Advertising the Future: Cameron vs. Kubrick Part 1

In an earlier post on this site, Moira O’Keeffe talks about her research on the kinds of images that inspire young people to become scientists and engineers. In her interviews with science students and professional scientists of all ages, science fiction was a recurring topic. As O’Keeffe points out, movie critics and scholarly writers have often pondered the cultural significance of mad scientists, Frankensteinian experiments, doomsday weaponry, and the various other fictional conventions that the creators of science fiction employ to build drama into their stories. This kind of analysis of science fiction usually focuses on the narrative content of movies rather than their visual style. But style has its own meaning, its own appeal, and its own ways of advertising a worldview. Style can sell, and it’s fascinating to try to figure out what and how.

Science fiction is not lacking in examples of great-looking movies, but any short list would have to include James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Both movies are major milestones in the history of special visual effects. Taken as a whole, the range of techniques that Kubrick used to create a scientifically informed vision of space travel can fairly be considered the high point of pre-digital effects, and they won Kubrick the only personal Oscar of his career. The brilliant technical innovations that Cameron developed for Avatar’s 3D effects, and the exceptional artistic intelligence with which those innovations were deployed, are, to this date, the most compelling reasons for believing that 3D will becomes a permanent feature of visual media, and that the earlier history of 3D movies (born in the early 1950s and dead before the decade was over) will not be repeated.

Beyond technical excellence, 2001 and Avatar have few things in common. In many respects, the two movies are polar opposites of each other. Indeed, one way to describe Avatar is as an explicit rejection of the future envisioned in 2001. Kubrick’s movie was written in close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, master of “hard” (scientifically plausible) science fiction. The story line is a methodical, rationally worked-out account of what humanity’s first encounter with aliens might look like. Because the earth is so much younger than the universe as a whole, Clarke and Kubrick assumed (in common with other science-minded writers who have speculated on this topic) that the aliens would get here first, and that they would be technologically superior. For unspecified reasons, 2001’s script also portrays the encounter as benign: the aliens trigger humanity’s evolution from primordial apedom to the technological sophistication of a civilization capable of flying to the moon. When humans do get to the moon, the aliens set in motion an even greater boost to their evolution.

Avatar is sometimes referred to as a rare example of a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster whose script was not based on an existing book, movie, comic, or other property. But the movie’s story line, created by Cameron, draws very heavily on two themes with a very long prior history in both literature and cinema. As in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the interplanetary encounter portrayed in Avatar is initiated by a technologically superior species with malevolent goals. Wells wanted to make his British readers see the evils of colonial conquest, the invasion of the earth’s weaker peoples by British “aliens” intent on economic exploitation. Cameron’s purpose in Avatar is the same, but his method is even more direct than Wells’s. The War of the Worlds invites readers to see the beleaguered earthlings as stand-ins for the victims of colonial oppression. In Avatar, the viewer doesn’t need to make any metaphorical leaps. The humans are the bad guys. Moreover, drawing on a second fictional convention, this time from Westerns (e.g., Broken Arrow) rather than sci-fi, Cameron portrays the put-upon victims of humanity as a tribe living an Edenic existence in perfect harmony with nature. The movie’s upshot can be seen as a reversal of the evolutionary trajectory traced in 2001. Declaring that the material achievements of human technology are worthless, the movie’s hero abandons his human identity permanently, and chooses to live on in the form of his alien avatar, as an adopted member of the aliens’ tree-worshipping tribe.

Avatar’s message is spelled out explicitly by its central characters, and in any case it is a message that anyone growing up in the US has heard repeatedly from her/his teachers, as well as from movie stars and other celebrities: The only thing that deflects Avatar from perfect alignment with contemporary environmentalist advocacy is the fact that the aliens’ skin color is blue instead of green. But what is the viewer supposed to think about the things that happen in 2001? It is easy to imagine a critic – a fan of Avatar, perhaps – taking a disapproving view of the proceedings: aliens messing with the natural course of evolution, disrupting the apes’ harmonious existence with nature, and unleashing the development of the destructive human species. I described 2001’s aliens as benign, but no one in the movie says anything like that. 2001 is famous for containing less dialogue (much less) than any other Hollywood feature film since the advent of talkies in the 1920s.

It is fascinating to compare 2001 with the two movies that are most like it, because they were partly based on it: Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) and Brian De Palma’s woefully under-appreciated Mission to Mars (2000). In both of those movies, the character who gets to meet the aliens expresses her or his attitude toward the experience verbally. But the astronaut protagonist of 2001 remains totally mute. During the entire last section of the movie, after he has played the recording that reveals the hidden purpose of his mission, not a word is spoken. If we want to know what Kubrick wanted us to think, we have to look at the movie’s visual content: the production design, the cinematography, and the appearance and demeanor of the actors.


