Source: Fan-made trailer of superhero film Green Lantern on YouTube, created by Jaron Pitts.

[1] On July 10, 2009, Variety announced actor Ryan Reynolds' casting as DC Comics superhero the Green Lantern in an adaptation of the galactic police officer who wields a green ring with awesome power. But earlier, on May 22, 2009, a trailer for Green Lantern appeared on YouTube, garnering more than a half a million hits in its first week and hundreds of positive comments by YouTube users. Many respondents were in awe of the trailer for its supposed authenticity, although it was in fact a fan-made trailer created by Jaron Pitts, featuring more than 30 film and television clips spliced together to create an original story, with actor Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Castle) as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern. Fan trailers are a largely under-researched genre of online storytelling, but their presence continues to grow as more amateur filmmakers participate in this digital act of copy, paste, and cut. Their very existence – created without financial compensation but for the sheer enjoyment of the characters – implies a more personal relationship with such digital creations. To this end, I argue that when placed beside the online medium of Digital Storytelling, fan trailers can be seen as an individualized filmmaking experience that functions like a first-person story. Through the reappropriation of film clips and the creator’s implied take on a potential film, the Green Lantern trailer reflects its creator’s consumer filmography and fan-fiction take on a future Green Lantern film, revealing just how personal fictional material can be to a fan.

Variance and Convergence

[2] Knut Lundby constructs an in-depth definition of Digital Storytelling (DST), of which several components are beneficial for understanding fan trailers through a similar lens: “small-scale stories (1-2); “bottom-up” and “self-made” media that gives voice to underrepresented people (4); storytelling that occurs on a “macro” level (8); a medium that questions the “norm” of narrative conventions (7); the use of digital technology (5); and first-person stories that reveal something “authentic” about the maker’s identity. While the definition of Digital Storytelling remains influx, these six negotiable areas provide points of intersection and divergence with fan trailers through the appropriation of film and television shows and reappropriation of those clips for the creator’s use.

[3] The amateur authors who make both fan trailers and Digital Stories similarly utilize video and audio equipment available to them, outside the realm of professional production. Running less than 10 minutes long they both create small-scale narratives with a specific focus. Henry Jenkins’ deems the Internet the “Do It Yourself” refrigerator that allows for greater representation of minority groups (Jenkins, “Quentin Tarantino” 287). They allow for greater representation of people making original online stories, only limiting the number of participants based on accessibility to technology. Fan trailers, however, vary as they reflect a position of privilege by the creators, through the amount of non-raw footage accumulated after years of film viewing (an activity unavailable to those without the means to financially support such a habit), along with access to video technology that allows for more in-depth video editing and effects creating. DST has often been used as an educational tool to help students to utilize “old and new literacies” in the learning process (Sylvester and Greenidge 284), while Jaron Pitts is not a student in the midst of formal education and his video projects are hobbies that occur between his job as a worship leader at a church and role as a husband and father (Berry). This variation of the bottom-up of DST creates a hierarchy, positioning DST among less privileged groups (though this is not always the case) and fan trailers next to those with enough flexible income to participate in fan communities.

