Greg Pak on The Vision Machine and the Future of Comics and Digital Entertainment

Greg Pak, best known for work-for-hire projects like Planet Hulk and The Incredible Hercules, has spent much of his time recently working on a lesser-known project that pushes the boundaries of digital comics, both in execution and distribution.

Titled The Vision Machine, Pak's story is a near-future science fiction tale in which a device is invented that allows its user to create movies essentially with their mind. The result is a democratization of entertainment that makes film more like comics, where the visuals and special effects are limited only by the imagination of the artist--but at a cost. Privacy is constantly being challenged by the needs of the companies with whom we entrust our personal data in the real world (think about how much Facebook has on you, and that they use it to sell advertising), but in the world of The Vision Machine, that's even more pronounced.

Pak, who announced an iPad app for The Vision Machine at New York Comic Con this year, joined to discuss the project and the future of digital comics.

Also, just so it's been said, it's available for free at the Vision Machine website as well as ComiXology.

How would you describe The Vision Machine in simple terms, so I don't get it wrong?

Vision Machine is a sci-fi thriller first and foremost; it's about the world in which we live. Within days or within years, we're going to see technology released by the biggest tech companies in the world that will allow you to record anything you look at just by thinking about it and share it with the world.

You'll not only be able to record it just by thinking--you'll be able to edit it, you'll be able to add special effects...and Vision Machine imagines a world in which these magic glasses allow you to basically share your dreams; if you can imagine it, you can share it and that kind of media making is going to change everything. Putting that power to create in the hands of literally anybody who can put on a pair of glasses will transform the world in ways that we can only begin to imagine right now.

That's what Vision Machine is all about; it's about these three young friends who get hold of these amazing glasses the iEye, and it's created by Sprout computers...and embrace the incredible opportunities that arise. But then of course at a certain point the other shoe drops because there's a whole host of not only copyright and trademark-related kinds of things that arise but these massive questions of privacy and surveillance. And mayhem ensues.

The book itself was funded by the Ford Foundation as a way to help independent media makers imagine the changes that are actually coming. The exciting thing is that recently we got funding from ITVS, the Independent Television Service, which usually funds documentaries that you see on PBS, that's what they're best known for. But they're branching out and doing some other kinds of things and they thought that this was a fun project to get involved with. They provided some funding that allowed us to make an iPad app version of the graphic novel.

The iPad app is doing something--putting together some things in a certain way that I haven't seen yet with digital comics. There's a lot of great stuff being done, including the Marvel Infinite stuff and Madefire and a bunch of other folks who are doing interesting things with interactive digital comics...but we're taking it a couple of steps further in that we've got a full-voice soundtrack as well as a full music soundtrack. So every word that's in the book is spoken and performed by brilliant actors including Phil LaMarr, who is well-known for his work on everything from The Simpsons to Samurai Jack to Young Justice.

Actually I went to college with Phil and it was just an incredible amount of fun getting together with him again. We were togehter in an improv comedy group when we were in college and it was a blast doing stuff with him again on this.

It also has great animation. Not everything is animated but there's great, selective use of animation including some really nifty 3-D animation. You swipe through panel by panel; you can also pinch to zoom to get a better look at the panels and on certain panels you can punch a button and see the panel in 3-D, see the different layers that went into making it.

As the dialogue runs the word balloons come up in order; sound effects are all animated and do cool things and then on top of all that we have buttons that you can tap from time to time that will give you more stuff while you're reading, like IRL buttons for "in real life," which give you concept art or also little videos and we have people talking about real-world ramifications of the stuff that comes up in the book.

We've got folks like Andy Ihnatko, who is a legendary tech journalist talking about some of the tech-related stuff that's happening and also Jonathan Coulton--internet superstar and musician Jonathan Coulton, who has been on the forefront of the digital revolution and how it affects artists--has a lot of interesting things to say about how this technology is changing things and what the potential and the potential dangers are as well.

