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This is the author’s version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source: Carter, Chris P. (2014) Digital beings : a...

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This is the author’s version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source: Carter, Chris P. (2014) Digital beings : an opportunity for Australian visual effects. Animation Studies, 9. This file was downloaded from: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/67061/

c Copyright 2014 Chris Carter

Notice: Changes introduced as a result of publishing processes such as copy-editing and formatting may not be reflected in this document. For a definitive version of this work, please refer to the published source:

Animation Studies Online Journal Peer-­reviewed  Open  Access  Online Journal  for  Animation  History  and Theory  –  ISSN  1930-­1928

Chris Carter – Digital Beings: An Opportunity for Australian Visual Effects Posted on February 6, 2014 by Amy Ratelle

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Ongoing  innovation  in  digital  animation  and  visual  effects  technologies  has  provided  new  opportunities  for stories  to  be  visually  rendered  in  ways  never  before  possible.  Films  featuring  animation  and  visual  effects continue  to  perform  well  at  the  box  office,  proving  to  be  highly  profitable  projects.  The  Avengers  (Whedon, 2012)  holds  the  current  record  for  opening  weekend  sales,  accruing  as  much  as  $207,438,708  USD  and $623,357,910  USD  gross  at  time  of  writing.  Life  of  Pi  (Lee,  2012)  at  time  of  writing  has  grossed  as  much  as $608,791,063  USD  (Box  Office  Mojo,  2013).  With  so  much  creative  potential  and  a  demonstrable  ability  to generate  a  large  amount  of  revenue,  the  animation  and  visual  effects  industry  –  otherwise  known  as  the  Post, Digital  and  Visual  Effects  (PDV)  industry  –  has  become  significant  to  the  future  growth  and  stability  of  the Australian  film  industry  as  a  whole.  Despite  its  importance  to  filmmakers,  however,  the  industry  is  not  always economically  stable,  as  indicated  by  the  recent  bankruptcy  and  closures  of  international  award-­winning  visual effects  companies.  As  I  will  argue,  this  digital  disruption  has  provided  new  points  of  entry  for  Australia  to reposition  itself  as  a  world  leader  in  the  global  PDV  industry.    The  continued  need  for  digital  beings  that appear  in  the  same  diegetic  space  as  live  action  actors  is  a  niche  within  the  PDV  industry  that  Australia  in particular  is  well-­positioned  to  leverage  for  its  future  economic  benefit. Digital  technologies,  promising  to  simplify  and  speed  up  the  creative  process,  have  in  many  ways  led  instead  to a  more  complicated,  interdependent  and  at  times  heterogeneous  production  pipeline  that  presents  some unique  challenges  to  the  visual  effects  industry.  Current  research  activity  in  the  field  of  PDV  is  primarily concerned  with  developing  new  technologies;;  however,  a  recent  study  (Dodgson  et  al.,  2010)  conducted  across a  number  of  London  visual  effects  and  post  production  houses  reveals  that  some  of  the  biggest  problems  facing the  visual  effects  industry  today  are  not  limited  to  technological  development.  Knowledge  of  how,  when  and  to what  purpose  one  may  employ  certain  technologies  is  proving  to  be  an  ongoing  issue.  More  specifically,  the study  makes  it  clear  that  many  young  digital  artists  are,  in  fact,  far  less  knowledgeable  about  these  factors  than their  non-­digital  predecessors.  Lacking  understanding  of  the  purpose  of  the  production  pipeline  can  cause complications  and  delays  for  later  stages  of  the  production  process  (Dodgson  et  al.,  2010). In  addition  to  limited  technical  knowledge,  managing  client  expectations  has  emerged  as  a  problem  area within  the  field  that  requires  attention.  This  may  be  the  result  of  digital  technologies  causing  visual  effects  to become  so  pervasive  that  they  are  now  taken  for  granted  by  clients  who  no  longer  consider  effects  to  be particularly  “special.”  One  notable  contemporary  example  is  the  film  Black  Swan  (Aronofsky,  2010),  which features  as  many  as  210  visual  effects  shots  integrated  with  live  action  footage  (Fordham,  2011).  The implication  here  is  that  because  visual  effects  can  be  seamlessly  integrated  with  live  action,  the  spectator  often is  not  aware  that  what  they  are  seeing  is  the  result  of  the  time-­consuming  and  labour-­intensive  efforts  of  a visual  effects  artist  This  often  resulting  in  minimal  audience  ability  to  determine  which  effects  are straightforward  to  produce  and  those  which  are  extraordinarily  expensive  or  painstaking  (Dodgson  et  al., 2010).    Life  of  Pi  is  a  notable  example  of  this,  as  the  integration  of  digital  creatures  and  digitally  constructed environments  makes  it  difficult  to  distinguish  live-­action  elements  from  digital  animation  and  visual  effects. Clients  of  visual  effects  houses,  who  are  exposed  to  such  spectacle  without  fully  perceiving  the  point  of demarcation  between  the  filmed  live  action  events  and  the  digitally-­constructed  or  enhanced  elements  of  the

