It's been a strange few months, and if anyone has considered why my research updates have stalled, you’re about to find out. The research continues at full tilt from January 2016 but since September 2015 a mixture of good and bad events have slowed me down. I’ll start with the positive ones. Throughout the latter half of 2015, I was:
- awarded a residency by ENCAC/Laboral at HtH Montpellier (this will tie in with my ACE research into Golaem, the crowd simulation software).
- Invited to be a Guest Lecturer at Middlesex University on the games and animation course.
- Awarded an MA scholarship at London South Bank University.
- Invited to present on the theme of Analogue to Post-Digital at the Bournemouth BFX conference
- Invited as Visiting Lecturer to discuss my research and work with students of Fine Art: Critical Practice at Brighton
- Commissioned by Electric Objects to make a moving image work for the E01
- Selected to have my film Psychometrics shown at Parts & Labour at QUAD, Derby
- Selected for Encounters Film Festival in Bristol for my Sinfini commission (Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier) & participated in an artist’s talk after the screening
- Commissioned again by Sinfini to produce a music video for Ludovico Einaudi’s track “ABC” – released this February
- Commissioned by a large London arts institution to produce a major new artwork for mid-2016
- Working on some experimental works drawn from my ACE research, including a collaboration with Altair, a submission to the Additivist Cookbook and some 3D scanning work done with Digits2Widgets.
So, I’ve been busy. I’ve been doing a lot more talks, lectures and presentations, partly just to see how I feel about doing them. The elephant in the room (and very much lurking at the back of my mind) has been the status of my Arts Council research. From the outset, I was aware that my plan would have to be flexible because unexpected things happen and you learn lessons along the way. Turns out I didn’t have to wait long to learn my first lesson, which is going to be difficult to talk about due to an acrimonious breakup between my collaborator and I. Uh-oh.
So, a quick recap before I cover the ugly details: my research plan was to learn three new pieces of software, and to collaborate with a contact I had at a large post-production and VFX facility in London. This collaboration would have been especially important for the first phase of the research, where I worked with SideFX Houdini. Houdini is a complex programme that I have little experience in so the idea was that for the first two months of my six month research period, my collaborator and I would learn from each other, come up with a few rough ideas to work on and hopefully develop one or more into something ready for presentation at one of the institutions who expressed interest in my research.
I was interested in reflecting on the use of Houdini – often used for explosions, destruction and procedural modelling. I was also interested in learning more about my collaborator’s job in a wider sense: the mode of production, the relationships between specialisms, between the VFX studio and the big five film studios, the creative process when using software. I wanted to look behind the scenes and learn about the human side of the software/human relationship.
We did chat about these things, and we batted some interesting ideas back and forth, but the trouble began when we started trying to produce work. I was imagining that we’d each learn a bit about what each other did and then we’d work together on projects in Houdini – side-by-side, trying things out practically in our free time in the evenings and at weekends, three or four hours a week. At that pace, the ten days of work I’d budgeted to pay my collaborator would play out over maybe six weeks, and we’d have a prototype to play with. I’d have to rely on my collaborator for the in-depth software expertise, but given that I’d done a few weeks of online tutorials I’d be able to chip in with a degree of understanding and insight. We could pass the Houdini files back and forth over email, with him generally focussing on the technical side and me on the conceptual. Our strengths as a VFX Technical Director and Artist adding up into something both technically and conceptually interesting.
After some months of attempting to push for evidence of work: tests, renders, stills, files, work in progress – anything - I realised that despite the briefs, meetings and emails, tasks were getting lost and work was just not being done quickly enough, if at all. My collaborator was often unavailable, was slow to respond to emails, and tied up with other commitments. He’d say how easy something was to do, then hold back on producing it. Then I'd find out he was volunteering on other people's creative projects. There was something wrong.
Once we’d overshot the research period with almost nothing to show for it, I realised that I’d have to reapportion the remaining funds with a new collaborator. I put together a very diplomatic email that avoided negativity and pointing fingers. This is when things got messy. He reacted badly. He said he’d spent well over the apportioned ten days on the project, claiming all the funds (and more). He said he didn’t want me to use his name or the name of his company anywhere on my work. Hence the anonymity in this post. I had no work to show and no funds to reboot the collaboration elsewhere.
So what went wrong? I’ve thought long and hard about how to fairly and accurately describe this, but it’s incredibly difficult. It’s painful to even think about, especially as I have a duty to the Arts Council to report on, and accept responsibility for, the success or failure of this collaboration. I’ve found it hard to look back at the volley of increasingly frustrated and sad emails I sent through to my collaborator, but the only concise conclusion I can draw is that sometimes collaborations don’t work.
However, if I were to drill down some more, these are some more specific themes that emerged within the conflict.
· Don’t pay up front
You might trust that person. You might think that if you’ve been paid ahead of work, they should too. You might think it’ll encourage them to commit. You might think writing contracts is unnecessary when working with nice people. You could be right. Or you might be about to shoot yourself in the foot. If you are paying up front, keep a log of hours and agree what consists of billable time. I was not aware, for example, that I would have to pay for my collaborator to mull things over. Neither did I realise that he would seek to be recompensed for projects undertaken months before the research funding came through.
