Hermione Mitford Flynn

7 November 2020

19 min watch


How avatars change who we are

By Wagner James Au

10 min read

How will the prevalence of digital avatars change the way we present ourselves to the world and interact with others?

To learn more we spoke with Hermione Mitford Flynn, the co-founder and CEO of Mimic Productions. Back in 2018, she created a 3D digital double of herself. This 3D replica named Em functions as Flynn's performance art avatar, occupying 3D spaces in the realms of virtual reality, augmented reality, online performance, and animated video.
How did you, Hermione, become interested in the creation of digital avatars and why did it make you want to create an avatar of yourself?
I co-founded Mimic Productions, which is a company that specializes in creating really realistic avatars.

We were co-founded in 2012, originally as a company that specialized in facial animation, which very few companies were doing worldwide. And it just became inevitable that we had to sort of grow what we were doing. Also doing scanning and building the modeling and the texturing and the rigging and the animation. So we were doing the full character pipeline very quickly and this was several years ago.

It became apparent to us that we needed to have a really good kind of demo of the work we did, that we could always upgrade. So to create this character, that was someone that could constantly be showing our technology growing in real-time. And so alongside that, I also came from a performance art background and had always been sort of directing performance art events from afar.
I never put my own body in the work. And so when this opportunity for us to build this avatar came up, of course, I volunteered myself because it was this incredible opportunity for me as a performance artist to then engage with my own self without having to physically put my body at risk.

So now we have Em, so as you said, she was born created in 2018 and yeah, she's going to be this kind of ongoing figure in my life that's going to keep, I guess, growing with me both in terms of technology and in terms of us constantly reinventing her as I age as well.
Really interesting thought that she grows with you.
Yeah. I love the idea that when I'm 60 years old, I can engage with my 30 year old avatar or, that I will have this version of her that will exist throughout the decades.
That's really cool. What's unique about Em, and what parts of Hermione did you think were kind of most important to render into the digital form? I mean, it's very obvious from looking at Em, that she has a lot of very kind of same physical characteristics in your face and things like that.
Well, it really is this super organic blend of the technology and the biology. For example, we stopped from a 3D scan, meaning that the textures and the volume of her face is a really authentic representation of how I looked two years ago. And so that part is very true to life.

Where we see some of the technology begin to creep in is mostly actually in animation and so what we're viewing right now is actually her being animated live through live motion capture. And you'll be able to see that she has these unique quirks about her. She doesn't move exactly like I do. So it's this really fascinating combination where you can hear my voice, which is obviously completely true to life, but then she has these different ways that she moves her face and her lips and little head tilts and quirks.

So it's really like this new personality has been born that's a combination of both of us, both the technology... and my biological form.
Do you ever put something into Em that you don't do and then find yourself doing later down the line? Do you find yourself impersonating Em? Is it like being an actor and when you play a role for a long time, you then take on that role?
It's more actually that she can do so much more that I could never be able to do.

Essentially, anyone can puppet her. So she can speak Japanese, she can dance ballet, she can rap. I can't do any of those things, even if I tried. So that's a sort of another aspect to this kind of liberating experience of having an avatar is you suddenly realize their capacity is actually far more advanced than what you could ever do.
Beyond the physical, what about from a personality perspective? What are the similarities and differences between you both?
I think this concept of avatars or digital humans kind of existing in our society is something that does frighten a lot of people. So I was very conscious when I made Em that I wanted her to be a certain way.

I wanted her to be a certain type of person and it was actually someone that I aspired to be. So I really wanted her to be good. And when I came to the point where I had to decide what she was going to say for the first time, so obviously we built her model and I had these great images and renderings of her, but she hadn't yet spoke.

And when I was planning on what it was that she was going to say for the very first time, I found some beautiful scripts written by Yoko Ono in her book, Grapefruit. And they're very beautiful, short, poetic, yeah, little poems that have really beautiful meanings. It's appreciation for the world, appreciation for other human beings, appreciation for nature.

So these little scripts I thought were perfect for Em, as the first thing she said. And I do really think about her as someone I would want to aspire to be someone I could look up to.
With digital avatars, people can change the way the world sees them and reacts to them. And as you've said, Em is someone that you would like to aspire to. How do you think this will change the way people present themselves and interact with each other in virtual spaces?
I think there's a huge spectrum of kind of what could happen. And I think on one end of the spectrum, and it's something we're already seeing with things like face filters, where I think it's inevitable that if people are engaging or creating an avatar that represents themselves, that a lot of people are likely going to want to make that avatar of this commercialized ideal form of beauty -- make them thinner, fitter, younger whatever.

I actually already have experience where we work with supermodels and creating their 3D avatar, and they already want to manipulate themselves, even though they are already biologically perfect. So it's inevitable that people will want to do that.

But then on the other spectrum, it opens up a kind of a window for a completely new form of visual representation. So you don't have to be human at all. You don't have to have the limited range of skin color. You could be purple or green or have five arms.

I think this is the area that is really exciting because we know that online kind of existence, online interactions are increasing every year. So if you imagine we're going to spend more and more time interacting with each other online that we could start to create a social space where physical representation, which has been so detrimental in the past, can actually be completely wiped out. And a whole new form of official representation can start to take hold.

