I think it’s over a year now since the last performance of ‘Paradise Lost’ at Basilique. Put together by Canary Beck and Harvey Crabsticks, this vastly ambitious show depicted the expulsion from Eden of Adam and Eve according to Milton’s epic twelve book poem. As a piece of Second Life live entertainment, it built on the pair’s previous presentation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a smaller but still extremely innovative production that pushed the boundaries of what was achievable in virtual theatre. If I had to sum up in a single word what distinguished these shows from the performances I’d seen previously in SL it would be this: ‘movement’. To the prospective producer aiming to bring theatre to the metaverse, the obvious benefits of this medium might be scenery and voice. You can create sets as elaborate as your imagination (and your prim allowance) permits in SL, and you can swap them around to your heart’s content with no backstage storage capacity to worry about. And, once voice had been added to SL’s features, the potential for acting was unlocked. There is one additional powerful aspect to SL, however, which is less straightforward to exploit: animation. Combining objects to create a set is easy enough, but combining different animations smoothly is a different matter altogether. In their extremely sophisticated use of animation, then, both ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Paradise Lost’ are effectively virtual ballet.
The scale of ‘Paradise Lost’ as a live performance was quite breathtaking. It was bigger than ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in every way conceivable. A whole new building had to be rezzed to contain the custom-built sets used, and the detail, the colour and the lighting of these was just exquisite. Everything seen was synced to an audio stream which provided a soundtrack of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor as well as spoken word introduction at various points in the show. Perhaps the most impressive additional element, however, was the inclusion of the audience in the performance. Everyone attending got given an angel outfit to wear and, throughout the show, your avatar was manipulated in various dance routines through the use of RLV technology. The overall effect of these elements combined – and so flawlessly – was stunning.
No experience in SL can be completely without the lag artefacts we’ve come to associate with the metaverse. Whilst Becky and Harvey did everything they could to minimise this (the angel outfit was also part of this objective, reducing radically the resource drain created by the audience), it just wasn’t possible for scenes of the magnitude used to rez and change without at least a little ‘grey object syndrome’. It didn’t subtract much, but I do remember thinking at the time how good a film of a ‘perfect’ lag-free performance might look. I also thought it important that some sort of permanent record be created of such a monumental effort. My ‘minimum criteria’ of a filmed version, then, would be that it captured the performance and did so without any evidence of lag.
PLTM goes way, way beyond this. Created by SL machinimst Forren Ashford, the movie is every bit as stunning as the performance and then some. I wouldn’t put myself forward as a machinima expert by any means, but the examples I’ve seen of the genre to date commonly leave me feeling unmoved. Cam panning and zooming are overused and at the expense of many of the techniques we’ve become used to seeing in the work of some of the best SL photographers: zoom (by which I mean lens rather than cam zoom), depth of field and composition are the headliners amongst these. The best SL photographs are works of art and it’s irrelevant that they were created in Second Life; a great deal of SL machinima just doesn’t achieve this for me. I don’t underestimate the technical barriers to achieving this, by the way. I’m well aware that the hardware requirements for high quality machinima far exceed those of high quality photographs. Many people can crank up their graphics mode temporarily to ultra for a single snapshot, but you have to have a very high-end computer if you want to be able to film at a decent frame-rate in this mode (something which might change through streamed services like Bright Canopy, which offer top-end performance for low-end equipment). Even so, the highest spec equipment won’t find the right angle for you, won’t decide on what should and should not be blurred, won’t decide how long an individual shot should last, won’t consider how what is seen should fuse with what is heard.
PLTM goes a long way towards achieving the beauty I’ve been waiting for in machinima. It takes itself seriously as a work of art and rightly so. For me personally there is at times a little too much camera movement and a little too frequent angle switching, and the later half of the film doesn’t quite achieve the beautiful fluidity of the first, but the intrusiveness of these things is minimal and it certainly didn’t prevent me from becoming immersed in the movie in a way that no previous machinima has managed. The scene in particular where Eden is created – the camera coming eventually to rest on a sleeping, naked Adam – left me with goosebumps. For sheer sensual beauty, the sunlight moving across Eve’s skin as she dances prior to and during temptation in Act 2 was just so compelling I really did forget for a moment I was watching something made in SL.
It is difficult to convey in words the passive interplay presented between actors and audience, and how this adds so vitally to the impression created. The context of theatre is present throughout, such that in many shots where the audience cannot be seen the interior of the venue still rests quietly in the background, a reminder of its permanence. The incongruity of naked ballet upon the grass of Eden set against this backdrop of stone columns and windows adds a unique tension: we are effectively never allowed to forget the eyes of the audience. As the film progressed, I started to think of them less as observers and more as witnesses, as jurors, as judges. A moment of brilliant editing starts with Eve alone having eaten her apple and the camera moving backwards to reveal Adam’s arrival, and almost instantly the angle switches to a view of the audience, now still, now silent. You can almost hear their thoughts of condemnation, or possibly their shame. This manipulation of what is seen by the viewer is a dimension to the film which is additional to the experience of having attended the show in person. The next thing we see is Eve in Adam’s arms and an apple in his hands. The scene fades. The deed is done. Later, when Eve weeps, the angels of the audience weep with her.
PLTM is a work of remarkable skill and passion, and a showcase for what it’s possible to achieve in SL machinima. Perhaps it represents a new benchmark in the genre. In the interests of full transparency, I will add that Becky is a good friend of mine. I doubt very much that you will regret spending an hour of your time with this film, however, and that it will go on to consume considerably more than that through repeated watchings. Check for details at canarybeck.com
(All images above are stills from the movie.)