I couldn’t be more pleased to announce the publication of Special Effects: New Histories/Theories/Contexts, an anthology I co-edited with my good friends and colleagues Dan North and Michael S. Duffy. Inspired by a panel we presented together at the 2008 Film and History Conference in Chicago, the book features essays by the three of us, along with contributions from established and rising luminaries such as Scott Bukatman, Julie Turnock, Chuck Tryon, Lisa Bode, Drew Ayers, Aylish Wood, Angela Ndalianis and … well, read the TOC yourself:
Foreword — Scott Bukatman
Introduction — Bob Rehak, Dan North and Michael S. Duffy
PART 1: TECHNIQUES
1. Ectoplasm and Oil: Methocel and the Aesthetics of Special Effects — Ethan de Seife
2. Fleshing It Out: Prosthetic Makeup Effects, Motion Capture and the Reception of Performance — Lisa Bode
3. (Stop)Motion Control: Special Effects in Contemporary Puppet Animation — Andrea Comiskey
4. Magic Mirrors: The Schüfftan Process — Katharina Loew
5. Photorealism, Nostalgia and Style: Photorealism and Material Properties of Film in Digital Visual Effects — Barbara Flueckiger
PART 2: BODIES
6. Bleeding Synthetic Blood: Flesh and Simulated Space in 300 — Drew Ayers
7. Blackface, Happy Feet: The Politics of Race in Motion Capture and Animation — Tanine Allison
8. Being Georges Méliès — Dan North
9. The Battlefield for the Soul: Special Effects and the Possessed Body — Stacey Abbott
10. Baroque Facades, Jeff Bridges’ Face and Tron: Legacy — Angela Ndalianis
11. Organic Clockwork: Guillermo del Toro’s Practical and Digital Nature — Michael S. Duffy
PART 3: SCREENS
12. Digital 3D, Technological Auteurism and the Rhetoric of Cinematic Revolution — Chuck Tryon
13. Shooting Stars: Chesley Bonestell and the Special Effects of Outer Space — Bob Rehak
14. Designed for Everyone Who Looks Forward to Tomorrow!: Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the 1970s Expanded Blockbuster — Julie Turnock
16. The Right Stuff?: Handmade Special Effects in Commercial and Industrial Film — Gregory Zinman
17. ‘Don’t You Mean Extinct?’: On the Circulation of Knowledge in Jurassic Park — Oliver Gaycken
18. Inception’s Timespaces: An Ecology of Technology – Aylish Wood
Afterword: An Interview with Lev Manovich — Dan North
Driving home from last night’s screening of Jurassic World, I kept thinking back to a similarly humid summer evening in 1997, when I locked horns with a friend over the merits of an earlier film in the franchise, Jurassic Park: The Lost World. We were lingering outside the theater before heading to our cars, digesting the experience of the movie we had just watched together. He’d disliked The Lost World, which (if I remember his stance accurately) he saw as an empty commercial grab, a cynical attempt by Steven Spielberg to repeat the success of Jurassic Park (1993)—a film we agreed was a masterpiece of blockbuster storytelling and spectacle—but possessing none of the spark and snap of the original. As for my position, all I can reconstruct these 18 years later is that I appreciated The Lost World’s promotion of Ian Malcolm to primary protagonist—after The Fly (1986), any movie that put Jeff Goldblum in the driver’s seat was golden in my book—as well as its audacious final sequence in which a Tyrannosaurus Rex runs rampant through the streets and suburbs of San Diego.
Really what it came down to, though, were two psychological factors, facets of a subjectivity forged in the fantastic fictions and film frames of science-fiction media, my own version of Scott Bukatman’s “terminal identity.” The first, which I associate with my fandom, was that in those days I never backed down from a good disagreement, whether on picayune questions like Kirk versus Picard or loftier matters such as the meaning of the last twenty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (Hmm, both of those links go to WhatCulture.com—maybe I should add it to my reading list.)