After 2001 makes its stupendous, four-million-year leap from a mob of growling pre-humans to a graceful procession of early-21st-century spacecraft, almost everything that happens in the movie takes place in structures fabricated by humans: a space station, a moon base, and various types of space vehicles. In the unfiltered sunlight beyond the earth’s atmosphere, the outsides of these structures become patterns of gleaming reflections. Every shape is perfectly smooth, and every surface is immaculate. The interior spaces are spotless, and the objects inside them are arranged with meticulous precision: the very first act that we see when the camera moves inside a spaceship is a flight attendant retrieving an errant pen from its zero-gravity wanderings and restoring it snugly to the breast pocket of its sleeping owner.

The visual qualities of the production design are echoed in the cinematography. 2001 was the first movie in which Kubrick made extensive use of two devices that became trademarks of his later style: (1) tight compositional symmetry in the framing of his images; (2) smooth, steady, perfectly controlled camera movement. Anyone who has made movies knows that both of these ways of shooting a scene require a lot of effort. When a shot is framed asymetrically, the camera’s position can often be displaced substantially without doing any perceptible damage to conventional artistic criteria. But when the framing is symmetrical, the tiniest displacement completely destroys the intended effect. As for camera movement, even when the camera operator is using a Steadicam (which didn’t exist when 2001 was made, although Kubrick did employ it in later movies), it is very hard to keep the movement’s pace absolutely even and the direction absolutely consistent.

What does all this add up to? In one word: control. Kubrick’s vision for the future is of a world in which humans have attained perfect control over the rough edges of existence. It is a hard-won control. When the movie’s most famous character, the supercomputer HAL, malfunctions, he kills all but one of the humans on the spaceship that he has been guiding. But the remaining human uses his own knowledge of the spaceship’s workings to subdue HAL and take over command of the mission. Humanity’s intellect and physical daring once again bend the rest of the material world to their purposes. With the lone surviving astronaut at the helm, the spaceship resumes its stately progress through the solar system and arrives at its intended rendezvous with the aliens.

It is instructive to take one more look at the differences between 2001, on the one hand, and Contact and Mission to Mars, on the other. In Mission to Mars, the astronaut who meets the aliens has a look of ecstatic, transcendental anticipation on his face as he prepares for the encounter. In Contact, the scientist who sets off for the world of the aliens is terrified by the memory of an explosion that obliterated an earlier version of the spaceship that she is about to board. But the astronaut of 2001 goes about his mission with no visible display of emotion. Keir Dullea’s tightly focused, self-contained performance in this role is one of many examples of 2001’s very high level of visual intelligence.


Dullea’s demeanor is the logical complement of the movie’s broader vision of where we humans might be headed for. By appealing to our admiration for elegance, order, and precision, Kubrick’s imagery is an advertisement for a future in which we use the powers of technology, science, and reason to make all of reality a work of human art. That was what Kubrick was selling. Have viewers bought it, then or now? Very few other movies, before or since 2001, have looked anything like this one. However, there is considerable affinity between 2001’s production design and the sleek, stripped-down geometric forms favored by mid-twentieth-century Modernism, as exemplified by Eames furniture or such glass-and-steel skyscrapers as the Lever House in mid-town Manhattan. There is even greater affinity between Kubrick’s visual compositions and the work of the photographers who documented Modern architecture and design, such as the renowned, Los Angeles-based Julius Shulman, or his equally distinguished East Coast counterpart, Ezra Stoller. If we wanted to figure out what 2001’s specific style has meant to viewers over the years, we would have to do a lot of guessing on the basis of stray and fragmentary evidence. However, the American public’s feelings about Modernism as a whole are much better known.

Anyone interested in understanding the cultural implications of visual style needs to take a close look at the writings of Virginia Postrel. The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel’s first book, was published more than twenty years ago, but it remains the most perceptive and subtle analysis of the ways in which people’s stylistic choices reflect broader aspirations – and apprehensions – about the kind of society they would like to live in. In the book’s introduction, Postrel talks about the evolution of Disney’s Tomorrowland. In its earliest version, which opened in 1955, this section of Disneyland featured integrated design and simple, smooth architectural forms. Postrel describes it as a place of “impersonal chrome and steel.” By the late 1990s, however, when Postrel wrote her book, Disney’s designers had loosened the relationships among Tomorrowland’s new structures, and they had introduced greater architectural complexity and more extensive vegetation. Postrel sees these changes as responses to the public’s distaste for the uniformity and encompassing vision of Modernist design. Instead, she says, people prefer variety, choice, and the mingling of old and new. That may well be. But, back in the world of science fiction movies, things seem to be heading in a different direction. The line from 2001 to Avatar does not lead to a future of fruitful coexistence between human technology and non-human nature. It leads deliberately backward, to a world that wouldn’t be able to recreate any of 2001’s technological marvels even if it wanted to. TO BE CONTINUED….


Postrel, Virginia. (1998). The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. New York: The Free Press.

Postrel, Virginia. (2003). The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture & Consciousness. New York: HarperCollins.

Patton, Phil; Postrel, Virginia; & Steele, Valerie. (2004). Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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.

Digital Composite WITH GAPS 12 percent

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


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

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.



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.


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