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Compute, We Must!

Please don't misunderstand me. I love my computers and have since my first introduction to the relatively primitive computer-aided design tools of more than 20 years ago. To steal a phrase, "You can have my computer when you pry my cold, dead fingers off the mouse!" However, it is my passion for the basics of traditional art and design skills that drives me to bend these amazing tools to the will of the creative mystery. Too often, gripped in the jaws of my ignorance, it has been the other way around.

So, compute we must! But how can we escape the tyranny of technology? The cure is a return to the inescapable truths of traditional principles. But detente in the symbiosis of science, technology, and art in the digital world is as controversial as it is difficult to achieve. An acceptable balance between the two yields stunning and believable imagery, without the artist becoming a slave to either a literal interpretation of reality or the rendition of a naive artistic vision. As artistic standards for computer-generated imagery continue to be raised to higher levels, the only way for an artist to keep pace is by consistent, dedicated study and practice of a core set of fundamental traditional skills.

In the January 2000 edition of 3D magazine, editor and author Ted Greenwald posed the following question to several pioneers of 3D animation and imaging: "What will be the most important skills for professional artists and animators to possess in the coming decade?" Their answers to the question are wise and useful:

  • "Fundamental art and science skills: drawing, color, composition, lighting, study of motion. Every studio encounters people who think they can become an artist without developing those skills. Wrong."—Ed Catmull, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Pixar Animation Studios, creators of Toy Story 1, Toy Story 2, and A Bug's Life

  • "Artists and animators need to have a firsthand acquaintance with reality—a tactile, visual, auditory immersion in real things—in order to have a sense of what things are and what emotions they evoke in their raw form."—John Dykstra, senior visual effects supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks, pioneer of motion-control camera work for Star Wars, and supervisor of visual effects for the Batman series and Stuart Little

  • "Observation of the world around them. How they move in space, how light bounces off surfaces, how things look and feel and what the true relationships of things are. In a 2D medium like painting or drawing, a good artist will spend a lot of time out in the world observing and will bring that back to the studio"—Phil Tippett, founder of Tippett Studios, special effects creator for Star Wars, animation supervisor for Jurassic Park, and co-director of the battle sequences in Starship Troopers

A clear and fundamental mission to acquire fundamental art and science skills, a firsthand acquaintance with reality, observation of the world around us, how light bounces off a surface—these are not just tasks that we have as digital artists. Indeed, this is the only task we have before us. The brief statements from the giants of digital art in our time represent a de facto standard of required knowledge for artists using digital tools to create their work. There is no shortcut to success as a digital artist. And the path lies through well-charted territory. This brings me to a controversial question ....

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