September 1, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Sam Ford on the Importance of Quality Storytelling in Convergence
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Stefan Werning on Examining Transmedia Trends in Terms of Digital Tools
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3.This week'supdate features an opening note from me, an early version of a piece I am writing for the new Web site Audiences 2.0. The piece focuses on the importance of quality storytelling in any concept of "convergence."
The closing note this week is writtenby one of our international scholars affiliated with C3, Stefan Werning from Bonn, Germany. You may recognize Stefan from his occasional blogs on the C3 Web site, but this is his first contribution to the newsletter. This piece tackles understanding transmedia by looking particularly at the digital tools and animation used in current films.
As usual, the update also includes links to all the entries from the week from the Convergence Culture Consortium blog. Some of you all are already contributors to the blog or else regular followers and even commenters on the blog. We encourage everyone who is part of the C3 team, including faculty and corporate partners, to engage in this public part of C3's work.
If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at email@example.com.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
The Convergence Manifesto
By: Sam Ford
The following is a rough draft for a piece I am developing for the upcoming release of Audience 2.0 (information available athttp://www.bricolab.com/wiki/index.php?title=Audience_2.0&bricolab_wikidb_session=c436b0a39be4bc5869c81aed26327efa). The first episode is highlighted by an interview with Howard Rheingold, author of the extremely influentialSmart Mobs. Since this is a rough draft, I realize that there may still be some typos and redundancies, but I wanted to share this with the C3 team before it's published in general, especially since the topic is focused particularly on the purpose of this consortium.
Convergence: The Buzzword
The word convergence is getting a lot of buzz. In fact, since I am a researcher for the Convergence Culture Consortium and the primary operator of its Weblog, I guess I am capitalizing on that buzz quite a bit myself, so this is no criticism of the convergence buzzword. We took our name from the director of our research group, Henry Jenkins’, new book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, and wholeheartedly believe that, with the advent of new media forms and the potential for cross-platform and transmedia storytelling, that we truly are in a drastically altered media environment that both users and content producers are still plumbing and mapping out.
But there are plenty of naysayers, plenty of people who dismiss any discussion of convergence as just buying into something that is irrelevant, or else greatly exaggerated. And I understand why. For some, convergence seems to be technological determinism, driven by powerful conglomerates who seek to squeeze more blood from their viewers/listeners/readers. In other words, these cynical critics see convergence as a force imposed on the masses by corporations looking to increase bottom lines, usually by stepping all over their own employees in the process.
And those stories are fueled by DRM blocks that do not allow viewers to watch content when they want and where they want, copyright infringement notices sent to fans that admonish them for posting videos to YouTube or maintaining a fan site with logos or photographs from the show, and the lobbying from the writers guilds claiming that television writers are being given an increasing workload with no compensation.
These are issues that I’ve written about extensively at the C3 weblog. Critics want to view convergence as a capitalist creation intended to make the rich richer while stepping all over users and abusing employees. And there is a degree of that corporate greed in today’s media, although that is not an exemplar of what convergence culture is.
The Journalism Industry
Let’s take an industry that I have written about extensively in the past few months: journalism. Convergence has become a major point of discussion for news sources and J-schools alike. I have worked for several years as a professional journalist and know these arguments from both ends. The naysayers—and there are plenty—see the idea of convergence in journalism (particularly telling a story in multiple media forms) as being the uberjournalist, the corporate dream in which one journalist is hired to write a story for print and for broadcast and for the Web and for the radio and take the pictures and on and on. In other words, there is a belief that journalism produces a jack of all trades but a master of none, to borrow a common idiom.
That’s not what convergence is. For those who believe that the concept is a corporate-driven capitalism ploy, they are looking at a much too narrow slice of convergence. Are there news operations which have tried to use convergence in this way, to cut their personnel and force extra work on employees? Of course. Is there a fundamental difference between broadcasting and print journalism? Of course. And, in cases where the bottom line supercedes quality journalism, the critics are right. But that doesn’t mean you should throw the baby out with the bath water (the idioms just keep coming).
I’ve heard many professionals say that convergence in journalism, done correctly, saves no money; in fact, may cost more. But it capitalizes on informing the viewer in the best way possible. Hitting the main facts and showing the visuals on video, elaborating in print, providing tons more ancillary content with the potential for user-generated content online, etc. In other words, each medium emphasizes the angle of the story that it is best at, so that the entire package becomes much more valuable when working in tandem.
But this hits the core of what all the critics are missing. Convergence, at its best, is not just focused on increasing the bottom lines but rather providing a more comprehensive and higher-quality product for the consumer. The hope is that, with a better product and with a cross-platform storytelling process that respects the user and gives him or her what she wants, it will increase the bottom line as a result. And convergence at its best requires good storytelling.
