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New frontier artist John Underkoffler tampers with the future of filmmaking

Artist and scientist John Underkloffer brings us TAMPER, a spanking-new point-and-paint editing technology that transforms video with just a flick of the wrist.

When I visited the Oblong Industries laboratory in downtown Los Angeles recently to see TAMPER: Gestural Interface for Cinematic Design, I expected to see a newfangled movie editing system. I knew Oblong’s innovation wasn’t some new kind of mouse or keyboard, but that it involved working with gloves and giant screens to manipulate frames of film. But I got a shock to the system – TAMPER not only redefines working with a moving image in a completely physical way but provides ultimate control of every pixel and bit of film grain. It’s the biggest, most accessible creative tool since the box of crayons was first sold.

Presented in a gallery at New Frontier on Main, TAMPER is also the machine formerly known as “that big, cool computer from Minority Report.” An incredible instrument, TAMPER works with computers and giant screens to edit images, in traditional ways and with a cut-and-paste knife.

With special gloves you can point at an actor in one shot, drag his or her body physically into another screen (multiple times), then add a close-up of another actor from another shot, and then a screeching car from another, all into a new shot superimposed together. All in the amount of time it took you to read this.

Mastermind John Underkoffler, along with his colleagues at Oblong, is the artist and creator of TAMPER. In years of doctoral work at MIT, he developed systems allowing any ordinary surface to serve as a type of monitor that works with point and touch, which led to the revolutionary platform known as g-speak; TAMPER is just one application of g-speak.

“I always wanted to draw moustaches on the characters on TV,” Underkoffler says. “This is an opportunity to work with those infantile urges and then apply vast amounts of technology to them.”

The interface allows people to do what they already know how to do – point. It feels multi-purposeful: an editing system and a paintbrush.

“I’m particularly interested in situations where the tool is performative enough and broad enough to itself allow the creation of art, all in one,” Underkoffler says. “Which is distinctive from other computer programs, which are great but the act of collaging here is itself worth watching.” Oblong Industries has started development of a TAMPER system that can be used by directors (or even non-filmmakers who could use the technology); Oblong has also been in talks with several directors who want customized versions of TAMPER to create live performance demos of moviemaking.

Underkoffler calls the divide between artists and scientists a 20th-century phenomenon. “The rift is starting to get filled in with spackle and putty,” he says. “From my point of view, it’s crucial for at least some people to be both. DaVinci didn’t have deadlines or people telling him you had to choose one thing or another. Anything he could figure out in any domain was a great boon. I think it would be a fallacy to think we know so much now.”

We have all trained ourselves to use the mouse by now, scraping it around on a table somewhere near a screen. The g-speak system uses more of your body and therefore more emotions. It’s so visceral that it needs to be experienced live. “We are looking forward to just banging around with all the other people with installations and the public” at New Frontier on Main, Underkoffler says. “It’s a really good petri dish for this experimental phase. It feels like we are at the cusp – you can’t talk about cinema in isolation anymore. It’s all starting to bust out.”


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