Reel War

The Army and Hollywood join hands to wage virtual, bloodless battles.

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From Hell
To serve and direct: Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, left, is among the filmmakers who met with ICT officials. - Melissa  Moseley
Melissa Moseley
To serve and direct: Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, left, is among the filmmakers who met with ICT officials.
Two weeks ago, it would have been possible to use the name of the man interviewed below; indeed, it would have been expected, as he is no mere "spokesman," the only identifier by which he is to be referred. Two weeks ago, it would have been possible to point out the specific location of his headquarters, the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies; indeed, until last week, a detailed map and directions were provided on a Web site.

But that was before the October 8 issue of Daily Variety hit newsstands, before the Hollywood trade publication "broke" the news that military intelligence specialists were "secretly" meeting at the institute with Hollywood filmmakers to discuss "terrorist scenarios." It was before Army officials met with ICT officials and strongly suggested they adhere to military protocol when speaking with the media--meaning, no last names are to be used. It was before media from around the world vied for interviews with ICT officials, clogging the phone lines at the institute and its Los Angeles-based publicity firm.

In short, it was before all hell broke loose.

The Variety story, written by Claude Brodesser, suggested a sinister collaboration between the government and filmmakers--"a reversal of roles," Brodesser wrote in a story that contained no sources save for one "USC insider." He mentioned that among the moviemakers assembled by the military were those with "obvious connections to the terrorist pic milieu," among them Die Hard's Steven De Souza, Delta Force One and Missing in Action director Joseph Zito, and "more mainstream suspense helmers" such as Fight Club's David Fincher, Being John Malkovich's Spike Jonze...and Grease's Randal Kleiser.

Brodesser failed to mention that Kleiser has been working with the ICT for more than a year and that his being named as creative consultant on July 7, 2000, was accompanied by a press release. He also neglected to mention that other filmmakers have been part of the ICT fold almost since its inception two years ago, among them Apocalypse Now writer John Milius and Paul Debevec, who created the computer-graphic software used in The Matrix. He also failed to mention that the ICT's pairing of government and entertainment was old news.

"The relationship with the entertainment people has been the whole reason why the ICT was established," says the ICT's spokesman, a former studio exec. "That's the whole reason why it sits in L.A.--to have access to the people from the entertainment industry. And Hollywood people have been working with the ICT since its inception. The humorous 'discovery' that 'Oh, my God, Hollywood people are helping the military' is two years old, and it's not a one-shot. It's continuing.

"Initially, people in entertainment had a raised eyebrow. I did, quite frankly, when I was approached two years ago. When I was first approached, a friend said, 'Why don't you come to this?' I said, 'What do they have in mind? Propaganda films?' I'm not a military guy and have never been involved in the military at all. There was a certain level of skepticism: 'Wait a minute. I'm gonna get involved with the military? Do I really wanna do that?' And then as people have come and seen what the projects are--this is totally non-classified, we're not doing anything in any way secret--and seen that we're really challenging their creativity, that attitude has changed."

Still, within hours of its publication, the Variety story was picked up by every major and minor media outlet in the country; most glared at it suspiciously, as though it heralded an unholy alliance. Headlines like "Hollywood Helping Out Pentagon?!" were the norm; one would have thought it was the second coming of Watergate. For a while, it even became one of the war-related items scrolling at the bottom of the networks' news broadcasts. Such attention made it difficult for ICT officials to do their jobs: They were swamped with calls and furious that filmmakers who had volunteered their services out of a sense of duty had been identified without warning or permission.

"Frankly, I think we all owe a debt to them that they would take time from their schedules, rearrange their lives to do this--and do it totally free," says the spokesman. "I think it's about respecting their privacy. They're not doing this because they wanted the press. They did this because they thought maybe they could make a contribution, maybe they could do something, and that's the real issue of their desire not to be identified."

