And Now For Something Completely Machinima

CM Interview with Hypatia Pickens (aka Sarah Higley)

September 23, 2021 Ricky Grove, Tracy Harwood, Damien Valentine, and Phil Rice
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CM interview with Hypatia Pickens, aka Sarah Higley

For our classics theme episode of machinima, Tracy spoke to Sarah Higley about her Second Life-based machinima work that draws inspiration from old and middle English texts written as early at the 10th Century.  Whilst they didn’t get around to discussing this on the recording, Sarah is also well known for having written the script for Star Trek: Next Generation’s episode 21 (Season 3) ‘Hollow Pursuits’, which aired in April 1990 (under the pen name of Sally Caves). Sarah is particularly noted for the character, ensign Reginald Barclay (portrayed by Dwight Schultz) who uses the Holodeck to imagine how his life should be.  Sarah recalled to Tracy this was her first imaginings of her experiences of Second Life, evidenced through her creative machinima works discussed in  this interview.


machinima, film, life, called, people, English, wrote, instance, read, narrative, fairy, language, poem, work, stories, poetry, child, environments, confession, sim


Sarah Higley, ANFSCM, Tracy Harwood


ANFSCM  00:08

And Now For Something Completely Machinima.


Tracy Harwood  00:12

This is the And Now For Something Completely Machinima podcast and I'm one of your regular hosts Tracy Harwood. Today we're speaking with Sarah Higley otherwise known as Hypatia Pickens of Textcavation. Now, Sarah is a machine animator with some history and was particularly active between 2010 and 2014. She's professor of English at the University of Rochester in New York in her day job, and has published on machinima aesthetics, and its creative possibilities in the past. But more than that, she's used machinima to explore literary texts, some of which date back to the 10th century. So Sarah, welcome to the show. It's great to have you here today.


Sarah Higley  00:54

Thank you very much. I'm very happy to be invited Tracy.


Tracy Harwood  00:57

You're very welcome. It's a real pleasure to to talk to you about this subject, actually. Now, the theme of this month's podcast is actually to do with classics, literary classics and how machinima has been used to adapt to those classics. So let's, you know, I know this is an area that you've worked in a while. This is your work. So let's start with you telling us a little bit about your background as a machinima filmmaker and the classic works or the the period that you've specialized in.


Sarah Higley  01:29

Well, okay, I have made machinima false thoughts, not just machinima, this based on on old English and Middle English poetry. But I've done fantasies, I've done comedies, very few comedies, most of my stuff is pretty dark. I've taken poems, for instance, and recited them to a background of imagery and music. And I was wondering if that that also qualifies as classic? [Yes, yeah, I think so.] For instance, stolen child by William Butler Yeats, and Robert Frost's Design, I am very fond of certain poems that I have found Second Life adapts to very well. And I liked this genre because it combined four passions of mine: painting, narrative, music and film. So I wasn't sure at first what you meant by classic. But I think what you mean then is something like adapting well known poetry to and making it visual, which is in itself a little problematic too. But my specialty is as a medievalist I teach Old English, Middle English I teach middle Welsh


Tracy Harwood  02:58

Oh wow!


Sarah Higley  03:00

and Celtic literature in translation, medieval Celtic literature and translation. I also teach creative writing, and I also taught machinima. So when they discovered that I was doing this, or when I let them know that I was doing this they allowed me to, to teach to teach machinima. So literary machinima, stories based on poetry. So I've done about four films that specifically target medieval texts.


Tracy Harwood  03:35

Yes. I've seen some of them. They're incredible works. 


Sarah Higley  03:39

Oh, thank you. My very first one. When I was learning to make machinima was the Hildegard of Bingen, who was a 12th century German nun. And she was a builder of two convents. She was quite temperamental, and, and independent and it's called KAPHD. Alright. And it's an apocryphal it's an apocryphal story about this woman's prophetic power. Hildegard of Bingen was known for her visions. She's German, let's put it this way. She was a German nun. Yeah, her for her. Her range of talents. Her erudition, her musical compositions that what most people probably associate with her, um, there have been a number of recordings of of her Antifons and her Symphonie for traveling, her writing her letters to Pope's and kings, her visions that she put in several but she wrote nine books, her healing, she kept she kept a sort of an apothecary garden, and also for her inventing a language and I wrote a book on that. Her Lingua Ignota, her unknown language, is one that records 1012 words. And thankfully it is translated, there's a list. Otherwise we would, we would have nothing but these words like aliens and things of that sort. So it's translated into skirts old high, middle, middle, High German, and Latin. So I was able to make an edition of that and to talk about it. In my latest book


Tracy Harwood  05:37

When was that published, fairly recently...? 


