Autonomous drones, lasers, and computer rendering play increasingly vital roles in filmmaking, but what makes Liam Young’s moody, futuristicfilms so unusual is these technologies are not tools, but stars.
The Australian architect-turned-filmmaker considers his filmsIn the Robot Skies,Where the City Cant See, andRenderlandsTrojan horses bringingthese technologies into mainstream consciousness in a positive, even creative, way. If people give, say, LIDAR, any thought, it’s probably within the context of autonomous vehicles or that lawsuit against Uber. But Young sees a compelling story. “We tell stories about what these technologies might mean,” he says. “We’re prototyping their possibilities.”
Thefilms,appearingin the exhibit “New Romance” at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, paint a promising, or at least benign, picture ofwhere such technology may lead humanity. But they also offer a warning about how technologycan constrain, even control, society. Such themes are not of course limited to drones, the focus ofIn the Robot Skies.
In that film, autonomous drones follow characters through bleak 70’s-era public housing over a soundtrack of demonic, industrial music. The film, shown through the drone’s point of view, tells the story of a young woman and her boyfriend who send surreptitious and illegal messages with the drones. In addition to shooting and starring in the films, the drones directed it, too. Their flight algorithms, navigation system, and facial recognition software allowed them to decide where to go and what to film. Young edited the footage into the final story, following the whims and foibles of the drones. “The technology has its own tendencies and personality,” he says. “Were trying to see the world through their eyes.”
LIDAR, the laser-scanning technology that allows autonomous vehicles to “see,” is the starofWhere the City Cant See. Young usesLIDAR to simulate the gliding view of an autonomous car as it navigates Detroit. The ghostly scenes, set to haunting, atonal digital music, showabandoned fields and urban ruins asheavily pixellated, colorful point clouds. The actors, who play teenagers trying to escape constant surveillance, wear clothing that absorbs, or reflects, the lasers’ light, creating rippling, distorted shapes and patterns as they move through the city.
InRenderlands, Young creates a darkcollage oflive-action shots of computer renderers—their faces glowing in the light oftheir monitors—working in India and the CGI visions of Hollywood they’re creating. Its a misty, neon-lit placereplete with long piers, hilltop vistas, and other Southern California clichs that the workers have never seen and only imagine. The process of rendering imagined worlds becomes an important part of the films look, structure, and plot.
Young, who once worked forrenowned architectZaha Hadid, sees his work as one possible roadmap for architects, whom he believes have seen their roles as builders of the physical world usurped by developers and engineers. He sees a future for architects guiding society into the digital world, helpingpeople understand their physical surroundings and the technology that will dictate them. “These things are going to rule a large part of our lives,” he says. “Helping people develop relationships with them is critical.” To that end, he helped found the Masters of Fiction and Entertainment program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture to advance tech-inspired filmmaking. It already has 15 students, each of them, like Young, pondering how technology might tell, and star in, stories.
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