Space Ghosts: Cartoons and Talk Shows
J.D. Connor / Yale University

It’s often only at the end of something that you really know what you’ve been up to. This column has been like that. Getting ready for this last iteration, I realized that the first two installments, “Aspect Jumping” and “Parkives” took up the historical sedimentations of technology and reception within structured experiences. The first looked at shifts in aspect ratios in film and television; the second read theme parks as agglomerations of relatively durable regimes of technology, narrative, and contract. This one is about cartoons and talk shows, or hybrid dimensional interaction in the behaviorally quantized space of the near-now.

Realtime or pseudo-realtime cartoon/human interactions rely on temporal expectations generated by extensive familiarity with the production requirements of animation rather than the unique dimensional difference between cartoons and humans. The older charms of the “Out of the Inkwell” (Fleischer, 1918–29) series for example, depended on the unexpected “liveness” of the inanimate, often combining liveness with the impossible propagation of various forces across the animated/live-action barrier. In general, when the animated character is turned loose in a live-action world, we might call that a transdimensional incarnation. In contrast, when the animated world is revealed to be continuous with our live-action world—as when Roger Rabbit (Zemeckis, 1987) walks off a set we didn’t know was a set—we might call that a dimensional jointure.

Roger Rabbit

Dimensional jointure in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

In contrast to these, there are two general forms for the contemporary hybrid scene, they are as much temporal as spatial, and they are converging. One relies on the exponential increases in rendering power to produce a realtime manipulable CGI puppet. In these instances (typified by Motus Digital, motusdigital.com), the interaction is near-live, the intelligence engine for the responses is human, but the visual is animated. The realtime Zombie is not all that different than Craig Ferguson’s robotic sidekick Geoff or the Wizard of Oz. The touchstone for the social significance of the puppet-hybrid is Max Headroom.

Max was a late–80s transmedia star of fiction, talk, and commercials. Ostensibly CGI, he was actually an actor, Matt Frewer, in makeup in front of a cell-animated loop. An avatar from “twenty minutes into the future,” Max was so cutting-edge he was glitchy—his image locked up and he stuttered. The politics of Max were typically 80s in their incoherence. His narrative television series played cyberpunkishly at épater les networks when his human counterpart inveighed against “blipverts” and the subordination of politics to entertainment. His talk show appearances as either guest or host turned that sub version toward self-referential humor and the tech drifted into the background in favor of easy jokes about the price of fame, or homeless windshield washers, or Trekkies. And his pitchman-self shilled for New Coke after the reintroduction of “Coca-Cola Classic.” It didn’t particularly work, any of it. Still, you could see where the callow techno-futurism was leading.

The underlying configuration has lived on. The pseudo-CGI animated puppet was the vehicle through which the popular understanding of the structure and operation of the media-entertainment complex could be incorporated into an experience of contingent simultaneity. It wasn’t just meta-, it was meta- and ordinary; and our recognition of the imbalanced twinship of reflection and expression found its emblem in Max’s faux stutter.

More interesting than the puppet is the repertoire-based animated automaton. Here, liveness goes hand in hand with a restriction on what can and can’t be pulled from a library of actions. Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (1994–2004) is the paradigm, and it remains decisive. SGC2C began at Cartoon Network as part of Turner Broadcasting’s attempt to monetize the library of Hanna-Barbera cartoons it purchased in 1991. The H-B shows exemplified the studio’s limited animation style, regularly relying on duplicate backgrounds or action sequences and long sections of standing-around-talking.

For Coast to Coast, creators clipped and rotoscoped elements from the 1960s originals, reassembling them into a talkshow format. Space Ghost hosted, Zorak (a mantid) served as bandleader, and Moltar (a lava-man) served as producer/director. Even the interviews were subjected to the same process of breakdown and rearrangement. Whatever the Q&A might have been when the guest taped it, by the time it aired, only slivers of the original remained, now sandwiched between dada-esque flights of ghostly irrelevance (“Do you like croutons?”), cutting remarks, and the ultra-dysfunctional byplay between Space Ghost, Zorak, and Moltar.