Sarah Higley  05:38

Oh my god long, no, time ago, I'm working on something else now. I'm, I'm working on concepts of the fairy, and especially the French, the 14th, French 14th century French fairy tale Melusine. So that's been my focus lately, and I'm doing another edition, but it's enormously long. And it's taking me a while. It's tedious work. But it's rather exciting too, because of the things that you uncover. And that was the same for for Hildegard of Bingen and when I was doing the, the addition of her of her language, the discovery of the different words for things like stylus, or frying pan. Interesting. And all those herbs that was difficult. Yes. So i, KAPHD, is an apocryphal story, as I said, written by her biographers, in her vitta. And in it, Hildegard of Bingen an counsels a sinful priest, who has, when he has chastised his, his, his novice for not putting the candles out. He finds these letters KAPHD, written by no human hand on the altar cloth, and he's frightened to buy it. And he knows that only one person can tell him what these mean, because she, because of her visions, she became known as a kind of Prophet. And so he takes these to her. And she tells them what they mean. They essentially they're written in Latin, and I don't want to go into it, essentially. And it's kind of anacrostick anyway. Um, you can watch the film and see it. 


Tracy Harwood  07:38

Well, I did actually watch the film earlier. And I was kind of really impressed with that. And that was, that was what 2009 did you say that was recorded? 


Sarah Higley  07:48

No, it was 2010-11? Yeah.


Tracy Harwood  07:52

So I noticed in it, what you what you did was, you tried to use a little bit of lip sync in it. For part of the storytelling, which I thought was really interesting. 


Sarah Higley  08:03

"Mother, I have never ever mocked our Lord." 


Tracy Harwood  08:07

Exactly. What I was going to say was, how did you come to use Second Life for the for the work that you produced in in these old you know, Old English formats? How did you come to Second Life for this?


Sarah Higley  08:26

Oh, it's kind of by accident. I was a member of a writers group in Rochester. And we would meet monthly and talk about science fiction or or media. And I was showed by a colleague, how she was representing her library, she's librarian by building a mock up of it in this virtual sandbox called Second Life. And I'd never heard of that. I was very intrigued. And there was also a conference going on there sponsored by NASA. And I wanted to, to get to it. So I made an avatar very quickly Hypatia Pickens, and I attended, I managed to get in at the very tail end of it, I didn't actually see it. But I got intrigued. I stayed in there by other creative possibilities. I did an exploration of it. And ever since I was a child, I wanted to have a doll town, you know, a miniature that was explorable and endless. And so this brought all of that back, and the creative possibilities way outweighed the sort of social aspects of Second Life and I realized that Second Life had this reputation for being a hangout for for trysts and adultery and that sort of thing. And it's so much more than that. I went to a poetry workshop. I'm still part of it, the Blue Angel Poetry [they still use] a poetry dive yet well, occasionally, I mean, it's time consuming. It's very addictive. It's worse than Facebook if you get into it. And I, I kind of abandoned it and machinima because I need to move.  My work already entails so much sitting in front of a computer. But when you go back into it, you see your friends, you can go to the poetry workshops, you can go to the 3d artwork and environment creation workshops and of course there are incredible environments there. So what I did at first was I made a digital representation of our Robins Library at the University of Rochester I, I got a small grant to maintain it, which was later taken away from me. But in additions produced by the Middle English tech series, you can just, you know, press the books and a link will come up and take you right to the page and you can read these Middle English works. 


Sarah Higley  11:15

And then in about 2009 I heard about machinima. mainly through my involvement in the art. I discovered the 3d art and machinima challenges that was sponsored by the University of Western Australia and run by JJ Zifanwe. Yeah. To pronounce his name. Yeah. JJ, who has been so enterprising about this, it um, it answered all my deep desires to pull together. As I said, the visual, the auditory, the verbal. Yeah, and combine it with narrative. All my own pursuits as a child had been painting poetry, music and story and, and movement. I used to be in ballet. And so I went to workshops with Chantal Harvey. And I joined this a Second Life machinima group, and got to know Cisco Vanderveer, who gave me a lot of advice and so did Natasha Rampton and, and other people who were there. And for a four year period, I made machinima of all types, fantasy comedies, whimsical pieces, poems. And it culminated. And I think this probably is what burnt me out completely. Well, a six month project, in which I made a half hour film for the International, the International Congress of the John Gower Society, held June 2014, in Rochester. And that's something I can talk about at great length. Because there's a lot to say. And it's probably the first and probably the only time a film of mine will, will be shown on a big screen before a live audience. And I can't tell you how thrilling that was. Because most of the time, your machinima goes up on Vimeo or our YouTube and you get likes and comments and people see it. Yeah. So


Tracy Harwood  13:28

and this is so we're talking here about the Lovers Confession tales, [yes, yes. Yes.] Well, I you know, obviously, I've had a little look at some of the work that you've produced. And I can't tell you how impressed I am with this is this is this is an absolutely stunning piece of work. But I what I was intrigued about with it was you know, I saw you discussed the use of visual as an interpretive tool for those tales. And you know, what struck me was when I was watching it, it's the narration which is obviously key to accepting this as a an adapted work and you narrate it in Old English [in Middle English], Middle English is so it's so so it's also obviously an important oral cue as well as a visual cue which is being you know, which you connecting here to the Second Life visual so you connecting the visuals, and the story through through this through this process of narration, but why use a long dead language to retell a story in machinima? What What was your thought process there?


