maximal and minimal VFX

I’ve recently watched Andor and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and on the (flimsy) basis of that and my viewing of other movies and streaming series and trailers, I would like to propose that digital visual effects – VFX – the ones that strive for some kind of photorealism – can more and more often be divided into two kinds: maximal and minimal.

Maximal are those movies and series which go all-out for mega-detail at every scale, like Wakanda Forever. Everything seems to be designed to be looked at close up – except that viewers are also continually offered spectacular views of extremely detailed huge landscapes too. Every surface displays some kind of elaborate patterning. Characters’ bodies have incredibly crafted hairdos, jewellry, armour, clothing, weapons, skin. Imagined architecture is florid, covered with neo-neo-gothic-mayan-deco-whatever. Forests and oceans are full of weird vegetation created leaf by leaf, and elaborate fantasy creatures. Streets are packed with crowds of individuals all doing things. Landscapes are full of houses, valleys, peaks, lakes, bridges, flying things, flowing things, cities, weather. I am thinking here of all of the Marvel movies I’ve watched, as well as the Rings of Power (indeed, maybe this was all started by the Lord of The Rings films). Wheel of Time, not quite so much – but the VFX there are still things you have to look at, monsters and magic and such. The Avatar movies definitely. It’s as if the entire screen has to be full of lots of visual-attention-grabbing things all the time.

Whereas one of the reasons I so much enjoyed Andor, and Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune, is that their VFX are somehow much more minimal. They can be spectacular and detailed, of course. But one reason to see Dune on the big screen is to relish the scale of just a few big things in a frame rather than every scene jostling with endless detail (see also Nope). Huge spaceships, huge deserts, huge cities with lots of enormous blank walls. Just a few people. As for Andor, one of the early episodes – maybe the first – had Andor walking through street at night and passing bubble-type enclosures, inside of which some sort of figures were moving. What sort of figures? No idea. Because the camera didn’t linger on them, I was given no detail, no ‘look it’s an alien doing something weird’ moment. They were just casually there in the background, the viewer hurried past them much in the way that Andor was hurrying. Much of the rest of the series was similar: VFX as background. World-building, necessary, but not flashy, not demanding attention. So minimal VFX seem less fixated on visual details, less interested in making everything totally visible, less concerned to add elaborate detail to every surface. They show less of themselves.

It might also be no coincidence that Dune and Andor are strongly focussed on character and story and are, relatively, really well-written and involving. I have to admit I found The Rings of Power incredibly boring partly because it was so poorly written. But that was maybe also because I was watching it on a laptop rather than an 80 inch tv. To build enticing worlds based on detail, the detail really needs to be visible, I guess, as well as inhabited by characters you care about.

One exception to my minimal-maximal categorisation might be Game of Thrones, which managed both character and cities and dragons pretty convincingly, at least for a long stretch. But hey, you know what they say about exceptions…

PROXISTANT VISION by Bull.Miletic

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PROXISTANT VISION is an installation by Synne Tollerud Bull and Dragan Miletic, on show at the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco til 19 March 2023, but you can get a sense of it from the PROXISTANT VISION website. According to the Museum’s website, the work explores the impact of digital aerial imaging technologies on everyday life, though my sense of it was more that it was a precise dissection of the operation of some of those technologies.

Synne and Dragan created PROXISTANT VISION with curator Carol Covington and various collaborators at the University of Chicago and the University of California Berkeley, as part of their PhD research. The installation consists of three, interrelated rooms, each of which plays with the relation between distance and proximity as it is articulated by various technologies. Ferriscope explores what can be seen from urban observation wheels, from the first – immense! the cabins look like railway carriages – Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, to more recent versions in London, LA and Vienna. Venetie 1111110001 works with various images of Venice, including a map from 1500, a view by Google Earth and photos of the carved wooden blocks used to print the paper map. The third piece, Zoom Blue Dot, occupies the space in the museum between the rooms occupied by Ferriscope and Venetie 1111110001. A robot moves around the space projecting a video showing a Google blue dot from outer space down to the interior of its phone screen pixel display. All the spaces are lit only by these the various projections, and the projecting equipment is explicit and even rather ostentatious: a robot no less but also complicated arrangements of projectors, machinery, mirrors, a revolving rhombicuboctahedron, cables and scaffolding.

