Chris Hales: "For me, the important thing always is to get it, however clunky, to work."

Since the 1990s media artist Chris Hales has taken a solo DIY approach to create interactive film installations and performances that have been shown worldwide. His current interest is in customized film, in which user data (a video grab, a voice recording, selfie photo, or text responses) is incorporated into a short film in humorous ways, giving a personal experience for each user.
This interview was conducted by Rene Rumberg, a member of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.

You've been in the media industry since the 90s. When thinking back to your early days as a media artist, did you imagine what the future would look like for the industry? Have some of those fantasies become a reality?

I think the simple answer is I couldn't have imagined. Things have changed so often that I've never had a chance to really think of the future. You're just always playing catch-up. And it's been partly exciting, but also a bit annoying as well. So I can elaborate a little bit on what I mean by that.

Since I got involved in the 90s, I was simultaneously trying to make my own artistic work, doing a master's and doctorate, working in a university, and developing creative uses of technology. I’m certainly not a visionary, I'm not a philosopher of media. I've been more on the pragmatic side. I'm actually trying to harness what's out there, use it for my own creative work, and transfer that knowledge to students.

When I first started teaching, things like multimedia desktop publishing were still pretty new. The Apple Mac revolutionized that. What pushed me on was Quicktime, a digital video technology that enabled me to work with video, which I had never done before as it was very inaccessible. And as soon as you get used to that, something else comes along.
It's like, you're constantly surfing the waves, but it's more like dodging the waves and just trying not to drown.
More recently, data visualization has been quite a big thing. And now, I'm really interested in the use of AI – creative AI and machine learning. I don't think I could have imagined, really, any of those. On the other hand, there are things like 3D or even VR that seem to have been around forever and have slowly developed rather than emerged as a sudden movement.

Bill Viola, probably the most well-known video artist historically, has said that what really annoyed him was that as soon as you start to experiment with the technology, they change the goalposts. Artists can’t ever get the chance to really explore the potential of technology because it keeps moving again and again. And that's something I've experienced myself.

I agree with you on the technology part and that it is advancing at a rapid pace. A year ago, I discovered an app that enabled you to place your face over a gif or meme. Now, I can take a photo of myself, and make myself, or whoever else, sing the “I’m a Barbie girl” song. Isn’t it crazy what you can do with technology?

Yes. Up until perhaps a year or two ago, only highly specialist computer scientists who had tens of thousands of pounds worth of GPU power could produce that kind of output by complex programming. Now access to the basic neural network programming and computing power has been opened up – two weeks ago, I was teaching that stuff to my Pallas students!

Before Adobe released After Effects, the visual effects were something that only big Hollywood production houses could afford. Thanks to After Effects, independent moviemakers and enthusiasts have the opportunity to take their work to a whole new level.

Very few people could make a film because it needed the technology for filming and projection as well as the editing equipment. Digital video – and that's how I got into it – allowed more accessibility. Regarding motion graphics, thanks to Adobe After Effects, we can all do it now. And I guess that's where it's going with AI creativity. Kids in school will be learning the basics of AI-based creation. Everything is just happening very quickly.

Media is the fourth estate. When looking at how divided democratic nations have become, it's appropriate to ask – how the media could help heal their wounds and overcome obstacles that currently seem impossible?

It’s a great question. I’m not sure if I’m the one to answer that fully because I think there are differences in perception when we refer to ’media’.
For me, media is a tool or a technology, rather than a means of communication.
This becomes apparent with the idea of self-referentiality, a very common artistic theme - in other words, making media projects that refer to media itself. For example, it was a significant theme in experimental film practice, especially in the 60s. What is a film? The film is lots of photographs on celluloid. So, there were movements in the experimental film that glorified, revealed, and demystified the fact of ‘film as a film’ – and similarly with video. So, in this case, the experimental film is exploring itself, it's not exploring society, for example. I think that the media you're talking about is more of something that explores society – the news media, for example.

Your current interest is in customized films, which use user data and incorporate that into a short film in humorous ways, giving a personal experience for each user. Are personalized Hollywood blockbuster movies going to be the next big thing?

That is a really perceptive question because interactive film has really been my obsession, my real specialty. Not just making it, but I really researched and looked into the history of how it has developed. And you can trace that back to the 1960s. The first functioning system was in 1967.

And the main question has always been – can we make some money from it? Many projects with quite high funding have tried this, and they've made one or two examples that are quite good but haven't taken it any further.

Probably the most recent example of that, at the moment, would be Netflix’s project called Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch. Rather than using your Netflix interface to select what film or series to watch, you can actually make some choices within a film. The structure of that and the kind of way that the narrative branches are exactly the same as the one in 1967, but with different technology.

Over the years, my view is that when an audience is in a cinema, or when they've chosen to pay for their Netflix, they're doing it because they want to see the story told and made by the filmmaking team, including the director. They're not too interested in fooling around… They might fool around once and have a bit of fun the first time, but I don't think it's a consistently viable scenario.

Perhaps production companies could use that kind of technology in their marketing campaigns, offering moviegoers the chance to be in the starring role to some extent, aka in the movie trailer that's shareable on social media?

There have been examples quite recently for that particular niche. You might have seen these online, on YouTube, audiences waving and doing this and that, and cameras pick up their basic position, and therefore they can have a little bit of fun with a short trailer or game before the main film. So a few of those have been tried. I would say that it works as a smaller scale thing but not when sitting for 1–2 hours to watch a film.

