It’s a hunter-gatherer model: Henry Jenkins on his term, transmedia storytelling - Hindustan Times
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It’s a hunter-gatherer model: Henry Jenkins, who coined the term, on transmedia storytelling

ByK Narayanan
Jul 28, 2023 08:07 PM IST

Hasn’t the transmedia approach always been around? Where do adaptations fit in? What does this evolving tapestry mean for ownership? An interview by K Narayanan

Henry Jenkins, 65, coined the term “transmedia storytelling”, in his 2006 book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The media scholar — and professor of communication, journalism and cinematic art, among other things, at the University of Southern California — traces the phenomenon, in its current, intensified form, to the turn of the century and the Matrix franchise.

Glimpses of the future: A still from the fan-produced short film titled Lord of the Rings by Wes Anderson. Made with the help of AI tools, it was released as a ‘trailer’, went viral, and has had 4 million views in less than two months. PREMIUM
Glimpses of the future: A still from the fan-produced short film titled Lord of the Rings by Wes Anderson. Made with the help of AI tools, it was released as a ‘trailer’, went viral, and has had 4 million views in less than two months.

The first Matrix film was released in 1999, and by 2003, amid the sequels, there were comic book tie-ins, an animated series called The Animatrix, and a range of videogames.

In his book, Jenkins defines transmedia storytelling as a sort of hunter-gatherer model. It is “a new aesthetic that… places new demands on consumers and depends on the active participation of knowledge communities,” he says, adding that it is “the art of world making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion groups, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience.”

How far back does this kind of approach go? What’s next for storytellers, and for us, watching and creating in the audience? Excerpts from an interview.

In a sense, is all storytelling transmedia storytelling? Would an ancient oral narrative that later became a book, a play and a movie, qualify?

Yes… as far back as we can go, stories have been told across multiple mediums. I would cite the example of cave paintings, which archaeologists believe were mirrored in performances — perhaps dances? — of the hunt being depicted.

More recent scholarship suggests that these paintings were often created in acoustic hotspots in the caves, suggesting that performances built around them were accompanied by sound; perhaps verbal narration, depending on the state of language development at the time; perhaps people imitating animal noises. Really, what has shifted over time are the media deployed, and the ways in which stories are consumed.

How has digital distribution shaped transmedia storytelling?

A key point of transmedia is that story material is dispersed, spread out across the media landscape, yet often accessible via digital networks. Here’s where the idea of modern culture as grounded in hunting and gathering comes in.

We search for meaningful material, which allow us to dig deeper into real and fictional worlds. We are, like someone at a cocktail party, always looking over our shoulder for something more interesting. We share information with each other as cultural currency. And our acts of circulation increase the priority given to a particular bit of media.

Jenkins, 65, first used the term in his book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006).
Jenkins, 65, first used the term in his book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006).

We are not simply audiences that pay attention. We are publics that direct attention towards things we think matter.

You wrote on your blog, as far back as 2009, that this was shifting “the underlying logic of commercial entertainment”…

Yes… each new experiment teaches us something new. Certain stories, for instance, have been absorbed into different genres across the cultural hierarchy.

I am struck by how many of the primary examples in my 2006 book — Survivor, Idol, Harry Potter, The Matrix — still have cultural pertinence more than 15 years later. This is not accident. Their deployment of transmedia strategies, their embrace of active audience engagement, are part of what has allowed them to endure over time.

They became so deeply embedded in our culture that they simply do not disappear. At worst, they very slowly fade away, but savvy media producers have found ways to keep them relevant and meaningful to a committed segment of the market.

I am often asked which new franchises I would add to the book and, clearly, Marvel is what has driven development in transmedia over the past decade, and is apt to remain a force, at least as long as Disney has a virtual monopoly over the popular imagination.

Meanwhile, another example that particularly interests me right now is the way Quentin Tarantino has been expanding Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019) across multiple media, most recently through a mock death notice and a retrospective of the film’s fictional protagonist’s work, via his podcast.

Where would you say the lines is, between adaptation and transmedia storytelling?

This is a question we have long struggled with. The first impulse was to say that adaptation was not enough to make something transmedia, because adaptation depends on the faithful reproduction of an existing text, whereas transmedia storytelling depends on expansion and extension. But the more you look at adaptation across media, the more it is clear that it always adds some new information as it absorbs new media properties. As a consequence, the distinction between adaptation and extension is a matter of degree and not a fundamental difference in kind.

How do you see the future of storytelling changing?

Right now, what interests me most is visual generative AI. I believe it has the potential to democratise visual storytelling but it also has the potential to seriously disrupt the industry.

Consider the widespread interest in something like “Lord of the Rings by Wes Anderson”, a fan-produced short film crafted as a “trailer”, that has acquired nearly 4 million views in under two months.

Created by Curious Refuge, using AI filmmaking tools (though the frames are largely still), its comedy comes from our recognition of both the source material and the way that it has been reworked.

Many people are now experiencing what it is like to communicate how they see the world in ways that an artist or designer might. This is going to be experienced as a new power.

Is this merely a mechanical artform? In the early 20th century, people called photography a mechanical art that allowed little room for human expression. We now know otherwise.

Photography expanded our creative resources, and these new AI tools are doing the same, changing who gets to create art as well as the processes by which art is created.

Professional artists feel threatened that they are going to be displaced, but it is already clear that some have more skill at creating AI images than others, so these new tools are simply altering the range of resources available to artists, both professional and (for now) amateur.

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