The sixth episode (webisode?) of The Drax Files come relatively close to home for me, as the focus of the segment is Edinburgh, Scotland, where Abramelin Wolfe of Abranimations fame has both his home and his base of operations.
I’d never actually really considered the amount of work which goes into creating in-world animations – or the real-world expense. Obviously, I’m aware that it involves motion-capture and digtising movement, but when hearing how Abramelin’s first motion-capture outfit cost him £14,000 ($21,300), I admit my jaw flapped somewhat.
“Body language and human motion is something that we see every day,” Abramelin says, explaining why he started creating animation in Second Life. “If we’re very rigid and not moving, it stands out like a sore thumb; it’s very unnatural, there’s lot’s of subtleties. I mean, if you say to someone ‘stand still’, they’ll probably in their head think that they are rigid and not moving. But in reality, people are actually moving a lot; a subtle shake of arms and the way that weight displaces. So I think that by having a very fluid motion which is very life-like helps people feel immersed in that universe.”
Operating their business out of Edinburgh, Abramelin and his wife focus on Second Life as their primary market, producing not only animations, but also a range of avatars and other creations, very much working as a team; he creates the animations and rigs them, she creates the avatars.
Abramelin very much regards Second Life as a frontier and those using it as pioneers.
“It’s such a world of possibilities for invention and innovation,” he says, still as enthusiastic and engaged with the platform as when he started in 2004. “Pioneers? Yeah! We want a universe we can step into and actually be there!”
Animations are something almost all of us use in SL, yet we perhaps seldom give any of the creative process which goes into them more than a passing thought; as such this segment serves as a fascinating insight into a brand which is something of an SL household name (my very first AO was from Abranimations!), and on the entire creative process involved in developing life-like animations – as well as yet another look through the eyes of others at why Second Life is so engaging.
A Conversation with Drax (part 2)
The Drax Files have taken Second Life by storm. After seeing the first segment, I took time out with Drax to find out more about the man behind the show and also about the series itself. In the first part of our conversation, we discussed what led to the creation of The Drax Files and how reaction to the series has affected him before touching on future plans – which is the starting point for continuing our chat.
Inara Pey (IP): The current series has focused very much on content creation, covering the work of some of the top content creation merchants, and the use of SL to create immersive environments such as the 1920s Berlin Project. You’ve more recently moved on to look at SL as a means of global action with the very excellent piece on Fantasy Faire and Relay for Life, and also examined music and live performance in SL. In the past, you’ve also looked at art and design – I’m thinking here specifically about your piece from November 2011 on IDIALAB at Ball State Uni, Nov 2011. Did you opt to tackle content creation first, as you felt it was a better means of helping people grasp the potential of SL, and where might we be seeing future segments of the show going?
Draxtor Despres (DD): Oh, the Art and Design thing! That was basically a one-off thing back then. It was a great project with IDIALAB. I just called it “The Drax Files”, a play on “The X Files” and it was fun. But yeah, the initial approach with content creation was to grasp the potential of SL for an audience outside of SL.
But yeah, the whole art and design thing, yeah, that’s a subject, the type of activity that’s going to be profiled. I mean, SL has no limits to the type of activity you can engage in, so The Drax Files will have no limits in terms of subject matter. But I am consciously avoiding clichés, I’m consciously avoiding stigma, so sex and stuff like that – while I have no problem personally with whatever people engage in – I’m trying to stay away from it or that I’m self-censoring in the political sense. There is plenty of discussion about that stuff out there, and I don’t need to fuel the fire…
IP: Or play into the stereotypes too often presented by the media when looking at Second Life.
DD: Exactly. To me it is about the creator, what the creator intended, and how they use the platform.
IP: You and I have often talked about perceptions and reactions in and around Second Life. How much has the negativity often expressed towards, say, Linden Lab by many involved in SL, or the frequently negative view taken by the world at large when considering Second Life – including things like the stereotypes we’ve just mentioned – played a part in your thinking in creating and filming the series?
DD: There is a lot of vitriol in the way people bash Linden Lab. As you know from the [Metareality] podcasts, people call me “cheerleader” or “delusional”; I’m not delusional, and I’m not a cheerleader for the Lab. There are plenty of things to criticise – you do that in a very good tone – but I do object to the just throwing stones at the Lab. There are many bad corporate decisions made, obviously and there are so many things that are not running smoothly. But there are people who critique this in a good way; what is missing really, is just a focus on the people behind the creations.
I want to give a tool in a video format and say, “Look, give it to your Mum, give it to your friend who doesn’t talk to you any more because they think you’ve lost your marbles because you’re playing with cartoon pixels. Give this to them and show them that this is not all crazy stuff.”
What was interesting, though, was that in this piece with Abramelin, he was telling me how people feel it is OK for people to dismiss Second Life in an agressive way and in a manner in which you would never dare do with people involved in any other kind of work. I mean, this is his job, motion capture, primarily as a Second Life business. And still he has found that not only friends and family, but also people he meets, to be very violently against Second Life and dismissive and rude in a way that you just wouldn’t experience if you were a bus driver or a teacher or something. And that is very interesting and it matches with my own experience.