image,  run  the  risk  of  developing  unrealistic  expectations  for  what  is  achievable  within  limited  budget constraints.    Unrealistic  expectations  of  this  nature  place  additional  pressure  on  visual  effects  production budgets,  which  results  in  studios  competing  for  work  on  a  global  scale. The  quantity  of  digital  image  manipulation  in  contemporary  films,  the  standardization  of  tools  and techniques,  along  with  the  increasingly  fluid  and  global  PDV  workforce  has  led  to  the  commoditization  of much  of  the  PDV  work.  For  example,  crucial  but  labour-­intensive  tasks,  such  as  the  digital  removal  of suspension  wires  used  to  hold  actors  in  mid-­air  or  make  them  appear  to  fly,  and  the  conversion  of  2D  films  to 3D  stereoscopic  footage  have  been  lost  to  the  cheaper  labour  markets  of  India  and  China.  Producers  are  able  to reduce  their  postproduction  costs  by  finding  businesses  willing  to  provide  these  services  for  little  payment, largely  because  the  post-­production  sector  is  highly  competitive  and  many  businesses  worldwide  are  struggling to  find  ongoing  projects  and  work.  Budgets  for  postproduction  that  would  seem  appropriate  during  financing stage  are  reduced  to  much  lower  levels  once  the  project  begins  (Screen  Australia,  2010,  p.  92). Competing  for  work  on  cost  alone  in  this  global  economy  is  proving  to  be  an  unsustainable  business  model  for the  PDV  industry,  particularly  in  terms  of  living  wages.  With  continued  global  pressure  from  countries  such  as India  and  China,  countries  such  as  Australia  have  little  chance  of  producing  labour-­intensive  work  at  a  lower cost.  It  is  imperative  to  the  sustainability  of  the  industry  then,  that  Australia  focus  on  developing  efficient  and effective  creative  processes,  technologies  and  business  models  that  encourage  local  production  based  on innovation  and  creativity  before  cost.  The  integration  of  digital  beings  into  live  action  is  a  niche  within production  and  the  Australian  PDV  industry,  as  I  will  outline  below,  has  a  well-­established  history  as  a  world-­ class  provider  of  services  in  this  area. According  to  Screen  Australia’s  submission  to  the  Australian  Government’s  2010  Review  of  the  Independent Screen  Production  Sector,  seventy-­two  percent  of  the  total  income  earned  by  PDV  facilities  between  2005  and 2009  was  from  providing  visual  effects  services.  As  much  as  55  per  cent  of  expenditures  were  spent  on  projects that  included  character  or  creature  integration,  with  many  CG  characters  interacting  with  a  physical  location. This  included  work  on  Charlotte’s  Web  (2006),  Superman  Returns  (2006),  The  Ruins  (2008)  and  Where  the Wild  Things  Are  (2009)  (Screen  Australia,  2010).  Moreover,  from  2005  to  2009,  much  of  the  work  being outsourced  from  the  USA  to  Australia  was  eligible  for  a  government  incentive  known  as  the  Post,  Digital  and Visual  effects  production  offset.  The  PDV  Offset  is  a  thirty  per  cent  rebate  on  qualifying  PDV  expenditure. Another  production  incentive,  the  “Location  Offset,”  provided  a  16.5  percent  rebate  on  qualifying  Australian productions.  Taken  together,  the  PDV  Offset  and  Location  Offset  provided  a  strong  incentive  for  much creature/character  integration  being  carried  out  in  Australia,  using  Australian  locations.  More  recently, however,  the  strength  of  the  Australian  dollar,  coupled  with  rebates  available  in  other  countries  (such  as [1]

