Q&A with ‘Splo Machinima Creator Opal Lei

I recently had a chance to chat with a Second Life community member and Exploratorium volunteer, Opal Lei, who has collaborated with the Exploratorium’s avatar-scientist Patio Plasma to create a series of machinima–videos made entirely in a virtual world, which beautifully illustrate several interactive exhibits at the ‘Splo museum in the ‘Sploland sim. The series, called ‘Splo on the Go, introduces three playful exhibits you can try.

Opal Lei’s machinima featuring the Domino Fall exhibit at the ‘Splo museum.

[Pepto] How did you get introduced to the Exploratorium and to the ‘Splo in SL?

[Opal] I met [Exploratorium in SL volunteer and world-builder] Emileigh Starbrook through the International Spaceflight Museum planning group. Through Emi, I learned about the ‘Splo and met Patio Plasma. When I attended the Second Life Community Convention in San Francisco in 2009, I met both of them in person and I attended a tour of the [RL] Exploratorium hosted by Dr. Paul Doherty.

Opal Lei with Dominos at the 'Splo

Machinima creator Opal Lei with Domino Fall exhibit. Image courtesy of Opal Lei/Lea Tesoro.

[Pepto] What are your favorite ‘Splo or Exploratorium island exhibits?

[Opal] I love the optical illusions, like the footsteps illusion exhibits. They prove that you can’t believe everything you see, and that starts a train of thought into the consequences of that realization. How can we trust “eyewitness reports”? Or anything based on human observation, for that matter? Imagine the implications in the legal courts or in the scientific studies based on visual perception. And if we can’t trust our eyes, what about our other senses?

I also like the faces that turn when you move your point of view. I had seen that effect in a sculpture in the foyer of a real-life building too, and it was very eerie and very dramatic.

[Pepto] Your machinima combine the ‘what’s going on’ pedagogy of exhibits with a great visual story-telling approach. How did you plan these aspects?

[Opal] When Patio commissioned these machinimas, she said that the target audience is adults. But most adults, like me, probably only have a basic knowledge of science from K-12. And we likely retain very little of that knowledge, especially if a few decades have passed since (as in my case).

In fact, I’m learning again as I document these exhibits. And, like most gradeschoolers, I ask, “Why?” I was sure viewers of the machinimas would want to know too, so it just made sense to include those explanations.

Often, I would get ideas of the visuals as I write the script. Sometimes, Patio would add things to the script, like how people interact with the real-life exhibit, and I try to illustrate those with the virtual exhibit.

Opal Lei with Newton's Cradle exhibit at the 'Splo

Machinima creator Opal Lei with Newton's Cradle exhibit. Image courtesy of Opal Lei/Lea Tesoro.

[Pepto] What kind of exhibits make good machinima?

[Opal] The best ones are the ones that show movement or some kind of change that a still photograph cannot fully illustrate. And, because virtual worlds are three-dimensional, exhibits that have depth and that make use of space are more interesting than flat ones.

Exhibits that illustrate an effect that is not common in the real world are a little trickier, especially effects that people have to see to believe. Because we can do practically anything in a virtual world, it can be difficult to convince people that it is how something really behaves in real life. In those cases, it’s better to tie in the virtual exhibit at the ‘Splo with the real-life exhibit at the Exploratorium (as in the Domino Fall).

[Pepto] One of our design philosophies in creating interactive exhibits in SL about real-world phenomena is to include avatars directly in the exhibits, especially in playful ways. Thanks for making sure to capture that in your machinima! Were there any challenges to setting up those shots and showing things that avatars can do that might be hard or impossible for people to do in real life?

[Opal] I had to create most of the animations that I used in the machinimas, but, so far, I’ve only used single-frame poses. Moving animations take more time, and the challenge is in finding the right balance between time spent on something that will appear for only 15 seconds and the quality of that shot.

So far, we’ve tried to stay within the realm of possibility, although a real person might get whiplash when riding a giant swinging steel ball that hits another steel ball (as in the Newton’s Cradle). Not to mention the danger of getting a hand or a foot smashed between those balls! Ouch!

Pepto MajesticPepto Majestic develops virtual worlds and augmented reality experiments at the Exploratorium. Along with other virtual world builders there, he helped establish the museum’s presence in SL. Currently, he helps support Exploratorium Island exhibits and events and writes about the Exploratorium’s adventures in these fabricated realities.

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