Friday, 19 December 2008

In conversation with Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza, director of Second Skin



"Second Skin introduces viewers to the real people who populate online virtual worlds in games like World of Warcraft and Second Life. Couples who have fallen in love without meeting, disabled players whose lives have been given new purpose, those struggling with addiction, Chinese gold farming sweatshop workers, wealthy entrepreneurs and legendary guild leaders — all living within a world that doesn't quite exist."

***


The news has just been released that Gore Verbinski, director of Pirates of The Caribbean and the The Ring (a US remake of Hideo Nakata's Ringu) is going to make a live action, narrative feature film about a Second Life couple.

Coincidentally, I have a novel coming out on February 27th 2009 entitled MY ADVENTURES IN CYBERSPACE. Set at the turn of the millenium and inspired by own life, it is about a couple falling in love online, on a discussion forum, without knowing what the other looks like IRL (In Real Life.)


And also coincidentally, I have just finished conducting an online interview with Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza, director and editor of Second Skin, a documentary which introduces viewers to the real people who populate online virtual worlds in games like World of Warcraft (WOW) and Second Life.

Here's a trailer for Second Skin:







Produced by Pure West Films, Second Skin has just won Best Documentary at NYC's ACEFEST (American Cinematic Experience) and premiered on the opening night of SXSW 2008 to sold out shows, rave reviews and unprecedented press. It then had its International Premiere at Hot Docs, selling out and appearing on multiple Must See lists. The filmmakers have been interviewed by Newsweek, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, NPR, Wired, Fox TV, MSNBC and many others.


As soon as I saw this doc listed in the screenings for the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival in November, I knew I had to see it. And once I'd seen it, my editor, Brian Trevelyan and I, ended up taking Second Skin director Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza away from the Doc/Fest to a traditional English pub for a few bevvies.

Juan Carlos is a fascinating intellect and a huge talent. He also has his photo on his business card, as I do. Always a good sign. Here's our business cards, and our subsequent online conversation across the pond...



Jude Calvert-Toulmin: What's happening with Second Skin at the festivals?

Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: At the moment we're still making our way through the festival tour. The Santa Fe Festival just passed, and we're looking forward to more screenings in Florida, Australia, and Italy. We've also been doing a school lecture tour with the film which has been a lot of fun.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin: In your interview with Newsweek you say:
"There was a guy we met in Second Life who was really great: affable, funny, smart and fun—we really connected. Months later, we were shocked to find out he was completely disabled by cerebral palsy, to the point where he could only work one finger on one hand and couldn't talk. In that moment, the power of virtual worlds to enhance people's lives really crashed down on us." Who was this? Andrew Monkelban who plays WOW in Second Skin is disabled. How are his disabilities different from the person you're referring to above?
Andrew Monkelban at the Anime North convention.
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: Actually the person that we were referring to in the Newsweek article is in fact Andrew Monkelban.


Andrew Monkelban's WOW set up.
Jude Calvert-Toulmin: The British satirical news show, Have I Got News For You (it's harsh, very harsh!) was recently taking the piss out of the idea that gamers represent idealised versions of themselves in their avatars compared to their appearance IRL. Do you think the general public impression of gamers and forum users has crossed over from suspicion at the turn of the millenium (when "cyberspace" was a threatening place full of "weirdos" and geeks) to derision, now?
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: There is a stereotype of gamers not looking like their idealized counterparts in the game. As a society we tend to classify and quantify others by putting them into little boxes. It's not a healthy way of doing things, but we do it nonetheless.
I think as virtual worlds become more popular we will see much of the same suspicion and derision that has always existed for new things. People tend to be scared of what they don't know or don't understand. Our life on the web at this moment is frightening because we're all spending so much time glued to screens, but we still don't really understand the impact of it all.
Jude Calvert-Toulmin: (still chuckling to herself at the irony of Have I Got News For You conforming to bland stereotypes...) Have you ever fallen in love online?
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: No - I have never found love online. I found love the old fashioned way. I did try out match.com for a few months some years back, but nothing really happened. The very first interaction I had in an MMO with a stranger was pretty odd to me. An armored fellow spoke to me, I got nervous, and left my new buddy stranded. I had an almost instantaneous flight response. At first the relationship gamers had with other strangers did surprise me. Then I put it in perspective with all the social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. I didn't think it was so odd to meet strangers then. Context is everything. Once we become comfortable in a space we tend to open up to others more easily.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin: As you know from the conversations we had IRL when you met him, I fell in love with my fiance and partner of 7 years, Brian, on a large forum. I didn't know what he looked like at the time as this was pre-facebook / online profile days. I fell in love with his writing on the forum, with the way his postings were totally subversive. He was managing to offend hundreds of people with one liners and only I could see that he was taking the piss. And yet he was also respectful, respected, gentle, funny and highly intelligent. By the time we met IRL we were already in love, unbeknown to us at the time. What I think is great about this way of falling in love is its purity. I had no idea what job he did, his status IRL, whether he was tall, short, fat or thin, handsome or not. All I knew was how he interacted in a large social group online. I feel that's a very pure way to find a mate. IRL most people can't help but be influenced by a person's looks and status. What do you think about this?
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: I think it is one of the reasons why a virtual space can be so appealing and freeing. Here is a world where people cannot judge you just by looking at you. Instead you learn about someone from the inside out. First you hear their stories, get to know who they are, discuss your strengths and weaknesses, and then you see them. A lot of people I interviewed said that often they were more open with online friends than real life friends. Sometimes they become your closest friends, and of course many times (like in your case) they fall in love. Personally it seems to me like a very romantic way to get to know somebody. Much like the old days of sending love letters back and forth by mail.


