In 2004 an advertisement featuring a car that transformed into a dancing robot appeared on US and European television. At thirty seconds in length and powerfully reminiscent of the filmed vaudeville attractions of dancing men and women that characterised early cinema, this commercial reflected what I have described elsewhere as the “cinemas of transactions”. The commercial was directed by a then unknown director Neill Blomkamp for Citroën to advertise their new C4 car and featured the tagline and title Alive with Technology. In 2005, shortly after the commercial was made, YouTube was launched and the site’s function in leveraging the popularity of digital video attractions ensured that Alive with Technology, along with its sequels, saw a high volume of traffic. The commercial, to borrow Tom Gunning’s phraseology, gained great traction as a digital spectacle, interesting for its “illusory power” (1), clocking up views in the millions. The illusory power that this advert held lay not simply in the spectacle of a dancing figure (as was the case with the early cinematic attractions it reflected) (2), but was also located in a convergent set of dynamics typical of the digital attraction. Firstly, the visual pleasure of the seemingly magical transformation of the everyday object (the automobile) into an animated, anthropomorphised figure was reason enough to garner spectacular commercial attention. Secondly, the uncanny nature of the motion-captured human movement in this mechanical robot only added to the arresting combination of fantastic spectacle and oddly everyday context. Thirdly and finally there was an arresting spatial dynamic that played out within the advert and across subsequent follow up adverts in the series that revolved around the transforming industrial object. (3) In this dynamic, the line between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, between object and subject was constantly crossed as the car onscreen and the camera capturing it tended towards a constant degree of fluidity.
A number of observations can be made about these commercials aside from the fact that they were directed and constructed by a director who subsequently made his way into Hollywood. For one, they cannot have gone unnoticed by Michael Bay and the studio heads responsible for green-lighting the first Transformers (2007) movie. Equally, Blomkamp’s advertisements and the Transformers franchise that later reflected them, both fit into a much wider visual language of spectacular industrial promotion that has been emerging for over a century and more; certainly long before digital effects emerged as a dominant paradigm. In this language, a political economy of the image ties, and has tied, the spectacle of the industrial object and the capacity to access industrial space together for promotional effect.
This relationship can be traced back at least as far as the inception of cinema and films of industrial production lines, industrial processes, industrial machines under construction and finished machines in operation (to name just a few see Edison Manufacturing’s Blacksmithing Scene of 1893, the Lumières’ Exiting the Factory of 1895, Westinghouse Works’ Machine Co. Panoramas of 1904, Cricks and Sharp’s A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.’s Biscuit Works of 1906).(4) Many theorists have described the relationship between industry and early film making (5) but few have performed a retrospective evaluation of the relationship between these early films and contemporary digital attractions, or more precisely, in the way in which contemporary digital attractions now mark a new chapter in this phenomenon.
With this in mind, this article is concerned with the media archaeology of what I will call the ‘auto-mobile attraction’, the industrial circumstances that led to its emergence and the contemporary means by which it lives on in the Transformers franchise. Particularly, I will consider two separate but interrelated aspects of the ‘auto-mobile attraction’. First, the relationship between the auto-mobile virtual camera and the industrial object in constructing the digital attraction – more specifically the tendency toward ever new modes of scopic mobility in the cinematic attraction now automated (‘auto-mobility’) in the capacities of the digital attraction. Second, the relationship between the automobile and the cinematic attraction, particularly in the way that the car has been an object and a dynamic force of cinematic attractions over the past century and the way that it continues to function as a representation of American industrial capital. In both these aspects I am particularly interested to examine the auto-mobile attraction as an integrated component of what Jonathan Beller in his work on The Cinematic Mode of Production has called the ‘attention economy’: an industrial and economic landscape in which the special effect is deployed as a means of converting spectatorial attention into labour. Specifically I want to suggest that processes of mechanical transformation, visualised in the spectacular attraction, hold particular currency in the attention economy. Spectatorial fascination with mechanical transformation is not new but has a media archaeology that can be traced back in many forms to the inception of the industrial revolution. In the present context, however, the capacity to visualise mechanical transformation has been augmented by digital imaging and, in many ways, marks a new stage in the relationship between landscapes of production, promotion and spectacle.
Beller argues that spectatorial attention has long been conceived by the political economy of industrial capital as a form of labour and priced as such. Here the spectator of modern cinematic and televisual content must labour over the image. Specifically their attention is purchased by an industrial economic complex that conceives it as labour harnessed in aid of the necessary job of transforming viewers into consumers. The obvious example of this would be television commercials of the last half-century (a genre that I have argued are the true inheritors of the cinema of attractions). (6) In these forms the spectacular attraction has been deployed to purchase viewer attention for the endless parade of industrial objects and services. However, attention is not purchased only in the form of commercial advertising but in every spectacular mode that viewers encounter. Consequently, scopic mobility (mobility of the industrial object, mobility of the camera around and through the industrial object, industrial mobility as an end in and of itself) has been central to the spectacular attraction not only within advertising, but across many audiovisual forms. Indeed, ironically, it seems that scopic mobility within the frame has been increasingly deployed in the attention economy as a means of combating the potential mobility of viewer attention across frames (to other competing spectacular material).