Canada,  for  example)  has  caused  a  reduction  in  the  availability  of  visual  effects  work  in  Australia.

Government  incentives  have  successfully  encouraged  PDV  production  in  Australia,  but  such  incentives  can unfortunately  result  in  an  unstable  industry  that  expands  and  contracts  with  project  cycles.  Project  completion can  result  in  a  loss  of  employment  and  a  need  for  PDV  artists  to  travel  abroad  to  find  the  next  project,  which  in turn  results  in  the  lack  of  a  sufficiently  skilled  local  workforce  when  projects  are  again  sourced  from  overseas. For  example,  as  many  as  600  employees  found  themselves  without  jobs  after  Happy  Feet  Two  (2011) underperformed  at  the  box  office.  Without  any  other  animated  feature  films  in  production,  Sydney-­based  Dr. D  Studios  was  not  able  to  offer  continuity  of  employment  to  staff  (Baker,  2011,  p.8).  A  reliance  on  service  work sourced  from  mainstream  Hollywood  “runaway”  productions  is  ultimately  damaging  the  Australian  PDV industry  artistically  and  financially. The  integration  of  digital  creatures  remains  one  of  the  most  creatively  and  technologically-­challenging  areas  of PDV  and  consequently  impacts  heavily  upon  the  cost  of  production.  The  Australian  PDV  sector  has contributed  to  an  extensive  range  of  highly  successful  visual  effects  films.  Yet  despite  the  local  talent  pool,  very

