Avatar in the Valley: The Na’vi and Us, the Machinic Audience

NEMLA – Spring 2011

Aaron Tucker

This is a very brief, very rough version of the chapter that will appear in Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema. In its new form, the chapter expands on the discussion of Avatar here while comparing it to the film Surrogates (Dir. Jonathan Mostow, 2009).

Introduction: The Machinic Audience & The Artist’s Art

 

Published in 1984, The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed1 purported to be the world’s first collection of poetry written entirely by a computer. In fact you could buy the program, called Racter, and install it on your own Apple II, and, within a matter of minutes have Racter generate a series of poems that would easily impress your cocktail party guests. In the introduction, Bill Chamberlain even went so far as to say “its output is not only new and unknowable, it is apparently thoughtful.”

Christian Bök’s essay in response to Racter, “The Piecemeal Bard is Deconstructed: Notes Towards a Potential Robopoetics2 , discusses consumers of such a poetry and the ramifications of computer generated art. In it he states, half joking he assures, that “we are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers.”

What exactly might a “machinic audience” entail? What does a machinic audience expect and accept as art? In a contemporary sense I think we should dismiss Terminators or other strictly mechanical-human entities reading and reciting poetry and focus more towards our own existence as mechanically extended, “artificially intellectual” humans, a group of consumers that understand language through the lens of the machine, through the portals of screens, auto-tuning and interactions with search-engine algorithms. Marshall McLuhan would point to the machinic audience as those of us “extended by technology” that are “beginning to wear [our] brains outside [our] skulls and [our] nerves outside [our] skin.” 3

Donna Haraway may famously describe this machinic audience as a cyborg: “Everywhere there’s a car or phone or VCR…a shelf of carbo-loaded body building foods…athletic shoes” is a cyborg.4 Yet to focus only on the body is to miss the mental transformations undertaken in terms of communication and formation of language. Haraway further defines the cyborg as “information machines…automatons with built in autonomy” and more interestingly as “a collection of networks, constantly feeding information back and forth across the lines to the millions of networks that make up [our] ‘world’.”5  I think we would recognize this process in the digitizing of our own personalities, our transformation into avatars through spaces like Facebook, message boards, even email itself.

Herein lies the machinic audience: one that understands him/herself as mechanically extended and manipulated but also one that thinks in the language of networks and recognizes him or herself in the constant digital transfers one undertakes in a day. It seems then that the artist, whether computer program or programmer, poet or movie director, must acknowledge this audience as being increasingly normative and begin to gear that art towards the language and interactions that such an audience can appreciate and identify in.

In the call for this panel one of the central concerns was an investigation into what made Avatar  (Dir. James Cameron, 2009) such a popular film. I think it is silly to suggest that Cameron has created the machinic audience but I do think that the film is participating, perhaps more so than any film before, in the languages, both in terms of bodily re-construction and constant networks, that the majority of people recognize within themselves, and in that, a great well of popular response sprung. It is intriguing then to examine the specific technology used to create the Na’vi and examine how Avatar speak clearly and emotionally to an audience that craves a reflection of their own machinic and digitized body in a hyper-real environment.

Part I: Post Human Cinema

William Brown’s essay “man without a movie camera – movies without men” explains posthumanism “not as the end of humanity, but as the end of humanism – that is, posthumanism is precisely the belief that humans no longer play a central and binding role in reality,”6 furthering the end of Evan Selinger and Timothy Engström’s understanding as the “end of human exceptionalism.”7 The post-humanist argues that the world is transforming into a planet where, potentially, humans are not the most important species and that there may come a future where humans are seen as one step in the evolution to intelligent machines or cyborgs.

I think we can understand this as well as a coming shift in understanding the world – as global warming progresses and wars around the globe brim over into other decades, theorists like Manuel De Landa8 have posited that having humans as the prominent species is no longer beneficial towards the earth in general and that humans are in fact in the death spiral of their existence anyways. While Avatar does not engage, necessarily, in these apocalyptic scenarios, we can understand the film as portraying the largely destructive nature of an expanding human race and its inadequacies towards sustaining itself as a species, let alone participating as an intricate part of a universal ecosystem.  In the film, humans are simply one species in a much larger universe that extends beyond Earth and Pandora. Too, the plot of the film reinforces these ideals as it casts humans, specifically the characters of Colonel Miles Quaritch and Parker Selfridge, as representations of militarism and human greed; the Na’vi on the other hand, distinctly un-human as 9 foot blue gymnasts/warriors, represent, largely, innocence purity and connection with nature (and adds Zizek9 “are deeply spiritual and live in harmony with nature” rightly critiquing the Na’vi as stereotypical film “natives”). The conclusion of the film bears this out as the only way for Jake Sully to survive in the world of Pandora is to assimilate, evolve, into a Na’vi and be rid of his human body. The film reassures its audience that what we understand as the human body is no longer the strongest, most pure, most moral vessel and it must be evolved forward.