Taking this further, I will argue, then, that digital fabrication of highly mobile industrial objects (not simply mobile in their agency to move around geography but mobile in their agency to be assembled and reassembled into new objects), and the emergence of the hyper-mobile virtual camera, work hand in hand to construct a political economy of space that has nevertheless been a century in the making. In doing so I will perform what Erkki Huhtamo describes as a ‘topos study’ (7) of the historical industrial audiovisual artefacts that feed into the Transformers franchise’s obsession with visualising what the Victorians frequently described as ‘machines in motion.’ Where the age of steam and celluloid initiated a new relationship to space and time – the boundaries of which were both brought within the auspices of industrialism – the contemporary digital space of the Transformers franchise is equally one that reflects the post-industrial conditions of its construction: fragmented, disparate and globally distributed. Fittingly, with the exception of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), most of the Transformers franchise was shot in the ruins of Detroit: the once mighty automotive industry that symbolised American industrial prowess now hollowed out by global capital’s propensity to relocate to the cheapest source of labour. Intriguingly, the visual effects industry that performed the task of constructing the other half of the franchise not directly related to the cinematic capture of pro-filmic space is currently undergoing its own motor town style industrial flight. As many commentators on all sides of the industry(8) have pointed out in recent years, California’s digital effects industry is currently seeing the global relocation of companies to countries in which highly skilled effects labour is available at a much reduced tax and employment cost rate. Consequently, the conditions under which contemporary visual effects are constructed correlate with the global flows of flexible, post-industrial multinational capital. (9)
To take the first Transformers movie as an example, eight VFX (visual effects) production houses were involved in its production, representing multiple countries from which companies and labour were sourced. This is hardly a new state of affairs, as Nitin Govil argues in his work on Global Hollywood, (10) but it is now a pervasive condition in which the majority of Hollywood content is outsourced to VFX production ‘pipelines’ involved in an on-going process to automate their processes and minimise labour costs. (11)
The Emergence of Auto-mobile Space
The relationship between mobility and audiovisual spectatorship predates cinema. In his work on the emergence of the railroad, Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues that the arrival of the train marked a new relationship between what he calls the ‘panoramic traveller’ and the landscape through which they travelled. The new steam-driven railway technology facilitated visual and experiential effects previously unavailable to the traveller. While the passenger in a horse-drawn carriage travelled through the landscape, experiencing its geography in an intimate way, the passenger in a train carriage experienced something more akin to being projected across the landscape. With the coming of rail the necessity to engineer a level track on which the train was propelled in a manner more reminiscent of a projectile led to a very different experience in which the landscape flashed past. Most notably, Schivelbusch argued that travellers experienced the landscape with greater intensity at the same time as they also experienced a greater degree of alienation from it:
Panoramic perception, in contrast to traditional perception, no longer belonged to the same space as the perceived objects: the traveller saw objects, landscapes, etc. through the apparatus which moved him through the world. That machine and the motion it created became integrated into his visual perception: thus he could only see things in motion. That mobility of vision…became a prerequisite for the ‘normality’ of panoramic vision. This vision no longer experienced evanescence: evanescent reality had become the new reality. (12)
Unsurprisingly, the conditions that characterised the panoramic experience of train travel also went on to characterise cinema: films resulted in a greatly increased scopic encounter with the object, at the same time as the cinematic spectators’ experience of these objects was accompanied by a spatial segregation similar in nature to that of the panoramic travellers. Crucially, in both cases, what Schivelbusch identifies as the ‘mobility of vision’ is the key-mediating factor in this process.(13) It is through the process of mobility that viewers (be they train travellers or cinema goers) experienced a greater intensity of encounters with the object form (reduction in the boundaries of experienced space) at the same time as this very process erected a new boundary between the viewer and the space.
Lynne Kirby has made this relationship more explicit, arguing that early cinema was shaped by the parallel tracks of the railway line that were swiftly replicated in the dolly tracks of the partially mobile camera. (14) Thus, cinema’s early mobility was intimately intertwined with the rise of industrial mobility effected by an apparatus of transportation that predated the moving image. Unsurprisingly, then, cinema and mobility have had a long and close interrelationship. As Lev Manovich has stated “The twentieth century cinema ‘machine’ was born at the intersection of the two key technologies of the industrial era: the engine that drives movement and the electricity that powers it.” (15) Thus, as numerous film and media theorists (16) have argued, the notion of the engine as a machine associated with the operative functions of mobility literally underpinned the cinematic apparatus and was written into the fabric of the early moving image. Similarly, much has been written about the rise of cinema as a twentieth century industrial formation and the Fordist production line it quickly came to replicate. (17) This relationship not only motivated structures of filmic movement within the frame but also helped shape a deep and enduring correlation between the industrial object (the machine, the engine, the production line) as a form of cinematic subject matter ever present from the early attraction on.
Emergent cinema is littered with examples of the motive machines of modernity that formed a staple attraction – of which the Lumières’ train became the quintessential example. One series of early films in particular stands out to the modern scholar. Around 1904 G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer made a series of films at the Westinghouse Works factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. All these films functioned according to the logic of early attractions and were shot according to the familiar visual grammar described above (a steady tripod-mounted camera placed frontally to its spectacular subject). The spectacular subjects in these films were invariably the industrial generators of the Westinghouse Works factory. In various films we see generators in the process of being assembled, tested and operated and in all cases, although their human counterparts are to be found within the frame, the machine is undoubtedly the star (see figure 1).
These films mark an interesting continuity between the cinema of attractions and the exhibitive analogues that went before it in the ‘machinery in motion’ courts of the Victorian era industrial expos. By contrast to the industrial expos of half a century before, however, the Westinghouse Works films delivered one additional benefit to the viewer of the spectacular industrial object. At the expos (which were precursors of the modern transport museum – one of which notably features in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) spectators encountered the machine in physical, and often overwhelming, space. Such machines were both massive and generally stationary (though packed with moving parts to watch). With the arrival of cinema and the mobile camera, a new vantage point emerged from which the industrial machine could be witnessed. Long before his infamous tracking shot of riding Klu Klux Klan members in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), Bitzer had attached a camera to a ceiling pulley system in the Westinghouse Works factory from which an aerial view of both the machine in production and the production line responsible for the machine could be viewed. (18) Though it is Bitzer’s dolly shot in Griffith’s romantic (and deeply racist) account of the deep South’s rural idyll that has been inscribed in cinema history, his experimentation a decade before with tracking shots through the factories of the industrial North were far more symptomatic of the long-term relationship between cinema and the twentieth century’s industrial political economy.
