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Digital Cultures and Film Studies

Digital Cultures and Film Studies

Last week, I attended a workshop titled Digital Cultures and Film Studies, organised by the Digital Humanities Research Group at QUB. We have had several seminars here over the last few weeks, but I found this group of speakers, and their subject matter, particularly engaging. Each spoke about three different approaches to digital culture in film studies and I was inspired to write about it and share it with you! It also raised some questions about my own research, particularly in terms of digital storytelling (methods and theory). Through my PhD research I am aiming to analyse the impact on Pixar Animation Studios following the studio's acquisition by The Walt Disney Company in 2006 - part of that is understanding what has been happening both at Pixar and Disney Animation over the last 30 years, in terms of feature film releases (with an element of commercial and critical reception), development of animation technology, marketing and distribution. I have recently become interested in transmedia storytelling and convergence, as Disney continues to expands its universe (Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars...) and ways in which that can be communicated effectively. 

During the workshop, the three speakers engaged with these ideas using different approaches, which I would like to outline now:

 

'Film Studies Plays Itself?' Dr Catherine Grant, University of Sussex

Founder of the Film Studies for Free website, Catherine Grant discussed the uses for video essays in the context of film studies, suggesting that the medium sits somewhere in between documentary and experimental. Part of a growing convergent culture, the video essay is creative, critical and performative, allowing the scholar (?) to engage with the subject material in a more immersive way. Throughout her discussion, Grant alluded to the value and contribution of these video essays to film studies - can video essays be a part of a scholarly approach to the subject, or is the value of these pieces restricted to fan culture? Again, I was thinking about my own research and how you could use this process as a tool to work through ideas visually, particularly when comparing the similarities in animation aesthetics across 20 years of development (at Pixar). Naturally, this raises copyright issues. Under the fair dealing in the UK, short clips can be used for non-commercial research or study. I’ll have to do a little more research into this, but I found this video essay useful in the meantime: A Fair(y) Use Tale, by Eric Faden https://youtu.be/CJn_jC4FNDo

 

'The Deep Film Access Project' Dr Sarah Atkinson, University of Brighton

Following on from her book Beyond the Screen, Sarah Atkinson discussed the DFA Project which addresses current issues with digital archiving and looks to create and develop innovative and intuitive tools for digital archiving. Atkinson outlined the current challenges with long term digital archive – digital film is often converted to film stock for longevity; data can be several hundred terabytes; data can be augmented, changed, deleted or lost; there is no culture of maintaining digital work flow in the film industry.

The DFA Project is a cross-disciplinary/collaborative project between film practitioners/scholars (to acquire metadata/audio visual materials) and computer scientists (to create and build a functional archive). The film Ginger and Rosa was used as a pilot for new tools developed by the project. Using the film as a case study, Atkinson outlined how the archive will work in practice: data/information/documents are collected during the entire production process, from pre-production, production, post-production, distribution and reception, and made available through the archive. This was displayed chronologically, not in terms of the film narrative, but in relation to the filmmaking process. Documents including research, look books, script drafts, casting photos/videos, call sheets, crew interview footage, etc. was all included in the archive, providing a wealth of information about this particular production, that importantly, was collected in “real-time”. I found the whole presentation and the project really interesting, and thought it would be of interest to HASTAC scholars who are working in digital archive – Atkinson also outlined the Sally Potter Archive (SP-ARK), who is coincidentally the director of Ginger and Rosa. Clearly, this type of work relies heavily on the willingness of filmmakers to share production information. Nevertheless, I found it very interesting. You can read more about the project here: http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/projects/deep-film-access-project-dfap

 

'Adventures in Space and Time' Dr Colin Harvey, King's College London

Rounding up the workshop, Colin Harvey talked about the intersections between digital cultures, film studies and game studies, outlining two approaches; ludology (rule-based) and narratology (analysed and adapted from theories taken from literature and film studies). In the second half of his talk, which I found most interesting, Harvey discussed transmedia storytelling. I had been aware of convergence for a while (after reading a really great article by Derek Johnson on Marvel Studios and industrial convergence in Cinema Journal), and had become interested in the intersecting stories and characters in the Disney universe (for example the “Easter Eggs” that appear in every Pixar film, a trope that Disney appears to be including in each of its new features). But what Harvey was talking about, transmedia storytelling, made a lot of sense. Using the Marvel universe (a popular choice!) as an example, he outlined the different mediums where the narratives of these characters exist: film, TV, comic books (originals and spin offs), games, toys, etc. What became apparent was the clear interaction between these platforms and the dynamic between analogue and digital, and how each medium informs the other. Harvey gave the example of the stormtrooper transporter toy (forgive any inaccuracies here, I’m not au fait with Star Wars [pause for gasps]) that did not appear in the films, but later made appearances in fan videos and consequently, the Star Wars Rebels TV series. This raised some interesting points on the extension of the transmedia world – could fan produced works be included in the canon of these narratives? Should they be included?

This transmedia world extends to include fake websites or twitter accounts of characters from TV shows: The Personal Blog of Dr John H Watson (http://www.johnwatsonblog.co.uk/), which appears throughout the BBC’s Sherlock series, is used as a tool to transcend the narrative, implying that the world exists “beyond” the television screen. It allows viewers to interact with the characters long after the show has ended. Following the release of Monsters University, Pixar’s marketing team produced a similar fake website for admissions to Monsters University (http://monstersuniversity.com/edu/), complete with student testimonials from characters that appear in the film.

This is something I have been thinking about – the worlds created by franchises/studios and how they entice and encourage full exposure to transmedia narratives. The Marvel Universe is a prime example, because it encompasses so many different characters and intertwining stories. I recently found a timeline for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that outlined the order in which the films/TV shows should be watched… I’d love to know how many hours that would take! This also got me thinking about Disney Interactive’s game Disney Infinity which is promoted as “the only game where fans can play with Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars characters together in one experience”… What about the interaction between analogue and digital? And mediums that are “born digital”, and how they operate on their own grounds?

Please feel free to share your own thoughts. I’d be very interested to read your comments!

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