Fly-by? Walk-through?

Last week, I spent one whole day watching architects and engineers presenting their plans to redesign a large area around the library and surrounding amenities on my university campus. I won’t bore you with all the details. I was there to represent the interests of my department by staying abreast of developments in the spending of the massive budget that’s been allocated for this stuff. You know, just to make sure they don’t throw out all the books to make way for another Starbucks. I hadn’t realised when I volunteered for this that I would have to watch five presentations by the architectural teams bidding for the contract, and each team would have 80 minutes to present and defend their designs. That’s a whole working day gone! I could have spent it blogging about Betty Boop, or something productive like that…

Well, ever the dutiful academic, I got a bit distracted and jotted down the notes that I’m now typing into this  box. It was amusing and interesting to watch how non-academics, people with proper jobs, give lectures and presentations. Hey! They don’t quote from books. They don’t construct an argument that ends back at its starting point. They don’t wave their hands around to make a point more forcefully. And they don’t do that thing I always end up doing by pretending that I’m making it up as I go along when actually I’ve spent ages preparing… Anyway, nothing can be that interesting for eight hours, hence this blog entry. I was struck by the various ways the teams tried to help you imagine how their designs will look once realised: each of them brought a detailed miniature model of their plans (the best one had tiny trees and tinier train-set people on it – nice touch); one group included pictures of cathedrals and other beautiful buildings in their Powerpoint slideshows as if to insert subliminal associations with their own work; many of them included artists impressions to flesh out the rather less pretty blueprints and axometric diagrams. But there were also some impressive computer simulations to give a 3D walk-through over the new space. Not really a walk-through, nor a fly-by (like they do for each hole on TV coverage of golf tournaments), but more of a fly-through. With a virtual camera circling in mid-air around the proposed building, the viewpoint is not one that will ever be experienced by its occupants and users: you will never be able to glide weightless through the walls or over the roof. Gravity will see to that. Instead, the omniscient camera gives a powerful sense of space, and of ownership or mastery over that space. It is always pristine, navigable and coherent. During the lunch break, I headed over to the library to return some books, and it was strange to be walking through somewhere that I had just been previsualising as a utopian learning environment. There was chewing gum on the floor. It had that funny smell from the bushes. There were people in my way. The machine for issuing books wasn’t working properly.

OK, I’m rambling. Basically, the fly-through simulations reminded me of the ways that films can simulate urban spaces. This may have been implanted somewhere in the back of my brain by a recent post on creative geography in film over at Girish’s blog, though the subject is not quite the same. The aerial shot is a standard way to establish the scale and mood of a city before subsequent shots zero in on the people and stories that will preoccupy most of the movie. Those city-scapes might be entirely fabricated, as in Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), or augmented versions of real places (see Chicago standing in for Gotham City in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), but I was especially mindful of the ways in which modern disaster movies build up perfect simulations of iconic places only to lay spectacular waste to them. In The Day After Tomorrow (2004), director Roland Emmerich trashes New York for the third time (after Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998). This time, the City’s ass is definitively kicked, first with a giant tsunami and then with an immediate deep-freeze that locks everything up in ice.

The scale of the destruction is matched by the breadth of the perspective that takes it all in. Emmerich’s signature image is a sky-high God-shot, an aerial view of large-scale mayhem often juxtaposed with ground-level views of gargantuan destructive forces, overwhelming the spectator: that is, the omniscient view can shift from powerful to overpowered at various points. Sometimes there are shots from Earth’s orbit, and at other times there are close-ups of individuals facing up to imminent catastrophe. The camera can appear to be situated in impossible places, impervious to devastation. In shot after shot, it sails above the action, surveying it all from the just the right height to get the optimal panoramic view.

If humans appear in these shots they are dwarfed, almost abstracted in the midst of nature’s awesome beauty. At one point, a janitor’s trembling hand twists a doorknob, and the reverse shot shows us that the building on the other side of the door has been ripped away by tornadoes.

This is spectacle as mastery over something terrible. The shifting perspective from micro to macro may be designed to complement the film’s global outreach goals, or to emulate the viewpoint of a TV viewer able to take in the unfolding events from a safely mediated distance. It might actually be trying to dramatise the experience of disaster, as if by making it as enthralling and visually overwhelming as possible it will inherit the magnitude of the superstorm it depicts. It achieves neither of these – it is too omniscient to be an accurate representation of the way TV news gropes around for facts amidst confusion, or the way it distorts and fragments actuality. And by universalising its horrors, it elides the suffering of particular individuals enduring a variety of violent deaths.

The other thing that these disaster simulations aim to do is to provide the most coherent sense of space possible, by showing you an aerial overview of the scene and then a series of alternative perspectives from within it. This, I suppose, is meant to make it easier for you to imagine yourself within the depicted space, to see how monstrous the devastation, how insignificant your defence against it. There is a sequence towards the end of The Day After Tomorrow which is shot from the point of view of a cold front. Yes, really.

Descending from the sky in a smooth tracking shot (all achieved with a virtual camera and a digitally constructed city), it traces the rapid progress of a sudden freeze down the side of the Empire State Building (surely one of the most oft-violated buildings in movie history!), moving like an architect’s 3D simulation that best shows off the scale and the shape of the structure, though presumably an architect would not allow you to imagine your windows smashing due to a sudden drop in temperature; the flyby simulation is supposed to give you a comfortable image of yourself inside that proposed shopping centre, relaxing by the water feature outside the “learning attractor” (as they seem to be calling the library these days). Digital imaging technologies designed for real-world applications such as this always seem to have their perverse, twisted Hollywood twin usages, where what was designed for construction is used to visualise destruction and chaos. But in this case, that chaos is undermined by the residual markers of omniscience, a controlled and masterful perspective that fails to convey the helplessness foisted upon victims by large scale catastrophe. In a later post, I want to follow this up with some thoughts on something I’ve been working on in relation to Cloverfield, where omniscience is deliberately subverted in order to suggest the viewpoint of those random people caught up inside big events, replacing Emmerich’s “god shots” with shaky, unfocused, misdirected and incomprehensible glimpses of the disaster genre’s staple spectacles. But that will have to wait…


One thought on “Fly-by? Walk-through?

  1. Pingback: Rise of the Random Round-Up « Spectacular Attractions

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