Quality Storytelling in Soap Operas
It’s no surprise that I will fall back on one of the genres of television that I know best: the soap opera. While documentation of the experiments of primetime television and video games and comic books seem to be well-documented, daytime programming seems largely ignored by critics and scholars and even most of the people in the industry. I think that such media snobbery leaves the industry ignoring important lessons from these marginalized genres. There’s some view that soap operas (and pro wrestling, another major lovemark of mine, is also often ignored by “the mainstream,” despite the fact that both genres have very large viewership).
I’ve been following and blogging a lot about the ways in which the soap opera genre has been trying to adapt in our current convergence culture. In particular, soaps have been attempting to use new cross-platform ways of storytelling, usually attempted more as a marketing experiment than as a true transmedia experiment.
For instance, the soap that I am writing my Master’s thesis on, As the World Turns, has made several interesting transmedia moves in the past year. A storyline on the show revealed that the son of a prominent family in Oakdale, Ill., is gay. We find out on the show that Luke is blogging about his life online and that his parents don’t know much about or understand his blog. Then, viewers are actually able to read the blog online. In another example, the show released the novel Oakdale Confidential, a fictional book that exists within the fictional world of the show. The characters on the show are livid when the book is published, using many of the people around town as characters in a book that is not in any way true. And viewers can then go buy the book, a cultural artifact from the show, to find out what the fuss is about.
There’s no doubt that these are interesting experiments, and I find both to be refreshing steps forward for the soaps industry. But there’s one complication: neither the novel nor the blog really added that much meaningful content to the show. Moderately, they did, and both proved to be a resounding success, particularly the novel. Oakdale Confidential made its way to the top of Amazon’s list and the New York Times bestsellers list, despite being from a marginalized television genre and a genre mystery book that is also part of a marginalized part of the print industry.
I don’t think these projects were meant as an attack on viewers, but I do think that future examples of transmedia, now that it has proven to be viable commercially, must make better use of the transmedia aspects. In other words, if viewers are to be expected to read a blog, it should provide information that they can’t find anywhere else, something that will tell them more about the plot or about the character in question.
The Importance of Quality Storytelling
These types of transmedia attempts exist throughout the television industry, and I’ve talked with people in multiple media industries about cross-platform content. All agree on one thing—convergence may exist in a lesser form as a marketing ploy that simply distributes products across many media platforms, but transmedia storytelling…and true convergence…requires, at its heart, a compelling story. Without good writers and other strong elements throughout the story, the fact that something is converged or spread across several media forms is only impressive in a shallow sense, as an experiment or a marketing ploy.
And that’s what the journalists, the writers, the fans, and everyone else who fears convergence are worried about. They don’t seem to really be against convergence, but they are against convergence done poorly. In other words, the only way transmedia storytelling and convergence can work is if the story that is being told is worth following across multiple media forms. And that’s why the model of the uberjournalist cannot work: convergence requires storytellers who have a knack and an understanding of each platform and of good storytelling in general.
When the character blogs and novels and converged newsrooms leave the experimental form, where it is interesting just because it’s being done, in other words when convergence becomes commonplace, the only thing that will sustain their viability is powerful stories.
Most readers/viewers/listeners aren’t really all that interested in convergence if it doesn’t offer them anything, and companies will only sustain profitability in convergence if they put high priority on telling the best stories possible. Transmedia expands storytelling potential exponentially, and the most astute cultural producers are already realizing that. But, in the end, the best marketing for any cultural product is to simply tell a compelling tale with intriguing characters.
I have had conversations with people in the soaps industry, which has seen a diminishing of viewers since the growth in popularity of cable networks. All of the people on the creative side, as well as most of the fan community, agree on one central concept: that the characters and the story’s universe are what matters most. The best marketing is consistently telling a quality story, letting that story flow naturally, and creating and maintaining characters that connect with fans. When people rely on the form to attract viewers, they lose. Viewers are interested in content, and the only value in convergence culture is that it provides more tools for the storyteller (and, when those stories connect, more profit for the producers and more viable avenues for advertisers).
Convergence: The Reality
Even though the nature of each medium is different, the essential elements of a good story remain constant across any platform. People want characters to connect with, stories that stay true to the nature of the fans’ requirements for the narrative, and plots that both meet the fans’ essential expectations while also providing surprises. Those naysayers of convergence culture are participating in that dangerous form of technological determinism which gives the user no credit and takes an extremely cynical view of the people working in the media industry.
The problem is that you just can’t leave the storyteller out of the convergence equation. When critics or producers attempt to eliminate creativity from the process, they aren’t utilizing the power of convergence. Convergence can be more than just a buzzword…but it requires a compelling story at its heart.