Sarah Higley  14:47

You mean why did I narrate it in the Middle English as a Yeah, just narrating it in modern English? Yeah. Well, I am a teacher of language, and I'm fascinated by foreign language. And especially dead language.


Tracy Harwood  15:04

Sorry, is that the right word to use for you? 


Sarah Higley  15:06

Well, we don't speak Middle English anymore. We have remnants of it in the way that we have remnants of Old English as well, yeah, but I love the sound of it. For instance, if I can go back to another medieval text that I did before I talk about the Lovers Confession, I also narrated Wulf and Eedwacer, which is a 10th century old English on it's completely enigmatic. We don't know who Wulf is and we don't know who Eadwacer is, but we do know that it's one of two extent Old English poems, written in the point of view from the point of view of a woman. And she has separated from Wulf whoever he is, and it's only like 17 lines long and yet, next to Beowulf, it is the most critiqued poem,


Tracy Harwood  16:07



Sarah Higley  16:08

and I needed to narrate it in Old English... xxx 'it's as though someone gave my people sport' is what that means. But then xxx, is it could be translated as sport sacrifice, game, play. We don't know what it means there are about five words in that, that can change the the next one completely. And so I said at the end of that film, that there is no agreed upon interpretation of it, no one can agree upon an interpretation of it, and neither can this film. So, so setting something like that, to a visual context or putting it in, in visual or making a movie of it, let's put it that way. Limit explorer one limits you to one interpretation. Yeah. It's hard to make it as ambiguous as the point is, if you put images to it, you know, the Lovers' Confession did not did not exhibit or did not offer quite the same problem. Right. It's pretty straightforward. The stories are pretty straightforward. But it's, it's medieval, and the messages in it are moralistic.  Gower is eclipsed by Geoffrey Chaucer. Everyone reads Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, like Troilus and Cressider. He's just so much flashier than John Gower, who is his contemporary in London, the 14th century. And so it's very unlikely that anybody would read John Gower, even though there are translations, not in the same way that there are translations of Geoffrey Chaucer, and I still believe, to answer your question, that one should read Chaucer in the original and not in a translation. And so that's how I teach Chaucer.


Tracy Harwood  18:34

Well, I you know, I remember as a as a as a teenager that we were played old discs of it for somebody reading from it in Old English. And that's how I that is how I remember it. 


Sarah Higley  18:51

Well, the thing is, is that in the United States, we're a linguistic Island. Spanish is our second language, but we are our, our neighbor, Canada speaks English in French, but you know, it's it's English. It's not like being in Europe where people just naturally pick up two or three languages, especially the Dutch they're so good. 


Tracy Harwood  19:18

Chantal you're referring to here, right?


Sarah Higley  19:20

So this is why I narrated it in, in Middle English was to give you the sound of what it might have been like, we don't have recordings from those days. So we don't know how, how words were actually pronounced. We can only surmise it from from linguists who study it. And I think one of the drawbacks is that I had to have subtitles. Yes, those can be distracting, but I'll tell you about the visuals. I was dead set against putting the characters in any kind of Neo medieval setting, or period dress. For one thing, you can't get clothing in Second Life that replicates 14th century London dress, right? It's all Disneyfied with the long hair. And yeah, the gowns and none of it realistically medieval I had no interest in putting castles in there or, or anything like that, um, that would have destroyed the stories, it would have been corny and distracting. So all of these tales are put in modern dress so that the messages of the tail would be more immediate and more up to date, instead of being dismissed as medieval and moralistic and on the deadly of you know, the seven deadly sins and that sort of thing. So, um, so there are three of them that I took out, he was a very, very prolific writer. The Confessio Amantis or a Lovers Confession, is in itself three books. And, and in it, there is a dreamer and lover, who represents a kind of every man that the Lovers Confession, is a what we call a mirror for princes, a set of morals that are meant to guide a prince as a Christian, and as a ruler, and to conduct his life morally. And it's allegorized, as this lover of an unknown beloved, and his psychopomp and instructor in the dream is called genius. And the lover is judged by the goddess of love or not loving properly. And of course, love has all these different connotations to it. 


Sarah Higley  21:54

So, so I chose three stories, one of them being The Travelers and the Angel, Canoce and Machaire and then Florent, which is the only one I didn't narrate, I had subtitles for that only, and that sort of set in a kind of surreal mafia world. So The Travelers in the Angel, one of the wonderful things about Second Life is that you have all these people who are making these different bizarre environments. And so I set it in the Wastelands, which is sort of in a post apocalyptic world to to represent the moral emptiness of the man who is covetous, and the man who is envious. And of course, these words envy, for instance, meant to look with malice upon someone whose work or his possessions or you you want, but you don't have and so you wish him ill. And, and it's one of the three wishes kind of thing. God sends down in angel to try to figure out why it is that the humans that he's, he's made are so dreadful. And so and so the angel plays a trick on them. And so this is all told, this was all told, basically, in travelers were driving in a car, and they pick up a hitchhiker, and they go to a bar, and the angel reveals himself as an angel and gives him these, these these, this challenge, essentially, you can ask for whatever you want, anything you want. But the proviso being that the second person gets twice as much. And so the envious person says, Well, whatever I asked, he's going to get more, and I can't stand that. So it says, make me blind in one eye. Oh. And so the covetous is one he goes second, he says, you go first because he knows he'll get more. And so he's blinded in both eyes. And the angel shakes his head and goes away and says the world xxx, okay, the world declines.


