If you Couldn’t Be There the First Time…

By Paul Wells

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Reflections on CGI and history


History is back. The past is present. The maps to long forgotten places are being redrawn and, once more, journeys undertaken. Contemporary television is glutted with documentaries, travelogues, costume dramas and game shows retrieving the lost worlds of bygone eras, emphatically confirming the fundamental need to cling to something seemingly more substantive in the mythic past than the transient ‘now’. In some senses, it is an indication, too, of ‘History’ in crisis; no one knows quite what ‘History’ is anymore. It is both the stuff of ‘historical events’ – the Holocaust; the assassination of JFK; 9/11 – yet also, the downsized temporal agendas of media spectacles, from the Soham investigation to the death of David Kelly to the outcomes of Big Brother or Pop Idol. Simply, the traditional historiographic ‘certainties’ of the past have come to play second fiddle to the highly visible and seemingly transparent representations offered up by the unprecedented presence and intervention of media technologies.

It has perhaps been long accepted that historical investigation is less about the derivation of objective truth, and more about the construction of plausible and informed narratives. Television has become its most effective story-telling engine; the immediacy and particularity (no ambivalence or contradiction here) of television eradicates the temporal distance once known as ‘the past’ and the place where ‘History’ resided. History is ‘right now’, mediated, and something we can join in with if we want to. Witness those who joined in to the OJ Simpson car chase as a pavement spectator or nearby driver with the full realisation that they would make the evening news and have the opportunity to secure their own record of ‘history’ for posterity. Literally, ‘I was there’, and here’s the evidence.

Such is the increasing sophistication of the creation of the media ‘event’, though, that philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, was once notoriously moved to assert ‘The Gulf war did not happen’. In a philosophic, poetic, and principled polemic Baudrillard suggested that the events of ‘History’ were now events created by and for the media in the interests of ideological complicity and measured spectacle. His prescience has surely been confirmed in the coverage of ‘Gulf War II’, which admittedly, while more self-reflexive in its outlook, and fully aware of the alternative perspectives of Al-Jazeera, was nevertheless more concerned with ‘shock and awe’ than death and destruction. It is more likely that we will remember the staged iconography of the statue of Saddam being pulled to the ground than the daily atrocities which preceded and followed it.

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History, then, under these circumstances constructed more as commodity than concern; history at an end. But such post-modern playfulness and mock finality is belied by the insistence of history; the deep seated requirement to know that what has gone before did matter. The urge to preserve, conserve, and know again, persists, and every new tool of expression is thus applied to the excavation of the past as ‘lost world’.

Much of my engagement with this area was stirred by this very thought. The impact, for example, of computer generated animation in the production of television documentary features has essentially re-defined the form, and with it the configuration of history. Walking With Dinosaurs, and all its related programmes, right through to the recent Sea Monsters trilogy, has seamlessly combined computer generated imagery with live action contexts, authenticating what can only be informed speculation through the absolute conviction of its artifice. Pre-historic creatures are created in the computer; legitimised through the codes and conventions of the wildlife documentary; and made ‘History’ by assertion. These are the new archives; the new texts; a more subjective substitute for the ‘object’ of history, validated both by the evidence that informs knowledge and the creative practice of imagined epistemologies embodied in persuasive visual signs. Sea Monsters’ brilliant evocation of a Jacques Cousteau-like exploration of the pre-historic deep, convinces in its proposition that a time-travelling diver can swim flipper-to-fin with amazing fish, and in doing so illustrates the core principle at the heart of the new history.

Simply, ‘history’ is not only that which is determined by historians and scholars, but by those who can creatively interrogate the past and produce a narrative which invites the maintenance of its significance not at the level of social and cultural change, but at the more individualised portal of local effect and emotional spectacle. It is not enough to know and critically embrace; history must be ‘felt’.

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This merely encourages the view that those with the means of production and intelligent curiosity – effectively, anyone with the right cameras, audio and computer applications – and the wherewithal to pursue the increasing outlets for publication and broadcast, ensure the proliferation of ‘record’, but little of the rigour in determining the tendencies of ‘History’. Never would I – a now long standing Media and Animation scholar – have thought that I would be arguing for anything other than the open, interpretive possibilities of any visual text, but, if nothing else because of the interpretive abuses of the Rodney King video, it becomes clear that historical ‘truth’ is at stake if it is sacrificed to the disclosures of the now highly manufactured image.

