* Note: This interview was originally published in 2011 at Focal Press’ “Mastering Film” website. Excerpts from this interview appear in “COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION.”
I’m incredibly honored to bring you my first interview on this site, with Frank Rose, author of THE ART OF IMMERSION: HOW THE DIGITAL GENERATION IS REMAKING HOLLYWOOD, MADISON AVENUE, AND THE WAY WE TELL STORIES, published by Norton in 2011. In this interview, Frank and I discuss the new generation of “the people formerly known as the audience,” transmedia storytelling, the history of immersion, issues that arise from it, and film’s place in this new storytelling culture.
Tell me a bit about THE ART OF IMMERSION, the book itself, and how you came to write it.
I had been writing for WIRED for close to ten years when I started on the book. Mostly what I had done for Wired was covering the intersection of media and technology. Advertising — literally everything from Hollywood to cell phones. Television. I did a sequence of articles that made me think something was going on and I didn’t really understand it, so I wanted to find out.
The first was a piece on 3D, and I interviewed James Cameron. We were talking a bit about AVATAR and at that point [2006-07] he didn’t want to go into too many details about the plot, but he told me a bit, and what interested me was that, to his mind, the ideal way to tell this kind of science fiction/fantasy story like this in various levels of depth that would hold up, almost as if it was a fractal experience so that you could go in in powers of 10 and the pattern would still hold. So for the casual fan, you could just watch the movie, but for the more committed fan you could go in in any level of depth that you wanted.
About a year later, I did a piece about the YEAR ZERO alternate reality game that Nine Inch Nails did with 42 Entertainment. This was an entirely different kind of storytelling and I was completely fascinated by it. I had heard about ARGs maybe a year or so before, but this was the first time I had the chance to really delve into it in depth. At that point, the YEAR ZERO game had been concluded a few months earlier so I was able to do a in-depth look at what had happened, how it came to be, and what it meant.
Several months after that I did a piece on Hollywood professionals getting into web video because of the Writer’s Strike. I realized in doing this that there are a fair number of people – writers – who had started out in television but then gone into video game writing who were now getting involved in web video writing and kind of saw that as a way of bridging the two. The sort of storytelling and emotional possibilities of video or TV with the interactive and participatory aspect of games, specifically with things like characters having Facebook or – actually at that point it was more MySpace profiles.
With some of the first web videos like that, like PROM QUEEN and LONELYGIRL15, viewers just sort of spontaneously wrote in to the characters as if they were real. At first, the people who were producing those videos were scratching their heads and wondering “what’s going on here?” And then they realized that people were trying to engage with the characters in a way that suggested they would have to engage back. It was interactivity with characters that hadn’t really been done before – at that point hadn’t been done on TV or anything. I think now it’s become fairly common, but back in 2007, 2008, it was pretty unusual.
At a certain point, around the summer of ’08, I started to put all this together and wonder what was going on. I didn’t really know the answer, but that’s why I wanted to do the book, to figure it out. Frankly, most people didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I certainly at that point didn’t have a very good way of explaining it. I didn’t really have a handle on it.
What I came to realize as I was working on the book was that yes, just as movies and television and other media have their own ways of telling stories, the Internet would encourage a new grammar of storytelling. And this happened whenever there was a new communications medium that came along, and typically it took people 20 or 30 years to figure out what to do with it.
That’s essentially how I got started, that’s essentially what I was trying to do with the book, and as a result of course, that meant that I wanted to look into not only what was happening here but in earlier media as well.
Speaking of earlier media, I loved the quote you included in your section on Charles Dickens, the serialized novel, and the resultant rise of immersion from the NORTH BRITISH REVIEW, that “it must be attended with bad consequences.”
Right! Exactly. I became increasingly fascinated with that as I was working on the book. What started off as about two pages ended up as eight or ten. I realized that serialization really did involve a level of participation in terms of readers that in many ways anticipates what we’re seeing now.