Cyber-lovers in love IRL me and Brian.
Jude Calvert-Toulmin: I was looking for an alpha male who wasn't frightened of his emotions or of women, who was a bit of a nutter, yet also responsible, funny, compassionate, artistic, into film, literature, art, music and cookery and could make and put up shelves to a high standard whilst enjoying the process. That's a tall order, I hadn't managed to find anyone like that in my 42 years on the planet so how come I found it in amongst sentences on a screen? I'm intrigued as to how meeting a partner in an online social situation seems such a perfect way to find the ideal mate. What are your thoughts on this?


Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: Well I think there is one easy answer that may not be that new, but I agree with it. In online spaces we gravitate to things we like or like to do. When we become part of an online space we tend to have some common ground with the people around us. In real life, you go to a bar or social space, what is the likelihood that someone else likes what you like? Even if they did like what you like our guards are up on places like that. Most of the time jumping into another group's conversation is not that easy. Online a lot of those barriers just aren't there.


Above: Juan filming Kevin Keel, who fell in love with Heather Cowan on WOW.
Above: Heather Cowan morphing from WOW to RL.
Jude Calvert-Toulmin: From your experience, how close do you think peoples' avatars or forum personas are to their RL personalities?
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: By and large the gamers we spoke to creating the film believed their avatars were extensions of themselves in real life. Most people said they looked a little better online or were a little freer in their conversations, but were generally speaking themselves. Perhaps even a little more true to who they were than they felt they were in real life.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin: You've said you're planning to go on to make features. I, personally, think you're going to be a hugely successful features director in the future. I can see it in front of me, clear as a bell..
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: Thank you so much. My company, Pure West, is adapting a screenplay at the moment of the book "6 Sick Hipsters". It's about a serial killer who is offing the elite hipsters in Williamsburg. I think it has huge potential, and I'm really excited to direct it.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin: What do you think of this quote by Peter Greenaway, one of the masters of European cinema (my bold):
"In a sense I think it's already too late: Cinema is an old technology. I think we've seen an incredibly moribund cinema in the last 30 years. In a sense Godard destroyed everything -- a great, great director, but in a sense he rang the death knell, because he broke cinema all apart, fragmented it, made it very, very self-conscious. Like all the aesthetic movements, it's basically lasted about 100 years, with the three generations: the grandfather who organized everything, the father who basically consolidated it and the young guy who chucks it all away. It's just a human pattern."
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: I think people like to call out the death of things all the time. It's a way to signify the end of something and the beginning of another. Every end of the year magazine I read talks about the star that has changed the face of their art forever, and no one will do what they can. There is always a space for innovation in any field. There are still absolutely amazing pieces of art being made in every medium. It is impossible to innovate like the godfathers of any given medium because they were creating new theories in visual space. However there is new media coming out now that needs those visionaries as well. I want to be working on projects that use new media in ways that change they way we think about our reality. It will be a lot of fun.


Jude Calvert-Toulmin: I watched all your vlogs from the SXSW South by SouthWest Film Festival in Austin, Texas and was hugely impressed. The road leading up to success is often looked back upon nostalgically by successful artists as having been the most favourite period of their lives. It seems to be one of the most fascinating roads a person travels, paved equally with fear and excitement. I love the way you've archived your first TV interview and your first festival tour and put it straight on the site for everyone to see. How important do you think archiving this journey is?
Above: The Second Skin team.
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: Archiving everything is actually something Victor, one of our producers, got into. He is the major engine behind the blog, and he wanted to keep everyone on the blog up to date with what was going on in Austin. I think the vlogs that he made are absolutely hilarious, and they definitely made it onto the DVD extras. Personally I'm glad they exist, and I hope one day I can look back at them nostalgically from a successful place.

The Howard, a traditional English pub full of locals. First time I went there was with The Teardrop Explodes on their 1980 Uni tour.
Jude Calvert-Toulmin: During our pints down The Howard pub after Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival, I found out that, like me, you're a big admirer of David Milch's Deadwood.
I have been thinking for a while that Milch is a living Dickens, Hardy or Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment is the greatest book I've ever read and towards the end of Deadwood, Milch tackles similar themes. Milch is very familiar with the mind of the murderer, just as Dostoevsky was.

In his (mindblowing) book, Deadwood, Stories Of The Black Hills, Milch says:

"The number of characters in Deadwood does not frighten me. The serial form of the nineteenth-century novel is close to what I'm doing. The writers who are alive to me, whom I consider my contemporaries, are writers who lived in another time - Dickens and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Twain."


