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Session: Cybernetics

Following up on the atlas sessions I will reverse the perspective and focus the team on a much smaller area to really start fleshing out designs.

Starting out I want to collect our previously gathered material on cybernetics and discuss.

One proposed method would be to create a timeline to describe the fictional speculative history of cybernetics between ca. 2020 and 2070.

Within the team I want to discuss the way to move forward from there.

One of the themes we explored in the Atlas was cybernetic modification.

 

After researching Miles Davis’ approach to kind of blue, I developed the following approach: we need a precise set of rules to operate within. These rules might entail colour, texture, shapes etc.

The idea is to do a session where we develop these rules as a team and then individually ‘improvise’ within them.

For this particular project I will collect a range of materials and colour samples and textures, that we can select from and organize.

These textures and colours might form stylesheets that can inform the further design work.

 

 

Kind of blue

John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans perform in the studio. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)

In 1959 Miles Davis spent two days in the studio with a band recording the album “Kind of Blue”, now considered one of the cornerstone records in jazz, and 20th century music in general.

In the liner notes pianist Bill Evans wrote:

“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.

The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.

This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.

Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.

As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time,. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.

Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”

 

In the documentary about the recording of “Kind of Blue” Herbie Hancock says this:

“He would put people who play one style with people who play another style, a different style, or maybe a contrasting style. Most people wouldn’t dare do because that’s not going to work. But Miles would put these things together because he would trust in the honesty of each of the musicians trying to figure out a way to make it work.”

Jackie McLean: “His music kind of represented who he had in the band”

Or as Carlos Santana asks himself in the same documentary:
“How do you go into the studio with minimum stuff, and come out with eternity?”

There is an interesting question here, and very relevant to my research. For the wider audience the name Miles Davis is probably well-known. But Jimmy Cobb (drums), Bill Evans (piano) and Paul Chambers (bass) are likely much less familiar. But for Miles Davis they were irreplaceable ‘ingredients’.

Cannonball Adderley is heard saying: “The band was a workshop. Miles really kind of talked to everybody what to not do. Not so much what to do. He never told anybody what to play.”

Maybe I can draw a comparison here with how Ridley Scott directed Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Actress Sean Young said: “Maybe Ridley was giving me more attention than he was giving Harrison because he was making the assumption that he didn’t need that. Harrison was never happy on that show.”

Actor Dave Holden adds (about Ridley Scott): “I find him really easy. And very encouraging. To do what you feel, go ahead. And then if he liked it he’d just smile”.

The connecting factor in these scenarios seems to be that there needs to be enough shared foundation, to be able to let go. Maybe set some very strict rules, and then stop talking at all.

In the case of Blade Runner, this would be the script. As long as Harrison Ford spoke the lines, his interpretation could be his own and apparently he received frustratingly little feedback from his director. In the case of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis ‘invented’ a modal approach to jazz: instead of changing chords he would stick to a single scale. A limited number of notes that could be used.

The groundwork for this approach was laid when Miles David had to record the soundtrack for  “‘L’Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud” with a band that he did not know very well, and has no time for rehearsal with the French band. So he prepared the ‘rules’ on the night before in his hotel.

“One characteristic of Kind of Blue is (…) the simplicity of the compositions. An economy of means. Less is more. It was so finetuned without being rigid.”

 

 

http://www.billevanswebpages.com/kindblue.html

Kind of blue: documentary:

Dangerous Days: Making of Blade Runner. Dir. Charles de Lauzirika. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007.

 

 

 

 

Blade Runner and the auteur theory

When exploring authorship in the context of cinema, there is no getting around the auteur theory.

The auteur theory came out of the ideas developed during the nouvelle-vague in France by the likes of Francois Truffaut: that the director can be seen as the major creative force and to some extent sole author of a movie. As Francois Truffaut wrote:  “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”.

In reflecting on these ideas as published in the French magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema, Andrew Sarris (an American film critic) even went so far as to suggest that “good directors make good movies, and bad directors make bad movies”.

Although in these discussions it is never denied that the rest of the film crew contributes substantially to the movie, it is asserted that it is still the result of a single dominant voice and vision.

