Interview with LORIN ROSER: Digital Media, Architecture, Animation

Lorin Roser is a distinguished architect based in New York City. He is also a remarkably versatile artist who is equally fluent in visual media and in music. I interviewed him on the occasion of his participation in the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY Festival, which featured Roser’s recent work in collaboration with painter Nina Kuo. As Roser points out in the interview, there is a direct connection between his art and his experiences as an architect. Roser belongs to the cohort of architects whose working methods were transformed by the advent of digital media. By adopting computers in the process of architectural design, architects gained tremendous new powers in the representation of space. The transition from a two-dimensional architectural plan to a photorealistic representation of a three-dimensional structure could now be accomplished by a machine instead of human labor. Moreover, that machine could shift the representation’s point-of-view (from front to side to overhead to anything in-between) automatically, and it could produce a whole series of shifting points-of-view as well. In other words, computers made it much easier for architects to visualize the experience of moving in and around a 3D space.

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At the same time that this development was occurring in architecture, a very similar process was taking place in animated movies. In the late 1990s, when computer-generated images replaced hand-made animation in big-budget Hollywood cinema, the most striking thing about digital animation was not greater realism in its characters’ shapes (which remained, in many cases, quite cartoonish) nor greater realism in its characters’ movements (which hadn’t yet benefited from the full development of motion-capture technology) but, rather, greater realism in the representation of the 3D spaces occupied by those characters. This affinity between digital design in architecture and digital animation in movies has been an important factor in Lorin Roser’s work as an artist. Using digital tools originally designed for architectural visualization, Roser has been creating animated videos about the structure of urban spaces. Taking as their starting point the urban forms envisioned by the immensely influential architect Le Corbusier, Roser’s animations use random manipulations to explore a world of hitherto unseen shapes and structural possibilities. In my discussion with Roser, I started out by asking him for a capsule description of his current work.

PAUL MESSARIS: Could you give us a brief overview of CorbuRuption, i.e., the project that is going to be featured at the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY Festival?

LORIN ROSER:  The animation shows the hidden structure of the Invisible City. The forms of the architect, Le Corbusier, are deployed using physical simulation algorithms. The resulting eruption generates possibilities unforeseen by Urban Renewal.

MESSARIS: What kinds of digital tools have you used for this project? And, as a follow-up question, could you comment on how digital media have influenced your work as an artist, not just in this project but over your career as a whole?

ROSER:  The structures were modeled in the computer using Autodesk software and rendered in VRay. I began using CGI to enable architectural visualization. I began doing 3d when Tom Hudson was developing consumer software at the same time he did the T-1000 mirror man for Terminator 2  [1991]. Visualization is a great tool for architecture because building bricks and mortar is so expensive and computer animation mimics the unfolding of space as you walk through a building. Now I am obsessed with using math to create music and form. The computer excels at this type of exploration.

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MESSARIS: In your statement of purpose, you imply that you hope your current project will contribute to a new understanding of public space on the part of your audience. At the risk of violating the boundaries between audio-visual meaning and verbal messages, would you care to spell out this aspect of your goals in a little more detail?

ROSER: Corbusian ideals were corrupted by Urban Renewal into stark (not Tony Stark) housing projects, which sometimes needed to be demolished (e. g., Pruitt-Igoe). By using stochastic amalgamation I hope to show the formal beauty that might be possible using these same historical forms. In Richard Bender’s A Crack in the Rearview Mirror, he makes an argument for utilizing the computer to increase the diversity of design versus homogenizing fabrication. Three hundred years ago a matched pair of objects was a desirable thing. Now we long for bespoke items tailored to our disappearing identities.

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MESSARIS: Your work appears to draw on a variety of cultural traditions. For example, one of your earlier projects with Nina Kuo featured animation based on painting that was described as “Asian-inspired.”  We live in an age of increasingly hybrid cultures, and, in my field, there is much discussion of the fact that audiences around the world are increasingly attracted by cultural hybridity in audiovisual media – for example, the hybrid styles of Bollywood dance scenes or of Korean music videos. Would you care to comment on this phenomenon as it pertains to your own work or to work that has influenced your own? What is your understanding of the growing international appeal of hybridity in art and culture?

ROSER: Globalization and the Internet meld cultures in a creative way. As the recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum on Chinoiserie in design showed, this is not a new phenomenon, but technology has increased the pace of these developments to a dizzying degree.

