Towards the Invisibility of Cameras

Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," discusses the consequences that arise with the introduction of a technical apparatus (photography, film) designed to detach an artistic performance from its original space and time and transmit it to a remote audience — leaving behind the "aura" of the work of art in the process.

Specific attention is paid to the contrast between stage and film. The live stage actor performs robustly for the benefit of a present audience in a linear fashion (one attempt, mistakes and all), and is experienced uniquely by the various audience members from their various spatial locations in the theatre. The audience of the film performance, on the other hand, takes the position of the camera lens, which does not necessarily capture the actor's work in a holistic fashion. The film performance is not created spatially or temporally in the same fashion, either. Myriad performance fragments shot at various locations and times (perhaps in non-linear fashion) are spliced together to create a final film performance, which blurs the distinction between author and viewing public, as the technical apparatus thrusts the audience into a critical, quasi-authorial role.

Read from this dichotomy, the live professional sporting event appears to be a hybrid of stage and film performances: there is a game that takes place in front of a live audience in a linear fashion while at the same time a series of cameras captures this performance for a remote audience.

In an earlier era of sports broadcasting, the prestige of the sporting event taking place was signified by the concurrent existence of the television event. The television camera wished to announce its presence at sporting events, for only the most important such could be worthy of the expense of television. Today, as the cost of the televisual production apparatus falls in tandem with its prestige value, the camera attempts to become as non-intrusive as possible.

In basketball, for example, the desire is to make the baseline camera and operator as small as is feasible and visually one with the basket stanchion, in contrast with the earlier era, when the camera would be mounted on a large dolly and announce its presence. In concert with basket cams, goal cams, driver's cams, blimp cams, etc., the goal is to maximize visual exposure and minimize the appearance of technical intrusiveness, so as to organize the perception of live spectators and create the alibi that the televisual has not thoroughly permeated the structure of professional sport. And if the remote audience assumes the same line of vision as that of the camera, then a reality is constructed in which the technical equipment of reproduction is rendered nearly invisible.

Benjamin: "The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology."

Body Treble

In television and film, the stand-in allows the director to adjust lighting and block the performance of a scene (camera angles, etc). The stand-in's performance takes place entirely before actual filming takes place; that is, the stand-in never actually appears on film and is only incidentally integral to the final product.

We might contrast the stand-in with the body double, who actually appears on film, either as a replacement for the star talent in dangerous "stunt" situations, to provide some particular skill that the star actor is missing (such as piano playing), or as a surrogate for situations involving nudity.

The performance of the double is key to the final production, though it is usually performed anonymously. Generic credit is given for double work, but very rarely is there a specific acknowledgment for a particular scene delivered.

Moving to videogames, the situation changes further. Consider this passage from a producer of NBA Live 2007 (emphasis added):

Step 1: Make our players move and play like real NBA players. Make them plant and cut when changing directions. Make them explode with first steps when sprinting out of a stand. Make sure they aren't sliding around on the court when they're running around. Make them aware of their surroundings so that defenders keep an eye on both the ball and their man. Make ball-carriers look around to open teammates. Ensure players watch the ball fly through the air when it is shot. Make sure players play like their real life counterparts. So, Wade should play like Wade. T-Mac should play like T-Mac. Arenas should play like Arenas. Etc.

Part of this plan is to make sure we highlight some player specific animations that we can trigger to show that these players are indeed unique and authentic. This leads into the number one question people keep asking us: "Do you guys have signature jump shots in the game this year? If so, how many?" I'll tackle this first, since it's the hot topic.

Yes we do have signature shots. And, we have a lot of them. McGrady, Yao, Bibby, KG, Dirk, Brand, Tayshaun, Pierce, Vince, Nash, Ginobili, Webber, Ray, Camby and the list goes on and on. I couldn't even count the number of times a programmer has walked by my desk while I was playing with the Suns and laughed at Marion's shot. "He doesn't really shoot like that does he? That's a bug isn't it?" Nope. It's exactly how he shoots. All our shots are pretty bang on.

The process for getting these shots in the game was a pretty fun one. First, we began looking for video reference for all of the shots we wanted this year. We found a number of different angles so that we could see the front, back, and sides of the players when they shoot. Second, we booked a couple days in Mocap with one of our top talent and started shooting. We would start by reviewing and analyzing the videos with him and practice each shot. When he was ready we would start to roll. One person was the passer and would repeatedly fire passes to our talent to shoot the same shot as the player he was trying to emulate. While that's going on, a few of us would be yelling at him to change body posture, jump heights, follow through extensions, etc. Get your elbow in more! Jump higher! Kick that right leg out more! Quicker! Extend that follow through! When we got the shot nailed we'd move onto the next one. Once we were done our animators quickly cut them up and got them into the game. It's made the playing experience a lot more fun, as players not only look different, but feel different. Shooting with Yao is going to feel much slower than shooting with Arenas. You really need to know who you are shooting with when you're pulling up for shots to avoid being blocked. Or, with the shot clock running down get the ball to someone with a quick release to get the shot off. We didn't want to make these shots just visual fluff. There will be a skill component to using them. The more you get to know the shooters the better you will be with them.

. . .

In addition to these shots we've been pretty fortunate to have had the opportunity to bring in some NBA players into Mocap this year. Wade, Melo, Pau and Diaw have all come in and we've captured a number of their shots, dunks, lay-ups and free throw routines. So, when you're playing with these guys when the game comes out, you are actually playing with them. When we are striving towards realism and authenticity we can't get much closer than bringing in the actual players.

