June 29, 2007

Machinima : Making Movies in the Virtual World

[ a more refined version of my earlier post on the same topic ]

Movies created without a camera or human actors is nothing new. From animated cartoons by Walt Disney to dinosaurs in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park tools to create artificial characters have played an important role in movie production and of late productions like 300 have demonstrated the versatility of digital technology to transcend the limitations of physical reality.

All this however pales into insignificance when we consider the immense potential of virtual worlds technology – as implemented in environments like Second Life and Active Worlds. Movie making as we know it today is set to change beyond recognition as producers and cinematographers realize the disruptive impact that this is going to have in the future.

Virtual worlds have their origin in interactive computer games of the category that are commonly referred to as Massively MultiUser Online Role Playing Games. Technology that first appeared in games like Everquest and World of Warcraft is now being used to create virtual worlds, or Multiuser Online Collaborative Platforms, like Second Life. Individuals and corporates alike are joining participating in these platforms that form the basis of 3D Internet.

A virtual world is one that exists as a 3D simulation of a familiar physical, or more often than not a fantasy, world to which individuals connect to – in a way that one connects to mundane chat server – and then ‘emerges’ inside it as an avatar : a 3D representation of his or her persona that can interact with the environment or with other avatars that represent other individuals who too have connected to this world at the same time. Controlled by the human being on the keyboard, the avatar can perform a range of activities that include but is not limited to walking, flying, making gestures, talking to other avatars, picking up and manipulating ‘solid’ objects … the list can go on. And capturing all this frantic activity is possible not with a traditional optical camera but with a low cost screen capture device that can store all this for posterity in any of the digital movie formats like mpeg, avi or wmv. That in a nut-shell is machinima, which stands for both (a) the process of creating movies in virtual worlds as well as (b) the actual movie itself. Machinima as a concept is not very new, but the process of creating realistic movies with significant dramatic content throws up some challenges. Let us see how these will be overcome in the very near future.

First : The characters seem rather wooden today. While physical appearances are infinitely customizable – height, body bulk, shape of head, colour of hair, and even ‘skins’ that can create near look-alikes of any real person, and a wide variety of dresses are available for purchase, the behavior is still rather wooden. Avatars move stiffly and have a limited repertoire of gestures – which may be fine for dedicated gamers but would be a put-off for a movie viewer who is more interested in the dramatic content and less in the esoteric technology behind it.

However the evolution of artifacts called ‘animations’ and small bundles of these ‘animations’ arranged in a sequence called ‘gestures’ can create a fairly smooth sequence of movements like [smile] + [wave] + [say ‘hello’] + [handshake]. Using an inventory of animations one can potentially create a virtually infinite collection of gestures, most of which can be unique to an individual avatar and with some deftness on the keyboard, these can be played out in a manner that would be very, very realistic.

Animations can be purchased, but learning to assemble them into personalized gestures is the digital equivalent of going to an Acting School. Just as budding actors are taught how to laugh, cry, show anger or otherwise emote in real life, so would budding digital actors learn how to make their avatars do the same in virtual worlds. Of course some would have a natural flair for this and end up as the Big B while others would fail and end up writing articles like these !! Obviously hiring such competent people would be more expensive and star-ranking system would emerge depending on competence and popularity.

Next is creation of sets. In real life, sets are built of wood, paper, bricks and what not. Or one goes to a film studio where these are already built and the real life actors go through their motions inside these sets. In a virtual world, building sets – houses, rivers, trees, cars, bridges and so on – is simple 3D modeling with some embedded scripted programs that do things like cause doors to open and rivers to ripple and flow and bridges to collapse and fall. In real life, good sets need effort and money. So is it in virtual worlds – except that the cost is far, far less ! Something as big as a huge hotel can be built, down to the last detail, by 4 people in just about 2 – 3 weeks. Building sets needs virtual land, which can be bought or leased at a nominal cost.

With actors, actresses and sets in place, the next piece of the puzzle is the actual recording, which is again very intuitive. The avatar representing the ‘camera-operator’ must be present inside the set where the avatars of the actors are playing their roles and all that is visible to the avatar can be captured in digital file using available screen capture technology. In fact, here virtual worlds are far superior to real worlds since the ‘camera-operator’ can fly in the air or change his viewpoint from a close-up to a long-shot at the roll of a mouse ! Multiple avatars representing multiple camera-operators can be present to capture various angles as is the case in real life cinematography

And all this is possible without anyone – actors, set builders, camera-operators – ever leaving their homes in real life ! All can work from home, or a standard office environment, as long as they have computers, with the free virtual world client and a broadband connection to the internet ! Imagine how convenient all this is to the producers budget !

Movies however need more than actors, sets and camera-operators to be successful – you need a good script, smart direction and tight editing. These requirements continue whether the movie is shot in real world or in the virtual world. But by significantly reducing the cost and the physical effort required to create movies, creativity in the real sense will flourish. Directors would be able to do what they had always dreamt of but were held back by the irritating constraints of the real world.

