OPINION: Special effects for more than selling beer

Stephen Bell attends a digital content workshop and queries why ultimate success is linked to the advertising industry

Graphics and special effects are powerful tools for bringing to visual life something which has only existed in the imagination of an author; for illuminating the meaning behind a dull and confusing set of figures or for providing education, entertainment and even artistic inspiration.

New Zealand companies such as Weta, Stickmen Studios and Cerebral Fix, in evidence at the Rutherford Innovation Showcase workshop on digital content held recently in Wellington, clearly have a particular talent for it.

The Rutherford event wasn’t short on very worthwhile creative applications of audio-visual technology, from school students making their own stop-frame videos to the mobile operating theatre bringing advanced diagnostic and surgical techniques through telecommunications links to remote areas.

However, there seemed to me to be a depressing association of ultimate success with the advertising industry. We saw Kiwi companies rejoicing at tying up partnerships with international sellers of beer and running shoes.

It’s ironic that the ad-based stuff like Becks’ Green Box augmented-reality project left the strongest impression on my mind at the end of the day — apart from Weta’s apes invading the Golden Gate bridge — because, of course, that’s exactly what the sponsoring companies are trying to do.

The Green Box project has on the surface a praiseworthy aim; to bring virtual works by talented artists to the streets; if you find a green box in your town you point your smartphone or tablet at it and see the artwork.

But in the end, it’s about planting a name and colour in your consciousness that you’ll recognise when you see it on a beer label.

Curt Marvis of Lionsgate — one of those entertainment companies the locals love to cooperate with — talked about his daughter on a trip across the Mojave Desert, immersed in a video on her smartphone; and I thought – why wasn’t she looking out of the window at a real landscape?

Marvis talked about “data-mining the audience”, about having a screen in front of your eyes everywhere you go; about “stretching entertainment across the digital spaces” and about maintaining the audience’s interest, not in the characters and plot of a TV series, but in the “intellectual property”.

Given recent and continuing experience with overreaching copyright, software patent, ACTA and the trans-Pacific Partnership I can’t have been the only one in a substantially open source-minded audience who instinctively cringes at that phrase.

These cash-flush companies sponsoring sophisticated marketing-oriented hi-tech graphics are like the Renaissance popes – they enabled artists like Michelangelo and Bernini to exercise their creative talent and leave us with masterpieces, but in the end it was all about more recruits for the church, money in the collection plate and distant promises of eternal happiness.

Centuries in the future will we be able to admire the genius displayed in today’s digital works as pure art and forget the marketing message?

A prime reason large numbers of people moved away from television to digital entertainment was to escape the adverts. Now the adverts are following us everywhere, will we scuttle back to TV – or a book?

At what point does the advertising industry decide it’s overreached itself and is demanding ever more money from its clients to meet increasingly glazed eyeballs; and at what point does the client realise that putting more eyeballs in front of clever presentations of a logo just ain’t selling any more merchandise?

Will the whole funding edifice then come crashing down taking our clever content producers with it?

Let’s hope they can smartly repurpose their talents – dare I say it without sounding snobbish – to something lasting and worthwhile.

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