Friday, September 28, 2007

Realising Fantasy

One of the aspects of my job which is hardest to explain to non-VFX people (or "muggles" as I am now tempted to pretentiously and ridiculously call them) is that of interpretation. When we are charged with creating a fantastic entity, be it a machine or a creature, we are generally presented with some kind of concept drawings from the production art-department. These generally bear no resemblance to what the client actually wants the finished effect to look like but that's a topic for another, more embittered post. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that the concept sketch is the perfect graphite or gouache embodiment of what the client wants. "Right, well go and make it then" you say. "Ah", I reply, "but it isn't as straight forward as that because we have to interpret the drawing."

How can this be? It seems so obvious, here's the drawing, the plan if you will, how much clearer could it be? The difficulty is that concept artists and model-makers have a different agenda to us. They want to create a beautiful image/sculpture that works as an immobile art-work. We have to realise this vision as an entity that works visually from any angle, but also probably moves and often in a very complicated way. To think of a reductio ad absurdum example of this, M.C. Escher's drawings are beautiful and very detailed but you couldn't actually build them. On a lesser level all artists, either knowingly or not, put these kinds of tricks of the eye into their work. Sculptors who produce statues only need the body to work in the pose that they're carving, if it is a figure it doesn't have to articulate. I can think of a show I worked on where the clients had spent a lot of money getting a life-size and quarter life size sculpts of a character made and then cast in silicone. These were then duly delivered to our studio with a "Build that!" brief attached.

As we examined the modelling we realised that the way the the trapezius muscles had been placed and modelled meant that the creature could never turn his head. We looked at the clavicle, and this was angled in such a way that his shoulders could never articulate. The pot belly had musculature on the outside, just under the skin (was he pregnant? - seemed unlikely) and the thigh muscles were simply attached in the wrong places to move the legs. Had we realised the concept as delivered the character would have been just about able to bend his knees and elbows and that is all. "But, surely this is all fantasy", you say, "Surely you can do anything in visual effects?" Well, yes we could have made a perfect copy of the sculpt and put a CG skeleton and muscles inside and made it move. But it would only ever look like a real actor wearing a heavy latex suit. Or to put that another way - rubbish.

Our eyes are very adept at seeing structures under the surface of the skin, seeing how joints move, how muscles move and how the skin slides over them. If we cheat on this, it immediately begins to sound alarm bells in all but the most obtuse viewer. One of the main reasons why Gollum, King Kong and Davey Jones are such leaps forward are that they are the results of countless hours of careful anatomical analysis, the development of new tools to simulate muscle and skin movement and the application of those tools by diligent and technically obsessive artists.

And so we don't leave these sketches alone, we have to interpret them and this can be a protracted and argumentative process as you have to persuade the client that the design they signed off on will never look right "on the move". Notice I don't say "look correct" here, but "look right". We can and do cut corners in this design process. We generally do not simulate every single muscle, it would take too long with current technology but we have to do enough that the viewer sees a convincing creature, one that has believable weight distribution, moves as our minds with years of experience of looking at a wide variety of creatures thinks it should move and seems part to the world it inhabits.

And that, dear reader, is the situation I find myself in at present, and have been for most of the last fortnight - interpreting someone elses drawings and written briefs, trying to visualise how to make their ideas work in a believable manner in CG. I think my retinas may start bleeding imminently.

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