At every level, then, Space Ghost Coast to Coast was about repertoire and rearrangement: the original cartoons, the strictures of the talkshow format, the sliced-and-diced interviews. Under intense corporate pressure, nonlinear editing tools revealed the pre-scripted strings of behavior in the old cartoons and discovered that nonlinearity in the behavior of talkshow guests and capitalists intent on maximizing return on investment. The “on-the-cheap” aesthetic of the original was thematized and became the emblem of Cartoon Network’s own awkward synergistic aims.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vWp5JWLYgg[/youtube]

How much independence could be wrought from such constraints? Moltar was given the CGI treatment and repurposed as the host of Toonami, an anthology show. But even when budgets were more forgiving, repertoire within animation remained an essential problem. Youtube abounds in clips showing Disney reusing whole sequences of gags. At DreamWorks, the crowd scenes in Prince of Egypt relied on a CGI puppet technology with a new logic engine that strung together a library of actions to produce sufficient variation that it would usually pass unseen.

By the turn of the millennium it was clear that, given a big enough budget and sufficient rendering capacity, the repertoire and the puppet might be effaced. When could something similar be achieved live?#

The current-events comedy cartoons produced by Next Media Animation give the “Taiwanese animation treatment” to American headlines. Part of their effectiveness (which seems to have waned) lies in the way they underline the international labor imbalances that make offshoring necessary for animation. By keeping their Mandarin voiceovers and their Taiwanese virtual hosts Jen-Jen and Vanessa, the clips turn the question “Why do I care about Lindsay Lohan’s legal troubles?” into the more critical “Why would a Taiwanese animator care about Lindsay Lohan’s legal troubles?” The critical edge of the second question is not simply cultural but economic: why should my interest in Lohan become a source of labor pressure on someone half a world away?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGizpnRf-FQ[/youtube]

Part of what excuses our interest in those cartoons is the intuition that the labor necessary to make them has shifted away from the ink-and-paint slavery the Simpsons satirized toward the less exploitative, more improvisatory writers room. When Ted (the R-rated teddy bear) appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Macfarlane did the voice interaction in a MoCap suit. Tippett Studio combined that data with keyframed versions of Ted walking on stage for the final segment. The labor crush for this, and for Ted’s appearance at the Oscars, was intense.

Web reactions to Ted’s “live” appearances concentrate on the realism of the event—his reflections in the shiny floor, his fur, his movement in the chair. Max Headroom’s glitchiness is disappearing, but the wow-factor still relies on our implicit knowledge of the labor and technology brought to bear on the bear.

Less impressive as animation, but more striking for its instantaneity, is the online animation software XtraNormal. Here, “if you can write, you can make films,” by pulling from a library of sets and characters, actions and voices. Half the fun of the resulting shorts comes from the synthesized voice’s seemingly constant sarcasm, a built-in world-weariness that makes the cartoons the perfect vehicle for expressing your ennui. Several popular XtraNormal cartoons detail the tribulations of academic life and the futility of the intellectual labor while others cover the ironies of contemporary politics. In these cases, the transdimensional incarnation has inverted. It’s our own behavior that is quantized; our own labor that is machine-replicable; our own dependence on generations of capitalism’s creative destruction that we recognize here, again and again, live.

Image Credits:
1. Dimensional jointure in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Screen capture from author.

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Parkives: Tomorrow’s Residual Media…Today
J.D. Connor / Yale University

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/7047856[/vimeo]

The state of the art in theme park attractions is “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” the flagship ride at Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Pre-ride, Harry and the gang give advice via the Musion Eyeliner, a projection technology that is an updated version of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, like a teleprompter. It was the tech behind the ghost Tupac at Coachella last year.

For the actual Journey, riders are move past a series of projections, an animatronic Whomping Willow, simulated fire, spitting spiders, and, centrally, three mini-Omnimax domes. In the domes, the world opens up as you’re chased by a dragon, play some quidditch, and are hounded by Dementors.

To carry riders through, a KUKA robot arm wields a 4-seat bench like a wand. It pivots and lurches in all directions while the entire arm moves along on a track. KUKA is an industrial robotics company that has only lately gotten into the ride business, but they are, like “Forbidden Journey,” cutting edge.