The second reason for my defense of The Lost World was simply my overriding wish that it not be a piece of crap: that it be, in fact, great. Because even then I could feel the tug of loyalty tying me to an emergent franchise, the sense that I’d signed on for a serial experience that might well stretch into decades, demanding fealty no matter how debased its future installments might become. I hadn’t yet read the work of Jacques Lacan—that would come a couple of years later, when I became a graduate student—but I see now that I was thinking in the futur anterieur, peering back on myself from a fantasized, later point of view: “I will have done …” It’s a twisty trick of temporality, and if I no longer stress about contradictions in my viewing practice the way I once did (following the pleasurable trauma of Abrams’s reboot, I have accepted the death of the Star Trek I grew up with), I am still haunted by a certain anxiety of the unarrived regarding my scholarly predilections and predictions (I’d hate to be the kind of academic whom future historians tsk-ingly agree got things wrong.)
But the tidal pull of the franchise commitment persists, which why I’m having a hard time deciding whether Jurassic World succeeded or sucked. Objectively I’m pretty sure the film is a muddle, certainly worse in its money-grabbing motivations and listless construction than either The Lost World or its follow-up, the copy-of-a-copy Jurassic Park III (2001). Anthony Lane in the New Yorkercorrectly bisectsJurassic World into two halves, “doggedly dull for the first hour and beefy with basic thrills for most of the second,” to which I’d add that most of that first hour is rushed, graceless, and elliptical to the point of incoherence. One of my favorite movie critics, Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central, damns that ramshackle execution with faint praise, writing: “Jurassic World is Dada. It is anti-art, anti-sense—willfully, defiantly, some would say exuberantly, meaningless. In its feckless anarchy, find mute rebellion against narrative convention. You didn’t come for the story, it says, you came for the set-ups and pay-offs.”
Perhaps Chaw is right, but seeing the preview for this fall’s Bridge of Spies reminded me what an effortless composer of the frame Spielberg can be–an elegance absent from Jurassic World save for one shot, which I’ll get to in a minute–and rewatching the opening minutes of Jurassic Park before tackling this review reminded me how gifted the man is at pacing. In particular, at putting a story’s elements in place: think of the careful build of the first twenty minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), laying out its globe-jumping puzzle pieces; or of Jaws (1975), as the sleepy beach town of Amity slowly wakes to the horror prowling its waters. Credit too the involvement of the late, great Michael Crichton. His early technothrillers–especially 1969’s The Andromeda Strain and 1973’s Westworld, both of which feed directly into Jurassic Park–might be remembered for their high concepts (and derided for their thin characterizations), but what made him such a perfect collaborator for Spielberg was the clear pleasure he took in building narrative mousetraps, one brief chapter at a time. (Nowadays someone like Dan Brown is probably seen as Crichton’s heir apparent, though I vastly prefer the superb half-SF novels of Daniel Suarez.)
I delve into these influences and inheritances because ancestry and lineage seem to be much on the mind of Jurassic World. DNA and its pandora’s box of wonders/perils have always been a fascination of the Jurassic franchise. In the first film it was mosquitoes in amber; in Jurassic World it’s the 1993 movie that’s being resurrected. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue: in front of the camera you’ve got B. D. Wong and a crapload of production design tying the humble beginnings of Isla Nubar to its modern, Disneyesque metastasization, while “behind the scenes” (a phrase I put in scare quotes because, let’s face it, if the material were really meant to stay behind the scenes, we wouldn’t be discussing it), videos like this one work to reassure us of a meaningful connection between the original and its copy:
The “Classic Jurassic Crew” profiled here might seem a little reachy (lead greensman? boom operator?), but the key names are obviously Jack Horner and Phil Tippett, “Paleontology Consultant” and “Dinosaur Consultant” respectively: the former conferring scientific legitimacy upon the proceedings, the latter marking a tie to traditions of special effects that predate the digital. Tippett, of course, made his name in stop-motion animation–the Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back’s Hoth battle are largely his handiwork–and at first was approached by Spielberg to provide similar animation for Jurassic Park. But when Tippett’s “go motion” technique was superseded by the computer-generated dinosaurs being developed by Dennis Muren, Tippett became a crucial figure, both technologically and rhetorically, in the transition from analog to digital eras. In the words of his Wikipedia entry:
Far from being extinct, Tippett evolved as stop motion animation gave way to Computer-generated imagery or CGI, and because of Phil’s background and understanding of animal movement and behavior, Spielberg kept Tippett on to supervise the animation on 50 dinosaur shots for Jurassic Park.
