All Hail the Renaissance
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 8 (Aug. 2008)

All Hail the Renaissance

Computer graphics or photography? It’s been a tough choice for print advertising creatives because the two media have different strengths. Photography excels at straightforward product depictions, while CG can produce renditions limited only by the imagination. And never the twain shall meet, or so it was thought.

But in an ironic twist, the print advertising industry’s increasing use of computer-generated imagery is spurring a renaissance in photography and image retouching. New 3D software capabilities and digital photography techniques mean it is no longer necessary to make an either-or decision about CGI or photography. Instead, creative types are drawing to the best qualities of each medium for producing print images that could not be created in either medium alone.

While computers have been used to enhance images since the advent of digital photography and the adoption of Adobe’s Photoshop, the integration of 3D software—such as Luxology’s Modo, Maxon’s Cinema 4D, and Strata’s Strata 3—promises a similar sea change. Or a larger one, as new mixed-media possibilities emerge. Even artists who are well versed in 2D techniques need to make a transition to the added dimension.

“In the 3D workflow, instead of just breaking down an image to its RGB or CMYK color values, we actually have to look at the exact way light interacts with the product,” says McKay Hawkes, a digital effects artist at Pixelbox in San Francisco who specializes in high-end digital imaging and animation for marketing, advertising, and interactive campaigns. “We need to closely observe and replicate things like diffusion, spectrality, reflection, fresnel, index refraction, subsurface scattering, absorption distance, and transparency to create convincing and accurate photorealistic qualities. This is before we even get into bump and displacement mapping for textures and other various details. It can be a very challenging process, but the rewards are great, as it blows the door wide open for creative potential and improved workflows.”

A new trend, particularly within the print advertising world, is the integration of CGI and photography to produce an image that could never have been accomplished in either medium alone, such as this one. Here, Eric Sahrmann was responsible for the original photography, and Jeff Legare for the digital imagery. Eric Tobiason added the CGI using Luxology’s Modo.
The auto industry was an early adopter of techniques that combine 3D and photography. In that rarified market, the computer offers undeniable cost savings, since the expense and risk of shipping prototype cars can be sidestepped with CGI, using appropriate HDRI imagery and backplates shot on actual location (see “Basics of HDRI,” pg. 72). Cars can now be placed into virtually any location, before they’re even manufactured. And the ability to leverage existing CAD datasets (albeit with some preparation) and repurpose them for marketing has been another big catalyst for the adoption of CGI in the automotive business.

A good example of how CAD data, CGI techniques, and photography were combined for an automaker’s ad is a print campaign that ran in Europe for the redesigned Mitsubishi Pajero. The prototype wasn’t available when the ads were being designed. So the agency, Golley Slater of Cardiff, commissioned creative shop Saddington & Baynes of London and its associate photographer, Richard Prescott, to produce a striking image of the Pajero parked in the surf, with waves lapping around its wheels. In the distance, a foreboding promontory looms, with a moody sky hanging over the scene. The image looks natural thanks to seamless compositing of multiple photographic and CGI elements, and yet the car never existed in reality. It even has water droplets and sand around the wheels, accomplished through a combination of 2D and 3D techniques.

Photo Enhancements
CGI is not replacing photography, though. Rather, it joins photography as another tool in creating imagery that is given a final enhancement by digital retouchers. Indeed, photography and CGI are becoming more intertwined, as many images are a combination of photography (texture, backgrounds, HDRI lighting) and CGI elements. The photographer’s eye is needed more than ever, whether he or she is directing a live or computer-generated shot.

Even as CG rendering can now simulate reality, photo retouchers can work with these simulated images just as they do with photographs. After all, the goal for the advertising world is not to simply show an image of reality, but to present a striking or beautiful one.

“My goal is to take the applicable advances in CGI from the film industry and apply them to print advertising. I also want to help create 3D software innovations specifically for the print advertising industry,” says Eric Tobiason, CGI director and founder of the CG department of the Chicago-based image-realization studio Alter.

One step in the process is partnering with a software provider. By doing so, Tobiason can keep the company informed about the needs of CGI for use in the print advertising industry, and in return, the vendor can develop its product in a way that meets those needs. “This makes my work easier and allows them to make more money—which is also good for me, as they are able to produce a stable, well-supported product,” Tobiason adds.

Another part of the process includes demystifying CGI for print within the advertising community. There is still room for a lot of growth in CGI for the print market, Tobiason points out, and one obstacle is that the best artists are split up at different small studios instead of being concentrated at large high-profile shops. Another obstacle is the unfamiliarity of the technology among members of the design community.

“I've been lucky in discovering Luxology's Modo, which is a new but robust program created by a small group of creative people who are interested in what I can contribute,” adds Tobiason.

Any new medium has to offer advantages to make the jump from early adoption to broad implementation, and computer graphics is no exception. CGI has the ability to render almost any subject believably, with a fine degree of control over lighting and camera characteristics. Fragile or hard-to-capture elements, like a butterfly balancing on the lip of a glass, are a natural for computer graphics, as are impossible-to-get camera shots. A POV can be shot from inside part of an object, or from a vantage where no real-world camera could be placed, for instance.

Ad agencies are driving much of this trend toward CG, spurred by the new creative freedom they can offer clients when it comes to producing extraordinary images. Agencies also like the fact that 3D content enables natural tie-ins to interactive and online “rich media” campaigns, such as online 3D car “configurators” and themed 3D video game experiences. Furthermore, radical changes to CG content can be made more easily than re-shooting practical photography.

These are exciting times for CG artists, photographers, and retouchers alike. Their collaborative efforts are bringing about a quantum leap in the quality and flexibility of advertising imagery, and a true renaissance for the arts of photography and retouching.

Frank Moldstad is a freelance writer covering the content creation and entertainment industries.