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KUKA Robocoaster mounted to a track

Yet innovation is not enough. Every major amusement park becomes its own threefold archive. First, a park banks technologies of entertainment—complexes of physics and media, narrative and sensation. Second, it preserves an ideology of entertainment—a vision of the visitor’s relation to spatial arrangement and design. Not as obvious as the technological complexes that it comprises, a park’s vision is more inbuilt and less updatable. ((Perceptions of scarcity determine which ideology reigns at a park. Where land is rare, the park becomes a preserve (Knott’s Berry Farm; Rye Playland; Cedar Point). Where vision is scarce, the park becomes a monument (Disneyland). And where narrative is scarce, the park becomes a studio (Storyland, Universal Studios).)) Finally, a park is a material archive of contract—arrangements of intellectual property and labor that swathe technology and media. Disney may own Marvel, but Universal owns the rights to exploit the Marvel characters in perpetuity. ((The conviction that movie studios were the central narrative engines of global culture reached its peak in the early 90s. Disney opened Disney-MGM Studios in 1989; Universal built its Orlando properties to compete with Disney; Paramount bought Kings Island, Kings Dominion and others in 1992; and Time/Warner took sole ownership of Six Flags in 1993. Warners sold out in 1998, and Paramount exited the theme park business when Sumner Redstone broke up the company. Both studios reverted to the earlier model where they profited from licensing their franchises—hence the Wizarding World at Universal. Universal set about securing intellectual property in huge chunks—Sony’s Men in Black, Fox’s The Simpsons, Dr. Seuss, Marvel. These would become the “Islands of Adventure,” the companion park to its Universal Studios.))

Whether technological, ideological, or contractual, parkives are not often motivated by anything like a preservationist impulse—unless that impulse serves its ideology or contract. Rather, these are places where return on investment is high enough to justify their continued operation. Parkives are fermatas in the music of capital.

Since major rides are conceived as relatively durable embodiments of an organization’s vision, secured by contract and channeled through narrative and experience, they are inevitable centers of the sort of corporate reflexivity John Caldwell, Jerome Christensen and others have drawn our attention to. ((John Caldwell, Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Jerome Christensen, America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).)) What makes a ride unlike a movie or a television show is the paramount role of experience in the configuration. The iterability and extremity of the ride shifts the balance between story and stunt. A studio imagines its futures through its narrative; a park channels its audiences through ideal experiences.

The multiaxis motion enabled by the KUKA robot arm puts the rider through paces similar to those of Filmotechnic’s “Russian Arm.”

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The Russian Arm

The dramatic alterations in camera position are replicated in the dramatic alterations in audience position. This alignment of production with experience links the two aspects of the Universal parks—the “behind the scenes” of Universal Studios and the packaged modalities of Islands of Adventure. It is no accident, then, that the phenomenal success of Wizarding World has encouraged Universal to make the Potterverse the actual link between the two parks. Plans are in the works to build a Diagon Alley and a Gringott’s ride in Universal Studios that will connect with Islands via a Hogwarts Express. ((“Permits Show Hogwarts Express to Link Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios Orlando.”))

However important the narrative arcs of the rides are, major parks are far more dependent on design in order to achieve the necessary levels of integration between event (ride), consumption (shop and restaurant), and cultural extension (various “lands”). Stuart Craig and his production design team from Harry Potter oversaw the reconstruction of Universal’s “Merlin Woods” in line with the Potterverse. Contractual stability made design continuity possible here, just as it had with Universal’s own Jurassic Park.

Disney, the parkiest major studio, has always been overbranded. Family friendly can mean dangerously anodyne, and “disneyfied” is a slur that even company executives use. That brand overhang doomed Disney’s America, the historical theme park it intended to build in Virginia. And when the company launched Walt Disney Theatrical in 1993 and became the anchor of the redevelopment of Times Square, it had a narrow path to thread.

Where Universal had to convince people that what they really wanted in a theme park was a visit behind the scenes, Disney had to convince Broadway theatergoers that they were not visiting a theme park at all while still capitalizing on the company’s family-friendly brand. The solution to the problem was to cultivate artistic takes on company properties. It worked spectacularly well with The Lion King in 1997 and has continued. Disney is currently backing the Peter Pan prequel Peter and the Starcatcher, a small-scale production that everywhere trumpets its handbuilt aesthetic. But the real indication that the “art of Disney” approach is working is Newsies!

