Monday, August 24, 2009

Anatomy of Empathy – Part 1 (or a Hopelessly Self-indulgent Musing)

By Kate
A little robot, Wall-E, spent hundreds of years in solitude processing garbage in the empty planet, until one day, when he meets EVA. She becomes his girl-friend and sole friend. When she turns inactive for a reason he doesn't understand, he takes care of her, dressing her up and bringing her to picnic.

Satine, a beautiful courtesan of Moulin Rouge who wants to be a real actress, is in love with a struggling writer. She is about to be raped by the duke who has been their sponsor. She announces that today is the day her life ends.

At the end of a picture-perfect love story in which a young couple overcome their obstacles, the young man watches the love of his life lie in a hospital bed dying of leukemia.
It might be too shameful for you to admit that you felt something in those moments. It is for me. But that does not change the fact that we felt for these characters. Empathy. Identification. These are the words often used to label what happened to us. They say we empathized with those characters. But what does that mean?

As it turns out, philosophers have spent much brain power to resolve the “paradox” of empathizing with fictional characters. Susan Feagin, for example, contends that “empathy” is feeling exactly what the other person feels and “for the right reasons.” According to Feagin, in empathizing with a real person, we have to believe that we adopted the beliefs and desires of the person in question. (Otherwise, it would be sympathy, not empathy.) In empathizing with a fictional character however, we can't hold such a belief. In fact, we don’t even believe that the person exists at all. So how is it possible that we empathize with a fictional character? Feagin’s solution to this paradox is to say that we imagine having the fictional character’s beliefs and desires, rather than believing that we do. This sounds like saying that the empathy we feel for a real person is categorically different from the empathy we feel for a fictional character. The former is based on the second order belief (the belief that we adopted the other person’s beliefs) and the latter based on imagination.

A more convoluted proposal comes from Gregory Currie, who says we don’t imagine believing the same thing as a non-existing person in empathizing with him, but we (lo and behold) “believe-I” and "desire-I" the contents of his beliefs and desires to simulate his mental states. (Here, the special “I-states” denote real mental states that bear some sort of systematic resemblance to the mental states of the target person.) Moreover, he says that what we do is to simulate “a hypothetical reader of fact” who empathizes with the fictional character in question. So Currie’s solution to the paradox seems to be making up this new mental state (“I-state”) as well as insert an intermediary between us and the fictional character. (It appears to me that the “hypothetical reader of fact” is an unnecessary entity, although some may find it useful for solving what Currie calls the “personality problem,” the fact that we empathize with the kind of fictional characters we wouldn’t empathized with in real life.)

One of the problems I have with these views is their assumption that we really do adopt the beliefs and desires of others in empathizing with real people. How can this be possible? We have no access to other people’s beliefs and desires. We can never truly know them, much less adopt them. Most of time, we only theorize about them. When we attempt to “simulate” them, imagining is the only possible way. Therefore, in my opinion, we always depend on our imagination when empathizing with somebody -- real or fictional.

Another problem is the notion of putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and identifying with them. Do we really put ourselves in the shoe of Wall-E, or the beautiful 19th century Parisian courtesan, or the lover of the dying young woman? Do we imagine adopting their beliefs and desires (or “believe-I” and “desire-I” them)? I think what really happens is something more complicated. Here is what I think happens when we "empathize" with movie characters (and with real people to a certain degree):
  • I suspect unconscious activation of one’s own emotional memories in response to the event on screen is often confused with (or constitutes) what we call empathy. (Oatley, a leading figure in cognitive science of fiction and stories, also lists emotional memories as one of the five processes through which fiction evokes emotions, but for him this is a process separate from “identification.”)
  • In some cases, we may become emotional imagining the events in the film happening to us even without simulating the beliefs and desires of the character.
  • Once we form an alliance or attachment with a character, our own desire not to see bad things happen to the people we like may be at play.
  • Automatic arousal in response to emotional expressions at display on screen, should also constitute our “empathy” experience.
  • Furthermore, we sometimes seem to react to the abstract “truth” the event on the screen distills. (e.g., Wall-E’s situation shows us our hopeless bondage to the blind yearning for attachment; Satine’s moment in Moulin Rouge! says that happiness does not last and sometimes you have to pay a horrible price; The end of Love Story reminds us how helpless we are in the face of certain fates.)
My suspicion is that empathy is not a single-process, but an amalgam of different processes that are bundled as one in our subjective experience. When we watch a film, multiple processes -- wonderfully diverse and complex -- may interact with each other, enhancing each other, to create the feeling in us of connecting with the character and feeling for them. This realization (or is this just a misconception?) opens a door to a whole new way of thinking about story-telling for me.