What do you think about this?
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: I think he's a genius, and I think my little group of friends in New York went through a year where we quoted it a little too much. I haven't read the book, but the series is absolutely poetic.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin: Have you got any ideas as to what could be done to persuade Milch to do the promised 2 hour feature conclusion to Deadwood?
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: I don't know - there must be some forums that we can appeal to. We should take a note from Joss Whedon fans and group up Firefly style.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin: Who are your favourite filmmakers and which films have most influenced you as a filmmaker?
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: I'm in the process of reconsidering this all the time, and I still can't really give anything definitive. Today these are some of the people I've been thinking about.
Sergio Leone was the king of big expansive emotional scenes. Every shot in Once Upon a Time in the West is perfect. The music in it is unbeatable - "The Man with the Harmonica" is inside my head all the time.
(Jude Calvert-Toulmin: Thinks...funny that, I've just compared Shane Meadows and singer-songwriter Gavin Clark to Leone and Morricone elsewhere on the net...)
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: (contd) I am a big fan of science fiction and fantasy films. Pretty traditionally nerdy. I know the REAL Star Wars trilogy front to back. I can quote almost every alien line, know most the names of all the robots from the lineup on Mos Eisley, and I named all my hard drives a character's name from the films. So yeah - I suppose I'm a fan of George Lucas the early years before the Star Wars Apocalypse.
The Twi'Lek twins with their super stylish Lekkus inspired by the divided hennins of the fifteenth century. Two reasons to still love all of Star Wars.
Broken Lizard for Super Troopers and Beerfest. Those guys made by far the most watchable comedies of all time for me.
Willow and the Princess Bride are definitely up there too.
Ridley Scott is literally why I think I wanted to start directing. It was Blade Runner. Jesus it was the awe inspiring beauty of Bladerunner. Last year I got to see the Final Final Final Cut of the film in theaters. The colors, the theory, the cyberpunk noir - It just really hits home.

Probably my favorite director is Paul Verhoeven (for his Sci Fi flicks). Total Recall and Starship Troopers. What else do I have to say?

Milos Forman for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. That was an eye opener for me. Everytime I see it there is something new.

The Coen Brothers for The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski. Those two films are absolutely visionary. The scene where the hula hoop becomes a runaway success is poetic and dead on.

There is one guy who is pretty obviously a genious, and sometimes gets a bad rap from people who graduated from film school. Steven Spielberg. Recently, I've been thinking a lot about Minority Report. The theory of the future in that film is becoming eerily precise, and you can't take away that his vision was in that. There are obviously plenty other good ones, but recently I've been thinking that's the one to keep as the futurist's handbook.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin: Who are your favourite authors and which books have most influenced you as an artist in general?
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: I like a lot of traditionally great authors. What are you going to do? I think they're great for a reason.
Nabokov - Tops my list because I think the first three paragraphs of Lolita are perfect. Russian was supposed to be his first language, but somehow English ended up winning out. What child knows to choose their second language as their first language because eventually they'll be the best prose writer of all time? Only Nabokov.
Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea. The story struck me more than anything else up to that point. I was in 7th grade and up until then I was still pretty sure the Phantom Tolbooth was the best book of all time. Then this came along, and in a few short minutes I knew it had changed. That book's themes are the most timeless I have ever read.
Camus - The Plague. Every character in this book is completely memorable and tragic. Every wave of a plague is entertained in this novel. If I could make a film of it I would in a heartbeat.

Fitzgerald - This Side of Paradise. I personally like this one way better than Gatsby. The book is more raw, and less artistic. Some people I think write better later, but Fitz was at his peak for me here.

William Gibson - Neuromancer. It was my introduction to Chapter science fiction.

Orson Scott Card - Ender's Game. Child geniuses in space fighting wars. How do you make that one liner believable? Thank you for not only proving me wrong, but also making by far the best sci fi book ever. Come one Hollywood! This should have been made years ago.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin: Where do you want to be and what do you want to be doing, career wise, in ten years time?
Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: Ten years from now. Who knows - it's hard to tell. I definitely want to be in the center of our cross media revolution. I know that whatever I'm doing it's going to be a mix of films, args, video games, web, and marketing. At least the company I founded with a few other buddieswill hopefully be creating all those things. Me personally - I think my focus is films and ARGs.


Jude Calvert-Toulmin: Thanks for taking the trouble to do the interview and Happy Christmas :)

Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza: Wonderful thank you! It was a lot of fun doing it.



Iraqi servicemen and women playing WOW.


Festival Tour Vlog Day 1: (may take a minute to load)






Festival Tour Vlog Day 7: (may take a minute to load)








Juan's Second Skin blog and his write up about Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival.

More about Second Skin at the official site.

Newsweek: Why People Live Second Lives Online, Fast Chat with Second Skin.

Interviews with a huge number of magazines and newspapers from Newsweek to the BBC.

Second Skin Facebook Group


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