I was asked to make a film for The Southbank Centre in London for their "Power of Power" season. The film (above) is called Soft Crash and it's a meditation on the financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent public bank bailouts, austerity economics and recent trend towards nationalist isolationism. It's a really dense film that I enjoyed researching, but at times it can feel very encrypted, conspiratorial almost. I wanted to pack the film with interpretive potential so it could sustain multiple viewings on loop, but one of the side effects of creating something so dense is that a lot of people might watch and simply feel mystified as to what's going on. So, with that in mind, I thought I'd write some viewing notes to go along with the film.
James Cowdery, the Digital Curator at The Southbank Centre, initially approached me late last year with a fantastically open brief - make a film about power, money, wealth and dynasty. My first point of inspiration was an idea I've had kicking around for about 10 years. In 2004, I was in Amsterdam with some friends and we were playing cards. At the point where one player should have won, the few remaining cards kept circulating endlessly in limited permutations. Unexpectedly, the game had reached a deadlock where no player could win. It was only after many rounds of play that we realised something was wrong: one card was missing from the deck.
This missing part had created the conditions for a kind of structural stability. No player could win, yet no player could lose so long as they continued circulating the cards. The free market of the game had become a cartel, a system of limited liability and risk based on collusion. Or an oligopoly, the stability of which curiously depended on a fundamental absence at the centre of the game. I chatted to Bob Simon, a game theory academic from London School of Economics about this transition between finite game and interminable system and we ended up thinking about politics and ecology. equilibrium, the gold standard and the Wizard of Oz. It was a lot of fun.
So, as I entered production, the aim for Soft Crash was to speculate on the nature of the missing card. Was it the gold standard? The social contract? Or the 99%?
If you've got a partially sighted relative who desperately wants to know what's going on in this film, this next part is perfect for them. Or if you're part of the majority of viewers who simply don't know what the f**k is going on because I failed to make anything clear enough, read on.
SCENE 1: TEST CARD
So.... the piece opens with what looks like a television calibration card, a sort of holding page for the broadcast era traditionally used to test colour and contrast for display equipment. At the centre of this calibration card is a revolving ball which is perfectly reflective on one half and matte grey on the other. This type of sphere is called an HDRI mirror ball and it's used by visual effects technicians to record the lighting conditions and environment of live action film shoots and then replicate those when augmenting that footage with CGI elements.
The HDRI sphere is shown reflecting a scene from later in the film, and is surrounded by a number of props also used later on. The objects include many premium software-simulated phenomena, including hair, skin, and fluids. The inclusion of these objects is done in the style of camera test scenes, often found in photography publications to demonstrate the relative capabilities of different cameras. This scene is therefore a hybrid of broadcast calibration cards, VFX calibration setup, a digital camera test scene and a software demo. What all of these references share is an idea of calibration - an image production apparatus recording it's own limitations and possibilities. The opening scene demonstrates the gamut or parameters of the film, situating it in a space of reflexivity around it's own production and implying some sort of systematisation is afoot.
SCENE 2: THE GAME
Scene Two opens with a pair of digitally generated Caucasian hands shuffling cards around one quarter of a green circular card table, which is inscribed with markings like a poker or backgammon cloth. The hands first reach for a card entering from the darkness to the right of the player, then this card is incorporated into the collection of four cards the player has arranged on the table, and another card is displaced and passed to the left of the player. In between this exchange the player shuffles the cards around on the tabletop, arranging them into configurations that imply some sort of internal order. The cards are marked with camera tracking markers - high contrast black and white geometric shapes easily recognisable by computer vision. Again, these markers are used by VFX technicians on live action film shoots and allow film space and virtual space to be merged in post-production so that digital elements can be incorporated seamlessly into live action footage. This simple type of equipment represents a bridge between the photographic and the virtual camera, between the world we experience and a cryptographically encoded version of it.
As the scene progresses, spotlights come up of the remaining three quarters of the table, where identical hands - all wearing the same black suit and white cuffs - replicate the motions of the first pair of hands perfectly, though offset to produce a kaleidoscopically choreographed game. As the first player passes a card left, the next player takes that card, and as they pass their card left, the next player takes that card. They are in perfect sync and the cards circulate in a limited permutations amongst the four players.
Each player occupies one quarter of the table, which are labelled "State", "Property", "Finance" and "Industry". The game board shows a diagram of capital flow between these players, including tax, tariffs, campaign contributions, bond purchases and interest. Closer inspection would reveal this to be a model of capital flow in a rentier dominated state capitalist economy, as the diagram below shows.
