September 1, 2007
Two New Aca-Fen Blogs

The Blogging Bug seems to be taking root across the Aca-Fan universe. On my blog recently, I gave a shout out to two recently launched blogs, both created by participants in this summer's Gender and Fan Culture conversations, both dealing with topics which will be of interest to a fair cross section of my readers. I thought I would post them here on the C3 blog as well, since the topics of these blogs might be of interest to those who read this blog as well.

The first is Graphic Engine, which describes itself as a blog about "special effects, videogames, film and television." Graphic Engine reflects the ruminations and speculations of Bob Rehak, an assistant professor of film and media studies at Swarthmore College. I have known Rehak since he was a masters student at the University of North Carolina doing work on avatars, first person shooters, and psychoanalysis. He recently finished up a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, where his research centered around special effects. I had the pleasure of featuring some of his work on special effects, the Star Trek blueprints, and early fan culture as part of a panel I put together on Convergence and Science Fiction for last year's Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. (This panel also featured Beth Coleman on Machinima and A Scatter Darkly; Geoffrey Long on transmedia storytelling, negative capability, and the Hensons; and Robert Kozinets on Star Trek fan cinema and branding cultures). We've long known that there was a male technically oriented fandom around Star Trek whose history parallels that of the female fanzine community; I touched on some aspects of this fan culture in my chapter on Star Trek at MIT in Science Fiction Audiences, but Rehak's work really takes us deep inside that world.

The Star Trek research is part of a much larger reconsideration of the social and cultural history of special effects. His new blog seems first and foremost about the cultural dimensions of special effects -- including attention to the effects industry and its fans, as well as to the economic, technical, and aesthetic factors that shape the place of special effects in the contemporary media landscape. Consider, for example, this passage from an early post about watching the recent Harry Potter film in 3D IMAX:

I already knew that, as with Superman Returns, only a portion of Phoenix would be 3D. What surprised me was how explicitly this was made clear to spectators, both as a matter of publicity and in ad-hoc fashion. Warnings were taped on the ticket window: ONLY THE LAST 20 MINUTES OF HARRY POTTER ARE IN 3D. The man who tore my ticket told me the same thing, in a rote voice, as he handed me the yellow plastic glasses. As the lights went down, a recorded announcement reiterated the point a third time, except in a tone of awe and promise: "When you see the flashing icon at the bottom of the screen, put on your glasses, and prepare to enter the spectacular world of Harry Potter in an amazing action climax" was the gist of it.

All this tutoring, not just in the timing of the glasses, but the proper level of anticipation! Calibrating the audience's reactions, indeed their perceptions, stoking the excitement while warning us not to get too excited. It went hand-in-hand with the promos for the Imax format itself, playing before the film and describing the awesome fidelity and sensory intensification we were about to experience. It seemed odd that we needed such schooling; aren't 3D and giant-screen technologies about removing layers of mediation?

But of course that's naïve; the most basic theory of cinematic spectacle reminds us that special effects (and Imax 3D, like sound, color, widescreen, and other threshold bumps, is a kind of meta-special-effect, an envelope or delivery system for smaller, more textually specific clusters of effects) function both as enhancements of illusion's power and as a reminder of the technology involved in bringing the illusion to us. At the movies, we're perfectly capable of believing in what we see while also believing in (and celebrating) its constructed nature; this is as true of special effects as it is of the editing that strings together a story, or our perception of Albus Dumbledore as being simultaneously the headmaster of Hogwarts and a performance (of subtle strength, in this case) by Michael Gambon.

This early piece turns out to be simply the prelude to a series of posts which explores how Harry Potter (the book series) is being "transcoded" into a film franchise. Here, for example, he builds on some comments that Jason Mittell has made about the ways Deathly Hollows throws down a challenge to filmmakers:

One now reads Harry Potter with the movies in mind, accompanying the print with at least sporadic visual associations distilled from the films' contents. Many sequences in Deathly Hallows struck me as excessively cinematic, tilted toward some future storyboard: one minor instance comes early in the book, when characters encounter a roomful of colorful paper airplanes that are really interoffice memos in the Ministry of Magic. Maybe because I had just seen Order of the Phoenix, which memorably gives form to the Ministry and its darting airborne memos, the book's scene immediately "read" in cinematic terms. But would I have had this sensation even without seeing any of the movies? Is it possible that Rowling is just that good, that descriptive, a writer?

I'm not saying any of this is a bad thing; indeed, I'm excited to witness the gigantic syncopated rhythms of a vastly profitable and popular media system that coordinates its printed and filmic incarnations with the grace of those balletic paper airplanes. But I do think we need to carefully dissect the processes involved in the transcoding - in the visualization - and suggest that special visual effects are a central place to begin the investigation.

He has promised a forthcoming entry focused on how the cover art and chapter illustrations of Mary GrandPre "both set a visual agenda for the stories and mutate in step with the movies' casting decisions and production design." As a Potter fan, I look forward to reading more of Rehak's thoughts on the franchise, alongside other interesting posts which describe his encounter with the Enterprise model at the Smithsonian Institute, his thoughts about the career of makeup artist William Tuttle (who recently passed away), or reactions to Laura Mulvey's essay, "The Clumsy Sublime." Along the way, he includes some thoughts on the aesthetics and psychology of computer game design and on his preparations for teaching a film history class.