Tracy Harwood  24:20

It's not far from the truth. Is it really? 


Sarah Higley  24:22

No, not at all. I mean, this is why the thing is, is you put it in modern dress, and suddenly it becomes relevant. Absolutely relevant.


Tracy Harwood  24:31

And you're still using this today in your teachings. Is that right?


Sarah Higley  24:35

Um, I haven't taught machinima. Oh, you mean? Do you mean?


Tracy Harwood  24:41

Gower. And, oh, you


Sarah Higley  24:43

have to make it relevant. Absolutely. The last class I taught that was a taught Chaucer a year and a half ago. And... Chaucer is always relevant!


Tracy Harwood  25:00

So, so I'm interested now in the work workflow that you that you have for the mission, but did you go out and you did the adaptations here? So did you go and find the sets in Second Life? Or had you, you know, have had you got to space and you created the sets with with, you know, other creators? And what have you had? How did you go about doing it,


Sarah Higley  25:25

There are so many different ways that you can do it, I would say a mixture of both. Florent for instance, which is the one of the three the three really interesting lovely lady tales that we have from the 14th and 15th century about a man who is forced to marry an ugly woman. And I said that in an environment I had made, what you can do with your environment is you can texture the ground, so I textured it with a manuscript texture that I had. And so all these people who are dressed like in modern days dress, riding motorcycles, are doing it on this textured land. So I bought the sim, or I rented the sim, and I textured the land. And I got a Game of Thrones thrown by that. Yeah. said that on there, I dressed everybody. You can get your friends essentially to help play different parts. And that's the beauty of Second Life is that it not only is 99% of it built by its residents, as they call it, but it's multiplayer. So you can go around with your friends and and visit these different things. And then you can you can pay them to act in your Yeah. So but the thing is, is that too, excuse me, you can find the most amazing environments for instance, for not just the Wastelands. A lot of Travelers in the Angel was put in Cherry Mangoes magnificent build called Insanity, quite frightening with this yellow landscape, that sprouting these heads, and is covered with eyes. And that helped again, with not only the spiritual dereliction of these characters, but the insanity of asking to be blinded in one eye, so that your your fellow traveler would be completely blind. I mean, that sort of insanity of sin. Yeah, the insanity of moral depravity. And there's just been a number of sins that I love Sims.


Tracy Harwood  28:01

Very close to say


Sarah Higley  28:03

that I've loved. There have been wonderful environments. They're called sims. Yeah, I'm one of them The Petrovski Flux?


Tracy Harwood  28:11

Oh, yes.


Sarah Higley  28:13

Oh, it's absolutely stunning. And that that was the forest, that Florent walked through to meet the lovely lady, the ugly lady. And it's essentially a mathematical equation that I don't understand set in motion with all these tunnels and chambers that and then they all fall apart. And one of them just accidentally knocks the avatar straight out. And that was I put that in as an example. It was he was screwed, because he couldn't find the answer to what it is that all women want, which is a feature in all three lovely ladies that we have. So so The Petrovski Flux and Scottius Polke, for instance, Scottius is a friend of mine, I've met him outside of Second Life. Scott Rolfe is now making his own artwork, 3d real time. And you just make a story about it, about these, these astonishing sims one of the most important ones was a Claudia333 Jewel's Spirit, which was the fairy world, and I put Stolen Child in that by William Butler Yeats,


Tracy Harwood  29:41

I was gonna ask you about that one as well. All right, I'm sorry. No, no. No, that's fine. What I was I was gonna say is did you find the sin first or the poem first? That was I suppose you're familiar with the poem and then you just found the location where you thought it could play out


Sarah Higley  30:01

It's hard to say, I really don't know. Um, a lot of these are challenges. I mean, I wrote a number of these things for the UWA Challenge, which asked you to find, especially the artwork that they set up at the UWA. So you would go around and you would take pictures, art of the artists would be the theme. And that was that for a couple of my films. Yeah..., which was about a man with aphasia. And Cloud, which was about a woman suffering Alzheimer’s. And, yeah, I seem to be focused on brain diseases. And speaking.


Tracy Harwood  30:57

Let's hope that's not apocryphal in any way. No, I


Sarah Higley  31:00

mean, it's, it's always a worry if you're a writer, so 


Tracy Harwood  31:04

Well, I mean, the thing? [Yeah, go ahead.] Well, I was gonna say the thing that's really impressed me with with the narrated work is the, you know, the voice work that you do. Are you are you a trained actor as well? I mean, you know, obviously, literature is your, your thing, it's your field, your expertise. But how did you train and prepare yourself to narrate these works?