I've recently used some of the things you already mentioned, like mapping your face onto another face, using some basic AI work. But the thing is that we laugh at it once or twice, and then we move on to the next thing. But I tried to use that and put it into something more substantial. In my case, a decent quality 10-minute film is immediately rendered out with the various aspects of the watcher incorporated into the movie at various moments and in different ways. It took me a while to think through how to do it technically and how I could use make something non-trivial that was more than just a gimmick.
And that’s where the startup mindset came in handy.

You can make a prototype that you don't quite know what to do with. But by proving the concept by actually making it, testing it, and having the ability to present it to potential investors, or clients, then you're not talking of just a concept, you're talking about a working system that you can show and maybe get some feedback on it as well. For me, the important thing always is to get it, however clunky, to work and function correctly so that others can experience the idea.

Could you also see VR somehow being implemented in customized media/film projects? Every moviegoer puts on their personal VR headset and has a unique experience based on the data that we have about them?

Yeah, that's a good idea. Now, if you had that idea out of the blue and presented it on paper, you’re demanding quite a lot of tech, networked VR headsets, and so on. If you could show a working system with a hell of a lot of things thought through, then you might be able to go to a headset supplier or manufacturer and say: “Hey, I've got this great idea to promote your work at the next trade fair, we'll get six people to wear them”. Then you've got something working that points towards how it might be with a lot more headsets. We often use the term “look and feel” in human-computer interface design. So yeah, you've got the look and feel of what you might be able to do with it.

Nowadays, we've heard many negative stories about how new media is wrecking our mental health. If we now shift our focus from bad to good, then what has been the most significant positive change or influence the new media has brought to society?

For me, and it’s one of the things that I’ll talk about in August at sTARTUp Day, is that you're working on your artistic projects either with other people or on your own. I've always been someone who works on my own because I've found that others will always let you down. That's been my experience over the years in one sense or another.

The biggest positive change has been the fact that the internet facilitates everything, and if you’re on your own and encounter a problem, you no longer waste a month. I’m talking about what is probably a technical problem because you're always trying to get to grips with the technology available. I'm not a total tech-head, I'm just like anyone else muddling my way through it, and you'll realize you're not alone by consulting our friend, the worldwide web.

When I started, in the very beginning, the technology was expensive, you couldn't afford to have tech that wasn't working properly and not knowing how to solve your problems. Now, probably a few times a week, I'll get stuck. And I'll just put in "How to…", even with very specific questions. You realize immediately that loads of people have posted the same question or a very similar related question in specialized forums.
You realize you're not an idiot or doing something totally stupid because others have the same problem.
It's very rare I ever find out I'm the only person who has a question like that. But many people really enjoy these forums, and they want to help other people. For me, to have these kind and open people who have the knowledge, wanting to share it for totally non-commercial reasons, does give some faith that there are so many nice people who are generous with their time and their expertise. You begin to feel you're part of a community, which is also struggling to understand these things.

You mentioned the human-computer interface. What's the next big leap going to be for HCI?

I have explored all kinds of interface solutions in my work, to interact with nonlinear narratives. And I would say the most recent trend would be in biosensors – all kinds of wearable devices monitoring your health from which the data can be used as a means of interaction. So it's what they call a more passive approach. You don't decide “Oh, I'm going to make this choice”, but through these biosensors, a choice emerges.

One really interesting technology is called a brain-computer interface. These are things that used to be in research laboratories where you had about 50, or 60, electrodes on this strange cap on your head. Now some are just one electrode, and I've been working with my students in Pallas for three or four years, using those as interfaces. They work, yes, but I wouldn't say they're giving great data, but you can experiment with them. There are other ones out there for blood pressure, skin conductivity, etc. So, passive interaction, I think, has potential, and it's also a bit more hands-free, so to speak.

As a teacher, what excites you the most about teaching?

To communicate something that you’ve used and learned yourself, that you think is a good thing to use and to have students respond to that enthusiastically and positively is the best thing. Teaching this kind of thing means you don’t have a fixed curriculum like Ancient History, it’s changing all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever taught two courses that were the same. There is always something new I’ve learned or used, and I want to pass it on to others.

So I’d say that the idea that you could keep reinventing yourself as a teacher is a really good way to keep yourself enthusiastic. You never teach the same thing twice. And all the great, brilliant students in Estonia have been an inspiration as well.

What has been the most exciting project that you've been part of? What made it special for you?

The first interactive film from 1967 that I mentioned earlier had been forgotten. It was called Kinoautomat, made in Prague. I used a small research grant to seek out the surviving creators, and from the original footage, I put together an interactive DVD of the various branching pathways. It was shown at the National Film Theatre in London, I was quite proud of that.

I’d say that co-writing and launching a New Media Arts PhD program in Latvia was the most exciting recent academic project. It’s been the most rewarding. There was no such program, I helped map out the original concept and more or less wrote the whole academic program, and I do most of the teaching and organizing. For me, it's a very altruistic project. When we started, it was pretty much the first practice-led doctoral program in the Baltics, but such programs are more common now. So that’s something I feel proud about.

To be quite honest, this year, when we’ve been a bit grounded by the pandemic, it has been extremely rewarding for me, it has given me breathing space to catch up with the technology, AI in particular. And also given me more time to make projects with it, which I’ll hopefully be able to show in August during the sTARTUp Day. I'm genuinely very excited about that.

Chris will conquer the stage at sTARTUp Day 2021 on August 27 to discuss customized film, facial emotion recognition, AI and the fear of programming.

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