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Taking Media in Our Own Hands

Grassroots creative communities are creating new forms of digital expression that are influencing both the art world and commercial culture.
November 9, 2004

The hazy images of Kyle Cassidys Toy Soldiers (1996) evoke faint childhood memories. This short film expresses the hopes and anxieties of a small boy as he awaits the next news from his father who is serving in Vietnam. Adult concerns shape his everyday rituals as he plays in the backyard with his green plastic army guys and reflects on the fate of those who have been run over by the lawnmower, as he watches the flickering television newscast with his mother, and as he awaits the next letter. Toy Soldiers has the intimacy of a home movie, even though it is re-created decades later from the directors own memories.

Cassidy made the critically acclaimed film with his Pixelvision 2000 camera, which has a plastic case and plastic lens, runs on six AA batteries, and records its images on a regular audiocassette tape. The Pixelvision camera was marketed from 1987 to 1989 by the toy company Fisher-Price. At $100, it was the cheapest self-contained camcorder ever made.

The Pixelvision camera has a fixed focus lens which, like a pinhole camera, theoretically has absolute focus from zero to infinity, but in practice, does best when what is being filmed remains a few feet from the camera. The camera can film well in very low light but almost everything it shoots has a shadowy and washed out look. It was originally intended for children, but kids never really were wild about it. They tended to be disappointed that their movies didnt look anything like what they were seeing on television: the Pixelvision image has 2,000 black-and-white dots, making it far coarser than a standard TV image, with its 200,000 pixels.

But the Pixelvision camera has found its way into the hearts and hands of a growing number of amateur and avant garde filmmakers who like it for many of the reasons it disappointed its target market. The Pixelvisions murky, grainy, and unstable image has become the marker of alternative media authenticity. Pixelvision enthusiasts love the “point and shoot” quality of the camera, which they say allows neophytes to start doing creative work right away. Budding artists can put their energies into communicating ideas rather than learning to control the technology. A once expensive toy has become an incredibly cheap tool.

The Pixelvision movement is the artistic equivalent of a cargo cult: a junked technology took root here and we can now see two decades of elaboration as its worshippers have managed to turn its bugs into desirable features and have developed a new mode of expression around its unique properties. Pixelvision fans have created their own websites, spawned their own criticism, and developed their own film festivals (such as PXL THIS), all in the face of total neglect, and at times open disdain, from Fisher-Price. As filmmaker Eric Saks writes, Pixelvision is an aberrant art form, underscored by the fact that since the cameras wear out quickly, and are no longer being manufactured, it holds within itself authorized obsolescence. Each time an artist uses a PXL 2000, the whole form edges closer to extinction.

Many of the best Pixelvision movies reveal a fascination with the processes and artifacts of everyday life: the camera has spawned a genre of confessional films, with ghostly faces speaking directly into the camera with surprising frankness. Sadie Benning, the adolescent daughter of an established experimental filmmaker, went on to fame in the art world with her simple and direct shorts, filmed in her bedroom, about coming of age as a lesbian. At 19, Benning was the youngest person to ever win a Rockefeller grant.

Filmmakers love what they describe as Pixelvisions dithering, a process designed to fill in the information between the pixels but resulting in unpredictable fluctuations in the image quality from frame to frame. Dithering, they say, calls attention to the properties of the recording medium in the same way that Jimi Hendrixs use of feedback called attention to the properties of the electric guitar. Digital filmmaker John Manoogian writes, Pixelvision is intoxicating. The way a hand blurs across the screen. A face exploding in a blossom of light and then sinking back into a puddle of shadow.The picture is dreamy, etherealghostly. The best Pixelvision movies are as simple and as evocative as a haiku.

Andrea McCarty, a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, is studying the Pixelvision movement to better understand how grassroots creativity works. She told me: “Pixelvision’s endurance and popularity prove that it was not a failed technology. The fascination with Pixelvision belies its obsolescencecollectors are seeking the cameras, artists are creating with them, technology fans are modifying them and fans are watching the films at the PXL THIS festival.”

This is what a lot of us had hoped would happen in the digital age: the technology would put low-cost, easy-to-use tools for creative expression into the hands of average people. Lower the barriers of participation, provide new channels for publicity and distribution, and people would create remarkable things.

