As seen on screen? Mimetic SF fandom & the crafting of replica(nt)s

Curator's Note

This clip testifies to a certain type of fan creativity; the creation of prop replicas, or the emulation of a film’s design aesthetic. SF fandom has long since been valued in academic circles, but some modes of fan activity have been more visible than others. Fanfic has been amply represented, along with vidding. The stress has, perhaps, been on fans as producers of transformative work. But what of a strata of fan creators whose desire is to replicate what’s seen on screen; to craft and build replica props? These people apply their skills base to materialising SF’s narrative worlds.

A significant prop-building fandom has grown up, for instance, around Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Whether debating rival kits to construct Deckard’s PKD blaster, extrapolating from the film’s graphic design (as here), or making a futuristic Johnnie Walker Black Label bottle, this fandom is attentively and spectacularly mimetic, poring over screen grabs. Such mimetic fandom doesn’t seem to create radical mash-ups, or ‘read’ in provocative ways, nor transformatively rework the object of fandom.

Is it a transformative/mimetic binary which accounts for the lack of academic attention to prop builders; are fan audiences that ‘transform’ a media product via their creativity assumed to be more worthy of analysis than audiences who mimetically ‘reproduce’ aspects of that product? Or is it the case that academics feel a greater affinity with ‘textual’ matters (the writing of fanfic) than with the material crafting of props?

Prop builders display, and develop, forms of embodied and technical craftsmanship that fan studies hasn’t widely tackled (costuming has also been less present in the literature). Rather than leaving mimetic fandom as the presumed poor relation to transformative fan activity (positioning it as the great, unspoken of replicant in the room), we could take seriously these forms of fan labour. Mimetic fandom’s ‘copying’ is extremely skilful. It is also a mark of the aesthetic difference and distinctiveness of any science-fictional world that’s imitated. Designing narrative worlds may have become a key part of multi-platformed, transmedia storytelling, but the emulation of these worlds has long been a part of fandom’s craft. Perhaps converting textual visions (back) into material artefacts is the greatest transformative work of all.            

Comments

Ian Peters's picture

Materiality and Fandom

This is an absolutely fantastic post. As you pointed out, there has been far too little discussion surrounding prop creation, and it is an area that is rich with unique examples that are just begging to be explored further. Blade Runner is the perfect example of this since it is such a visually rich and complex film (which in some ways makes fan-produced props even more impressive due to their ability to hone in on specific details and recreate them). In many ways, these activities are some of the best examples of fans bringing these fictional worlds to life on a large scale (as you say, through fan labor). Do you think that this sort of analysis could be applied to fan films? Star Trek: Phase II (formerly Star Trek New Voyages) springs to mind since the sets and props are constructed from the original blueprints of the 1960s series. However, the difference there is that these fans may instead be following a more concrete "recipe" than Blade Runner fans who construct these props without a guide beyond the visual reference.

Matt Hills's picture

Re: Materiality and Fandom

Types of fan films would offer excellent and interesting examples of what I’m terming ‘mimetic’ fan labour here, yes. And you’re right to raise the issue of whether or not fans are able to access technical plans — in some cases in BR fandom there can be very detailed fan debates over on-screen visuals, and exactly how they need to be converted into the detailing of a replica. Although ST and BR may differ in many ways, it is surely significant that each text strongly emphasizes its *designed* world; ST:TOS to promote colour TV, historically, and BR as a result of Scott’s philosophy and the ‘retro-fitted’ aesthetic developed by Syd Mead. Mimetic fandom latches on to powerful discourses of stylization and design that are present in each text (and which are not wholly reducible to SF/generic concerns, arising out of an over-determined focus on world-design as much as on SF world-building).

Noel Kirkpatrick's picture

Visibility

I agree with Ian: this is a very fine post, Matt. 

I particularly like your desire to highlight these aspects of fanwork that, as you note, go unnoticed in academia, but are oh-so-present within fan communities. While a well-known writer or artist gains cachet, a master builder gains a visible reputation within their community, both as a craftsperon, but also as a potential mentor or partner, someone who can easily teach others who are interested.

