Monday, July 26, 2010

How to make your character more relatable?

It was about a year ago that I first wrote about empathy and identification in relation to fiction in this blog. A year and many mega-bytes of downloaded articles later, the problem still captivates me. (That's the thing about being in school. You have access to research articles so that you can waste your non-school time on them.) I'm kinda making my way to my own view on this matter, and hopefully, I will write it all up in one neat paper someday... (I've learned recently that I'm an incorrigible dreamer. And I thought I was just young.) Until then, I'm jutting down some ideas in my other blog.

Anyways, just as I read and think about empathy and identification as an academic subject, I'm also dealing with the same problem as a practical matter in my writing. The question is how to make my character easier for the audience to relate to.

Maurice Field, the protagonist of my feature-length noir/sci-fi script, is a hard-to-know character by design. He is a repressed man shrouded in mystery. (The story is about his journey to discover his inner self). Especially because the story is about Maurice's personal and internal struggle, it is crucial that the viewer builds a strong bond with him from early on. So here is the conundrum: How do you get the viewer to connect with a character like Maurice, who lives in a shell within a shell?

In the following, I go through some miscellanies and sundries in the attic of my mind in search of potential solutions to the problem of creating an "identifiable" character:
  • A popular trick - the puppy factor. Here is an old screenwriters' trick: Have your protagonist rescue a puppy (or do something to that effect) early in the story. The viewer goes "awwww..." and your protagonist will have an easy ride from then on. [[Note to self: Should I just get over with the feeling that this is a cheap trick and adopt the method?]]

  • An even cheaper trick - a desirable hero. According to psychoanalytic theories of cinema, the viewer wants to "identify" with a desirable character. They watch a film for that illusion of being the hero on the screen. I'm not a big fan of this theory. I think the presence of such an illusion is an illusion. But still, I can't deny there's something in this old adage. It is of no doubt easier to form a fast alliance with a handsome, intelligent, successful, and loved person than with somebody who is average, unpleasant and lonely. [[Note to self: True, my protagonist Maurice is not a hero, but a very much flawed character. Still, perhaps I can emphasize some of his attractive traits to charm the audience?]]

  • "Just like me." But here is yet another old adage: The viewer needs to feel the protagonist is "just like" him. This sounds contradictory to aforementioned psychoanalytic theories. Surprise... Perhaps the trick is to make viewers feel that the hero, while possessing highly desirable qualities, is still very much like them in a certain regards. Is that why Superman had to have an alter ego of an ordinary nerd and Spiderman needed to be an actual geek? [[Note to self: Is Maurice simply too different from the living people of the world? Is his problem something too esoteric for today's movie-goers? Let's just hope not. If they're not and the script is still salvageable, what I need to do might be to create a few moments in which the audience can see that Maurice is just like them in a certain very concrete and specific way. Hm, like what?]]

  • Identification fostered by its subcomponents. Gaut (1999) suggests that seeing what the character sees (perceptual identification) and knowing what the character knows (epistemic identification) help the viewer form a full-fledged identification with the character. According to this view (which lacks any type of proper support but sounds plausible), imposing the character's perceptual and epistemic point of view on the viewer will help him to connect with the character. (Is this how we formed a bond with the protagonist of Memento?) [[Note to self: My script probably is fairly strong on this front.]]

  • Empathy through sympathy. Gaut (1999) also suggests that sympathy (the emotional response to another people's suffering) and empathy (the emotional response to "identifying" with another person) enforce each other. This is another of Gaut's claims that was never properly supported but sounds reasonable. If you feel for somebody in distress, you are likely to align yourself with him, and that probably is a good position to initiate the process of "identification." If this is true, you might want to make your character suffer so that he would earn the viewer's sympathy. Pathetic, isn't it? [[Note to self: Maurice suffers plenty already. But in order to get the audience's sympathy, his suffering needs to be apparent and external. Maurice's internal suffering will appeal to viewers only after they have established a sufficient connection with him. Can sympathy be one way to get there?]]

