry workers who took exception the moment the announcement was made to fictional narrative stretched across at least three discrete media platforms, and yadada yadada, yawn.
- Transmedia Producer – A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-ray/CD-ROM, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist. These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.
Money, time and attention are spent and gathered by each of us uniquely. Controversy over the definition of “transmedia” will persist until a lot of money is made by people who weren’t much involved in the semantic squabble, people who managed to make something profoundly (valued and) lucrative — which will garner the attention of the squabblers, who will spend lots of time, money and attention attempting to replicate the success of those who demonstrated something that worked while the squabbling continued ad nauseum.
The problem I see with this historic announcement is that it has focused attention on product, return-on-investment, and technique, while distracting people from thinking about who they’d love to work with, what they’d love to do together and how to love budgeting personal time, money and attention to design coherent experience that magnetizes their collective attention (and has the identical kind of effect on a global audience). I can’t think of anything that motivates people more than the invitation to collaborate. I’d rather spend time collaborating in the writers’ room than sit through the eventual movie that’s created.
Transmedia entertainment is mostly about people who invest time, money and attention pursuing what they want to do…on both sides of the camera, screen or creative/receptive process. It isn’t concerned with the prioritized agendas of media executives, nor box office receipts, nor fads. It’s the further adventures of culture; coherent, self-aware, aspiring initiative to make stuff happen within the limitations of the money, time and attention you have to do so. Transmedia entertainment is all about you.
Thanks for your time and attention. We validate, but don’t forget to tip.
This post was inspired by this one:
Having spent the past couple of hours reading and thinking here:
it seemed especially appropriate to consider carefully Jeff Gomez’ opening statement,
“I’m the first to admit that there are far too many diverse definitions of transmedia and even transmedia narrative, but even the mavericks in our crowd will agree that the term is distinguished by the fact that story becomes paramount in the dispersal of content across various media platforms and formats.”
I’d like to suggest that story is probably paramount to storytellers and central to all interested content creators, but angels seem to fixate on ROI.
I like longform-story-that-incentivizes-audience-archaeology kind of a lot! And with only the sketchiest understanding of the contingencies involved in the metrics of franchise-success, the intricacies of narrative structure, the byzantine complexities of product distribution and predictive business models…I see the transmedia movement as prone to several practical hazzards. Firefly is my shining example of a deeply-engaging IP that was brutally murdered by its angels.
The corporate ownership of intellectual property is where mainstream media starts, right this minute, here&now. Corporations exist to limit personal liability while maximizing profit. The fundamental purposes corporations serve are radically different (maybe antithetical) to the purposes of art. And without defining art, consider the state of the art of the contemporary corporation:
Composed of competing divisions, the modern corporation is representative of a culture rife/riddled with proprietary secrets, flexible alliegences, and a remunerative structure that’s most beneficial to
- persons at the tippy-top of its hierarchical strucure and
- shareholders whose contribution to the creation of product could not be more intangible.
I see the transmedia movement as capable of branding the template of corporate culture deep into the living flesh of independent content creation. That’s totally anti-progressive for the evolution of art and prevents the growth and facilitation of the collaboration of independent artists.
Whether narrative or profit is paramount to modelmakers, animators, actionfigure assembly-line-workers… isn’t the point I’m trying to make. It’s that the art of collaboration is more important than the quality or quantity of the end product, to me. I suspect that the inevitable ubiquity of now-developing transmedia modalities in content creation will be very greatly influenced by corporate culture; the only pockets deep enough to fund widely-popular experiments, with an eagle-eye on ROI, and platitudes about the primacy of story.
I do not mean to impugn Jeff Gomez’ word nor his integrity, but I’m fundamentally curious about entertainment projects owned by the widening diversity of artists who made them — for the benefit of culture, rather than funding agencies and angels. Transmedia entertainment might become the exemplary beacon of participatory democracy, but an environment ruled by
- governmental mandates,
- corporate ownership/interference, and
- audiences geared to behave like inattentive herd animals
doesn’t bode well for the vitality of liberty, the emancipation of the arts, nor artists, nor people. That’s all.
I spent the end of last week with two of Lance Weiler’s films, The Last Broadcast and Head Trauma. No spoilers, nor plot-recitation here, but I’ve been thinking about a couple of points of reference in two transmedia horror-mysteries made with the very-direct involvement of a pillar of the transmedia community.
At the heart of both films, a deeply buried injustice leads to two different approaches to telling a mystery story:
In The Last Broadcast, a character named David Lee is making a film about a multiple-murder involving the two hosts of a cheesy, cable-access television show called Fact or Fiction. Lee’s process of telling the story frames a succession of concentric frames around the story-within-a-story-within-a-story…and each of those frames is distorted by the dissonant agendas of each of the successive, objective storytellers who’s controlling the frame of the story-telling. The most obvious of these agendas belongs to the unseen team of prosecutors who hire a disinterested video editor who they charge to bolster their case with a rhetorical video argument that hangs responsibility for the murders on the defendant of their flimsy, circumstantial case.