Think of these subcultures as aesthetic petri dishes. Seed them and see what grows. In most, nothing really interesting will happen. We can pretty much count on Sturgeons law holding for amateur cultural creation: 90 percent of everything is bad. But if you expand the number of people participating in the making of art, you may expand the amount of really interesting works that emerge.

When we are talking about traditional arts, we value amateur expression as much for the process as for the product. When we teach pottery in schools and adult education centers, we dont expect most of those people to produce work for galleries and museums; creating something is personally valuable even if most of what we make sucks by any objective criteria. Think of all of the lopsided pots that have cherished places on our mantelpieces because our children made them.

You can pretty much count on our creative impulses to overcome a lot of technical limitations and obstacles. Amateur artists do best when they operate within supportive communities, struggling with the same creative problems and building on each others successes.

Amateur creativity should be valued on its own terms, judged by the criteria of the subcultures within which these works get produced and circulated. But you can also count on those within the commercial and artistic mainstream to bring the technologys impact to culture at large. In fact, the best Pixelvision films have been embraced by the art world, and the camera even has fans among commercial filmmakers. Director Michael Almereyda has incorporated Pixelvision images into his big-screen releases, Nadja and Hamlet, to much critical praise. At a time when most of the media industries are highly risk adverse, these petri dish communities are what will refresh the system.

Lets consider a second powerful example of that process at work: Machinima. Its name a hybrid of machine and cinema, Machinima refers to 3-D digital animation created in real time using game engines. The Machinima movement started in 1993 when Doom was released with a program that supported the recording and playback of in-game actions. The idea was that people might want to watch their own game play experiences as mini action movies. There is little evidence that this controversial first-person shooter generated school shooters, but theres plenty of evidence that it inspired a generation of animators.

Subsequent games offered ever more sophisticated tools that allowed players to create their own digital assets, or put their own skins over the characters and features of the game world. Soon, people were playing the games with an eye toward recording the actions they wanted for their movies and even redesigning the games to create the characters and settings they needed to stage their own stories. These game engines would allow artists to dramatically lower the costs and decrease the production time of digital animation. Picture complex animation with the spontaneity of improvisational performance!

Right now, most Machinima films remain deeply rooted in gamer cultureMy Trip to Liberty City is a travelogue of the world represented in Grand Theft Auto 3; Halo Boys involves boy bands in the Halo universe; someone restaged classic moments from Monty Python and the Holy Grail using the online role-playing game Dark Ages of Camelot.

Some people have taken up the technical challenge of reproducing classic action filmseverything from The Matrix to the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan. More political filmmakers have taken this further, using game engines to comment on the war on terrorism or to restage the siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco. Yet some Machinima artists are pushing this mode of production in surprising directions: Hugh Hancock and Gordon McDonalds Ozymandias adopts a poem by Percy Shelley and Fountainheads Anna depicts the life story of a flower. As with Pixelvision, the Machinima movement has launched its own Web community, critics, training programs, and film festivals.

If Pixelvision has been embraced by the art world, Machinimas greatest impact so far has been on the commercial culture. The History Channel, for example, has launched a successful series, Decisive Battles, which restages events like the Battle of Marathon using Creative Assemblys Rome: Total War as its basic animation tool. MTV 2s Video Mods program features music videos by groups like Black Eyed Peas and Fountains of Wayne which are produced using look-alike skins of the performers inserted in the worlds of games as diverse as Tomb Raider, Leisure Suit Larry, The Sims 2, and SSX3.

Pixelvision was largely abandoned by Fisher-Price. But Machinimaand game mods more generallyhave been embraced by the games industry. In fact, game makers monitor and promote this experimentation in the hope of generating new content that will extend the value of their franchises and of identifying new talent that they can hire for their companies. Lionheads new release, The Movies, takes the Machinima movement a step further: the game allows you to run your own studio, produce your own movies using its characters and backlots, and then share them online with your friends.

When the Web first emerged, there was enormous excitement about what would happen when we unleashed the latent creative potential of grassroots communities. Many have dismissed such claims, arguing that there is little to show for the first decade of digital culture. Yet, with Pixelvision and Machinima, we can point to new modes of expression that have risen to the surface as amateur artists have taken advantage of cheap production tools and pushed them in unanticipated directions. It takes time for communities to form, for experiments to occur, and for people to consolidate those innovations into more mature and accomplished works.

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