  • Having the viewer invest their interest in the character. I'm thinking about the very first episode of Mad Men. You can see from the get-go that Don Draper is not a good man. But he is interesting enough to keep you watching to learn more about him. So you invest your time and attention on him. What a good film does is luring the viewer to invest more by rewarding him just enough at the just right times (Tan, 1997). I suspect such cognitive investments could translate to emotional ones. Wouldn't it be natural that we get attached to somebody on whom we had devoted our time and energy? [[Note to self: I tried make Maurice an attractive puzzle, but did I succeed?]]

  • A tricky trick. In a study by Davis, Conklin, Smith and Luce (1996), some college students were asked to take the perspective of the character while watching short movies (by imagining the perspective of the character, or imagining themselves to go through what the character is going through), while others were asked to just watch the character. The perspective-taking subjects were found to ascribe more of their own personal traits to the character (particularly the positive ones) compared to the non-perspective-taking subjects*. In interpreting their findings, Davis et al. suggested that the act of taking another person's perspective involves "repeatedly activat[ing] some or all of the observer's self-schema" (p. 722). They called this process "merging of self." If only a writer can find a way to lead the viewer to engage in perspective-taking rather than simple spectating... Another interesting finding of Davis et al. is that when people watched movies under a significant cognitive burden (when they were asked to remember a nine-digit number while watching the movie), the observed difference between the perspective-taking and non-perspective-taking subjects disappeared. This suggests that a brainteaser (such as this noir/sci-fi script of mine) may have an inherent difficulty in fostering viewer "identification" and "empathy."
* More precisely, the perspective-taking subjects used higher proportions of the adjectives they used to describe themselves when describing the character, compared to the non-perspective taking subjects. The overall overlap between the words used to describe the character and those used to describe self was similar across conditions.

Work cited

Davis, M.H., Conklin, L., Smith, A., & Luce, C. (1996). Effect of perspective taking on the cognitive representation of persons: A merging of self and other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 713–726.

Gaut, B. (1999). Identification and emotion in narrative film. In C. Plantinga & G. M. Smith (eds.). Passionate views: Film, cognition, and emotion. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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

Monday, June 21, 2010

Incubus released.

By S.

After a long six months of production, which was about twice the time we thought it would have taken, we finally released "Incubus" yesterday. We were glad to keep it under 20 minutes, considering that - before writing the script - we had thought it would be about 10 minutes long.

Admittedly both of us have lost perspective on this movie a few months ago, having watched every scene and heard every line one too many times. This added to our curiosity at the reaction from viewers who were watching it for the first time. We were quite relieved and happy that the reception has been positive.

"Incubus" took six months mostly because real life kept us busy. There was also a rather unexpected large amount of effects work, which is an area that we are slowly learning more about as we go. Although earlier in the project we were hoping to use more Second Life footage than actually ended up in the movie, some of the key scenes and props were from Second Life. This exploration has given us more confidence to continue using Moviestorm as the foundation, and other engines to fill in the gaps when needed.

During production, we were pleasantly surprised with some of the packs that Moviestorm released - some of them found its use immediately in our work in progress. For the kind of stories we like to tell, Moviestorm has been the ideal platform and we are grateful that it exists and continues to be expanded and built upon. All the orphans from "The Movies" out there know what we are talking about.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Machinima Expo 2010

Here is our trailer for MachinExpo 2010.

It was Kate Fosk, the executive director of the MachinExpo, who suggested that machinima makers parody their favorite movie moments for the trailer.

Machinima Expo 2010 Trailer from Chat Noir Studios on Vimeo.

Readers of our blog must know this, but again, the deadline for submission is August 31.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Incubus, almost there.

By Kate

We finally have a low resolution release-candidate of Incubus. This, six months after the beginning of the project.

A release often is a bittersweet experience for me. It's letting go. It's saying good-byes. I had a tough spring, and for full six months, this project has been an engaging companion and comforting bosom. I fell in love over and over again with the characters that our wonderful VO actors incarnated. Many times, I got lost in the complexity of the tasks. Each time I stumbled upon an unexpected new place that stimulated me. We had mutually enriching relationship, Incubus and I, and S and I are proud parents of this new creation.