One example that is often used to illustrate the auteur theory is the milestone science-fiction movie Blade Runner (1982), where director Ridley Scott is seen at the author of the film.

In the documentary “Dangerous Days” about the making of Blade Runner Ridley Scott himself can be heard saying:

“Sometimes they don’t comprehend, what I do for a living on a big movie. My performance is as important as any other performance of any person on that film. Particularly the star. The film that I make, at the end of the day is my movie. It may be a team thing as well, but I’m tacking the knocks, I’m taking the bashed, and probably I’ve developed it etc. So yes, it’s my movie, and I’m inviting people to come in and do it. That’s what a director is”.

But the same documentary is filled with examples of individual contributions that became essential parts of the world of Blade Runner. It is often argued that Ridley Scott is one of the modern examples of an auteur filmmaker and Blade Runner is a prime example of his vision. But I could as easily make the argument that Blade Runner is the result of a wild collection of individually developed ideas and elements that somehow became more than the sum of their parts.

Some examples:

Do androids dream of electronic sheep
Of cours the first hint that the authorship of Blade Runner is a lot less concretrated than just the person of the director is that fact that the script is an adaptation from a book by Phillip K. Dick. After multiple drafts of the screenplay were written it was sent to Ridley Scott, who turned down the project at first. Only after he dropped out of Dune, he was persuaded to reconsider directing the movie that became Blade Runner.

Jean Moebius Gireaud
As admitted by Ridley Scott himself, a lot of the visual style of the world of Blade Runner was inspired by the work of French comic artist Moebius – specifically the story ‘The Long Tomorrow’. Scott tried to hire Moebius as a production designer but he was busy working on an animated feature at the time.

A panel from the story “The Long Tomorrow” written by Dan O’Bannon and illustrated by Moebius.

 

 

 

Pris

Darryl Hannah was one of the actresses doing screentests for ‘Pris’, all with completely different looks. The actresses doing the test scenes had to develop their own interpretation of the character before the audition. Hannah had seen Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu and went with a Klaus Kinsky look with blacked out hollow eyes. The iconic ‘Pris’ was very much her own creation.

Darryl Hannah based her ‘Pris’ on Klaus Kinki in Nosferatu.

Cityspeak

Edward James-Olmos developed his mash-up multilingual language for “cityspeak” mixing up Hungarian, German and French all by himself. Olmos says about Scott: “He never questioned it.”

Tears in the rain

Possibly the most famous lines of dialogue in Blade Runner: Roy Batty’s “Tears in the rain” speech, was re-written by actor Rutger Hauer the night before the scene was shot.

The scene had been written by David Peoples, who was hired to re-write the original screenplay by Hampton Fancher.

 

These are just examples of how the world of Blade Runner is not so much the result of a singleminded director, but the accumulation of all these little contributions that become more than the the sum of their parts.

Denis Villeneuve, the director of Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Blade Runner said this when asked about auteur theory:

“If I wanted to have total control and be a dictator, I would do ice sculpture in my basement. If I want to make a movie, I’m going to work with 500 people and I will have to work with their strength and their weakness. The idea, as a director, is to be able to bring everybody on board and to inspire and give energy to everybody and to explain specific color, specific ambience. I need to be very precise, but I think I’m a better director when I’m more a channeler than a dictator. When I look at the result, it’s better than what I had; then, it’s tough for my ego but it is (better). And that’s the poetry. The beauty of cinema is, like, 400 hundred people shooting at four o’clock in the morning for a month, trying to create poetry.”
http://deadline.com/2015/12/denis-villeneuve-sicario-interview-best-director-1201664634

That voice-over
Towards finishing of the film, the producers were worried that the narrative would be unclear to the audience and it was decided to bring back the voice-over that Scott had removed from the script. In the last recording sessions for the voice over Scott was not even present. Harrison Ford was not happy about doing the voice-over and although he has denied intentionally sabotaging the voice-overs you can tell from his rendition that there’s a distinctive lack of enthusiasm.

When a ‘directors cut’ was released Scott removed the voice-over again, but a wide audience (including director Guillermo Del Toro) prefers the version with the voice-over, with the bland acting becoming part of Ford’s android character.