But to me the more interesting aspect of Avatar’s participation in the post-human ideal system is in the form and production of the film itself. This is not a question about the movie being in 3-D, a parlor trick that does little to enhance the film or extend the human body beyond its “normative” representations, but about inventions such as the Simul-Cam that instantly transform the human actors into their Na’vi doppelgangers. While this technology doesn’t create the Na’vi from nowhere, as RACTER supposedly created poetry, there is something distinctive in the authorship of the technology used in the film that we can recognize ourselves, the machinic audience, reflected back.

Part II: The Human Film and The Digital Evolution

Much as McLuhan argued that the technology of a car extends the human foot, the camera was seen as an extension, and often substitute, for the eye. Traditionally, the analogue camera (8 MM film for example) “has been thought to represent (the equivalent of) a human point of view, or, more precisely, has been equated to ‘seeing’ or having an ‘eye’” (70)10. Unlike a painting, the movie camera presents “an image of the world [that] is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man” (96)11. The camera then directs the audience to what he/she should view and the audience then voyeuristically accepts the image. The device, when considered as this, is rather passive and simply re-presents the world back to the reader as it is. While you have quite effective special effects in early films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) extending the capability of the camera, a director was stuck largely filming humans when he/she wanted a human to be in the film.

Of course this is not the case now as for a number of decades film has moved towards an increasing digitization both in the filming and creation of the images itself but also in the editing process. No longer is the camera contained to the possible (at least possible for humans) but can now extend outwards, to the virtual, to include scenes and species from any depths of imagination. Brown points to this shift from the analogue to the digital as morphing the human actors into digital technology presenting “a hybrid of ‘real’ flesh and blood actors and digital imagery” (69)12; this practice of alteration, he argues, creates “‘posthuman’ cyborgs”.

The audience of films, in particular Avatar, is of course well aware of this process, intimately understands it through their own everyday participation, have even begun to expect it, even crave it.

Part III: The Simul-cam/Virtual Cam

Again, it is incorrect to state that Cameron has created digital film, or is the most effective or most egregious example of its use, but the technology developed for Avatar in particular presents the next evolutionary step in digital film making. Cameron made use of two devices in particular, The Simul-Cam and The Virtual Camera (combined with his Fusion camera), in order to instantly and simultaneously capture the human actors and transform/present them as their digital Na’vi re-presentations. As Brian Jones explains “These technologies allowed CGI characters and environments to be viewed through the Fusion Camera System’s eyepieces and monitors during live-action filming.” This allows “a new technique named “image-based facial performance capture”, which required the actors to wear special headgear equipped with a camera. The video of the actor’s face is rendered at an almost pore-by-pore level, and the result was the astonishing emotional authenticity displayed by the Na’avi characters.”13 These cameras in combination allow Cameron to direct a CGI film as he would a live-action work – the machine and the human, the digital and the human are blended together seamlessly.

While this transformation is invisible to the machinic audience, he/she can still recognize that this process exists (through some magic of special effects; the exact details are not important to the general audience) and that this process is reflective of his/her own personal daily life. On the surface of the plot, Cameron makes the Na’vi an overt example of the Networked post-human (cyborg) that Haraway explains – the Na’vi literally plug into parts of their nature (horses, trees, each other) and use that connection to share and expand a communal and rhizomatic knowledge that each has access too. In much the same ways, the machinic audience plugs into laptops and cell phones, embracing their own evolution to the post-human, and connecting and sharing knowledge through the communal base of the internet; Avatar is successful largely because it utilizes the vocabulary and narrative of this networked species and celebrates its ultimate triumph.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOHPCI_9-eQ&w=420&h=315]

But in examining the form of human that the Virtual and Simul-Cam create, the machinic audience again finds echoes in his/her own understandings of the body. Every time a digital photo is captured, photoshopped and uploaded the machinic body is reproduced and recognized – it is neither distinctly human nor machine/digital. Likewise, creating avatars of the self, whether simplistically through jpegs or gifs on message boards, profile pictures on Facebook augmented by personal information, or more intriguingly through interactive gaming spaces such as an Xbox 360 avatar, the machinic audience is constantly placing a digital version of themselves into a virtual environment, in much the same way the two cameras filming Avatar do to their actors. What makes the process of Avatar’s creation more interesting than use of traditional digital effects is that the actors actually look a lot like their human counter parts – the facial translation the cameras undertake grant the virtual Na’vi features that are directly reflective of the actual actors acting out their bodily movements – the Na’vi doppelgangers are not completely CGI but rather a completely unique blend of machine and human. The fact too that this process takes place instantaneously parallels the machinic audience’s own continual digital self-projections and submergence in their respective virtual worlds.