Newsies! had been envisioned as a touring show, but it performed well enough in its New Jersey previews to be moved to Broadway. Based on a 1992 film that performed poorly at the box office, Newsies is the Ragtime story of media-driven class formation, filtered through Fredric Jameson, and rewritten so that the happy ending is not revolution but making good by marrying the boss’s daughter.

“Seize the Day” is rousing; the dancing is energetic, but what makes Newsies go is its scenic design. The set consists of three erector-settish towers which move in concert, configuring themselves as a single building, a streetscape, the bowels of The New York World as necessary.

Each tower is divided into three screened floors, and each screen can be projected upon. Hollywood Squares meets Times Square. Impressively, the projections occupy their squares perfectly, even when the towers are turned or in motion—a computer and operator are seamlessly keystoning on the fly. Sven Ortel, the Tony-nominated designer who handled the projections, notes that the algorithms that made this advance possible only became available in the last two to three years. That great leap forward disappears—intentionally—in Newsies!’ design.

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Sven Ortel’s design in Newsies!

For Newsies! Ortel wanted to “make the technology disappear to some degree.” ((Interview with the author, 1/31/13.)) That disappearance is the relative occlusion of Disney itself, the tempered presence of the conglomerate, taking “a backseat” to narrative, to individuality, to art. If theme parks are self-archiving, Newsies! knows the day it seizes is long past.

Image Credits:
1. KUKA Robocoaster mounted to a track.
2. The Russian Arm.
3. Sven Ortel’s design in Newsies!.




Aspect Jumping
J.D. Connor / Yale University


TDK

The streets in The Dark Knight

Two examples:

1. You are watching The Dark Knight (Nolan, Warners, 2008) at your semi-local IMAX theater, and you have seen, in the first 90 minutes, several sequences where the conventional widescreen jumps out (or, up and down) to fill the enormous near-square in front of you. These are sequences where something undeniably grand is on display—Hong Kong, say—so when it happens this time, as Harvey Dent is being transported in an armored police convoy, you may wonder why. You’ve already seen Chicago-Gotham, and this sequence is taking place in the Blues-Brothers-y world of Lower Wacker Drive. It’s decidedly squat.

But then Batman shows up and hooks the Joker’s semi-truck, flipping it ass-over-teakettle, and as the trailer rises through the image, spanning it top to bottom, and some sternum-shaking, diesel-metal groan crawls up through the stadium seating, you say, “ohhhhh” and now it makes sense that we were in IMAX.

2. You are watching your Local Football Franchise in glorious HD. The new angles that the 16:9 screen makes possible—an all-22 view of the field, or that swooping cable cam on the kickoffs—are thrilling. A pass is completed, or not, right on the sideline, and although you have pretty definitive evidence as a result of some stunning superslomo, they cut to commercial while the ref takes a second look. It’s a locally programmed break, and the first spot is for a car dealer. The image is not only pillarboxed down to 4:3 but within that 4:3 the manufacturer-provided b-roll is letterboxed further down to 16:9. As a result, someone is yelling at you about excellent financing deals while your gorgeous flatscreen shows a miniature, windowboxed image.

The sort of deeply meant aspect jumping we see in TDK is almost absent on television, where shifts from 4:3 to 16:9 and back happen far more often. At some level that isn’t surprising. Hollywood cinema has managed to fret publicly over medium specificity as part of its assertion of cultural primacy even in an era where an ascendant television has made stronger and stronger claims to quality, even superiority. There is a reason that Keanu Reeves can get excited enough about the digital turn that he wants to talk to everyone about it, as he does in the documentary Side by Side (Kenneally, Tribeca, 2012).

But if aspect jumping in film is an occasion for obsession, it has been all but neglected in television studies, and that, too, seems almost natural. Ask yourself: what was the last 4:3 tv show you watched? You probably know that The Master is in limited 70mm release and that it is likely one of the very last films in that format. You probably cannot say what the last 4:3 television series on ABC was. (It was Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.)

Some blame for this ignorance falls to us as scholars. But surely the larger share belongs to television industry itself, which has a vested interest in downplaying epochal events in its own technological history because its industrial organization makes a hash of any such historical breakpoints.

If the digital cinema rollout has been fraught (and I’m underplaying it here), the parallel change in television has been a mess. Each phase—production, distribution, and exhibition—has contributed to a less-than-optimal process and the results have been a blurry historical transition.