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The Digital Transformation of Visual Media: 5 Key Developments

I was recently looking at old syllabuses from my introductory graduate course on visual communication, and I noticed an interesting trend: the rate of change from one year’s syllabus to the next one’s has been much more rapid in recent years than in the past. The major reason for this trend is that visual media themselves have been changing so rapidly in recent years as a result of digitization. Moreover, to a considerable extent these changes have entailed genuine innovations in the forms and functions of visual media. In other words, while some developments in digital media are mainly concerned with doing a better job in tasks that older, analog media were not very good at (for example, 3D movies), digitization has also enabled visual media to do some things that analog media couldn’t do at all.

What are the most significant developments in the digital transformation of visual media? Opinions undoubtedly differ, depending partly on one’s time-frame. In the 1990s, when Photoshop was still new, the manipulation of photographic truth was a major focus of research in visual communication. Today, photo-manipulation software is a mature technology, and, while the concerns it gave rise to have by no means gone away, the most eye-catching changes in the visual media landscape seem to be happening elsewhere.

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From my perspective, there are at least five big developments whose impact is still very uncertain – and, therefore, very deserving of closer scrutiny. In my view, these five developments will need to figure very prominently in the future work of visual communication researchers if our field is to keep up with the explosively rapid evolution of digital media.

For more than a decade, digital animators have been working towards the attainment of two major milestones in the development of visual media: first, the achievement of “perfect photorealism” – i.e., the ability to mimic not just the momentary appearance of visual reality (as in present-day digital images) but also its appearance over time (without relying on motion capture, which is essentially a relic of traditional cinematography); second, the ability to simulate the appearance (over time) of actual people, such as deceased actors. These developments have received some attention from media scholars, but it may be fair to say that, for now, the most promising lines of inquiry actually come from outside of communication, in studies of people’s responses to humanoid robots and visual displays. Research on the much-discussed but little-understood “uncanny valley” phenomenon is a good example of this area of scholarship

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5152RJW7dKc

As computers and, hence, digital media have become cheaper, aspects of image creation that previously required substantial resources have become increasingly affordable and accessible, resulting in a democratization of visual production. This development is evident not only in the ubiquity of photographic and video devices, but also in the increasing ease with which photographs and video can be manipulated. (The emergence of consumer-level editing software in the late 1990s was a particularly noteworthy innovation for anyone who had previously had the extremely cumbersome experience of editing in celluloid-based film.) While there is a growing body of good scholarly writing about the dissemination of nonprofessional images (which I will refer to further in the next paragraph), there is surprisingly little systematic research on everyday people’s manipulation of images.

As I have implied above, I think it is useful to distinguish the democratization of visual distribution, for which, of course, we can thank the Web, from the democratization of production. The radical transformation in the distribution of new visual media is one of two items (out of my list of five topics) that have already been written about quite widely by media scholars. There are several books about YouTube, and a growing number of studies of Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and other platforms.

The fourth item on my list (although, chronologically, it is actually the first) has to do with the emergence of videogames as a major visual medium. This phenomenon can be seen as part of a broader evolution in audiovisual technology, allowing the users of that technology (gamers, etc.) to project a controllable visual avatar of themselves into a virtual environment. In contrast to the previous two items on my list, the emergence of this type of avatar represents a qualitative (i.e, not just quantitative) break with the past. There is nothing in previous visual media that can give the user the same experience of an externally viewable but internally controlled projection of one’s self. Research on the visual aspects of avatars suggests that they can have profound implications. For example, they can have enduring effects on gamers’ or VR users’ aggressiveness, sociality, and attitudes towards people who are demographically different from their real selves.

The final item on my list is also related to games and other media that provide their users with the experience of interactive virtual environments. The ability to affect a virtual environment through one’s own actions represents another significant break with the past history of visual media. The purposive use of virtual environments as means of low-consequence training for high-consequence real-world activities (e.g., flight simulation, practice surgery) has been studied quite extensively by researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, including communication. Moreover, communications researchers have also devoted considerable attention to the more nebulous cultural consequences that may flow from people’s experiences in virtual worlds. All the same, I think it’s safe to say that to date we have barely glimpsed what lies ahead in this area of visual media. Perhaps more than in any of the other areas on this list, the technology and the social practices associated with this area seem to be changing more rapidly than our projections. PM

