humane stories and psychorealism

I had a great conversation last week with animator Chris Landreth in advance of his residency at OSU for the Humane Technologies collaboration I'm heading up. Landreth is animator of great empathy and creativity and his work suggests the vast potential for computer graphics beyond the photorealism that dominates most of what we see in the theaters. We talked about his work, empathy, storytelling and virtual reality and he reminded me that as I work toward humane and compassionate goals what has to stay at the center is the making practice, in his case, the storytelling. A nice crisp edited version of our conversation is available on OSU's website and here's my complete unabridged version:

A still from Landreth's short film, "Ryan" showing his self-portrait in that film. Image courtesy National Film Board of Canada.

​Oscar Winning Animator Visits as Part of Humane Technologies Project:

Norah Zuniga-Shaw (NZS):

I’m excited to talk with you about your upcoming residency at OSU/ACCAD for our Humane Technologies project and what “humane” might mean in relation to your work. We started this project from a fairly straightforward feeling that technology is too often driven by market and defense priorities and that the potential for much more humane impacts can be found in artist-led research. We are seeking better technological possibilities in the relationships between our bodies and our computers in our work places, in our leisure and social engagements, in our communities and in the stories, we tell and absorb day to day.

I know that first and foremost you are a storyteller and I find that the stories you tell are humane in the way you use the technology (computer graphics) to reveal people’s inner lives. You address issues of addiction and alcoholism, marital dysfunction and grief in your work in, I think, very nonjudgmental ways. You tell stories that are compassionate toward those who are suffering in ways that all of us can relate to.

Chris Landreth (CL):

I think the answer I’m going to give you is a little less heart or feeling oriented then you might expect. You’re talking about The Spine and Ryan probably. My ultimate goal is to tell a really great story and the best and easiest way to tell a really great story is to tell it with empathy. In order for the story to succeed I have to create a sense of empathy for the audience to have a way into the stakes of the story. The nice thing that comes out of that—at least I hope—and I’m glad that you picked that up, is that there is a sense of compassion and caring. Maybe I’m being a bit crass, but it is there to serve an end.


Help me think this through some more. Maybe it is not one, then the other: story then empathy, not so polarized. Or is it? You could tell other stories but somehow, you’ve talked about your interest in emotion, in the richness of our inner lives and I see your work as revealing rather than smoothing over the ugliness and awkwardness of human experience, a theme that keeps coming up with the artists involved in this project. Perhaps unfiltered experience is part of being humane.


I mean, when I was starting to get into CG [computer graphics] in the 1990s I was seeing a lot of what has been borne out today, people love to use the realism to make fantasy and superhuman-ness and that’s what I’d say you see way too much of—the pursuit of photorealism, the idea of being able to re-create reality in a way that is substitutable for real life. The tools that were and are available with computer animation can do a lot more than that.

Instead, I was really into the idea that you could use the same kind of visual storytelling to elevate the ordinary stories of ordinary people. The ordinary stories of getting up and negotiating the world and going to sleep and not having destroyed yourself in the process are actually kind of heroic. If you can show that ordinariness as heroic then you start creating a sense of empathy. I’m surprised that more people don’t pick up on this. It is a really powerful tool for storytelling.

NZS: How would you trace the origins of your interest in this kind of work, this kind of storytelling in your family or early life or training?


Well I can say this for myself anyway. When I was a kid I was diagnosed with severe attention deficit disorder, or whatever you call it now, and that affects my outlook. It is easy for me to screw up on ordinary things, like in my film Subconscious Password, to forget someone’s name. There’s always a bit of that forgetfulness. On a day when I don’t forget where I put my glasses and my glasses are actually there where they are supposed to be it feels like a huge triumph. It is a spectacularly happy ending to that story. Those ordinary things, like remembering a person’s name are actually pretty epic stories and people can relate to that. With CG we are able to take the ordinariness of human experience and turn it into something extraordinary. We are all broken in some way or another. That’s what makes us people, it is the breakages that we have. If we are able to portray them visually I think we have an interesting way of showing people and storytelling.

Everyone can relate to that. If you call that caring or compassion, I’m happy that you do that.

A still from Landreth's 2009 short film, "The Spine." Image courtesy National Film Board of Canada.


So, is there a danger to potentially starting with empathy in storytelling? At least in narrative work? I mean, I should say, I don’t do a lot of storytelling myself. ACCAD is an interdisciplinary research center so each of us comes from a different background and I don’t make narrative work. I come from dance and my work is in intermedia spaces and immersive environments and on this project I’m focusing on how our bodies interact with our computers, but several of my colleagues in animation do make narrative work, they tell stories.


