Auckland and the arts: Technology bridges the gulf between science and arts

By Dionne Christian

In a world meant to be dominated by science, engineering and maths, where’s the place for creativity and culture? Dionne Christian meets a scientist with a foot in both camps.
Dr Mark Sagar brings science to the arts. Photo / Doug Sherring
Dr Mark Sagar brings science to the arts. Photo / Doug Sherring

You couldn't get further away from an artist's studio or concert auditorium than the Laboratory for Animate Technologies at the University of Auckland's Bioengineering Institute.

It's all computers, wires and lights; a corner with multiple cameras positioned to take photos of faces from every angle, speakers around the room. Scientists and engineers work here, creating the sort of technology most of us know only from sci-fi films.

But look closely among the banks of screens and you'll see artist sketchpads and photography books. Dancers and actors have helped with some of the work and the lab itself is headed by a man who won two Academy Awards for his contributions to the movie Avatar.

Dr Mark Sagar, formerly special projects supervisor at Weta Digital, has pioneered the development of computer-generated faces every bit as expressive as human ones. Now, he has a new baby which is almost literally just that.

BabyX is an "interactive animated virtual infant prototype" which, in lay terms, is a computer-generated model which reacts to stimulation and can laugh, cry and respond to those around it. Animate technology or artificial intelligence - take your pick of descriptive noun.

Ignore the 3D graphic model of the face and upper body of an infant on your screen for too long and it will sulk; talk, sing and laugh with it and it will respond by giggling back at you. It includes models of the basic neural systems involved in interactive behaviour and learning so what's going on in the brain can be observed in real-time.

This type of modelling allows for researchers to observe the theoretical machinations of the human-mind first-hand without risk of harming a real-life infant. It also gives a glimpse of how humans will respond to machines which look like living things.

"It is biophilia - humans like living things because we can relate to them," says Sagar, a recipient of the University of Auckland's 2012 Distinguished Alumni Awards and a member of its Creative Thinking Project.

Countless hours are spent by artists drawing and perfecting the smallest details of a human face, including the wrinkles around the eyes and the way the eyelashes tilt. Actors have modelled for movement sequences; various individuals have been photographed in extreme close up.

The transfer goes both ways. The technology makes for virtually unlimited creative application and it was recently used in an interactive dance performance in which giant, hyper-realistic eyes formed a backdrop reflecting the audience, watching and responding to every movement of the performers. It connected the real to the digital and vice versa.

"There's increasing cross-pollination between the disciplines and when you combine creativity with technology, you get new innovation," Dr Sagar says. "In any society, you need both components and the distinction between the arts and sciences is a made-up one, anyway. They are part of the same continuum and we value creativity and the arts because it gives us new perspectives on things."

He emphasises that's at a social and cultural level as well as in daily working life.

"If you need to get a new perspective on things and get yourself out of 'stuck patterns', there's nothing like going to an art gallery or a film or listening to music to give yourself a break and get into a totally new space. More often than not, you'll return with new ideas on how things can be advanced."

Dr Sagar was raised in a household where his mother painted and his father, a computer analyst, loved music, so he's comfortable in the artistic and scientific worlds. He remembers at school struggling to decide whether to pursue arts or science. When a friend pointed out that he could always make art, he chose science but "through the happenstance of life" has ended up making good use of both disciplines.

"I do think it's a real pity that the Government cut funding for continuing and adult education like night-classes, especially in the arts. It was a way for someone from a non-arts background to 'dabble' in the arts.

"I feel more investment gives a more diverse, creative and innovative population. These courses are often run by people with a passion and it is such as shame to see the lost opportunities of people wanting to give to the community ... due to cutting costs in this area."

WatchMe helps writers reach bigger audience

Thomas Sainsbury, Kura Forrester, Natalie Medlock and Chris Parker: if you're a regular theatre-goer, particularly at venues such as the Basement, chances are you'll recognise the names. They write and make their own - often very funny and subversive - shows but are looking online to take their work global.

The advent of web-based television series means they can find an international audience, but it's still tough to build momentum. Sainsbury, an award-winning playwright who also co-wrote the TV series Super City, says NZME's video-on-demand platform, WatchMe, is helping him to reach a new audience plus creating opportunities.

He and fellow actor/writer Parker have their Stakeout series on the platform while Medlock's off-the-wall Yeti is also there along with Forrester's Suzy Boon.

Sainsbury says it has put Stakeout in front of a much larger audience because it's on a platform already visited by hundreds of thousands. He also believes it helps to "legitimise" the series of seven webisodes.

"If you're applying for jobs, showing people you have something on WatchMe gives it more polish and professionalism," he says, adding that he's landed a few extra auditions thanks to WatchMe.

Launched in November, it features a number of short-form comedy series which are available to view on demand and free of charge. Commissioned by Hauraki breakfast radio DJs Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells, web series include Leigh Hart's Late Night Big Breakfast, The Critic and the Pig and The Civilian, which started life as a satirical news website, and Wells' Like Mike where he parodies Newstalk ZB broadcaster Mike Hosking.

Sainsbury says he and Parker haven't had to surrender any creative control.

Laura Maxwell, NZME's chief commercial officer, says WatchMe's initial content was aimed mainly at 18- to 25-year-old men, who can be a difficult audience to reach, but new offerings will broaden the appeal.

WatchMe is operated by NZME, the publisher of the Herald.

The numbers

• 41% of Auckland's creative sector GDP comes from screen production, TV, film and video, radio and digital media.
• 25% of Aucklanders surveyed by Creative NZ survey have created original art or animation on a computer, tablet or smartphone in the past 12 months.
• 63% of Aucklanders have attended a performing arts event in the past 12 months, making it the most popular of the arts.

The series
Monday: Arts and the economy
Tuesday: Arts and the suburbs
Wednesday: Arts and diversity
Yesterday: Arts and education
Today: Arts and the future.

- NZ Herald

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