Tippett’s presence in the film’s promotional field of play thus divulges World’s interest in establishing a certain “real” at the core of its operations, inoculating itself against the argument that it is merely a simulacrum of what came before. It’s a challenge faced by every “reboot event” within the ramifying textualities of a long-running blockbuster franchise, forced by marketplace demands to periodically reinvent itself while (and this is the trick) preserving the recognizable essence that made its forerunner(s) successful. In the case of Jurassic World, that pressure surfaces symptomatically in the discourse around the movie’s visual effects–albeit in a fashion that ironically inverts the test Jurassic Park met and mastered all those years ago. Park’s dinosaurs were sold as breakthroughs in CGI, notwithstanding the brevity of their actual appearance: of the movie’s 127-minute running time, only six contained digital elements, with the rest of the creature performances supplied by Tippett’s animation and Stan Winston’s animatronics. Those old-school techniques were largely elided in the attention given to Park’s cutting-edge computer graphics.
Jurassic World, by contrast, arrives long after the end of what Michele Pierson has called CGI’s “wonder years”; inured to Hollywood’s production of digital spectacle by its sheer superfluity, audiences now seek the opposite lure, the promise of something solid, profilmic, touchable. This explains the final person featured in the video: John Rosengrant of the fittingly-named Legacy Effects, seen operating a dying apatosaurus in one of Jurassic World’s few languid moments. The dinosaur in that scene is a token of the analog era, offered up as emblem of a practical-effects integrity the filmmakers hope will generalize to their entire project. It’s an increasingly common move among makers of fantastic media, one that critics, like this writer for Grantland, are all too happy to reinforce:
J. J. Abrams got a big cheer at the recent Star Wars Celebration Anaheim when he said he was committed to practical effects. George Miller won plaudits for sticking real trucks in the desert in Mad Max: Fury Road. Similarly, [Jurassic World director Colin] Trevorrow gestured to the Precambrian world of special effects by filling his movie with rubber dinos, an old View-Master, and going to the mat to force Universal to pony up for an animatronic apatosaurus. Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady tenderly ministers to the old girl before her death — a symbolic death of the practical effect under the rampage of CGI.
I hope to say more about this phenomenon, in which the digital camouflages itself in a lost analog authenticity, in a future post. For now I will simply note that “Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady” might be the most real thing within Jurassic World. Pratt’s performance here is strikingly different from the jokester he played so winningly in Guardians of the Galaxy: he’s tougher, harsher, more brutish. Spielberg is rumored to want him to play Indiana Jones, and I can see how that would work: like the young Harrison Ford, Pratt can convincingly anchor a fantasy scenario without seeming like’s playing dress-up. But the actor Pratt reminds me of even more than Harrison Ford is John Wayne: his first shot in Jurassic World, dazzlingly silhouetted against sunlight, recalls that introductory dolly in Stagecoach (1939) when the camera rushes up to Wayne’s face as though helpless to resist his primordial photogenie.
As for the rest of Jurassic World, I enjoyed some of it and endured most of it, borne along by the movie’s fitful but generally successful invocations of the 1993 original. “Assets” are one of the screenplay’s keywords, and they apply not only to the dinosaurs that are Isla Nubar’s central attractions but to the swarm of intellectual property that constitutes the franchise’s brand: the logos, the score, the velociraptors’ screeches and the T-Rex’s roar. (Sound libraries, like genetically-engineered dinosaurs, are constructed and owned things too.) Anthony Lane jeers that there is “something craven and constricting in the attitude of the new film to the old,” but I found the opposite: it’s when World is most clearly conscious of Park that it works the best, which is probably why I enjoyed its final half an hour–built, as in Park, as an escalating series of action beats, culminating in a satisfying final showdown–the most.
