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Automavision & Lookey

April 5, 2007 By Glenn Turner

"Film as media has one great flaw - it's a one-way media with a passive audience. As much as I love to dictate the storyline and control the experience I still wish that the audience could take an active part." - Lars von Trier

This is just one concept in Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's latest movie, The Boss of It All. Von Trier, probably best known for being the progenitor of the Dogme 95 film movement, as well as the man behind Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, features two very game-like devices, one of which being the somewhat gimmicky audience-participation concept Lookey, while the other, Automavision, excises the cameraman and relies on a computer to frame the film.

Lookey Logo

Lookey is, to use Von Trier's wording, "a mind game, played with movies as the game board." What exactly is it though? In The Boss of It All, Von Trier placed seven incongruent 'mistakes'. It's the audience's goal to find the intentional mistakes, as well as the system or rationale behind them. The winner is the one to first submit all Lookeys via the Lookey site. In the case of The Boss of It All, the winner collects (well, collected – someone's already won) a modest financial prize (£2,700) and a part in Von Trier's next film.

As the earlier quote states, it's all part of a way for Von Trier to create the illusion of audience interaction. In my eyes, it's more of a race than a game, but that's probably more of a semantic issue than I want to get into with this post. Still, I find it pretty interesting, especially if you view the Lookey Competition Board and its dozens of wingbats.

Lookey Submission Form

Now Automavision, that's really intriguing. Von Trier, in his everlasting quest to remove intentional framing & composition from his films, has taken the cameraman out of the equation all-together. Instead, a camera is placed in front of a scene and then a computer randomly selects the framing and angle for the scene. The entirety of The Boss of It All was shot using this method and, while I haven't been able to watch the film, David Bordwell has, and his thoughts on it and how the obtrusive results affect the viewer, are definitely worth reading (as always!).

What piques my interest about Automavision (especially when combined with Lookey) is that it's ultimately not too removed from your standard non-FPS videogame camera. And I definitely wasn't the only person to think about that: when perceptual psychologist Tim Smith was writing about Automavision on his blog 'Continuity Boy', commenter 'Antithesis Boy' had the exact same idea. Mr. Smith then took that suggestion to the next level and drafted up a speculative idea of what Automavision 2.0 could contain, including sussing out 'significant objects' and having the ability to recognize and recreate (not to mention break!) classical compositional rules.

Of course, that's a huge leap for the system to make but, nonetheless, I find it a fascinating area. As suggested by Mr. Smith's closing comment "Anybody up for a game of Halo directed by Lars Von Trier?", Automavision hints at a future time where cameras in-game aren't just patterned after object recognition and collision detection, but also take into consideration more artistic merits, such as emotional impact and more 'classical compositional' attributes, as well as being able to mathematically deal with more auteuristic visual narrative elements. To re-use the film director analogy, imagine having the choice between having say, God of War directed by Von Trier (an incongruent and edit-happy, but still somewhat understandable, mess) or say, Spielberg with loads of low-angle pseudo-tatami shots? And why stop with directors, why not cinematographers? Roger Deakins has quite the eye, and maybe we could programmatically raise the ghost of Sacha Vierny?

But until Automavision 2.0 comes about, I'd probably just be content to see what cinematographers and camera operators do in first-person perspective games, where the bulk of your interaction with the game is composing the frame. Those more familiar with classic compositional styling might intentionally try to orient their characters and view the game's world in ways that others don't, and I'd rather like to see that, and to see how their 'camera work' changes (if at all) as they get deeper and deeper into the game.

Regardless, it's fun to speculate what filmmakers could do for gaming and how camera techniques are applicable to both fields, but ultimately, it's all about the viewer receiving an emotionally and informationally impactful image. Right now, it feels that many videogame cameras operate under the same constraints as Automavision - a slightly constrained, but still mostly random, collection of cuts, pans and tilts that miserably fail to either give the user the information they need to play the game, or fails to evoke any sort of emotional or narrative impact. I hope that, as improvements in visual detail starts plateauing, developers will turn towards making Mr. Smith's Automavision 2.0 into a reality.

4 comments for ‘Automavision & Lookey’

#1 Servo Apr 6, 2007 12:13pm

After sitting through the absolutely insulting Breaking the Waves, I had just about enough of Dogma 95. I did a little research on it, and my interpretation is that a bunch of pretentious film makers wanted to break traditional molds by creating a list of dos and do nots. As soon as they set out to make movies under these rules, they broke most of them. Whatever.

I don't need to be playing hide and seek with my movies (Lookey), nor do I want my framing chosen at random by a computer with no sense of aesthetic value (Automavision). Perhaps when someone realizes a greater use for these sort of things I will accept them, but for now I say, "bah".

#2 Glenn Turner Apr 6, 2007 01:24pm

I agree with you about Dogme 95 - one big joke that just wasn't too funny, no matter whether it was meant to be taken seriously or not. And prior to Dogville, I was no fan of Von Trier, but I think that effort (I haven't seen Manderlay yet) worked pretty well in theory and execution.

Still, I applaud his efforts to explore new techniques and devices to elicit specific responses from an audeince (to an extent). And I can understand his motives but ... we already play 'Lookey' enough while watching a film, just by trying to piece together the damn images in the first place.

#3 Servo Apr 6, 2007 11:02pm

I hadn't realized he was behind Dogville as well. Now, I only saw the last 20 minutes or so of it, but I thought it was atrocious. Like a bad high school play (redundant, I know).

Yes, it's great to know that someone, somewhere is trying to innovate, but to what end? I'd sooner have Von Trier and his ilk brainstorm ideas and send them off to more capable film makers. The intention is good, but the execution is lacking severely.

#4 Anonymous Apr 25, 2008 01:22pm

First Breaking the Waves, Dogville nor Manderlay are Dogme 95 movies. Overall the intention is really good, and also the execution is mostly great (have a look at italien for beginners or The Celebration).
Sure it is somethimes experimental but that was the french new wave also.