But (almost) each of the several storytellers interviewed in the course of David Lee’s documentary filters, edits, and distorts information to redefine and scramble the pilosophical opposition of fact and fiction. It’s a fascinating film on numerous levels, some of which exceed the confines of internal narrative by leaching into the processes of making a digital film, distributing it independently and outside the parameters defined by conventional practice, and exhibiting at Cannes. Go define “success”.
Head Trauma elevates guilt to the status of a central character, whose crucial influence throughout the film leads to a very Weiler-y notion (as the story ends with the protagonist’s next-door-neighbor drawing images in his bedroom that suggest that) the connections between people may be more substantial, valid and influential than we’re inclined to attribute to reality; more important than stuff that fits in our philosophies, Horatio. The viewer’s imagination lingers on the possibility that Julian’s friendship with George just might demonstrate the faith that no man is an island of isolation, that responsibility for an old injustice is most mysteriously shared.
I wouldn’t dare to deem these metaphysical themes beyond the reach of a filmmaker whose defiance of convention, established practices and teams of influential naysayers has already made history. Whether Julian Thompson shows up as a sequel-character in another of Weiler’s films matters a whole lot less than that Lance is making films that boil furiously beneath the surface, depict in narrative cinema and in cinematic practice the minority belief that the processes of making connections between people are significantly more important than the product.
Transmedia storytelling, as defined by Henry Jenkins in his 2006 book Convergence Culture, is storytelling across multiple forms of media with each element making distinctive contributions to a viewer/user/player’s understanding of the story world. By using different media formats, it attempts to create “entrypoints” through which consumers can become immersed in a story world. The aim of this immersion is decentralized authorship, or transmedial play as defined by Stephen Dinehart in his 2006 transmedia thesis project “Journey of Jin” at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
There are two prominent factors driving the growth of transmedia storytelling. The first is the proliferation of new media forms like video games, the internet, and mobile platforms and the demand for content in each. The second is an economic incentive for media creators to lower production costs by sharing assets. Transmedia storytelling often uses the principle of hypersociability. Transmedia storytelling is also sometimes referred to as multi modality, referring to using multi-modal representations to convey a complex story through numerous media sources.
Transmedia Storyteller, Jeff Gomez, defines it as “the art of conveying messages themes or storylines to mass audiences through the artful and well planned use of multiple media platforms.” Jeff furthers this explanation stating the following: “Most of us flow naturally from one medium to the next. Unfortunately most of our content doesn’t. Instead the stories are repurposed and repeated. They do not extend the franchise nor do they build brand equity. With transmedia, each part of story is unique and plays to the strengths of the medium. The result is a new kind of narrative where story flows across each platform forming a rich narrative tapestry that manifests in an array of products and multiple revenue streams. The audience is both validated and celebrated for participating in the story world through the medium of their choice.”
I lifted those three paragraphs directly from Wikipedia in order to riff on “bible” as the name for the masterplanning document that ties together all of the various media that constitute the continguous, immersive storyworld of a gargantuan transmedia narrative. I think “score” is a significantly better word for at least the following reasons:
1. A bible is a holy book that is not meant to be modified by anybody but God. Ask anybody at FOX News, the Jerusalem of divisiveness.
2. The unifying basis for hypersocial behavior is significantly less important than the act of unification.
3. The conductor of a symphony orchestra leads dozens of musicians (with the aid of a score which documents the intended sequence of performance for players who are engaged with a wide variety of instrumentalities across variations in key, meter, mode and ambiance) to invoke the wholehearted and selfless participation of an otherwise passive audience; from auteur to superconductor.
If the evolution of transmedia entertainment relies on a biblical metaphor it will probably neglect or underserve the contribution of the audience to change a narrative course that’s set in stone. I think it’s significantly more visionary to regard the narrative as plastic, even dispensible, when the masterplan is introduced to the vagaries of audience participation; the urtext is only a pretext for hypersocial interaction. Symphonic orchestras rarely encourage members of the audience to rise in the aisles for inspired choruses of air-guitar virtuosity, but that’s exactly the kind of participation transmedia entertainments are designed to facilitate and nurture…unless the bible metaphor persists, which makes this new media model especially vulnerable to mercenary exploitation, literalist misinterpretation and irrational stumbling blocks of Biblical proportions.
The two-hour video at the other end of this link:
is introduced by Dr. David Thorburn who reappears 106minutes into the lively discussion with skeptical observations and invaluable advice about reinventing media.