“New York Biotopes” and the Overcrowded Sea of Visual Effects Reels


What you just watched, if — I mean, you watched it, right? What kind of weirdo reads video analysis on a blog without having watched the video itself? Holy cow, we need to at least respect some ground rules here.

“New York Biotopes” was created as a thesis project by German graphic design student Lena (no relation to Dunham) Steinkuhler. In her words, she wanted to explore the “assimilation of structures and forms…biotopes shaped by the existing living environment but also [shaping] the newly developed living environment by their presence.” It all sounds unbelievably German.

Now, hers would hardly be the first of these sorts of talent demos ever posted (or even disseminated) online. The Internet is NOT LACKING for student films. But this one feels…different, somehow elevated from the mass of videogame movie test runs and laser fart effects videos that dominate your newsfeed. Why?

  • Believability. NO, New York is not populated by mecha-bio-luminiscent creatures that have taken over (or evolved from) the stop lights, turnstiles, and subway seats, even if that one time you were totally tripping, all of the above came true. But take a second and imagine a future — or alternate reality — in which fungal evolution has taken a weird turn, tried something different and…it’s not so unbelievable. Cities ARE sort of living ecosystems, affected by and affecting humans at the same time you might imagine them continuing on without us. Certainly adapting. Ever seen ‘I am Legend’? Or the History Channel’s ‘Life After People’? Maybe you feel as inconsequential as an elevator operator to know that life would continue on without you, but there’s something calmly humbling in it, too. LIFE FINDS A WAY.
  • The music. It’s great! I’ve watched “Biotopes” probably 10 times in the last month, and while the visuals are the primary reason I keep doing so there’s no discounting the track Steinkuhler selected as accompaniment. Techno without being too techno, aggressive in a way that’s somehow not overpowering — it really compliments the images of growth and movement.
  • Coral subway turnstiles. NAILED IT. Runner-up for me are the 1 train pole anemones, mimicking the shape and color of the autumn-hued seats around them. On any given afternoon in New York, neither of these would be the weirdest thing you saw that day.

More relevant than any of that to a discussion about THE WAY WE INTERNET TODAY is the matter of substance. To claim that Steinkuhler’s video is making a point might be a stretch, but again you have to view this in the context of the thousands of other similar videos taking up space on Vimeo and YouTube. Which let’s contend, to keep this simple, have nothing to fucking say. Case in point: Dan Trachtenberg’s “Portal: No Escape”:

Designed as an addendum to the Portal videogames (and a demo reel, which very successfully netted its creator the coveted ‘Y: The Last Man’ directing gig), it’s a fantastically designed and executed short film. Those are special effects you’d expect to see in a mega-expensive blockbuster and the kind of clean stylization that screams PROFESSIONAL. But that’s it. There’s no feeling or perspective…so why do we care? “Gritty” Pokemon fan films, backyard lightsaber battles — they’re fun diversions at best. But ultimately they distract otherwise very talented filmmakers from trying something new and adding to (rather than overwriting) the existing cultural landscape.

“Biotopes” isn’t on a substantive par with some viewpoint-shifting Slate article we share on Facebook or even a great episode of ‘The Americans’, but it does make you pause and consider the way you look at your surroundings. Which is way more than can be said for a cool-looking replica videogame gun. So Lena Steinkuhler: more please. Everyone else: let’s not be those guys anymore.

(Hat-tip to The Atlantic Cities, who originally posted on this sometime last month. Cities is a fantastic offshoot of The Atlantic that posts about urban life around the world. If you one time thought a building looked cool, you should check it out.)

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