Interview: Capcom’s Cancelled Blood Swimming Pool

Despite the dubious zombie-themed games launches which have peppered the last few years, Capcom’s Resident Evil: Revelations blood swimming pool felt like it had the potential to be fun and relevant. As it happens the event was cancelled, but I decided to interview the creative director anyway about how to negotiate the boundary between attention-grabbing and offensive when it comes to the undead.

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Zombie-themed games launches don’t have a great track record in terms of PR. At their most typical, an agency ends up hiring an incredibly slow-moving crowd to shuffle towards the cameras, arms outstretched, faces dripping with stage makeup, having raided my wardrobe back during my Seattle grunge phase. At the other end of the spectrum sit experiments in taste and traffic baiting.

One such launch event was the Resident Evil 5 torso treasure hunt where, as per Pocket Lint’s coverage at the time:

“From the three heads, three torsos and 12 arms and legs hidden at various locations around Trafalgar Square, only two heads, one torso and six legs were returned by players – yet the fake body parts disappeared from all the locations they were hidden.”

Oh, and:

“Apparently seeing people walking around at rush hour clutching decapitated heads and covered in blood was enough to offend some people, and the police were called to the competition finish line on Westminster Bridge, prompting an early finish to the competition.”

Another memorable moment was the, to my mind, actively malicious and cynical Dead Island Riptide torso collectible. You remember – the disembodied pair of biologically unlikely tits in a string bikini customised to your country and about which Deep Silver were really apologetic. Right up until the point when they released it as a limited edition with a £89.99 price tag.

Most recently we had a blood swimming pool created to promote Resident Evil Revelations. Despite the less-than-stellar legacy of zombie launches I had higher hopes this time around because Emma Thomas, the creative director of the event has put on a host of other gory events which have all managed to be fascinating and horrible without being offensive.

Or, more accurately, we would have had a blood swimming pool event, but the week of the event was also the week a soldier was stabbed to death in Woolwich and blood stains and pictures of his corpse dominated the news. Unsurprisingly, Capcom pulled the plug on the event before anyone dipped so much as a toe in the crimson waters.

For a little more on the pool and the problems in bringing death to the marketplace I spoke to creative director for the event, Emma Thomas (you might know her as Miss Cakehead on Twitter):

So how did the blood swimming pool come about?

We wanted to create a culturally strong event that would appeal to a wide audience, and crucially engage with those outside the core gaming press. In order to do so we felt it was important to create an event – or experience – that would appeal to the widest possible audience. The specific swimming pool was conceived for two reasons:

a) When creating a PR stunt I feel it is important to tie into current and future trends, the open air swimming pool being one of these.

b) It also needed to relate to Resident Evil: Revelations and not be bloody just for the sake of it. The setting for the game is an old cruise ship so we wanted to have an experience that would relate to this key element of Resident Evil: Revelations, swimming pools on deck being synonymous with cruise ships. A pool also features in the new title, so this seemed to be the perfect stunt.

How do you negotiate the line between what’s offensive or negative and what’s playful?

I believe it comes down to a creative approach more akin to an advertising agency than PR. We ensure a level of detail that heightens the experience and makes it much more than a PR stunt. We also look to create experiences that appeal to both male and female audiences – being a female creative director makes this instinctive.

What makes extreme PR stunts stand out and work is when there is a story being told, and gore is only used if it fits part of the narrative. If you look at Wesker & Son [a pop-up human butcher art installation also used by Capcom to promote Resident Evil] you’ll see that there was actually no blood involved for the final pop up shop and this was only featured for the murder scene press packs where it was highly relevant to the story.

You also need to be aware of potential issues before negative reactions start and take action. Wanting to have amputee butchers for example (we worked with the amazing Amputees In Action on this), we then also made the decision to donate all the money taken to the limbless society.

And what about the decision to cancel the pool event?

It was a difficult and brave decision by Capcom but there is no doubt it was the right thing to do. No only would the content not be suitable for the news agenda, it would run the risk of upsetting all those affected. This was meant to be a fun engaging experience and in light of the Woolwich attacks this was no longer the case.

Has the event been cancelled or postponed?

At present Capcom have not decided on the future of the pool.

What was the reaction to the pool from the general public before the Woolwich news broke?

The reaction has been incredible with all tickets to the event selling out in minutes. A few were rather concerned they would be swimming in real blood though!

Have any of the other gory projects you’ve worked on raised similar issues in terms of being controversial?