Reflection

As some of the articles below demonstrate, one can just as easily make the argument that Ridley Scott is indeed the main author of Blade Runner. If you take into consideration that there are seven known versions of Blade Runner, of which five were widely released, it becomes clear that that at least the process towards the final version was also one of experimentation and back-and-forth testing with audiences.

I am not interested in taking away anything of the remarkable accomplishments of Ridley Scott. But I think it is important to realize that a director or team leader can have a strong and identifiable voice, without suppressing or limiting the voices of the team members.

Maybe a good illustration of this is Miles Davis, one of the most influential jazz instrumentalists, composers and band leaders of the 20th century. As a bandleader he is famous for developing very minimal frameworks for his band members to improvise within. Considering that Davis hired many young and unknown players that developed to become distinctive voices in their own right: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Mike Stern and Joe Zawinul to just name a few. I try to make that connection here.

 

 

 

Blade Runner as auteur cinema

Documentary: Dangerous Days: Making of Blade Runner. Dir. Charles de Lauzirika. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007

Garrett, Diane. “Book Review: The Schreiber Theory.” Variety. 15 April 2006. 29 January

 

Life after the atlas, the next step.

After working with the team to develop two versions of the ‘Atlas of Rotterdam in 2070’ I lost a bit of momentum. Although the Atlas sessions were very powerful in bringing the team together and provoking conversations, it did not ‘magically’ lead to actual design decisions.

So what can I take away from the Atlas sessions?

– Collecting and organizing existing images to roughly ‘paint’ a world is a very low-threshold way of provoking conversations. It is very inclusive and because the images and designs are not ‘our own’ there is not a lot of critical attachment to them. This means everyone can speak freely.

– The responses from the team members were very positive: it was clear to them they were invited to participate at a really essential level of concept development.

– But the next step should be more concrete, and less of a macro-view.

Around the same time I had a conversation with director Simon Pummell, and he reminded me that on the film Shock Head Soul I worked in the opposite direction: the design vision developed from a single object outwards. It started with the ‘Writing Down Machine’ and slowly that logic spread wider. The Writing Down Machine came to represent the logic and esthetics of the hallucinatory world.

The Writing Down Machine for Shock Head Soul was developed in conjunction with the script.

I actually tried to follow a similar approach on ‘Identicals’, developing and designing effects while the script was still in development, but all the scenes I designed for ended up being removed from the script before the shoot.

So with that in mind: can I identify parts of the world that are compact enough for an actual design process, but could feed the design vision and logic of the larger world?

The first obvious candidate is ‘cybernetics’:

– Cybernetic implants are essential to the narrative so there is no risk of having them removed from the script.

– Through cybernetics we can say a lot about the nature of the society in our futuristic world.

– It also allows us to design a ‘history’ of the technology that can shape the world.
– And not coincidentally cybernetics were already part of the Atlas so it is in a way a continued conversation from the atlas.

 

One of the themes we explored in the Atlas was cybernetic modification.

 

 

 

 

Developing the Atlas further

In spring of 2017 I created the Atlas of Rotterdam in 2070. This document was an attempt to curate and bundle the outcomes of a team session exploring our thoughts and ideas for the world in which to set ‘Fight’, a science fiction feature film that is being developed.

I discussed the outcome with the director who was really excited by the material and we agreed that the next step could be to make the selection more specific: create more specific chapters and categories within the images and look for stories within those.

To open up the process I printed all the images that we had collected (many more than ended up in the previous Atlas). We put them on the wall in random positions, without adhering to earlier categories or order.

This opened up interesting conversations about contrasts and similarities between the images, and we recognized new patterns that we had not noticed before.

We started reordering and regrouping the images and this sparked more detailed conversations shaping our vision of the futuristic world of ‘Fight’.

Conclusions

Printing out all the images that we collected through sharing Pinterest pins was at first meant to be a conversation starter. Intuitively I wanted to get the team in the same space and have an organic exchange of ideas. Huddling 5 people together over a digital screen was an unattractive idea (although I was not sure why).

