Script as only starting point in the narrative media is outdated

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Script as only starting point in the narrative media is outdated

“It is the designer who has the central role in the narrative media”, according to Alex McDowell, production designer of Fight Club, Minority Report, The Terminal, Breaking and Entering and Watchmen. With a new form of design which is called Immersive Design he gives a new direction to both the experience as the production process of the narrative media. It is about creating coherent narrative worlds by using a non-linear virtual production process.

Within the narrative media there are five distinct forms: film, TV, architecture, animation and interactive media. The production space of the designers within these media was always separated, because each production space demanded its own set of specific tools. Since a couple of years designers within the narrative media have started to use the same 3D software programs.  This has blurred the boundaries between the different forms of design and created a larger field of work for the designer. In the way digital technologies are now used lies the danger that the narrative becomes of lesser importance. And there lies the central role for the designer. Because the designer gives form to the imagination and supports in that way the narrative. His vision and knowledge of old as well as new tools is crucial within the narrative media. This demands an active role of the designer in which he has to stay on top of new developments.

In October 2008 took “5D: The Future of Immersive Design Conference” place in Long Beach, United States of America. For two days designers -and others working in the narrative media- met scientists and discussed and informed each other about the influence of the technological developments. Most importantly was the focus on explaining how new techniques work and which possibilities they create, and in which way film, TV, animation, architecture and interactive media overlap. The vision of the designers on science and the way they use new techniques in the narrative media results in fresh new ideas.

The conference was initiated by McDowell. For the last ten years he has seen a growth of importance of the use of digital techniques in the designing process of a production designer. McDowell is of the opinion designers should embrace the new techniques. “You are not a designer unless you drive the process and control the outcome. The particular tools are irrelevant. If the vision doesn’t make it to the ‘screen’ then there was no point in envisioning it”, according to McDowell.

He is one of the first production designers who created a digital art department within the art department. And with this he has created a virtual production space where in an early stage of production decisions can be made regarding the substance of the narrative.

In this way he regained control over his work. “Film is a collaborative medium and as a designer I am responsible for the ‘look’ of the film. By using visual means I support the narrative”, according to McDowell. The palette of the designer has expanded rapidly in the last few years. This means that the designer of today must be very sophisticated because the production process is getting far more complex. As a designer you depend on more factors to develop a vision and more elements get involved in creating your work. These observations of McDowell led to a new way of designing which he called “Immersive Design”.

The Immersive Design process has two tasks: firstly it aims at creating a complete world -which is coherent and has an inner logic, its own history, geography, surfaces, metaphors and story- and gives the audience the possibility to immerse. For example; your presence in an architectural space could influence the space. By setting up some basic conditions in a space, you as a visitor can change the color of the space with your voice according to your needs. The passive role of the audience hereby changes in a more active role. Within the interactive media we are already used to that in the form of websites, cell phones, and videogames.  As a designer it is interesting to find out what kind of influence your design can have on the way people use a certain media. In that way you can create an interaction between the audience and the media which can lead to unique experiences.


a visualization of the Immersive Deign process by Alex McDowell. (copyright Alex McDowell)

It can be hard to imagine what could be the active role of the audience within film. Each film, from the greatest big budget blockbuster to the smallest low budget drama, takes place in a world. These worlds consist of its own realities with its inner logics. As a designer and filmmaker it is there where your focus is; to create a coherent world for your audience. By the use of Immersive Design this world reaches further than the film; there is a website where this world exists, and people talk about it on forums. The designer contributes to the basis of this world and the audience can play an active part in the given world.

Secondly Immersive Design is aiming for a non-linear production process which offers a fully collaborative, often virtual production space for makers and their work. With regard to the production process of a film it is aiming at a new way of collaboration where in the preproduction the different departments start working together in an earlier phase and more intense through the use of new tools. In the virtual production space there is a collaboration pursued which will lead to the best results and creates space for new ideas with regard to a concept.  It is this way of working which dates back to the early days of filmmaking in which a small group of creative people in a room worked around an idea.

The significance of the role of the production designer still exists in creating a vision on the story which counts for the whole film. This means from pre- to postproduction. “By embracing leading-edge technology in the creative process while remaining deeply connected to the rich traditional narrative design skills of our discipline, we reconfirm the centrality of design in the creative impetus, regardless of the shifting landscape within which we work”, according to McDowell. He is an advocate for the use of previsualisation. McDowell: “ By creating a 3D virtual production space, you can work with your fellow filmmakers in a very descriptive, data-rich, virtual representation of the film before you even start making it”.

During the production of Minority Report McDowell put his experience with digital media into practice by setting up a digital art department within the art department. This department created the world of this film in a previsualisation working off a two-paragraph concept summary. Ideas that were conceived in this phase were later on incorporated in the script. In that way digital technologies become a tool in the hands of a designer which can contribute to the design process.

A consequence of Immersive Design is that the linear approach to the production process of a film is becoming outdated. At the base of a narrative there is always the core idea which can be a script, but instead of a pre-, production and postproduction phase you now can have a production phase “around” the script. This has as a benefit that in an earlier stage of production process there is room for creative discussions. And new ideas that come out of these discussions can be incorporated in the script. The main goal will be telling a good story.

Romke Faber, 2009