For over-the-air consumers, there was a multibillion-dollar digital antenna coupon program that would allow the installed base of SD TVs to continue to work. For cable and satellite consumers, set-top boxes were supposed to adjust the screen image to fit the aspect ratio of the program, but they have tended to be terrible at it. And rather than fish around for the right remote, consumers routinely fail to adjust the display to account for these changes. As a result, millions of televisions are warping the images that they are supposed to show. Not ours, of course, but maybe Mom & Dad’s, certainly Grandma’s, and probably the one in the department seminar room. This can be maddening. Charlie Brooker put it this way: “There are only two kinds of people in this world: those who don’t have any problem with watching things that are randomly stretched or squashed, and decent human beings who still have standards.”

For producers, the HD switchover brought endless handwringing about resolution—would Bill O’Reilly be intolerably blotchy? (Yes.) Would newsdesks look like the cheap constructions they were? (Yes.) How would soap operas survive? (Most didn’t.) —and some angst about “filling the frame.”

Parts of the production side, like sports, adapted quickly. Other multicamera shows had difficulty. You can still see this on talkshows—the standard two-shot is awkward once there is 50% more screen. The Daily Show and others adapted by adding vertical framing monitors in the background, effectively masking down the interview image. But it is still not uncommon to see, say, Jon Stewart’s hands drift into the bottom edge of a one-shot of a correspondent on the right side of the desk.

TDS

Jon Stewart’s hands enter the frame on The Daily Show

With a widescreen image, the cameras need to be father apart to maintain clean setups, and many studios make that difficult.

Widescreen posed new and interesting challenges for sports and talk, but it caused all sorts of problems for what I’ll call multisourced programs. Programs that rely on footage provided by others—like news and documentary—find themselves with dead pillars once they go widescreen. Sesame Street shifted to HD in 2008, but its enormous library of animation and short films is 4:3, and so the show jumps all the time. From 2004 to 2007, when ESPN was showing 4:3 footage, they simply threw the ESPNHD logo into the pillars, deadening the space.

ESPN

ESPN’s logo in pillars

In 2007, they opted to squeeze in a version of their “rundown” column on one side, which was a temporary solution.

ESPN 2

ESPN adds another column

(Down that road lies the madness of the BloombergTV J-frame and the Idiocracy tile-o-vision).

Bloomberg

BloombergTV’s J-frame

Idiocracy

Idiocracy‘s busy tile-o-vision

For producers, HD and widescreen conversion was a mark of network confidence. All My Children and One Life to Live were both supposed to switch in 2009. AMC did; OLTL did not, and that was a clear indication that it was doomed. Last Call with Carson Daly converted in 2011, becoming the last series on NBC to make the move, making it clear how little the network had invested in the show.

But no matter how confident a network might have been, no matter how large the investment in new sets and new cameras might be, television producers are unable to insist upon the meaningfulness of aspect ratio changes because even today distribution and exhibition can undo them. Lost might have been shot in widescreen from the get-go, but your local cable company might have sent it out as a standard signal, perhaps letterboxed, perhaps clipped. Who knows?

Contrast all that with a second cinematic example, Argo, (Affleck, Warners, 2012), a love letter to the film industry and all its various arts and sciences. The early scenes of Iranian students overrunning the U.S. embassy in Tehran jump back and forth between widescreen and not-so-widescreen (imdb lists 7 different “source formats,” including some blown-up Super8), and here the rhetorical difference does not read as formal, as in TDK, but as authentic. At the end of the film, the credits roll beneath pairs of images—one from the narrative matched against one from the historical record, a TV still or a news photo. But while the content of the images is still, the images themselves are shifting. As their aspect ratios converge, it becomes easier to compare them. And it becomes easier to assert that the film is accurate, that its production design is excellent, and that cinema maintains its primacy over other media. Argo’s nostalgia registers its bad faith.

Image Credits:
1. The streets in The Dark Knight – screen capture by author
2. Jon Stewart’s hands enter the frame on The Daily Show – screen capture by author
3. ESPN’s logo in pillars
4. ESPN adds another column – screen capture by author
5. BloombergTV’s J-frame – screen capture by author
6. Idiocracy‘s busy tile-o-vision – screen capture by author

Please feel free to comment.