Machining Vision: Lucy Raven at The Kitchen


Lucy Raven’s lecture on the conversion of 2D cinematic images to 3D, presented February 19th at the Kitchen, took a long view on the film industry’s integration of live-action footage and animation techniques. From the 1915 invention of the Rotoscope, an early motion-capture technology that allowed animators to more realistically portray a moving body by tracing from frames of live-action film, to Ang Lee’s 2012 global blockbuster Life of Pi, in which just about everything but the human body was concocted in post-production, Hollywood and its collaborators have long filled in gaps in realism in one medium with the help of the other. The practice is so ubiquitous that digital media theorists like Lev Manovich have asked whether 21st-century live-action cinema should actually be considered a sub-genre of animation, or even of painting.

“On Location” introduced Raven’s research-in-progress into the offshoring of crushingly tedious visual effects work to an expanding industry in India, China and Southeast Asia—a new “race to the bottom,” as described by Raven.  The expansion of streaming services has given Hollywood a new impetus to distinguish its theatrical offerings from home-video competitors, and for now that means 3D: what the studios affectionately call “storytelling in Z-space,” Raven explained, after the axis of depth.  The traditional way to shoot 3D is with two cameras that are far enough apart to simulate the distance between human eyes. But even state-of-the-art stereoscopic cameras introduce enough of their own difficulties at every stage of the post-production pipeline—so much so that it often makes sense for producers to manufacture depth from one 2D image instead.  In the most basic terms, every object in every frame must be mapped, assigned depths according to the judgment of an individual effects artist, and visualized again by a simulated second camera—hard enough with a human face, worse with raindrops. 

Raven likened the procedure to the export of raw materials from the United States to be processed and given form by cheap Asian labor, which, not incidentally, was the focus of her 2009 “photographic animation” China Town, which traced the production of copper wire from a mine in Nevada to a smelter and refiner in China.  Her ongoing RPx series, initiated in 2012, collects and displays test patterns, charts designed to standardize the quality of film projectors. “On Location” synthesized China Town‘s attention to the circulation of materials whose origins are actively dissimulated—the wire that makes possible instantaneous global communication, the movie bent on immersive illusion—and RPx‘s preoccupation with how changing technology and industrial practices train us to look at moving images. 

One of a three-part lecture series that will culminate in a film project, “On Location” offered only preliminary analysis of the phenomena Raven has been researching, but laid out a field of inquiry by juxtaposing current-day 3D conversion techniques with an early Betty Boop short featuring a Rotoscoped Cab Calloway and the Orientalist fantasies of Wile E. Coyote in the 1964 short “War and Pieces.” 

Raven is poised to map a newly emerging regime by which filmic spaces are set in Los Angeles, filmed in Vancouver, digitally supplemented by a global team of visual effects firms and given new dimension years later in China. How bodies are embedded in such fragmented spaces, from digitally prosthetized stars to the workers who labor over them, is just one of the compelling concerns sure to unfold over the course of Raven’s project.