Works cited:

Feagin, S. (1997). Imagining emotions and appreciating fiction. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Currie, G. (1997). The paradox of caring: Fiction and the philosophy of mind. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oatley, K. & Gholamain, M. (1997). Emotion and identification: Connections between readers and fiction. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Other references:

Davies, D. (2007). Aesthetics and Literature. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Tan, E. S. (1996). Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

My thanks to the members of TMU forms who participated in this discussion thread.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Economics of Interest

by Kate

How can we make our movies more interesting
? Today, I search for an answer to this question in the book mentioned in my previous blog (Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine by Ed S. Tan, 1996), as well as a few examples of machinima pieces. Tan's book offers so much food for thoughts that I can see it inspiring a few more blogs.

Tan compares interest to investment. Being interested means investing time and energy to explore the stimulus at hand. The return includes the satisfaction of being confirmed of one's expectations or that “ah-ha” experience. Like any investment, “[i]nterest is determined by the prospect of return.”

According to Tan, the prospect of return is partly determined by the past return. Just like you will not keep investing on a losing stock, the viewer will not continue watching a movie that does not reward him/her. If this is true, small revelations and emotionally satisfying moments, scattered throughout the story, will help keep the viewer interested. Intervention by Overman offers an excellent example of how this may works. (Disclaimer: I'm not attempting to guess Overman's intention. I'm merely describing what the movie was experienced by this particular viewer.)

Intervention from Phil Rice on Vimeo.

At the beginning, we see a man holding onto a buoy in the middle of the ocean. Even stranger is the way he gets away from the buoy. This clearly demands an inspection. Quite soon, you figure out what it is. The man is swimming backwards. This movie plays backwards! (A small reward was granted in the form of this little ah-ha moment.) You follow the man running backwards for a while, and soon receive a new clue. He is hiding from police vehicles. He must have been running from the law. (Another piece of reward.) This way, you follow the backward-running man till the end, while picking up morsels of returns to your investment, until the very end when you finally learn the whole truth, including the meaning of the title and the song, in a one single mind blowing rush of Eureka!

According to Tan, interest is a self-enhancing emotion. Once the viewer gets sufficiently interested, and spends enough time and energy in figuring out the story and character, they are more likely to be deeply involved in the story, as well as develop a stronger desire to find a closure or a stronger expectation for a particular end-state. They will have more at stake now. They cannot leave. Past investments lead to more future investments. In this light, what we story-tellers want to do is get our audience sufficiently invested in the story from early on, and keep them invested by withholding the biggest reward until near the end.

Intervention illustrates the self-enhancing nature of interest very well. As we explore the unfolding story for a prolonged period of time, our involvement with the protagonist gets stronger, and so does our desire to learn how he got into all this mess. We also have made, consciously and unconsciously, inferences and predictions that need to confirmed. With time, our desire to see things through only grows.

Another good example of the previous investment leading to even more investment is The Snow Witch by Britannica Dreams.


Toward the end of this story, near the climax, we have developed a strong suspicion of the truth about Yuki-onna. In fact, we’re almost sure of what is coming. But instead of turning it off, we are transfixed in our seat, wanting to witness our anticipation being realized on the screen and curious to see how it happens. It is as if we worked toward this moment, and now we have to see it materialized.

Intervention and The Snow Witch also reveal another aspect of "interest" in movie watching. The streets of Intervention are relatively novel to me, and they look fantastic. Had they been exactly the same streets I watched many times before, or if they were shot with poor cinematography, would my interest have stayed at the same level? If the world of The Snow Witch were not as heartbreakingly beautiful as it is, would I have been equally motivated to explore that world? In these movies, the style and technique serve the story by helping to keep the viewer engaged. The quality of the artifact surely seduces the viewer. Possibly even more important is that it gives the viewer the sense of being at the hands of an able story-teller. It makes her feel safe about her investment.