But that might just be my franchise loyalty talking again. As with The Lost World in that 1997 argument outside the theater, I may be talking myself into liking something not because of its actual qualities, but because it’s part of my history–my identity.
This is the second in a series of posts tracing the storied path of the Leif Ericson, a spaceship designed in 1968 whose afterlife has carried it through a number of incarnations in different media formats – most notably, plastic. Previous posts can be found here.
Viewing the Leif Ericson as the expression of Matt Jefferies’s singular engineering sensibility is pleasing for at least two reasons. First, in crediting the ship to the work of a “great man” of production design (who himself worked under the direction of another, that Great Bird of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry) it scratches our auteurist itch—one specific to modes of fandom oriented toward behind-the-scenes makers such as special-effects artists. Second, it invites us to tie the Ericson to a larger fictional system, the storyworld of Star Trek: even if never directly seen or mentioned in the original series, maybe the Ericson was out there regardless, plying the spaceways alongside the Enterprise and other Starfleet vessels.
Both of these satisfactions are, in their way, ideological lures: means of extracting pleasure from the fantasy operations of capitalism. We come nearer the truth, or at least a more complete picture, if we see the Ericson as the product of an industrial relationship between two arms of mass culture: television and toys. For in 1968, the Leif Ericson made its first appearance in public not on screen but in the material form of a plastic model kit.
The Michigan-based manufacturer AMT had enjoyed a mutually beneficial symbiosis with Star Trek since before the show’s premiere, contracted by Desilu—the studio where Roddenberry developed Trek—to build technological exotica as needed for the series. Although the company’s name, AMT, stood for Aluminum Model Toys, its capabilities extended beyond the making of cheap playthings into the fabrication of large commercial items. As detailed on Memory Alpha, the need to make “finished display pieces … for marketing purposes” led AMT to start the Speed and Custom Division Shop, a subsidiary “to build both full-scale and scaled automobile mockups … to promotional ends, as well as to manufacture the templates or masters in order to construct the molds from which the parts for their model kits were extracted or cast.” A third axis, extending outward from these coordinates of showroom spectacle and mass-produced consumer item, connected the items AMT built for Trek: objects ranging from studio miniatures to full-sized sets to be inhabited by actors.
These production artifacts were at one and the same time components of an invented future, simultaneously split and joined by the ontological dividing lines of camera lens, celluloid splice, cathode-ray tube. Take for example the Galileo shuttlecraft: AMT built it as a studio model to be filmed against a bluescreen and matted onto backgrounds of starry space, but also made a full-sized version of the ship’s interior. Episodes like the first season’s “Galileo 7”—written in part to showcase the spacecraft—married together exterior and interior, constructing for audiences a screen reality through the simple yet profound magic of a televisual edit.
This is the first of a series of posts tracing the storied path of the Leif Ericson, a spaceship designed in 1968 whose afterlife has carried it through a number of incarnations in different media formats – most notably, plastic.
Reflecting the many odd waypoints and junctions through which its journey would eventually take it, the Leif Ericson had more than one starting point: as with a quantum particle, its emergence can be fixed in relation to multiple and not always commensurate frames of reference, and our choice of perspective changes the very nature of the object we describe. One the one hand, we can see it as the creation of a single, inspired author; on the other, the product of a set of industrial forces.
