[-empyre-] CG and all things fuzzy, and some thoughts on ethics

Paul Ward pward at aucb.ac.uk
Mon Feb 15 20:54:41 EST 2010

Hi All
I'll come back (in a separate post) to the issue of CG, how it is taught here where I work at the Arts University College at Bournemouth, 
and how what we do can be contextualised more broadly in the UK (and beyond). It's typical of online discussions like this that you 
see one thing and think "Must add to/respond to that!" and then, by the time you get to it, the discussion has moved on in many 
interesting directions!
I think the ways that digital technology is (and has been) reconfiguring animation is one of the central research topics out there.
As Suzanne points out, it can take us into debates about ethics and what Peter Lunenfeld (talking about the digital in relation to
photography) has called "the dubiative image". This is an image that, rather than being based on an indexical link with some 
material object that passed before the camera, with all the assumptions/conventions of truth, authenticty and so on that that brings, 
is an image that is given to doubt, or is doubted by the viewer, of doubtful provenance. 
In relation to animation and where it interfaces with visual effects, there is of course a paradox at times (most of the time, in fact) - 
many of the things done in ostensibly 'live action' films, using animation-derived effects, passes by unnoticed. Maybe this isn't a 
paradox after all but merely a mis-labelling . . . often, the effects are described as 'special' effects, which might suggest that they 
are there for a 'wow' factor, to be noticed. 'Visual effects' could then be said to be those (digital) effects that are used to enhance 
the seamless illusion of the live action, whilst special effects are those that are noticed, marvelled at, and so on
(In the 'business' there is a simpler division: 'special' effects are those that are done in front of the camera - using prosthetics, 
blood bags etc - whereas 'visual' effects are those (now almost always digital) effects that are done in post-production)
Dan North's recent book "Performing Illusions" does a great job of tracing the lineage of these sorts of interfaces and overlaps, 
moving towards a focus on digitally animated performances (synthespians), but linking these back to magic theatre, via Melies and then
Willis O'Brien's and Ray Harryhausen's stop motion effects. He constructs a convincing typology for how we might understand these 
sorts of images, and how they are addressing the spectator. To quote Dan, summing up his book in his blog "Spectacular Attractions"
"if I had to sum up the book, I'd say that it is rather old-fashioned in its attempts to conceptualise the spectator's engagement and 
interaction with illusionistic images: this approach is supposed to be applicable to all kinds of special effects, no matter how "advanced" 
the technologies used in their manufacture might be. I do this by setting out a template drawn from the 19th-century magic theatre, arguing 
that the interplay between magician and audience, and the balance between revelation and concealment, might be a useful way to 
understand the ways in which viewers of films are drawn to an oscillatory position between immersion in a narrative and a more distant 
(but arguably just as powerful and interpretative) appreciation of the foregrounded display of technology."
Dan is also currently doing research on puppet films and the material aspects of puppets as artefacts. He'll be presenting some work in
progress at this year's Society for Animation Studies (SAS) conference in Edinburgh (9-11 July), where I hope to see Suzanne (you are heading 
to ECA, Suzanne?) and perhaps some others on this discussion? Certainly I should see Simon there, as his institution is hosting! I know the 
discussion would normally frown on conference plugs, but this one is central to what we are talking about . . . See: 
http://animation-evolution.blogspot.com/ As the current President of the SAS, it would be remiss of me not to plug them and the conference
To jump back to ethics and animated manipulation of images, one of the best things on this topic I've read in recent years - and I was 
delighted for it to be in a special issue of a journal that I guest edited (which also includes an essay by Suzanne on the Quays) - was 
Joanna Bouldin's essay on digital morphing, child pornography, and legislation in the USA. Highly recommended, available online at:
http://arts.brunel.ac.uk/gate/entertext/issue_4_1.htm (this URL takes you to the Contents page for the issue, then click on the Bouldin essay
(or any of the others - some good stuff there!))
I'll leave it there for now, but come back on some of the other topics separately
best wishes


From: empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au on behalf of Suzanne Buchan
Sent: Sat 13/02/2010 18:01
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: RE: [-empyre-] CG and all things fuzzy, and some thoughts on ethics


(I can't turn off HTML on the email I'm suing, so I hope the inserted line breaks improve reading.) 

 Many practice-based animation and film programmes - as well as photography and design - 
 are increasingly replacing analogue with digital, with all the implications. 
 While I'm not a hands-on 'practitioner' per se - I don't teach practice - I can say that 
 my university has two programmes, and both use digital tools but foreground 
 fine arts-based style, process and students attend life-drawing classes. 
 There are others who follow the same material-based philosophy, including 
 Simon's and the RCA' this is not, however, representative of the wider general 
 shift to digital. 

With the current disastrous funding cuts at HEIs in the UK, a room of 
 computers is more sustainable than puppet animation studios and 
 art rooms; hence it is becoming digital almost everywhere. This has 
implications on how students learn, speeds up production instead of 
slowing down, the process of drawing, painting and model building 
is very much part of developing narrative, and good analogue films 
need time. Others here in empyre who are practice-based can probably 
 answer your question better. 

