We spoke to Anja Kirschner and David Panos about their short film Uncanny Valley (2013), which can be seen at Canary Wharf Underground Station until Sunday 22 December, as part of Stop!, our off-site collaboration with Art on the Underground.
Your new short film for Canary Wharf Screen comprises footage of motion capture techniques and CGI animation, why did you choose to use this material?
Uncanny Valley (2013) developed from an on-going interest in different acting and performance techniques, which started during our 2010 feature length film about Bertolt Brecht, ‘The Empty Plan’. While talking with the actors on that film we found out that many of them were increasingly working in the gaming industry, doing voice overs and motion capture scenes for the non-linear narratives that are woven into game play. These implications seemed very interesting, in terms of new demands on performers, but also in terms of the various assumptions about realism and emotional engagement that these processes hold.
We put the new film together with an emphasis on two different types of image or ‘shot’. The ‘close up’ gives emphasis to the human face and the communication of feelings. One of the key focuses of new animation technology has been to get as much data as possible to render faces real and not spookily ‘uncanny’, and to get audiences to empathise with animated characters. We also wanted to contrast the close up with the digital ‘long shot’ – in particular the increasingly ubiquitous long shots of crowds that appear in mainstream cinema and video games. Crowd simulation technology which mobilises thousands of animated characters, each based on a motion captured actor, has enabled the last decade of mainstream cinema to be somewhat defined by huge crowd scenes – enormous battles or hordes of zombies. These new representations of anonymous masses seemed to stand in an interesting relation to the quest for more real or ‘human’ close ups.
How does the piece relate to your wider practice?
We saw this work as part of an on-going series of installation works about acting preparation and process. The first in that series, Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances (2011), was about the influential acting methods of Sanford Meisner. Uncanny Valley is incredibly different in many ways, but both works deal with the same question ‒ what processes do actors go through to create ‘realistic’ depiction of human beings that stimulate emotion and empathy in the viewer?
Uncanny Valley also picks up on our longstanding interest in digital effects, compositing and green screen work. From Polly II (2006) onwards, in which we depicted a flooded London in the not-so-distant future, we used these techniques to create ‘epic’ scenes, a pastiche of genre movies, while retaining an anti-naturalistic DIY aesthetic. In later films, we used the technique subtly to create a manipulated flatness that worked against the historical ‘depth’ of the subject matter. In our more recent films, Ultimate Substance and Uncanny Valley we’ve started to self-reflexively examine these technologies and the way that digital manipulation has a kind of abstract quality that mirrors late-capitalism ‒ with the green screen as a new symbol of abstraction and infinite substitution.
The representation of crowds is a subject that has been lurking in many of our films. We’ve tended towards themes that deal with social existence and mass-movements as much as individual characters. In every film we’ve contrived ways in which we depict large masses of people in a cinematic way on limited means. So exploring crowd simulation technology made a lot of sense.
The film takes technique and process as a starting point, are you interested in revealing the textural and material aspects of digital processes?
In some ways we’re interested in the mediations that produce these manipulative illusions rather than simply their outcome ‒ the polished, totally finished surface image. At the moment a lot new work seems caught up in an aesthetic of surface without trying to understand the way that these images are produced and presented, and the demands made on those working to create them.
On the level of narrative construction, there are the narrow commercial protocols that underlie the scripts of games and action movies. Then there’s the algorithms used for crowd simulations ‒ which are be based on swarm behaviour ‒ the very opposite of the phenomenon of a crowd composed of individuals that can act in unpredictable ways. Here even seemingly random movement is part of the program. This was also one of the reasons why we kept the animated footage quite raw with all the glitches that were produced in the programming and rendering stages.
On the level of the actual motion capture process there are objects and subjects of indefinite status. Take for example the ‘furniture’ or rather the stand-ins for objects that actors work with in motion capture. These blank, abstract boxes traced with florescent colours that will eventually be replaced by ‘real-looking’ digital objects. These seem to be almost the abstract ‘real’ of the digital world ‒ everything stripped to is most basic essence of equivalent boxes without real use value or character.
What does the films abstract narrative suggest?
There is no intended narrative in the work, but the combination of images does suggest multiple readings that might comment on the non-virtual world today. The utilitarian bluntness of the motion capture studio we’ve talked about seems to speak of the increasing austerity of daily life. Somehow the dialectic produced between close-up and long-shot, individual and crowd, seems suggestive, in a period when social transformation and change is instigated by individuals mobilised in crowds. The emphasis is really on the structures that produce the images, which, in their near-complete alienation and lack of context, strive for an illusion of heightened naturalism.
Will the film lead to a wider investigation of its subjects in the future?
Uncanny Valley is part of a series of works concerned with the evolution of acting techniques in relation to historical events and the objectives and technical capacities of the entertainment industry. But, it also carries traces of works that we are currently developing. David has been looking at the subject-object relationship and the way that digital objects change this in relation to the commodity form, but he’s been thinking for a while about a piece that looks at representations and theories of crowds. While Anja has been investigating how personal and political agency may be constructed through recourse to the horror genre, analysing, amongst other aspects, the analogies that can be drawn between recent zombie movies and the realities of global recession, global revolts and the backlash of reactionary forces.
What is the significance of showing the film at Canary Wharf Station?
Presenting Uncanny Valley on the Canary Warf Screen creates a ready-made context for the work, extending it's lines of flight into the real fabric of the site itself. Since Canary Wharf has been frequently used as an action film location the dialogue between the site and the work can be imagined to flow two ways. The station environment mirrows the animated sequences in the film in which large anonymous crowds move through a virtual space modelled on a contemporary urban plaza, while the close-ups
of the actors' faces performing semi-automatised, atomised and alienated everyday gestures adress themselves to the individuals passing through the station environment on their daily commute.
The Empty Plan will show as part of “Assembly: A survey of recent artists’ film and video in Britain 2008–2013” on 12 January 2014 at Tate Britain.