Yet, there is hope. And it is rooted in one of the intrinsic aspects of the animation vocabulary underpinning computer generated applications – the principle of ‘metamorphosis’. And, thankfully, too, it has been used to good effect in two recent BBC initiatives, Son of God and Restoration.

Son of God, a life of Christ set in first century Jerusalem, attempted to mix talking head story-to-camera with computer generated evocations of the city. Based on research which drew from sources as varied as Peter Connolly’s The Holy Land; the study of paintings, including El Greco’s ‘Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple’ (1570-75); and present day photographs of ruins, Leen Ritmeyer created a model of the city, and a number of illustrated sequences were introduced into the narrative, literally projecting the viewer back into the past. Crucially, though, the viewer saw the process of change; the spectacular metamorphosis from contemporary ruins to imagined architectures and cityscapes as they may have existed in the past.

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This has the effect of suggesting temporal and spatial modification, and insists upon the duality of the existence of another time and place, and the sense of discovery and ‘newness’ for a contemporary audience. The creative practice of achieving ‘metamorphosis’ through animation directs the creative practice of investigating historical sources and contexts. The narrative is supported both by spectacle and the validity of reconstructing something ‘real’ yet unimaginable. It is surely in this that computer animated work finds the greatest purchase. Its ‘speculation’ is foregrounded by the process of executing it; its outcomes, self-evident representations which insist upon wonder and inquisition, rather than naturalised acceptance. History as a beginning; not an end.

Restoration took this to its logical conclusion. Viewers were invited to listen to various experts and celebrities describe the virtues of once grand, now decaying buildings, in order to vote for one to receive full restoration. Crucial to this process, though, was the virtual representation of the building and its environ as it once was. Such metamorphosis in more local and domestic settings – old houses, municipal buildings and factories – signalled not merely the ravages of time, but how humankind defends, deifies, defiles, and destroys its ‘place’. As each glistening computer generated metamorphosis animated the recovery of each context, far more was revealed than the superficialities of how we used to live. Suddenly, there was a fresh start. A new place where the lessons of history could both be learned from, and acted upon.

Restoration, of course, actually facilitated this possibility for one of the buildings – a municipal swimming baths – physically and materially insisting upon the recovery and maintenance of ‘history’. This is crucial because the apparent ease with which images of the past can take on a virtual presence may only invite the complacency of accepting the intimacy of ‘place’ as mere information; the reinstatement of a known quantity, rather than the provocateur for agency in relation to public action and the politics of representation.

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Recalling ‘place’ invites recollection of ‘home’ and ‘homeland’, and with it numerous questions of geographic vistas as contested spaces, and further, issues of presence and absence; ownership and exile.

‘Metamorphosis’ as an aesthetic device in animation is change demonstrated and illustrated, but it is also the act of progression interrogated. If it were but recognised as such, the very issue of change as the locus of ‘history’ would have considerable purchase in the proper engagement with the lessons that might have been learned from the personal, pragmatic and political economies of ‘places’ in time. Recollection is not enough; memory is insufficient; critical insight drawn from the literal and comparative exigencies that might find their very revelation in the processes in Son of God and Restoration can maintain the true rigour of the ‘History’ enterprise.

It is sometimes hard not to conclude that the past is another country, but computer animation techniques which foreground their own process in revealing change, re-inventing the past, and reconstructing the old as new seek to evoke the importance of place as the setting and theatre of lived experience. To know the geography of place as a ‘context’ is to be permitted knowledge of the human endeavour as a ‘text’, and ultimately, to create the history which is its ‘sub-text’.

It is perhaps perverse to accept that it is the potentially anarchic freedoms of animation as a mode of record which might best reveal this to us, but there is much in its artifice that remains much more appropriate to the recall of the psychology, physiology, emotion and material culture of history than has been previously allowed. It may now be viewed as the most pertinent of archaeological excavators. As the History Channel trumpeted upon its inception, ‘If you couldn’t be there the first time, here’s your second chance’.

By using the capacity of computer animation, indeed all animation, to reveal the metamorphosis in everyday lives throughout history, in the service of a better understanding and preservation of the past, this may be literally true.


Professor Paul Wells is head of the Media Portfolio in the School of Arts and Media, University of Teesside and has published widely on Animation and the Media. His latest book, Animation: Genre and Authorship, is published by Wallflower Press.