[4] Nancy Thumin’s research on participants in the Capture Wales Digital Storytelling project expressed concern for the “quality” of productions, finding that a greater sense of agency paralleled better understanding of the video tools used, as reflected in the final product (Lundby 98). The Green Lantern trailer becomes a fascinating case study because of its precision. While clips remain recognizable, the added digital effects, audio and video transitions, and all-around cohesion of the trailer's narrative create the illusion of a professional production, making it one of the strongest fake trailers online, next to rare others like The Shining cut as a comedy and Sleepless in Seattle cut as a thriller. Even user WormyT’s Thundercats trailer, a piece Pitts deems one of the inspirations for creating his trailer (Berry), bares more visible discrepancies through disjointed voice dubs and identifiable visual effects (see Appendix B for fake trailer examples). Pitt’s trailer stands out as a rare example of a fake trailer that almost does not live up to its name. However, Pitts expresses concern for the “flaws” that do exist. One user notes that in some scenes, Nathan Fillion, as the Green Lantern, has the ring on his left hand while it is on his right hand in others. Pitts responds to the user, both admitting fault for not mirroring such scenes to make the ring consistently appear on the right hand and glad someone caught the misake. Responding to another user, Pitts also expresses dissatisfaction with the audio clip of the Green Lantern Corps’ oath:
In Brightest Day,
In Blackest Night,
No Evil Shall Escape My Sight.
Let Those Who Worship Evil's Might
Beware My Power—
Green Lantern's Might.
He admits that he could not find a better version of it without musical accompaniment, further regretting that he did not simply record a recitation of the audio himself. The concern for authenticity here comes not from a first-person story but through complete suspension of disbelief, highlighting the areas where that disbelief cannot occur due to seams in the trailer's continuity. Rather than fix the audio seam, perhaps because he enjoys editing more (Berry), Jaron Pitts stays the course of fan-trailerdom, accepting the challenge to tell an original story with the voices and movements of others. The “I” occurs when it goes unnoticed.

[5] Superficially, Digital Storytelling and fan trailers serve drastically different purposes. For Lundby, DST is a personal endeavor, while fan trailers create an “increasing interactivity between the trailer and the audience” taking “the trailer beyond the studio’s control” (Williams), thus requiring a form of dialogue with production companies and less direct emphasis on first-person narrative. This variation alone is enough to place fan trailers beyond the grasp of Digital Storytelling, but I propose that the “I” in fan trailers is much more subtle, appearing through the cultural capital earned by using multiple potentially recognizable film clips and providing a personal statement on what a film for such a character should look like.

Appropriation and Reappropriation

[6] The most substantial support for my argument comes not from an academic work but from the film High Fidelity (2000). To the confusion of his friend, vinyl shop owner Rob (John Cusack) reorganizes his record collection in an unrecognizable pattern. When asked what it is, Rob simply says, “Autobiographical,” meaning he has to remember when he purchased an album in order to find it on his shelves . For Rob, music defines moments in his life. He constantly creates “Top 5” song lists that reflect his changing state of mind. Music is not escapism but a tool that helps him navigate the challenges and contradictions of life. In Glynda A. Hull and Mira-Lisa Katz’s study of Digital Storytelling, they address how people have “re-authored” themselves through songs, dance, and image (46-48). In one example, a woman from Nepal utilizes a genre of music “to illustrat
e how the narratives that people learn to tell and retell about themselves have particular structures, allow particular roles, and promote certain values” (46). Jenkins compares participatory culture to “American folks songs of the nineteenth century” where ideology is questioned “sometimes inside and sometimes outside the cultural logic of commercial entertainment” (“Quentin Tarantino” 288). The use of music in forming identity provides a significant bridge to understanding the autobiographical nature of fan trailers, seeing the material as a Western product akin to American folk music that reflects its creator and her culture. Fan trailers then become a digital folk song that sings an epic tail about a superhero in space. Through this story, Jaron Pitts’ viewing habits are put on display. He views popular science fiction, fantasy films, and superhero films and television shows. He was most likely moved, as I was, by the song “Freedom Fighters” by Two Steps From Hell that set the emotional mood of the Star Trek trailer in 2009 and decided to replicate that feel in his project. Further, his choice of Nathan Fillion as the Green Lantern demonstrates familiarity with the actor’s body of work, and as his statements in the user comments for the trailer prove, he has a personal investment in the Green Lantern character. The trailer is then a video essay proving a point. Through the visuals of the trailer, he argues that Fillion would be the best actor to play the intergalactic law enforcer. He presents an opinion held my many, such as myself, who believe the actor is the ideal choice, as proven through the clips he uses of the actor. However, while the trailer does reveal what types of films Pitts views, providing some insights into what media texts he enjoys, his personal feelings about each film are known only to him. What can be proven is that he saw potential for something else within those film and television clips. Thus, as is the case with folk music, the story changes the more such songs are sung, or in this case, the meaning changes when media clips are reappropriated.