And may be from 2009 onwards the Filmfare awards will have additional categories for the best film shot in Virtual Worlds, for the best male and female avatar in a lead role, along with the best supporting male and female avatar in a supporting role .. the possibilities are endless. James Cameron, the director of Titanic and other Hollywood blockbusters has announced that his next big project, scheduled for release in 2009, is “Avatar” – a science fiction movie where actors are expected to move between real and virtual worlds. But how soon will it be before the virtual becomes real in Bollywood ?

June 27, 2007

Second Life @ St Xavier's School, Calcutta

St. Xaviers Collegiate School, Calcutta has organised a Computer Exhibition to help students look beyond the boring ( truly boring ) world of the Computer Syllabus that they have to follow.

While most students stuck would still tend to stick to the straight and narrow, I helped my son and two of his class-mates create a movie based on and shot in location inside Second Life.

If your bandwidth supports it, please watch ... but be aware that these are heavy files with embedded music & voice-over

Part 1

Part 2

and here are two images


June 25, 2007

The Great Bengal Firewall ???

I have been trying to access the article on Nandigram at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nandigram but have not been able to go past the wikipedia home page and into ANY of the articles. I am from Calcutta and this has been going for the past two days ..

My brother-in-law however is able to access the same pages from Ahmedabad .. which I thought was funny. What is even more funny is that even in Calcutta, if I dial into my office LAN and then access the internet through the company firewall ( which happens to be outside Calcutta ) then I have no problems in accessing the same pages.

I do know that wikipedia is banned ( or rather blocked ) in China .. by the Great Firewall of China. Is something similar happening here as well.

Movies in Second Life - The Next Level

As virtual worlds, as epitomised by SecondLife and perhaps ActiveWorlds, comes closer and closer to real worlds, where is it that we will have first contact ? where is it that the borderline between these two worlds will get blurred if not dissolved first ?

The obvious answer in the domain of entertainment. But how ? Today's Business Standard carries an article that explains how game developers are planning to work with the Mumbai film industry ( painfully referred to as Bollywood !) to develop interactive games based on actual movies ... and possibly using the the names and images of well known film stars.

This is good but this has been done before with Angelina Jolie and some of her movies but the real challenge is to take it to the next level ...

Why not shoot real movies, that is movies that will be shown in real life, using settings and actors in virtual worlds ?

The movie 300 has been in the news recently because of the extensive use of digital technology for creating the sets but the actors have been real people, who have played out their roles in a bleak and empty aircraft hanger. Subsequently, their images were layered on to the digital sets using fairly advanced technology.

The next frontier is when the actors themselves will be represented by their avatars in the virtual world. Can this technology be used to create full length movies without ANY optical camera at all ? Certainly, if you consider the following ..

  • The Avatars can be made to look extremely realistic and lifelike. Today, most avatars have a doll-like look but that is a matter of choice not necessity. It is not at all difficult to create 'skins' that look like very real people, if not specific individuals, like Amitabh Bachchan or Madhuri Dixit.
Emotions is the next hurdle. Currently most avatars move around rather woodenly and while this may be fine with geeky gamers who are present in SecondLife, it may not be acceptable to regular movie goers. However even here there are two pieces of technology that can come to the rescue
  • Gestures and animations are already available and a clever use of these can be made to make avatars shake hands, dance and do many other human like activities.
  • More importantly, tools have emerged to display emotions like anger and smile. The Mystic HUD gizmo that I have recently bought for my avatar gives me a two key-press access to many of these emotions.
Using, or rather activating, gestures, animations and emotions can be a little tricky and need first knowledge of their existence and more importantly nimbleness of fingers to make them visible. I for one am not very good at this and in most cases, my smile (or frown ) appears much later after the dialogue that should have triggered. Which of course means that I am a 'bad actor' in Second Life ... but then I am a 'bad actor' in real life .. which is why here I am typing blogs and not being feature in movie hoardings !!

But going forward, we can anticipate the arrival of professional actors in Second Life. What are the characteristics that they must possess ?

  • Unlike Real Life, they need not look good but they should have either bought or developed excellent 'skins' that make them look as grand and magnificent as any real life actor or actress
  • Instead of going to the gym to keep their bodies muscular or otherwise attractive, they should be knowledgeable enough to 'edit' their avatars to achieve the right physique. In fact they can also hire professional 'avatar editors' in Second Life to edit their bodies ... just as we have professional hair dressers and make up men in real life
  • They should acquire a good inventory of gestures, animations and emotions and have these available in their inventory .. so that they can create a range of emotions as and when the situation demands.
  • Finally, these people should have the dexterity to quickly press the right keys so that the right emotions appear on their avatars in the right sequence. This is analogous of going to School of Acting or School of Dancing and learning the correct steps.