Prop and costume making are often get viewed by civilians in news footage, on social media, etc., and thus get far more play outside of the fan communities, which is a nice way to perhaps pique people’s interest (or just cause eye-rolling that someone would spend that much time (and money!) on a prop gun or on a costume). Even if non-fans don’t recognize the text, they can appreciate the attention to detail that comes through in a well-made prop or costume.

Do you think that with the rise of new open media, like YouTube or Flickr, that fan builders are able to gain more recognition and attention? Does this help them organize panels at conventions?

Matt Hills's picture

Re: Visibility

I’d like to think that the increasing circulation of images of prop replicas and costuming would garner recognition for fans’ work (and skill). It’s an interesting question, for sure. However, the spectacular visibility of costuming and prop building can also play into culturally residual (but still significant) negative fan stereotypes, meaning that images of, say, Stormtroopers or Trek costumes can replay problematic constructions among non-fans of fandom as fusing fantasy and reality. So I’d see this very much as a double-edged sword, or a Janus-faced prop replica: images of mimetic fandom can be used to reinforce unhelpful perceptions and old stigmas of fandom, when they really ought to be more readily readable as embodiments of fan craft, expertise, and skilful dedication. Rather than being a binary matter of pessimism/optimism, I think the manner in which images of prop-building and costuming are contextualised and made to work connotatively always needs to be carefully considered. I guess visibility doesn’t carry inherent meanings; fan visibility can be contested and made to mean, both positively and negatively for fan cultures.

David Gregory's picture

As Seen On Screen

Oh my, what a fantastic way to close out our week. Tremendous post; thanks to Matt Hills today, and another thank-you to our other great curators!

More to come from me presently.

DG 

David Gregory's picture

AS SEEN ON SCREEN, CONTINUED

I’m so glad Matt Hills chose the clip he did; a very rich artifact, to say the least. Very much looking forward to seeing your continuing work on this subject, sir!

I’m wondering if something like fan “WEKurtz2019”s work here exists somewhere in the middle ground between “mimetic” and “transformative”; check out some of the description on YouTube (“Blade Runner: Testing the data monitor of my spinner,” posted 1/11/08, last accessed 9/10/10):

This little GIF animation I created for my car GPS navigator recreates *accurately* the "ENVIRON CTR / PURGE" data screen from the movie Blade Runner (the one that appears where Gaff and Deckard lift off from Sector 4 abord a police spinner). I made it to shock the fans of the movie who get into my car… :)

There are, however, two segments of the animation which come from my own harvest. The first one is the screen where you can see the power graphs from the three propulsion engines present in these flying cars. The other is the final screen which informs the pilot that the spinner assumes the control (‘auto-pilot’). I added these segments to cover the moment in the movie where the camera interrupts the vision of the monitor for some seconds.” 

The fan is both duplicating *and* creatively inbetweening, as it were, to fill in gaps from the original text.

There’s even more to discuss; the “PURGE” screen was used previously in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, for example. What a great example of Hills’ own “endlessly deferred hyperdiegesis” (FAN CULTURES, p. 142).

DG 

Matt Hills's picture

Re: As Seen on Screen

There’s certainly an acute awareness on show here as to what is screen-accurate and what is an extrapolation, with the line between the two being minutely monitored, and this knowledge conveyed to fellow fans. Part of this seems to reinforce the importance of screen accuracy; deviations are (re)marked and highlighted. So although there is, in a sense, a liminality of transformative and mimetic fandom on show — and perhaps these can only ever exist as ideal types rather than as pure categories — there still appears to be a sense in which ‘mimetic’ fandom is positioned as superior. By contrast, I’d hazard that much scholarship would position ‘transformative’ fan labour as more significant, or simply as more culturally interesting. There’s more on prop replicas and fans’ embrace of design discourse in my forthcoming ‘Cultographies’ book on BR, but I’m very much interested in further developing ideas of ‘mimetic’ fandom, and addressing the relative absence of fan builders in the academic literature.  

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