FULL BLEED: I AM THE CRAWLING DEAD A PHANTOM IN A BOX SHADOW IN YOUR HEAD
That's a mouthful, huh?
So, let's consider the following, as posted by William Gibson on Twitter earlier this week.
"Technology now enables the creation of imaginary worlds so detailed that viewers aren't allowed to be co-creators in some previous sense."
An interesting proposition, given the detail creep that's been inescapable as digital technology (both software sophisitication and hardware power) has become more and more the cornerstone of our entertainments. And I know a little of what I speak, having been a special-effects junkie and digital animator in a previous life. And realism was alwas the goal (even if it wasn't clear how to get there.) We joked about the client only ever needing one model, that being an infinite Earth that they could zoom in and out of, with absolute clarity at any level of detail/shot staging.
More real than real.
More detail. More color maps. More resolution. Anything that you as an artist could do that would trick the viewer into thinking that what they saw was real, that's what needed to be done. Granted, we had television budgets, and kid's toy commercials for 22 minutes at a time budgets. So that was impossible.
But it's undeniable that the goal of all these endeavors was to create a new reality, one that was harder and harder to reject.
Nevermind that the surface detail was what they focused on because the scripts themselves were transparent and horrible and could jar even the most devoted fan right back to reality with two lines. Ah well.
A friend of mine back then (around 1999) told me then a thing that really stuck with me, and perhaps had unconsciously for a long time before. See, the movie, the book, the whatever, that's just instructions for the viewer to assemble an experience out of. It's not real, nor can it be, but perhaps if things work right, the viewer puts together something that feels real. Maybe that they even forget isn't real, providing a genuine emotional response. You know, Voight-Kampff for short. Now, sometimes these things work beautifully, breaking past walls of expectation. Often they fall short for any number of reasons.
But not for everyone, not equally. One movie generates millions, perhaps billions of different experiences. That's the co-creation thing at work. And yeah, it works on more than just movies or books or television or news stories. Oh wait, scratch that last one else we end right up in PKD territory. We can't stop there. There's ontological terror waiting.
Back to mere aesthetics. So, detail creep. Here's an easy example, though not fair because one is a child's cartoon from the eighties and one is a blockbuster franchise that Serious Dudes spend a lot of time thinking about.
Okay, simple shapes, easy silhouettes to copy, character over detail. Now, like I said already, unfair as this was a cartoon made on the cheap to sell toys to kids.
And here's the same character as envisioned today. Detail over character. Extreme bad-assness (and that's a whole *other* subject.) It's as if by making things more complex, they become even more real. And I'll add, they become a thing that can not be easily replicated by a kid sitting down and drawing on paper or doodling on the drawing app on their phone or making a 3D model.
Let's hold on that for a moment. Complexity in the service of difficulty of replication. Keep in mind now that lots and lots of people have access to computing power and software for image generation that we couldn't conceive of a generation ago. So how do you make a thing more special? How do you make it so that it's more unique and you can't just create a copy of it? Well, one way is to stick detail in. More detail. More nurnies. More moving parts driven by complicated expressions. I want to see every piston moving, every gear providing power to the systems turning, etc etc.
And yes, that's a successful strategy, both in shock and awe factor, where there's so much detail that you just shut down and accept what you see because more complex equals more real. But you preserve the originality by making it so that you require the army of technicians to convey that level of detail. IP protection through simulated complexity. And not just the geometry (that being the shapes that make the things up, or their interlinked systems) but the surface mapping (think of that as colored decals that you paint on top to make more detail to simulate realism -- you don't make rust and corrosion out of geometry, but paint it on.)
This goes the same for organic characters too, just so you don't think I'm picking on the Transformers. Videogames and movies follow the same paths here: overwhelming detail to anchor the reality of things, from nicks and scratches in leather jackets and armaments to scars and freckles and pores. These are things that are created by the labor of large teams of people, all being paid (but probably not enough as these things go) to make them, just massive expenditures of energy and money (to make sure that you're enticed to spend your energy and money upon them.) This is not good or bad, but how things are. And this is also not exclusively how things are (take a look at CUPHEAD for one, though that one invites discussion of detail in the replication of a lost technology). Lots of kid's animated movies now are driven by a cartoonier, more expressive design style (though still layered in detail, sure.)