Going forward, we can envisage the entire movie industry getting metamorphosed into Second Life where we will have a full cast and crew of
  • Actors and actresses .. who will play out their roles using ONLY the keyboard. This will include not only the lead players but also the junior artists ( or extras)
  • Support crew like make up artists and set designers who will not work in real life but instead work through their avatars in second life to design dresses, hairstyles and the virtual sets where the action will take place
  • Photographers who will not use 'optical light' at all ! So they cannot really be called photographers. Instead they will use non-optical moving image capture devices like screen grabbers .. like they do today when they create machinimas
What will not change will be script-writers, directors and post production staff ... who will continue with whatever they are doing except that freed from the restrictions of physics and economics of movie making, they can give full reign to their imagination and skills.

And in the competition for the Oscar for the Best Actor and Best Actress, we will have nominations from people in Real Life as well as avatar's in SecondLife ...

And may the best candidate ( person or avatar ) win !!

June 23, 2007

Plassey : Agony or Ecstasy ?

Today is the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey, where on the banks of the Hooghly River, near the town of Murshidabad, Robert Clive and his Indian allies, defeated the Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal and laid the foundation of British Rule.

There will be events to commemorate this Battle and the overwhelming tone and tenor of these events will be that of regretful nostalgia .. to commiserate with the subjugation of India and its loss of independence to a foreign military power.

But is this really correct ?

Should we not celebrate this event as the dawn of the Indian Renaissance ?

Politically correct historians and semi-literate bards and dramatists have given this event an emotional tone that is quite out of sync with the real emotions that were felt by the common people who lived in those tumultuous times.

I believe that the population was actually quite jubilant at the fall of the tyrannical Nawab -- and the utter lawlessness that his rule symbolised -- and a direct echo of that is found even today ! Calcutta's famous Durga Puja festival which is so widely publicised and celebrated today has its roots in the celebration that followed Clive's victory in Plassey ! Though this fact is often ignored when we watch tired and cliched dramatic performances ( the Bengal Jatra's ) which groan and moan about the fall of Siraj.

In the wider perspective of India, the event of Plassey, heralded the end of medieval times and sowed the seeds of a new beginning.

Had it not been Plassey, the medievalist Muslim aristocracy that had kept India under its heel since the 12th century, would have been very difficult to dislodge. Despite the energetic protestations of politically correct historians and despite the occasional generosity of a handful of Akbar-like liberal rulers, it is fact that the Hindu population of India had been terrorised into a sullen submission ...

While the Babri Masjid may be a subject of scholarly debate, the facts at the ground level are abundantly clear ...

For example in Bengal, there are literally hundreds of Hindu temples that were ravaged by people like Kala Pahar -- the notorious Muslim tyrant who ruled South Bengal. To see and example, please visit the famous Kankalitala temple near Shantiniketan and you will see the remnants of vast ShivaLinga that has been felled by his thugs.

Similarly Sri Chaitanyadeb, one of the leading lights of Vaishanava movement in Bengal had to flee to Puri to save his dignity, if not his life, from these tyrants.

So it is childish to believe that the people of Bengal mourned the passing of the Nawab's rule. In fact, conch shells were blown and diya's were lit in village after village when the news of Clive's victory or rather the fall of the Nawab was received. These celebrations coalesced into the triumphant Durga Puja celebrations .. that have since become a part of Bengali mindscape. [ A contemporary analogy would be the eviction of the worthless and incompetent Nawab of Hyderabad by the Sardar Patel ... do people in modern Andhra Pradesh mourn his absence ? ]

At a national level, the Battle of Plassey, paved the way for British Rule in India. Again, there can be a debate on whether British rule was a curse or a blessing ..

Economic historians have pointed out that because of British economic policies, India's share of global GDP declined precipitously and the country went from being a land of riches to a land of poverty.

I would argue that while British economic policies might have been partly responsible, the real problem was that India was stuck in the past ... cut off from the groundswell of science and technology that would be the engine for future growth. Without access to this new schools of thought, India was doomed anyway ... irrespective of whether the economic policies were favourable or hostile.

In any case, India was falling back, or the world was surging forward .. and we would have been left behind anyway !!

The Battle of Plassey was our ticket to board the train to progress, albeit a third-class ticket .. but a ticket nevertheless. Without it India would have been left behind on the platform !

The Battle of Plassey paved the way for British Rule. The change of leadership allowed the liberals to stand up and raise their head. Without the Battle of Plassey, there would have been no city like Calcutta and without a modern city there would have been no Bengal Renaissance ..

Without this Renaissance, there would have been no Raja Rammohan Roy, no Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, no female education, no reforms in Hindu society, no institutions like Presidency College, no Vivekananda, no CV Raman, no Jagadish Bose, no Hargobind Khorana ... all the way down to no Kalpana Chawla, no Infosys, no TCS and no sign of the resurgent Sensex !!

And to think that all that goes back to that rain drenched field at Plassey where on the 23rd of June 1757, the forces of modernity and progress triumphed over the forces of regressive medievialism ...

250 years ago, not too many people were perhaps aware of the significance of event ... except to celebrate the overthrow of a local tyrant.

Today we know better. So let us celebrate this anniversary as the 250th anniversary of the Indian Renaissance.