This is an unstable financial model that results in recurrent patterns of boom-bust credit and asset cycles linked to periods of intense speculation in commercial and residential land markets. At the centre of the table is an unlabeled black void, in and out of which white arrows show a theoretical transaction. The game orbits around this void, which as part of the economic model illustrated on the game board represents household, public or consumer spending.
The camera circles the table as the players continue to pass cards around in a ritualised manner, more choreographed equilibrium than a game. Around the edge of the table runs a circular financial LED ticker often used on trading floors and financial institutions to relay the latest stock and asset prices. This LED display shows the global stock market data from September 29th 2008, the date of the the financial crash that led to the current recession. The camera gradually circles round to a side view of the table, and in the process we see that a mirrored surface divides the four sections of the table, further compounding the kaleidoscopic effect of the game and it's abstracted, encrypted appearance.
The camera finally settles on a side view of one quarter of the table and the hands disappear, leaving an empty table that starts to revolve. An ornate dagger enters the frame through the mirrored divider, multiplying into four as it is reflected in the other three quarters of the table, then exiting as it passes through the mirror. A small number of golden coins emerge in slow motion from the black void at the centre of the table, dancing for a moment on the tabletop before disappearing again. Then the coins emerge again – hundreds this time, each embossed with the image of a fountain – and they sparkle and revolve in a big jet of currency that moves in reverse slow motion to eventually settle into neat piles on the game board. The coins transfer from the central (public) area to the four game players, representing the process of bank bailouts and prolonged austerity measures. The camera zooms into the black void at the centre of the table to trace the origin of this bailout.
SCENE 3: THE GARDEN
We descend on an overhead view of a formal garden or park that echoes the formal design of a game board, compounding a theme of systematised/architectural manifestations of power. As the camera gets closer, we see at the centre of the park is a fountain – an accurate version of Paris's Fontaine Louvois which has as its centrepiece four maidens that represent the four main rivers of France. The fountain, however, is devoid of water, encircled by a barricade and populated by a scattering of golden coins and an infestation of toads. These toads are actually Cane Toads - a “feral” or invasive species of wildlife that is known to have devastated the equilibrium of Australian ecology. The toads – alongside the lack of water - suggest some sort of imbalance at the centre of this system, with water being synonymous with both capital flow and life. The proximity of the toads to the barren fountain suggests they have either caused or thrive upon the imbalance, and in conjunction with the economic game model from the previous scene, they could be read as economic colonists of some sort – buy-to-let landlords or silicon valley start-ups, perhaps.
Surrounding the barren fountain are four outdoor display screens powered by blue cables emerging from somewhere out of shot. The display screens show images of skin, complex weather patterns, water and sky. All four of these phenomena share a common theme: water. They are visualisations of fluid dynamics that replace the actual presence of fluid in the fountain. If the fountain is the public purse, drained of wealth, the screens appear to augment this lack with a simulation of wealth, potentially reflecting the gradual movement of public assets to virtualised market commodities. The images on screen also share a complexity inextricably linked to computing: fluid modelling, weather prediction, rendering, cloud computing. Assets are not only transferred from public to private hands but from tangible to abstracted virtual spaces.
Also surrounding the fountain are four aged missiles mounted like sculptures, pointing inwards to the fountain and each other. These missiles seem locked in a position of mutually assured destruction and as such provide a structural context for the 2008 recession: the cold war gave way to 25 years of neoliberal policy where the concept of shared social capital atrophied and became subordinate to the idea of individual wealth and faith in market economics. The deadlocking of cold war politics brings to mind the influence of game theory in the thinking behind neoliberalism, and the link to strategy and game theory introduces a callback to the previous scene where industry, finance, state and property collude in a choreographed protection and accumulation of wealth.
The camera circles around the fountain and outwards to the edge of the garden, passing over a crawling SWAT team officer who attempts to evade visibility. His partial presence suggests some sort of veiled military-industrial context for the entire apparition, reinforced by the presence of the outdoor screens and missile sculptures. This might be interpreted as a nod towards the militaristic origins of CGI itself, or to the complex interrelationship between media and conflict. The camera comes to rest before a body of water, over which an ornamental bridge stretches. Behind the bridge is a black void with a scattering of yellow crosses that appear to be almost like stars or tracking points from a camera tracking program like PFTrack. A willow tree sits against a background of blue chromakey, and some scaffolding sits against a background of chequerboard – both backgrounds imply a construction-in-progress and are materially native to CG/live-action workflows that somehow bridge between the fleshed out centre of this virtual space and the void that surrounds it. Simulation references everywhere.
