It is now a routine move in Hollywood to first put you airborne, soaring in a helicopter over a mysterious landscape glimmering below. If it’s an urban drama you’re watching, then this opening shot evokes the vast complexity of intertwined lives, events, and spaces that constitute the city. Very soon, however, the camera picks out a more particular locale below, where you spot the film’s hero, usually an actor you already know in the odd intimate way of our celebrity culture. The rest of the movie unfolds at this more familiar visual and emotional range right up to the very end, when it is common practice to lift you once again for a parting glimpse of the city’s infinitude.
In Pedestrian our camera remains above, keeping its distance. It gives a less sweeping perspective than that of the Hollywood opening, just a little closer in, as if you were looking down not from a soaring helicopter but rather from a hovering kite. The view is still commanding, for you can take in more of the scene than you would from the ground, but it’s close enough that the figures below look like individuals rather than ants. If the bird’s eye perspective traditionally suggests an omniscient God’s eye view, here the power of that perspective certainly lingers but is slightly compromised. The view is often at least partially blocked, if not by architectural elements within the scene then by the unforgiving frame delimiting it. And when the camera moves, it doesn’t anticipate the direction of your interest so much as it imposes its own.
The dramatic structure of Pedestrian, such as it is, is decidedly strange. For while it does have you following individual characters within a scene, it’s never for long — it veers off as if distracted to follow another character intersecting in the scene, and then another, and another. This succession comes to seem like an odd and unwitting relay race or game, each figure taking and then passing on the baton of your interest. It’s a series of partial and broken narratives, whose beginnings and endings are left to you to imagine. But isn’t this much like your own experience in the street, where first one person arrests your attention, but then quickly passes from view (and mind) at your next striking but equally fleeting encounter?
This spectacle also brings to mind the electronic surveillance now blanketing most of our cities. If you can picture the agents poring over the video footage streaming in from the ubiquitous surveillance cameras mounted on buildings and lampposts, you can also imagine that the agents are looking down on similarly equivocal scenes. Their task is to pick out suspicious individuals from the crowd — pickpocket, drug dealer, terrorist, whore — and to trace their furtive intersections and exchanges.
There is a peculiar fascination in Pedestrian, certainly in the making of it but also in the viewing, that perhaps subconsciously reminds us of childhood. If we bring back the endless games we played on the floor of our playroom, kindergarten, and sandbox, the first thing we might notice is that our viewpoint as we lay or sat or crawled there resembles that of the Pedestrian camera. The building blocks and toy figures that we deployed in fashioning our make-believe worlds served exactly the same functions as the equivalent props and figures in Pedestrian. All these elements, as well as this viewpoint, are present too in the videogames that now entrance children for hours on end.
And if we look up at the sky for a moment, we may remember the kites and the model airplanes that we loved to put into flight above us. Were we not imagining ourselves somehow soaring up there with them, looking down on a now-miniature world that had itself become another set of playthings?
When we first gaze down on Pedestrian, we may feel a kind of comfort and control from our aerial view, a sense of purchase on these teeming comings and goings, as if watching so many ants at work in their colony. But these figures walk on two legs as we do, tiny but complete, striding and looking, meeting and greeting, waiting and fleeing. Some are decisive and purposeful; others dawdle and relax. They have lives and make choices all their own.
We are attracted to the sudden stumble, the long hesitation, the warm greeting, and by choice or compulsion we zero in to find out more. Our even-handed overview of events is soon gone, however; perhaps it’s a lone woman who has caught our eye, and we now must know more about her. From this far off, we can’t make out her expression, but she reminds us someone we know or see on the street. Though we make out see her eyes, for her part she seems to see and react to the others around her.
As digital models built purely in 3D geometry on the computer, the Pedestrian figures represent a cross-section of urban archetypes: the suits and backpackers, couriers and working girls, socialites and bench sitters, skaters and civil servants. Each urban portrait is rendered in a graphic palette of skin, hair, costume, and shadow, drawn on the floor in silvery gray light.
Constructing human forms in digital 3D is a painstaking craft that employs various building metaphors: subdividing cubes, scaling and transforming vertices and planes, extruding profiles, and lofting sections. In addition, many character parts (body parts, hairstyles, shoes, clothing) can be cannibalized from various on-line sources, where hobbyists share the 3D avatars they’ve built for use in film tributes, comic art, and adventure games. The final geometry is distorted, scaled, and optimized for the foreshortening of aerial perspective, resulting in a being that is both human and doll-like in presence. For many viewers, the movement and lighting were so credible they often mistake the animation for live surveillance footage.
Conceived as a public sculpture,Pedestrian ‘s digital projection merges with the sidewalk we walk upon. The tiny denizens wander through this trompe-l’oeil illusion, in a city that seems paradoxically upon and within the surface. Their plazas and walkways are textured-mapped with samples of concrete, granite, asphalt, and gravel scanned from the real world. Projected onto the granular surface of the sidewalk, these virtual textures merge with the physical concrete, creating a second order of activity and detail.
The environment under their tiny feet is an abstract and simplified game-board of Manhattan, with strong contours and rhythmic subdivisions. These grids, tiles, and area boundaries echo and emboss the real physical pavestones hit by the projection. Pedestrian s visual logic is strongly oriented toward activating these boundaries in an optical game of figure and ground: a horde of umbrella walkers spirals across concentric cobblestones in a visual rhyme; a marathon ends when a rink pans into view, bisecting the runners like a sharp white wedge. Rather than depict the density we expect of New York, the Pedestrian environment is mostly shallow and flat, emphasizing the horizontal. We the viewers with our tall dark bodies stand in for the buildings of Manhattan’s verticality.