Sarah Higley  31:32

I was in theater since I was 13. Okay. I really got into it in high school. And in my first two years of college, and part of it is my love of language and accents and different words, you know, quite different words. I think I went into the study of the Middle Ages, because I was fascinated by what felt to me almost like fantasy languages. Tolkein helped when I was 14, as an as an medievalist and a language inventor, and so I was I was on stage quite a bit. Um, I'm a ham. I practice these languages a lot. I have, I wouldn't say that I've worked in radio, but I have read for at the University of Rochester's WXXI. I've read some stories [you're practiced then]...  hire me as a reader, please. I need a second career!


Tracy Harwood  32:55

Well, no, I'm just intrigued to hear you say how you developed the the voice acting side of it, which is, you know, really a big part of, of the work that you've done, I think from certainly from the, the, the part of the catalogue that I've been looking at. Now, you've also, I don't know if you still have it, given that you've been out of Second Life professionally for a while as such. But you also mentioned that you've got a studio in Second Life. What was the role of the studio for you? And how did it help you to develop your work? 


Sarah Higley  33:28

I never had a studio in Second Life. I'm not sure what you mean by that. 


Tracy Harwood  33:32

Oh, I thought you had a place where you showed some of your work. A place where you had it. Streaming? I read that somewhere. I can't remember where I read it. No, no, you don't have a place.


Sarah Higley  33:45

Well, it's here there when I had I've had I have art galleries in Second Life, because I am an artist. And I contributed quite a bit to you who with with subpar artwork, that 3d artwork that I made, I made a salamander.


Tracy Harwood  34:06

I was not curated anywhere, basically as I what you're saying?


Sarah Higley  34:09

No, I well, I mean, some of my artwork is curated at the galleries, by Ernie Forest Writer. But, but they're imported textures. And some of them are builds. But But I do have a sim that I and my students built in the latest machinima class that I have is actually a Second Life class. We took a poem from the Welsh poet or set of poets collectively called Taliesin called Prydain, or the Spoils of Annwn, Annwn being it kind of subterranean other worlds in Celtic mythology and Welsh mythology and we turned it into this enormous sim where you walk around and you read the different stanzas of the poem and as I said before, they would have a kind of visualized. So my students would take his stanza, and they would buy sculptures and things and set them up around it end to end, you enter it by by walking across the water following the white dogs with a red eyes and you get in you sink into an under underwater sim, and you go into this one place, and I do have the link to the machinima I made for that called Prydian and we also made a sound bite for it with a studio in real life, where one of my students narrates it. And here and there, I've put on on the walls of my gallery links. I've made a ton of posters for my various for my various machinima. But I don't have a real studio. Exactly. things here and there. [Okay. Okay.] Um, I lost an entire sim just by not paying my tier on time. Oh, no, that was feeling very frustrating. Oh, this was like three years in the making. And oh, it was absolutely gorgeous. [And it was a bet that was heartbreaking.] Yeah, it was. And so I have to be very careful not to lose Prydian,  because a lot of the materials there might belong to students who no longer on Second Life. If I if they can't be returned to me. Yeah, they just go back to their accounts that they're not using. So they disappear.


Tracy Harwood  36:42

Yeah, that's very difficult. Machinima I suppose one of the only ways that you can record what's happened in so that's what


Sarah Higley  36:50

I've done. That's what I've done is I've recorded their their work in that.


Tracy Harwood  36:55

So you are still making machinima but using more as a documentary approach now,


Sarah Higley  37:00

No, I'm not making machinima. I haven't made machinima since 2016. As I said, the Lovers Confession almost killed me. One thing I had a hard deadline, it had to be shown on June 12, or whatever it was at the conference. And I was also teaching full time. So I was doing this till four in the morning, and teaching and putting this all together. And then making sure that they got the the film that it was mastered, so that they could they could show it. We went through several trials. And then the next six months was devoted to my writing an article that was published in Accessus, which is an online medieval journal, about the process of making a visualization of these three stories by John Gower, and also about, you know, I, what I do to valorize my, my work in, in Second Life is to turn it to academic study. Yeah. And so it's research we call practice based research, which you know, start out as hobbies and then become these passions, and I love talking academically scholastically about these things. So I have an article in Understanding Machinima by Jenna Ng called Dangerous Sim Crossings, you know, you cross. You know where sims come together, you fall through the cracks? Yeah. And it's all about the frame and about and about using these environments. And I co-wrote an article with JJ Jacob, Jacob Ziva Jaeger, the Sanjay Goddard logic Yeah.


Tracy Harwood  38:48

James. JJ


Sarah Higley  38:50

Yes. I'm sorry. Please forgive me JJ. You would have such a hard name to pronounce. Um


Tracy Harwood  39:04

I was focusing on the on Second Life as a as


Sarah Higley  39:08

it was focusing on the University of Western Australia's work and we went to Barcelona basically together and gave a talk on it at at one of the universities there. That was lovely. And I have done the Accessus article so I would say that the the one in understanding machinima essays on filmmaking in virtual worlds and, and my article in Accessus are probably the ones that are most available to


Tracy Harwood  39:38

Yeah, yeah, and we can put a link in the show notes. But I was gonna actually just ask you something about the article actually in in Jenna's book, all right, where are you if you can recall this? I don't know if you can. But But I actually I've just written a book about machinima as well. And I also go back to Peter Greenways comments that you've cited in that in there as well and elsewhere that I've kind of seen, you know, what I took from from Peter's comments. And I think we probably take the same sort of points, really, but he seemed to me to be talking about, you know, machinima is an opportunity not just to use text based interpretations of, of media if you like, but to use the image to drive the storytelling process, and I just wondered how you, you know, how you interpreted those kinds of comments and what that meant for the development of your own work.