IP: People who are involved in Second Life and who tell their friends that they are, are often accused of escapism and not engaging in “real life”.
DD: I think it’s been pointed out in a previous segment of the show that you’re actually more engaged in Second Life, because you are taking part in an event or you’re doing some exploration or something, far more than other people who would perhaps dismiss Second Life and then at the same time constantly update their Facebook status on their mobile ‘phones.
I was at the beach for Mother’s Day recently, and there was a family, and it was just a perfect illustration of this. The mother was laying down and the father was standing up, looking at the beach; both take out their ‘phones, they don’t look at anything, the mother starts typing something on the ‘phone, the father stands there looking at the ‘phone, nobody talks to the five or six-year-old daughter … so it’s an interesting paradox …
IP: People accusing SL users of failing to engage while at the same time doing exactly the same, just through a more “acceptable” medium?
DD: More than that. Yes, there are some very persistent notions about SL which come from certain things that are perpetuated from the media, but not everybody has this tainted view. While they may react negatively when Second Life is mentioned, they are still a fresh target audience for Linden Lab to actually try to reach…
IP: Providing that initial prejudice towards the platform can be overcome.
DD: Yes, and that’s one of the reasons I use the term “Second Life” in my show so prominently and unapologetically.
And you know, these is another aspect to this I want to mention from my conversation with Abramelin. We were really wondering about why, when people are against Second Life, it is always phrased in terms that they don’t “need” it – like it’s a crutch of sorts? I send the shows to a friend in Germany, and she replies, “Yeah, that’s very interesting, but I don’t need that. I live in a large city with museums and I have friends and I don’t need that.”
IP: It’s almost the latter-day Star Trek attitude – where fans of the series were often dismissed as being unable to engage in real life or of not having friends and needing a crutch to get through life.
DD: I find this incredibly narrow-minded. If we talk about the community of people with disabilities, for example, they are drawn to Second Life in a way that able-bodied people can never quite comprehend; as an able-bodied person, I don’t pretend that I can comprehend how important it is to them to have this window into the world and it is overcoming isolation and such. So for someone to say, even mildly, “I don’t need that”, I see as a very, very small-minded prejudiced viewpoint.
Now, I was at a family dinner with friends, and there was another guest there who lives in a senior home here in town, and I log-in to SL and show her around, and the first thing she says is, “Wow! this is overcoming isolation!” Immediately, she got it, so it fascinates me the way some people get it, and others don’t.
And this is something I think is important to get out there for discussion: because the sooner we, as Second Life enthusiasts, understand why it is that people outside of the platform feel that it is OK to be offensive about what we cherish, then the better we’ll be at overcoming it and reaching people.
IP: Which is certainly food for thought, and I’ll be interested to see what feedback it generates when this conversation is published! But coming back to the show itself. As we mentioned in our last chat, the format of The Drax Files forms a major part of the attractiveness of the show; allowing those you interview to pretty much tell their own stories. Will you be keeping to the format as it’s been presented so far, or do you see it expanding or changing at all in the future?
DD: The format, in terms of presentation, will remain pretty much the same, but with some variations. So the real-life conversation on Skype and then going in-world and connecting there is absolutely crucial to the show. Now, obviously having said that, that does exclude people who I respect very, very much who do not want to connect their identities and who do not want to appear on camera. So I’m thinking about how to involve them as well. And I’m not going to give away how I’m going to do it! (laughs). Something visually inventive, hopefully!
There is one other thing I would say, in light of what we’ve discussed. As happy as I am with finding this format, which I’m constantly scrutinising and refining and trying to make it better in terms of presentation, I realise there is a fundamental limitation. And that is, that it is ultimately a documentation of what we experience. So when I’m filming with Abramelin, filming his Tai Chi routine and he’s flying over the mainland, it was fascinating.
Then, when I cut the movie together, I realised that even with his strong narration, and with some music underneath it to enhance the emotion, etc., I realised that if I still put myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t understand what this is – it is just some weird pixel stuff. So there is a fundamental issue with presenting 3D spaces to people who have never entertained the idea of any form of 3D space, not even a game.
This is something while will change within a generation, I think, but it is still an obstacle, because the promotional tools we can use – video and You Tube – are still flat, and don’t convey the real depth of the experience. When we’re in-world, we’re immersed; we don’t make any distinction; but for the outsider [watching a video] this isn’t really conveyed, and unless you chain them down in front of a computer and force them to steer this avatar through the world, and have this experience and have it click in their own mind, it is impossible to show the true power.
IP: Nevertheless, even with the limitations of the tools, The Drax Files does present SL in a highly uniquely and engaging manner, simply because you have opted for a mixed reality approach which could help overcome prejudices people may feel towards the digital aspects of the platform by engaging them in the lives of the people you feature in each show. Even so, it’s all food for thought – and something I suspect we may well be returning to in our next chat!