Sep 5, 2011

Losing the Real

Digital props allow creators to do much more – but they also remove moviegoers from a sense of continuity that has driven fandom for decades.

I meet Jeff Koenig at his house in the Dallas suburbs, in secret. Jeff is a roboticist who is going to help me plan something amazing for my sister’s wedding.

“I had to sneak away,” I say, “she isn’t supposed to know.”

We walk into his home – a normal Texas house, two stories. I can hear dogs barking outside in the backyard, and as we turn a corner, I see it for the first time.

It took Jeff two years to build his R2-D2. It’s taller than I expected; higher than my waist, and absolutely picture perfect – they tell me his is one of the best. Everything else sort of freezes when I look at R2; like I’m a little unsure of what’s real. And then we start to practice; my sister and R2 are going to dance.

This is the second complete R2 I’ve seen in my life. The first one was part of the Star Tours ride at Disney World; he was in a viewing area, effectively behind the fourth wall. The purpose of the ride was to pull us into George Lucas’s universe; Jeff’s purpose was to bring Star Wars out into ours. And that’s what we do at the wedding; we invade the real world with a little Star Wars.

Artoo (or in this case, Rtwo – Jeff’s robot is on Facebook and of course, we are friends) is probably one of the most re-created props from any film, ever. There’s an entire subset of the fandom devoted solely to building animatronic R2-D2’s – The R2-D2 Builders Club. They collaborate remotely, supply parts to one another, hold meetups and events. They’ve even produced several issues of a magazine, R-Series, specifically about building this one particular movie prop. In fact, to give you an idea of how common R2 builders are; I met Jeff through a friend who is still building his.

Film props fascinate fans. We buy toys and collectible replicas of them, build our own, we populate haunted houses and fan conventions with them. We visit museums and theme parks to get as close to the real thing as we can – and hey, we also build museum exhibits to display them. Film has a history, after all, and that history has artifacts.

Which brings me to digital effects, digital characters, digital actors like the ones seen in Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Before I go on, let me explain that I don’t think that digital effects make for bad movies. The quality of the movies themselves is not my topic here. The fact is, for a the average viewer, it doesn’t matter whether the space ships on screen are cleverly shot models or computer renderings. But it does matter for hardcore fans.

I will never, in a million years, be able to go somewhere where I can reach out and touch one of the creatures from Avatar. They don’t exist; they’re just models in a computer that have been converted to pixels on a screen. Granted, I won’t ever be able to reach out and touch the real R2-D2 – the exact object, or rather the collection of objects that were seen on film. The chance of my ever being in a room with those props is extremely low. But it could still happen, in this universe. It is possible. And that gives it a sense of authenticity, a sense of reality.

Sometimes, fans don’t let the digital nature of the props get in the way. One of the hot items in DIY propmaking right now is the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device – the gun from Portal that shoots holes in space. The ASHPD doesn’t exist either; it’s a collection of polygons in a game program. But those of us who have played the game have an avatar connection with the object; we’ve been looking over the barrel of that gun for many engaging hours of play. It may not be real, but it is more than just visualized.

When I went to practice dancing with Rtwo, Jeff showed me the ASHPD he is building in his spare time. I’m also working on a Potato Enrichment Kit – a prop kit that turns a real potato into a housing for an evil AI from the game, with all the attendant wires and chips. We talked about putting the two props together, and shared in the joy of making these simulated objects real. He gave me a tiny Companion Cube – yet another Portal prop – as a memento. There are hundreds of re-creations of this object, too – in plastic, metal, paper, and cake, scattered across Thingiverse, Shapeways, DeviantART, and Etsy.

Props tell two stories. They encapsulate the fictional story within the images they evoke, the journey the object took, and the properties it had while inside the world of story. But, for hardcore fans and inspired artists, they also tell the story of the making of the story. They remind us that while visitors from space and wizards and cursed treasures aren’t real, there are dedicated people out there who can make them seem real. Film history is a second rabbit hole, a place to go when the story itself bottoms out. Propmaking is a challenge; a way for fans to look at a work of exquisite skill and depth and say, “I could do that.”

The other major effect that digital props and sets and characters have on fans, is how those objects get treated in terms of IP. One fan of the film Super 8 recently got a DMCA takedown over a model that he had uploaded to Shapeways, a site that makes 3D prints of digital designs. The model was of one of the “cubes” used to build the alien ship in the movie. It wasn’t literally taken from the film – that is, no one hacked into the effects studio to grab a design file – and it was small; about the size of a golf ball, as opposed to the full Rubik’s Cube sized prop from the film. But Shapeways allows users to share their designs, and even make money by adding a creator’s commission on top of Shapeways’ production costs. Having a way for fans to produce the prop, without paying Paramount Pictures a royalty, was clearly a threat.

With physical props, there are layers of authenticity: you have hobby replicas, official toys, copies made from original molds, and then the actual on-screen objects themselves. Each one is more valuable and desirable than its less “real” counterparts. When the object is digital, every digital rendering of that object is just as authentic as the thing in the film, even though – whether it’s rendered on your computer or at ILM – it’s still not a physical object.

Creating things like vehicles and characters in the computer – or in the case of Transformers, vehicles that are characters – has offered filmmakers some significant advantages. They can make better-looking, more accurate toys for their merchandising arms, and cheap and easy secondary content for the web and TV. There is less need to store and build and transport things, or to keep them looking nice once they become part of history. The film looks better overall, and the directors even have the ability to adapt and tweak films long after they’re released. I imagine Lucas, at least, is happy with his revisions of the original Star Wars trilogy, even as fans balk.

We balk, in part, because with every revision the films lose that second level of place and time that comes from knowing that the events on screen happened – not exactly as depicted, but somewhere, in some form, no matter how contorted. But the tokens of artifice that tell us it happened – the obvious fakery in effects that no longer hold up to the discerning 21st century eye, or perhaps never held up at all – drive us to learn more about the props, the sets, the director, the actors, the story of how the story was made. They invite us to pull the curtain back a bit, and that fuels deep fandom.

It’s possible that people younger than I (who have slipped over the edge of trustworthiness by moving into my 30s) will never feel the loss of that sense of depth a viewer gets from knowing the things on screen are undoubtedly physical. It’s possible it just won’t matter to them, or that new innovations will come along to bridge the gap between the visible and the tangible. But for now, in these weird between-times before everything becomes digital, fans still want something they can reach out and touch, at least in theory. And now, more than ever, if creators don’t give it to them, they will make it for themselves.

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