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When I saw this link to Star Wars dance videos on Boing Boing I suddenly realized: this is how the computer-generated movies of the future will be made. They will not emerge from the vaults of Hollywood studios, there painstakingly built by programming in angles and dimensions and movements. No, they will arise from kids using games to make films they never could before.

These videos are made using software never intended for the purpose, and that’s why it’s so perfect. Game software is about an experience, not about the result: it is constructed to give a sense of being there, with a user interface whose role is to keep out of the way, not provide detailed control. Someday it will give both.

The object of the game is basically to kill things and take their stuff. But the designers of the game included dance moves in the characters’ repertoirs of actions. The dancers log in simultaneously and synchronize their movements by hitting the right buttons at the right time. In other words, this isn’t programming: it’s performance. Performance doesn’t need programmers, it needs performers. It makes possible happy accidents and experimentation. It is an inherently social activity.

And it’s easy. It’s easy because it doesn’t need programming. It’s easy because of the user interface. It’s easy because the software is cheap and widely available. It’s easy because costumes, characters, movements, and sets are or soon will be available for download on the net. It’s easy because the filmmakers can experiment with camera angles and directing. It’s easy because once the images are captured from the game, off-the-shelf video software can be used to edit and add music. It’s easy because anyone with talent can make a music video in less than a day.

This is just the beginning. These videos are the first photographic plates, the first rolls of celluloid. The technology will only get better. The only important piece missing is the ability of the actors to do motion capture, to create their own entirely new movements. Whether through computer analysis of video or by wearing funny virtual-reality type gear, this too will come.

When it does, film will change. This is different from home videos today, which are chiefly of interest only to grandparents and Bob Saget. Technology doesn’t create talent, but it means that those with the talent will be able to make their visions come true without the budget or clout of Hollywood.

Hollywood won’t like it: they will complain of the appropriation of their intellectual property, even while these productions enhance it. The music industry will likewise fight. Copyright will chill the form for years to come. It cannot kill it. Creativity like this will not be stopped; it will find it’s distruptive path. I look forward to many more home movies.

2004-07-24

A Sixties Future

Most films don’t draw me in. Usually it’s the characters and the script which are lacking; a good story is often wasted because I just don’t care about the people. But the films I do love, like Casablanca and Chungking Express, have one other element: a sense of time and place.

It’s the same thing that fascinates me in old photographs. I can gaze endlessly in wonder at a picture of streetcars in the muddy Vancouver streets of a century ago. I try to imagine what it was like to live then, and get an echo of that thrill that ran through me the first time I stepped off the plane in Europe and the street signs were all round and the buildings flowed together. It is here, in viewing the past, that science fiction television reigns supreme.

These shows take the world as their time saw it, and project it into a future that is often shockingly alien. The old Star Trek, famous for its then-liberal attitudes, is hilarious today because of its twisted (from today’s perspective) view of sex. In one episode a man is kept alive for hundreds of years by an alien life form. The crew think perhaps it is keeping him as a pet. But when they discover the alien is female, they know there can only be one reason: love.

The Star Trek of the eighties is distant enough to be equally antique. The first few episodes seemed exciting at the time, but rapidly became ho-hum. The writers were determined to ratchet up the tension only to reveal at the end that everything was just a misunderstanding. With open communication, there were no fundamental disagreements in the Star Trek world. Of course that is what makes the series interesting today. The beige carpets, flat lighting, and ship’s counselor present a sanitized hell of political correctness, where television, film, and culture itself have ceased to exist, save for Shakespeare and classical music.

But television is a visual medium. Where set design, costumes, and monsters are concerned, Star Trek must take second place to Doctor Who. Spanning the sixties, seventies, and eighties, Doctor Who experienced changes in era, writing, acting, and directing. Best of all, it benefited from a tiny budget and all the creativity that brings with it. The Doctor’s arch enemies looked like pepper pots. The cybermen had heads like two-handled coffee mugs. No-one was afraid of building an alien city from cigar tubes and warped pieces of plastic. These worlds and monsters may look fake, but where a show with more money could afford to film in a power plant or outdoors on location, in Doctor Who the artists were free to show us how they saw the future.

When I was small, I didn’t even recognize these strange cities of round buildings and transparent spires for what they were. I thought they were machines, or simply confused results of low production values. If I had been alive in the sixties perhaps I would have understood, but the curves of pod chairs and lava lamps were foreign to me. Even when I encountered them they were usually battered relics or faded photos in magazines, a backdrop to strangers in stranger haircuts. Doctor Who bridged this distance. It – and series like it – showed that sixties styles were futuristic in their time. Ironically, science fiction gives us some of the clearest views of the past, and lets us in on the misplaced hope and idealism of a bygone era.

2004-05-10
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