Walter “Matt” Jefferies
In the first version, the Ericson was born in 1968 in the sketchbooks of Walter “Matt” Jefferies (1921-2003), production artist on the original Star Trek series.  Part of a team of designers that included propmaker Wah Ming Chang, costumer William Ware Thiess, and makeup artist Fred Philips, Jefferies—whose background in aviation and mechanical illustration was ideally suited to visualizing futuristic technologies in blueprintable, buildable forms—supplied Trek with its most familiar and recognizable features. These included the exterior of the U.S.S. Enterprise, with its saucer-shaped command module joined to a cigar-shaped engineering section from which two narrow, cylindrical warp nacelles jetted backwards: a configuration of geometrical solids whose basic arrangement has endured throughout fifty years of resculpting and streamlining in one movie, TV series, and videogame after another. Jefferies also designed the Enterprise’s circular bridge, its crew’s quarters, and the transporter room. Built as standing sets and used repeatedly across the seventy-nine episodes of the original series, these fixtures of a future history quickly became as familiar to audiences as the other, smaller details contributed by Jefferies: Starfleet’s golden arrowhead insignia; the instrumental triumvirate of communicator, tricorder, and phaser. But for the model-building fans who play such an important role in this story, Jefferies’s most important creations were his ships: not just the Enterprise, but the submarine-shaped Botany Bay commanded by Khan in “Space Seed”; the turreted, whirligig space station in “The Trouble with Tribbles”; the Klingon’s manta-ray-like battle cruiser in “The Enterprise Incident”; the boxy, three-windowed shuttlecraft in “Galileo 7.”
Early concepts for the Leif Ericson and Scoutship
The Leif Ericson originated as another of Jefferies’s fictional spacecraft, but not one that ever appeared on Trek—or at least not for many years. In 1968, Jefferies sketched a pointed, rocketlike ship along with a smaller vessel whose delta wings and bulbous front section vaguely resembled a baby bird. Designed as a pair—the second craft would ride within the larger vehicle, inside a hangar covered by two hinged doors—the Galactic Cruiser Leif Ericson, together with its “mini scout ship,” were to be the first release in a series intended not for TV but toys: a line of model kits put out by a company called AMT.
I found this dollar bill outside Hicks Hall the other day. It’s special to me for reasons I won’t go into here; suffice to say that I singled it out from the endless, anonymous flow of our monetary system (or at least that system’s material tags) as meaningful and worthy of preservation — whatever preservation might mean in the digital era. Just as some business owners frame the first payment they received, public sign of their humble beginnings, I post today’s image to mark my own new start.
Or who knows: maybe I am part of the the anonymous flow and this singular object, stamped as it is with its own serial number, chose me.
[This is the first in a series of posts on my LEGO project, described here. Be warned, I’m very much in my “word salad” phase with this project — the goal is simply 500 words of rough draft.]
Two Origin Stories
The story of LEGO’s genesis has its own faintly modular quality, parts and pieces clicking together in a way that reflects the toy’s own pleasing combination of predetermined outcome generated from open-ended possibility, the shape of the statue already extant within the uncarved block from which it will emerge. In the practiced tellings of David C. Robertson’s Brick by Brick (New York: Crown Business, 2013) and Daniel Lipkowitz’s The LEGO Book (London: DK, 2009), first came the humble workshop of Ole Kirk Kristiansen, who set up his workshop in Billund, Denmark in 1916. (Lipkowitz 12). A family business was created in 1932 to make wooden toys (Robertson 10) but evolved to embrace the plastics manufacturing capability developed in wartime and, following the end of World War 2, became available industrially in 1947, resulting in the plasticization and mass production of children’s toys (see Rehak 2012). The LEGO “system of play” emerged in 1955 and, with the patenting of the LEGO brick, became legally legible (and defensible by copyright) in 1958. (Lipkowitz 7) This system, condensed into a list of “Ten Important Characteristics,” was defined by such attributes as “unlimited play possibilities,” “endless hours of play,” “imagination, creativity, development,” and “each new product multiplies the play value of the rest.” (Lipkowitz 11) This system would evolve over the decades that followed to become ever more adaptable to consumer needs through differentiations within the product line that addressed ever finer categories of the play base, with Kjeld Kirk Kristiasen’s “system within a system” providing “each age group of consumers with the right toys at the right time in their lives.” (Lipkowitz 11). Kristiansen, according to Lipkowitz, saw himself as “a more globally oriented leader [than his grandfather], seeking to fully exploit our brand potential for further developing and broadening our product range and business concept, based upon our product idea and brand values.” (Lipkowitz 11)
