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Last year Routledge released Artificial Culture, my first book, as a paperback (having only been available as a very expensive hardback before then). Today I received five author copies in the mail which is very exciting – it really exists – but I’ve already given most of the hardback copies away, so I wasn’t quite sure what to do with these. So, naturally, I asked Twitter, and the smart folks there suggested a competition to find good homes for them. So a competition it is. With one caveat: I’d *really* like some feedback about the book, reviews, whatever. There have been a few reviews in scholarly journals, but – weirdly perhaps – I’d love a comments on the book’s Amazon page.
So, here’s the deal: if you’d like a copy of the book, leave a comment below, or on Twitter, or on Facebook, and on Monday (my time) I shall randomly select three people to get copies. If you get one, you agree within one month to write at least two sentences about the book on Amazon.com and give it a star rating. You don’t have to like the book – if you hate it, give it one star if you really want – but you should feel obliged to respond (and therefore have read it).
I should add, that in the unlikely event that I get more interest than books, I’ll prioritise people who can’t easily access one via their university library (or order in for their library, as most fulltime academics can).
Don’t feel the need to leave your details in the comments (privacy and all that): if you win, I’ll email you and ask for mailing details (do make sure you leave me an email address if you’re commenting here).
To get a sense of what the book argues, please read the blurb and make sure you really do want a copy (it’s a bit different to the stuff I’m currently working on; it’s more cultural studies than anything to do with social media).
Update (4 Feb 15): Thanks for all the interest and comments here, on Twitter and on Facebook! It’s greatly appreciated and it’s heartening to see real interest in the book! I’ve let the three randomly selected winners know (yes, I did print the names and put them in a box and select randomly!). Hopefully that means there will be a few reviews floating around at some point in the near future!
Routledge released my first book, Artificial Culture, in paperback today. While a paperback might not seem that big a deal, I’m actually quite excited. When Artificial Culture first came out, while I was delighted, I was also pretty embarrassed by the $140 price tag. I never really expected anyone but libraries would ever be able to afford it, and I treated my 5 author copies as if they were gold (all given away now, except one). I never had a book launch because I didn’t want anyone to feel obliged to try and buy the book.
I was actually quite relieved to discover that quite a few libraries (and maybe a few humans, too) actually bought a copy. Enough that Routledge have been willing to actually do a paperback run; this was helped immensely by Professor Veronica Hollinger’s kind review in which she asked:
I am seriously considering reading some of Artificial Culture with the students in my senior-year seminar on ‘Science Fiction and Technoculture’, and it would also be an appropriate text to include in graduate courses. Routledge, where’s my paperback?
Thankfully, I can now answer: the paperback’s available widely, and for (really!) $100 less than the hardback, for $US45 (or $39 on Amazon currently; or for Australians, factoring in postage, Book Depository seems you cheapest option). Update: Routledge have also reduced the price of the Kindle version to match the paperback! 🙂
The cover, I should add, is the same as the hardback, but the poster above is what I fancifully imagine cover art might have looked like if a bespoke design had been possible (I know it’s a bit silly; maybe that’s why I didn’t get to do cover art!).
If you’re curious about the book, the opening material and first chapter can be read for free online. Oh, and anyone going to see the new Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game might want to read pages 7 to 9 for my take on Turing’s work and life (I’m a big fan!).
Here’s a little piece I had in today’s Conversation …
Oscars for animals? Andy Serkis should be beating his chest
By Tama Leaver, Curtin University
The notion that a chimpanzee could win an Academy Award for acting (or anything else) seems farcical at first glance but, of course, it’s not an actual chimpanzee being discussed in the case of the latest role by Andy Serkis.
Rather, it’s an incredibly sophisticated amalgam of the actor and the very latest computational visualisation techniques from Weta Digital.
Serkis’ performance as Caesar, the leader of the fledgling ape society in the recently-released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) once again has Hollywood commentators pondering the possibility of an Oscar nod for a synthespian – a synthetic thespian or virtual actor – but this is far from the first time this question has been raised.
Andy Serkis has been behind some of the most memorable cinematic faces of the last decade, but it’s not quite his face. Rather, Serkis has held pioneering roles utilising performance capture technology.
Performance capture features the real-time recording and digitisation of an actor’s movements, which are then used to drive a complex digital model.
With the digital powerhouse of Weta Digital behind him, Serkis’ performances have driven Gollum from The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) (and now The Hobbit – 2012, 2013, 2014) films, the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), and the role of Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and the new sequel, Dawn.
For many, the question of where the acting ends and the computer-generated imagery begins, undermines the authenticity of a performance captured role as a performance, but no performance exists in a vacuum. Every actor’s appearance is constructed through costume, make-up and lighting, their dialogue taken from a script, the eventual role on screen painstakingly led by a director, and carefully filtered and refined during the editing process.
Performance capture is similar in many ways, but with the additional digital processing to translate the motion and facial expressions of an actor onto an often non-human character.
In a brief promotional featurette, Serkis explains how the performance capture technology has developed, with scenes now able to be shot outdoors where once they had to be on a soundstage against a green screen.
Most significantly though, for Serkis, is the fidelity with which the performance capture cameras and software can directly map an actors’ face and performance onto the digital character they are playing.
And given that technology has always been part of acting, the authenticity of performance captured roles speaks to the symbiotic relationship between fleshy, embodied actors and the informatic machines that enhance and facilitate those performances.