In a sense we might say that if the Victorian spectator attended machinery-in-motion exhibitions to be awed by the towering gargantuan industrial machines and their scale relative to the viewer, the spectator of machine-based spectacle in cinema was no less aware of scale but was placed at a superior spatial vantage point from which to appreciate the machinery. Here the transition to a mobile camera was crucial in the way it characterised a new spatial relationship with the machine that was to drive industrial spectacle for the following century. To return to Schivelbusch’s analogy of the panoramic traveller, if the traveller had experienced a heightened intensity of visual stimulus coincident with a spatial alienation from the landscape through which they travelled when effecting the shift from horse-drawn carriage to steam-train, and if this was an experience analogous to the cinematic spectator who no longer encountered the object in physical space but watched it flash by on a screen, then the subsequent tendency of the cinema camera throughout the twentieth century has been to continue to heighten this intensity of stimulus whilst attempting to minimise this sense of alienation.
An obvious response to such a reading is to ask why minimising such alienation would be so important in the first place and, as we shall see, the answer lies partly in the basis on which the industrial spectacle functions as a commodity. Following the Westinghouse Works shorts and throughout the next century a near continual line of promotional audiovisual spectacle can be traced that showcases industrial objects and the process by which they come into being and function. By 1935, for instance, General Motors produced a short ‘educational’ film entitled Down the Gasoline Trail in which the viewer was invited to follow an animated drop of petroleum on its journey from gas pump to car exhaust through the internal combustion engine. Here, viewers were introduced to the visual pleasure of the automobile gaining exclusive scopic access to the inner workings of the cars motor (see figure 2). In a striking analogue precursor of Manovich’s description of contemporary visual effects culture as the convergence between photorealistic aesthetics and hand-rendered digital fabrication,(19) Down the Gasoline Trail’s scopic mobility was afforded by the convergence of cel animation and live action footage. The most notable aspect of this short, however, lay in the way in which it tied the political economy of the car, its inner mechanical complexity, the energy system (gasoline) which fuels it, and the promotional audiovisual attraction together in one ‘educational’ narrative.
Notably this short was not a cinematic feature attraction but it did screen in cinemas and, in an effort not to frustrate audiences keen to see the main feature, was constructed to contain many of the characteristics of the main cinematic attraction to come. (20) General Motors’ short film here closely reflects a similar strategy by the Ford Motor Company at the time to create ‘educational’ shorts reliant upon attractions. In Ford’s case, however, this strategy was effected in order to circumvent the monopolistic grip of Hollywood on its distribution networks via town halls and classrooms for which its Democracy in Education film unit produced ‘free’ movies. In an account of why Ford pursued this strategy, Lee Grieveson has argued that Hollywood’s emergence as an industry, ironically modelled on Fordist mass production practices, meant that alternative formations of cinema (such as Ford and General Motors production units) were necessarily marginalised to protect Hollywood’s business model. (21)
Likewise, for historian Kerry Segrave, Hollywood’s lockdown on its distribution network in the 1920s and 1930s was a deliberate reaction to the possibility that the major car companies could soon be producing and distributing sponsored movies free of charge. (22) The major Hollywood studio’s response, Segrave argues, was to formulate a system of product placement in which automobiles could feature within movies but automobile companies could not produce and exhibit those movies commercially. In other words, Segrave argues that the Hollywood majors set up a movie production system in which automobile companies could purchase access to cinematic content but could not produce it themselves wholesale. Though Segrave and Grieveson differ on a few points, one thing is clear: from the outset of the transition between early cinematic attractions to later narrative cinema, automotive spectacle featured centre stage as a form of promotional spectacle. In mainstream cinema this took the form of product placement, (23) in industrial and ‘educational’ film a more direct spectacular focus on the car and its inner workings. This distinction is worth noting because it is symptomatic of the way in which the logic of spectacular advertising (contrasted with filmic narrative-based product placement in which the car is relegated to the margins of the narrative) eventually came to occupy centre stage in feature-length movies.
As with the examples to follow, Down the Gasoline Trail resembles a genre of industrial visualisation that can trace its roots back to the work of Renaissance engineers such as Mariano di Jacopo detto il Taccola and Leonardo Da Vinci. With the rise of industrial visualisation and what Don Ihde has described as ‘technoscience’s visualism’ in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came a new need to diagrammatically visualise the working of the machine. Both Taccola and Da Vinci (alongside many others in the period began to create a standardised visual grammar by which engineers could map out the inner working of mechanical objects that closely resembled the technical cutaway drawings (for example see appendix figure 3) that became so familiar in the twentieth century. In that sense the history of the engine as spectacular attraction could be traced as far back as the Renaissance. In reality however the cutaway drawing became popular as an entertaining artefact in visual culture beyond the engineer’s diagram following the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the overriding premise on which the cutaway is based is that of a sense of privilege; the viewer of the image gains privileged scopic access to the workings and spaces of complex machinery and architectures that they could not normally access. Inevitably, this form of spectacle, having translated into film already, was ripe for deployment in television and in the event demonstrated a telling historical continuity between audiovisual spectacle, industrial production and the mechanised foundations of capitalism (initiated during the Renaissance).
With the arrival of postwar television in America came a new exhibition platform with which industrial concerns could present their products (not least in the car and oil industries). As William Boddy has argued,(24) the industrial concerns of the 1950s were determined that they were not going to let TV fall into a monopolistic production grip of the kind that Hollywood had half a century before. With the advent of television and the wave of commercials that followed there were a plethora of commercials and sponsored shorts that gave the viewer ‘privileged access’ to various cars on sale. Initially, many of the automobile commercials on American television were deemed to be of poor quality, leading commentators such as Charles Morton to complain that “most of the motor makers had incomparably better exhibits at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 than anything they have shown the growing millions of TV customers”. (25)
Strikingly, the 1939 World’s Fair had two exhibits in particular that bear a great deal of resemblance to Down the Gasoline Trail. The first was Ford’s huge mobile mural at the entrance of its exposition building. Designed by Henry Billings, the mural replicated in gigantic scale parts of a motor engine in motion, complete with moving pistons. The second was the extraordinary plexiglas Pontiac exhibited by General Motors in the Highways and Horizons pavilion (see figure 3). As the name suggests, the bodywork of the Pontiac ‘Ghost Car’ as it came to be known (actually built on the chassis of a Pontiac Deluxe Six) had been replaced with plexiglas, allowing spectators an X-ray vision experience with which to see through the car and into the machinery and inner body work below.
