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The great escape

29 April 2016

From Aeon:

The only people who hate escapism are jailers, said the essayist and Narnia author C S Lewis. A generation later, the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock revised the quip: jailers love escapism — it’s escape they can’t stand. Today, in the early years of the 21st century, escapism — the act of withdrawing from the pressures of the real world into fantasy worlds — has taken on a scale and scope quite beyond anything Lewis might have envisioned.

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I’m emblematic of an entire generation who might, when our history is written, be remembered first and foremost for our exodus into digital fantasy. Is this great escape anything more than idle entertainment — designed to keep us happy in Moorcock’s jail? Or is there, as Lewis believed, a higher purpose to our fantastical flights?

Fans of J R R Tolkien line up squarely behind Lewis. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954) took the fantasy novel — previously occupied with moralising children’s stories — and created an entire world in its place. Middle Earth was no metaphor or allegory: it was its own reality, complete with maps, languages, history and politics — a secondary world of fantasy in which readers became fully immersed, escaping primary reality for as long as they continued reading. Immersion has since become the mantra of modern escapist fantasy, and the creation of seamless secondary worlds its mission. We hunger for an escape so complete it borders on oblivion: the total eradication of self and reality beneath a superimposed fantasy.

Language is a powerful technology for escape, but it is only as powerful as the literacy of the reader. Not so with cinema. Star Wars marked the arrival of a new kind of blockbuster film, one that leveraged the cutting edge of computer technology to make on-screen fantasy ever more immersive. Then, in 1991, with James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, computer-generated imagery (CGI) came into its own, and ‘morphing’ established a new standard in fantasy on screen. CGI allowed filmmakers to create fantasy worlds limited only by their imaginations. The hyperreal dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993) together with Toy Story (1995), the first full-length CGI feature, unleashed a tidal wave of CGI blockbusters from The Matrix (1999) to Avatar (2009). The seamless melding of reality and fantasy that CGI delivers has transformed our expectations of cinema, and fuelled a ravenous appetite for escape.

. . . .

The world is not made of atoms. It is made of the stories we tell about atoms.

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As the technology of escape continues to accelerate, we’ve begun to see an eruption of fantasy into reality. The augmented reality of Google Glass, and the virtual reality of the games headset Oculus Rift (resurrected by the power of crowd-funding) present the very real possibility that our digital fantasy worlds might soon be blended with our physical world, enhancing but also distorting our sense of reality. When we can replace our own reflection in the mirror with an image of digitally perfected beauty, how will we tolerate any return to the real? Perhaps, in the end, we will find ourselves, not desperate to escape into fantasy, but desperate to escape from fantasy. Or simply unable to tell which is which.

Link to the rest at Aeon and thanks to Julia for the tip.


3 Comments to “The great escape”

  1. Star Wars marked the arrival of a new kind of blockbuster film, one that leveraged the cutting edge of computer technology to make on-screen fantasy ever more immersive.

    This puzzled me for a few seconds (other than the Death Star plans, all other effects were completely practical) until I remembered that ILM invented the computer-controlled cameras that were used to film a lot of the models. This is what made the spaceship movement so kinetic and remarkable compared to anything that had been seen before.

  2. I was lucky enough to visit the special effects shop for Star Wars some months before the movie was released. One of the most interesting parts of the tour was the out-takes they had of test runs for the computer-controlled arm with camera mounted.

    Because the film cameras used for the actual production footage were both fragile and expensive, they ran test shots using a consumer video camera mounted on the computer-controlled arm. This was not only good enough for checking whether the sequence would work as filmed, but also provided an opportunity to be sure that the camera would clear all obstacles, without risking destruction of the expensive film camera. During our visit, we saw some dandy video of the camera colliding with the sides of the trench. Or ramming into the side of the trench model and shoving itself **through** both the model and the plywood and 2×4 structure that supported it. (That particular shot ended because the video camera was destroyed by the 2×4 structure even as it broke the 2x4s.)

    It’s also interesting that the “important thing” about the movie (according to the folks who were working on it) wasn’t the story, or the effects. Rather, the important thing was that they were making an SF film where the world and technology looked *used* (as compared to shiny and new). Hmmmm…

    • I forgot to mention that the computer-controlled arm that they mounted the cameras on was 100% standard off-the-shelf robotic equipment. The innovations were (a) making a convenient interface* for defining and rerunning camera movements, (b) the realization that they’d be able to easily tweak the motion sequence until it was “just right,” © the ability to pre-flight sequences with a video camera before committing to film, and (d) the ability to replace **individual frames** in a motion sequence in the event of problems.

      *convenient, in the sense that it supported the things that the movie people wanted, rather than motion sequences as then described in the industrial robotics world.

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