I believe that being purposefully controversial shows a lack of creativity, and that all PR is not good PR. For example vagina cakes could be considered ‘controversial’ but people of all ages flock to the shops to purchase them. That said I have been reported to the police for inciting cannibalism, although I have not yet managed to upset the Daily Mail…

Mess: A Musical Comedy about Anorexia

cake pillow

“It’s a musical comedy of sorts,” explains the PR, “about anorexia.”

The second half of the sentence clangs against the first. Anorexia is essentially a debilitating, lonely and potentially life-threatening illness. And the appeal of musical comedies is generally that they are none of these things. Yet in her play Mess, Caroline Horton brings the two together to form a poignant, honest and, yes, funny, account of her own disordered eating.

The obvious question, though, is: When it comes to anorexia, what is there to laugh about…

[Full article: Meet Caroline Horton - The Woman Making Musical Comedy About Anorexia on MyDaily.co.uk]

The Future of Fashion Illustration

Topshop fashion show

“The impact of ever-more portable technology on the fashion industry has made itself obvious in terms of both wearable gadgetry and changes to design and productions methods. Its impact on the fashion illustration scene, however, has been of a more subtle and individual nature…”

[Full article "Swapping ink for pixels: fashion illustrators' digital toolbox" on Wired.co.uk]

Photo: Philippa Warr

Why we don’t record tragedy on Instagram

I wrote this piece on how Instagram resists some types of content quite a while back, just after 11 September, 2012 in fact. It ties into something I sometimes do which is search Instagram for pictures of wartorn areas or tragic events to see how people are negotiating that tension.

The results tend towards romanticising combatants or their actions – hashtags like #wedoitsoyoudonthaveto and #semperfi – or making use of established imagery. On 9/11 there was a cascade of pictures of the Twin Towers haemorrhaging smoke moments before they collapsed. Some had been pushed through filters and others had text splashed across them from other apps and programs but the curious thing to me was that they were all basically the same. The human tragedy got lost under the bittersweetness, the idea that time is slipping away, the sentimentality which is built into Instagram from the bottom up and are actually incredibly hard to fight.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use Instagram for reporting news or for illustrating it, but how the app couches its media and the idea of a homogenisation of emotion are the things which I find fascinating.

Dean Praetorius, a colleague at the US Huffington Post posed the question “What if Facebook and Twitter had existed on 9/11?” in a blog piece. You can read his take on this imagined reality via the link but one of the questions it raised for me, perhaps because I’d just finished looking through Time magazine’s curated lightbox of the most moving images from 9/11, was whether we would have used image services like Instagram to record any of the events of that day in real time. 

I’m aware that this might sound like I’m getting too far into an impossible what-if scenario – after all, Twitter and Instagram simply didn’t exist in the same reality as the Twin Towers. But the broader question of whether we, as users and consumers of social media, would turn to Instagram to record a large-scale tragedy caught my attention because it really made me think about what Instagram actually is.

My knee-jerk reaction was “Of course you wouldn’t use Instagram to report 9/11″.

But why not?

I think it boils down to how Instagram works, both on a practical level and on a conceptual one. To dispense with the practical element: in the midst of a chaotic and frightening situation, pointing, shooting and posting would be about as complex as most of us would be willing to get, if that. Making an aesthetic judgement on whether X-Pro II or Hefe was the filter which best expressed the impending collapse of your surroundings? Not so much. It’s a process which demands time and decisions.

The conceptual level relates to what I think Instagram’s appeal is.

The best way I can explain that is with the phrase “pre-emptive nostalgia”. Instagram pushes an aesthetic rooted in the past, reminding us of pictures from our childhood or perhaps even further back. The filters, the borders and the ever-so-slightly-brokenness which is built into the DNA of the app force your hand in terms of the images you can create easily.

By that I mean that the aesthetic of Instagram is intrinsically tied to nostalgia and a sort of bittersweetness that is more static than it is dynamic. It selects out or resists things which are complicated, immediate and horrific in favour of simplicity, of composure and of the deadening of extreme emotion.

When using Instagram we select units of time from the here and now which we deem worth marking and create an image bathed in visual cues to promote a kind of psychological distance and provoke nostalgia without having to do anything so unseemly as allowing a significant amount of time to pass and a noticeable amount of technological development in the field of image production to occur. It reveals both our own hunger for a “best bits” showreel as well as our appetite for curating the cinematic version of our lives in which we star as the constant protagonist.

All of this means that Instagram repels real-time visual information sharing of the kind needed for reporting on pretty much every level.

The extra steps between recording an image and hitting publish make the service literally less immediate than using the phone’s simpler camera programs and the aesthetic of the app does everything in its power to select out or lessen the emotion contained within the imagery.

Obviously Instagram isn’t billed as a reporting tool, but the level to which it resists the fundamentals of image reporting took me by surprise.