Archive for the ‘Visual Effects’ Category

Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on The Love Boat (DALL-E image from Vincent Casinghino)

Earlier this summer, my youngest son, a high-schooler, shared some images he had generated using recent versions of apps designed to produce images from text descriptions (including DALL-E 2 and Craiyon). He is quite well-versed in developments in the technoverse and described a variety of angles with recent developments in AI, particularly related to these uses.  In the realm of artificial image creation, mediateacher.net has discussed The Uncanny Valley and other topics; meanwhile, the generation of artificial content — from image creation to deepfakes to audio impersonation continues to get slipperier and harder to spot.

DALL·E 2022-08-25 10.53.20 - The skeksis from dark crystal as painted by Gustave MoreauIn our work related to media literacy, we constantly examine questions related to authenticity, truth, origin, authorship, and other factors of media messages. Artificially generated images, sounds, text, and other media creations that continue to emerge in the communicative landscapes of digital media will continue to present moving targets for media literacy. The magazine Wired offers the page The Artificial Intelligence Database to track articles and developments in this arena.  Recently, the article We Need to Talk about How Good A.I. is Getting by Kevin Roose appeared in the New York Times, asking questions like how good is A.I. getting at completing advanced tasks or “will it take my job?” or “what exactly is art (or other creative products) generated by programs and computers?”

I gave the info for the first image, but are there any guesses as to the second image?  Add a comment!  In a little while, I’ll divulge the info for the DALL-E image generated from my son’s prompt.

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In previous posts, the impact of The Uncanny Valley (or Uncatty Valleys) was discussed through a variety of examples of how CG can be used to create or alter human forms or other living creatures, along with the impact of such sights on viewers.

In recent months, there were many strong reactions to just how many uses of AI “creatures” were seen in commercials during 2019, such as during the Super Bowl.  Whether they are reflecting current fears or aspirations, or if they are being used to shape perceptions and obsessions with technology and its role in people’s lives, there is no question that how audiences are able to process and decipher digitally-created and manipulated images, particularly those of humans, is a key media question for viewers today.  And for young people, who are generally well-versed in “personal branding” and the current career choice of “influencer,” they might even wonder if those being selected to influence them are even real.

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Documentary from Media Education Foundation

From Uncanny Valleys to CG’ed faces and bodies (in Photoshopped Values), discussions of the effect of digital technologies on how our media shapes our views on the human form and how people view and judge others have been highlighted a number of times in these pages.  In the Washington Post article Hollywood’s secret beauty trick: The special effects facelift, Stephanie Merry highlights the well-hidden world of visual effects with actors and how they are used to alter the ways we see people on the screen and how they shift expectations of the general public relative to how all of us look — from small and big screens to real life.  The recent case of Pee Wee Herman’s return to the big screen and his transformations by makeup wizard Ve Neill (of SyFy’s Face Off as well) along with the digital sheen by CG artists is employed as a rare example of truth telling in a field built on deception.  Along with the article, the video from Flawless FX that accompanies the piece will be a real eye-opener to many students.  Or most anyone else outside of the well-guarded vaults (or servers) of raw footage and VFX production houses.

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far cryIn discussions of CG and visual effects on various occasions – such as ones at mediateacher.net with visual effects supervisor Greg Butler – one of the topics that regularly arises is the particular challenge of animating people.  This involves the concept of the uncanny valley – that territory whereby the closer one gets to creating an artificial human, the creepier and more repellant that version becomes (recently confirmed through research by Maya Mathur and David Reichling).  It seems to be not such a big issue for gamers (such as with Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, or Far Cry), but in fiction movies, the trend has been towards creating very cartoonish-looking people.  Among the most famous examples of the uncanny valley turning off viewers have been in the performance capture features of Robert Zemeckis, such as in The Polar Express and Beowulf, as well as earlier Pixar efforts such as Tin Toy (with that unintentionally gruesome baby) and Toy Story.  When reviewing the history of CG in animated features, it is interesting to track the development of animating humans as it settled into a distinctly stylized, successfully cartoonish look, such as in Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Up.  One notable moment in CG features that struck me was with the release of the feature Monster House, in which the setting was animated in a hyper-realistic mode and while the characters were created using performance capture, the design distinctly pursued a claymation look, most visibly noticeable in the hair of the characters.

MogWhen I was watching some British holiday commercials that were highlighted by the blog Media Psychology, I chuckled at one long ad featuring the CG cat Mog (for Sainsbury’s narrated by Emma Thompson).  I wondered, “so when cats watch this, are they creeped out?  Do they experience the uncanny valley too?  And what about dogs?  Do they get a chill down their spine watching CG puppies like when we watch The Polar Express and they yell out, ‘please, just turn on Madagascar again!'”  

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AmericanSniper_MPC_VFX_04In an earlier visit with visual effects supervisor and current head of vfx at MPC Vancouver Greg Butler, he shared perspectives on the art and business of moviemaking.  At a moment when screens are flooded with summer blockbusters that are dependent on obviously CG action scenes, such as Avengers: Age of Ultron and TomorrowlandGreg Butler’s most recent project as a visual effects supervisor on American Sniper provides very interesting perspectives on one of the most important objectives of a great deal of the effects work in today’s movies: to enhance or significantly fill in visual information from what was created and captured during principal photography in ways so that it is invisible.

Here is a link to a full interview with Greg Butler about his work on American Sniper to understand the degree to which Clint Eastwood’s movie is completely dependent on CG in order to create the world of its story.  Butler had previously worked with Eastwood on the director’s period musical Jersey Boys.  You can also check out earlier discussion of invisible effects in the earlier Close-Up interview in which Greg Butler discusses his work on Amazing Grace, among other projects.

Homemade Visual Effects with Greg Butler

Homemade Visual Effects with Greg Butler

Of course, Butler has also helped to craft some of the most compelling fantastical and imaginative worlds and characters in recent years, including groundbreaking work on both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series.  Discussing one point in the creation of Gollum that illustrates the attention to detail that one must show in this work, he commented, “In the CG model setup, there was an invisible sphere behind Gollum’s eyelid that meant that whenever his cornea moved, the skin would bulge out in a realistic way. This is the one time we got to use it because he was sleeping with his eyes closed, and his eyes moved as if he was having a bad dream. We were proud of the fact that we got to use this technique. These were the sort of subtle nuances we were seeking out to bring him to life. We want you to be completely in the movie.”  And that is the case whether you are conscious of the VFX being present or not — or if the filmmakers want you to know that they are present or not.

As one last comment on the “Art & Business of Moving Images” that goes back to Part 1, in our visit Butler shared perspectives that students do not often think about: the day-to-day life of working on the movie industry.  He comments, “If you’re interested in working in film, your choices in life become limited – unless you find an interesting avenue that occasionally people are able to find – you’re either going to end up living in the L.A. area, or you’re going to be a nomad… in terms of developing movies, the dealmaking is all L.A.  In terms of making movies, it’s L.A., but all around the world. You’re on a constant road show, touring band, carnival ride, living on a film set. And you have to live that.  Maybe it’s okay when you’re in your twenties, but it’s something to consider.  When it comes to post-production, visual effect, sound editing – your options open up a bit more: L.A. is still the center, but it’s broken down now, and there’s still lots of other places, like New York, London, Vancouver.  And that is continuing to evolve.  In fact, my company, MPC, is now opening up a new division in Montreal.”

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