The mythical creature, Incubus, is a demonic being that visits sleeping women to have intercourse with them. It looks like the beast succeeded in planting a conception in Isabel, our (anti)heroine. A conception in the form of a nightmare, that obsesses her and compels her to search for its meanings. Alas, interpretation of dreams is a treacherous enterprise. Try it at your own peril.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ivy Film Festival, after thoughts

The fact that I am still in school working towards my third graduate degree has its benefits: my student status qualified me to enter our movies to the machinima section of Ivy Film Festival. We had no big ambitions, and thought this was just a chance to get a few more views. But before we knew it, we were sitting in a dark lecture hall at Brown University, watching student films screened at the festival, including our "Darren," the machinima competition jury award winner.

It was a great honor to win the award, and it was fun to see our movie played in a different venue. However, we never truly felt this movie, although dear and special to us, deserved that level of accolade. We know there are better machinima movies (made by students) to represent this medium to the larger audience. Darren's going to Ivy Film Festival almost felt like a missed opportunity for machinima. (I don't want to mislead people. The audience was small, largely because the majority of the viewers left the hall 30 minutes before the machinima segment began in order to attend another screening section starting elsewhere.)

At any rate, watching non-machinima student films at the festival was a pleasure. Viewing student shorts can be quite an intense experience, seeing all these burgeoning talents, their blood and sweat, their hopes and dreams, projected onto the screen for 20 minutes at a time. It's like sampling these young people's soul. Not all of them are polished, not all of them are agreeable. But none of them lack spirit.

I think student shorts and machinima share some similarities. They are brief, rough around the edge at times, often experimental, and deeply personal in most cases. They are "deeply personal" in a sense that each one of them is the product of the film-maker himself (who frequently is a writer-director) rather than that of the market and industry. This means these movies go through much less rigorous trimming process by the third person's point-of-views than the movies we find in theaters, which can be both good and bad in my opinion. Watching student shorts today, I found myself naturally making notes of what to do and what not to do in making machinima. Here is my personal list:

Do be bold and original. Because everybody else is. Quite honestly, the world of short films/machinima can be like a screaming competition. Everybody is doing something "crazy," but a lot of them feel vaguely familiar. I'm all for taking an old idea and crafting it well. But most likely, it ain't enough.

Do be efficient in story telling. No doubt we should strive not to waste another human being's time, a piece of a person's life with a very limited span. But efficiency is not just a matter of economy; it's a matter of aesthetics.

Always, always do your best not to be or come off pretentious. There is no bigger turn off than a pompous self-satisfied piece of (That said, if somebody accuses you of being pretentious, just tell them to f-off.)

Over all, do take care of your audience. Of course you make your movie for yourself. But if that's the whole truth for you, you shouldn't publish your work and waste other people's time. Without the audience, there is no story, no ... "art," no whatever.

And finally, don't ever think you're special. Because everybody is.

These are today's notes to self.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

MaMachinima International Festival 2010

By Kate

What an event that was! It was an amazingly intense experience to be in that great dome filled with so many machiniphiles from all over the world, watching 50+ movies for nine hours!

A unique feature about MMIF is that each movie maker takes a stance on stage while his/her movie plays, and participates in a little Q&A after the presentation.

(Where is S? He was a few steps behind me.)

Standing there on the stage in front of the audience, and seeing Death in Venice playing on the big screens was devastating. It's mind boggling to think how nervous I got. I mean, I knew it was just my avatar standing there, but it didn't matter. My heart was racing, my blood was rushing to my face.

We'd like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude to our gracious host CodeWarrior Carling (@Ideajuice at Twitter) and Evie Fairchild, and of course, the amazing Chantal Harvey, the organizer of the event, and everybody who contributed to the festival as well. Their enthusiasm and dedication to this medium inspire us all.

So many amazing works were presented there, and we discovered so many great works! Oh, gee... This is the kind of sentence one produces after nine hours of movie watching. It is time for me to stop writing. But before I do, here are just some of the amazing movies we saw today. (We highly recommend that you double-click the thumb nails to go to the original sites and watch them in full screen.):

Iono Allen's movie was absolutely breathtaking. Surprising in every turn. Simply stunning.

The following one by Pyewacket Bellman is incredibly poetic.

I could not believe Lowe Runo's action flick was done in Second Life. Oh, yes, only in Second Life, you can make something like this!

Action Flick Part One, Rescue and Perdition from LoweRuno on Vimeo.

Last but not least, a delightful comedy made in Second Life and World of Warcraft by Phaylen Fairchild. (She's also an amazing event host.)