Early industry fears that synthespians might replace “real” actors reveals an insecurity about the relationship between people and technology. If a character can simply be created by a computer, the millions of dollars spent on A-list stars might just seem a little unnecessary.
The reality of performance capture, though, shows the opposite to be true: its takes a huge team to bring a single performance capture character to screen, with the actor remaining integral, filmed in excruciating detail, but also then combining software engineers, digital artists, and a range of other digital effects personnel to keep the best of the performance and use it to drive a state-of-the-art digital model.
Yet every director and crew who have worked with Serkis since his days as Gollum, as well as Serkis himself, have spent over a decade arguing for the legitimacy of performance capture as “real” acting.
After the pivotal role of Serkis in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), New Line Cinema and director Peter Jackson led the first attempt to get a role driven by performance capture acknowledged at the Academy Awards.
In his first outing as Caesar, Serkis was widely applauded, with 20th Century Fox mounting a campaign for a best actor nomination. Co-star James Franco was particularly vocal in arguing that Serkis’ performance was integral to the character, worthy of critical attention and praise.
And with the success of Dawn, the director and co-stars are once again lining up to applaud Serkis’ performance.
In terms of literally performing animals, Serkis and the team playing the various apes in the film do a remarkable job in evoking empathy without sacrificing the specificities of chimpanzees and other apes.
It is noteworthy that Rise received a specific commendation from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) about the way animals were portrayed and filmed. Having a human actor behind the animal performances not only guarantees no animals will be harmed on set, but at a deeper level also begs the question about the relationships between humans and animals.
Such questions are at the heart of Dawn, wherein the similarities between apes and humans drive the plot rather than intrinsic differences.
Andy Serkis’ role as Caesar is central to Dawn, and as numerous online features emphasise, this is his acting, and his performance. Whether this is the year that such a digital performance is captured by the Oscars or not remains to be seen.
Tama Leaver receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC).
Having let this blog become more link digests than anything else, I promised myself I’d write a bit more about my research activities, so with that in mind, I’m looking down a new research path and thought I’d share my very first thoughts. As usual, it has taken a deadline to galvanise any writing, but the Call for Papers for the Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction sounded enticing so, below is the chapter abstract I submitted today. (There’s no guarentee it’ll be accepted, of course, but this chapter will get written one way or another as it has definitely fired my imagination). Feedback or thoughts are welcome, of course!
Performing Animals: Synthespians, Primates and Cinematic Sympathy
Virtual actors, or synthespians (‘synthetic thespians’), simultaneously expand what ‘acting’ actually entails whilst also asking film viewers to sympathise with often non-human entities in contexts which strive for verisimilitude. Initial industry responses to synthespians centred on fears that unpaid virtual actors could replace human beings but Dan North argues that rather than making actors superfluous, synthespians actually illustrate ‘an interdependence between the human and the machine, the digital and the analogue, the real and the simulated’ (2008, p. 183). The performance capture technologies behind synthespians facilitate a complex symbiosis between the visceral, physical performance of actors and the informatic and computational artistry of cutting edge digital media. While scholarly attention has been paid to virtual actors portraying fictional creatures or aliens – such as Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) or the Na’vi in Avatar (2009) – this chapter instead examines synthespians who are performing (as) animals.
Focusing on Kong from Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) and Caesar from Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), both of whom are performed by actor Andy Serkis and the special effects team at WETA Digital, this chapter will argue that primate synthespians complicate and challenge the boundaries between people and animals, between natural and technological, and between the computational and ecological (amongst others). To provide historical and cultural context, I will draw on antecedents from the Kong and Planet of the Apes franchises as well as contemporary texts, such as the documentary Project Nim (2011) which details a 1970s experiment scrutinising the nature/nurture divide in which a chimpanzee was raised as a human child. The strong critical and commercial success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes suggests audiences can readily sympathise with a primate protagonist, while Barbara Creed has similarly argued that Jackson’s Kong is ‘a screen animal who holds our sympathies throughout the film’ (2009, p. 191). Indeed, recognising its role in promoting animal rights, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has actually given Rise of the Planet of the Apes their official approval. Ultimately, this chapter will explore the way these films generate sympathetic digital primates, the inherent contradictions in provoking sympathy by replacing animals with actors performing animals, and how these films and audience reactions may serve as a focal point for broader consideration of the relationships between people, primates, nature and technology.
Creed, B. (2009). Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
North, D. (2008). Performing Illusions: Cinema, Special Effects and the Virtual Actor. London & New York: Wallflower Press.
[Image Source: The Hollywood Reporter]
I find the Centre for PostNatural History equal parts fascinating and provocative:
Their mission: “dedicated to the advancement of knowledge relating to the complex interplay between culture, nature and biotechnology. The ‘postnatural’ refers to living organisms that have been altered through processes such as selective breeding or genetic engineering to meet human desires. The mission of the Center for PostNatural History is to acquire, interpret and provide access to a collection of living, preserved and documented organisms of postnatural origin.”
The ‘postnatural’ isn’t a new term, but I love the idea of this as the theme for a museum; it destabilises the sense of natural history so often associated with museums, and really throws the interweaving of technology and nature into focus. Having just finished a marathon writing effort on my book, I can see many significant connections between the postnatural and what my work on Artificial Culture tries to do in terms of popular culture. More on that in a later post.
For more information on the postnatural, there’s a good interview with the Centre’s director Richard Pell over at Make Money, Not Art.