Sarah Higley  40:46

Thank you. Thank you for asking that. Because Ricky Grove, asked me to do a half an hour documentary on finding the experimental in machinima. And and so I did, as well as in Jenna Ng's book, I did comment on Peter Greenaway his remarks, which was why replicate sort of standard filmmaking processes you find in ordinary film in the cinema when machinima itself I like when virtual worlds themselves you can you can defy gravity, you can, you can do so many different things that you can't do in reality. So why? Why make it a kind of? Why give it a chronology. Yeah, he basically says Get rid of the camera. Does, yeah, yes. He says Get rid of the frame size, you know, get rid of the frame, get rid of the characters and get rid of dialogue. Yeah, and a lot of people were sort of angered by this. And...


Tracy Harwood  42:00

I think they misunderstood it. Really, I think they misunderstood where he was going with it.


Sarah Higley  42:04

I think that what he is emphasizing is make make something that's more abstract, because there's something called abstract film, if you want to get rid of experimental film, because after after you have done this kind of thing for decades, it's no longer experimental. And it's no longer avant garde. Because it's not at the forefront of, of it's become a style that's recognized. This sort of non narrative, this evocative montage of images, this these statements essentially about the media and and how it dislocates lots and deterritorialized things. For instance, Lainy Voom's Push. Yes, remember, yes. Was was quite startling to people and people started imitating that. I have a number of films that I really admire that do this kind of thing. Yeah.


Tracy Harwood  43:15

Well, one of the first I saw was along that on that line really was Tom Jantol's Cirque du Machinima. [Oh, I love Tom Jantol and I loved Dear Fairy] Yes. Dear Fairy was a later one but I remember Cirque coming out. Cirque was submitted to... because I ran the first Machinima Film Festival in Europe. And that that's, that was the film. I mean, the only thing I can remember discussing what the categories were, that we we offered and Experimental was one of those categories that we sort of threw in at the last minute because we didn't really know what to call some of the work that was presented, including work by Tom's and yeah, Tom, Tom's work won that category, but it's still an absolutely stunning film for me today. In fact, we interviewed Tom a few weeks back,


Sarah Higley  44:12

Did you Yeah.


Tracy Harwood  44:13

And, you know, we were talking to him about some of the some of the things that influenced how he, how he thinks about his creative work, you should have listened to his fascinating discussion about what influences his creative process.


Sarah Higley  44:29

I would, I would love to listen to that. Because I wrote him and told him how much I liked Dear Fairy. Yeah. And he did it. I believe on iClone. Yes. He told me that it took him a year to make. Yeah, because there are, there is a fair amount of machinima that is done in not just game environments, like World of Warcraft or Red vs Blue which were which is where machinima got started. So iClone and and I think I'm pretty Crazy Talk, Moviestorm Ooh, yeah. Those are ones in which there is no multiplayer element in it in you craft the entire thing yourself through materials that they give you, right or that you can buy. And you set it in motion and what machinima really is is real time animation. In other words, it's different from Blender where you where you imitate motion, okay. What I like about machinima is that you set things in motion, and just like a real camera, or you take a moving picture of it. So about this experimentality and avant garde when I made this documentary, I too was at a standstill when it came to using the term. And I suppose I resist labels and categories a bit because there's so much overlap. In my own work, I feel I have an experimental element, but I still value narrative. Yeah, I still value that. And while it's very tempting to do something that is like, well, even Dear Fairy, for instance, has a narrative to it. It does. And when Tom Jantol I mean, I haven't. I don't recall the first one very well, Dear Fairy is the one that I that I commented on. It's essentially about this little boy who has found himself in this world that is very dark. And it's it's a mixed up narrative, it's the dream. I think I I really appreciate the kind of montage that creates a kind of a dreamlike quality to it.


Tracy Harwood  47:21

It's a subtext in many ways, I think


Sarah Higley  47:23

it's a subtext. And to go back to Stolen Child, for instance, William Butler Yeats poem, it's not really a narrative, it's, it's, it's spoken by the fairies to the child they're going to steal, it's very dark, and 'come away a human child to the waters in the wild, with a fairy hand in hand, for the world's too full of weeping than you can understand.' The world's more full of weeping than you can understand. It's suggest that the child will be taken to a kind of paradise. And yet, there's something always dark about the fairy. This is what I have been researching now for the past four years, is the concept of the fairy, which is not Tinkerbell, you know, the fairies people are still scared with the fairies. And when I found Claudia333's Spirit, which was, she is a master builder and mesh designer. And she has made these fairies frightening. They're both beautiful and frightening at the same time. And that's where I set Stolen Child. So in a way, and I sung it as well. Yeah, I'm sorry, I'll killed it. Okay, I know everybody likes the