The idea of serialization is purely a product of technology. A whole series of different and seemingly unrelated technological developments came together to create this. There were improvements in paper manufacturing, so suddenly it was possible to make much cheaper paper that was still good. Improvements in printing presses. Railroads came, which meant you could deliver things, which had never been the case before. The whole process of industrialization meant that large numbers of people moved to the city. That meant that there were many more people, because once they moved to the cities, they started to learn to read and write, which in many cases had never been the case before.
The percentage of the population that literate was very small a hundred years earlier. By the 1830s, it was starting to grow quite dramatically and now of course, it’s about 98 or 99 percent. But it wasn’t anywhere near that then. There were a lot more people who could read, but most of this new reading population didn’t have much money. They were poor because they weren’t being paid very well and they didn’t have much free time because they worked very hard hours. But they also didn’t have much else to do – there was no television obviously. Suddenly there was a much bigger market for novels, for fiction, and even though most people in this market couldn’t afford to buy a whole book, they could afford to buy a book in weekly or monthly installments. Almost every novel Dickens wrote was published in monthly installments.
What that meant was that there was a whole way of interacting with the author that really hadn’t existed before because when you publish a book whole it’s like a movie, that you write the thing in isolation, then you publish it, it’s out, it’s done, and you move on to the next one. But the fact that these novels were published in installments meant that readers could write in – and they did. They had very vocal opinions.
Dickens was, in addition to being quite young and taking advantage of the latest technology, not received well by the literary establishment. Frankly, it had only been relatively recently that fiction had been accepted at all. Fiction in the sense of novels as opposed to theatre or something like that. That novels had been accepted at all in sort of polite society, throughout the 18th century they were considered a pretty disreputable form of entertainment, hard as that is to believe now.
With Dickens, they became quite disreputable again for a couple of different reasons. First off, there’s that quote that you mentioned in the NORTH BRITISH REVIEW that says the idea that these things kept coming one installment at a time – a couple chapters at a time – the idea that you could lose yourself in fiction, which has always been, I’ve found, something that people have both wanted to do and feared the consequences of.
I think that the reviewer there makes a remark there that if you’re reading a book, you can lose yourself in it for awhile and put it away and go back to normal pursuits…
Right. I love that it says basically by stealth, that you hide in the corner and read your book.
Exactly, exactly! What I found totally fascinating about that quote was the implication being that what was much better than fiction, what was much better than reading novels, was something like playing backgammon or tennis or badminton or simply conversing with one another. Which in other words, is games and social media. Games and social media were considered respectable, and fiction was not.
I think it definitely puts things into perspective.
In your book, you give reasons as to why, in spite of being part of a hugely successful television phenomenon like LOST, the ARG THE LOST EXPERIENCE, didn’t live up to what it could have been. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that, and some of the risk involved when creatives used to working in one medium have to shift their focus and learn an entirely new one?
I think that’s part of the difficulty. And the other part of the difficulty is what happens when you blur the line between marketing and entertainment. One of the main points in the book I think is that the Internet tends to blur all kinds of boundaries. There are others as well, like the boundary between fiction and reality – which is what I was referencing earlier when I was referencing the fact that people who were watching early web video series would start writing into the characters as if they were real.
There are many ways in which marketing and entertainment are being blurred now. Certainly ARGs are one of them. Even though the YEAR ZERO game was not meant to be a marketing campaign (in fact, Trent [Reznor] paid for it out of his own money rather than letting the record companies pay for it), things can get very bolloxed up.
With most of the ARGs that 42 [Entertainment] has done like Why So Serious for The Dark Knight and YEAR ZERO and so forth, they’ve been very well structured. With THE LOST EXPERIENCE, it was not done in nearly so savvy a way. In particular, there seems to have been a lot of miscommunication between the marketing people at ABC and the showrunners for LOST, and things started to get bolloxed up when they tried to get the sponsors for the show involved in THE LOST EXPERIENCE And it’s not impossible to do that in a way that works, but as with something so simple as product placement, it’s also real easy to screw it up. Anything that’s going to be too obvious is going to screw it up.
