Six months ago, during the Tiger Woods sex scandal non-story that gripped America, a curiosity cropped up from Hong Kong’s Apple Daily News. There had been no footage of the incident that sparked it all off – Woods crashing his car – and traditionally this might have been covered by either a still graphic or just describing the incident verbally. Thanks to computer technology, the Apple Daily had a much more inspired solution: if there isn’t any footage of the incident, no problem! Just make up your own instead:
The videos went viral in a sort of curious “let’s laugh at the cultural differences” way, similar to how Engrish gets covered in patronising Western media. And to be fair, the animation’s a bit wonky, and the Tiger Woods avatar doesn’t look very much like him at all to be honest. But nevertheless, it showed how far we have come. It’s now possible to turn around, within the time demands of 24 hour rolling news, a simulation of an incident if we’re unable to get actual coverage of it. The company behing it’s called Next Media Animation and they showcase their news simulation extensively on their website.
The Woods video was comical, but more worrying is when the events depicted within the simulation don’t necessarily have to be true. When allegations of Gordon Brown’s temper in the workplace broke a couple of months later, Apple Daily were quick to the mark, with an animated Gordon Brown causing trouble with his animated underlings:
Note the simulation of him physically striking an aide in the face at about 0:45. Though Brown’s temper and verbal transgressions are well known, he vigorously denied ever physically striking any of his subordinates, and no substantial claim of physical violence has been placed against him. It’s now possible to create simulations of events that don’t happen, and pass them off as being real. Apple Daily’s presence in Hong Kong and Taiwan rather than the UK (thus making legal redress more difficult), plus the inevitable language barrier, probably gives them more licence with the story; indeed, the English version of the video omits the simulated striking.
Perhaps as a defence, you can say it doesn’t look much like Gordon Brown (to me he’s more like a greying Ed Balls) and the animation still has a slightly unrealistic, wonky look to it. But some of the videos are more realistic than others. Two examples: firstly, coverage of the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March:
Secondly, and I’m not going to embed this one as it really is far too graphic, is a simulation, gunshots and all, of Derrick Bird’s massacre of 12 people in Cumbria last week. The link is here, but be warned it’s full-on.
In both cases the animation is more realistic for several reasons. One, the protagonists were not publicly recognisable people before the news story broke, so the constraints of facial simulation are not such a problem and more artistic licence can be taken. Secondly – and particularly in the Cumbria shootings – the elements of the story are very much like the animated action in some video games (as betrayed by the numerous tasteless GTA jokes in the comments beneath the video), something which 3D animators are more likely to be adept with.
Inevitably though, the technology will get better – particularly once TV news outlets in the West pick up on the idea and realise it’s a cheaper and quicker alternative to real journalism. The quality may never match reality, but it doesn’t need to – our visual recollection of news events is fuzzy and not an exact copy of what we see. For example, recently Slate performed a survey of people’s reactions and recollections of images from faked news events, such as Barack Obama purportedly shaking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hand (the two men have never even met). Even though these images were Photoshopped and did not happen, many survey respondents still “remembered” the events as having happened and recalled their “feelings” at the time.
The old adage was that newspapers are the first draft of history. This technology looks like being the zeroth draft of history – a way of representing something before we get actual coverage of it, and we run the risk of it becoming our default interpretation of events. Somewhere in poststructuralist limbo, Baudrillard is laughing at us, saying “I told you so”.
Thanks & a hat tip to @rhodri on Twitter for Tweeting about the Derrick Bird video, which is what sparked this post.