Tracy Harwood  48:52

I know, I'm just so impressed with the, with the way that you mix narrative with the storytelling and, and use the camera work on the same, you know, with the sim, right? The the context, really, I think, is


Sarah Higley  49:07

it I mean, I'm not sure that it's the narrative so much as its statement. Um, you know, some of it is just not not storytelling, um, for instance, Deadline is it's kind of storytelling, but it's, it's, it's, I hate this word experimental. It's montage in that the, the character has this project that she's doing and she is totally neglecting her academic work. That's not familiar. And so the things that she does is she, she, she goes to these different sims and she brings things out of the water and she chops wood and she carries an umbrella that has puppies falling from it, and then she thinks she's done with it. And then she realizes that she has to teach her Old English class and show so she runs back through all of these fantastic areas. And is that a narrative? It's my only funny pace that dreamscape doesn't dreamscape? It's it's, it's about escaping. Yeah, it's about doing something other than teaching.


Sarah Higley  50:21



Tracy Harwood  50:22

yeah, I mean, you're clear. I mean, clearly what you what you're doing that the visuals are so tied up that you know what Second Life is capable of doing for you so tied up with how you then adapt the, the the way that you perform the work. That, you know, without, without each, it isn't, you don't get the same product. Do you? Really it's, it's, it's the I suppose. What do we what do we call this? We call this the diegetic nature of the environment, I guess.


Sarah Higley  50:57

Well, diegesis is associated with chronology with with storytelling. Yeah. And so what I like is the non-diegetic in a way.


Tracy Harwood  51:06

Yeah, but I meant that I meant the aesthetic, the aesthetic side of it the way


Sarah Higley  51:12

Yes, yeah. Well, as a as a, as a, as a person, basically, who grew up with an artist mother. I learned composition, and drawing. And I drew as a child, obsessively, and I'm in some ways, sad that I've had to give that up. Whenever you enter a profession, you always have to give something up. And what I found in Second Life was a return to some of the things that I was so into as a child writing, I still I still write creatively. But I could combine these things. The visual as I've already said that,


Tracy Harwood  52:02

yeah, yeah, you have but I mean, it's just so so obvious when you see the work that so


Sarah Higley  52:08

but I wanted to do it in such a way that it's not straightforward chronology I was I had no interest in replicating traditional filmmaking style. Anima Technica does that. And does that very expertly. Makes realistic looking films. And, and it's marvelous, and I do not denigrate that at all you do what you do. You do what you do that that's effective. Not every film of mine is effective. Um, there have been some duds?


Tracy Harwood  52:51

I can't possibly say...


Sarah Higley  52:54

I was heavily criticized, you know? Right.


Tracy Harwood  53:00

What are what would you say has changed for you in terms of the development of your work? I mean, obviously, the sims got more and more sophisticated. Did that influence how you developed your own work?


Sarah Higley  53:11

Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. And I got better at it, too. And it's also watching other films too, and experimenting with it! Um, I would, I would think that it was getting better at at combining voice. And what I just found new techniques. Um, one thing I would tell you not to do is to put a lot of writing and subtitles in something. For instance, there are subtitles in Wulf and Eadwacer because it's all narrated in Old English. And someone said, why not? Do it again and leave the subtitles out. So I did. And what you do is that you cut off, you cut your audience off in a way, the subtitles distract, and they even distract in a Lovers Confession a bit?


Tracy Harwood  54:16

Well, I have to say when I was, you know, obviously, it's not something I'm personally familiar with. So when I was watching it for the first time, I found that I, I started to hear the words that you were saying, and then couldn't translate them. So I had no choice but to read what the words were. And then the minute I did that, I lost what was going on with the film. But I needed all three, I needed to connect all three. And I found that the second time that I watched it, I was I was better able to connect all three things. [Like the sixth sense, you have to watch it again.] You have to watch it again, I think to appreciate it, but it's but it's the spoken word that conveys the story that the images portray and you need those two things, but you're need the translation to actually follow? What's happening? It's a little bit like watching Foreign Language Film that you don't speak the language of.


Sarah Higley  55:07

Right? Right. I guess I'm used to watching foreign language films and reading the subtitles. So I didn't think it was a problem at the time.


Tracy Harwood  55:17

I don't think it is a problem. I think it's it's part of the experience the fact that, you know, you are not the only one that's going to have to do that, though, because nobody understands this language as such... unless you're an expert in it! 


