Two Projects

Two writing projects sit on my desk, and the fact that they’ve remained there untouched throughout winter break, which ends a week from Monday, means I’d better get my butt in gear. I don’t realistically expect to complete drafts before classes resume January 20, but at the very least I can get some groundwork done. And since a working principle I’m experimenting with is that visibility via this blog is one way to short circuit the cycles of neglect and perfectionistic worry within which so many of my scholarly ambitions languish, I introduce these projects to you below.

The first is a chapter for an upcoming anthology on animation in Rutgers’ Behind the Silver Screen series. In these collections, every decade gets its own chapter — now that I think of it, a layout reminiscent of another Rutgers project I participated in, the 2003 chapter in American Cinema of the 2000s — but editor Scott Curtis, in consultation with me and the other contributors, has opted to stretch that framework in divvying up the blocks of time to respect animation’s complex and interleaved history, more a set of overlapping developments in technology, style, and economic/industrial practices than a neat linear progression. Here’s the abstract for my bit:

Ubiquitous Animation (c. 1990-2010)

The 1995 release of Toy Story marked the dawn of the fully computer-generated animated feature film, but Pixar’s technological and commercial success was only one node of a wider array of digitally-inflected animation practices that flowered in the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century. Across a range of screens, drawing on new tools and skills, and engaging heterogeneous subcultures of creators, audiences, fans, and players, animation between 1990 and 2010 was radically reshaped by the computer’s ability to augment, automatize, and in many cases absorb traditional modes of production while putting animated content to work in new platforms, devices, and displays. Computer-generated visual effects played an increasingly central role in building the storyworlds and performers of blockbuster cinema, from Jurassic Park (1993) to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2000-2003); videogames such as the first-person shooters (FPS) Quake and Half-Life and massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) Everquest and World of Warcraft took graphic shape from the specialized code of their rendering “engines”; and traditional 2D and stop-motion animation began to rely on digital tools for generating backgrounds, tweening keyframes, and erasing supports in films such as Coraline (2009) and The Secret of Kells (2009).

Picking up in 1991 with the release of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – a film blending traditional 2D animation with CG backgrounds generated by Disney and Pixar’s CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) – this chapter charts the spread of digital animation in three spheres: traditional animation, live action feature films featured computer-generated visual effects, and high-end and casual videogaming. I trace the development of tools and production workflows that facilitated digital animation’s spread, including applications such as After Effects and Flash, motion and performance capture, photogrammetry, artificial-intelligence software for animating crowds and digital “extras,” and in the world of videogames, game engines and content editors that enabled users to create their own videogame animations known as machinima. Alongside these developments, I chart the industry’s embrace of digital animation through the founding of studios such as Pixar, Blue Sky, DreamWorks, and Sony Pictures Animation. The chapter thus emphasizes not just the computer’s role in planning and producing animated imagery, but the impact of the internet and World Wide Web in creating new communities of production and fandom, as well as the growing importance of media convergence in breaking down formerly distinct barriers between television, film, gaming, comics and graphic novels, and a pervasive ecosystem of “smart” devices and interfaces for accessing and sharing content.

There’s a lot here, and as usual when looking at proposals written long before the manuscript was due, I sense that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew — or maybe the better metaphor is that of a trip to the buffet, where I loaded up my plate with more food than I can reasonably ingest. What’s that saying? “His eyes are bigger than his stomach.” I’ve always struggled with my appetites, and while wisdom tells me to be more moderate in my choices, I suppose I will always harbor some sneaky bit of pride in thinking big, whether it’s in regard to an XL pizza with double cheese, barbecue chicken, pepperoni, and anchovies (shoutout to my favorite pizza place in Chapel Hill, NC) or a menu of tasty theoretical and historical tidbits my September 2012 self decided my January 2014 would enjoy sampling.

Here’s the other project:

Lucasfilm and LEGO: The Building Blocks of Transmedial Franchises

In 1999, the Star Wars franchise became the first intellectual property to be licensed by LEGO, with kits based on both the original and prequel trilogies becoming best-sellers over the next decade and a half. During that same period, LEGO licensed additional franchise properties such as The Lord of the Rings, Batman, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, signaling a new industrial alliance within the transmedial storytelling systems and convergent flows of fantastic blockbuster culture. This chapter uses the LEGO/Star Wars history to examine shifts in the fortunes of both companies and their product lines, emphasizing the ways in which LEGO’s modularity and near-infinite adaptability harmonized with Lucasfilm’s efforts to expand and extend the Star Wars property through its own “modularization” of production, including prequelization, the recasting of key characters, and the eventual conversion of iconic characters, settings, and vehicles into animated forms such as the Clone Wars series (2003, 2008-present) and video games set in the world of LEGO. LEGO thus emerges as both the prototype and future of transmedial franchise building, exposing underlying industrial logics of substitution and recombination of fantasy assets, and marking a negotiated succession between analog and digital media culture.

This one is for Mark J. P. Wolf’s upcoming LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, and before you ask, I believe I came up with the “building blocks” line first. (I’m open to correction on this, of course.) The editor, on the other hand, is behind “transmedial,” which I agree is the more elegant if less standard way of referring to properties that bridge multiple media forms in creating and narrating their virtual universes (for more on which I highly recommend Mark’s magisterial Building Imaginary Worlds). My focus here is narrower and more critical, as I firmly believe that nothing very good happened to the Star Wars franchise after 1983’s Return of the Jedi, or really after 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. (Yup, I’m one of those fans.) Still, my planned goal in reading Lucasfilm and LEGO against each other is not to suggest that the former “ruined” the latter or vice versa, but rather to think about the interesting harmonies that link their strategies — a strange-bedfellows argument.

More on these projects as they develop; they’re my primary diet for the foreseeable future.

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