As I’ve noted before I am enjoying my own little spelunking exercise with my Cg animation and art. It occurred to me that it might be beneficial to take some time to define what it is that I want to avoid. The tools, techniques, de-facto forms and visual styles of CG are so deeply ingrained into the mindset of most CG artists that I think it’s important to define them so as to more easily spot when they are creeping into my work. Plus I figure if I’m not quite sure where I want to end up on this little adventure at the very least it’d be good to know where I don’t want to go. And to be sure - while it is a big money maker and highly popular- the normal “CG look” is not a look that I’m interested in pursuing for the umpteenthousandth time in my career. Now before you get all up in arms I’m not saying the usual “CG Look” is bad or lacking artistry or has no value. It’s fine for those that wish to pursue that. I’m just on a different path, that’s all. You’re free to take your own path with blessing.
OK, caveats aside, just how do I define the “CG look” that I wish to avoid along this different path? It’s too simple to label it realism and it’s not expansive enough to say that the CG look is overly detail dense (both mistakes I’ve made before). A more subtle and sophisticated definition is needed. Perhaps this one will suffice…
One thing that CG has always been excellent at is expressing a thing (whether it be an object, a character, texture, light, shadow, movement) in a very specific and literal way. Even when stylized in form the tap-root of CG’s strength lies deep in the soil of specified literalism.
This of course begs the question- What do I mean by specified literalism?
Let’s look at these dictionary definitions for the word Literal:
1. Being in accordance with, conforming to, or upholding the exact or primary meaning of a word or words.
2. Word for word; verbatim: a literal translation.
3. Avoiding exaggeration, metaphor, or embellishment; factual; prosaic: a literal description; a literal mind.
4. Consisting of, using, or expressed by letters: literal notation.
5. Conforming or limited to the simplest, nonfigurative, or most obvious meaning of a word or words.
1. Adherence to the explicit sense of a given text or doctrine.
2. Literal portrayal; realism.
1. Explicitly set forth; definite.
2. Relating to, characterizing, or distinguishing a species.
3. Special, distinctive, or unique:
tr.v. spec·i·fied, spec·i·fy·ing, spec·i·fies
1. To state explicitly or in detail:
2. To include in a specification.
So this is what I mean by Specified Literalism. It is the technique wherein there exists an overall exactness in visual representation. Objects, movement, elements, materials and substances -regardless of macro variations in design- are described using a visual vocabulary that is precise and generally not open to interpretation.
Example: A tree. To represent a tree using Specified Literalism you would make a trunk with an exterior of bark, branches that cascade in size inverse with complexity and tens of thousands of leaves. There may be any number of macro design decisions about the tree regarding it’s shape, color, species and proportion, but the visual vocabulary for representing this tree would be precise. To wit, a sampling of CG trees from films through the years:
Here we see literalism in not just the trees but the rocks, ashphalt, car paint, etc.
Same thing only with tropical tree and plants. These may seem stylized but having lived in a tropical environment for a little bit now I can say that these trees aren’t too far from what we see in nature.
These here with the cow are kindergarten-ized trees, very simplistic in nature, yet still specific and literal in expression.
If you watch Geri’s Game closely you’ll see that Good Geri has yellow tree behind him and Bad Geri has red trees behind him. A nice storytelling touch. Still the trees are pretty literal outside of their color choices.
Another example: A building or room. Using the language of specified literalism you would determine what base material of construction the parts of the building are made up of. Then you would go about creating specific material and shape representations to express these objects or elements. Again a myriad of macro design choices aside, the visual language of specified literalism denotes that each brick will be defined, every stone represented, every material rather faithfully recreated in order to express a building. Again, some CG buildings culled from various films:
Here we see decorative elements meant to add an alien-esque flavor to the otherwise very literal and specific building materials we all are familiar with. Looks just like Mars should look. Ahem.
Nice art deco style in the form, very specific expression of that design.
Another subject: Flesh. Regardless of species (whether real or imagined) to denote flesh in a specified literalistic manner you would be sure to include pores, wrinkles, body hair, blemishes, freckles, marks, scars, sub surface light scattering properties (a more recent technology) or other anomolies all with some significant degree of exactness. Again, examples…
Yes, green ogres don’t exist thus this is not ‘realism’. Still the flesh is represented in a very literal fashion.
The entire production design of The Incredibles values understatement in materials (like the building noted above). Even so understatement means it’s still literal, it’s just being whispered instead of screamed. Get out your DVD and watch those close up shots to see what I’m talking about.
Less whispering. The humans in the Shrek franchise have skin that is very literal.
Lots of close up’s of Al’s skin perhaps dictated a more literal approach.
With Skinner we see more subdued literal elements of pores, blemish and surface, but the subsurface scattering is turned up. Note the lip texture as well- quite specific and literal. Still a fun design from the realm of proportion. He was my favorite character to watch in the film.
All the humans in the film have a very healthy application of rouge to the cheeks- except the Anton Ego character. Here we see the freckles thing.
With all of these you can almost pick any substance and find the same visual law at work. Cloth, hair, atmosphere, etc. Certainly there are many variations of design, color, form and proportion at work- all evidence of artistic decision making. Again, I’m not saying that any of this is bad or lacking imagination or anything- I’m just examining the visual evidence to try and work out some definitions. There is lots of room for artistic license within this look. But even when presented with fantastical realms, materials, colors and things CG reverts to a specificity of form that labors to lend a specific sense of realistic-ness (not realism) to the work. Regardless of scenario, theme or topic the technique of greatest recourse is a specificity with regard to elemental accuracy. No significant attempt at material or elemental abstraction is made. It’s this lack of abstractness in the majority of CG animated film efforts that has defined the de-facto “look” of CG.