Upon reflecting I realize what I’m doing is alternating convergence with divergence. During the first session we were mostly divergent, thinking out loud and collecting as many thoughts as we thought useful. After collecting more material I converged the process by bringing these images into a unified Atlas.

From this it would have been easy to converge further and go into detail but instead I presented my interpretation in the form of the Atlas, but at the same time opened it up by presenting all images without order or hierarchy.

In hindsight this process of alternating convergence with divergence resembles the ‘double diamond’ as proposed by the British Design Council in 2005.

(Source: Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think!: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Indianapolis, Ind: New Riders, 2000. Print. page 220)

Accidentally, or maybe intuitively, I invited the team to take part in ordering the images by making the process really accessible.

It is also a good example of the value of geographic proximity: this was a lot easier to organize with all teammembers living in The Netherlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On digital drawing

ON DIGITAL DRAWING

Introduction

Birgitta Hosea is an animation artist, curator and practice-based researcher working in the field of animation and moving images. She is also Course Director for the MA Character Animation at the Royal College of Arts in London and PhD supervisor at Central Saint Martins.

Summary

In  her article ‘Drawing Animation’ she examines the meaning of ‘drawing’ as a material process in the context of animation. Drawing as a performative act.

Drawing is usually seen as leaving marks with pencil on paper. However she argues that to limit the definition of drawing to making marks on paper is too narrow and does not allow for inclusion of a range of work made by contemporary animators and artists.

A traditional view on drawing is often associated with immediacy, authenticity and even honesty. This appreciation of traditional craftmanship stands in contrast with the perception of images created with digital tools. Even the common phrase of ‘computer generated images’ has implications of mechanized mass production disconnected from the human gesture, having lost it’s authenticity.

The result of these views is a juxtaposition of drawing as a direct, subjective and unmediated form of expression, in stark contrast with the manipulated perfection of the computer generated image.

This does not do justice to complexity of digitally creating images.

“As computer technology increasingly becomes an essential part of the production and dissemination of all media, the notion of a binary opposition between the digital and the handmade becomes meaningless and a new synthetic paradigm – the post-digital – emerges.” 1

Reflection

As part of my research on craftsmanship and individual authorship in the context of collaborative work in animation and cinema, I raise the question of the materiality of digitally crafted images.

Most research into digital images puts the emphasis on the reproduction mechanisms, and copyright law. I am however more interested in looking at digital images from the perspective of a painter. Can digitally mediated images carry the ‘fingerprint’ of the maker? Can authorship be recognized not only in the content of the images but in the ‘texture’?

This article by Birgitta Hosea is one of the few sources that attempts to compare traditional analog techniques to digital animation, and question the validity of the common term ‘computer generated images’. I would even go one step further and question her use of the term ‘handmade’ (in the quote above) in opposition to digitally mediated images. Without resorting into semantics, it seems to me that to have this discussion in earnest, we need more appropriate terminology. If photography was called ‘camera generated images’, and painting ‘brush generated images’ I think we would have very different conversations about those fields.

For the time being I will use ‘digitally mediated images’ as an alternative.

In the end even Hosea’s article does not produce satisfying answers. As some point she even sabotages her own argument by stating that even digitally created images are often preceded by pencil drawings’:

“It is essentialist to conceptualize traditional drawing and hand-drawn animation as honest, personal and subjective in opposition to the bland, mechan[1]ized perfection of digital imagery in which individual work is homogenized through the use of standard computer software. Drawing is used in the design and conceptualization of digital animation and in the training of animators: traditional drawn animation is scanned, cleaned-up, colour corrected and edited on computer. “ 2

 

1,2 Hosea, Birgitta, Drawing Animation, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 5 (3), Sage Pub, 2010, p353-367

Hidden Design

In august we spent a week with Bureau Buitengewone Zaken, to experience their hidden design method. During the week we were challenged to design and develop interventions aimed at testing our questions, engaging with participants and collecting data to further feed our research.

The first day was spent mapping our objectives as a starting point for the first steps in designing some kind of interaction with participants.

I started out with the main research question that formed the center of my poster essay, and developed a sub-question that would be the basis for my work during the next days.