Sarah Higley  55:30

Maybe 15 people. Their animal in this old English language, right? Well, I mean, the thing is, is out of those actually 30 or 50, or 100 people, how many are going to be actually watching the machinima. So it cuts it down, [one would assume all of them]. After a Confessio Amantis, they made a couple of films. I think I made well, I made a tribute to to Scott Rolfe for his birthday. And I made a tribute to a friend who had died. And those were the only two that I made after that. And one of the problems too, was that it was beginning to slow my computer down. And when I got a new computer, it was I had to download Premiere Pro. Photoshop, all these other things and Premiere Pro has changed. Yeah. Animesh has made Second Life you have, you have to have so much memory in order to run it. And it's a lot of back breaking work. Back breaking work for no remuneration, except kudos. And I'm very glad for the awards that I won. And and for Ricky Grove's interest in my film and in yours. But it was very hard to get my colleagues to understand the value of it. Yeah, as as, because Second Life, and machinima are very closeted. Second Life especially. It was hard to entice anybody to join it, you know? Yeah. And and come around and see what you could do with it. It was a learning curve. Oh, my God. Second Life, first of all, is as hard as any game. To to learn how to do I mean, almost in some ways harder because you have to navigate all these different environments. And there's no there's no goal and like, and again, you don't get points for reaching this level or that level. And, and then machinima that was a year in the making, learning how to do that. I made such awful...


Tracy Harwood  58:17

So you've no plans to go back then you've completely fallen out with it as a creative medium, is that what you're saying?


Sarah Higley  58:23

Pretty much. For one thing, I just can't get Premier Pro to work. And for another, I have to work on academic materials.


Tracy Harwood  58:35

Yeah, yes. So life's taken over and life has taken over. 


Sarah Higley  58:39

And as I said before, I need to move. We need to get out of this chair. If I'm going to be healthy, if I'm going to exercise if I'm going for a walk if I'm going to garden if I'm going to exercise. If I'm going to take yoga classes. I don't have time for this,


Tracy Harwood  58:58

because you've just busted the myth that you know, machinima is a is a no no cost creative platform. 


Sarah Higley  59:07

It is a cost created platform if you can sell yourself the way JJ has done the way Pooky Amsterdam has done. I introduced my sister who works for the San Gabriel Valley Mosquito and Vector Association helping us students understand the dangers of especially the tiger mosquito and other vectors of disease. Yah, that's our job. I introduced her to Pooky Amsterdam who has made a number of films that she takes and goes around to different schools and shows. And these children are absolutely fascinated - Pooky Amsterdam makes everything she makes all her props. She makes the animations. She's got people to do it. She has a net industry and she charges appropriately. So it's not as though machinima is a zero sum game. It's It's just that if, if you're doing an art machinima like me, you have got to get used to the idea that you won't make money on this that this is a labor of love that this is you might not even have the kind of viewership that say Phalen Fairchild had when she came up with her absolutely hilarious machinima. She's one of the first that I saw that I laughed and laughed over. Very early. Yeah. Um,


Tracy Harwood  1:00:48

well, you know what, I think that's probably, 


Sarah Higley  1:00:50

it's like writing fiction, you have to sell yourself.


Tracy Harwood  1:00:52

Absolutely, you certainly do. And I think that, you know, the new machinima creators, you know, the guys that are on the various social media platforms are the ones that have got the marketing side of it nailed. And, you know, the folks that we seem to feature on, on this podcast, by and large, are all creators, and are passionate about the creative work that they produce, or have produced over the years. 


Sarah Higley  1:01:21

And a lot of them are very tech savvy too [absolutely, absolutely] and, and are already programmers. For instance, one of the machinima typographers that I really admire is Friday Siamendes, who also made animations for me, that I used in the Lovers Confession, but he's made very few films. He's developed into, from from realistic films into quite, you know, abstract films. And, and what was I going to say, I don't remember, I was, that shows a real development. And


Tracy Harwood  1:02:12

but I think, you know, that what we're, what we're illustrating here dealing with this particular episode of the podcast, is that, you know, that it's perfectly possible to take a, you know, take classic works if you like, and adapt them and bring them up to date, using engines such as Second Life or other other engines and retell the tale, you know, using, and even a new media formats really, and and the, it's the, it's the quality of how you produce the work what what, you know, your narrative quality comes through so strongly in the work that we've reviewed here today. And, you know, the way that you've put the visuals together and the and the the use of the Sims as, as sets, if you like fault for way of filming, are all part and parcel of the of the creative process that you've gone through. And you really have created some stunning works. And I'm sure our listeners will be equally as thrilled to sit and watch some of them as I have been in preparing to talk to you today, Sarah. I think, I think in the interest of time, we've been going a while. I think we should wrap it there. And we'll put all of the links that we've talked about today in the show notes and it just remains for me to say thank you so much for talking to us.


Sarah Higley  1:03:46

I thank you very much for your kind words. I'm really, really very, very honored and flattered. And thank you for liking my films. I've enjoyed talking to you, thank you. 


Tracy Harwood  1:03:57

You're very welcome. Thanks. Thanks a lot. Bye for now.

Design film
KAPHD film
The Lover’s Confession: Three Tales by John Gower
Wulf and Eadwacer film
Cloud film
Yeah... film
‘For it Acordeth Noght to Kinde’: Remediating Gower’s Confessio Amantis in Machinima’, 2016, published in Accessus
Dangerous Sim Crossings book chapt
Peter Greenaway, 48 Hour Film Making Project speech
Finding the Experimental in Machinima film
Push, Lainy Voom film
Cirque du Machinima & Dear Fairy, Tom Jantol films
Stolen Child, film