With THE LOST EXPERIENCE, what the people who were creating it realized was that they were expected not only to work the advertisers in but they were expected to drive traffic to the advertiser’s websites, which is an entirely ridiculous idea. For the most part, advertisers have given up even trying to drive traffic to micro-sites – they’re much more likely to go on Facebook for something.
There was no clear understanding — or very savvy understanding — who it was for. That’s often an issue. Things like this are very good at building excitement for something. Typically, they’re not too good at bringing in an entirely new audience. They tend to be more for the committed fans, and what they’re good at is making committed fans more committed, and getting them to share things with other people. But you don’t typically bring in tons of entirely new fans through something like this.
I’m back in Ohio, around family who look at me and ask “what the hell do you do exactly?” So, on that note, what is Transmedia? But with a twist. How would you define it to an 85-year-old grandmother in the middle of nowhere?
As you probably know, I’m not a big fan of the word transmedia. The idea that people tell stories across multiple media forms in different levels of depth, all of that sort of thing. But how would you explain it to an 85-year old grandmother? (Laughs)
There’s a sense in which people tend to get immersed in all kinds of entertainment, and this is really just another way of making entertainment more immersive. I do see it to some extent as a generational phenomenon, not that it’s only under 30-year-olds who are into it, but for people under 30, probably under 20, it’s an entirely natural way of communicating. People who grow up with all sorts of different screens around them and expect that you’ll be able move more or less seamlessly between one type of screen to another, and the technology hasn’t really kept pace with people’s expectations of it, which is actually often the case.
The idea of immersiveness — that’s something just about anybody can understand. The specifics of how do you combine a TV show with a web component and a comic book or whatever, I think those are — obviously they’re important to anyone who’s a producer — but to a consumer (that’s a word I hate), to people who are enjoying these stories one way or another, it really doesn’t matter. Any way that is possible for them to engage with it is something they’re going to want to do.
What’s happening now is that people are telling the same story, or different aspects of the same story through a number of different media. Obviously that becomes more complicated, especially for the producer, but if it’s done well, it becomes seamless and potentially an immersive experience for the viewer, the reader, or the 85-year-old grandmother.
What do you feel is wrong with the term “transmedia?”
It puts the emphasis on the wrong place, which is the idea that you have to develop stories across different media. I think that’s one technique, and often a very effective one. But I don’t think that becomes the goal in itself. I see a fair number of people to whom that becomes the goal. I don’t think every story should become a transmedia story.
A lot more important than the transmedia aspect is the story aspect. I see people that to my mind seem more focused on the transmedia than on the story and I think that’s putting the wrong thing first. Not that there’s anything wrong with transmedia at all, I’m totally in favor of it. I just think it becomes easy to focus on that to the exclusion of things that are more important.
To my mind, what’s most important is that you have a strong story and the goal is immersiveness. You want people to be able to immerse themselves in your story, and that’s true whether it’s fiction, whether it’s news, anything – any form of storytelling. The transmedia aspect isn’t really going to help you there. It might, but it’s not the most important thing.
The point is, as I said to Henry Jenkins when he interviewed me, is that whatever you call it, it’s going to become the accepted form of storytelling. And at the point, the name will not be that important anymore. It’ll be just what everyone does.
Where does film fit in with all of this?
Film is, or I guess I should say video…
Yes. Exactly. The cinematic experience is incredibly immersive. Even though it’s not necessarily participatory in any way, people get wrapped up in it in a way that they do in few other things. I feel that one of the most interesting developments that’s happening now is, it’s being called Social TV, but it applies just as much to film as anything else, assuming we’re not strictly talking about theater. The idea that people can share the same fictional experience with one another, watching something together online, commenting on it, interacting with the characters in some way, I think that that, by bringing the people formerly known as the audience into the experience in this way, just becomes that much more powerful.
It doesn’t diminish in any way what’s been incredibly powerful about film, which is its ability to capture the emotional resonance of other human beings. We’re incredibly attuned to other people.
Even video games, which uniquely give you the opportunity to become another character, still aren’t as strong for most people as watching another character on film as captured by a terrific actor and a brilliant director.