Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Manufactured Image: Henry Ford would be proud

OK, kids. This is where I put on my crumudgeon hat and in the process no doubt make some people upset. Sorry, but it’s not my intent to make anybody feel bad, but instead try to point out some fundamental issues with the system. :)

OK, let’s have a look at this….

shrek3.jpg (click to enlarge)

I’m sorry, but I can’t get drunk enough to make this look good. Without a doubt this is a forest located deep down in Uncanny Valley. But this is merely a continuation of a problem that has been evident for some time. I’ve been saying for a while that big budget CG has been lumbering under the burden of it’s technological roots. It is difficult to deny that the current bent of big budget CG is toward over detailed and klunky visuals. There’s a lot to take issue with here. The lack of contrast, few quiet areas in the image, jangly poses, cliche’d layout, the haphazard accidental relationship of the background with the foreground, etc. It’s almost like nobody ever saw this all together until it was too late. The thing is, if it was made like 99% of the imagery in big budget CG then most likely nobody did see it until it was too late. The problem is not so much with any single artist. That’s because in all likelihood no single artist is responsible for this. It is assembly line imagery. The flaw is in the system under which this is made.

Imagine taking 10 talented solo singers and asking them to sing the US national anthem to the same instrumental track. But due to scheduling conflicts they have to each perform in solo, not as a group. Oh, and gee, we don’t have everybody’s performance here yet so you’ll need to just do your part the best you know how without hearing the others. Naturally these singers are to going to make it the best national anthem they know how. So they sing and sing, beautiful notes that rise and fall- all creating fabulous solo performances. Now take these 10 solo artist’s performances and mix them together in editing. The overall result would be hideous. There are no background singers, nobody is doing harmony, nobody takes the lead because all take the lead. It’d be like some kind of gladiator battle of voices. The jumble of notes flooding forth would cause ears to bleed.

This is the musical equivalent of CG feature film production. Read why I think so after the jump.

It is apparent to me that the production pipeline itself contributes to this sense of disjointedness we see in many scenes of CG feature films. In my experience as a Cg Supervisor on several long form projects it is clear that large CG animated projects are run more like a factory than anything else. Before becoming an animator I worked for almost 7 years in a wide variety of factories. I know factories. CG film production is a factory paradigm. These various CG assets are built in individual tasks, much like manufacturing widgets. The idea is that in the end all the various widgets are assembled to make a single image. So in many ways it’s no surprise at all that the end result feels haphazard and disjointed. It’s not the fault of the individual task-doers. They’re doing their best within their small isolated task (and small window of information about the whole) to make it the best they know how. Like the solo singers in the above example we do our best to make it a kick-butt (insert asset type here). And increasingly in the world of CG artists the measure of success or ability is in the artists/technicians ability to master details. It’s a micro focused paradigm. Left to our own devices individual Cg artists will over-detail things. It’s what we know and it’s what the CG world celebrates as having higher quality. I know because I’ve done it in the past myself, so you’re hearing it from one of your own. Thus the disease of detail-itis is built into the entire economy of CG production almost by default. There is little macro focus on the relationship of all assets in the creation of the image. Nobody can see the whole elephant at once, so we make our pieces based on our belief about what kind of object we think it ought to be (snake, tree, rope, etc.). But let me be clear on this- Detail-itis isn’t an unbalanced love for details over macro view of art. It’s merely the result of an inability to even be allowed to think on a macro level. Thus we focus our energy where we are given permission to put our mark on the art- in the details too small to be managed.

In a CG film production you usually don’t see everything all together until it’s almost done. More often than not the asset tasks are assigned with little information about how these individual elements fit into the larger collective whole of the imagery for which they are being created. When a modeler makes a lamp he is not shown all the scenes in which that lamp will be seen, where it appears in screen each time, how close we are to it, etc. Similarly animators have no information about the tonal qualities of the background to work with and zero info about the lighting or FX usually. Texture artists are given modeled props to paint, again in a vacuum. And so it goes. Lacking an understanding of context it is impossible for the individual task artist to make well informed priority judgments. The approval system isn’t any better. The director (via an endless string of departmental meetings) is shown models, environments, textures, materials, lighting, animation, cameras and FX all in different meetings. There is a significant gap of time where a director (or art director) on a CG project never sees the image with its elements all together. Once he approves the concept image or the color key (which are painted traditionally and usually not accurate representations of the true final look of CG) it is all broken apart. He or she just won’t see everything together again in the context of a given scene in the film until months later when the first lit and rendered scenes roll off the render servers. But on just about every production by the time they get to see everything together (usually lighting dailies) the production schedule is in crunch mode. Thus all they’re usually able to do is fix the technical problems (hopefully) and get the frames rendered without mistakes and with some measure of consistency. There’s no time to change sets or camera angles or animation or models or textures or anything to make the scene work as a piece of art. It’s all most crews can do to get the darn thing rendered, assembled, comped and done on time. Because of the huge cost involved lighting is not the place to be making changes, but ironically it’s the first place where you have all of the pieces ready put together. It’s only here that one can begin to arrange these elements to create pleasing singular works of artistic imagery, but the ability to do so is a luxury that cannot be afforded. The paradox is staggering.

Artistry isn’t assembled. Cars, disposable razors, radios & lawn mowers are. The primary benefit of manufacturing is consistency of product combined with cost control. Is it any wonder then that many CG films feel the same? To combat this somebody needs to be allowed to think about the film from the standpoint of appealing artistic imagery. And they need to be able to do this before the money and time runs out. This is supposed to be the director’s or art director’s job, but in CG a director is often little more than parts inspector- whether by chance or by choice.

No doubt this film has a ton of talented & skilled people working on it. All CG films do. Great modelers, texture artists, lighters, animators, etc. All people who’s skills put them at or near the top of the heap. I have close personal friends working on this and I know for certain that they’re way better artists than this- when they are responsible for the whole image, that is. But in the current CG film production paradigm they’re not allowed to be. It would seem no one is.

So besides complaining about this, what do I have to offer? Well, I’ve got some ideas. I’ll share those as I go along. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Keith Lango said...

original comments here...