It’s very easy for us as a species to assume that human beings are the only ones on the planet to possess what could meaningfully be described as a ‘consciousness’, but what of the various forms of consciousness which may evolve in the years to come, not to mention those ‘lesser’ creatures who share our world today? In visceral sci-fi short Flesh Computer Ethan Shaftel ponders a future in which our computers are much more than lifeless machines and consciousness can be found in places other than a human skull.
The inspiration for Flesh Computer was imaging a time when one must take care of a computer as if it was a child or a pet — the responsibility you’d feel if it breathed and sweated and made sounds of pain if it wasn’t cared for properly. Even worse would be your anxiety at having the computer out of your possession or control. I’m also interested in the concept of point of view; what it means to have a point of view, or to put it another way, what it means to be a conscious being. We literally see through the eyes of a housefly being swatted, a prosthetic eye of a little girl and the lens of the fleshy “computer” creature.
That’s where philosopher David Chalmers comes into the project: his work on the theory of mind and consciousness in general was a great inspiration. I contacted him and David graciously gave me an interview after we’d shot the movie, agreeing to do so without reading the script or watching the rough cut so that he wouldn’t be distracted by the content and could answer the questions about his work just as he would any interview or science TV show. We did the interview remotely from Australia, “Errol Morris” style, with my Skype feed on his teleprompter so he could make eye contact with the camera. I found a video production company down the street from his office and they agreed to shoot it on their green screen. I think his interview is a great counterpoint and commentary to weave into an otherwise science fiction narrative. If you want to see more from him, a great place to start is the TED Talk he gave this spring:
The Flesh Computer itself, including all the flesh and even the green lasers, is completely practical and built out of junked computers and electronics, plus latex organs and other fleshy substances. It was manipulated by the special effects artist George Troester (who’s now competing on Face Off on the Syfy Channel) who hide behind the whole contraption blowing fluids through pipes, flipping on the lasers, and manipulating the ‘mouths’. The big CG elements are the fly, which is completely CG, some matte paintings and buildings from the opening shots, the little girl’s eye, and of course the big red laser “ram” that comes out of the Flesh Computer. A lot of the practical stuff comes to life when you add small touches in post like sparks that come from the broken Flesh Computer and the guy’s hand when it is crushed.
We shot for four days in June, then edited for a maybe two months, and then visual effects and finishing took six months. The camera was the RED Epic used masterfully by DP Hanuman Brown-Eagle and his team, editorial was in Adobe Premiere. Visual effects were a mix of different artists, including myself, who worked in their preferred software. All the CG fly elements where Cinema 4D, compositing for the big shots was in Nuke, and many of the other effects and touches were After Effects. Sound was done on super pro equipment by a good friend doing a huge favor, Kevin Roache, who’s worked on True Blood, Dexter, and many more high end shows.
Flesh Computer was an official selection of 20+ film festivals including Sci-Fi London, Fantasia in Montreal, LA Shorts Fest and Dances with Films, and won Best Screenplay, Best Music, and multiple Best Special Effects honors.