Monday, August 20, 2007



I’ve been sick as a dog the last few days (nasty flu) but I want to continue my previous discussion. See part 1 and part 2 in case you’re joining the conversation a little late. Take time to linger in the comments for each post- some really good stuff can be found there.

In the Abstracted Essentialism form of visual construction the editorial emphasis is reductionary. The artists are laboring to boil things down to their minimum elemental representation to express the essence of a thing. Anything that is not deemed essential to communcating the meaning - detail, accuracy, specificity- is edited out. Often the driving force behind what gets left in and what gets left out are the visual limitations inherent in the medium. By way of contrast for its first 20 years in practice CG, with its strength in representing realistic and literal forms of light, shade and shadow, the bulk of the effort in CG development has been to find new technology to show natural phenomena that couldn’t be shown before. If there exists a technological limitation for showing a natural phenomena- no matter how minor- it must be eradicated. Thus in general the CG editing process is mostly additive in nature. What more can we put in?

CG technological development focuses on shoring up current inabilities in representing natural phenomena - always with accuracy in reflecting reality as the benchmark for success. As limitations are removed there exists an implied imperative for all CG imagery to use these technologies with a high degree of expertise or risk being labeled as inferior (The Hoodwinked Syndrome). A kind of literalism arms race has developed amongst the technical elite in American animation studios. It doesn’t take a psychic or a prophet to discern where this is headed- the end game of this is a product that passes for live action film- a breed of heavily production designed, highly polished puppetry that primarily apes live action film conventions. We see this in effect now (read the SIGGRAPH course notes on Sony’s Surf’s Up if you’re looking for an in-depth example of this approach at work) and it will only become more evident with time. I’m not saying this is bad or portends the end of civilization. I’m no artistic pharisee- I’m just noting that it is what it is. This visual approach has validity in communicating ideas. My only contention is that it’s not the only valid approach for CG. (always with the caveats, sheesh)

Traditional media like paint, pencil, pastels, etc. have distinct and immutable limitations. There will never be a sub-surface scattering tube of oil paint or an ambient occlusion camel hair brush that you can buy at an art store. No image ambience based lighting canvas will ever be invented. If you wish to express these natural phenomena you must know how to do so only with the ingredients at hand- oil, brush, paper/canvas and pigment. It’s true that a person with enough time and skill can represent any of the natural phenomena that CG can in a manner that can be strikingly literal and specific. However this application represents a miniscule amount of analog artistic effort in traditional media. Instead what we see is an enormous range of abstracted expression with natural media employing all manner of visual languages. Anecdotally it seems reasonable to conclude that the technological limitations of analog media inspire greater expressive inventiveness. Always the matter comes down to how much do you accept those limitations as opposed to how much effort you expend in overcoming them. Within that answer lie the whole continuum of styles.

Two things emerge when I seek a practical application for going in a more essentialistic direction in my own work. First, to inspire greater imagination in essential expression I should limit my reliance on technological tools and solutions. However if I do allow myself to use a technological solution I ought to use it for something other than the literal expression of the natural phenomena for which it was designed. Secondly, I should strive to be less literal minded in how to express objects and elements- not an easy task for someone who started out in CG and has worked their entire career in that medium. To varying degrees the literalistic mindset has colored all of my previous choices, so it will be quite counter intuitive at first. I’m sure I’ll slip into that mindset and will need to backtrack in order to stay on course.
For as long as I can remember folks in the CG community have always looked for some kind of technological magic pill to solve their visual challenges. Since most of the visual challenges have been literal and realistic, and thus the editorial bent more additive, this only makes sense. I’ve fallen into this line of thinking myself in the past. Software companies certainly like to feed this thinking- it keeps the upgrade money flowing in. But now I’m interested in using a limited subset of current off the shelf technologies to express a more essentialistic visual aesthetic in CG. It’s not ironic that most of the technologies that I am finding most useful in this effort have been around for a number of years. What’s been lacking on my part hasn’t been the tools, but the imagination to use them differently.

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