Of course I'm forgetting many other great movies, but oh, there were just so many...

Here are some more photos from the festival: Flickr photostream

Addendum: You can see a list of movies played on MMIF 2010 here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Of empathy through simulation, sympathy as a passive observer, and living the lives of the others

Cognitive scientists generally agree that our engagement with a fictional character is a major source of our emotional experience while viewing a film. Yet, the nature of such engagement is under a controversy.

According to popular belief, we "identify" with the protagonist of the story. We are angry when injustice is done to the protagonist as if it was done to us. We are saddened when the main character loses his loved one as if we lost our own. Our heart pumps when our hero is chased by a ruthless killer as if our own life is at stake. This seem obvious. Until you really think about it.

Identification can mean many different things. In the psychoanalytic theories of cinema, the viewer's identification with the hero is considered to take the form of an illusion that one is the character in the movie. In more modern theories, identification is often described as mental simulation of another person. According to the simulation theory of philosophy of mind, we simulate other people's mind by going "off-line" from our normal mental lives and adopting the target person's beliefs (i.e. the knowledge and representation of the world), desires, and even at least some aspects of his personality. If the simulation is successful, we end up with the right emotional outcome of the target person in the given situation (correctly imagined, if not actually felt). Many scholars, Oatley, Feagin, Walton, and Currie to name a few, believe that appreciating works of fiction involves simulating characters' actions, goals, plans and emotions in this manner.

However, there are compelling arguments against this view. Noel Carroll (2008) points out that the viewer often has quite a different emotion from the character in the film. When the heroine is sound asleep as the killer approaches her with a dagger, we don't experience her peaceful oblivion but our own fear for her. When we watch Alfred Hitchcock's hero in Vertigo climb the stairs to the top of the bell tower, what we feel is not fear of height but a concern for the man who has such fear. In watching Saving Grace by Sisch, we may feel sadness and admiration for Grace who is separated from her loved ones to complete a mission for saving the humanity, but we don't simulate her love for Dylan. Do we? Dolf Zillman's (1991) example of children shouting to the TV screen, "Watch out," as well as the same internal urge of adult viewers, testify for the gap between the point view of the viewer and that of the character. Therefore, Ed Tan (1996) says we usually experience the events in the film as "passive observers," rather than in the character's shoe. In Carroll's term, sympathy and solidarity, not empathy, are the main source of the viewer emotion. We don't imagine being the characters, but we feel concerns for them as a separate individual, and we feel strong affiliations with them.

This sounds convincing to me. But does this mean identification/simulation does not happen at all while we watch a movie? Amy Coplan (2004) contends that it is possible for us to experience the belief, desire, and emotion of the character while having our own separate belief, desire, and emotion at the same time. In other words, we can have empathy through simulation and sympathy as a passive observer all at the same time, and the fact that we have third-person emotions while watching a movie (as Carroll points out) does not mean we can't have an empathetic engagement with the character. In fact, Gaut contends that sympathy and empathy reinforce each other. The more sadness you feel in empathizing with Grace, the more concern you may feel for her.

At this point, I wish I had some solid empirical evidence on this matter. Unfortunately, I find solid scientific studies on this subject scarce at best. My general feeling is that our emotional experience during film viewing largely consists of sympathy and solidarity (the emotions as passive observers). But aren't there sparks of moments when we actually feel what the character feels as if we were her? Or is this a mere illusion?

Anyway, what does all this mean to machinima makers?

If you believe in empathy through simulation, you may consider enhancing the viewers' empathetic engagement with your character by aiding their simulation process and make it easier for them. This may mean minimizing potential gaps between your viewers and the protagonist in terms of their beliefs, desires, and personalities (so that the viewer's own mental state would not compete too much with those of the character during the simulation process). This would mean creating characters that resemble the viewers as closely as possible, and advancing the story from your protagonist's point of view.

If you believe that third-party emotions dominate the film viewing experience, you may consider experimenting with a variety of things. You may intentionally create gaps between the viewer and the character, and play with it to rouse different sympathy reactions in the viewer, ranging from concern to suspense. A good use of antagonist may facilitate solidarity between the viewer and the protagonist. Characters radically different from the viewers in term of their beliefs, desires, and personalities would not be in the way of evoking sympathy in the audience, as long as they are likeable.

