Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Old Hollywood/New Hollywood
Old Hollywood operated on a proprietary monopoly on its stars. New Hollywood holds a proprietary monopoly on its computer code.
May the force be with you—but it better be highly encrypted, absolutely secure, totally secret, never released to anyone outside the company, and protected by security better than the United Nations.
That’s the lesson I learned from listening to a presentation by John Sanders, Head of Production Resources, from Lucasfilm Animation in Singapore. He was presenting at the Research Techno Plaza, a sort of new technology innovation hub here at NTU. Xavier Nicolas, General Manager of Lucasfilm in Singapore who has worked all over the globe, was also on hand.
In Singapore since 2005, Lucas Film Animation spells out computer code, animation, and special effects for films like the Star Wars franchise, Star Trek, Iron Man. George Lucas’ media empire might just be larger--and more complex--than anything the Warner Brothers could have concocted.
Lucas Film launched in 1971. Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects powerhouse that has worked on over 300 feature films, started in 1975. Skywalker Sound began in 1975. Lucas Licensing, the part of the company that controls copyright on toys, a highly lucrative enterprise and more predictable than the film industry, emerged in 1979. Lucas Animation commenced in 2003.
Lucas Films Singapore, according to Sanders, exploded from 20 to 400 employees in five years. It works on animation, visual effects, games, and features.
The New Code Warriors
But why Singapore, an entire ocean away from San Francisco, the pastoral home of the Lucas empire?
An appealing location in Southeast Asia, a growing talent pool, an English speaking country, and a developed business infrastructure drew Lucas to Singapore. But the biggest carrots were low taxes and intellectual property security, something rather, uh, elusive (I’m being delicate here) in China and India.
I really, really, really wanted to dislike these two. They were transnational capital, big media, purveyors of death and destruction, sycophants to the fantasies of teenage boys, destroyers of cinema with action films drunk on special effects. In short, the Darth Vaders of Cinema.
Instead, I liked both of them enormously. They were clear thinkers, smart, highly educated in art and cinema history, affable, gracious, intellectual, passionate. Their deep and complex understanding of cinema—commercial, art cinema, and experimental—should give any communications student who thinks critical studies, history, and theory are useless compared to hands-on production skills something to think about. Sanders was ABD in art history. Nicolas spent a lot of his free time in Singapore pursuing art cinema.
Sanders and Nicolas seemed at home in the university environment with their slickly produced powerpoint with imbedded clips of Lucasfilm action flicks, even though Lucasfilm corporate policy prevents them from revealing anything at all about the code, the software, the mathematical functions, the algorithms or the technologies Lucasfilm develops.
Multidisciplinarity and Innovation
If you removed the name of the company, much of what they discussed eerily echoes many higher education mission statements rolled out in the last decade.
Lucasfilm Animation Singapore is a center for experimentation and innovation, what Sanders called “a petri dish.” They needed to reengineer themselves as multidisciplinary for cost effectiveness, efficiencies, and new ideas. Fast turnaround , compatible toolsets, and constant assessment are paramount. Their technological and computer code innovations need to be easily shared between studios in Taiwan and the US. Smaller than the parent company, agility and adaptiveness defines them.
Lucasfilm, Sanders and Nicolas argue, is not a technology company but a creative company. It’s international, multinational, transnational. It boasts a multicultural workforce of “artists” (they won’t call these folks computer animators or engineers) from around Asia.
Proprietary means Total Power
But horizontal structures for innovation aside, the DNA of Lucasfilm Animation in Singapore resides in proprietary software.
They build tools for their “artists” to make their jobs faster. It is important to remember that digitality in cinema restored power to the studios. The digital in the entertainment industry basically removes actors from the equation, standardizes labor, controls all aspects of production, and centralizes both creativity and business.
Sanders and Nicolas pointed out the production hierarchies in Lucasfilm: at ILM, everything is proprietary; for the television enterprise, off-the-shelf technologies are adapted. ILM's goal: to make images never seen before. Plus, work goes on 24/7 across the globe--sustaining efficiencies and profit maximization.
It’s a global pipeline of scalable and reusable innovation engineered to share assets across platforms. It’s hard for any independent or artisanal filmmaker to compete with this juggernaut.
About 40 engineers, scientists, and technologist from NTU attended the talk. They repeatedly probed about the code, the software, the technologies, the inventions. They also wanted to know how long it took to make the films and television shows. The answer: one minute of computer animation could take a month with many people working.
Sanders pointed out that he could not discuss any of these innovations—maybe five years from now, when they are no longer innovations but standard operating procedures, he could reveal a little something at a SIGGRAPH conference. The engineers were frustrated but seemed seduced anyway. Maybe it was all the clips of animated science fiction figures being sliced apart, blown up, dismembered, or maybe it was the sheer spectacle of details in computer generated imagery of hair, skin, eyes, and clothes in the incredibly violent clips. One of my colleagues from mathematical sciences , an Israeli visiting professor, commented to me that everything Lucasfilm showed glamorized violence.
Sanders explained that students in Singapore could apply for internships, or could join the Jedi Master’s Program, a special training initiative which he hinted was a pipeline to future employment with the company.
The Photoreal and the Stylized
Sanders and Nicolas offered an important distinction between the photoreal and the stylized. The photoreal was reserved for big budget films that went theatrical—films where the details of texture, surface, lighting, mise-en-scene glistened. These works require more time to produce. The stylized work was the mode for television with its rapid production timelines, where more simple, abstracted images are much easier to produce. These images blend together a German expressionist look with extreme lights and darks with Japanese anime.
While the digital animations dazzle and reinvent the cinematic, the underlying structure of prestige pictures with higher production values and B-pictures (a form which has migrated to television) with a quicker turnaround emulates the classical Hollywood studio system of the 1940s.
Although digital technologies change images, the underlying structures of production replicate the hierarchies of the old studio system. In the Old Hollywood, the coupling of stars and genre sustained efficiencies, economies of scale, and product differentiation. In the New Hollywood, code replaces stars and software programs replace genres.
The Dilemna of the Global Digital and National Identities
And just like the Old Hollywood, concerns about national identity in the midst of viral internationalization percolate through the cybersheen.
Singapore’s Media Development Authority has mounted an international animation fund, an initiative conceived to stimulate the creative economy of the nation state and to develop talent. It offers up to $5 million a project in production incentive funds. An April 15 editorial in The Straits Times called “Animate the Singapore Story as well” cautioned that all of this internationalization and commodification might overlook that animation is also a cultural product. The editorial suggests that “uniquely Singaporean” content should be promoted in these various co-production deals and schemes.
The force may be with the code warriors crusading for the New Hollywood. In the 1920s, as Old Hollywood acccrued power by controlling technology, distribution, and exhibition, many countries worried about a loss of national culture. Those gnarly issues about whether the globalization of cinema eats away national identity persist.
No computer program I know of (unless Lucasfilms or the NTU engineers are hording a secret prototype) can erase these necessary debates between corporate globalization and regional identities, a much more complex plot line than the good vs. evil narrative structures of Star Wars.