Each room has a light box with a QR code that connects to a considered and detailed discussion on what each piece does. Most of the commentaries focus on the notion of proxistance: the zoom in and out, from proximity to distance, each tethered to the other through various aerial imaging devices: the ferris wheel, the satellite, the microscope, the projector. In that sense, this work is cousin to Laura Kurgan’s meditation over a decade ago on being Close Up At A Distance (now available in paperback I notice), although the focus on the urban view and the smartphone gives an important supplement to Kurgan’s arguments I think. It brings bodies into view rather more directly, for example, just as these technologies have become so much more pervasive in everyday experience since Kurgan’s work. This is given rather literal emphasis in the installation as none of the projections are confined to one screen or frame: all fragment and disperse in various ways over the bodies of the museum visitors, so that we too become screens for these projections.

The project website suggests this is all about surveillance, the view of everything – if no longer from nowhere, rather from a specific set of technologies. My experience of the installations though was rather different. Precisely because each installation foregrounds its own technological devices so fully – indeed, its own technicity – it makes it clear that different technological assemblages will generate different versions of proxistant vision. Even the smooth, seamless, incredible zoom from outer space to the components of a pixel have been patched together from different images created by satellites and microscopes. There is no singular aerial view.

Moreover, each installation suggested to me at least that, just as proximity and distance are conjoined, so too is coherent vision and its failure. Each showed a different version of this. Venetie 1111110001 played with scale and glitch: the image of the map and the Google Earth view became fragmented and shards played across the walls of the entire room, mixing up with glitches in the digitised version of the 1500 map and what were probably photos of its wooden printing blocks but might have been something else entirely, and what was also possibly a computer-generated image of Venice flooded. Or not. The robot wandered around doing its own thing, its projection beaming onto different surfaces and reflecting in random ways off of bodies and the mylar surrounding the Ferriscope room. As for the Ferriscope, that projection starts with very slow images – ferris wheels are slow – but speeds up and up until it starts to swing around the entire room and to lose visual recognisability, fragmenting into what the human eye can only see as the red, green and blue of the pixels.

All of this suggests a much more complex visual field than popular notions of surveillance and spectacle assume. It suggests a multiplicity of such views which, because each relies on a specific assemblage of technologies and bodies, don’t align. And it suggests that each contains not only proximity and distance, but other antinomies too: coherence and dispersal; integrity and incoherence; legibility and glitch. These things need to be thought together, it seems to me, and PROXISTANT VISION – or visions – is a generative prompt to do so.

With thanks to the Berkeley geographers who joined me at the Museum of Craft and Design: Emma, Clancy, Maria, Alexis and Fiona.

Bigger Than Life beyond perspective

I’ve been reading Bigger Than Life: The Close-Up and Scale in the Cinema by Mary Ann Doane, published in 2021 by Duke University Press. It’s a fascinating discussion of the spatial organisation of cinematic film – both classic and avant-garde – and the spaces offered to the spectators of those films. Her discussions of those films are always interesting, and make a distinctive contribution to the current discussions about three-dimensionality, scale and zoom in film and other media.

However, the book feels on much less certain ground when it touches on more recent digital media. These are mentioned quite often but they aren’t really theorised in the way that Hollywood movies or Shanghai cinema or New York experimental films are. I think this is partly a consequence of Doane’s continuing commitment to psychoanalysis as a valuable toolkit for understanding the subjectivation of the movie spectator – and psychoanalysis doesn’t seem to work in quite the same way for digital media, which, as Doane often says, are often viewed on small screens, on the move rather than in a cinema seat, with different kinds of attention from movies seen in a cinema.

Also though, I think the book struggles with digital media because of its focus on the perspectival organisation of filmic space. Doane elaborates this at length and very helpfully. She describes the alignment of the movie camera with the eye as imagined in Renaissance theories of perspective as a technique to represent three-dimensional space on two-dimensional surfaces at some length. This is really helpful, and generates some great insights into different understandings of visual media as ‘immersive’, for example, and different kinds of vanishing points and horizons, and bodies ‘turning’ in 2D space.

As the book progresses, though, an account seems to emerge of digital media (whether on a phone screen or on an IMAX screen) as purely abstract forms of space, as erasing real bodies and geographies (Doane doesn’t use the word ‘real’ of course, but that is the implication). She argues that engaging with digital media means that the spectator becomes delocalised, disoriented, and sucked into the apparently entirely commodified world of social media. Putting to one side the assumptions that social media do nothing but commodify, and that phone screens and IMAX screens do similar things because both are digital: I think this argument only holds because Doane theorises just one form of spatial organisation in relation to filmic images and their viewers, that of perspective. It’s as if the psychoanalytically-grounded alignment of subjectivity with the perspectival organisation of space becomes the only way in which subjectivities might emerge in relation to film. Take away that space, and according to Doane, the subject floats untethered too, defined only by their online data.