Your question about CGI brings me to another set of thoughts about the 
 digital and the artefact and some ethical implications that arise from the 
 use of CGI in animation and film. Since the digital shift, the manipulated 
 moving image has been the focus of heated debates around representation, 
 truth values and ethical responsibility of its commissioners, makers and 
distributors. The unreliablility of the photographic image as it became 
 enhanced or altered by digital technologies has had a profound effect 
on audiences, a topic thematised by Thomas Elsaesser, Lev Manovich 
 and Siegfried Zielinski, ethical philosopher Jane Bennett (The Enchantment 
 of Modern Life, 2001) and by others who may be on empyre. 

The increasing convergence, barrage and resulting pervasiveness of 
manipulated imagery, including traditional and digital animation, has 
overwhelmed many of its viewers, and this has pressing philosophical 
 and ethical connotations. In terms of the status of indexicality and truth 
 claims of the visual, in 1998 Elsaesser suggested a crisis was evolving: 
 "Any technology that materially affects this status, and digitisation 
would seem to be such a technology, thus puts in crisis deeply-held 
 beliefs about representation and visualization, and many of the 
 discourses - critical, scientific or aesthetic - based on, or formulated 
 in the name of the indexical in our culture, need to be re-examined." 
(Elsaesser, Thomas, "Digital Cinema: Delivery, Event, time", in: 
Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable?,1998. Pp. 201-222) 

While following these debates, I became sensitised to one specific i 
mpact of manipulated images during a screening of Roland Emmerich's 
1994 Independence Day. In the rather naive encounter between the 
 American missionaries and the alien Mother ship we witness a brief 
 moment, only a few frames, when a fireball engulfs the pilot on impact. 

Now in itself, this is not an unfamiliar scene, and it has been repeated 
 in action and war films to excess. My point here is that the image 
manipulation was of the 'invisible' sort, i.e. not 'in-your-face' CGI that 
 creates spectacle that is highly aware of its difference to so-called 
 normal perception and representation. 

The fireball in the cockpit was created to look like live action. 
So -  what's the problem? Well, in that fraction of a second of ID4, 
an image flashed in my mind that, depending on your generation, 
may also be indelibly etched in your own.: this 1963 photo by Malcolm Brown 


The mental image of this while watching ID4 was an emotional response 
 on my part, a response of what could be described as 'negative empathy' 
 that incited ethical awareness about the inherent 'wrongness' of this scene. 

This personal example might illustrate why we need articulated critical 
reactions to films like these, to  facilitate a sober understanding of the 
 impact such films are having on our collective sense of ethics. 

 In light of the inane acceptance of violent images 
just because we are 'used to them' and the role CGI and animation 
has to play in this, addressing the crisis rooted in the loss of indexical 
truth could effectively address a re-examination of the discourse around 
 ethical responsibility in image production. Discussions around animation - 
 especially the kind we are not supposed to see - have tended to focus 
 on technical wizardry and the properties of programmes to create the 
 impossible. It may be part of a new body of work for critical investigations 
 of spectatorial manipulation in a digital age, a territory that needs 
 ethical navigation to understand the philosophical  consequences of 
 this kind of imagery. 

The next issue of the ANM journal (5.1) will have an essay by philosopher 
and cultural studies scholar Elizabeth Walden that explores just these issues 
 and discusses a puppet animation film; she discusses how "elements of 
the narrative structure and the camera work give the materials used in the 
 character's project a moral standing in the film, which draws audience and 
 filmmaker as well as the character into an ethical situation which is 
significant to our shared moment in the digital era." 

So I'll leave this for now, and see if anyone has some thoughts on it. 

I'm also happy to engage with the Quays' works, if there is interest out there. 


-----Original Message----- 
From: empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au on behalf of Renate Ferro 
Sent: Sat 2/13/2010 04:37 
To: soft_skinned_space 
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] CG and all things fuzzy 
Dear Paul and Suzanne, 

Can you both talk about how CG fits into your animation programs?  At 
Cornell, Computer Graphics and 3D animation is taught by Computing 
faculty.  It is in the art department where students, particularly 
recently, have been creating stop action, frame by frame, roto-scoping, 
drawing based and a medley of other fuzzies. Whether working  from 
photography based or original drawing. their novel, quirky rendering 
styles, interdisciplinary interests and criticality make their work fresh 
and innovative. 

How does it work in the UK? 


Renate Ferro 
Visiting Assistant Professor 
Department of Art 
Cornell University, Tjaden Hall 
Ithaca, NY  14853 

Email:   <rtf9 at cornell.edu> 
Website:  http://www.renateferro.net <http://www.renateferro.net/>  

Co-moderator of _empyre soft skinned space 

Art Editor, diacritics 

empyre forum 
empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au 


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