So we have anonymous "talent" acting as a body double for the athletes whose constructs appear in the game. The performance of the double is key to the final production of the construct: the points of light recorded in a motion capture session create the "skeleton" of the construct, to which the star athlete's "flesh" is texture-mapped on at a later time (From NBA Live 2004: "The motion-capture data allowed designers to build individual players from the ground up, as single data points morphed into wire-frame figures, which were then shaded and textured to produce amazing player reproductions.").

We still do not have a final performance, however. Though the construct possesses a skeleton (via motion capture), musculature (via programmed algorithms) and flesh (via photos/video/facial scans), it lacks the central nervous system with which it performs. It is the "user" — or the body treble — that brings the construct to life and animates the final performance.

Resample: "The biomechanical disintegrates, but the electrical re-integrates. It is not the original body that becomes re-integrated, however, but a mass social body connected through the prosthetic digital nervous system."

Transcending Specialization

Stephen Duncombe, from one of his editor's prefaces in the Cultural Resistance Reader:

Truly radical culture, Benjamin argued, was that which can "transcend the specialization in the process of production" of capitalism. In other words, radical culture erodes the line between artist and spectator, producer and consumer, challenging the hierarchical division of labor and encouraging everyone to create. With this, Benjamin changes the terms of debate regarding cultural resistance, shifting focus from product to production.


This is the whole point of Global Village Basketball, and what I am envisioning when I describe a Third Golden Age of sport.

(Thanks Cathy!)

Attempting to Extend Benjamin

A few notes as I attempt to expand upon Walter Benjamin's key essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". The following excerpt is Part VIII of that work:

The artistic performance of a stage actor is definitely presented to the public by the actor in person; that of the screen actor, however, is presented by a camera, with a twofold consequence. The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole. Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance. The sequence of positional views which the editor composes from the material supplied him constitutes the completed film. It comprises certain factors of movement which are in reality those of the camera, not to mention special camera angles, close-ups, etc. Hence, the performance of the actor is subjected to a series of optical tests. This is the first consequence of the fact that the actor's performance is presented by means of a camera. Also, the film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person. This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing. This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed.

I think it is fair to say that in the age of videogames and other recombinant simulations, the equation changes somewhat.


Actor identifies directly with audience; he may modify or adjust performance to audience during show; the performance is consumed as it is acted out.


Actor responds directly to camera; cannot adjust performance in response to audience; camera need not respect performance as an integral whole; performance is consumed at some point in time after it is acted out.


Actor responds directly to camera, but camera isn't watching; motion capture, green screen and CGI capture points of light that allow for the creation of virtual stick figure components; these components, in conjunction with digital skin wrappings and voice clips, are featured in performances the actor may not have done before in places the actor may not have been before; camera becomes a physical extension or surrogate of the virtual cameras (camera ludica = omnipresent godvision) that exist within the game environment; director may still control these virtual cameras, though the actor does not control the virtual character that features as this particular drama unfolds; in some cases, the performance is consumed before it is acted out.

In this case, not only is the actor's performance not necessarily respected as a whole — but neither is the actor's body.

Happy Third Anniversary


[Aside] Last year I asked sportsBabel/myself: "What will Year Three hold?"

Wow. A lot.

My move last summer to the urban centre of Toronto obviously had an enormous impact on my thinking and writing, given my new living space of massmarketmasstransitmassmedia as well as the elapsed time required for the ideas seeded during my University of Alberta tenure to have matured.

Voices that emerged over the course of the year:

1. My membership at a commercial health and fitness club, aka Field notes for becoming Fitter Happier.

2. The evolution of my thought on cyborg athletes.

3. The concepts of ludic luddite, I3, chrysalis digitalis, glyph equity and brand transference.

4. Engagements to varying degrees with the work of McLuhan, Foucault, Baudrillard, Haraway, Benjamin, Kroker, and Virilio.

Other favourite posts from the year that was: Metaphor Needs Fleshing; Nervous; White Lines; The Rising NBA Star (Acronymous numerous); Ali, Papa and the Forty Thieves; Notes on the Virtualization of Hockey; Bod Pod; and Priapismic.

I am really trying to get as much of this material into book form as possible, which has been challenging given the rest of what has been going on in life, but this *will* get done. Hopefully I'll have some great news to report next year …



Walter Benjamin notes that the film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during a performance. In turn, the audience member takes the role of detached critic, identifying with the camera rather than directly with actor. Though the professional athlete is capable of adjusting to audience members during a performance, this only assumes significance for the athlete's uncertainty-of-outcome identity or orientation.

As a direct result of Marvin Miller and free agency in professional sport, however, abstractions of past performance — in the form of statistics — have assumed central significance in any athlete's quest for labour mobility. Thus, an identity charged with "putting up numbers" has become a necessity for those looking to improve their financial standing (particularly in sports with a high cyborg ratio).

So in much the same way that the audience member identifies with the camera to criticize a film actor's performance, the sports videogamer identifies with the statistics kept by the league — the tools that allows for the manufacture of the videogame — to criticize an athlete's performance. Indeed, to paraphrase Benjamin, sports simulations need not respect the performance of the athlete as a whole. And the resulting disembodiment caused by the simulation's creation suggests that the athlete's body is not respected as a whole, either.