But what if perspective is not the only technique for organising the space of an image, filmic or otherwise? It certainly isn’t the only way that films screened on phones, say, are spatialised; those phones are constantly producing geolocated data which do locate their users, by latitude and longitude – they are very much not delocalised, quite the opposite in fact. Indeed, given Doane’s own discussion about the emergence of perspective (and latitude and longitude) alongside capitalist property ownership and colonialism, more attention to other forms of spatial organisation is definitely in order. For example, while I largely share her critique of affect theory and phenomenology in visual studies, I wouldn’t dismiss space as atmosphere quite so quickly. And what about space as network? Or topological spaces.

In short, what other sorts of spaces might be seen in films, beyond perspective? And what might their seeing do to who is doing the seeing? As film-like imagery proliferates digitally, its specific and various forms spatial organisation need more attention.

film and phones in The World’s a Little Blurry

I watched the film Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry at the weekend, which follows her music-making processes up to her Grammy award wins in 2020. Of course there’s lots to say about the film, but one of the things that struck me about it was how smartphones were both ubiquitous yet given no attention by the film.

On the one hand, there are many shots of Eilish’s ‘fans’ (not a term she likes), rather coolly observed in the film, at a little distance – the camera rarely joins Eilish as she enters any crowds for example. Indeed the entire film has rather a casual style – there isn’t a particular narrative arc, things just unfold kind of like they did for Eilish over the year or so that footage for the film was being shot. But the fans are pictured really Intensely experiencing her music, with her, at her gigs; singing every word, tears streaming; jumping in sync with her; and very often holding a phone to record the moment. In some shots of crowds gathered to see her, to witness her just sitting in a bus or getting off a plane, to scream and shout, and cry again, the faces are almost entirely obscured by phones being held up to film the moment, the encounter. The phone, the kinetic body, the software, tears, sweat, the voices and words: while that intense identification with a pop star isn’t new, the intimate incorporation of the smartphone and its camera is (fairly new, anyway).

So the film acknowledges the fans’ phones. It also shows the phone as central to Eilish and her work. She is very often filmed on her phone, writing and reading lyrics, recording songs, phoning, posting. We hear about her rocketing numbers of Instagram followers, and she jokes about The Internet not liking her Bond movie song because it might have a big crescendo; she’s also provoked at one point by the constant demand that she be nice and be seen to be nice online. But the film does not explore the phone as a portal into the immense social media world. We see only see it tethered to bodies, to bodies doing things with it – singing, dancing, talking, crying, filming, using it as a glowing light – but we don’t see what happens when its various harvesting is re-engaged with in different kinds of audiencing in other situations on- and offline. All we see is some bodies using film to record other bodies, particularly the body of Eilish (fantastically styled) but also the bodies of her fans (and family and friends and team). The phone as a recording device entangled in a massively distributed, partly inhuman, not-entirely-visual social media constellation is not allowed to disrupt the intimacy of that kind of filmed embodiment. In that sense, being so uninterested in its ubiquitous rival the smartphone camera, this is very much a film film.

digital | visual | cultural

I’m very excited to announce a new project: Digital | Visual | Cultural.   D|V|C is a series of events which will explore how the extensive use of digital visualising technologies creates new ways of seeing the world.

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The first event will be on June 28, when Shannon Mattern will give a public lecture in Oxford. Shannon is the author of the brilliant Code and Clay, Data and Dirt as well as lots of great essays for Places Journal. ‘Fifty Eyes on a Scene’ will replay a single urban scene from the perspective of several sets of machinic and creaturely eyes. That lecture will be free to attend but you’ll need to book. Booking opens via the D|V|C website on 23 April. It will also be livestreamed.

I’m working on this with Sterling Mackinnon, and funding is coming from the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, and St John’s College Oxford.

The website has more info at dvcultural.org, and you can follow D|V|C on Twitter @dvcultural and on Instagram at dvcultural. There’ll be a couple more events in 2019 so follow us to stay in touch.

So that’s the practicalities. What’s the logic? Continue reading

call for papers on assembling smart + social difference for EASST conference

The SCiM team is organising a session at the EASST conference in Lancaster, UK, in July. The conference homepage is here and you can find details of the call for papers here.

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The conference will take place from 25-28 July at Lancaster University with the theme “Making science, technology and society together”.  The SCiM team is inviting contributions for a session on Assembling the smart city: exploring the contours of social difference. Smart cities are being figured as meeting places where multifarious things come together gathered by a vision of digital-led urban transformation. We invite papers that follow some aspect of this to better understand how Smart participates in patterning social difference. We seek insight into what sorts of ways of urban life specific versions of Smart make more or less possible; when, where, for whom?