[7] In Henry Jenkins’ “Out of the Closet and Into the Universe: Queers and Star Trek,” he discusses how gay and lesbian fans organized and petitioned the television show executives of the original Star Trek to include more diverse representations of gay and lesbian characters (Fans 91-92). This group desired self-identification, hoping to see more of themselves on TV. Through active participation, Pitts’ trailer serves a personal purpose, reflecting the role of the character (and Fillion’s career) in his personal life. While many user responses addressed the technical skill of the Green Lantern trailer, some discussion revolved around the July announcement of Ryan Reynolds to play the Green Lantern and the earlier announcement of Martin Campbell to direct the big budget film. In response to a conversation about the upcoming film, Pitts was given an opportunity to expand on one reason for making the trailer:
I hope this trailer has pushed the bar a little higher
so they HAVE to do it right instead of just throwing a piece of garbage out there knowing it will make money because it's called Green Lantern. I have faith that Martin Campbell is up to the challenge. (user comment posted 10 months ago)
By creating a trailer for a film he cannot bring to fruition, Pitts provides a personal account of the character, and in so doing, allows it to take on a more significant role in his life, much like a toy. Lois R. Kuznets discusses the role of a toy as a story that “comes alive” outside the parameters of a book: “When the unconscious objects that are toys become self-consciously alive, they blur the lines between self and other, subject and object, and require the reader to note those blurred dividing lines, imaginatively if not analytically” (5). Pitts’ use of the Green Lantern character functions like a toy, creating personal identity through play, daydream, and fantasy.

[8] Fan trailers do not tell specific stories about family life like Digital Storytelling does. Instead it reveals a privileged participant whose identity, in part, can be analyzed through the use of consumer-based products. Fan trailers are a form of daydreaming and wish fulfillment that allow creators to imagine themselves as the filmmakers actively involved in forging the narrative path of beloved characters. Fan trailers function like a toy in yet another way as well, as video and audio clips become individual toys used to do whatever their owner, the author, demands of them. But just as an action figure's movements are limited, so too are there limits to how certain clips can be used. This fact does not however stop Jaron Pitts or others like him from trying to make all the pieces fit.

Technology and the "I"

[9] Currently, Pitts’ trailer has been viewed more than 2 million times with over 8,000 comments of mostly praise. With 29 video and five audio clips from television shows and films, the Green Lantern trailer features both familiar and obscure media texts (see Appendix A for full details). While fan fiction has largely gone unpunished for copyright infringement, some corporations are becoming uncomfortable with its growing popularity, attempting to cease all unofficial use of certain properties (Tushnet 653). Fake trailers exist beyond concern for such laws, though ownership of the fan-made work holds greater authority among online users. In the comments for the Green Lantern trailer, some users expressed concern when another YouTube user claimed credit for creating the trailer. Use of copyrighted material remains an invalid concern, quickly dismissed by users and Pitts in the comments section. In 2009, Pitts informed other users in the comments that he nearly fell prey to YouTube’s “guilty until proven innocent policy on copyright disputes” (user comment posted 7 months ago), though the video was allowed back online after two weeks. Jenkins' words on media ownership reflect what is occurring with Pitts' video both in its creation and reception:
Fans also reject the studio's assumption that intellectual property is a "limited good," to be tightly controlled lest it dilute its value. Instead, they embrace an understanding of intellectual property as “shareware,” something that accrues value as it moves across different contexts, gets retold in various ways, attracts multiple audiences, and opens itself up to a proliferation of alternative meanings. (Jenkins, “Quentin Tarantino” 289)
He goes on to say, “Fan works can no longer be understood as simply derivative of mainstream materials but must be understood as themselves open to appropriation and reworking by the media industries” (“Quentin Tarantino” 305). Jenkin's optimistically supports the creation of such media texts, seeing fan fiction as a new form of entertainment that allows more people to chime in and become a part of the story.

