Friday, August 17, 2007

Abstracted Essentialism vs. Specified Literalism

In my journey to finding a different visual language for my CG animation efforts I recently tried to define the normal CG Look. Now I’ll turn our attention to how one may express objects or elements without resorting to pure specificity and literalism by employing some direct comparison.

First, let’s turn our attention again to the kitchen in Pixar’s Ratatouille. Why do I keep coming back to this film? One because it’s well done- it represents state of the art technical achievement in CG imagery. There are few visible limitations to what the team wanted to do. Second, a lot of hubbub has been hubbed and bubbed about the tactileness and sense of presence in the film’s visuals by artists and non-artists alike. Third, Pixar’s success from the very start has determined what people think CG art ought to be. Whether they meant to or not they have become the standard by which all other CG efforts are usually judged. Anyhow, enough parenthetical rabbit trails- on to the kitchen…


We see that from an expressive point of view this imagery is quite literal. To make things simpler to analyze, let’s burrow down into just one element here- the floor. A restaurant kitchen floor is made up of tiles. So naturally there are tiles here. To express the “tile-ness” of the floor we see no attempt to use anything other than literal tiles. Literal grout. Literal tile texture. Literal tile shading by literal lights above. The creators didn’t feel it necessary to invite the viewer to bring anything to the imagery in order to interpret it’s meaning. These are literal and specific tiles. Only the most obtuse of people would find this difficult to grasp. If we zoom in on any number of objects or elements we see the same rule at work. There are no gaps, no undefined areas for viewer interpretation. Every object is defined and specific. For certain there are many artistic licenses being taken with regard to the proportion, number, placement, inclusion, exclusion or order of things. So in that sense this is not a pursuit of exact realism, but it is still primarily an exercise in realism. If you think I’m laboring the point, the artists and technicians themselves admit it. (read that link to the Siggraph course notes about the kitchen and note how many times the words “real”, “realism” and “realistic” appear as a stated mandate for accomplishing a thing.)

Some have noted to me that you cannot express anything unless you specify in some way and that all specificity can be called literal to varying degrees. This is true. An image devoid of any specificity in recognizable form is purely abstract. One can discern no objects of meaning, only color and texture. The question is, how much specified literalism is necessary to communicate an object or element visually?

Well, let’s start off simply. Take a look at this background painting from the Fleischer’s studio from the early 1940’s. This was in a post on Cartoon Brew a few days back.


This is a fairly typical background painting from the time. I chose this image to start our comparisons with because it is actually rather literal itself. Yet even though this is on the literal end of the spectrum it’s still nowhere near as literal as a typical CG film environment. In this world we are presented with a wide variety of easily recognizable objects and elements. Yet the visual technique used by the artist to represent these objects and elements is not solely literal. Yes, certain objects and elements are literally shown. We do see a number of distinct leaves, bricks, roof tiles, blades of grass, etc. But we also see areas lacking specific form definition, areas of mere shape, color and brush texture that in and of themselves mean nothing. These spaces require the viewer to “fill in the blanks” by drawing inferences from other more defined forms. This image combines some specified literalism in strategic places with larger areas of abstractness while still remaining discernable. The specific literal elements steer the viewer toward drawing a rightful conclusion about the nature of the abstract areas. This combination of explicitness and abstractness combine to define the essence of the substance, form or elements present. Being an untrained hack (I never went to art or film school) I don’t know the exact term for this sort of activity, so I’ve decided to call this Abstracted Essentialism (if an established term exists please educate me via the comments).
The roots of my term can again be found in the definition of words. First, Abstracted-

tr.v. ab·stract·ed, ab·stract·ing, ab·stracts
1. To take away; remove.
2. To remove without permission; filch.
3. To consider (a quality, for example) without reference to a particular example or object.
4. To summarize; epitomize.

And Essence, the root word of essential is defined as….

1. The intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify something.
2. The most important ingredient; the crucial element.
3. The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing or class of things.
4. a. An extract that has the fundamental properties of a substance in concentrated form.

Essential is defined as

1. Constituting or being part of the essence of something; inherent.
2. Basic or indispensable; necessary: essential ingredients.

So to boil it down: Abstracted Essentialism (AE) is the visual vocabulary whereby objects, elements and forms are represented in a manner that allows undefined visual elements to mix with and draw meaning from specific visual elements so as to express the ontological nature of the objects or elements portrayed.

In plainer English: AE is when you mix a minority amount of specificity in form with larger areas of abstraction to communicate the core essence of an object or element in a way that is not utterly realistic or literal but is still easily understood.

Now for a more extreme example, let’s go to another French restaurant…


This is a painting by director Mike Gabriel for his Disney short film Lorenzo. Looking at this image we see that there are all kinds of recognizable restauranty things here, but they are not at all literal representations of the objects. Some shapes are quite specific, like a few of the bottles behind the bar, while a good deal more are nothing more than mere paint strokes with no form. It’s their proximity in space, tone and orientation to the more specific strokes that implies their substance. The limited specificity (almost completely devoid of literalism in any form) combined with the viewer’s understanding of how the world really looks come together to give meaning to the more abstract portions of the painting. Taking this even further, here is a rain slicked Parisian street at night….


This is the height of inference, yet it completely works. All non-essential visual aspects of the world have been stripped away, leaving only the barest of specific hints combined with very abstract elements. Despite this image having no more than a few dozen brush strokes we immediately understand what it is. We don’t need the image to pedantically tell us everything about itself. We can bring our own meaning to it and immediately grasp what it means. Aw, what the heck, here’s another one. They’re too pretty not to look at….


To me the real power in abstracted essentialism is in its invitational manner. The viewer is invited to project their own understanding into the voids within the imagery. With the highly specified literal forms of CG no such invitation is offered. Rather the imagery explicitly states its every meaning to the viewer. The viewer is asked to appreciate the visual, but not participate in it.
Hopefully this helps explain my thinking about these contrasting methods for visually expressing specific objects or elements. As for what this means practically, I’ll expand my thoughts more in the next post or two.


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