Sam Ford is a Master's candidate in the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a media analyst for the Convergence Culture Consortium.
----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Original Star TrekRemastered for High-Definition. Sam Ford examines how the popular science fiction series from the 1960s has now had its most popular episodes remastered for HD, to be released in syndication soon.
20th Century Fox Releasing Films in Blu-ray. Sam Ford looks at how the film company is releasing a few new films and several from its archives in high-definition throughout the rest of the year, raising questions about the profitability of remastering films from the HD archives.
Lycos Partners with Blinkx to Step Up Video Search. Sam Ford examines how Lycos, lagging behind popular search engines like Yahoo and Google, is attempting to gain viewers back by providing superior video search capabilities.
Apple Partnership with Google Raises Questions in Online Video Distribution. Sam Ford writes aboutGoogle's CEO being the newest member of Apple's board of directors and questions whether this could have any possible long-term impact on the development of online video distribution, particularly with Google's video services and Apple's immersive iTunes?
WWE 24/7 On Demand. Sam Ford writes about World Wrestling Entertainment's popular on-demand service that exploits the pro wrestling archives and how it provides a viable business model for exploiting historical content and drawing in nostalgic fans who may not watch the current content of a network.
Fan Activism Displayed Through Fan Lobbying for Stargate SG-1. Henry Jenkins follows the fan reaction to the Sci Fi Channel cancelling a popular series and the power of fan activism in a networked culture.
Roulette Games on Japanese ATMs. Sam Ford writes in reaction to a story from Reuters about gaming becoming a regular part of the banking experience in Japan and the ways in which this fits in to a convergence culture.
Fox Sports Looking at New 3D Technology. Sam Ford examines Fox's rhetoric surrounding their latest 3D services in research and their claims that 3D will make high-definition irrelevant.
Transmedia Content for Emmy Awards. Sam Ford looks at how the Emmys included real-time content on its Web site, especially considering the time crunch awards shows are always under.
Networks Gearing Up with HD Lineups. Sam Ford writes about the network lineups for the fall for all six major networks, and a chart fromTelevisionWeekthat demonstrates the percentage of each network's lineup that will be offered in high-definition.
Snakes on a Planea Disappointment How? Sam Ford takes contention with claims that the popular cult film was a failure at the box office, considering how well it did compared to other suspense films of a similar nature.
Fake Press Release Fuels Sci Fi/Wrestling War. Sam Ford writes about the fake press release that made its way to the PR Newswire, claiming that the Sci Fi Netowrk was changing its name to Surge, and how this incident fits in to the larger stressed releationship between Sci Fi fans, wrestling fans, and the network.
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--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
A Tools Perspective on Digital Media:An Algorithmic Look at the Implications of Technology on (Animation) Film and Transmedia Aesthetics
By: Stefan Werning
The current rise of animation films is only one facet of a larger development initiated by the use of digital tools and technologies in media production. In the scope of this article I will outline some aspects of how a sound technologically informed perspective could shed some light on implicit technological determinisms and patterns of transmedia production.
A look at recent box office results shows that ~60-80% of the Top 10 grossing films in the US between 2000 and 2006 were either animated or relied heavily on computer graphics (CG), however without a clearly linear increase. This success story was accompanied by fundamental infrastructural changes, most notably the recent physical amalgamation of ILM, Lucasfilm's VFX division, and LucasArts under one roof both at the new San Francisco Bay Area and Singapore headquarters which encouraged an increasing exchange of technologies with, for instance, LucasArts providing previsualization tools for ILM's effects shots.
Some aspects of what I describe here can already be traced in earlier phases of cinema history; anime e.g. since the 1960s employed techniques of economization such as panning over large panels, zooming and parallax effects to minimize the number of original panels needed for constant movement. Nelmes describes how the French New Wave Cinema tapped (and was guided by) emerging technologies like lightweight and affordable cameras for new modes of expression. Cubitt's The Cinema Effect (2004) is one, albeit rather vague, attempt at conceptualizing analogue cinema using 'digital' terminology like pixels, vectors and parsing.
One of the most influential theoreticians of digital media is still Lev Manovich, whose Language of Digital Media inspired some of these thoughts. However, Manovich is representative of much scholarly activity on digital media technologies in that he focuses on the issue of realism, coupled with a soft semiotic or cultural studies reading of the images produced using those technologies.
Instead, I want to focus on the principles of digital design and how they shape both the collective imaginary of animation film, live action film using CG and, as a further step, transmedia storytelling.
The main principle involved in digital design is object-oriented programming (OOP), a coding style based on autonomous objects and object classes. An illustrative example of OOP is the rendering of fur, showcased in lots of recent 'anthropomorphic animal'-type movies like Madagascar, Ice Age and Over The Hedge where every hair, or at least the defining 'rig hair', is an independent object that reacts independently, for instance, to ambient lighting, gravity and wind.