Unsurprisingly, however, driven by rapidly expanding advertising budgets, the pace of aesthetic innovation in television advertising quickly increased throughout the 1950s alongside production values and, as Lawrence Samuel argues, advertisers were soon under pressure to deploy techniques traditionally found in cinematic attractions:
Filmmaking techniques were next applied to television advertising, as alumni from cinema brought animation, stop motion, and live action to the medium. Afforded the ability to make their products march, skip, and jump, advertisers were now pressuring directors to pack every technique of a Hollywood film into a one minute commercial. (26)
This deployment of cinematic trick-photography techniques described by Lawrence as bringing the product to life can be witnessed in the commercials described above (old and new) and as a driving force in the Transformers franchise itself. Indeed, the porous nature of spectacular attractions as a thread that runs across cinema, television advertising, music videos and net-content has received scholarly attention in recent years, not least because the non-cinematic forms have often functioned as a testing ground for new spectacular methods. (27) This, then, is not a loose association between Hollywood and the commercial advertising sector. Rather, the two are, and have long been, intimately interrelated. Crucial to Lawrence’s description here is an economic imperative. In order to secure viewers’ attention, advertisers expanded both the production values and the aesthetic techniques of television commercials to appropriate those used in cinematic special effects. In a fitting circularity, mobility – both scopic and industrial – was at the heart of this political economy. At a scopic level this took the form of a capacity to provide privileged access to the industrial commodity via a seemingly omni-spatial camera. At an industrial level, the commodity in question was automobility itself, a condition that stood at the centre of both American modernity and its dream of socio-economic progress.
Small wonder, then, that by the time television advertising began to emerge as an institutionalised audiovisual form in the 1960s, a host of advertisements sought to replicate the experience of arresting cinematic special effects. This was not an aesthetic limited strictly to car commercials, as demonstrated in 1967 by Imperial (Esso) Oil’s television commercial titled Total Service. Here the viewer was returned to the visual grammar of both the cinematic attraction and the machine in motion/engineering cutaway; the camera did not move through space but rather sat face on to the spectacle that amounted to a series of engineering plans that, on contact with a drop of Esso oil which fell from a floating brand icon, miraculously manifested as a physical machine in motion with outer walls removed to reveal working pistons, cranks, cogs and sprockets.
Just as spectacular attention was not limited only to cars and their internal industrial landscapes but also encompassed the broader gamut of industrial machinery, so too were these subjects not limited to exhibition in the form of televisual advertising. As Nicolas Hatzfeld et al have pointed out, (28) Renault’s promotional film division was at the forefront of European explorations of the same subjects throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Like the Westinghouse Works films (which they do not mention directly) Hatzfield et al argue that Renault engendered an audiovisual environment in which production process machinery shared the screen stardom alongside the cars that resulted from this process.(29) Indeed, Hatzfeld et al could be describing the Westinghouse Works films of 1904 when they state that the “travelling shot seems to be unavoidable when representing a factory”, going on to ask what “could be more natural than having the camera follow the movement of the rolling conveyor belt to suggest the flow of production?”(30) Here again, then, the machine, the working of complex machinery in motion, the production environment and the scopic penetration of machine space were all intertwined in the promotional film.
It is with a certain, but unsurprising, sense of déjà vu that Castrol GTX (motor oil company) released an advert in 1987 in which the spectacular journey had come full circle and returned to General Motors’ Down the Gasoline Trail. Starting with an almost identical opening shot to the GM 1935 short, the Castrol commercial followed the journey of motor oil through a car engine (figure 5). This advertisement sold motor oil rather than petrol/gasoline but in every other respect it bore an uncanny resemblance to the GM film, complete with a fly-through of oil lines, pistons and general engine machinery. Similarly, the Castrol advert personalised the car engine, emphasising its need to be fed the correct oil and treated well. In investing car machinery with both spectacular animate force and needs, the Castrol GTX advertisement, like Down the Gasoline Trail before it, presaged a key trope of the Transformers films to come.
The Castrol GTX commercial was, then, not notable for its rare similarity with previous examples of seemingly auto-mobile cameras and the spectacular promotional forms that they were deployed in service of; rather, it confirms the long-running and constantly returned-to abundance of such visual effects as promotional forms.Perhaps more notable in this particular instance of the auto-mobile camera is that, situated in 1987, this commercial was amongst the last to feature the physical processes (model making, lighting, trick photography) required in live action special effects making. Within a few years of this commercial, digital effects had transformed both cinematic and televisual attractions, a development that brings us to Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise.
Transforming the Mobilised Gaze
Leading up to the first Transformers movie, many automobile companies, not only Citroën but also Nissan and Honda had released television advertisements featuring cars exploding, reassembling, transforming, or simply functioning as a model for the virtual camera to explore its inner workings. Similarly, since the Transformers franchise began in earnest, companies from Chevrolet, Acura, GAC and more (see figure 6) have produced similar commercials.
Part of the reason for this renewed exploration of the car as a spectacular industrial object in recent years can undoubtedly be chalked up to spectacular televisual and cinematic imaging’s historical relationship with the automobile. However, another factor playing a seemingly exponential role in the placement centre stage of the automobile as spectacular object may also be the result of a convergent tendency toward computerised production and visualisation in both the film and automobile industries. Computerised film and car manufacturing, it seems, have had an intensified relationship over the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries: a relationship that can literally be traced back to the inception of computational design packages and their emergence from within R&D departments of the car industry. In other words, many digital visualisation techniques and technologies emerged from the auto and aerospace industries. (31) As Fred N. Krull of General Motors research labs has described, one of the earliest commercial computer aided design programs to come into operation resulted from a collaboration between GM and IBM. As I have detailed elsewhere, (32) the relationship between spectacular cinematic imaging and industrial car design emerged at the very inception of the CAD visualisation program. Simply put, the first forms of computer-generated imaging were, to a considerable degree, pioneered via industrial computer-aided design software funded and programmed within the automotive industry.
