Digital Media Storytelling Across Space and Time
This past May, Christine Bower completed the Graduate Program in Information Technology with a concentration in digital media arts and instructional design. Drawing upon her undergraduate degrees in creative writing and philosophy, as well nearly every class she took at Harvard Extension School, Christine created Portbou 1940, a hypertext narrative chronicling the last days of cultural anthropologist Walter Benjamin, who died trying to escape the Nazis.
I had a chance to ask Christine about the inspiration behind her thesis and her plans for future projects.
Where did the idea for Portbou 1940 originate?
I think I drew on every class I’ve taken at the Extension School: literary theory, French and German language classes, graphic design, history and literature classes, as well as IT coursework in web design, programming, animation, and video and sound editing. The German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin, the hero of my story, is someone I first learned about in Sue Weaver Schopf’s Introduction to Literary Criticism course almost ten years ago! When I thought about the project, and what I wanted to spend a year of my life building, I knew I wanted to tell a story across time and space in a way I hadn’t seen before. The initial concept was something like a hybrid between a choose-your-own-adventure story, an animated comic book, and an early-1990s point-and-click adventure video game.
From illustration to animation, how did your project come together?
There were a lot of moving parts to this project. For the artwork, my process was to draw on paper, scan those sketches into my computer, open them in Photoshop, and then draw on top of them using a Wacom tablet and stylus. The scanned image was the background layer, and then I would build up an outline layer and color layers until I had the final image. There were two scenes that started with photographs that I “painted” on top of digitally.
Initially, I planned to do all the art first, but it was not very time efficient. So I started to bounce between coding, drawing, and writing the thesis paper, depending on how right- or left-brained I was feeling on any day. As long as I stuck to my deadlines, it ended up working really well.
Do you plan to update Portbou 1940 or create similar applications in the future?
Yes, definitely. It was so much fun to make. CSS3 animations, transforms, and interactions are going to be a huge part of where the web goes in the next five years. The same techniques I used in my thesis project can now be used to build video games and mobile apps—things that you just couldn’t do a year or two ago without a high-level knowledge of traditional programming languages or a background in software engineering. It’s a pretty serious game-changer. That said, right now I’m making a lot of analog art—very traditional paintings on canvas—and writing and illustrating a graphic novel. I suspect that the graphic novel wants very badly to transform into a huge trans-media project, though!
How has your thesis project and Harvard Extension helped you in your professional aspirations?
My coursework in information technology was a stepping-stone from my first post-college job as an editorial assistant for an academic journal to my current position as web services manager at Harvard Business School. My undergraduate degrees were in creative writing and philosophy, so the Graduate Program in Information Technology with a concentration in digital media arts reflects my development both as an artist and as a web professional.
At the same time, my thesis project reflects my academic interests in interwar art, philosophy, cultural criticism, and history—and with storytelling. I’m so grateful for the opportunities that being at Harvard has given me, and the Extension School is an enormous part of that.
You can read more about Christine’s thesis and her other projects on the Portbou 1940 website.
In the coming weeks, we will feature several other master’s thesis projects from our accomplished alumni. Stay tuned!