Also there's a Twitter feed that's built into it - as you read the book if you activate that, you'll see any tweets that people post using the #VisionMachine hashtag. So using that feature, for example, I could do a live Q&A via the app where people could be reading the book and then seeing a live commentary track.

Back when the iPad first came out, I wrote this essay thinking about all the things that it made possible for comics and this is a way to finally explore some of those in a crazy way. I'm really excited about it.

And is this that moment where you have to really confront your feelings? I mean, there's a lot of commentary in this book that can be taken as an indictment of Apple, but here we are on the iPad.

[Laughs] Here's the thing, is that I think all of these companies are doing us an amazing service because they're creating this amazing technology that--as we depict in the book--allows folks and particularly independent folks to do stuff that they simply would not have been able to do otherwise.

I mean, I owe so much to Apple. My career wouldn't exist if it weren't for the way Apple's products made things possible at a couple of key points.

I trained as a filmmaker and around the time I was graduating from film school, Apple came out with Final Cut Pro, which was the first really affordable and really usable non-linear editing system that somebody like me could get a hold of. So with the DV cameras that were starting to come out around that time and Final Cut Pro, after I got out of film school I was able to continue making short films for a couple of hundred dollars apiece.

When I was in film school, we were shooting on 16mm and the cheapest film that I could make on 16mm -- using the school's editing facilities and shooting in black and white -- was $1500. Now, you could make tons of stuff for $1500. I made a bunch of short films right after I graduated film school for a couple of hundred bucks each and with those I was able to continue to build my skills and build some notoriety and eventually I made my feature film Robot Stories, which I also cut on Final Cut Pro and was also possible to do because of that.

Even now, I think we have not yet realized the potential but digital comics is a way to get comics into the hands of millions of people who are not going to take the time to find their local comic shop or who don't have a local comic shop. There's a way in which comics is a very hard thing for somebody to get into because it requires a little research. You have to find out when the books are coming out, you have to find out where your shop is and make it out to the shop.

Now, it can be an impulse buy, which is how so much shopping happens now in entertainment. Now you can have people read an article and click a link and be taken to a page where they can buy it instantly. That's an important thing and Apple has helped make this possible.

That's a long way of saying that these companies are hugely important but at the same time, that means that everything they do becomes important and so it's up to us to push back and to make some noise if we think that things could be run a little bit better. Businesses that will thrive are the ones that we give our money to and by supporting businesses that have, for example, privacy policies that we like and that we can live with...if we pay attention and support the ones that do the right thing, we'll all be in better shape.

You could do an hour conversation just on that aspect of Vision Machine. There are certain things in certain places that you're expected to be if you're living in the public eye, whether it's someone like you or even me. Nobody knows who the hell I am, but I'm a reporter and so I'm expected to have a Twitter feed so I can push my articles out there to more people. For people working in the media, it's really just not an option but to have a presence on these sites, and not all of them are sites you want to be affiliated with. How do you take an issue that big and just wrap it in the plot so it doesn't subsume everything?

That's always the thing--this was an interesting project because it was exclusively funded as an educational project in a lot of ways. From the beginning, as we were talking about it, we were very clear on the fact that we wanted to make a story that was a story first and foremost because very few people consume entertainment because they want to learn something about an issue. People consume cultural product because they want to be whisked away to a different world; they want to be scared or thrilled or dazzled or they want to laugh. They want to go someplace new--to escape, and they want to do that with characters that they care about, so that's always first and foremost is to create characters that you care about.

Things are enriched when the story has real resonance--when there are layers of subtext and other layers of significance to the story but none of it will work if those character don't work. I had a bunch of things that I wanted to play with in this world that we were creating and a bunch of ideas I wanted to play with but every step I had to keep those character at the forefront--what's happening emotionally with these characters? That's what had to drive us through these stories.

That's always a huge challenge--I guess I've done that a lot in recent years with different kinds of projects including the Red Skull book and the Magneto: Testament book I did for Marvel. Those were both World War II era, Holocaust era stories so there was definitely a real desire to get the history right and to depict certain times and certain key events but at the same time, step by step, it all had to relate to the character and where they were going. That's the only way we hold onto it and that's how we move through a story is by following characters.

