Visual artists, production designers and academics from around the globe met this weekend at UCLA’s symposium on “Transmedia, Hollywood 2: Visual Culture and Design” to discuss design trends in new forms of media. Guest writer Deidre Crawford tells us how transmedia specialists are looking to push the envelope with immersive storytelling in theme parks, video games, film and television:
When Walt Disney first designed Tomorrowland for Disneyland in the early 1950s, the concept of tomorrow generated the idea of a far-off future filled with new technology and endless possibilities. Now, the idea of Tomorrowland is obsolete.
“When tomorrow is literally tomorrow, how do you update the [theme] park that fast?” asked Scott Bukatman, a Stanford professor of film and media studies and one of a panel of visual artists, production designers, studio heads and academics brought together to discuss the creation of transmedia content at the Transmedia, Hollywood 2: Visual Culture and Design conference at UCLA on Friday.
Designers have begun taking immersive storytelling to a new level with the incorporation of multiplatform, multisensory experiences.
“Transmedia is too new a phenomenon for us to have a narrow definition we all agree on,” says Henry Jenkins, one of the leading voices in media convergence and a professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California.
The terms ‘360 entertainment,’ ‘deep media’ and ‘transmedia’ describe much of the same phenomenon with different emphases, he explained.
Rather than spotlighting the online aspect as a defining feature, Jenkins chooses to focus on the idea of “someone who works in three or more media platforms in an organized way.”
“We’re trying to develop a plan, a system of telling stories across media,” Jenkins said.
Denise Mann, head of the Producers Program at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, described the current environment as a “wild, wild west time for entertainment.”
Transmedia designers are looking for ways to push the envelope of sensory experiences for the user, be it in a theme park, video game, film or TV series.
Narrative has taken a back seat to “a collection of experiences” and theme parks are now designed with less emphasis on story and more focus on “kinetic, bodily immersive experience,” explained the panelists.
Designers take into consideration everything from the pleasing aspects of a slightly curved street to the Jungian experience of tapping into the unknown and creating a sense of discovery.
“We’re building a place to move you through a set of emotions – pleasant emotions, usually,” said Bruce Vaughn, chief creative executive of Disney Imagineering.
Fans of Harry Potter who have always wondered what butterbeer tastes like can now travel to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando and try the real concoction for themselves.
The non-alcoholic beverage has been the second most popular attraction at the park, with more than 1.5 million butterbeers sold since its opening in June 2010, said Thierry Coup, head of Universal’s Creative Studio.
Visitors can fly through a simulated game of Quidditch and visit Olivanders wand shop to participate in “the wand choosing its wizard,” as well as purchase one of their own.
“They can live the Harry Potter experience that Harry Potter lived in the movies. It’s the ultimate virtual reality,” explained Coup.
A growing trend in transmedia is a sense of user control – a feeling that ‘I have an impact in the ride.’
Many Disney theme parks now feature a “Finding Nemo” attraction with Crush the Turtle, where he has a live interactive dialogue with the audience that is based almost entirely on visitor involvement.
“[Transmedia] is really about how form and content do this dance,” said Rick Carter, production designer for Avatar and Sucker Punch.
Carter and Dylan Cole, art director for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, explained how Jim Cameron art directed the virtual sets of Avatar in real time, changing the look of a waterfall or jungle as the action was taking place. The designers had the digital art files open as Cameron was watching the footage and would quickly make changes based on Cameron’s direction, which gave the movie its visceral feel.
“That’s why it feels like a real jungle – he essentially used Dylan as his avatar,” explained Carter.
One of the most impressive creations presented at the panel was Fox Television Australia’s new series “Slide,” a cross between an Australian version of “The Hills” and the popular British television series “Skins.”
Tracey Robertson, one of the creators of the series and head of the production company Hoodlum, pitched the show to Fox as “a truly multiplatform experience,” incorporating a television show, graphic novels, music, fashion, art, webisodes and interactive games.
Since Robertson presented the series to Fox as multiplatform from the beginning, the studio had the funding in place to create multiple video games and pay the actors extra to collect personal behind-the-scenes footage during the shoot, which was then used to create the trailer, rather than scrambling to try to find ways to fund and create content around an already launched television show.
This ability to heighten the viewer’s experience through multiple forms of interaction has proven successful for shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Smallville” and “Dexter,” which have used graphic novels, webisodes and comic books to increase their fan base.
Abigail De Kosnik, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Center for New Media, pointed out one of her favorite moments as a fan of the TV show “Ugly Betty,” when after several episodes of Betty waiting to get a byline, she finally does and the article was published online for viewers as part of MODE, the magazine where Betty worked.
While some studios and networks have embraced transmedia, many have not yet caught up to the trend and are looking to engage more independent, non-traditional producers, directors and gamers outside the system in an effort to try to re-invent themselves as more relevant.
When asked about advice for designers that are concerned about becoming obsolete or trying to reinvent themselves, Angela Ndalianis, head of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Melbourne, said they don’t need to worry.
“The key thing is to keep your mind open because a new medium can open up a whole new way of thinking about your own medium – that’s the most important thing.”
Deidre Crawford is a writer and multimedia producer. She earned her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and has produced stories for KQED Public Radio, KPCC Public Radio, The Huffington Post, LA Weekly, Foam magazine and The Cape Times newspaper.