VIDEO ESSAY: Virtual Animals: Building the Digital Ark

VIDEO ESSAY: Virtual Animals: Building the Digital Ark

[The script of the video essay follows.]

For most of us, our first encounter with a wild animal
happens through a screen: the camera has the power to bring us closer to an
animal than we are ever likely to get in the wild.  It is by sight that we become fascinated with
them, by sight that we come to know them, by sight that we mourn their

We are currently living through the world’s sixth mass
extinction event, the first to be caused entirely by humans.  By the century’s end, we are likely to have
lost half of the world’s species.  Film
will not only be the most intimate encounter we have with animals: for most
species, it will be the only encounter possible.

The fewer animals we find in the wild, the more we see on
screen.  The digital revolution has
enabled filmmakers to create an entirely new breed of animal, one that exists
only in the form of pixels.  Absence of
flesh and blood answered by an abundance of virtual animals.

Animals have always been a central part of filmmaking, and
animals on the screen have always had a complex relationship to their real life
counterparts.  One of the earliest films
made by Thomas Edison is of an animal execution.  In 1903 the rogue performing elephant Topsy
was sentenced to death by electrocution after killing her trainer.  Edison used the event as an opportunity to
show the power of alternating current, as
well as his state of the art film camera. 
Thousands watched the event, and many thousands more flocked to the

The celluloid used in film stock comes from gelatin made
from the rendered bodies of animals. 
Eastman Kodak had its own rendering plant so that they could monitor the
quality of the animal product that went into the patented celluloid used by
most filmmakers.  Before digital, when
you watched a film, the image on the screen was literally being projected
through animal matter.

With digital we usher in a new era in which animals might
play a different role on the screen.  For
Darren Aronofsky’s animal epic Noah,
Industrial Light and Magic created 14,000 virtual animals, none of which
involved the use of live animals in their creation.  Aronofsky felt it would be against the theme
of the film to put live animals in dangerous or harmful filming conditions.  The result is the most breathtaking collection
of virtual animals ever assembled.  The
film itself is a kind of digital ark, bringing thousands of animals to life
even while their real-life counterparts are likely to become extinct in the
coming decades.

Before Noah, CGI
artists more often used live animals on the set to serve as models for digital
versions.  The process is called
capturing.  In the filming of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, four tigers were used to
create the unforgettable feline presence of Richard Parker.  One of them was reported to have nearly
drowned on the set. 

We know animals by sight. 
By seeing we know they have souls. 
Somehow, these souls survive even in their visual avatars, even when
what we are watching is not an animal at all, but a collection of pixels on a

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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