Review: Where code collide: the Emergent Ecology of Avatar

Wood, A. (2012),   Where code collide: the Emergent Ecology of Avatar. Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 309(7)

motion capture avatar

(Picture: Motion capture in Avatar)

This article provides a theoretical understanding of digital visual effects in Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) , which is one of the key texts for my research. It focuses on the real-time motion capture technology using in pipeline for the generation of CGI characters.  The author introduces media ecological approach to examine motion capture technology as well as  the connections between the text and its associated text which shows the making of this film. She argues  that Avatar and its associated texts are considered as an ecology of emergent space.

Associated text as an important primary sources for studying digital visual effects

One of the key contribution of this research is to identify the importance of analysing the associated text for studying digital visual effects in film as Wood points out these text shows the connections between filmmakers and filmmaking technology.  In another word, I think these associated text contains the information of the making process of the film, which supposed to be  invisible in the final photorealism  composition of film. The example of associated text of avatar given by the author  are as follow : production culture disclosures released online on Wired’s website as interviews and featurettes, articles discussing 3D cameras and techniques, motion capture developments and extensive CGI work. In relating to my research, I am currently focused on identifying the associated text showing the use of digital compositing technology, especially about the contributions of different visual effects companies and  the cooperation between them. The following sources are useful:

1) Visual effects breakdown is one of the source which helps to identify where compositing take place. Even though the editing of visual effects breakdown video  are very fast which limits the information it shows, these video tells what the scene look like before and after compositing, which part of the scene is CGI and where green screen is sued.

Example: Hobbit: an unexpected journey Vfx Breakdown ( website link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFzRR5LJgjs)

2) Visual effects magazines

I am currently reading visual effects magazines such as FX guide( http://www.fxguide.com), VFX world magazine (http://www.awn.com/magazines/vfx-world-magazine/all?page=1), cinefex (http://www.cinefex.com), Creative cow (http://magazine.creativecow.net) ,The post (http://www.postmagazine.com/Press-Center/Topics/Visual-Effects.aspx), and Animation magazine (http://www.postmagazine.com/Press-Center/Topics/Visual-Effects.aspx). These magazine provides introduction of the what job different visual effects companies have been done for one film and they also have interview articles with visual effects supervisors talk about the making of the films.

3) Web site of visual effects companies is very useful source for studying the history, location, current and past works of the company as well as their expertise. Most visual effects companies also release their visual effects breakdown with short explanation of their work for certain films. So that it helps to find out the key sequences that the companies works on.

4) Social media of visual effects companies

The social media of visual effects companies such as Facebook page of Weta digital (Link:https://www.facebook.com/wetadigitalvfx?fref=ts) also provides additional information of their works.

I am also looking for more sources that show the connections among digital compositing in films. But I think it is necessary  to consider that some of the associated text themselves are media so that some factors such as editorial policy may influence the way they talk about compositing. Moreover the accountability of online resources also need to be considered.

Ecological approach for studying digital technology

This article also suggests an ecological approach for study digital technology, which focus on the connectivity between human and technology as well as other factors the influence the use of digital technology.  This approach is interesting because it shows the connections and interaction. From this perspective, the examination of digital visual effects technology could be deeper and more all-round. As social, cultural, economical and human factors related to it would not be ignored.

The author use this approach to study Avatar and argues that:  “Within the connections running between humans and technologies in Avatar and its associated texts is an ecology of emergent space. The materiality of this space is drawn from the various entities involved in its configuration.” (310) In order to support this argument, she lists entities that needs to be considered for the film’s bioluminescent landscape, which are software, director James Cameron and effects artist Rob Power’s knowledge, actor’s performance, camera movements possible in the technologically mediated motion capture set up, editing pat- terns, colour palette and sound design.

She further argues “Often the term ‘photorealistic’ is used to describe even fantastical imagery in Avatar. But this description only tells us that we recognize one of the codes that inform the materiality of the emergent space that defines the Pandoran landscape.” (310) Wood’s finding suggests a systematic study of the making of digital effects and the various factors that influences how technologies are used and how films look finally in cinema. I think it is important to interview various professionals working for one  film such as Avatar to find out more about that.

Emergent space and transnational cooperation

Woods did not provide a clarified definition of the emergent space which is key to her argument. By my understanding it refer to the space between digital filmmaking technology,  the making of film and film text as a completed piece of work. In related to my research, artists as well as post production companies in various locations are working for this space and building it, which may offers more connects to the ecology. So that it would be very helpful it I could get a chance to interview them for example artists for Avatar that working in the various companies such as Weta Digital, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Framestore, Prime Focus World,  Hybride Technologies,  Hydraulx, BUF, Blur Studio, Pixel Liberation Front, Spy Post Digital,  Lola Visual Effects, LOOK! Effects, Stereo D and The Third Floor.

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