Part IV: The Hyper-real World of the Digital

Not only does the machinic audience recognize the re-forming digitizing that Avatar undertakes, but that audience can invest in the creation of the hyper-real world of Pandora in a similarly meaningful and emotional way. A CNN article14 published just after Avatar was released states:

James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle Avatar may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora

One user, Ivar Hill, the article highlights as a strong representation of the attachment to Pandora writes:

“When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning…It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”… I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality”

In this quote there is the echo of the posthuman notion of humans as a destructive and “disgusting” species perhaps worth the defeat it receives in the film. But, more interestingly, Hill reflects on his own reality as “gray” and without meaning. Say what you might about the ham-fisted nature of the writing and plot of the film, Pandora is undeniably stunning to the eye, a supra-vivid exaggeration of reality splashed with brighter-than-bright colours and sprawling, impossible landscapes. It’s easy to imagine wanting to live in such a place and, upon being exiled at the end of the film, feel a longing for such an unreal paradise. Yet, as a place, it echoes Earth in much the same ways the digital Na’vi echo their actor counterparts – the audience can recognize enough of Earth and his/her own surroundings that the place is not completely machine but, again, a perfect meld of the human experience and digital rendering; Pandora is not real but actually extends beyond the real, into the realm of the hyper-detailed supra-real, a reality that far surpasses our own in terms of vividness and sharpness, an enhanced version of our own utopias.

Hill’s own disconnection between his own reality and a virtual planet rendered by a combination of hi-tech cameras and his ultimate dissatisfaction with the “real” world perhaps mirrors the machinic audience’s increasingly depression of interacting in a world that doesn’t allow, at the very least, a choice to submerge back into the virtual worlds of the internet. Think of your own students in your classrooms and the groans that rise when asked to put down their phones and computers. There are deep similarities to be acknowledged around how the Simul-Cam does not represent reality exactly (as traditional analogue cameras aim for verisimilitude) but rather exaggerates a reality to its extreme and a machinic audience’s constant interactions with the internet and the hyper-detailed and immersive world it can provide. The augmented mirroring of Earth in Pandora is remarkably similar to the posthuman’s interactions with digital spaces in interactive advertising and increasingly realistic video games. For the machinic audience, I would argue it’s not just that people get depressed that they can’t live in the un-real beauty of Pandora but also that their own realities are lacking in the richness of connection and detail in comparison to the virtual ones they interact with daily, Pandora being one of thousands of such spaces. In truth, the machinic audience feels more at home on Pandora – they can imagine themselves there, in the same way they imagine themselves as their digital projections on their Xbox or Facebook page, constantly able to plug into a world bigger and brighter and sharper than even their own imagination.

Part V: Avatar in The Uncanny Valley

For the past decade the video game and film industries, in particular, have encountered a unique problem as video quality and CGI has improved. Its audiences were leaving theatres after watching Polar Express (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2004) or Final Fantasy (Dir. Hironobu Sakaguchi, Motonori Sakakibara, 2001) or putting down video games like Resident Evil because the humanoids generated by the graphic engines or special effects were “too real”. This feeling of repulsion in audiences is what robotist Masahiro Mori described as the Uncanny Valley. Mori explains in his paper “Bukimi No Tani”  (Translated from Japanese by Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato)15 as best embodied in prosthetic limbs:

For example, a robot’s arms may be composed of a metal cylinder with many bolts, but to achieve a more humanlike appearance, we paint over the metal in skin tones. These cosmetic efforts cause a resultant increase in our sense of the robot’s familiarity. Some readers may have felt sympathy for handicapped people they have seen who attach a prosthetic arm or leg to replace a missing limb. But recently prosthetic hands have improved greatly, and we cannot distinguish them from real hands at a glance. Some prosthetic hands attempt to simulate veins, muscles, tendons, finger nails, and finger prints, and their color resembles human pigmentation. So maybe the prosthetic arm has achieved a degree of human verisimilitude on par with false teeth. But this kind of prosthetic hand is too real and when we notice it is prosthetic, we have a sense of strangeness. So if we shake the hand, we are surprised by the lack of soft tissue and cold temperature. In this case, there is no longer a sense of familiarity. It is uncanny.

In short, we can tolerate our robots or CGI characters so long as they remain superficially robot-like or distinctly inhuman; however, when that humanoid comes to look too much like a human and we are confronted then with its prosthetic nature, we as audience as scared and repulsed by the creature because, despite looking familiar (i.e like us) it is a creature in imitation and “fake”. As Frank from 30 Rock describes the problem: we like C3PU and R2D2, we like Han Solo but the CGI storm troopers scare the crap out of us.

