Issue: Volume: 22 Issue: 12 (December 1999)

Beyond Realism

By Umesh Shukla

In a new age, new techniques. It's a simple matter of good sense," remarked French writer and critic J.K. Huysmans after witnessing the new art movement called impressionism in the year 1879. These words might well be repeated today with respect to computer-generated imagery, which continues to carve new visions into human minds. As computers bulldoze their way through the various visual art forms, they also challenge established methods of communicating thoughts and ideas.

Looking back, it seems that one of the greatest challenges the various visual art forms faced as they surfaced was their ability to depict realism. Renaissance art, which began in Italy approximately 700 years ago, stressed the classic forms of antiquity as well as a realistic representation of space based on scientific perspective. The works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, with their emphasis on precise anatomical representation, are among the best examples of this kind of endeavor.
CG films may soon incorporate nonphotorealistically rendered characters and objects as appealing as the figures in im pressionist paintings like Renoir's "Woman with a Parasol and a Small Child on a Sunlit Hillside."

Some 200 years after the end of the Renaissance, in the late 1860s, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and others began painting landscapes and river scenes in which they recorded their impressions of colors and forms rather than line-for-line representations of them. The objects in their paintings began to shimmer and vibrate with light and color as the artists attempted to depict the spirit of reality rather than its mirror.

In modern times, the use of computer imagery in film has followed a somewhat similar path. Until recently, the main emphasis in producing digital imagery (and by this I mean primarily 3D imagery) for movies has been to simulate reality. This enormous challenge has led to the invention of various graphic techniques and tools, and Hollywood films have become the final seal of approval in establishing the ability of computers to meet it. Audiences worldwide have been amazed by the lifelike dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and by the credible digital world created for Titanic.

But is depicting reality all computers are capable of in the world of film? Can we use them to create nonrealistic images with an artistic and entertainment value all their own? I would argue that we can and that we have even taken the first steps in this direction. The influence of computer-generated animation is even now being seen in otherwise traditionally animated movies. Two examples are the parting of the Red Sea sequence from The Prince of Egypt, where 3D graphics were used to create the imposing walls of water, and the lush, painterly 3D jungle in Tarzan, through which the 2D apeman swings. In visual terms, A Bug's Life and Antz, both completely animated feature films, go a bit further toward providing a non-photorealistic style of digital imagery, albeit in a recognizable cartoon-like style.

How much further and in what direction should we go? Perhaps if we return to the way painting evolved as an art form, we can find some clues. Before artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo raised the status of painting during the Italian Renaissance, it was considered a craft rather than an art form-an activity akin to manual labor that dirtied the hands. It lacked the scholarly status of music, mathematics, and literature. In reaction to this perception, art academies begin to teach only the most intellectual aspects of art; the scientific study of anatomy, the geometry of perspective to construct an illusion of space, and drawing, and the successful imitation of raw nature soon came to pass. When the impressionists emerged centuries later, the art world establishment initially refused to take their work seriously. Eventually, however, many of the impressionists were able to ascend to the status of fine artists in their own lifetimes.

Today, in film, we have the reverse situation. The realistic depiction of objects has conferred on their creators the label of technicians rather than artists. I believe that in order to gain status as fine artists, CG animators need to follow the example of the impressionists and begin presenting alternative interpretations of reality. I am sure that soon a group of computer animators will emerge who will be no less impressionistic in spirit and enthusiasm, who will boldly go where no animator has gone before. Alexander Petrov's animated 2D Imax short "The Old Man and the Sea," with its paint-on-glass technique, achieved the kind of imagery I expect to see being created in 3D. And I am sure that many other visual styles, as yet undreamed of, will soon arrive on movie screens to expand our experience and appreciation of the medium beyond current imagination.

Umesh Shukla is a technical lead for digital effects at Walt Disney Feature Animation and a former CG supervisor for Digital Domain.