few  Australian  productions  have  made  use  of  the  narrative  and  stylistic  opportunities  offered  by  the  inclusion of  digital  creatures.  This  is  potentially  due  to  the  cost  of  production  inhibiting  the  creation  of  digital  creatures along  with  a  lack  of  producers  and  directors  with  a  detailed  understanding  of  how  to  implement  efficient  and effective  visual  effects. Although  it  downplayed  its  Australian  roots  through  the  use  of  American  actors  and  Hollywood  distribution, Daybreakers  (M.  Spierig  et  al.,  2009),  appears  to  be  one  of  the  few  if  not  the  only  recent  Australian productions  to  make  use  of  digital  characters.  What  is  significant  about  this  production  is  that  the  directors were  actively  involved  in  the  production  of  the  visual  effects,  creating  as  many  as  three  hundred  of  the  visual effects  shots  themselves  (Rogers,  2010).  Nor  was  Daybreakers  the  first  feature  film  on  which  these  two directors  have  been  actively  involved  in  the  creation  of  the  visual  effects.  One  of  their  earlier  films,  Undead  (M. Spierig  et  al.,  2003),  featured  as  many  as  305  visual  effects  shots  created  mainly  by  the  directors  themselves using  “off  the  shelf”  software.  Arc  FX  provided  additional  support  for  character  shots  that  became  too  time consuming  or  difficult  for  the  directors  to  handle  (Lions  Gate  Entertainment,  2005).    This  level  of  director involvement  in  the  creation  of  visual  effects  is  not  typical  for  feature  film  production. Daybreakers  and  Undead  exemplify  the  significance  of  being  able  to  match  client  expectations  with  project scope  and  available  budget.  Having  a  developed  understanding  of  visual  effects  production  gives  clients  such  as directors  and  producers  creative  freedom  while  remaining  financially  responsible.    With  regards  to  digital beings,  the  creation  and  integration  of  a  believable  creature  or  character  within  the  same  diegetic  space  as  live action  actors  remains  creatively  and  technically  complicated.    This  can  lead  to  directors  and  producers becoming  somewhat  disengaged  with  the  creative  process,  which  not  only  impacts  heavily  on  the  cost  of production  but  can  also  result  in  major  implications  for  the  final  aesthetic  outcomes  (Okun  et  al.,  2010,  p.  37). The  complexity  of  creating  digital  beings  appears  to  create  a  barrier  to  entry  for  visual  effects  production,  it  is precisely  for  this  reason  that  Australia  should  pursue  it  as  a  niche  market  that  could  provide  stable  production opportunities  into  the  future. Attempting  to  hide  the  artificiality  of  a  digital  creature  often  results  in  the  arousal  of  an  uncanny  response  in the  audience.  This  is  essentially  a  breakdown  in  the  illusion  which  animators  strive  to  maintain  and consequently  prevents  audiences  from  forming  an  empathetic  bond  with  the  characters.  While  typically  linked to  human  likeness,  the  uncanny  response  generated  by  digital  creatures  is  not  limited  to  digital  humans.  The movement  and  behaviour  of  any  digital  creature  has  the  ability  to  arouse  an  uncanny  response  in  the  audience, preventing  a  breakdown  in  the  illusion  continues  to  be  one  of  the  most  challenging  aspects  of  believable creature  animation.  This  issue  has  been  clearly  demonstrated  by  the  poor  reception  of  films  created  by Imagemovers  Digital,  a  now-­closed  animation  studio  run  by  director  Robert  Zemeckis,  for  which  motion-­ capture  and  hyper-­realism  were  central  to  film  creation.    Films  such  as  Mars  Needs  Moms  (S.  Wells,  2011),  A Christmas  Carol  (Zemeckis,  2009),  Beowulf  (Zemeckis,  2007)  and  The  Polar  Express  (Zemeckis,  2004)  have all  managed  to  arouse  the  uncanny  within  audiences  and  critics  alike.  Borrowing  from  the  field  of  android science,  the  term  “Uncanny  Valley  Effect”  has  been  used  by  the  Animation  and  Visual  Effects  community  to describe  the  breakdown  in  the  adherence  to  the  traditionally  adhered-­to  principles  of  the  illusion  of  life. The  term  is  derived  from  a  1970  paper  written  by  roboticist  Masahiro  Mori,  in  which  he  described  the  effect and  plotted  human  familiarity  on  a  graph.  According  to  MacDorman  and  Ishiguro  (2006,  p.  299),  leading researchers  in  the  field,  Mori’s  assertions  that  “perceived  familiarity  increases  with  human  likeness  until  a point  at  which  subtle  deviations  from  human  appearance  and  behaviour  create  an  unnerving  effect”  (p.  299). Interestingly,  and  more  appropriate  for  the  field  of  animation,  is  that  Mori  observed  an  amplification  of  the [2]

effect  when  movement  was  added.

Figure  1:  Simplified  Figure  of  Mori’s  Uncanny  Valley  (MacDorman  et  al.,  2006,  p.  299)

Just  as  Flueckiger  (2008,  p.  42),  has  recognized  the  limitations  of  analysing  digital  characters  based  on  the uncanny  valley  theory,  so  too  have  roboticists  such  as  David  Hanson  (2006).  Hanson  offers  a  preliminary replacement  paradigm  for  the  Uncanny  Valley,  which    he  calls  the  Path  of  Engagement  (POE).  According  to Hanson,  we propose  a  preliminary  replacement  paradigm  for  the  Uncanny  Valley.  If  the  illusion  of  life  can  be  created  and  maintained,  the uncanny  effects  may  be  mitigated.  It  may  be  that  any  level  of  realism  can  be  socially  engaging  if  one  designs  the  aesthetic  well.  This, in  effect,  would  represent  a  bridge  of  good  aesthetic,  which  inspires  us  to  name  the  revised  theory  the  path  of  engagement  (POE). (Hanson,  2006,  p.  4)