Especially with a topic like the Holocaust, there's a question of taste and of what are you doing and how are you using it, and there are questions of morality about how you depict things. With Magneto: Testament, we made every effort we could to get every historical fact down correctly because this world is so filled with insane Holocaust deniers who will jump on any seeming discrepancy in order to try to pretend that the Holocaust never happened. We didn't want to provide those people with any kind of fuel.

Similarly, with Red Skull, we were depicting the Red Skull as a kid and it's this--I always thought of it as a lot like The Godfather; it's the loss of innocence of a person and it's a tragedy and the trick was to tell the story where your protagonist basically is the worst villain in the Marvel Universe--the worst Nazi--but it's before he becomes that person or while he's on his way to becoming that person. Basically the challenge is to tell that story, to make it believable without glorifying him or creating somehow an admirable character or a character we can sympathize with in a way that would justify his cause. That would be the worst kind of thing to do.

At the same time, you've got to kind of go where these character need to do. It's a tricky thing. I think a lot of us become storytellers because we have things that we care about and that's good--having an ethos, having an ethic is part of what makes us good storytellers because it means that we choose to tell certain kinds of stories and we choose to explore certain kinds of themes. At the same time, we've got to always be willing to challenge ourselves and follow those character where they're going whether or not it makes us terribly comfortable.

One last thing--where do you draw the line? You're doing this app, which very much goes above and beyond what most people think of as comics...and of course you'll have the purists who say it's not comics if it's not on paper, but even beyond those people, is it a tough sell to fans who look at it and say, "That's not comics."?

Vision Machine started off in the beginning as a graphic novel that first released digitally but which we knew we were going to print. We printed it and we've been giving it away for free but the 80-page graphic novel exists in print form.

For the iPad app, we've dug back into the original digital files and did more work on them to separate the layers and do the animation and all that and so it actually has gone through a lot of layers but it actually--its first life was as a fairly traditional comic and it's really now that it's kind of taking that next step.

I think that the app is true to the comics form in the sense that you're swiping through panel by panel, you're seeing word balloons pop up. Special effects play a huge part in it--it's just that it's got these enhancements that make everything pop a little more and with the audio in particular I think it's coming to life in a really fun way.

It's still comics but right now we're at a time where we've got this opportunity to play and do some redefinition of the medium. I think I will always be a print person who loves to read comics in print form, but certain kinds of projects I think really lend themselves incredibly well to the kind of treatment we're doing here with Vision Machine.

It's not going to be right for every book and it's certainly not affordable for every book unless we can expand the audience in huge ways. We'll see how all of these experiments go over the next few years. I think there's a lot of proof-of-concept being done right now with a lot of different people and a lot of different companies trying it out. I don't think anybody's making any money at it yet but there's a lot of beautiful work being done and eventually somebody's going to crack it and we'll see whether it becomes a new thing or whether it just continues to evolve in crazy ways.


I think the distinction is that at a certain point it just becomes animation--it's just an animated movie. But we're not doing that with Vision Machine, it's still a comic. The panels are distinct, the amount of movement we're doing is not even trying ot be animated. It's alive, and it moves, but it's not like we're doing kind of awkward, paper cut-out, two-dimensional character movements. That stuff just doesn't work, where you're taking the original comic art and kind of hinging the elbows and moving the arms. That tends to look kind of stiff. Instead we're moving other elements in a way that makes more sense and doesn't beg the question of why the whole thing isn't traditionally animated. As a result, it feels like it's just a very dynamic comic. Whether this is a thing that can be applied to all kinds of stories, I'm sure that smart people will find a way to do it if they want but I don't know.

It made particular sense with Vision Machine because we have all of these computer interfaces for example that people are looking through and that gave us a lot of elements to play with and animate. There's a lot of user-interface stuff that was going on that was just perfect for this kind of treatment.