Audi Hummingbird: Not Your Typical Car Commercial

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTSNXSWyktw

When Audi’s new model – the A6 Avant – was launched, instead of releasing a generic car commercial that would showcase a car’s sleek design, leather seats, and clean-shaven driver, Audi created the “Hummingbird.” In this 60-second spot, the audience is transported to a surrealist, Lorax-like environment, navigated by a mechanical hummingbird. The commercial’s strengths lie in its concept and execution. Metaphorically, the hummingbird – quick and nimble – compatibly symbolizes Audi’s ultra-lightweight technology, build, and tagline: “the lighter you are, the more agile you are.” This juxtaposition is most noticeable in the last scene when diegetic montage is applied. Diegetic montage is a technique in which advertisers often place two objects side by side to create a comparison or association: in this case, the hummingbird and the Audi A6 Avant.

In terms of execution, advertising agencies are increasingly shifting towards digital animation because people enjoy the novelty of computer-generated imagery (CGI), and this particular ad highlights the skill it takes to bring something to life. There’s believable natural lighting and depth. Using a wide range of shots, such as close ups, rear angle, and head-on direct to follow the hummingbird’s journey, the final creation also evokes a sense of perceived realism and appeal, despite the fact that the entire ad consists of unrealistic elements and environments, such as flowers made from traffic cones and road signs. One of the reasons why the digitally animated hummingbird appears so lifelike is because of its movements: agile, playful, and effervescent. This is important, because research (McDonnell et al., 2008) shows that object movement is more influential than object shape for viewers when associating virtual things with reality.

Relying purely on visuals and classic John Charles Thomas’s song, “Open Road” as background music, this ad also echoes what made the Chipotle Scarecrow campaign so powerful and highly-acclaimed. However, it fails to arouse sentiment the way that the Scarecrow ad does, because it chooses to focus more on marketing the car’s agility and speed, while lacking a deeper emotional narrative that would make the ad more memorable for some audiences. Overall, Audi’s “Hummingbird” is a beautiful piece of work that advertises a common consumer product in a more unique way.

-Laura Zhang

The Sims 4 Youtube Ad Analysis

The Sims 4 is a dynamic simulation game in which the controller plays the role of God, directing the lives of the characters (Sims) in the game. In this YouTube advertisement, the directors use an element of mystery to increase suspense and maintain viewers’ attention from the beginning of the ad to the end. It begins with a green light casting a glow over a city as the cast of the ad stares at it in wonder.

Since the avatars used in the game are simply idealized versions of the humans playing behind them, they serve as links between the audience and advertisement. During the climactic point of the ad, creators combine the two worlds and show humans and CGIs (computer generated images) interacting together in the same environment for a substantial amount of time. This was a good move on their part because studies have shown that human beings prefer realistic over non-realistic images. That last statement may make the decision to use CGIs seem risky. However, since this is the fourth installment of the game, its creators were most likely targeting current players by highlighting the game’s new improvements instead of focusing on attracting new customers.

One of the improvements being made to the game is the more “realistic” look that avatars now possess. To accomplish this, the game’s creators made characters’ faces look more neotenous (youthful and innocent). People tend to be more attracted to these types of faces so the ultimate goal for the creators of the ad would be to make viewers associate that attraction with the advertised product itself.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBQ6MFsJJsw

 

FKA twigs – “Water Me” Post-humanist Aesthetic Spellbinds Viewers

The one-take music video for “Water Me” by FKA twigs mesmerizes with little onscreen action to compensate for the lack of cuts by employing a post-humanist aesthetic, thus hypnotizing spectators through a series of deviations from known human movement and form.

The digitally manipulated appearance of the subject, FKA twigs, and insertion into a digital world transform her into an avatar-like being or an object representing real human form. She delivers the song deadpan in direct address against a solid sea-foam green backdrop. It’s especially important to pay attention to the increasing neotony, baby features on an adult person, throughout the video. Her nose shrinks and her eyes enlarge to the point where they look like they may pop.

The unrealistic computerized movements in this video are the result of animation of a real person. While traditional filmmaking tries to seamlessly disguise technique, the desire to decode how this was made is what grabs attention. Her timely head bobs, unable to achieve without CGI assistance, simplify rhythm perception through movement rather than cuts. And because the entire beat is matched to movement and slightly offset, with the image coming first, we subconsciously anticipate sound.

