Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Business of Altering Reality

I recently saw this short item in the New York Times:

Doubled profits at DreamWorks Animation? Their revenue jumped by 68%? While I am impressed with these figures, I am not surprised by these huge profits at DreamWorks. There is a recession going on out there and people need to escape that fact. There have been countless stories lately about different sectors of the entertainment industry that are dodging the recession bullet. The video gaming industry grew by 10% last year, exceeding analysts and their gloomy forecasts by huge margins. Ticket sales at movie theaters are up as well. True, the cinemagoers are probably smuggling in their own food and drink rather than pay double the cost for their watered-down and sugared-up concessions, but it says something that in these economic times they are willing to part with $11 for two hours of distraction.

This increased movie going during economic slumps is not new. During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, Americans went to the movies en masse. It was their one chance to escape their hardships and they spent whatever money that could be spared to go watch Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard on the big screen. Their reality could not be altered, so they wanted to watch the better, richer and more screwball lives of others.*

But during this economic slump there is a difference; we have actually learned how to alter our reality, not just escape it. We live in a world of alternate realities. We can create any type of on-line life we want. I can open an E-Harmony account, steal the photo of the best looking man I can find on-line and instantly be a 6’4”, former Olympian and current titan of industry. I could send out Tweets from the loo in Buckingham Palace one day and from the flightdeck of AirForce One the next. If I had the patience for Second Life, I could become a virtual rock star in a virtual band.

I suppose that a lot of us who are drawn to a job in the VFX/CGi world have a tendency to want to alter reality; to create something more beautiful, or interesting or just different than what we see or how we see it. Great art can come out of some very dull or very dark places. I’m not suggesting that everything done in the name of VFX/CGi is Art – but at it’s best the fusion of creativity and technology can produce some breathtaking images that can alter our current perspective or transport us to another time or place.

When our own world seems challenging at best and frightening at worst, I take pride that I work for a company that creates entertainment to offer a short respite from reality for people. Our London office has just finished up Where the Wild Things Are, the latest film from Spike Jonze based on the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak. Our main contribution was to add character, performance and life to the faces of Wild Things and help to realise an extraordinary project. As ever with the CG work that we do on films, if the characters don’t work then the film doesn’t work. It’s ironic that it is the realism of characters that are not based in reality (Wild Things, talking polar bears in Golden Compass, Hippogriff in Harry Potter) that makes the movie ‘believable’ and help us to escape from the mundane or the stressful.

Wild Things is the ultimate story about an altered reality, instead of serving out his time out in silence, Max grows a wild and fertile forest in his imagination and journeys to the land of the Wild Things. The ultimate animation tools that are helping to stretch the limits of the imagination and push back the boundaries of reality will be used to tell this ultimate story of escapism. We all have things to forget, even if it’s just the fact that we were once so naughty that we had to go to bed without any supper.

* I know that Television had a massive impact on cinema going. From the time of TV’s introduction in the ‘50s ticket sales declined from 3 billion to 1 billion in 1970. For an interesting take on that relationship you should read this blog by Charles Day.