E-Project: Robbie Cooper's Immersion Project

Using a Red One camera and an unusual recording system, the documentary photographer has created still images showing gamers playing video games.

April 2, 2009
By David Walker

In his Immersion project, Cooper recorded his subjects straight on from the viewpoint of the TV and computer screens that they are watching.
Photo Credit: © Robbie Cooper
In his Immersion project, Cooper recorded his subjects straight on from the viewpoint of the TV and computer screens that they are watching.
Robbie Cooper's compelling portraits of adolescents playing video games, which appeared last November in The New York Times Magazine, are part of an ambitious and unusual project called Immersion. A former photojournalist, Cooper plans to film hundreds of adults and children as they immerse themselves in movies, TV programs and video games.

The point of the project, given the quantity of footage Cooper expects to shoot and the time he is spending, is not just to produce a collection of compelling images. Cooper's mission is artistic and academic, anthropological and philosophical. As he explains, more and more of the human experience is simulated by the screen-born media and messages that surround us. He is interested in how that hyper-reality is constructed: how viewers navigate the ubiquitous media, and use it to shape their own experiences internally.

What makes the study possible—and the images so compelling—is Cooper's camera perspective. He borrows filmmaker Errol Morris's so-called Interrotron technique to record his subjects straight on from the viewpoint of the TV and computer screens that they are watching. He uses the 4K Red One camera, recording ultra high-definition video footage from which he can pull still images.

The images he captures reveal anything but a monotony of passive, catatonic stares that you might expect from engrossed gamers. Instead, the subjects' distinct personalities shine through.

Cooper's project was inspired in part by an experience he had in China. He was wandering around a huge Internet cafe with rows and rows of kids playing virtual video games. He was looking for interesting people to interview, and as he found them, he noticed that they would sit through an entire interview with eyes transfixed to the video screen.

"That got me thinking about their interaction with the screen," Cooper says.

He also happens to be a fan of Morris's films, particularly the 2003 film called Fog of War. In most movies that feature talking heads, the subjects appear to be looking off to the side of the camera toward an (unseen) interviewer. In his documentary Fog of War, Morris used his "Interrotron" to interview Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. McNamara talks into the camera for most of the movie.

"There are moments when he is almost pleading with you," Cooper says. "It's a very unusual sort of feeling because he's a real person, he's not an actor, and it's as if he's talking straight to you."

In another series called First Person that Morris shot with his Interrotron, a mafia defense lawyer talks about a case in which he won acquittal for several mafia dons. "At the end he pauses, looking right at the camera, and then he puts his hands up and goes, 'What?' as if he's saying, 'Have you got a problem with that?'"Cooper explains. "Obviously Errol Morris had given him some kind of look.

"I put the two together and thought it would be amazing to look at people playing video games in that way."

Here's how it works: the subject and interviewer sit in separate rooms. Both are looking at each other through teleprompters, with a camera mounted directly behind each teleprompter. The camera that records the interviewer feeds an image to the interviewee's teleprompter, and vice-versa.

The teleprompters are one-way mirrors, so each person sees (and interacts with) the other person, while the cameras can see (and record) the subject and interviewer through the teleprompter screens. Neither person can see the camera. (For a schematic drawing of the set-up shown here, go to: www.whiterabbitdesigncompany.com/Miscellaneous/images/Interrotron.html.)

There has been plenty of hand-wringing about the violence in video games and its effect on children who play them. But after watching and thinking about the interactions of kids with video games, Cooper wasn't buying any arguments that video games affect all kids the same way.

"It seems obvious that the person who is responding—your psychological make-up, your character, and your personal circumstances must inform how you perceive anything you're watching," Cooper says. "You're not just a passive consumer of movies or video games. It's a two-way street."

There's now an academic component to Cooper's project that's intended to test the hypothesis. Cooper's curiosity about his subject led him to the academic literature about it. He ended up contacting some university researchers "and it went from there," he says.

Funded by academic grants, he's now working with researchers at the Media Centre in Bournemouth University (UK) on a component of the project called "War and Leisure." Cooper and his assistants plan to document dozens of kids playing war games, and watching war on the news and in movies and documentaries. Researchers will then use Cooper's footage to analyze the facial expressions of the subjects using a facial coding system called FACS.

"The idea is to compare the results [of the FACS analysis] to their psychological profiles," Cooper says. It will take hundreds of hours, and he concedes that "it would be common sense to most people" that personality informs how kids react to what they're watching. "But the details of that seem to be missing from the [academic] literature. The impetus is to turn it into a body of knowledge that people can work with on this particular subject."

In addition to that academic study, Cooper envisions art installations as well, and he's not just videotaping kids as they experience war through video screens. He has started filming adults watching horror movies and comedy. While continuing those efforts, he wants to film people watching TV shopping channels and pornography, and create stills from frame grabs.

"The idea is to display more and more images of the same thing in a gallery setting—a grid of 100 adults watching the same thing, or 100 kids playing the same [video] game," he says.

"This is something I want to do for a long time. One of the things I'm interested in is the kind of scale you get when you've been doing the same thing over and over for a very long time," he explains.

Cooper is trying to raise grant money to help support the non-academic components of the project. He'll also fund it with his own commercial assignment work. Footage of kids playing video games can be viewed on Cooper's Web site, www.robbiecooper.org.

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