If, for Ihde, we can trace a direct line backward from our contemporary visual culture to Renaissance engineering cutaways and see this as a path from “Da Vinci to CAD”, then contemporary software-based visualization programmes engender a technological and economic necessity that emerged at the inception of industrialisation. In many cases, as Da Vinci’s notebooks attest, the visualization of vast or innovative engineering projects operated beyond the purely functional, acting as fascinating and astonishing spectacle as well. It seems entirely likely that engineers such as Da Vinci would not simply have utilised such a visual language just to visualize engineering projects, but also to promote such projects to potential sponsors and patrons during this time. In the contemporary context, much visual effects software is underpinned by the same principles that underlie 3D industrial visualization packages – including that of promotion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, one of the leading VFX industry software packages, Maya, is owned and distributed by Autodesk, the company that also happens to own and distribute leading automotive, architectural and engineering visualization software package.
Here the history of the development of CAD programmes that informed both the visual effects and industrial production industries respectively is revealing. As with many histories of technological development, the birth of CAD in the 1950s and 1960s was characterised by several developers working independently at around the same time. One thing that unites all the relevant players in the development of CAD is the industrial context from which they were based. Patrick Hanratty (often held to be the “father of CAD”) developed his programmes whilst working at General Electric and General Motors respectively. The phrase ‘Computer Graphics’ is claimed to have been coined by Boeing Designer William Fetter in 1960 who, in a fitting piece of corporate hubris, made the first graphical representation of the human body in an ergonomic representation titled ‘Boeing Man’ (see figure 7). Similarly, MIT PhD candidate Ivan Sutherland produced the Sketchpad CAD programme and submitted his thesis entitled “Sketchpad, A Man-Machine Graphical Communication Programme”. There is perhaps no better way to encapsulate the move from Da Vinci’s renaissance humanism to the twenty-first century’s corporate obsession with the machinic cyborg than the move from ‘Vitruvian Man’ to ‘Boeing Man’ via a ‘man-machine communication programme’.
In many ways the ‘man-machine’ interface is a central premise of the Transformers franchise, not only in the capacity to explode and penetrate the space of the machine, but in the visualisation of what this means for the human figure in all of this (literally in ergonomic terms and figuratively in the face of automated post-industrial capitalist economics). Like the Westinghouse Works films of a century before, fully human figures feature in the frame but they often do so as bit-part players. Indeed, every single movie in the franchise feature a grand finale set piece scene in which a tension plays out between the spectacular focus of monstrous machines in full battle and the relative insignificance of human actors by comparison. So apparent is this tension that the human actors in these scenes (and many others) generally seem to constitute an added distraction to the Autobots as they inevitably struggle to overcome the Decepticons. Though what this tension really demonstrates (in contrast to the Westinghouse Works films) is that it is false to present the dynamic between human actors and non-human machinery as a cut and dried dichotomy. The progression that Transformers has effected here is in the humanisation and anthropomorphisation of the machine. With the motion capture that now underpins a great deal of contemporary visual effects, the Transformers franchise has managed finally to construct ‘General Motors Man’, combining in the spectacle of the digital attraction the disparate features of the multiple promotional forms that can be traced back a hundred years and more.(33)
Underscoring the degree to which the Transformers franchise has set up the spectacular promotional logic of the ‘General Motors Man’ is the construct of the Decepticons.As the evil and malevolent force in these movies, the Decepticons are of no value to industrial stakeholders interested in product placement and therefore do not take the shape of America’s car industry. Instead the Decepticons act as imposters, camouflaged as hardware of America’s proud military industrial complex: the one industry that still thrives within the shores of the USA and an industry that is not and never has been subject to the same kinds of commercial civilian advertising imperatives as the automobile industry. That, though, is not to say that the US Military does not have to advertise to civilians. Indeed, Michael Bay’s movies can be regarded as enthusiastic, feature length, military-industrial showcases for which Bay famously receives considerable logistical support to make (and here I am not just thinking of the Transformers Franchise but also movies such as Pearl Harbor (2001), Bad Boys (1995), and The Island (2005)). In this sense, it stands to reason that the Decepticons would feature as mechanised chameleon impostors posing as US Military hardware: their role as such will not harm US army sales, whilst they set up the ideal uncanny adversary to the civilian output of the automobile industry and still allow a promotional space to be opened up in which the American military can join the fight.
Perhaps the best example of the way in which the franchise combines the spectacle of the digital attraction, the disparate features of the multiple promotional forms and human-machinic fantasy that can be traced back a century and more can be found in the opening sequence of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). Here, both a profoundly machinic and profoundly human exploration of space and object form plays out.After a sequence in which the ‘real’ purpose of the Apollo moon mission of 1968 is revealed (to explore alien artefacts identified on the moon), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin uncover the face of a yet unknown Transformer. As the mysterious premise/big reveal of the movie’s opening sequence is effected, the mobile virtual camera, in a digitally animated shot reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)shower scene, flies through the eye of the robotic face where its iris/aperture responds and dilates (Figure 8). Here the complex interrelated machinic form moves, unfolds and transforms like a Rubik’s cube, and in a manner reminiscent of the ‘machines in motion’ courts of the Victorian exhibitions of the nineteenth century, or the Ford and GM displays of the World Fairs in the twentieth.
