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Principles of Process

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Wrapup

You now know the shot you are going to create in this book's workshop, how the shot fits into the overall structure of a larger production, and how the use of layers will be employed to create the final imagery for TheEnd.

Before moving into Lesson 4, I want to tell you about one of the fundamental cognitive shifts you'll need to make to be a successful CGI artist.

Sight and Perception

Seeing is the physiological process of light entering into the eye, stimulating the cells on the retina and transmitting the resultant information to the visual cortex of your brain. Your brain processes that information and a wonderful thing happens—you experience the phenomenon known as seeing.

Perception is the mental process you go through to decide what those images mean. The eye tells you what is out there; your perception determines the meaning and the reality of what you are seeing.

Chrome-Plated Reality

When I was a student studying Industrial Design, we were given an assignment to use magic markers or colored pencils to illustrate a chrome hubcap. If you know any industrial designers, you will know that we are taught how to render many different materials to illustrate our designs quickly for evaluation of form, material, and so on. A chrome hubcap is the best place to learn how to really see how form affects the size and shape of the reflections of the environment in the surface of the object. This rapid-vis exercise (short for Rapid Visualization) was an in-class assignment and we were given 20 minutes to complete it.

At the end of the 20 minutes, one by one, we put our attempts at chrome up on the wall for critique. The last student came up to show his work. I can still see him in my memory: pinning his drawing to the wall, standing back, obviously proud of his attempt to render chrome. We all sat speechless. His drawing consisted of a circle (right shape for a hubcap). Good enough start. He then had taken a silver pencil and colored in the circle with the pencil; a nice coloring job, very even, no white of the paper showing through, and no discernible scribbles outside the borders.

For this student, chrome was silver. That was his reality and it was what he saw when he looked at chrome. He didn't see the subtle gradation of the core of the sky, the dark mass of the horizon reflection distorted by the contours of the form of the hubcap. He didn't see the hubcap. What he saw was what his mind had been trained to see: silver.

To have your eyes opened and really see the world around you, you must begin to perceive all that you can see in terms of its material, how light falls on its surface, the reflection patterns that are produced by the form of the object, and its relationship to you in the environment.

If you rely on the computer to solve such fundamental visual phenomena, you will never have the ability to free your vision from the limitations of the tool. This will take some practice.

There are CGI artists who have the same deficiency in their ability to really see beyond the superficial and I will forever honor my former classmate by thinking of them as "silver pencil" artists. They rely on the default abilities of the powerful computer tools available to them without really learning to create believable reality.

Suspension of Disbelief

In movies, this ability to create believable reality results in what is called suspension of disbelief. When an audience is totally captivated by the filmmaker's magic, they willingly choose to believe what their eyes are taking in—they suspend their disbelief.

To achieve the suspension of disbelief in your audience, you must understand the visual reality of what they will be looking at. Good examples abound. Here's one excruciatingly simple solution to a huge visual problem.

Dennis Muren, VFX Supervisor, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, was tasked with 2,000 special effects shots to complete this movie. Dennis has won eight Academy Awards for his work and is the only visual-effects magician to have his name on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. When some of the shots in the Pod Race scene required a large crowd of people filling the stands, Dennis and his crew used cotton-tipped swabs painted in different "crowd people" colors. Digitally multiplied and combined, they are a convincing example of a simple, elegant solution to a visual problem.

Figure 3.8 shows the fireflies from TheEnd.avi. This is an example of creating the core essence of something using a minimum of visual elements.

Figure 3.8 The fireflies are little glowing spheres following spinning elliptical paths.

When you watch TheEnd.avi, the fireflies appear to be flocking and moving in random orbits—at least, that is what they appear to be doing to the viewer. The reality is that they are following very simple elliptical paths that have been animated to spin. You can see those paths in the wireframe view in Figure 3.8. This shot won't win an Academy Award for the result. The important thing was to apply the simple principles we have been talking about to create the visual reality of fireflies.

Taking a Step Back

The first step forward in creating such simple solutions is to take a step back. Visually, mentally, step back from the image you are trying to create and ask the question, "What is it I am actually seeing here?"

In the case of The Phantom Menace crowd scene, what we are actually seeing is a bunch of fuzzy-colored blobs that, when viewed from a distance, look like people. In the case of the fireflies, what we are actually seeing is a bunch of fuzzy-colored blobs that, when viewed from a distance, look like fireflies.

When looked at this way, the challenge becomes, "How do I create a bunch of fuzzy-colored blobs?" not "How do I create a crowd scene of fireflies?" It's very Zen, and practicing this ability to take a step back is important. Next time you are drying off from a shower, try thinking that you are not drying yourself off, you are making the towel as wet as possible. This is nonlinear paradoxical thinking. It is the antithesis of the "silver pencil" reality.

Choosing Perception

Perception is about choice and in the case of my former classmate, whether or not it was a conscious choice, he chose to create chrome with a silver pencil. In the case of Dennis Muren, you can't argue with eight Academy Awards. When you begin to see the world in terms of how light interacts with form, and learn to perceive and not just see, you have taken the first necessary cognitive steps toward becoming an excellent artist.

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