Although  the  uncanny  valley  theory  continues  to  be  a  point  of  ongoing  debate,  one  thing  is  becomes  certain  – there  is  a  breakdown  in  the  illusion  of  life  that  continues  to  be  problematic  for  hyper-­real  animation  and further  technical  research  is  required  to  understand  how  this  can  be  overcome.  Hanson’s  ongoing  research  has indicated  that  rather  than  the  definite  curve  drawn  in  Mori’s  uncanny  valley  graph  we  should  perhaps  consider the  aesthetic  space  to  be  more  like  a  “cloud  of  aesthetic  possibilities”  (Hanson,  2006,  p.  1).  The  technical  and creative  challenges  of  creating  and  sustaining  the  illusion  of  life  of  digital  beings  creates  a  barrier  to  entry  for many  studios,  which  in  turn  opens  up  an  opportunity  for  the  Australian  visual  effects  industry  to  reposition itself  as  a  world  leader. By  focusing  on  further  research  and  production  of  lifelike  digital  beings,  Australia  has  the  opportunity  to become  a  world  leader  in  a  massively  profitable  market.  Films  that  make  use  of  digital  visual  effects, particularly  those  that  combine  digital  beings  with  live  action  actors  and  environments  continue  to  perform well  at  the  box  office.  The  visual  effects  industry,  however,  is  a  labour-­intensive  and  globally-­competitive industry.  Continued  pressure  to  create  stunning  visual  effects  at  a  reduced  cost  has  put  pressure  on  PDV service  providers  in  countries  such  as  Australia.    Trying  to  provide  service  work  to  global  productions  based  on cost  is  proving  to  be  an  unsustainable  business  model.  An  approach  that  is  based  upon  innovation  and creativity  is  one  possible  way  of  building  a  more  sustainable  industry.  In  emphasizing  more  challenging  areas of  production,  there  is  less  liklihood  of  losing  projects  to  other  labour  markets.  Services  such  as  wire  removal, set  extension  and  compositing,  for  example,  are  becoming  something  of  a  commodity.  The  decreasing complexity  of  completing  such  tasks  combined  with  the  equity  of  access  to  computers  powerful  enough  to undertake  these  projects  make  them  easily  outsourced  to  other  countries.    As  I  have  shown  in  this  paper,  the creation  of  digital  beings  remains  a  technologically  and  artistically  challenging  niche  within  PDV  that  could provide  an  opportunity  for  Australia  to  develop  a  more  sustainable  industry  focus.  Innovation  and  the development  of  local  expertise  in  creating  believable  digital  beings  may  also  provide  an  opportunity  for

Australian  productions  to  achieve  international  box  office  success. Chris  Carter  is  a  Lecturer  at  the  Queensland  University  of  Technology.