A more apparent example of this complicated human/machinic interaction in the digital screen space is to be found later in the movie during a highway chase scene in which Bumblebee (a Chevrolet Camaro, and therefore one of General Motors most successful forms of product placement in recent years) and Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) are battling Decepticons. The full scene deserves a whole article in its own right (and Bruce Isaacs’ piece in this collection provides just that) but for my purposes here I am interested in a particular moment in which the Decepticons attempt to stop the fleeing pair. Pulling over a truck that spills its contents onto the road, the Decepticons force Bumblebee (still carrying his human passenger) to transform in order to leap over the inevitable car crash that would have followed (figure 9). As the transformation is effected a number of things happen: Sam is ejected from his position as a passenger and flung through space. At the same time industrial debris, not dissimilar to the objects that litter the production lines of the Westinghouse Works movie of a century before, fill the screen in an explosion of animated material that becomes potentially lethal to one of our two current protagonists. Here time slows down as we witness the familiar theatre of destruction; a common feature of early attractions in which, for instance, steam trains were engaged in head-on collisions for the delight of audiences. In this case, however, the scene takes the viewer on a trajectory that starts beside the Camaro of Bumblebee, out onto the highway, over the crash debris and into the interior of the retransformed car. Aside from the technical virtuosity of a scene in which the line between interior and exterior space is reconfigured seemingly without edit (like the advertisements discussed above) one of the most remarkable aspects of the sequence is the place of the human actor in all of this. By contrast with the usual practices of Hollywood narrative, the Transformers franchise does not operate according to a logic that sees the male protagonists driving the plot forward (although women emphatically remain objects ‘to be looked at’ in Bay’s films). (34) Instead, human characters in the franchise are frequently bystanders transported and protected from scene to scene. (35) The highway chase scene is a case in point as Sam Witwicky is thrown from car interior to aerial high-speed crash site and back to car interior again with absolutely no agency whatsoever. Indeed, his high-pitched screams at the end of this sequence say everything about the way he is conceptualised as a comically ‘feminine’ figure with no control over his destiny.
With Transformers, then, as with the commercial digital attractions that preceded it, we see the emergence of a digitally reconstructed industrial space. This reconstructed industrial space is the consequence of what Mike Jones has described as the virtual camera, (36) in which the transformation from the indexical camera located in space, to the virtual camera which instead marks a rendering of space can be characterised by a corresponding philosophical shift in the way the camera functions. More specifically, Jones describes the virtual camera as the site at which industrially automated computer generated objects are projected onto the image field, rather than (as with previous analogue camera technologies) as an image apparatus that moves in and around a space (as we commonly imagine it to be). This being the case, it makes little sense to regard the virtual camera and the virtual, industrial object as separate and distinct entities. Rather, they are practically and conceptually contiguous forms and as such are deeply interrelated. This reveals one of the reasons for the Transformers’ extraordinary love affair with the industrial object: the industrial object as it is designed in virtual form and the industrial object as it features as a cinematic visual effect are frequently one and the same.
There is another consequence, however, of the virtual camera worth describing here as it pertains to the Transformers franchise. For Jones, the move from a celluloid film camera to a virtual game camera sees a shift in the way the spectator interacts with the image. This, he argues, is the shift from an identification with the camera as an extension of our scopic apparatus, to an identification with the camera as an extension of our self, or as he terms it, the move from ‘eye’ to ‘I’. Of course this idea is not new: Dziga Vertov’s concept of the “kino-eye” can be traced back to the 1920s and its human/machinic principle finds interesting echoes in Transformers (2007) when Optimus Prime fills in back story for Sam by projecting images of first hand experiences of the past directly from his eyes (see appendix figure 2).
However, Jones argues that with the advent of the virtual camera, the scale and scope of personal identification increases in proportion to the extent to which the user can personally direct their perception of a virtual scene rather than passively consume the results of a pre-filmed space. Attendant with this is a gear change in the way the gaze is mobilised across, through and within the industrial object and the industrially visualised object. As any user of a game engine will testify (and this includes not only game players but also those using virtual earth software such as Google Earth), the virtual camera is characterised in this context by exhilaration with the facilitation of the physically impossible. The game engine-based virtual camera is accompanied with the ability to defy the ordinary laws of physics and the conventional world around which much (though not by any means all) audiovisual content was previously defined. Of course cinematic attractions (Catching the Early Train (1901) springs immediately to mind) were frequently based around defying precisely such physical laws and this principle was a driving force behind many of the commercials we have considered so far. The difference in contemporary terms, however, revolves around the extreme degree to which The Transformers utilises the capacity of the digitally industrialised virtual camera to reconfigure cinema’s relationship with industrial objects and space. Unsurprisingly, this reconfiguration has taken place courtesy of the industrial attention economy founded first in CAD-based digital imaging and subsequently transferred into commercial advertising. In a flipping of the logic described by Lawrence Samuel above that saw 1950s television advertising appropriating the aesthetic techniques of cinematic attractions, Bay’s Transformers franchise was, and has continually been, conversely informed by a wealth of visual effects first trailed by the commercial advertising and games industries.
The Promotional Specificity of the Automobile Attraction
To return, by way of conclusion, then, to the concept of the auto-mobile attraction and its relationship to promotional form, the virtual mobilities of digital attractions and the actual mobilities of consumer behaviour that they encourage are more than coincidentally related. There is a long-standing historical relationship between consumer mobility and what Anne Friedberg has described as the ‘virtual gaze.’(37) Friedberg draws a complex and interrelated comparison between technologies of vision, practices of consumption and conditions of mobility:
Coincident with the new mobilities produced by changes in transportation, architecture and urban planning, photography brought with it a virtual gaze… At the beginnings of consumer culture, this gaze became imbued with the power of choice and incorporation: the shopper’s gaze. During the mid-nineteenth century, the coincident development of department store shopping, packaged tourism, and protocinematic entertainment began to transform this mobilized gaze into a commodity, one sold to a consumer-spectator.(38)
Friedberg draws a distinction between the virtual gaze and the mobilised gaze in the development of modern consumerism. (39) While the new architectures of the shopping arcade effected a mobilized gaze, Friedberg is careful not to confuse this with the ‘virtual gaze’ ushered in by the cinematic image – an image form that from its inception right up to the present has been compared with the shop window. (40) Significantly, the virtual gaze was not simply one in which commodities were showcased to spectators: it was itself a commodity for which spectators paid and as such, also turned spectators into consumers from the outset of their experiences. (41) The Transformers franchise takes this relationship a step further.