Stranger 109
explores the intersections of "gaming, culture, and technology," with a strong focus on the Machinima movement. Robert Jones, a Ph.D candidate at New York University, has launched the blog as an extension of his dissertation research. Jones describes his research project this way:

My research spans over numerous topics in the videogame world. As a cultural critic, I approach the ways in which games function in our daily lives: socially, politically and economically. My dissertation focuses specifically on how all these aspects converge on the videogame subculture known as Machinima. As an extension of both hacking and modding culture, machinima presents a unique form of transformative play and a new way of understanding gamers as cultural producers. With the expansion of what has become known as Web 2.0 Culture, we increasingly live in a world defined by tool sets that enable consumer production. As a decade old phenomenon, machinima's appropriation of videogame engines as filmmaking tool sets represents a precursor to this trend that offers a rich historical insight ripe for investigation. In addition, I am also very interested in how the videogame medium functions as a potential tool of political communication in either its traditional interactive game or machinima forms.

There is so much machinima being produced today that it is helpful to have someone like Jones spotlight interesting and innovative work and provide interviews with important creators working in this space. Jones takes seriously the potentials of games as a medium, as is suggested by his recent discussion of Danny Ladonne's controversial Super Columbine Massacre RPG:

Despite gaming's new found acceptance within mainstream culture, it has yet to find a place of legitimacy as a means of serious expression. Whereas Bowling for Columbine was championed by many as an important reflection on the Littleton tragedy, SCMRPG was seen as trivializing the event. So the content of the game becomes completely irrelevant simply because it occurs within the context of a game. And this poses the biggest hurdle for games as political expression. If you have not had a chance to play through the game, I would recommend doing so. Play it not because it is enjoyable (because it most certainly is not), but because Ladonne consructs a text that forces the player to consider other possible explanations than Klebold and Harris were simply monsters. Whereas most of the negative responses suggest that the game celebrates the tragedy, playing through reveals a thoughtful engagement of what should only be considered as a complex issue.

Jones has adopted a stance which allows him to document and defend the ambitions of machinima and serious games producers alike, while also raising questions about the sometimes dubious creative decisions shaping the mainstream games industry. We see this later perspective in a very interesting recent post supporting the charges of racism which have been leveled against a recently released trailer for Resident Evil 5, depicting a white man's encounter with a primitive African tribe. So often, such debates pit cultural critics who know about the history of racial representations with fan defenders who know and respect genre conventions. But, because Jones writes as a fan, he knows how to use genre history to sharpen and nuance the criticisms leveled against the preview:

As one of the most well-respected franchises within the genre of Survival Horror, Resident Evil takes its roots in the cinematic tradition of the zombie films pioneered by George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Released in 1968, the film provided a rather poignant critique of the racial tensions in the United States. Often overlooked as "monster movies," the racial allegories that played out in Romero's films called attention to the issues of black representation in film at the time. The films were unique in their use of African-American protagonists who become the heroes of the films, saving white people from the "white" zombies. Metaphorically, becoming a zombie embodies the internalization of racist ideologies. Part of the commentary made by Romero here is that as a single individual, racism is not too hard to fight. As with the zombies, the strength lies in numbers. So for Romero, the infection that one zombie passes onto its victims and transforms them into zombies demonstrates the danger of racism and how it works.

Fastforward 40 years and the racial landscape in the United States has improved tremendously; however, as Resident Evil 5's trailer and mixed response would indicate, we are far from any sort of Colors of Benetton racial utopia. Platt's main issue with the trailer is a valid one. It clearly recreates racial stereotypes of Africans as savage peoples who need to be saved from themselves by White men. So the tragic twist in this latest iteration of Resident Evil is that while the franchise borrows from a film genre rooted in social critiques of racism, it devolves into an even older genre of film notorious for its horrific depiction of Blackness as savage and Whiteness as rational: the colonial adventure films. Simba (1955), which depicts the Mau-Mau rebellion that took place in Kenya, embodies this genre and the way it portrays blacks as the dangerous 'other,' while valorizing the colonial attempt to provide salvation to these savage people. The images from the game seem to at least echo this from what I have seen.

While it may be unfair to pass judgement on RE5 based solely on the trailer, the issue of representation of African-Americans in gaming has been one that has gone long unexamined. So when fanboys attack Platt's concerns by saying that no one had any problem with the previous RE's because the zombies were largely white, they are missing the larger media history in which this game sits. Because African-Americans have largely been relegated to secondary roles in film, with considerably fewer roles in total, the few representations they do get often portray them in limited capacities, often depicted as the cause of the problem as in the case of Simba. Whites, on the other hand, benefit from a myriad of representations and are not necessarily hurt by any single negative depiction.

But what concerns me more about the RE5 trailer is that it fits within most of the games that we see come out each week in that we are once again provided a white hero to play, which to me is the biggest way that gaming further perpetuates the racial intolerance we continue to suffer from. As an African-American man, you get to be either an athlete or gangster in the vast majority of games. So like film once had to overcome the racial barrier, so too does gaming. Much of this comes out of the lack of material representation of people of color on the level of development. Since the average game designer is a white male of 32 years of age, the lack of racial diversity in playable characters is no surprise. Only once we had more Black directors did we see a change in the film landscape. As gaming continues to grow and become even more a part of Black culture can we even hope this trend will change.

I am constantly on the look out for other aca-fen blogs. Let us know what you are reading or writing these days.