[10] Marshal McLuhan’s famous claim, “the medium is the message” (7), states that the content does not matter as much as how it is used. Kathleen Williams reflects the spirit of McLuhan when she says that a recut trailer “challenges the tools of promotion” by making the trailer an end in and of itself. The form, just as much as the content, of the fan trailer has been reused for reasons different than their original intent, developing a cultural space “that would not exist without the world wide web,” as Nick Couldry says about Digital Storytelling (374). Standardization presents a problematic within fan trailers, considering their predictable structure: picking only the best scenes, teasing the storyline, juxtaposing unrelated scenes in the film's larger chronology, and create cohesion through voiceover and soundtrack within three minutes. DST would appear to a more fluid structure, considering the fluid definition, however Couldry argues that standardization among Digital Stories does not take away from the community experience of creation and the personal meaning of such projects (388). Again, it would be inconsistent to hold allow the amateur makers of Digital Stories such leeway without providing it to fan trailer authors as well. The new use of the trailer as a story on its own allows for it to become an independent story and for its meaning to change from marketing tool to personal story told through film and television clips of media texts that are all-too personal to the creators.

[11] The “I” in fan trailers comes through reappropriation, taking clips from films and indiscriminately placing them in a chosen order to create a new meaning, along with turning an advertising tool into an independent narrative. By placing meaning solely on the trailer and using recontextualized media, the “proper” use of such popular texts is called into question, echoing Digital Storytelling’s concern for standing apart from other mediums. The use of fiction allows for the “I” to occur in a more subtle way than DST. Authenticity through first-person stories has become a central component to DST, but reaching that goal can theoretically occur through fiction just as well as non-fiction. One Digital Story from the Center for Digital Storytelling, “My Life in Toronto” by Amber Sabah, begins with the image of a fish in the sea as she narrates about feelings of isolation after moving to Toronto. A cutout of the same fish begins to move through images of the city. Sabah employs a symbolic visual in her story – the little fish in the big sea – telling an authentic story with more than just personal photos or on-the-nose footage of her life apart from loved ones. In “Me and the Sailor Moon,” another DST author created cartoon characters to tell her personal story (Hull and Katz 64). Finally, another author used music to create a narrative, constructing “authority through his appropriation and recontextualization of images linked to words and music” (Hull and Katz 68). These examples show that DST does not have to take place in live-action settings, using only personal photos in a slideshow manner (as found through the BBC’s DST project) but can reappropriate unrelated media texts for personal use. A song familiar to a Digital Storyteller can help evoke the memory of a personal story, potentially changing the original meaning of song. Pitts employs this when he uses Two Steps From Hell's "Freedom Fighters," reliving the same emotional experience from another seemingly well-done trailer. Further, images within Digital Stories are under no obligation to be original productions, as shown in Shabah's story. The image of the tropical fish was not an original one but a computer desktop wallpaper found online (“School of Tropical Fish”). The use of unoriginal material, along with other Digital Storytellers' use of music, does not detract authenticity but provide examples of Digital Stories choosing a path often reserved for fan trailers.


A Democratic Conclusion

[12] Couldry states that Digital Storytelling “extends the number of people who, at least in principle, can be registered as contributing to the public sphere” (387), also seeing it as a space for the inclusion of marginalized voices (374). Through readily available access to equipment and the support of organizations that provide DST workshops worldwide – like projects by the Center for Digital Storytelling and the BBC – this medium has developed a communal reputation as it provides a voice to those who previously did not have one in online form. While the Internet has been considered a neutral space that does not favor one group of people over another, Anna Everett debunks such claims, stating that the World Wide Web is in fact a racialized medium (126). By acknowledging the dilemma of privilege and hegemonic influence, Digital Storytelling serves as a corrective for cyberspace, providing access and resources. But DST's democratic element cannot exclude someone from a privileged background like Jaron Pitts without accusations of hypocrisy. Further, several videos at the Center for Digital Storytelling are created by advocates and teachers, thus those using the medium come from a broad background regardless of economic, sexual, gender, racial, or class differences. DST's affiliation with the idea of democracy must go further than representing the marginalized to providing a space for all.