I don’t think you can tell a great story if you’re making empathy your goal, instead you’re using empathy to make the story powerful. In a narrative story in particular, there are plenty of great things that aren’t narrative, but in narrative films in which you are telling the story of a character, you want to have your audience inside that person’s head. It is not easy to do. A filmmaker, that does this really well is Alexander Payne, you know who did About Schmidt, Sideways...he’s a master of making ordinariness into something of a kind of heroism. I feel a commonality with the stuff that he does.


In VR (Virtual Reality) or MR (Mixed Reality) there may be some different potentials given the effect that being in the goggles has on the brain and proprioception. When you step off a cliff in VR, you really have a moment of fear of falling. That has great potential for good but also for manipulation. And at the same time there are so many projects that assumed VR would be good for building empathy and they have really failed. Immersion doesn’t equal empathy.


What’s being missed in thinking about immersion as empathy is that it isn’t automatic. When The Hobbit played in theaters it was not only 3D but it was shown at 60 frames per second to create a sense of total immersion. The idea is that you’re actually there inside the Shire, in Middle Earth. But it had exactly the opposite effect with audiences.

You’ve heard of the soap opera effect? With film, there’s a filter of cinema that you’re accustomed to. When you have 60 frames per second you don’t have that motion blur anymore and it turns out that doesn’t work well. When you’re looking at the hobbit you’re not thinking you’re in Middle Earth, you’re thinking that you’re on a movie set for Middle Earth. You feel completely opposite of what would be expected. You’re immersed in the wrong thing. You’re immersed in the fakery of that movie environment. It is called the soap opera effect because it has that kind of glossiness, it does look more like you’re there but kind of in a fake way. That’s the problem with putting on 3D glasses as well.


It is hyper-real.


That said, some of the really cool interactive virtual reality stuff that I’ve seen at SIGGRAPH for example, that stuff for me is really connecting, bonding, community building like the Flock experience of Ken Perlin’s. It is amazing, fun, silly, beautiful, childlike in a good way and you end up losing your self-consciousness in virtual reality in a way that’s really great—you are occupying the body like a fun robot. You are literally like a bird, flapping your arms. Holo-Doodle is another one.


So that’s absolutely humane tecnology to me, people are engaging in a full-bodied way in a computing environment and those projects have humor and creative open-endedness and meaningful social connection. And I’d say with Flock, that project reflects what I’m guessing are some of Ken Perlin’s values, given his work over the years on community and forms of social engagement that are not all about competition and so on.

CL: Yes, I think so.

A lot of my work in the future is going to be involved in VR. The thrust of my work in the past few months has not been in filmmaking so much but has been in software development with a small group of folks at the University of Toronto. We are developing procedural ways of doing character animation. We are developing software that will allow CG characters to be able to speak based only on an audio file of a person saying or acting lines, and the applications are vast – definitely in gaming and definitely in VR. And we expect to be a lot more engaged in the VR sphere.


That’s exciting, like motion capture or performance capture but for the voice. We have a team in the Humane Technologies group focusing on simulation and performance in motion capture and virtual reality combined as a tool for role play, but role play that is less intimidating for people because the goggles create a kind of distance, it feels safer to try something. They are applying this to training caregivers of patients with dementia, it is storytelling with a specific goal.

Before we finish, let’s take a moment to talk about the visual style that you are known for because I think it is a great example of how the implicit practices of artists can create compassion, even when, as you say, the focus is something else, like telling a great story. Can you talk about psychorealism and how it might relate to a notion of making more humane technologies or using technology toward compassionate ends through artistic practices?


Essentially, the idea is that you can portray people’s psychological states in an interesting visual way that integrates with the other visual stuff that is happening in the film. I’m interested in altering characters’ appearances to create a metaphorical psychological state that you can see literally on their faces and bodies. This brings us back to where we started: I do this because I think it is a really useful device in telling stories. I’ve found that by creating a visual alteration that reflects peoples’ inner lives, that there is a new layer of storytelling that takes what otherwise might be mundane and common aspects of life and creates something beautiful out of them or I try to make them beautiful.


They are beautiful and I’m looking forward to absorbing all of this at once in the screening of several your works when you are here. We are honored to have you here for a residency.


I love the idea of coming out there. ACCAD has been out there doing great work for what, like 35 years, and people there have done some really great pioneering work on not just the aesthetics but the technical pipeline of computer graphics. A lot of powerful stuff has come out of OSU and ACCAD over the decades.

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© 2009 by Norah Zuniga Shaw