The other origin story unfolds along similar lines, from humble workshop beginnings to corporate, globe-spanning mastery. In the early 1970s, George Lucas, a graduate of the University of Southern California film school, followed up his debut features THX-1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973) with the space fantasy Star Wars (1977), a movie marked, in retrospect, by a similar handmade quality: the difficulty of securing funding that forced Lucas to shop his screenplay around to multiple studios, the crafting of a fictional world from the detritus of other pop-cultural artifacts, and a find-it-or-build-it ethos emblematized behind the scenes by Industrial Light and Magic, the special and visual-effects house coordinated by John Dykstra. Emerging from a comparative nowhere in the founding moments of the new Hollywood blockbuster, Star Wars was explosively successful, immediately generating plans for two sequels (The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Return of the Jedi in 1983) to form the “Original Trilogy” – an appellation that, like LEGO’s origins, would come into usage only retroactively, as more and more content followed, often received skeptically as wrongheaded permutations of an authentic essence. But viewed against the background of their global reach and granular infiltration of our physical and mediated lives, the six feature films of the Original and Prequel Trilogies are but a minute core to a vast halo of materials, images, narratives, products, and practices that constitute the franchise. Star Wars, too, would grow into a “system” promising – at least in the claims of its adherents and popularizers – endless possibilities for play and expansion.
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 TheEmpire 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.
Behold the newest addition to my little grove of devices: a fifth-generation 32GB iPod Touch. Its aluminum back is a sweet matte blue, if you’re wondering, but I’ve also encased it in a silicone sleeve to protect its wafer-thin body from damage. Oh, who am I kidding: the case is there to protect me, to numb my awareness of the new toy’s ephemerality, for that’s what you get with the latest, smartest gadgets, like a warranty you have no choice but to accept: its precise fit to the niche of today’s needs means that tomorrow (which of course might be weeks, months, or we hope years away) it will be gone. Mayfly tech. But I’ll take those odds, and try not to feel ridiculous about the way my devices are multiplying into a swarm (I believe “ecosystem” is the trendier, more palatable term) whose numbers are less about the complexity of my workflow than about how pampered I have become. I still try, desperately, to iron out every crease and complication that would give me an excuse not to write; in the early 1990s that quest took the form of splurging on a Mac Classic because I liked the way it let me make folders for everything, and now, twenty years later (still beholden to that great brand-god Apple) it takes the form of an iPad 2, an iPad Mini, the new iPod Touch, and a MacBook Air, across which flow the synchronized data of notes, snippets, links, captures, and documents that collectively constitute my “research.” The Touch fills a specific and slender slot in that system, an additional node for Evernote entries and podcast playings, that I hope will make my life perfect. I learned a long time ago that such perfection is an illusory horizon, but that turned out to be only half the lesson. What I’ve figured out more recently — helped along by mayfly technology — is that you even when you know you’ll never reach perfection, you must keep plugging away at it.
Reading Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013) I am learning all sorts of things. Or rather, some things I am learning and some things I am relearning, as Marvel’s publications are woven into my life as intimately as are Star Trek and Star Wars: other franchises of the fantastic whose fecundity — the sheer volume of media they’ve spawned over the years — mean that at any given stage of my development they have been present in some form. Our biographies overlap; even when I wasn’t actively reading or watching them, they served at least as a backdrop. I would rather forget that The Phantom Menace or Enterprise happened, but I know precisely where I was in my life when they did.
Star Wars, of course, dates back to 1977, which means my first eleven years were unmarked by George Lucas’s galvanic territorialization of the pop-culture imaginary. Trek, on the other hand, went on the air in 1966, the same year I was born. Save for a three-month gap between my birthday in June and the series premiere in September, Kirk, Spock and the universe(s) they inhabit have been as fundamental and eternal as my own parents. Marvel predates both of them, coming into existence in 1961 as the descendent of Timely and Atlas. This makes it about as old as James Bond (at least in his movie incarnation) and slightly older than Doctor Who, arriving via TARDIS, er, TV in 1963.
