VFX visions and the post-COVID fight for the adjacent possible

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Steven Johnson “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” (2010)

One of the most powerful visual tropes that seems omnipresent in VFX classrooms everywhere is that of the technological dystopia. If there was a branch of anthropology that studied the production of VFX there’d be books on this.

You see it everywhere on student reels and in class projects – panoramic yet dilapidated cityscapes suffused with smoke and atmospheric perspective; creepers and vines reclaiming what once were busy thoroughfares; the crackling of flickering neon or electrical sparks shorting across chaotic trunking, wires and rubble. You can almost smell the cordite and burning tyres. These images hint at back stories of lawless or oppressive zones antithetic to the human spirit, always seemingly imminent with unpredictable threat.

Admittedly these cadaverous shells of buildings replete with crepuscular jumbles of distressed metal seem visually far more alluring to us than the shapes and objects we might find in our own regulated and neat city centres or tamed bucolic landscapes, especially if you live in a market town or a dull faceless suburb.

Of course you might reasonably point out that students are only feverishly referencing the speculative dystopian ideologies we all receive through popular film and games formats. Take your pick from Blade Runner, Last of Us, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Man in the High Castle, Hunger Games, Mad Max, Mirror’s Edge or a thousand others. After all, these are the products of the kind of companies where our VFX and Games students want to eventually work.

There’s little compunction for those students to take the skills of photorealism and compositing and leverage them into changing the real physical environments they find around them through architectural visualisation or 3D design and construction. Helping redesign the future of the Greenwich Peninsula or swathes of American rust belt just isn’t as stimulating as images of a Blade Runner inspired holographic hoarding overlooking a row of dilapidated noodle bars down some ‘neon and noir’ detritus-strewn alley.

In VFX culture it’s almost a tradition to show your skills through the creation of a dystopian or post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s become a well-worn genre to cut your teeth on, with it’s own narrow conventions.

As a kind of pixel-fuelled baroque full of overwrought decoration and moody colour palletes, it’s easy to see why this form has proliferated within VFX, which after all is all about surfaces and spectacle rather than any critical exploration of human social structures.

VFX images of dystopia don’t need context or coherence. They don’t need to illuminate social causality or recognise political oppression, in contrast to the eerie drone shots of Syria’s pummelled towns like Aleppo or Homs that tell real stories of strategic strikes and systematic terror.

According to author and American historian Jill Lepore “Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance,” but now “it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen 21st century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness.” 

In a dystopian VFX image you don’t need to think through the logic of how the streetlights work for that area, or why the breakdown of localised planning restrictions might lead to such clusters of soba-ya sole traders. Or why in these futuristic visions it’s always Japanese scripting rather than Indian or Chinese, despite the decline of Japan’s influence in the 21st century. In short, its about what looks cool rather than what stands intellectual interrogation.

You could argue that art imitates nature here and a mech-strewn apocalypse is somehow holding a mirror up to the human condition. Just as zombies have become the sine qua non icon of our own fear of others, so the dystopian and sometimes apocalyptic cityscape is the symbol of our morbid fascination and love/hate relationship with the constraints of living together en masse.

But maybe in the incoming COVID fuelled anthropocene era we need to look again at how we use our imagery. Maybe we need to encourage a different kind of adjacent future.  


These often inventive visions are seductive and fascinating but in the COVID era should we be rethinking the power that digital image makers have to germinate ideas for a different future? If not a utopia, then at least apply our image making to questions of what it means to live together and organise ourselves post-pandemic in a neutropia or neutral utopia, a form of speculative fiction not limited by the extremities of good or bad.

The great isolation experiment we are undergoing due to COVID is most oppressive for young people because of its lack of borders or definition- no end date, no timeline to return to what seems a rapidly retreating memory of ‘normality’ and no certainty it will even then be impervious to relapse.

In her article “The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course” (May 11, 2020), Distinguished Professor of English and Founding Director of the Futures Initiative at CUNY  Cathy Davidson states “Before we begin to design our fall syllabus, before we make clever instructional videos, we all need to think from a student’s point of view.  We need to try to understand what it means to be studying for a future you don’t know that you will have. No one knows what lies ahead in the best of times. Now, all the predictions seem like some dystopian futuristic novel. Total social breakdown? Total economic collapse? A health emergency in which millions die over the next three or four years? How do you study to prepare for this future?”

My suggestion is that in these times we might want to enable our students to envisage new positive futures and engineer into these their own agency to rewire society. There may be a limited time window where fresh visions of the future based around different ways of living and working can be germinated and triggered through the digital images we imagine and create. “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember” said Confucius (supposedly).

Thomas More coined the term Utopia because it translates as Nowhere. That’s not what I’m suggesting. Could those who have the skills and ability to envision new adjacent possibilities in our future be encouraged to design at the least neutropias that could inspire future city planners, architects and politicians? Imagine the creative force of hundreds of young people turning to the challenge of envisioning a post-COVID world with different streets, different collective activities, a different biosphere, and different yet liberating affordances.

In her article Davidson continues“We need to design as humans for humans in a global crisis. We need to design our courses with the awareness of pain, dislocation, uncertainty, and trauma now central to all our lives…providing a space and structure where they can think powerfully about themselves and the world beyond Fall 2020, beyond this plague, beyond trauma. It does what the best education is designed to do: it offers students a tool that helps them be stronger in the present and build towards their own and society’s better future”.

We need new images to kickstart the future we want to live in. As Jill Lepore says a dystopia “nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices”

I would argue that’s no longer good enough for us educationalists.

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