[13] The community of fandom provides a different form of support than that of Digital Storytelling workshops. While Pitts did not attend a formal workshop, he did spend two months learning how to use Adobe After Effects, a digital effects program for high-resolution video projects, with the help of tutorials from a media design site (Afford). In DST form, Pitts only motivation was a personal drive to create a video project, and he sought out the knowledge necessary to do so. For Pitts, the community of fandom appeared only after the video was completed and uploaded. Support for his work grew out of mutual appreciation and enjoyment of his vision for the superhero. The material and story of fake trailers appears to conflict with the notion of authenticity, however Jaron Pitts’ Green Lantern does not simply recreate a preexisting story but something new out of old material. Nathan Fillion was not cast as the Green Lantern, meaning Jaron Pitt’s vision for the film will not occur, making his trailer a form of fiction the exists as a media text, again, in and of itself.

[14] Digital Storytelling consists of “local narratives” based on “personal memory” (Klaebe et al. 12). While these stories focus on the significance of geographical space and personal experiences that occur within a physical space, fan trailers explore the space of popular film and television, allowing a connection not with recognizable landmarks and cultural norms of specific locations but with identifiable films. In so doing, fan trailers take on a more relational form of storytelling associated with Digital Stories (Hull and Katz 60)—a relationship created among a community of fans. Through the changing use of the trailer, the reuse of various film and television clips, highlighting Nathan Fillion as the star, portraying a beloved superhero character, and creating professional looking effects, Jaron Pitts develops great cultural capital that allows him to “surf the publicity” of a popular character through the use of fan fiction, much like other fan authors have (Jenkins 295). Pitts creates a media space for community to form through his video, whether through interpersonal connection or a more tangible one seen through user comments.

[15] Jean Burgess uses the term “vernacular creativity” in reference to emerging forms of media that require a new language and description of creativity that match the changes occurring online (205-206). Like Digital Storytelling, fan trailers require a unique criteria to analyze their worth. This study considers the framework of DST to create a clearer picture of their worth, noting several areas of intersection:
1. Amateur filmmakers creating pieces for enjoyment not profit;
2. Project requires learning new skills;
3. First-person story provided through clip choices and statement about potential  
    direction of a future film;
4. Viewing community created through commitment to fictional characters held by fans;
5. Ideology of mainstream media outlets questioned through fan participation and new   
    use of the trailer;
6. The Internet provides the only venue for an audience as fake trailers cannot appear in     any other media space.
After close examination of the nuances of both fan trailers and Digital Storytelling, I find that fan trailers are not in fact a form of Digital Storytelling, when compared to the examples provided by Lundby, Couldry, and others. However, considering them as such allows for a better understanding of the differences between both genres of online storytelling, while also creating a clearer picture of the personal nature of fan trailers to their makers and viewers. This does not mean that my rhetorical debate is a failure but provides a counter point to the current definition of DST by taking a seemingly unrelated example, like fan trailers, and arguing for its inclusion. More so, DST’s use in educational settings could become a potential venue for fan trailers as well, as it gives students the opportunity to actively engage popular media texts and reappropriate them for personal use. The so-called authenticity of DST raises questions about the authenticity of the fan’s commitment to films, televisions shows, music, and other texts, considering such issues as the privilege and hegemony in the formation of such discussions. Regardless of how fan trailers are defined, I am continually drawn to them because they challenge my knowledge of film and television, recontexualize film and television clips (sometimes for the better), provide me opportunities to see something unoriginal in an original way, and speak to my enjoyment of film previews. Like the toy, fan trailers, when made with precision, provide an opportunity to see films in a new way, as Lego pieces for something potentially more promising than the mediocre film or television show at hand.

Works Cited

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Tim Posada
Claremont Graduate University
Dr. Alex Juhasz
CLST 355: Visual Research Methods
5 May 2010
posadat@cgu.edu