The implications of humanity in a movie like Blade Runner are the engines that makes us lean in to the imagined worlds surrounding the main characters.    (Photo Courtesy Warner Bros.)

The implications of humanity in a movie like Blade Runner are the engines that makes us lean in to the imagined worlds surrounding the main characters.    (Photo Courtesy Warner Bros.)

If you don’t know the term, a render farm is whole bunch of CPUs and GPUs  strung together to do the intangible work of turning digital ideas into finished images. It’s the place animators and editors and other digital creators cook their work after they’ve assembled all of the instructions intended to imbue essential qualities to their imaginings. A render farm is the modern equivalent of the studio where Galatea took her first breath.

Art directors sometimes refer to computer created objects as props. Makes sense: that neologism refers to the traditional theatrical concept of an object that helps convey something germane to a story, enhancing mis en scene, or at least helping a director convey basic ideas. But computer generated props, to say nothing of entire environments, vehicles, or walking and talking characters, are easily untethered to the nuances of tangibility.

We instinctively understand that theater, film, or video are not real life. Dramatic arts are all about real life abstracted, often with the goal of amplifying a mood or message. Messages can be trivial or sublime. The same techniques useful for conveying subtle, vital emotional resonance in a play will apply for a sophomoric commercial designed to make you buy a product simply because you can emotionally relate to it. The rules don’t change: digital creations behave just like live action creations in terms of how we juxtapose our emotional states with stories that contain those creations. As the hybridization of virtual presentations continues to meld with more corporeal expressions, art directors need to understand the implications of their virtual imaginings before sending endless stuff out to the render farms.

For example: the physical world is the first and most essential teacher for the digital world. In our earliest days of life it’s the physical world that informs us first, teaches us about what’s real. Then, once we learn what is real we start to figure out what feels real.  When a computer generated car crash doesn’t send shards of glass and metal flying according to a physics model built in a way to precisely match what we expect, we perceive that something is amiss, even if we can’t quite put our finger on why. That’s not a function of our brains doing complex mathematical calculation, per se. The physical realities of how objects behave are deeply ingrained, deeply internalized understandings about the rules of the real world, learned from our earliest years simply by living in it. It’s precisely the same way that a masterful impressionist painting of flowers feels real to us even as it simultaneously appears as a blurry mass of color on the canvas. Reality has less to do with whether something perfectly represents the real world, and more to do with how a depiction captures a truthful essence of the real world. While it may not be photo-realistic, impressionism feels “real” because it represents something true and honest. It connects to our emotions and it evokes what we have experienced in the real world.

The problem with increasing virtual experiences is that we are beginning to erode our tether to our own years of humanity. Woody Allen nailed the idea in his iconic invention of the Orgasmatron in his screwball movie SLEEPER. Rather than have a direct, intimate experience with another actual person (gasp!), a machine could deliver approximately the same experience. Projected 500 years into the future, an experience in the device hardly resembles anything close to what it pretends to create. One wonders, however, as more and more relationships take place through the interface of our glowing screens if Mr. Allen was as much a seer as a satirist.

The great American poet William Carlos Williams repeatedly asserts “no ideas but in things” in his elegiac book “Patterson”. He asks,

            …what is there to say?     save that
            beauty is unheeded . tho for sale and
            bought glibly enough
            But it is. true, they fear
            it more than death, beauty is feared
            more than death, more than they fear death.

In a letter to his publisher, Williams expanded on this point. He said it’s part of the poet’s responsibilities

“not to talk in vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal.”

Yes.  Oh, yes.

This is why love stories make sense across centuries. This is why battles between Dudley Do-Rights and and Snidely Whiplashes persist in a million variations. The best of these tropes resonate not because we’ve flown across the galaxy to meet our fates, but because we’ve all driven across town to meet our fates. As Williams suggests, we understand the universal in the particular.

Which leads me back to render farms. The concern is that fully artificial worlds, big and small, grand and trivial, will begin to weaken our connections to universality. When frames of reference are no longer tightly tethered to the real world, do we share as much with each other when we consume each other's imagined experiences?

@michaelstarobin    OR

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