Stick a pin into a map of Manhattan — into Broad Street, to be precise, on the southern tip of the island, just a few blocks from where the World Trade Center towered overhead. It was there that we’d wound up on a ramble in the early dusk of the winter of 1997, and spotted a section of sidewalk glowing up ahead. Stepping closer, we saw that transparent Plexiglas had replaced the usual paving stones, letting pedestrians peer down into the shallow trenches of a small archaeological survey evidently still underway. It was fascinating to gaze down into a space unexpectedly opened up beneath our feet, where the stratified layers of long-gone habitation were revealed as if by physical x-ray. Right then and there came the idea of a public projection likewise laid down before you on the pavement, but evoking the unknowable present rather than the partially recovered past.
The slight sense of deja vu you might feel in watching Pedestrian comes in part from the shifting correspondences between its world and your own, but a second set of correspondences, embedded entirely within the work, also plays a role. You start noticing that things recur, oddly, not only from one scene to another, but also within the same one. Figures are repeated and multiplied, and so are motions.
You spot a man in a tuxedo, for example, in several scenes. Curiously, though, you notice that while his appearance doesn’t change, his actions seem disconnected, as if it were not one character occupying his body, but rather several in succession. When a flashlight picks him up out of the darkness, he is staggering drunk; but when next encountered he is sitting impassively at the edge of the frame, where he waits for over a minute before getting up abruptly and hopping on one foot. He is also elsewhere, in other scenes: part of a passing crowd in one place, a loiterer in another.
Figures not only recur in this fashion, but even recur at the same moment, their bodies duplicated. In a crowd, for example, two or more identical figures may appear at the same time, performing different actions. Conversely, in other scenes, it’s the figures that are distinct and the motions that repeat. When the helicopter swoops down, for instance, everyone panics, their actions converging in the same stampeding dash out of the frame.
All the movements in Pedestrian are built from the same limited library of motion-captured phrases. These data sets abstract a performer’s motion in time and 3D space from his or her physical appearance, so that it’s their pure motion that gets mapped onto any sort of synthetic figure. Since we motion-captured only eight performers (who ranged in type from dancer to programmer to child), it is only eight individual styles of motion animating everything. And so a given figure is like a puppet animated by a succession of up to eight puppeteers. Its walk may come from a 23-year-old ballerina, its hop from an 8-year-old boy, and its turn from a 46-year-old man.
Pedestrian lies at the intersection of several traditions. One of these comes to us out of the 19th century, when the ideal figure of the flaneur emerged. This urban wanderer loses himself in his city, reveling in its myriad unexpected juxtapositions and savoring streams of consciousness that jumble inner with outer, daydream with perception. At its start, this was mainly a literary phenomenon, carried out by such writers as Poe and Baudelaire to begin with, and then pushed further in the next century by Aragon, Benjamin, and Raban, among many others. It had its counterpart in the urban snapshot practices of certain key photographers, most amazingly in Rodchenko’s off-angle shots of Moscow, but also in Cartier-Bresson, Frank, and Winograd.
In the 20th century, moving pictures gave us the city and its crowds as nightmare. The goose-stepping stormtroopers in newsreels matched the lock-stepped zombies of horror films; rampaging rioters on the TV news brought the same kind of mayhem seen more stylishly in the violence of gangster and monster movies. Now that we could watch crowd patterns unfolding in time, we could see the crowd as a kind of aggregate being, with a usually malevolent mind of its own.
We could also start conceiving of the crowd more metaphorically. No one pushed this approach further than Elias Canetti in his tome Crowds and Power , where for example he points out that the cry of “Fire!”can spark a crowd into a kind of fire itself, its panic rapidly blazing up and consuming everyone and everything in its ever-widening path.
In fewer than a dozen moments does the Pedestrian soundtrack give you an exact sync to the projected figures you are tracking. You do hear the rattle of a can kicked by a girl in passing, or the creak of a gate opening up onto the park, but these are rare instances. Instead the soundtrack mostly evokes surrounding space beyond the frame, which nonetheless often provides an exact counterpoint to what you see. An ambulance siren moving past in the distance perfectly tracks the roller-blader skating into view; the roar of a departing airplane overhead ushers a figure crossing into the next scene. We had turned to composer Terry Pender to design the soundtrack, and his intricately layered composition only reveals itself fully on repeated watching and listening.
What the soundtrack does not give you is dialogue: the projected figures don’t utter a word. But onlookers often spontaneously deliver their imagined lines for them, never more so than at the Harlem installation of the piece, where they improvised voice-over conversations freely. “I’ll do the voices,” said one young man; “I’ll do the beats,” said another, turning it into rap.
Another kind of counterpoint was even more interactive. While most viewers are content to stand at the edge of the projection, at most easing their foot into the light-beam to cast a timid shadow, children jump right in it. They wade through the light like Gullivers, first squashing the Lilliputian figures underfoot and then moving on to improvise more elaborate games together. Hopscotch, for example, but on a rapidly changing ground pattern; or shadow-play, with hand-shadows like puppets wandering through the scenes.