Short abstracts of fewer than 300 characters and long abstracts of fewer than 250 words must be submitted via the conference’s online form (not by email) before midnight CET on February 14th, 2018.

Members of the SCiM team will be there, sharing some of the results of our research into the co-production of smart technologies, policies and practices with various processes of social differentiation both familiar and emergent. Do join us!

the media of thinking and arguing: paper, dust, discs and the cloud

I started a new job on 1 October as Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford, so over the summer I cleared out my office at The Open University. I’ve been at The OU for 17 years, so there was a lot of stuff to clear. And a lot of things to reflect on. One of which was the partiality of the shift in my scholarship media from paper to digital.

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There were piles of handwritten notes on books and papers in my office, some filed alphabetically by author, and a lot in piles depending on the project they’d been read for. Some lovely juxtapositions emerged as I began to empty the filing cabinets, probably possible only in the freedom of PhD years and in that most eclectic of disciplines, mine, geography.

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Some of these handwritten notes went back to my PhD and possibly beyond: faded and yellowing, I was torn between treating them as quaint souvenirs of a bygone age and horror at their unsearchability. Fading folders labelled ‘TO READ’ pricked my conscience, and I was also taken back to some very intense events, translated into academic offprints (remember those?). In the end, I put almost all of them into recycling bags.

Then there were the boxes of floppy discs and slides. The floppy discs made me smile and also gave me pause for thought. On them were copies of all the teaching material I’d used before I moved to the OU in 1993: lecture notes, handouts, overhead project transparencies. Aha, I’d thought then, I’ll put it all on discs and throw out the paper and acetate and save space and be modern. Now of course the floppy discs are unreadable and my materials are inaccessible. I particularly regret not being able to check out the handbook of my course on ‘The Cultural Politics of Landscape’ which I ran for several years at Edinburgh University and at Queen Mary before that – so many years ago, in fact, that the handbook might have the retro quality of a classic, I like to think – if only I could actually access it.

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Now, my notes are attached to pdfs in Zotero, and I use Evernote rather than hardback notebooks for ongoing Thoughts and Ideas. I still keep a folder of ideas attached to specific pieces of writing. But I don’t regret the shift to digital for pretty much everything else that I make to write. Evernote allows me to store written notes but also to add hyperlinks and attach documents and images, and Zotero has made citations and referencing a cinch. Both are searchable. And clean. I know dust has its qualities but, really, also, just yuk.

What I couldn’t throw out were things that I had made that felt more personal somehow. I have a folder for every paper I’ve ever written, with drafts and notes of my ideas, and every grant application. I have never gone back to look at any of these ever, but throwing them away was just too much. I still have my notes from conferences. And I kept my undergraduate lecture notes and dissertation too. I think I kept all of these because they all mark, more explicitly than reading notes, the process of my thinking, what I like to think of as the creativity of academic work. They now sit on shelves in my new office, impassive reminders of what has been done – but also, as materialisations of an ongoing and otherwise elusive process, I hope energising future work too.

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do we know how to look at VR yet?

When we think about the spaces of VR, we almost always focus on the spaces that the VR user (is that the right word?) experiences while they’ve got the headset on. Equally important, though, it seems to me, are the spaces in which the VR experience takes place. This thought was prompted by Davina Jackson (thanks Davina!), who sent me a link to this video:

Quite apart from the rather groovy VR here – it’s called Mutator and it’s the work of William Latham and many colleagues – the video also shows the gallery space in which Mutator was installed, along with the VR users, tethered by cables and surrounded by large panels with images from the VR printed on them.

The spaces in which images are viewed – galleries, living rooms, cinemas, streets, trains – are not only material spaces but also social spaces, in which certain kinds of practices happen, and this includes specific, embodied ways of seeing.

But the viewing space in this video is quite unlike any other in terms of how things are being looked at. The panels suggest a gallery, except that looking at them is not the point of being there and few people are doing that. Nor can the gallery visitors doing the VR move around like you would in a gallery space. It isn’t like watching a film either; these viewers are totally isolated from other viewers when their headset is on, they’re using hand controls, they can’t see anyone else and they’re all probably all looking at something different anyway.