SCENE 4: THE BRIDGE
The next scene cuts to another angle of the bridge which is now ghosted by an overlay of a wireframe bridge, suggesting an insight into the construction of the image. Slowly, the keystone of the bridge rises from it's central position leaving a void where it used to be. The shot cuts to a frontal view of the bridge, which now appears against a chequerboard background and whose stones have each changed into a unique colour, mimicking the visual conventions of finite element analysis and rigid body computation used in engineering and visual effects software.
As the keystone is removed from the apex of the bridge, we see the effects of that structural change: the bridge begins to collapse. As the stones fall into the water below, the simulation ends abruptly and the shot resets itself – the same process occurs, the bridge collapses towards the water once more and the bridge resets again. The process repeats one final time, and this time the bridge does not collapse into the water. The keystone is removed and somehow the bridge remains standing, supporting itself despite the removal of an essential structural element.
Given the preceding scenes and the recurrence of themes around the removal and extraction of public assets, the bridge scene seems to elaborate on this dynamic and go further, suggesting that the essential “keystone” of society – perhaps the social contract, welfare state or human rights bill – can, with a certain amount of expertise and calculation, be removed without the fabric of society feeling the full jolt of change. The structure is unfit for purpose but remains standing. A soft crash.
SCENE 5: THE HOUSE
The next shot opens with a reverse shot of the bridge, looking back over the garden, water and fountain. The (golden) keystone sparkles, hovering over the collapsing bridge. The camera ducks under the bridge and slowly tracks towards the garden, revealing a Palladian style country house in the distance. The house most resembles Clandon Park, a stately home near Guildford, UK, which was almost totally destroyed by fire in April 2015.
The camera shakes unexpectedly - like an earthquake is happening – and the house expands like an accordion, emitting blue smoke symmetrically from it's top and sides. The smoke has a deep blue chromakey hue, but also resembles that emitted by a smoke grenade - often used in military training exercises and conflict zones.
The house breathes in and out, each time expanding into a much larger version of itself before contracting down again. It seems to mutate from a modest country mansion into something grander and more institutional, perhaps resembling an old-fashioned poor house or insane asylum. The camera crawls closer, approaching the fountain, the top section of which detaches as the camera approaches. From this section, a shower of popcorn – a cheap ritualistic foodstuff notoriously marked up by around 1000% in cinemas – emerges and falls into the basin of the fountain, drawing attention to the spectacular distraction and profitability of simulation – through media, cinema and CGI. The house settles back into it's original state as the camera passes through the shower of popcorn.
The camera approaches the house, and the frame splits in two, showing the perspective of two peripheral cameras. These cameras focus on two cold storage trailers set between the garden and house to the left and right, respectively. On the side of each trailer is a corporate logo depicting twin dragon heads. Inside each trailer is a bank of servers, and we notice that the blue cables running from the outdoor screens that surround the fountain are being powered from this source. Accompanying the servers in both right and left-hand-side trailers are two figures, both dressed in motion capture suits and idle, as if waiting to be called to set for some sort of character simulation. The split-screen effect wipes away and transitions to a closer shot of the front door of the country house, which swings open of it's own accord.
SCENE 6: THE CHAMBER
As the camera enters the reception of the building, we see it is a complex space of production – a kind of engine room or factory. It is lined with shelves of boxes and grey soundproof foam spikes, like the anechoic chambers used in industry to test the sonic qualities of products from drones to cellphones. There are a number of disembodied torsos repeating short motions while mounted on marble plinths, as if they are demonstrating some range of capabilities. They mimic traditionally masculine gestures – flexing muscles, using flint tools and shaking hands. Their form is reminiscent of the anatomical sculpting studies created in digital sculpting subcultures like Zbrush and Mudbox, and as such they reference a natively digital vernacular in which the depiction of power and gender is outdated, simplistic and deeply problematic. The chamber represents the continued production and reproduction of traditional, white, heteronormative ideology through both hardware and software.
The torsos are arranged around a conveyor belt that runs around the whole room and that carries cardboard boxes that repeatedly open and close, sending showers of packing peanuts into the air in an almost orgiastic expulsion. The camera assumes various angles within this chamber, and in the process it reveals the entrance of the golden keystone, which has migrated to the chamber along with the camera. The keystone levitates into the centre of the chamber, settling over a void in the ground that resembles a sinkhole. There are screens set against the walls showing what looks like a software update in progress, with an icon of the keystone at the centre of the screen. As the update completes, the camera cuts to a slow zoom into a screen on the central back wall of the chamber. The screen is chromakey blue, and on it appear the words “Neutral”, “Dynamic”, “Natural”: it seems like someone is flipping between the different colour and contrast modes on a television. The camera comes to rest in a close up of the screen, and the film concludes with the final viewing mode: “Soft Crash”.
Now, does that make any more sense? No, OK then.