(This is a slightly expanded text based on an article I wrote for the April 2018 edition of 3D Artist magazine.)
It’s said that when Catherine the Great made a grand tour of the Ukraine in 1787 down the River Dnieper, Prince Grigory Potemkin was so keen to impress her that he ordered fake village facades erected along the banks complete with peasants acting out charades of industriousness. This visual propaganda masked the poverty of his misrule, and so the story goes, fooled the monarch.
These days Potemkin with his skills of organisation and visual deception might work in the film industry. Those of us involved in Visual Effects can increasingly be thought of as World Builders; creating visually detailed 3D spaces for action or stories to take place in.
Historically VFX and ‘fooling the eye’ has negative associations when used beyond film and TV – especially when used by Potemkin’s modern descendents- politicians. It’s often propaganda; for example the recent photoshopped images of cloned North Korean missiles taking off. However I think we need to promote the idea of using VFX and 3D CGI world building skills outside of entertainment- that is, in the real world – as a force for good.
In today’s world of media education we tend to privilege narrative. After all, it’s a big deal; we chat to our friends about how poor the story was as we emerge from the cinema, or discuss the plot and story arc of episodic TV.
We’re starting to understand how the stories we tell affect how we see the world, with their morality and character rewards. In 1985 Alison Bechdel formulated the idea that any film that features at least two women can be analysed to see if they talk to each other about anything other than a man. This observation became known as the Bechdel test, and even today you’ll be surprised how few films pass the challenge. Whilst this is not an indicator of quality or how well a film is made it does reveal some common and often unnoticed assumptions in our standard cinematic fare.
I think it’s time we moved our main attention away from stories- which don’t always tend to unite us in a common shared world anymore, and sometimes even exacerbate our differences.
Instead we should think more about building imaginative digital worlds or spaces where people can create their own stories. This is harder than you think- our imagination is slowly being invaded and stunted by brands. Science Fiction is a particularly useful genre to encourage debate about where we are collectively going through the lens of where we are now- but I’ve noticed how hard it is for today’s VFX and Games students to think beyond the inventory of the powerful screen imagery and narratives they consume.
Given the choice VFX students will often design and build dystopian, post-apocalyptic scenes or imagery of ecological collapse, usually imitations of certain cinematic sci-fi themes. They draw on Blade Runner’s rain and neon, or the wastelands of Mad Max, or the totalitarianism of the Hunger Games.
This isn’t surprising, as thinking up a convincing and optimistic new world that has its own logic takes a lot of multi-disciplinary thinking, and needs to draw on far more than screen media itself. Also world building as a methodology has never been taught at school.
In our small way at my institution we are looking at how we can create new worlds to bring about positive change in conservation. We are working with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) on a project to save South China’s endangered Hainan Gibbon by creating imagery to raise awareness of its plight, re-imagining its world and presenting 3D mythological images gleaned from the indigenous people that live amongst it, as well as international ecology groups. It’s an inverse Potemkin Village, showing the world as it is, using VFX to create a rich vision of the Gibbon’s world that will change hearts and minds, a world where stories and myths about the Gibbons can be remembered and re-told.
Now is exactly the time we need to encourage world building as a 21st century skill- to design new imaginative spaces and reclaim a vision of what our future could be. We need to make world building the new storytelling. This isn’t merely an academic exercise- now more than ever we need world builders and social architects to imagine new ways we can live together. Governments around the world are starting to create Smart Cities as more of the world’s population gathers in conurbations, and these cities need re-imagining by artists and designers. For instance if we were to start from the point of accommodating the internal combustion engine and financial segregation we will just be doing what so many sci-fi clichés of today do- transferring todays structures and anxieties into tomorrow’s reality. With the threat and promise of driverless cars, the internet of things and competing AI bots, we need to design these spaces, imagine new ways of living, and let the population live out their own stories in them.