Steeped in a century of audiovisual tradition regarding the promotional representation of the industrial object, Transformers deploys the visual effect as a representation of the contemporary capitalist industrial regime. Where the Westinghouse Works films marked a notable initiation of the relationship between scopic mobility, capitalist industrial production and analogue/celluloid cinematic attractions, Transformers represents a flagship example of a new development in this relationship. Specifically, the relationship between the auto-mobile virtual camera and the digital visual effects production pipeline is representative of a new economic and industrial logic. Where the celluloid film was subject to production parameters of Taylorist industrial capitalism, digital film production and its CG effects culture are subject to an explicit logic of post-human labour in the production process, even as it places human labour at the centre of the consumption process in the attention economy. While the production regimes of the VFX industries certainly involve professionals traditionally framed as ‘artists’, the majority of the R&D and code departments that feed into the long-term development of the industries’ production processes are engineers, scientists, mathematicians and software developers, whose value in the management hierarchy is based upon automation of VFX and the destruction of the need for labour. This marks a structuring of the visual effects industry along post-industrial lines. Everywhere in the VFX industry software engineers seek to automate the production pipeline. Like a car industry undergoing its first bout of robotics installation, VFX industry ‘innovation’ is driven everywhere by the field of ‘machine learning’ (a fitting title given the context) that seeks to automate processes previously carried out by human labour.
In this context the Transformers franchise does not just advertise the automobile and its centrality to post-industrial capitalism, it is a requiem for human labour beyond that which is carried out in service of viewing spectacle. It is no surprise that, as explained earlier, the franchise is filmed in the decrepit and dilapidated factories of Detroit – a cheap location given that the bankrupt Detroit city council authorities were happy to lease out the empty hulking skeletons of Motown at relatively low pre-demolition rates. (42) Importantly however, the Transformers franchise is not only an obituary to the heyday of car production in America before robotics and global capital offshored production to cheaper markets, it also mourns something more. Even as it showcases the technical prowess of a home-grown, L.A based visual effects industry it points to the death of it as a central feature of America’s creative economy. The Age of Extinction, it seems, is a fitting subtitle for the fourth instalment of the franchise in more ways than one.
Such spectacle is facilitated by an industry that obeys the laws of neo-liberal capital: automating labour wherever possible and offshoring it to cheaper domains wherever it is not. Notably, the Transformers franchise has been produced by two titans of the American VFX industry (Industrial Light and Magic and Digital Domain). Of these, Digital Domain has gone into bankruptcy and receivership/foreign ownership and both have off-shored much of their production to Vancouver, Canada. (43) Transformers movies are, then, constructed in digital visual effects production houses themselves subject to the processes of post-industrial, neo-liberal capital that hollowed out Detroit and is now hollowing out America’s visual effects landscape. And yet, ironically, (though unsurprisingly) as a franchise Transformers has achieved something that both Ford and General Motors could not in the 1930s: a mainstream commercial roster of movies, sanctioned by Hollywood, in which the car really is the star. As we have seen, they have done this through a complex combination of spectacular production strategies that mix both a historically enduring spectatorial fascination with the transformative/transforming machine, and a tendency toward aesthetic experimentation borne of the attention economy. Here, spectacular attractions are not only the location of the placed product, they are the consequence of a long history of commercial and industrial aesthetics. In this equation, the line between automobile as object of product placement and automobility as product of commercial objectives is impossible to identify. More importantly, the cultural logic of the Transformers franchise is to obfuscate, or more accurately not even recognise, the line between commercial spectacle and spectacular movie. Here, transformation is all that matters. Car production facilities in Detroit are built, abandoned and given a second life as locations of spectacular destruction. Visual effects production facilities in Los Angeles are founded then off-shored. Workers are employed and disenfranchised as cheaper labour and computational/robotic automation is seized upon. Ultimately the only logic that matters is Hollywood’s rapacious appetite for profit via the attention economy. The location of labour used to create physical or even digital products is unimportant, the harnessing of attention as labour is what counts and on this front, the aesthetics of the Transformers franchise is that of the television commercial or the industrial film.
This article has been peer reviewed.
I would like to thank especially Bruce Bennett and Bruce Isaacs for their input and suggestions on this piece. I would additionally like to thank William Brown for the very detailed editorial notes provided on this piece.
1. Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’, in Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (ed.), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London: BFI Publishing, 1990, pp.57
2. Many Edison and Mutoscope shorts spring to mind: Princess Ali (1895), Cupid and Psyche (1897), Admiral Cigarettes (1897), Princess Rajah Dance (1904) to name just a few.
3. In the first advertisement, like the attractions of a century ago, the ‘camera’ was placed stock still, on a tripod, directly facing the ‘action’. This allowed for a dramatic grammar that emphasised the on-screen digital spectacle in its own right: the move through space eliminated in favour of the capturing of the digital object in space. In the follow up commercial, however, this grammar had already given way to a new structure in which the robotic car, courtesy of a larger visual effects budget, was captured skiing on a lake with hyper-mobile camera work to match.
4. Indeed we could trace this relationship back further, as I have elsewhere, to the use of machinery on the Victorian stage to effect the appearance of mobility (see especially Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851 – 1914, Stanford University Press, 1991).
5. See for instance Larry May, Screening out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983; Charles Mausser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, New York: Scribners, 1990.
6. Leon Gurevitch, ‘The Cinemas of Transactions: The Exchangeable Currency of the Digital Attraction’, Television and New Media Journal, Sage Press 11(5) 2010, pp. 367-385.
7. See Erkki Huhtamo, ‘Dismantling the Fairy Engine: Media Archeology as Topos Study’, in Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, edited by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, London: University of California Press, 2011.