We, story-driven machinima makers, have an obligation to our viewers to make our stories more interesting and rewarding for them. The viewer experience deserves more attention, and can be improved by better story design as well as other means -- such as pleasing dialogue and visuals. It would be mere laziness, or in some cases, sheer arrogance and conceit, not to try harder.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Experience of Fiction vs. the Appreciation of Artifacts

By Kate

When you visit Viemo, YouTube, or TMUnderground to watch a much-talked-about machinima piece, what is your primary motivation? What is it that you're seeking?

In Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine, Ed S. Tan (1996) discusses two primary motives for watching a film: 1) the experience of fiction and 2) the appreciation of artifacts. The first is about being transformed to the world pertaining to the narrative. (e.g., being engrossed in the events unfolding, being scared as you watch the character ventures out to the dark). The second is about appreciating the style and formal characteristics of the medium (e.g., appreciating the camera work, acknowledging the way the monster suddenly flashes right in front of the camera after the long and slow building up of a nervous anticipation, or marveling at the way Memento tells its story).

This dichotomy seems particularly interesting in the context of machinima. It is my opinion that the appreciation of artifacts has a much higher priority in machinima watching than in film watching. It would be fair to say we often watch machinima mainly to see what people can do (and have done) with various machinima engines, and to be impressed and inspired by their ingenuity. At least, we do so much more frequently than we approach films with the same motivation.

The heightened status of the artifact appreciation in machinima watching is not surprising since machinima started (by and large) as the showcase of what an impressive artifact you can create out of the game you play. The machinima tools geared for story-telling are still in their infancy, and both the developers and users of these tools are in the process of discovering what can be achieved and how. In the mean time, a drastically high proportion of machinima watchers remain to be what we might call peer viewers (viewers who are involved in the craft and the community around it themselves), and for these people, the technique and style naturally are of particular importance and interest.

The problem is that this seems to brew the culture of 5-minute tech-demos in which the highest esteem and popularity are reserved for brief movies with minimal stories that are primarily to demonstrate the maker’s cinematic techniques or the potential of particular tools. In this environment, I find myself left wondering whether there is a place for story-driven machinima.

Should a story matter? I will not dwell on the point that style without substance is empty. Neither will I spend the virtual ink on my personal motivations for making those little movies. Instead, I would raise the point that machinima’s value as an artifact is bound to greatly depreciate outside the small odd community of the machiniphiles. None of the most superior camera works, lighting works, or cinematic techniques created in a personal computer will sufficiently impress non-game-players and non-machinima-makers. It is only through the story, and its universal appeal, that the people at large can be intrigued. It is through the story that machinima would be able to gain the legitimacy and respect it deserves in the real world.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Production Diary Aug 3, 2009

We had a good weekend, our first one working on the Death in Venice project. We are surrounded by Verdi's Rigoletto everyday now, it's beginning to drive me nuts.

There's a learning curve for us, but we are excited about all the tools and possibilities that exist right now. I fiddled with Adobe After Effects to produce the opening shot, and I think we are on the right track. I am also giving more input than in previous movies where K did most of the directing. Of course, I run all my ideas with her - we all know who is the boss in this production studio. :)

I also worked on some music. It's a piece that we definitely cannot get a free recording of, to use commercially. So I just had to enter it and tweak the samples to sound better.

Finally, most of my time was spent on importing Sketchup props into MovieStorm. By the way, I think MovieStorm is a great tool. Sure there are some deficiencies, but I believe they are pointing in the right direction - making it simple to get things done so you can focus on the important things.

-S

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Past, Present and Future

By Kate

We lied. We weren’t sleeping. We’ve been busy hammering, sawing, and screwing around in the set. We’ve been training ourselves with Moviestorm, researching for postproduction tools, and conducting trial shooting.

In addition, I intend to blog here about: our production processes, writing, and… cognitive science approach to stories and arts, which I think could be a unique feature of this site and which will be an extra motivating factor for my quest to learn more about this relatively new field to me (although I have background in a related area). I may also try to write about exciting developments in the Machinima community, but I know there are enough people out there doing great job on that front already.

No more idle TV watching, no more weekend excursions... I see lots of Chinese takeouts in our future.