The gigantic iridescent CGI tear that rolls down FKA twigs’s perfectly airbrushed cheek mid-video opens a dialogue that comments unfavorably on pop culture’s constant deviation from reality. The eerily illusory image of the artist becomes increasingly unrecognizable as the video progresses, making a statement that instructs viewers to only participate in this deceptive digital trend if they are aware that it is inherently separate from the real.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFtMl-uipA8

Neoteny in Disneyland

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clFq7xwxV-Q

 

The ad above is for the Tokyo Disneyland Resort in Japan.  It uses the Japanese animation style called “anime,” which features neotenous character models.  Neoteny is an art design that places childlike features on adults.  These features include puffy and/or rosy cheeks, a button nose, and large eyes.  Neoteny is often associated with “cuteness” and is very popular in Japan’s contemporary culture.

 

This ad shows one main character visiting the park at different stages in her life.  Her face shows strong examples of neoteny- her cheeks are always tinted pink and are puffy from childhood through adolescence, she has a small nose and big eyes with large pupils.  It is interesting to note, however, that once the character is married her face loses its neoteny; her cheeks become more angular and her eyes narrow slightly.  This seems to be a design choice based on reality, as humans lose their childlike proportions as they grow older.  The degree of childlike qualities on the character before marriage, however, is exaggerated enough that the switch from neoteny to realistic is slightly jarring.

 

Although audiences generally prefer realistic images over unrealistic, they also enjoy neoteny on animated images.  The ad, therefore, could have kept the character’s neotenous features without upsetting the audience.  The ad is cute enough that the loss of neoteny is not detrimental to the message, but I would have preferred to see the character keep her neotenous features both for design continuity and to eliminate the jump between real and unreal imagery.

 

Battle Simulation Experiment

 

 

For my final project for COMM 562, I conducted an experiment in developing a battle simulation system. The inspiration for this project came from reading and learning about software such as MASSIVE, an incredible scalable system for crowd simulation which is used to generate large crowd and battle scenes in movies such as Lord of the Rings, Inception, and Avatar. As movies and games continue to create scenes and environments with larger numbers of characters, it is increasingly more difficult to animate and control all of them by hand. Because of this, using a system that can dynamically control the units through algorithms and still produce realistic behavior is necessary, and is rapidly becoming a popular technique. In my project, I wanted to try and recreate such a system on a smaller scale, and experiment with how many units I could simulate.

 

For my project, I modified an existing framework for behavior animations to simulate basic behaviors from a battle environment. The characters are split into two groups, and each individual unit contains an algorithm that specifies certain features. Each unit will exhibit behavior similar to those seen in a battle. For example, if a unit is being attacked and is not currently attacking another unit, it will turn to attack its opponent. Also, if a unit is low on health, it will run away from its attacker and the battle in an escape attempt, returning momentarily in pursuit of a different opponent. In many instances where there are a large number of units present in the simulation, a unit may not be able to physically reach its target in order to attack. Therefore, it will choose another target closer to its location to begin attacking and not remain idle.

 

All of these behaviors combine to give some emergent patterns that are also realistic. One behavior I noticed was the tendency for units to gang up when attacking an opponent. Another was units flanking around the sides of a group in order to attack enemies in the back of the group. The initial charge and attack also simulates reality, where the front line takes the most damage and casualties. As the battle continues, the groups slowly disperse and integrate.

 

I conducted multiple different tests with different units to see how large of a simulation I could run. I initially expected to run a simulation with a few hundred units, because the code is not incredibly complicated. However, when I had more than 50 units on screen at once the simulation began to visibly lag. I expect this could be from the complexity of the character models and their associated animations. Although this limitation was a slight disappointment, I am still relatively pleased with the results.

 

I have compiled a video showing a battle between two, 18, and 50 units, which can be found here. Note that when a unit’s health reaches zero, it freezes and can no longer take action. The animation also immediately pauses, hence the units scattered all over the field in various state of attack when the battle ends.

 

The behavior code was written in C++, the character scripts in C#, and the environment constructed and simulated using the Unity game engine.

Effectively Making Use of Various Camera Shots in an Animation

For my final project, I decided to make some adjustments to a 2D cartoon I had made for a Flash Animation course and put together a video of some of the important aspects of camera shots that one might want to consider when creating their own animation.

Here is the link to the video http://vimeo.com/33581544

The short cartoon animation can be found at http://vimeo.com/33612631

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