At first I was struggling to come up with an idea that could be executed in the following days. There was no real possibility to do a session with my filmmaking peers. But following a conversation with one of the coaches I realized I could use my activities as a rugby youth trainer to experiment with the hidden design method.

While a lot of rugby coaching is done through ‘drilling’ the intended behavior, the best theoretical outcome is that the players play exactly as expected of them. In practice this is never the case of course, especially with children. During this workshop I wanted to test what role I can play in inviting the players to be creative in their solutions, developing new (to them and maybe to me) types of play. The thought is that this may lead to developing a playing style from within the group, making it ‘their own’, which may be more enjoyable, but mostly better suited to the specific skills and attitudes of the group of players.

And this is where the parallels with my professional research in the field of visual effects and filmmaking start to emerge. I propose that by inviting the individual creativity and craftmanship of the teammembers and making this central to the design process, this will lead to new ideas that will also be better suited to the skills and qualities of the teammembers.

This leads to the following question:
“What role can I play to stimulate this creative process, and what are the possible threats or stimulating factors to take into account?”.

This I wanted to test on the rugby pitch.

The approach I took was to create a realistic game situation, and invite the players to design a gameplan to execute together in response to it. I used the Hidden Design Intervention Card to prepare.

OBSERVATIONS

Session 1: players age 12 – 13

Players were a bit confused by the invitation to think of a plan. They were clearly expecting the coach (me) to explain what I would like them to do. The team had just started training together this week so some were still getting to know eachother. In this agegroup with players from group 8 up to 2nd grade high school the players were very self-conscious.

The general approach of the players was not very playful, not a lot of adventure.


PIVOT
I simplified the explanation to the bare bones, expecting the younger age group that followed to be even less responsive.

Session 2: players age 8-9

This age group was really positively excited about the freedom to play. They had no inhibitions whatsoever and after an attempt ‘failed’ they were really keen to try it out again, or come up with a new idea. They kept wanting to do new experiments and were sorry to see the session  come to an end and have ‘regular training’ continue.

This group was a little distracted by the camera.

 

OBSERVATION: if I want more ‘productive’ or ‘effective’ useable results, then I need to be a bit more specific and give a little more direction. This is paradoxical to my original statement.

 

REFLECTION:

The available time is brief for getting actual results with groups that are not used to being asked for creativity. The solutions were not very imaginative. The atmosphere felt ‘not safe’. After talking to their coach he confirms that the age group of 12-13 is very difficult in terms of self-consciousness and risk-taking is a complex issue.

In hindsight not surprisingly the 8-9 year old group was a lot more spontaneous in their responses and really enjoyed the chance of fooling around.

 

What would I like to get out of the next iteration?

  • If I want more useful or more surprising results I need to be a bit more specific in my briefing.
  • I will have a bit more authority in the next iteration because it’s my own group.
  • I can make the challenge a bit more explicit by demonstrating clearly what is at stake.
  • Stay as close as possible to the original idea to compare.

 

Session 3: players age 10-11

In the third session there was a slightly different dynamic, partly because the age group sat right in between the previous two groups, and I had already been training them in the previous season so they accepted me as their coach very easily.

The players were eager and excited about trying things out, and were rehearsing (I did suggest they could)
In terms of useful results some ideas were actually good.
There was a very open exchange, I did not notice any inhibition.

Conclusions:

When stimulating creative interaction within a group, the emotional safety within group is a huge factor. This is also affected by age.
The relationship with (credibility of?) of the coach within the group is a factor in the teams willingness to take risks.
There is a fragile balance between too little and too much input: too little direction can leave the teammembers uninspired, or results may be totally irrelevant to the goal.
If teammembers are not used to be called on their creativity in a specific context it will take time to get them to ‘play’.

Useful lessons
As small and futile as an experiment may seem, they can sometimes lead to substantial insights.
There are many more parallels between coaching rugby, teaching animation and coaching creative teams than I was really aware of.
Trust and emotional safety are essential for creative interaction.
Too little information can actually be counterproductive when trying to stimulate creative experimentation. Some fuel needs to be provided to allow it to spark.

