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Alex McDowell on “World Building” (Media Systems)

In this video from the Media Systems gathering at UC Santa Cruz, Alex McDowell — one of the most influential designers in the world today — talks about how computational media are transforming storytelling. We are moving from the linear, auteur-oriented storytelling model of the printing press and industrialized film production to a collaborative, non-linear approach he terms world building.

He uses the film Upside Down to demonstrate the process of world building. Beginning from an image, a moment, and creating a world and its interior logic. The terrain, society, politics, culture, history, and geography are all realized. Creating connections to our world, like using rich and poor areas of Montreal as starting points for the up world and down world. Developing new techniques, like those needed for the eyelines of characters situated in spaces where the world is over itself. All of this — from technology development to cultural analysis — as part of a coherent, collaborative process driven by the goals of the artwork.

He frames his famous work on Minority Report as starting with an urban planning investigation — what kind of vertical city would grow up inside a radius where most kinds of violent crime were prevented by precogs? What sort of polarization takes place as the upper levels take all the natural light from those below? What kind of transportation could negotiate a city running both vertically and horizontally? And then how does this become part of the film-making process? From rapid prototyping of props to directing within the pre-vis framework, he shows how Minority Report offered a window into the future world-building approaches that he (with his new lab at USC) and others are pioneering.

In the context of Media Systems, McDowell’s world building is an example of how computational media practices have the potential to simultaneously do the work of transforming existing media forms and that of developing new forms. It shows clearly how this work is technical, creative, interpretive, and collaborative — simultaneously and interpenetratively — requiring teams of interdisciplinary practitioners able to move away from specialized, siloed approaches now common in much large-scale media making.

As with Ian Horswill’s talk posted last week, PDF slides are available on the main Media Systems page for this talk. Feel free to discuss here in the comments or on Twitter with hashtag #MediaSystems. Also, watch for Nick Montfort’s thoughtful talk, with energetic audience feedback, here next week!


This material is based upon a project supported by the National Science Foundation (under Grant Number 1152217), the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, the National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, and Microsoft Research.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, or Microsoft Research.


About the author:  Noah Wardrip-Fruin is a Professor of Computational Media at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Read more from this author


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