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.
This is a close up so excuse the wizard hat. The trees have different form and proportion and color, but their elemental representation is still quite specific and literal.
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.
Very specific and literal, yet artfully done.
Again we see decorative elements mean to make this monster-esque but the materials remain specific and fairly literal.
Wonky angles, slightly off proportions and lots of literal glass, brick, grass, concrete, fur, etc.
Here the specificity of materials is downplayed (the concrete doesn’t scream LOOK AT! ME I’M CONCRETE!), but the forms are quite literal.
Fairly specific and literal take on your average American suburb
More alien-esque decorations and design choices laid over top of specific and literal expression of forms and materials.
The metal shelled quansit hut, floor materials, etc. all very specific and literal
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.
And those who do…
I think Jim Tyer should be celebrated, if for no other reason than he provided an striking, engaging and successful counter-point to the over tight Disney style hegemony. It’s as if he was trained by a witch-doctor on some tropical island and was dropped into the world of animation with a way of animating that was completely foreign to other animators (and against the “rules”)- yet so much fun for audiences. You never get the impression that Tyer wanted to show off his fine art skills. Many detractors say he didn’t have any. Even so his inbetweens show a masterful grasp of the power of shapes changing over time to represent more than just motion, but energy and a thriving sense of life. He could see things working out in motion that apparently nobody else could. Looking at his drawings by themselves you’d never think they’d work- but they not only work, they excel! He was the pure antithesis of the overly polished smoothness seen in much of western commercial animation. He seemed to thrive on the idea of showing something underneath the motion. His motion wasn’t motion- it was an explosion of a whole mix of things. He entertains with no apology for form. A slap-dash factory like Terrytoons was actually the perfect place for a guy like Tyer. He was a huge footage producer, which means he did all this crazy stuff without too much suffering and angst- he pounded it out like pancakes. He’s living proof that one doesn’t need to work at “Insert Big Name Feature Film Studio Here” to be validated as a great animator. Some guys would be utterly wasted in those environments. The Jim Tyer mold of animator works best not as a cog safe in the womb of the larger collective, but out in the wild and woolly world of low budget where one animates on a wire without a net- a place where most celebrated cogs seize up and wither.
Those who don’t like Tyer generally fall into what I call the “serious animation” camp. In this school of animation, animation is a high art calling. It demands great dedication to craft. Suffering, if you will. A kind of omnipresent angst over the acceptability of one’s efforts. Fine tuned technical mastery of motion, drawing, accuracy of form, polish, attention to detail, etc. is the fullest expression of this high artistic calling. Even if pressed into the service of inane, sappy and dimwitted shows, the high art of animation is serious business. Thanks to some popular books and well structured marketing this dogma of animation has been preached as gospel to all the animated world ever since.
In the serious school of animation, entertainment often takes a back seat to gaining respect. I never get the impression that Tyer was gunning for much respect- either from the audience or other animators. It appears that he avoided falling into the trap of animating to other animators (something for us to think about). He was too busy having fun and trying to get the audience to have fun as well. General audiences don’t watch animation to respect the animators. Animators do that. General audiences watch animation to be entertained. In this regard, despite his serious technical ‘oddities’, Tyer delivered in buckets.
Obviously I care about doing animation well. I write about it here often enough. But I see the Tyer debate as a reminder that this goal of excellence in animation needs to be put into proper perspective. Technical excellence is not the bus driver- entertainment and connecting with your audience is. Only in service to these goals is technically excellent animation of any value. Devoid of these defining guides technical excellence in animation is mere ego stroking and hype.