My full presentation that I did in the end of the week can be downloaded here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subjective Atlas: preparation

For the Subjective Atlas I want to combine multiple aspects of my research into one exercise:

CONTEXT:
For the science fiction film ‘Fight’ – loosely based on a short story William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) I will be designing and creating the futuristic world in which a classic boxing narrative takes place. This film is currently in development – meaning there is funding in place to write a film script. There is no production planning yet, but I would expect principal photography to start end of 2018 or early 2019.

Together with writer-director Simon Pummell I will be developing the futuristic world that will form the arena for a classical boxing movie.

PLAN:
I will invite a couple of collaborators to work with me in developing a vision of a futuristic world in which to set the narrative.

I will write a short introduction of a few narrative elements that we will need to accomodate – and I will set a couple of themes / key words to anchor the session. I may send a snippet of information prior to the session so that participants may bring material if they have it.

In this session I will frame us as a team of speculative designers that “uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions, and givens about the role products play in everyday life” (Dunne & Raby, 2013).

We will be world-builders first. My role will be that of moderator and collector.

Examples of questions to set the scene:

Media:
In the future separate computer displays will dissapear and we will interact with computers, devices, networks and eachother through social platforms in a much more seamless way.
– How can we envision this development?
– How can we visualize this development?
– With self-broadcasting becoming the norm, what is our relationship to surveillance?

“No one is ever alone” (William Gibson)

Technology:
– What is the state of cybernetic bodies and structures?
– What is the state of transportation?

Geopolitics:
A large part of the story takes place in an isolated European metropole.
– How can we envision the future of cities in terms of architecture, and how do we avoid the cliches of futuristic cityscapes that are dominating the genre?
– What could be the dominant (visual) culture (if we avoid the esthetics of  Neo Tokyo as seen from Blade Runner to Ghost In The Shell?
– What kind of governmental structure do we envision and what could be the impact of this on the visual culture?

FORM AND LOCATION
For practical and planning reasons on this particular occasion I will need a room in Rotterdam, where we sit and talk, collect, present.

For the precise format I’m still thinking about whether to keep the session very open or create more structure and active moderation.

EXPECTATIONS
Primary goal:
This is first and foremost an experiment in designing a creative process. So I hope to learn about creating a shared mental space that is an emotionally safe space for the participants to really engage in an open collaborative atmosphere.

Secondary goal:
I will be working on a shared design vision of a futuristic world specifically for a feature film that we will be working on during the years to come.

 

London 2017

In april 2017 I spent a couple of days in London on a short excursion. I am still processing my impressions and collecting my thoughts on the experience but I will try to briefly summarize the first results from the trip:

INTERVIEWS WITH VFX PROFESSIONALS
I conducted two interviews with visual effects artists that work in London. Together with Vancouver, London is the biggest visual effects ‘hub’ in the world. A huge amount of visual effects work is done within the Soho area in London. I have recorded the conversation in audio and video. To not have to worry about framing the camera I recorded using a 360 degree video camera. This results in a full panoramic image with both the interviewee and myself in the frame.

Ant Walsham and I at Electric Theatre Company in London.

Ant Walsham is a veteran visual effects artist and compositor who co-founded The Mill – one of the leading postproduction studios in London. After spending years in that studio he has been freelancing  in London and Los Angeles since 2009.

Rudy Massar and I in the lounge at ILM London.

Rudy Massar works as a creature modeller at Industrial Light & Magic. ILM is arguably the leading visual effects house in the world. Rudy is part of a team of hundreds of artists working on huge films like Star Wars and the new Steven Spielberg movie. Before working at ILM Rudy spent a couple of years around the corner at MPC working on Jungle Book and other films.

I talked to Ant and Rudy about the work environment, what they need to do their best work, and their hopes and ambitions for the future.

The biggest revelation was when Rudy described the feedback system in place at ILM: every week the director (at that moment Steven Spielberg) would record feedback on all the work done on video. So every weel Rudy receives a video message from Steven discussing the work he has been doing. But Rudy can also view the feedback videos for every other artist, and that way get a really good impression of the way of thinking of the director, beyond the specific task Rudy is working on.

STUDIO VISITS
There were two studio visits that resonated with me: there was a presentation at Rehab studios where the ‘creative technologist’ presented his views on the future of social media and the dissapearance of displays from our daily life. The way we interact with social platforms and technology will be much more integrated and seamless.

