My newest series for SCRIPTMAG dot com, “Fragments” focuses on the potential transmedia storytelling affords filmmakers. These posts function as a deeper companion to both my book,COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION: USING COMICS TO CONSTRUCT YOUR TRANSMEDIA STORYWORLD and the book’s companion website, COMICSTORYWORLD.
The series is currently ongoing.
Fragments #1 – Transmedia and Writing Exposition (03 December 2013)
We have almost every storytelling medium known to humanity at our digital (and non-digital) disposal. This democratization of content creation means two things: one, you can make anything you want, whenever you want, and two, like Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. You have all of these tools, but the key to digital and transmedia storytelling is knowing when and where to use them in creative and exciting ways that make your work irresistible.
Before we go further, I’ll note here, as I have in my bookand in interviews, that I will only supply a definition of transmedia storytelling for the purpose of focus. Transmedia storytelling is, at this point, in a continuing state of definitional flux and while this is a detriment to most discussion and analysis of it, it’s a wonderful thing for creative people; it’s the mythical blank slate. It is what you make it.
With that in mind, I define transmedia storytelling as the crafting of stories that unfold across multiple media fragments, in which each piece deepens the whole, but is simultaneously capable of standing on its own, giving the audience the choice into how deep into the experience they go.
In a talk I gave this past November at the Festival of Cartoon Art Academic Conference at Ohio State University, I called continuity “a series of links created in collaboration between creator and fan.” While I was referencing continuity in terms of how it relates to comics, and not in the “the shoe must be tied correctly from shot to shot” way, I’ll go one step further here and say that this definition can apply to and, in the case of transmedia storytelling, across, all media. In this mini-series, we’re going to examine how transmedia storytelling can bring that series of links to film in a way that benefits both you, the creator, and your audience, who crave something new and exciting.
First, a bit on the context of that definition I provided above.
For this multi-part series within a series, we’re going to look at three examples of film continuity through the lens of generational examples: The Universal Monsters of the 1930s and 40s, the James Bond series of the 1960s through today, and lastly the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe. When I talk about continuity here, I’m not talking, “is the right shoe untied from shot to shot” most think of when “continuity” is used within the film lexicon, but a larger version of the same thing: is character consistent throughout a franchise? How does a character evolve from sequel to sequel? If a character died from a stake to the heart, how do we bring that character back? Ignore it? Use it? How can you deepen the world of a series by using the agreed-upon tenets of that storyworld?
In this first installment, the Universal Monsters present a fascinating case study in early franchise continuity and the lengths studios will go to to keep a franchise alive, including twists, turns, endless convolutions and/or outright ignoring. We’re going to trace the evolution of Universal’s franchise storytelling, beginning with 1931’sDracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi and his Lugosi-ness, and Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff under the slathers of Jack Pierce’s iconic Monster makeup, and then examine the standalone sequels to to those films: what made those sequels different and how those sequels led to the creation of a fascinating early exercise in a shared universe in the 1940s.
Last month, we focused on the “legacy” sequels to Universal’s smash 1931 films, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. Before we dig into the next era of the Universal sequels, the crossover and shared universe, we have to discuss the final “done in one” component of Universal’s monster-menagerie, 1941’s The Wolf Man, written by Curt Siodmak, brother of Robert, who directed 1943’s unusual Son of Dracula (whose continuity issues we explored last month). Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (sans the Jr.) as Larry Talbot, the role that would cement him in the annals of film history, The Wolf Man is the ultimate expression of Universal’s running theme of the curse of immortality. A tragic hero-monster in the vein of Marvel Comics’ Human Torch, who made his four-color debut in 1939’s Marvel Comics #1, Talbot isn’t inherently evil; his curse was thrust upon him during an action of the best intentions. His ensuing quest to rid himself his lycanthropic curse is the fuel that propels the Universal Monster films through the 1940s. Those films–Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) andAbbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)–constitute the first shared universe in film history. Let’s look at their growing pains.
When Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, interviewed me last year, we discussed the notion of serialization and how it was the unsung hero of comics; I called the “elasticity” of character, the ability of a character to transcend genre, era and creative team over the course of 12 issues a year for x number of years, the primary factor in the endurance of characters like Superman and Batman. What I didn’t talk about, and, in retrospect, wish I had, was that with elasticity of character must come “constancy” of character, a primal, unchanging simplicity at a character’s core. That constancy is the very thing that enables a character’s elasticity.
Nowhere is constancy more well-represented in film than in the James Bond film series, begun in 1962 with Terence Young’s Dr. No, the film that catapulted Sean Connery to movie star status and launched the longest running series in film history.
Though there have been character-driven (for the most part, Bond films are plot-driven) deviations from that Bondian constancy throughout the canon–married man in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Daniel Craig’s tenure, for example–the core of Bond, a relentless and refined force of nature who always gets the job done, no matter the cost, has remained intact.