Summer 2013

The Orc and the Penguin

Diagonal existences, virtual and real

Dominic Pettman

Hidden away among the interminable extras accompanying the extended DVD edition of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, we find an intriguing “Easter egg” in the form of a behind-the-scenes anecdote. A lead animator tells of an unexpected moment when he and his army of CGI rendering experts began to choreograph one of the elaborate battle scenes for which the movie franchise became famous. Given the amount of digital “extras” involved—in this case, tens of thousands of orcs—it was impossible to script every individual combatant. The state-of-the-art Massive™ software used by Jackson’s hi-tech atelier resolved this issue by creating an algorithm that enabled the orcs to fight their own individual battles: each digital creature behaved according to a set of pre-coded possibilities, and yet the animators themselves could not anticipate what any single actor would do at any given moment in the melee. As such, each orc appeared to exist in a zone somewhere between the predetermined and the aleatory: that is, between compulsion and free will. The animator’s amusing tale, however, centered on an early test run in which a handful of orcs simply refused to fight, as if channeling some conscientious objection to bloodshed previously latent in their coded wire-frame bones. Indeed, the orcs’ pacifist stance was apparently infectious, as dozens of their fellow soldiers similarly declined to engage a group of aggressive elves and fled against the logic of the storyline.

We find a similar story in Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World, which details the eccentric inhabitants of the permanent scientific base in Antarctica. Herzog narrates this tale in real time, as his camera discovers a penguin who, for whatever reason, refuses to follow his biological programming:

These penguins are all heading to the open water to the right. But one of them caught our eye, the one in the center. He would neither go towards the feeding grounds at the edge of the ice, nor return to the colony. Shortly afterwards, we saw him heading straight towards the mountains, some seventy kilometers away. Dr. Ainley explained that even if he caught him and brought him back to the colony, he would immediately head right back for the mountains. But why? One of these disoriented, or deranged, penguins showed up at the New Harbor diving camp, already some eighty kilometers away from where it should be. The rules for the humans are: do not disturb or hold up the penguin, stand still and let him go on his way. And here, he’s heading off into the interior of the vast continent. With five thousand kilometers ahead of him, he’s heading towards certain death.

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