The other visit was SixThirty, a two-man graphic design agency that has initiated a group project “Unread Messages” that invites artists and designers to speculate on the future of our relation with technology.

In short what I have slowly become to realize is that my work on films could also be framed as a kind of ‘speculative design’. In rethinking my position as a designer and collaborator on film, this could provide a good framework.

NESTA – BAS LEURS
By interesting co-incidence I hooked up with old friend and former colleague Bas Leurs. I have worked with Bas Leurs when we were both teaching interaction design at the Willem de Kooning Academy and we spent a couple of years developing the curriculum of a new program together. But then our ways parted and we’ve not had much contact for a couple of years.

It turns out in the mean time he has spent a lot of time researching the design of creative collaboration: developing tools and techniques for organizing and facilitating creative processes in teams. During our 5-hour long diner we realized that there is a lot of overlap between the challenges I am facing as I aim to develop my professional practice and his expertise and research area.

As a direct outcome I have received a lot of reading materials and tips from Bas, and will have a good conversation partner during the continuation of my research.

Interestingly – apart from his work on creative collaboration, NESTA (his employer) has a strong focus on innovation, and in that role organizes an annual festival FutureFest which centers around speculative design!

 

 

Metropolis

One of the archetypical artefacts of visual effects for cinema is the futuristic metropole. From ‘Metropolis’ (1927) to the remake of ‘Ghost in the shell’ (2017) filmmakers have been envisioning futuristic cities as backdrops for their stories.

Recently I have been collecting stills of these envisioned cityscapes.

Even though the collection shows futuristic cities from around 40 different movies, they are remarkably similar with only a couple of clear ‘archetypes’ that they can be roughly organized into:

  • The bright clean future. A lot of glass   (Minority Report, Star Trek, Tomorrowland)
  • Neo Tokyo, a gritty dark neon-lit city. Often with Asian aspects (Blade Runner, Akira, Cloud Atlas, Ghost in the Shell).
  • Brutalist dystopian concrete jungle (The Hunger Games, Dredd).

The designs and architecture look extremely similar – and not too much has changed since 1927. The benchmark is still Blade Runner (1982). And 35 years later there are no new ideas on display.

 

 

 

Digital Craft

I’m not sure whether any of this will be really relevant to my research – but it’s part of the context.

With the comodification of digital tools in the last decades, there is also a decline in respect for digital craft and crafstmen. There is a renewed interest in traditional craft and a fascination for manual skills. Facebook is flooded with videos that demonstrate this.

It’s no surprise that this trend is also visible in cinema audiences. When Terminator 2 (1991) and later Jurassic Park (1993) were released, audiences were fascinated with the new possibilities of computer generated images (CGI).

But more recently digital effects work is frowned upon by parts of the audience (I’ll put some examples in the bottom of this post). For Mad Max: Fury Road (2016) the sales pitch was that most of the film was shot ‘in camera’ with minor digital postproduction work afterwards. As it later turned out the movie had a lot of digital work done.

So why is it that there is such a backlash in public opinion against digital imagemaking?

Is it nostalgia?
Is it that traditional craft has become exotic (and thus ‘magically attractive?’).

There is a very common notion that when work is done using a computer the machine does all the heavy lifting and thus the result is not really man-made. The term ‘computer generated images’ that the industry has adopted does not help the case in this regard.

It’s as if Rembrandt would refer to his work a ‘brush generated images’.

 

Hollywood’s turn against digital effects

2015 is the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback

10 reasons why CGI is getting worse, not better

6 reasons modern movies look surprisingly crappy

 

Baseline: where am I now?

Where to start. Anywhere is useful I suppose.

I have been working professionally in film, animation and visual effects since 1999. In the early years I was often initator of projects, but over time I have been working more with directors and artists to contribute to their projects.

The scope and complexity of these projects have been growing and I am now facing an interesting challenge.

Can I adapt my way of working to accomodate these bigger projects, while maintaining and further developing my signature or fingerprint?

And can I publish about these methods in a way that could profit others working in this field?