Ole Etzel is someone who knows exactly how to measure success. “My definition of success is that I can do what I want,” he states in the opening minute of the latest segment of The Drax Files.
This doesn’t mean that Ole is wealthy enough to do whatever he wants, or anything like that. It means that he has created an environment in which he can enjoy a huge amount of creative freedom in his work as a machinima maker, and is in a position where he enjoys complete creative control over all of his work.
This success has been largely due to Second Life, a platform Ole immediately saw as an incredible medium for a brand of artistic expression. In this, his story is, on the surface, little different to that of many others who have come into Second Life and found a niche in which to excel, be it art, photography, physical content creation, game-building, or as an actor or voice artist or singer, and so on. It’s also a further demonstration that someone can actually be involved in a platform like Second Life and have a life, and isn’t actually using it as some form of escapism to slip free of real world pressures.
“I don’t think working at the computer is escapism,” he says of his work during the extended interview. “Perhaps it was escapism when my grandfather went down into the basement where he had a little miniature train and he built his world there. It’s really not very different. But it’s not escapism. It’s creativity.”
Ole’s machinima is a skilled mix of animation, music, storytelling and a very eclectic selection of themes and ideas all presented in something of an avant-garde style focused on his two principal characters of Mr. and Mrs. Bones. His creations, which together with his RL work can be found on his YouTube channel, demonstrate a painstaking level of creation which really does mark out machinima as being more – to borrow from Drax – than “hour-long Call Of Duty gameplay uploaded in unedited form”, which is sometimes how machinima can be perceived by those who have heard the term without actually studying it (or have engaged in an hour-long recording of their latest blast on Call of Duty…).
Art can often be a powerful means of political expression, and Ole’s pieces are no exception to this; several of his films do carry a political message. In fact he sees Second Life as an ideal platform for art as political commentary, noting that many people involved in Second Life are political, “They use the tools to build little artworks with a political message; things that matter in the so-called real world.”
Given his desire to at times to produce works which touch upon the real world and / or which stir the cognitive processes, freedom – creative and expressive – is something Ole sees as essential to his work. So much so, that he has consciously striven to keep his real-life identity completely off of the Internet and to adopt what he refers to the “eastern” approach to presenting oneself online, whatever medium he is using.
“There are these two attempts of how to deal with the Internet,” he says, “The more western, the more American attempt of putting your name and a lot of photos on Facebook, then there’s the more eastern, the more Japanese attempt of the avatar.”
Ole’s position is not unique; there are a number of artists involved in SL who only do so through their avatar alter-egos because of the freedom they gain for themselves, and because it allows their work to stand on its own without potentially being overshadowed by perceptions gleaned as a result of people being able to connect the digital with the “real”.
This segment offers a fascinating insight into the machinima maker’s art, from storyboarding an initial idea through to the final product. Yes, it can be a lonely process – as Ole points out in the extended interview, he has a day job as well as his family, so his machinima is something which is restricted to evenings and weekends, when he has the opportunity to spend a couple of hours producing around 10 seconds or so of completed material. But the flip side to this is that the entire process is liberating and empowering.
“I used to run around with a big VHS camera on my shoulder … I needed a second person already for the sound, and then the cutting afterwards – it was terrible! I have a lot of footage, but I never finished a movie,” he notes.
Second Life and machinima have freed him from all that. Together they provide a means by which he he can steer his work through from beginning to end, and can do so unencumbered but either the cultural weight of more traditional, studio-driven film faire, or by the need to compromise on subject, technique, approach, etc., which can arise as a result of the collborative needs of more traditional independent film-making. In machinima, every aspect of the product can be creatively controlled and presented exactly as the machinima maker envisions, limited only by the technical constraints inherent within the platform.
And even the technical constraints needn’t be as limiting as we might think; particularly when it comes to getting started with Second Life – a subject Ole also has some very clear views on.
A common critique levelled at the platform is that it is “too hard” for people to get to grips with, and the learning curve is too steep. That critique, more often than not, is levelled by people from within the platform. But is it really? As Ole points out, “Try using Blender. THAT’s a hard learning curve.”
His view is liable to be controversial in this regard, but I admit I actually understand where he is coming from and what he means. It’s easy to forget that the knowledge which allows us to use SL in the ways we want didn’t come to us all at once. Why, then, do we often look at newcomers to the platform and believe that they immediately need to be encumbered with the vast majority of knowledge which we only accumulated with the passage of time?
True to his word, with this episode, Drax is building on the foundations he’s laid throughout the series to date, offering another piece which invites those outside of SL to reconsider any preconceptions they may have with the platform and re-evaluate it as a valid medium of creative expression and endeavour. In Ole, we have the perfect spokesperson who can address both the world beyond SL and perhaps challenge the perceptions and bias those of us engaged in the platform may ourselves carry.