8. See for instance the Visual Effects Societies (VES) most recent report The State of the Global VFX Industry 2013, available at:http://www.visualeffectssociety.com/resources/ves-documents
- It is worth noting here that while the Transformers films are important exemplars of automobile films, there is a far more massive genealogy of films about/featuring cars. The focus on Bay’s Transformers franchise is a product of the fact that they are for me a quintessential reflection of the historical ‘machines in motion’ topos made contemporary. This is a consequence of the extreme nature of the CG effects and their fetishisation of transformation.
10. Toby Miller et al, Global Hollywood 2, London: BFI Publishing, 2005.
11. Leon Gurevitch, ‘The Innovation Engines: Science, Entertainment and Convergence in New Zealand’s Research Future’, The Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (Publication Pending).
12. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialisation of Time and Space in the 19th Century, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997, p. 64.
13. Ibid. 52-64.
14. Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997.
15. Lev Manovich and Andreas Kratky, Soft Cinema: Navigating the Database, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.
16. Bruce Bennett et al, ‘How it Feels’, in Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, by Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant, Bristol: Intellect Books, 2003; Jeffrey Ruoff, Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel, London: Duke University Press, 2006; Ben Singer, ‘Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism’, in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, edited by Leon Charney and Vanessa Schwartz, California: California University Press,1995; Kerry Segrave Product Placement in Hollywood Films: A History, McFarland & Co. 2004;Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, London: University of California Press, 1994; Andrew Wernick, Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression, Sage Publications, 1991; Bottomore, Steven, ‘The Panicking Audience?: early cinema and the ‘train effect’, in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Volume 19, Number 2, 1999.
17. For more on this see especially Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Cinematic Mode of Production, University Press of New England, 2006.
18. It is worth noting here that Bitzer was not the inventor of the phantom ride/travelling shot, that historical first is attributed to one of the Lumiere’s cinematographers, supposedly, shooting on the canals in Venice.
19. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.
20. For more detail on this see: https://archive.org/details/DowntheG1935.
21. Lee Grieveson. ‘The Work of Film in the Age of Fordist Mechanization’, Cinema Journal, Volume 51, Number 3, Spring 2012, pp. 25-51.
22. Kerry Segrave Product Placement in Hollywood Films: A History, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2004
23. Of course product placement was far from the only mode in which automotive spectacle was visible in mainstream cinema and beyond. The car was, and still is, a crucial narrative, thematic and aesthetic device in Hollywood film in its own right, as well as an essential performance prop.
24. William Boddy, New Media and the Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. P. 49.
25. Charles Morton, 1950, cited in Samuel Lawrence, Brought to You By: Postwar Television Advertising and the American Dream, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2001, p. 22.
26. Samuel Lawrence, Brought to You By: Postwar Television Advertising and the American Dream, University of Texas Press, 2001, p. 26.
27. See Leon Gurevitch, ‘The Cinemas of Transactions: The Exchangeable Currency of the Digital Attraction’, Television and New Media Journal, Sage Press 11(5) 2010, pp. 367-385. Also see Dan North, Performing Illusions: Cinema, Special Effects and the Virtual Actor, London: Wallflower Press, 2008.
28. Nicolas Hatzfeld et al, ‘Filming Work on Behalf of the Automobile Firm: The Case of Renault’, in Films that Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009.
29. Ibid. 196.
30. Ibid. 199.
31. This last point recalls Virillio’s paralels between cinematic and military technologies.
32. Leon Gurevitch, “Cinema Designed: Visual Effects Software and the Emergence of the Engineered Spectacle”, in Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st – Century Film, Denison and Leyda (eds), REFRAME Books (Publication Pending).
33. See Leon Gurevitch, ‘The Cinemas of Transactions: The Exchangeable Currency of the Digital Attraction’, Television and New Media Journal, Sage Press, 11(5) 2010: 367-385.
34. Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Spectacle’, Screen, Oxford University Press, 16.3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18.
36. Mike Jones, ‘Vanishing point: Spatial composition and the virtual camera’. Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Sage Press, 2(3) 2007, pp. 225–243.
37. Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, London: California University Press, 1994, pp. 37-38.
38. Ibid. 4.
39. Summarising Benjamin’s observations from the arcades project, Friedberg makes a point of noting the necessity that the shopper was furnished with a space for contemplation. As she points out, the mobilized gaze of the arcade shopper was attendant on the conditions under which the consumer could look without buying: in effect, contemplate the consumer object. By contrast, the flâneur in the hustle and bustle of the market place was a distracted subject. What is interesting about this distinction are the potential intersections between it and the contemporary CG attraction. With the emergence of film came debates over the potential for distraction or contemplation that the form afforded its viewers. Adorno, for instance, rejected film for the distractive role, he argued, it played in the lives of workers already dominated by the alienating force of the structures of industrial capital. Later, Marxist film theorists sought out ‘progressive texts’ which utilised reflexivity in their formal structures to encourage contemplation and self-awareness of the capitalist structures which dominated the viewing subjects’ lives. The role of reflexivity has changed in movie making as reflexive structures of CG imaging, advertising and the target market saturated strategies of the transmedia text have emerged. I would argue that CG animated features closely resemble the experience of a child in a shopping trolley in a retail store. Such a child exists in precisely the state that Friedberg and Benjamin described of the arcade shopper – looking, but not buying – and most importantly, contemplating the goods on display. Could it be, that in an ironic development, and in contradiction to Adorno and later apparatus theorists’ expectations, we are witnessing in visual culture, the development of a reflexive and contemplative mode of spectatorship from the very consumer structures for which commercial film was dismissed in the first place?
40. See Eckert, Charles, ‘The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window’, in Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, Winter, 1978, p. 1-21.
41. Friedberg is not alone in drawing such comparisons, writers from Lynne Kirby, Ben Singer, Stephen Bottomore, Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz have argued that turn of the twentieth century technologies of mobility, practices of consumption and conditions of the virtual gaze intersected in multiple ways.
43. This ‘offshoring’ to Canada is a feature, not only of the CG industry producing these images of course, General Motors itself has done likewise with its production: the Camaro that features in Dark of the Moon is assembled in Oshawa, Ontario. See: http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/gm-delays-closure-of-oshawa-plant-to-2016-1.2101248.