A quick aside, consider the audiences here. The gritty detail often gets slapped onto PG-13 and higher rated material, anchored in reality and aimed at a more mature audience with higher buying power. Superhero costumes are a favorite example of this for me now. No more boiler suits or mere spandex. Texture and construction and detail layered upon one another until you've had a fundamental reshaping of what these things are supposed to be. These aren't just cosplayers in front of a camera (though cosplayers have become amazingly inventive in their craft in response to this, something I'm constantly impressed by even if I don't like having to stand in a jammed convention aisle while their pictures are taken.) The detail is all selling a new set of expectations of reality. Iron Man's gotta have that accumulating battle damage. Cap's gotta get ripped and beaten up and it has to show in the togs.
Now, for the record, I'm not a huge fan of this approach. I'd rather step back to cleaner shapes, more minimal design, and focus on a few smaller details that have importance, not just detail for its own sake to show the money spent on the screen. I'm also the guy who digs cartoonier art in his comics because too much detail simply becomes a wash, and what's more it's distracting. I know. I'm in the minority here. I've gotten used to that.
I suppose I should talk a little about the history of why detail is ascendant in digital art, by the by. Pretty simple. In the early days, computers were really good at drawing the same, sometimes very complicated thing, over and over and making it move (when rigged properly.) But simulating surfaces was always something that fell short. And by "surfaces" I mean anything with complexity like a leather jacket with grain and damage and denting, even flaking and coming apart. Sure, you can put a picture on it, simulate that damge, but have you simulated it enough? Can you zoom in on the gash in the character's chest and see where the structure of the cow's skin is still visible and where fraying is taking place organically? Can you see the powder burns? Can you read the history of the jacket by looking at it?
That's been a priorty in digital art for a long time, at least production art. But I see it a lot in concept drawings I see on DeviantArt and Tumblr, too. I see a lot of detail and complexity. I don't often see a lot of good design. But again, my concerns are not everyone's. That whole "single work of art, millions of different experiences" thing kicking in again.
Now back to Mr. Gibson's original statement. I can't agree entirely. No matter how complicated the simulation, it's still something being assembled at the individual level. There's no way to avoid co-creation or to bypass it, not without more fundamental control/shaping of the individual minds doing the co-creation, anyways. I mean, if we're all brains in a jar with the same exact input, then maybe? But given brain structure and how that manifests in personality, I'd argue against. Granted, he's probably not intending anyone to take this 100% seriously or literally.
Now, do I think that #brands would love it if they could short-circuit the whole co-creation thing? You bet. Hell, that'd be like cheat codes for driving consumer desire, right? That'd be the ability to substitute the imaginary for the real. And sure, some folks are more susceptible to this (bias confirmation is one hell of a drug, just check out Twitter sometime; so is the validation crack principle, another Gibson coining.)
Of course, this is an easier trick to pull off in some places than others. Look, all you gotta do is get a few thousand fake followers and it looks like you have the social media footprint of a political opponent (Hi, Roy Moore! Hope you dig your new Russian buddies!) I mean, social media is basically the reality-tunnel construction kit that SF has warned us about since television showed up. The seeming becomes the real. At least, that's the gambit they're running. Hell, it shows up in something as innocuous as online matress sellers, which turns out to be a growing slice of a $12 billion/year marketplace. People buying mattress review sites for a million and a half bucks, paying out to reviewers like amounts in a year just to show up as the number one result.
Of course, we don't expect payola or other gaming of the system in something so stupid as mattress sales, right? How boring and un-sexy is that? How lacking in detail, how unimportant.
Until of course, it's pointed out that something like this is so very easily manipulated, with a level of detail that doesn't take much work to hijack.
And maybe that was Mr. Gibson's point in the first place.
While you're here, my story "Through the Limbs" is still available to read for free. It goes away on Friday. Maybe if any of this has resonated with you, the story will.