Other important principles, already included in the fur example, are procedural synthesis and AI-based design. An example of the latter is WETA Digital's Massive Software, used to create dynamic actor-based crowd scenes in films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Instead of keyframing every digital orc's animation, the software generates multiple instances of a template 'orc' object, outfitted with random equipment meshes like weapons and armor, which act according to simple behavioral scripts, including variables like aggressiveness or obedience. One important implication of these techniques is the fact that the final rendering is the product of an emergent configuration, like a snapshot of a digital game. Casey Alt in her seminal article „The Materialities of Maya. Making Sense of Object-Orientation“ undertakes a semiotic reading of how economic and strategic rationales in the tool's production history influenced its application, e.g. the shift from scientific visualization to the entertainment world. Furthermore, Alt describes how Maya's then-new spline algorithms (as opposed to triangle-based modelling) shaped the amorphous design of one of the first CG characters, the aquatic lifeform in Abyss and the later T-1000 character from Terminator 2. Interestingly, those instance of technology showcasing (i.e. 3-dimensional morphing) later became cinematic conventions, both used as special effect and allegorically (in films like Species). In accordance with our assumed notion of 'algorithmic design', both Maya and 3D Studio MAX became entirely script-based with the later versions. For instance, Maya MEL allows the user to access/modify the whole GUI, thereby re-visibilizing the interface (which, e.g. according to Sherry Turkle, has been obscured in the process of naturalization) by making it scriptable.
The application of these tools, I would argue, follows 'quasi-ludic' patterns. Authors like Silverstone and Lister argue for the function of playfulness in the development of computer technologies. An example from the production of Ice Age: Meltdown are the so-called „smear-frame“ competitions, in which animator would try to outdo each other at creating extreme animation poses with their pre-rigged meshes which were later stored in their 'Pose Tool Box', a pose library used for stiching animations together by interpolation.
Another implication of digital production technologies is the almost encyclopedic availability of free on-topic materials (e.g. meshes, sound effects, textures, shaders etc.) e.g. on sci-fi themes like Star Wars, Star Trek or Babylon 5 which faciliate or even enable the creation of independent films like Star Wars: Revelations that exhibit a strong visual (and, originating from that, narrative) congruence with the 'source material'. Similarly, companies like the newly „converging“ Lucasfilm divisions begin to archive their material for later use which leads to formal paradigms like the recent serialization (e.g. the upcoming Star Wars TV series, digital game series like Half Life, Sin Episodes etc.) which are economically more viable. These phenomena might necessitate extending the scope of tool analysis to archiving and asset management tools like the widely-used Avid Alienbrain which supposedly influence the patterns of sequential storytelling by visibilizing and prioritizing specific content elements over others.
Finally, a closer look at the tools of the trade might reinform the reading of patterns of transmedia production like videogame adaptations. In that respect, the next-gen consoles are not simply a technical evolution but, for the first time, allow for the exchange of algorithms between films and games (like the use of similar oceanographic formulae in Titanic and Far Cry Instinct Predator on the X360). Inversely, principles of computational design applied in digital games like physics-based narrative contiguity tangibly shape the aesthetics of life action films. One example would be the numerous fighting scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean 2 like the duel on the rolling mill-wheel and Jack Sparrow's pole-vaulting scene, another the whole Star Wars: Episode 2 'jump'n'run' sequence in the Geonosis droid factory. It is probably safe to argue that the aforementioned previsualization techniques, i.e. the playing-around with low-poly versions of characters and props in the planning phase of the movie, had a major impact on the final look and feel of the scene. This 'algorithmic' look at digitally-produced media might also prove insightful for the analysis of videogame adaptations, e.g. by determining which scenes are the product of a quasi-interactive constellation during production in the first place.
On that note, I would like to close with an experimental 'outlook', a review of the most recent technologies debated at SIGGRAPH in August 2006. Among the most readily applicable for digital media production were techniques like procedural plant generation and automatized modeling of architectural constructs, the simulation of large bodies of water using a mix of 2D and 3D techniques, multiple interacting liquids with varying viscosity, motion-captured skin deformation, statistically-based procedural synthesis of complex facial geometry like wrinkles and continuum-dynamics-based crowd modelling. If any of these become available as tools or plug-ins, we should expect them rather than popular syntagms or micro narratives alone to shape the aesthetics of upcoming digital media.
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Stefan Werning is a doctoral candidate and works as an associate lecturer at the Asian Studies Center in Bonn, Germany. He is a member of the working group ‚computer games’ at the German Association for Media Studies and writes on topics including e-learning solutions based on digital games and modelling terrorism in recent military policies to interactive media analysis.
Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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