So I think this as always as two ends of the spectrum, one is rather boring and annoying and the other one's very exciting.
Being able to be something that you've never seen before in real life could also be something quite cool to really create, to create something you've dreamt about, and then suddenly you can create that and it becomes a reality online--
Definitely. And we all live in a world where there's social discriminations based on the way you look. And so who can tell what social connotations purple skin has, no one knows. No one knows. So we're completely alleviated from the historical social issues.
How important is photo realism to kind of off the back of what we were just saying to the creation or adoption of digital avatars, and how do you see the concept of the uncanny valley affecting their use over time?
I have been working with this technology now for up to eight years, and it's only just in the past couple of years that people are starting to embrace this idea of 3D humans.

It's been a combination of one, the technology kind of getting good enough as more convincing. And the second thing is that I think that the audience was ready for it. People's minds were kind of opening up. So, we all know Lil Miquela, the 3D social media avatar, who has many followers, and she doesn't look perfectly real. So people are accepting the way she looks.

I'm actually personally very interested in this idea. There's been a big movement of diversity in the media industries, fashion, and marketing, and so forth. So I'm very interested in whether this kind of diversity can also expand out to digital humans and the quirks that they inevitably come with, which do have qualities of the uncanny valley. But maybe that's something we can begin to accept.
In the media you see examples of synthetic media being used in a very negative way against women, for example. How do we ensure that we keep this diversity? How do we kind of ensure that this is something that continues online? What can we be doing?
Well, I actually come from an unusual, I guess, perspective in the sense that I'm so ingrained in this industry. And I do follow a lot of people who are working with digital avatars. And I'm also part of a group called DIGI-GXL, which is female, non-binary, transgender group of people who all work in the 3D industry. And so through this kind of group, which is growing and growing and growing, I'm actually seeing so much amazing diversity in the creation of 3D works and really avatar representation.

So I don't know, again, if it's my little echo chamber, but my newsfeed is just full of people visually representing themselves and really exciting new ways, aliens, and all sorts of different looks. So the thing is this, this kind of alternative representation using 3D, it does exist. And I think that in a way it does lend itself to the people who have been discriminated against in physical space.

So I think as a medium, it's most attractive to those people. I think in a way it could become a very nice voice for those people.
Beyond the creation and use of personal avatars, what opportunities do you see for these technologies to be used in the media entertainment? At Mimic, you've already worked on a lot of high profile projects for artists and brands. Can you share some interesting uses you've already seen and opportunities that you see?
So just to tap on a couple of nice projects that we've worked on. One of my favorites is with a Tokyo DJ called Yellock. And we did an amazing performance where we built a digital avatar of Yellock in a very nice club called Womb in Tokyo. And we did a live performance with him DJing and his avatar DJing alongside him and in real-time.

He's one of the few people that we've built avatars for who has really started to engage with his avatar beyond just the use for that one show or one film or video or whatever it might be. He is now using his avatar to create AI experiences and social media experiences showing his DJ work. And it's very, very cool because I'm seeing him really live... He's the first person I've really seen live through his avatar, which is super exciting.

Another, I'll just quickly mention because it was just such a life dream of mine. And considering I came from a performance art background, we created an avatar also of Marina Abramovic for her work, Rising. So that was a big highlight for us. And yeah, she's gone on to do more works in 3D, I think, which again, lends itself as a performance artist to have this ability to separate yourself from your body. So it's was super nice seeing her use it as well and seeing so many new artists also engage with this 3D avatar concept.

In terms of how I think it can impact media. In my opinion, I think it's very, very likely that in a few years' time, nearly every campaign we see on the street, on our social media streams, on advertising and TV will be a 3D human. I think it's almost going to be cheaper or easier in a way to use the 3D human than to say, buy the rights to the look of a particular individual.

Also beyond that, that can sound scary to some extent, but it's also so incredibly exciting and liberating creatively, in that we need to remember that they are 3D. So, just in terms of media production, you can change the color of their hair at a click of a mouse. You can put them in the mountains one second. You can put them on the beach the next second, you can change their clothing.

I don't know if you've had any experience being on a shoot or a fashion shoot or something, the changing of clothing is so time-consuming, but with a 3D model, you can click, put a t-shirt on them, click, put a hoodie on them, click, put a blazer on them, easy. The production potential is incredible, really.
We see uses in China on their version of X-Factor. They're already using digital avatar performance and I mean, those avatars can keep dancing the entire time.
Yeah, they don't get tired. Yeah, yeah. I mean, yeah, it's really the sort of creative process that I've gone through, which has been very interesting is learning to unlearn the rules of physics. Trying to remember if I want her to walk through that wall and she can.

And we still spend a lot of time just replicating realism, but we don't have to. And so that's, that's a kind of, I would say creative mission for art directors now working in 3D. Learning to unlearn.
Sounds quite exciting.
Yeah, it's super exciting.
Thank you very much. Thank you for both giving your time today. And cheers.
Yeah, not a problem. It was a total pleasure. Thanks so much.

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