Even after the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., the Institute for Creative Technologies conducted its business out in the open. It was no secret that Hollywood executives and video-game creators had paired up with the military to create lifelike, virtual-reality simulations intended to help soldiers train for combat on foreign soil. In August 1999, the institute opened its sliding doors--designed by Herman Zimmerman, who had art-directed five Star Trek films and three Trek TV series--and did so in grand style. On hand for the opening-day press conference were political leaders and entertainment executives, among them USC President Steven Sample, then-Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera and Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti.

They all spoke of their grand vision for the ICT, which had received a five-year, $45 million grant from the Army to develop technology the likes of which had been seen only in the movies. No longer would the military merely use simulators to teach soldiers how to fire weapons and fly helicopters; now, they would be able to rehearse actual missions. Now, they could step onto, say, Afghan soil without ever leaving Southern California. They could "interact" with the locals; they could "respond" to a crisis as it unfolded; they could "feel" the situation before taking action. And if they screwed up, well, there's always a reset button nearby.

In essence, what the ICT has created is the world's largest video game--the so-called Experience Learning System, with a screen that fills almost an entire room and allows its "students" to immerse themselves in hostile terrain where the surroundings and people look as "real" as the current technology will allow. The result is a sort of real-world precursor to the Holodeck found on the Starship Enterprise--appropriate, since the ICT's executive director is Richard Lindheim, a former Paramount exec who was in charge of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its successors. But the ICT's spokesman loathes the word "game," though he often uses it himself; he points out that the ICT uses only existing gaming platforms and technology, but not the games themselves.

"We call it the Experience Learning System because we're really looking at active learning as opposed to passive learning," says the spokesman. "Motion pictures are, for the most part, passive. You watch them and may get emotionally involved, but it is a passive experience. Video games are an active experience, but the problem with video games [is] they're not real, and most of the involvement in them is what they call 'twitch games': What do you shoot and how do you maneuver around it? What hasn't been linked with the games is: Can you really make them into a learning tool? The commonality to all of that is emotion.

"If you can use the entertainment industry's knowledge of how to create those emotional connections with storytelling and characters and tie it together with cognitive learning, now you've got something very powerful, and if you put that in the framework of virtual worlds and simulations, we believe that's the goal."

This great experiment has not been conducted without its share of controversy; that existed well before Variety's story appeared. Earlier this year, Mark Pesce--the founding chairman of the Interactive Media Program at USC's School of Cinema and Television, as well as the creator of Virtual Reality Modeling Language, a 3D computer programming language--told journalist Paul Keegan that the ICT ignored whatever boundaries exist between "readiness training and combat training." He expressed disgust with what he called the ultimate "killer app" being developed under his university's auspices. The ICT's work also takes up a large chunk of writer James Der Derian's new book Virtuous War, which charts the creation of a potentially dangerous "military-industrial-media-entertainment network." The ICT, he insists, "warrants public scrutiny."

The institute's spokesman insists that no actual "combat training" is going on at the ICT. Rather, they're merely developing prototypes that will be handed over to the military, which will develop the scenarios. And while that may sound like a case of splitting hairs, the spokesman insists the technology being created at the ICT is not merely for use in war preparation; he envisions a day when it's used in medical facilities and classrooms.

"As we well know, any tool could be a weapon," says the spokesman. "Who would have ever thought of a box cutter as a weapon?"

Hollywood and the military have never made the best of couples; theirs is a marriage more often of convenience than of affection. But the post-Vietnam cynicism that informed so much of cinema has worn off--partly because of September 11, partly because of Saving Private Ryan and our culture's newfound love for the Greatest Generation. In such an environment, the ICT thrives: Its spokesman says that after the Variety story appeared, filmmakers began calling to volunteer their services. Some people give blood; others donate to the Red Cross. And others meet with the Pentagon to brainstorm about terrorism.

"There's no other place in this country or in the world where you have these kinds of people with such varied skills who are actually getting together and constructively collaborating, and I am proudest of that," says the ICT's spokesman. "It's a great group of people, and they're doing wonderful work. Hopefully, it will be of value. I don't minimize this: When you work in entertainment, you make mud pies and they pay you a lot of money to do this, but here is something that actually has value, that actually can save lives and have importance."

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