Issue: Volume: 22 Issue: 11 (November1999)

The Science of Art

I once spoke to a group of would-be animators at the Toronto Animation Festival. At the end of my talk, someone asked me if I thought mathematics had a place in the studies of an aspiring digital artist. I replied that math had given me no small advantage in my occupation, and that because of my ability to generate solutions as well as enact them, I had never lacked for work or compensation. My answer so enraged a teacher of digital animation at one of the local schools that he stood up and shouted that I was wrong, that digital artistry had nothing whatsoever to do with mathematics.

This man`s rage illustrates the superstitious revulsion some digital artists hold toward mathematics and technology, even as they embrace them in their daily work. However, I would contend that a great deal of the art of digital imagery is bound to an understanding of the language and tools of mathematics. Yes, it is possible to do a good job and to earn respect in the field of digital effects without having a deep understanding of the tools one wields. But artists who gain the greatest recognition, by creating previously unattempted effects, invariably have learned that they must know the deeper mechanisms of their tool sets. Just as sculptors must learn the structure and character of the rock they hew, and ceramicists must learn the chemistry of glaze pigmentation to push forward their creative expressions, so too must those who work with pixels and computers really understand the algorithms that lie at the heart of their medium. And they must be able to develop new mechanisms and techniques if they are to be innovative artists. Those who don`t may remain craftspeople--destined to recreate effects designed by those with deeper understanding of the medium.

A look at my own experience may support my argument: I have been working as a digital artist in Los Angeles since 1993, on such films as Apollo 13, True Lies, and more recently, Star Trek: Insurrection, and Mystery Men. I came to the industry with a degree in mathematics from the University of Waterloo in Canada. In school, I was never particularly talented in the traditional creative media, such as clay or paint. The computer was different, however, and in it I found a mathematician`s palette.
A still from the animation "SkyWhales," created by Caleb Howard and Kevin Mack, shows overlapping volume functions for the clouds and islands in the sky.

Since discovering the potential of visual computing, I have developed from a mathematical and technical background into what I am now--an artist. I have learned much artistry from my classically trained coworkers, and I am grateful for their assistance in my continuing development. What I have needed to learn of art has been facilitated greatly by the understanding I already had of mathematics. Having come to an understanding of both aspects of the job, I now believe that I use math far more each day than I use artistry.

Digital artists all utilize mathematics, whether they are aware of it or not. Unfortunately, many don`t understand the nature of the tools they employ. More digital artists could use a little math in their backgrounds--just as more mathematicians should be encouraged to explore their creative visual tendencies on the computer. And in defense of those with a greater affinity for math than for art, I say that they should not necessarily be relegated to the mere support of digital artistry, which sometimes happens. I have also worked in this capacity, and it is the folly of the industry that such positions are greatly underappreciated--financially as well as creatively.

I know digital artists more talented than I, and programmers and mathematicians who are more proficient. Still, in an industry that has seen many cutbacks, I continue to have my pick of work because of my mixed training. My math and software background, coupled with my ongoing artistic development, has given me a rare and useful role, bridging the conceptual and communication gap that exists between those who understand the parlance of technology and those who understand the language of art.

Caleb Howard is R&D/digital effects supervisor at Rhythm and Hues Studios in Los Angeles. He has also worked at Digital Domain (Los Angeles), BIG animation (Toronto), Topix (Toronto), Square (Los Angeles; Honolulu), and VIFX (Los Angeles).