My chronological preamble is in part an attempt to explain why so much of Howe’s book feels familiar even as it keeps surprising me by crystallizing things about Marvel I kind of already knew, because Marvel itself — avatarizalized in editor/writer Stan Lee — was such an omnipresent engine of discourse, a flow of interested language not just through dialogue bubbles and panel captions but the nondiegetic artists’ credits and editorial inserts (“See Tales of Suspense #53! — Ed.”) as well as paratextual spaces like the Bullpen Bulletins and Stan’s Soapbox. Marvel in the 1960s, its first decade of stardom, was very, very good not just at putting out comic books but at inventing itself as a place and even a kind of person — a corporate character — spending time with whom was always the unspoken emotional framework supporting my issue-by-issue excursions into the subworlds of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and Dr. Strange.
Credit Howe, then, with taking all of Marvel’s familiar faces, fictional and otherwise, and casting each in its own subtly new light: Stan Lee as a liberal, workaholic jack-in-the-box in his 40s rather than the wrinkled avuncular cameo-fixture of recent Marvel movies; Jack Kirby as a father of four, turning out pages at breakneck speed at home in his basement studio with a black-and-white TV for company; Steve Ditko as — and this genuinely took me by surprise — a follower of Ayn Rand who increasingly infused his signature title, The Amazing Spider-Man, with Objectivist philosophy.
It’s also interesting to see Marvel’s transmedial tendencies already present in embryo as Lee, Kirby, and Ditko shared their superhero assets across books: Howe writes, “Everything was absorbed into the snowballing Marvel Universe, which expanded to become the most intricate fictional narrative in the history of the world: thousands upon thousands of interlocking characters and episodes. For generations of readers, Marvel was the great mythology of the modern world.” (Loc 125 — reading it on my Kindle app). Of course, as with any mythology of sufficient popular mass, it becomes impossible to read history as anything but a teleologically overdetermined origin story, so perhaps Howe overstates the case. Still, it’s hard to resist the lure of reading marketing decisions as prescient acts of worldbuilding: “It was canny cross-promotion, sure, but more important, it had narrative effects that would become a Marvel Comics touchstone: the idea that these characters shared a world, that the actions of each had repercussions on the others, and that each comic was merely a thread of one Marvel-wide mega-story.” (Loc 769)
I like too the way Untold Story paints comic-book fandom in the 1960s as a movement of adults, or at least teenagers and college students, rather than the children so often caricatured as typical comic readers; Howe notes July 27, 1964 as the date of “the first comic convention” at which “a group of fans rented out a meeting hall near Union Square and invited writers, artists, and collectors (and one dealer) of old comic books to meet.” (Loc 876) The company’s self-created fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society or M.M.M.S., was in Howe’s words
an immediate smash; chapters opened at Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge. … The mania wasn’t confined to the mail, either — teenage fans started calling the office, wanting to have long telephone conversations with Fabulous Flo Steinberg, the pretty young lady who’d answered their mail so kindly and whose lovely picture they’d seen in the comics. Before long, they were showing up in the dimly lit hallways of 625 Madison, wanting to meet Stan and Jack and Steve and Flo and the others. (Loc 920)
A forcefully engaged and exploratory fandom, then, already making its media pilgrimages to the hallowed sites of production, which Lee had so skillfully established in the fannish imaginary as coextensive with, or at least intersecting, the fictional overlay of Manhattan through which Spider-Man swung and the Fantastic Four piloted their Fantasticar. In this way the book’s first several chapters offhandedly map the genesis of contemporary, serialized, franchised worldbuilding and the emergent modern fandoms that were both those worlds’ matrix and their ideal sustaining receivers.
Howe is attentive to these resonances without overstating them: Lee, Kirby and others are allowed to be superheroes (flawed and bickering in true Marvel fashion) while still retaining their earthbound reality. And through his book, so far, I am reexperiencing my own past in heightened, colorful terms, remembering how the media to which I was exposed when young mutated me, gamma-radiation-like, into the man I am now.