To me these sound like valid strategies for making your story more engaging and appealing, and something to think about as a student of the craft of fiction writing. But in the end, we want works of fiction to do more than simply rousing our sympathetic reactions to a third person or getting us empathetically engaged with somebody just like us. We want books and movies to give us an opportunity to live the lives of the others, letting us experience the world from different perspectives and, perhaps, even with completely different souls. Do they ever succeed, or is it all just an illusion?

Or perhaps giving the viewer an illusion of an empathetic engagement with somebody radically different from himself is what a story-teller should strive to achieve. Creating an illusion of empathy sounds like a good topic for a future blog.

Work cited:

Carroll, N. (2008). Affect and the moving image. In N. Carroll, The Philosophy of motion pictures (p. 146-191). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Coplan, A. (2004). Empathic engagement with narrative fictions. The journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism (62) 2, 141-152.

Gaut, B. (1999). Identification and emotion in narrative film. In C. Plantinga & G. Simith (Eds.), Passionate Views: Film, cognition, and emotion (p. 200-216). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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

Zillmann, D (1991). Empathy: affect from bearing witness to the emotion of others. In J. Byrant & D. Zillman (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction processes (pp. 135-167). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Human Face

By Kate

Do you feel what I feel on seeing this picture? That little knot in the heart. That subtle pang between the eyebrows.

I am often amazed at what an image of a human face, even completely out of context, can evoke in another person.

Psychologists call it emotional contagion. The theory roughly goes like this. We human beings have an innate tendency to mimic the faces (and postures and prosodies, etc.) of our conspecies with which we're interfacing. As we view others' faces, our own facial musculature instinctively assumes certain aspects of the expressions on them. The subtle muscle tones generated this way in turn create a feedback to our system and thereby produce the very emotion that is associated with the original facial expression.

An interesting theory, although I question if we have to actually mimic the faces in order to be infected with the emotions expressed on them. My own suspicion (as an armchair non-working psychologist) is that evolution must have endowed us with a much more direct route to be attuned with others around us. (In any case, I haven't encountered any empirical evidence that emotional contagion requires actual mimicry.)

Anyways, here is another image of the same actress in the same movie. (You guessed it, it is Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge. A fine movie, not my favorite, but that's not the point.)

Her expression is much subtler here. Barely noticeable. But this face still communicates something and draws you in. This is not just because this is a beautiful face (although I'm sure it helps tremendously). Look at the doll version of the same character.

This should be at least as beautiful as the original face, but it hardly does anything to me. I am completely disengaged.

By now some of you (if there is any of you stayed with me until this point) must have sensed where I'm going, given that this blog is about machinima, supposedly. Yes, I sometimes wonder if machinima can ever be as effective as live action films without real human faces -- these exquisite communication devices that bypass your mind and reason and speak directly to your heart. That powerful equipment tested and retested, modified, and built into the very core of who we are, through millions of years of evolution.

At this point I suggest that you watch the following video by Phil "Overman" Rice. (It's really funny anyway.)

So I Ran Over a Monkey from Phil Rice on Vimeo.

It's amusing and amazing. His facial expression at 4:17 into the movie... That subtle mixture of shame, regret and self defense as guilt slowly dawns on him in the process of seeking an escape but finding none. It's all there in that complex human face! Alright. I'm talking nonsense. But you must have gotten the point if you watched the movie. What a great choice it was to put his real face on the screen! Can we ever achieve this level of expressiveness with animated faces? Maybe some Pixar geniuses, possibly. But I doubt any animated machinima actor ever got close to the performance of Overman in So I Ran Over a Monkey, and we're not talking about a professional actor here. Seriously. (Well, the only exception I can think of is the perfectly neutral machinima face I love to use and overuse to the point of an abuse for the Kuleshov effect.)

So what's my point? That machinima is doomed? I suffer from my share of negativity, but I'm not that self-destructive. At least not in public. Whereas I do think machinima suffers from a heavy handicap for being deprived of the magic of the human face, I can see a number of ways in which machinima makers can overcome this shortcoming. Some further thoughts on this matter would make a good topic for my next blog. But now, I end this post with something that I hope would make you feel a little bit better.