It is interesting then to recall our previous discussion of Avatar and the technology that completely mimics humans while presenting them as distinctly different. If we combine Avatar, the highest grossing movie of all time, with recent video games like Heavy Rain and the upcoming L.A. Noire, we can see that art that presents species such as the Na’vi, who are based on actual humans but still generated entirely by CGI and therefore robotic in Mori’s sense, as extremely popular. More, the hyper-realism described in the previous section, rejected a decade earlier in the completely CGI filming of Final Fantasy, is accepted and even yearned for. What then has happened to the Uncanny Valley?

I would argue that the machinic audience is such that its understanding and repulsion towards entities in the Uncanny Valley is greatly diminished and that Avatar is participating, as a work of art, in a contemporary milieu that has, in a sense bridged that Uncanny Valley. Let’s remember that Avatar was nominated, albeit in a recently expanded Best Picture Category, for a number of Oscars and was generally recognized not only as extremely populous but also one of the best and perhaps important films of the year.

I would argue that the machinic audience in fact lives in the Uncanny Valley – he/she extends their bodies through the various technologies (which McLuhan in the early 70s deliberately referred to these technologies like phones or TVs or shoes as prostheses) and that they more closely and intimately identify with species in that Uncanny Valley. The movie’s popularity then can be traced back directly to the advances in film technology, such as the Simul-Cam and the Virtual Cam, and the audience’s acceptance and embrace of the digitizing process of the actors into the Na’vi. Instead of pushing them into the Uncanny Valley we seem to see a shrinking of it, an acceptance of the machinic and the digital as a reflection of contemporary cyborg life.

Conclusion: How to Make Popular Art Going Forward

As I write this in the spring of 2011, work has begun on the sequel to Avatar, the second in what Cameron promises to be a triology. I can see this second installment being as highly anticipated as the first, a 3-D romp through the old stomping grounds of Pandora and resurrecting our digital doppelgangers the Na’vi. The machinic audience will slip back into the landscape just as easily and comfortably as the first film, return to a virtual place that they recognize as a home, as familiar and relatable. While Racter collects dust on old floppy disks, Cameron and his Na’vi will generate art that the masses will consume with the gusto of a pointed twitter feed or message board, will plug into the communal hyper-reality and settle into a digital world mirroed inside their own.

Works Cited

1. RACTER. The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed. Ed. William Chamberlain. New York: Warner Books, 1984.

2. Bök, Christian. “The Piecemeal Bard is Deconstructed: Notes Towards a Potential Robopoetics”.
Object 10: Cyberpoetics. Winter 2002. http://www.ubu.com/papers/object/03_bok.pdf. Accessed 30-05-2013.
3. Playboy. “The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan” http://www.nextnature.net/2009/12/the-playboy-interview-marshall-mcluhan/. Accessed 10-07-2013.
4. Kunzru, Hari. “You are Cyborg” Wired Magazine. 5.02. Feb 1997.
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.02/ffharaway.html Accessed: Accessed 30-05-2013

5. Kunzru, Hari. “You are Cyborg” Wired Magazine. 5.02. Feb 1997.
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.02/ffharaway.html Accessed: Accessed 30-05-2013

6. Brown, William. “man without a movie camera – movies without men”. Film theory and contemporary
Hollywood movies. Ed. Warren Buckland. New York : Routledge, 2009. Pg 66-86.

7. As cited in: Brown, William. “man without a movie camera – movies without men”. Film theory and contemporary Hollywood movies. Ed. Warren Buckland. New York : Routledge, 2009. Pg 66-86.

8. DeLanda, Manuel. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2002.; DeLanda, Manuel. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone, 1991.

9. Žižek, Slavoj . “Return of the Natives”. The New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2010/03/avatar-reality-love-couple-sex. Accessed 10-07-2013.
10 Brown, William. “man without a movie camera – movies without men”. Film theory and contemporary
Hollywood movies. Ed. Warren Buckland. New York : Routledge, 2009. Pg 66-86.

11. Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”. The film theory reader : debates and
arguments. Ed. Marc Furstenau. New York, NY : Routledge, 2010.

12. Brown, William. “man without a movie camera – movies without men”. Film theory and contemporary Hollywood movies. Ed. Warren Buckland. New York : Routledge, 2009. Pg 66-86.

13 Jones, Brian. “New Technology in AVATAR – Performance Capture, Fusion Camera System, and
Simul-Cam”. Avatarblog. http://avatarblog.typepad.com/avatar-blog/2010/05/new-technology-
in-avatar-performance-capture-fusion-camera-system-and-simulcam.html. Accessed 05-31-2013.

14 Piazza, Joe. “Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues”. http://www.cnn.com.
http://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/01/11/avatar.movie.blues/index.html. Accessed 05-31-2013.

15 Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley”. http://spectrum.ieee.org.
http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/the-uncanny-valley. Accessed 05-31-2013