Monday, July 03, 2006

Job Rant

Nuts to the lot of 'em I say.

This article from the BBC has finally tipped me over the edge and now I'm going to vent on an issue that raised my ire consistently over the last few years.

First up a disclaimer. I make CG visual effects for feature films for a living. I have been lucky enough to work on some huge film projects and smaller shows too. I have been doing this for several years and cannot think of another job I'd rather have. It is perfect for my half artist, half nerd personality and allows me to create what is, to all intents and purposes, magic. What continues to annoy and upset me is how our work is presented by the media and (mis)understood by the public.

I am sick of films being dismissed as "just an effects movie", or praised by the classic reviewer's line, "this film is great because it doesn't have CG effects in it". Oh really? Wanna bet? The number of films that have nothing done to them in post-production these days is miniscule. Whether it's replacement of a sky, the removal of spots from an actor's face, or the creation of entire shots we are everywhere. It's all lies, every last frame of it. I find this idea that CG somehow makes films worse utterly unconvincing, and this popular perception persists for two reasons I believe. People don't understand how we do what we do, and they are terrified of feeling duped by something they perceive as being "fake".

The first part is pure ignorance. When it was suggested to me by a journalist who was doing an interview that the computer did all my work for me I was prompted to ask whether his wordprocessor did all his for him too? There seems to be an assumption that people like me get into work in the morning, press "d" for dinosaur, then "a" for animate and Jurassic Park pukes out of the back of the computer.

It is, you will be unsurprised to learn, a little more involved than that. The technical and artistic talent of the people I am lucky enough to work with is astronomical. There are painters, sculptors, photographers, mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, film-makers and so on. Many are multi-disciplinary in their skills; genuinely amazing people. And it requires their tremendous combined talent and huge expenditure of energy over long periods of time. A film's effects generally takes a year to complete, far longer than the time a crew works on set for. There are times when what we do is obvious; dinosaurs no longer exist, you can't film an epic space battle or a giant ape because they don't exist. No matter how good the work that is done on such projects it will always be obvious that it's an effect, and they are derided as such.

That many effects in the past were achieved by matte paintings or the like isn't somehow perceived in the same way though. I believe this is because it is easier to understand, conceptually for the layman, that someone with enormous artistic skill could paint an image onto glass that is so convincing that you believe it to be real. With CG, the belief is that since "the computer does all the work" it is cheating and not as good. Understanding CG is not easy, indeed it's been my entire career to date to figure out that little I have managed to learn and there is still so much I don't yet understand. You need a reasonable knowledge of trigonometry, computing, art history, photography, optical physics, film chemistry and so in order to become really good. It's a very steep learning curve and as with most things that are complicated it has its own insular set of acronyms and jargon; BRDF, NURBS, sub-divs, sub-surface scattering, lattices, ambient occlusion, inverse kinematics etc. etc. To explain any of these concepts is difficult, but what won't do is taking the cop-out view that either "The computer does it" or that an "actor performs and then the computer puts this onto a character". That sells CG artists short, and gives fuel to those who see CG as "fake" and less worthy than films without effects.

I have a little shocking news for these people. All films are fake. Everything in them is fake, whether they are sets that only go up to head height or the simple act of framing up a shot; it's all a trick. And yet people refuse to see this. They get very indignant when they find that extensive retouching is done on every advertising or magazine image. What did they expect? The maxim that the camera never lies is one of the most pernicious axioms of our time. It would be truer to say the camera only lies; it can do nothing else. Even documentaries, because they are edited, because the shots are framed in a certain way, the colours are treated to give a certain look are fake. But movies? C'mon everything is phony; they're a big lie from beginning to end. It's what we do. I have a motto, "Better films through trickery and deceit". I didn't invent it but it sums up what I believe the contribution of the visual effects industry is, and I'm not going to let the ignorance of a small group of ignorami, luddites and nay-sayers belittle what this industry achieves.

The issue is not with visual effects artists or the industry, the issue is that the public has a hard time accepting that an image is manipulated, as they see it, it's a con and we're trying to make fools of them. Not so, the only foolish behaviour is to believe that anything you see on a screen is real. The sooner every image is accepted merely for what it purports to show and that it has no deeper meaning or reality than that, the better off we will all be. Sadly I do not see that happening any time soon and as I result I expect more ill-informed clap-trap about what visual effects are and how they are created for the foreseeable future.

OK rant over (for now), thanks for listening.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone knows computers don't do all the work. It's the DIRECTORS! (except when they are assisted by "wizards").

4:43 pm  
Anonymous nuh-uh. not telling. said...

That's a cool picture of that squirrel. How'd you get it to hold still like that, or was that just a lucky shot? The light is a little funny, but it's a good catch!

4:45 pm  

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