Notes [1]  The  Australian  and  New  Zealand  PDV  industry  attracts  major  international  productions.  A  look  at international  feature  films  made  in  Australia  between  2005  and  2009  –  the  period  used  in  the  2010  Review  of the  Independent  Screen  Production  Sector  –  illustrates  this  point:  Don’t  Be  Afraid  of  the  Dark  (Nixey,  2011), The  Chronicles  of  Narnia:  The  Voyage  of  the  Dawn  Treader  (Apted,  2010),  X-­Men  Origins:  Wolverine  (Hood, 2009),  Knowing  (Proyas,  2009),  Nim’s  Island  (Flackett  et  al.,  2008),  The  Ruins  (Smith,  2008),  Where  the Wild  Things  Are  (Jonze,  2009),  Australia  (Luhrmann,  2008),  Fool’s  Gold  (Tennant,  2008),  Superman Returns  (Singer,  2006),  Ghost  Rider  (Johnson,  2007),  Happy  Feet  (Miller  et  al.,  2006),  Charlotte’s  Web (Winick,  2006),  Aquamarine  (Allen,  2006),  House  of  Wax  (Collet-­Serra,  2005).  In  addition  to  feature  films are  notable  television  series  and  mini-­series  which  include:  The  Pacific  (2010),  Nightmares  and Dreamscapes:  From  the  Stories  of  Stephen  King  (2006),  The  Starter  Wife  (2007),  Monarch  Cove  (2006)and Mary  Bryant  (Andrikidis,  2005).   [2]  The  uncanny  valley  (as  described  by  Mori)  is  a  point  of  tension  amongst  researchers,  with  some,  such  as David  Hanson  (Hanson  et  al.,  2005)  from  Hanson  Robotics  arguing  that  the  “valley”  does  not  exist  with  others suggesting  that  the  uncanny  valley  should  be  thought  of  as  being  more  like  a  wall  never  to  be  breached  (Tinwell et  al.,  2009).  Much  of  the  research  activity  concerned  with  the  Uncanny  Valley  has  been  centred  on  asking participants  to  indicate  their  emotional  response  to  a  variety  of  examples  ranging  from  cartoon  to  photo-­ realistic  and  trying  to  plot  their  responses  on  a  graph.  While  not  intending  to  diminish  the  importance  or rigour  of  the  research,  it  does  strike  me  as  purely  quantitative  approach  to  a  subjective  and  qualitative problem. References Baker,  Leo  (2011),  The  Winston  Churchill  Memorial  Trust  of  Australia.  Victoria,  Australia:  The  Churchill Fellows’  Association  of  Victoria. Boxofficemojo.com  (2013)  Life  of  Pi  (2012)  –  Box  Office  Mojo.  [online]  Available  at: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=lifeofpi.htm  [Accessed:  8  May  2013]. Boxofficemojo.com  (2013)  Marvel’s  The  Avengers  (2012)  –  Box  Office  Mojo.  [online]  Available  at: http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=avengers11.htm  [Accessed:  8  May  2013]. Dodgson,  Neil,  Patterson,  John  and  Willis,  Phil  (2010),  What’s  up  Prof?  Current  Issues  in  the  Visual  Effects  & Post-­production  Industry.  Leonardo,  43(1):  92–93. Flueckiger,  Barbara  (2008),  Visual  Effects.  Filmbilder  Aus  Dem  Computer.  Schueren:  Marburg. Fordham,  Joe  (2011),  Metamorphosis.  Cinefex,  (125):  11  –  24. Hanson,  D.  (2006),  Exploring  the  Aesthetic  Range  for  Humanoid  Robots,  39–42,  in:  Proceedings  of  the ICCS/CogSci-­2006  long  symposium:  Toward  social  mechanisms  of  android  science. Hanson,  D.,  Olney,  A.,  Prilliman,  S.,  Mathews,  E.,  Zielke,  M.,  Hammons,  D.,  Fernandez,  R.  and  Stephanou,  H. (2005),  Upending  the  Uncanny  Valley,  1728,  in:  PROCEEDINGS  OF  THE  NATIONAL  CONFERENCE  ON ARTIFICIAL  INTELIGENCE.

Lions  Gate  Entertainment  (2005),  Official  Undead  Site.  available  at http://www.undeadthemovie.com/main.html  [7  October  2011]. MacDorman,  K.  F  and  Ishiguro,  H.  (2006),  The  Uncanny  Advantage  of  Using  Androids  in  Cognitive  and  Social Science  Research.  Interaction  Studies,  7(3):  297–337. Mori,  M.  (1970),  The  Uncanny  Valley.  Energy,  7(4):  33–35. Okun,  Jeffrey  A.  and  Zwerman,  Susan  (2010),  The  Ves  Handbook  of  Visual  Effects:  Industry  Standard  Vfx Practices  and  Procedures.  Elsevier  Science  &  Technology. Rogers,  James  (2010),  DAYBREAKERS:  James  Rogers  –  VFX  Supervisor  –  Postmodern.  available  at http://www.artofvfx.com/?p=243  [16  May  2013]. Screen  Australia  (2010),  Submission  to  the  Australian  Government’s  2010  Review  of  the  Independent  Screen Production  Sector.  Screen  Australia.  available  at http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/documents/SA_publications/2010Review_full_Final.pdf  [18  September 2011]. Tinwell,  A.  and  Grimshaw,  M.  (2009),  Bridging  the  Uncanny:  An  Impossible  Traverse?,  66–73,  in:  Proceedings of  the  13th  International  MindTrek  Conference:  Everyday  Life  in  the  Ubiquitous  Era.  

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