This profoundly unfamiliar viewing environment seems to me to be one of the major issues confronting the future development of VR. The idea that the images produced by many new visual technologies remediate aspects of old types of images is of course well established. Computer-generated images are often made to look like analogue photos, for example. But the same logic applies, often, to the ways in which new kinds of images are seen. Digital family snaps are looked at in much the same ways as analogue snaps. Google Maps on a smartphone is used in ways not entirely dissimilar to printed A to Zs. Illuminated adverts on large billboards framed our viewing of large digital screens. TV viewing was initially a bit like cinema viewing; and ambient TV (to use Anna McCarthy‘s term) was the precursor of our contemporary urban spaces where ambient screens often feel like they’re everywhere, not least in our hands. We learn how to look at new kinds of images in part by adapting the practices through which we encountered older kinds of images.

But what’s the precursor for watching VR? I don’t think there is one. In particular, I can’t think of another kind of viewing where the viewer cannot see anything of the place in which they are doing the viewing. This surely accounts for the feelings of isolation and – potentially – vulnerabilty – that some VR users report.

This uncertainty about the embodied practice of watching VR is also evident in one of the most amazing, boggling adverts currently doing the rounds: Samsung’s advert for what it modestly calls ‘The New Normal’.

A PhD thesis could be written about this ad, really – visuality, technology, domesticity, familiality, tourism, childhood, pedagogy, nature – it’s riddled with fascinating assumptions about all of these. But for now let’s just zoom into the sequence about a minute in, which shows a group of schoolchildren using VR to experience being chased by dinosaurs. (And let’s add ethics to that list of what deserves discussion in this ad.) What the bodies do in the VR experience, with the dinosaurs, is quite different from what they’re shown doing in the classroom. They run with and from dinosaurs in the VR but they’re sitting on the floor in the classroom; and when they are sitting in in dinosaur-world, it’s in a different arrangement from how they’re sitting in classroom-world. That is, the advert can’t align the bodies of the VR users in their VR experience with their material bodies.

Both the gallery goers pictured doing a VR art experience and the advert making VR part of the ‘new normal’, then, are both struggling with the embodied experiencing of VR. It’s not yet clear where VR can be seen appropriately, nor what embodied practices VR requires.  In a sense, then, both are suggesting that we don’t know yet how to look at VR.

swipe spaces and the lubrication of visual transformation

I went to the cinema on Saturday and was struck by the visuals in a couple of adverts screened before the film started. They were both very similar in the way that they showed people and locations constantly shifting one to another.

One of the ads was for Barclay’s contactless payment card which you can view it here. The other was for Uber. The Uber ad is called ‘Effortless Night’ and shows a young woman and man meeting, dancing, eating and so on. After each activity they climb into one side of a car, and then climb out the other side into a new location and a new cute event. The Barclaycard ad is very similar. A young woman stands at a photocopier, which folds open into a shop that she walks into, and the rest of the ad is her swiping her card and then leaning onto a surface (a wall) or going through an opening (a door), changing her clothes and location as she does so, ending up in a nightclub before flipping back to the office and her suit.

 

Neither ad uses obviously digital special effects; it all looks like film. (I realise that those distinctions are increasingly hard to sustain but I think you’ll know what I mean.) But it struck me that the constantly shifting locations and costumes were nonetheless influenced by the morphability that’s so central to digital visualisations. A digital film always has the potential to become an animation in which, to quote Suzanne Buchan, space and time become the real characters. In both these ads, the humans are just an excuse, it seems, to demonstrate a sort of hubbed temporality and spatiality, in which moments/locations are  visible and are connected only by the transition between each; there’s no flow or route, just sort of hinge from one thing to another: a car in the case of the Uber ad, and various walls and doors in the Barclays. Swipe spaces, if you like, a spatiality in which one location simply replaces another by an apparently routeless, kind of spaceless movement between them.

It’s the ease of these moves that seem to be the point of each advert, lubricated by the ‘effortless’ purchase of services and commodities, of course (neither of the ads make the workers in these spaces very evident: the Uber drivers are completely invisible). There’s something here about the alignment of flow, pleasure and transformation that much of digital culture seems to be cultivating right now. In these ads it’s sutured all too neatly with the apparently seamless, digitally-enabled flow of money. We’ve long been familiar with images of people constructed through the display of commodities they’ve bought: looks like this is the latest version of space/time being constructed through digitised commodification. Swipe space, anyone?

 

conference on images of urban technological futures

There’s an interesting conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 2 June.  Title: Future Passe. You can find out more here.

The conference will explore how we represent urban change and technological development in visual and textual form, historically and in the present. How has visual rhetoric been used to normalize the disruption and destruction that accompanies modern ideas of ‘progress’? And what happens when these confident predictions of future relevance fail and we are left with dead-ends and obsolete technologies, the unwanted remains of modernity?
 
There’ll be academic speakers (yes I’ll be there, talking about visions of smart cities), V&A curators, artists and filmmakers. Looks fun – and it’s free!