· Intellectual Property and Exploitation
So, one of our main ideas was to create a scaffolding “generator” that would automatically erect scaffolding around any 3D model. This ability to automate tasks – called proceduralism - is arguably the most significant benefit of Houdini, but my collaborator was reluctant to fully automate the scaffolding generator. I detected this reluctance and probed a little. I said that it should be fully automated, otherwise every time I wanted to test the scaffolding with a different 3D model I would need to send it through to him to process it, and that would most likely be very annoying for him: I needed to be able to work with the procedure myself, and to tweak the parameters. I thought I was doing him a favour! He, however, was suspicious that if I could work the software without him that I was, in essence, exploiting his technical skills, using his intellectual property and cutting him out of the equation. I reflexively asked if he wanted the IP rights to the tool, and he said he did. I acquiesced, but was left with the sense that something had soured.
· Artist or Director?
Related to this point, and taking place as part of the same conversation, my collaborator questioned the nature of our collaboration. When he realised I wanted to be able to use a script that he’d made without him, he wondered aloud whether I was becoming “The Director”. This was not a positive development. The Director for someone working in a VFX studio, is the person who has last-minute demands, who makes apparently poor decisions late in the day and in whose name hundreds or even thousands of overworked technicians are expected to work overtime for weeks or months on end. I did not want to be The Director. Yet when I tried to assure my collaborator that I saw the collaboration as a combination of his technical expertise and industry insight with my artistic and conceptual skills, I may have dug myself a bigger hole.
You see, throughout our collaboration, I’d attempted to clarify (for his benefit) how our work might be presented. He found it easier to work with an idea if I gave him a sense of what the final output was (yes, my experimental research partner couldn’t work experimentally). So I often found myself labouring over speculative descriptions of the presentation of a piece to help him get on board with production:
“So, really this is just a software experiment for now, but it might end up as an animation, or a series of prints in a gallery or online, with a title along the lines of (X) and some text about it being an Arts Council-funded collaboration between Alan Warburton and <Collaborator Name Redacted> from <Studio Name Redacted>. We’d probably contextualise it with info about destruction in film and some references to relevant sources. It’d be great if I wrote up something about the collaboration and how software like Houdini evolves visual codes and conventions. Those are the themes that helped me get the funding and it’s what the Arts Council and the supporters of this research project are really interested in – how to link arts and industry and software. “
Far from being useful, my continued contextualisation of the details of the collaboration and the funding had somehow sown some seeds of doubt into my collaborators mind. In the painful breakup post-mortem, he said he felt like I was using him for his expertise and connections, purely for my own benefit. This felt very unexpected. I tried to assure him that I wasn’t due to make money from this research, that I was paying myself minimum wage, that I wasn’t anticipating to make any financial profit from him and that I didn’t understand where this suspicion had come from. It was too late.
I began to realise that my collaborator fundamentally saw the project as inequitable: he was the one expected to make something, I would just use it to earn my funding and boost my ego. Tragically, this inferred that he did not see my artistic experience (and hard work) as a valid input into the project. I think he saw me not only as The Director, but the The Artist-Director, a truly ineffectual and pompous figure. I’ll happily admit that I’m probably troubled by the same neuroses as any other artist, but I’m very secure in the value of my expertise, education and experience. My collaborator was not. I wonder if this is perhaps a wider problem: is art seen as a deskilled profession?
· Experimentation vs. Production
As I’ve just outlined, my collaborator may have not been used to an open-ended production model. He may have needed more concrete goals and more tangible deadlines. We both knew that the project would be experimental, but negotiating this as a working practice took up more time and energy than I’d anticipated. Where I thought a speculative brainstorm was a fruitful activity, he thought it distracting. I thought a menu of possibilities was liberating for him, he thought it confusing. Experimental practice may be something very few have a tolerance for, and this tolerance may lessen the further into industry you go. What I’m talking about here is essentially a culture gap.
Whereas a contemporary industrial design practice might have the facility to deal with experimentation, a VFX studio used to hard-won contracts and dependent on government subsidy to offset financial loss does not. Large-scale CGI production still operates as a Fordist model of production with silos of specialism arranged in tightly organised production lines. Employees are overworked, underunionised and subject to unpredictable layoffs brought about by shifting international subsidies. Workers put up with it largely because there’s a culture of “doing it for the love” but there is a deeply embedded frustration towards dysfunctional studio dynamics and a chronic devaluation of highly skilled and creative labour. The degree of latent creativity in VFX studios is high, if only because tight ships cannot be run with loose cannons.
Many of those working in this industry will experience creative frustration, and a collaborative project like this might seem to offer an oasis of autonomy in contrast. I’m afraid that instead of offering the much longed-for creative flight from his demanding day-job, I may have unwittingly recalled for my collaborator the dynamic he was seeking to escape. By positioning him primarily as a technical collaborator and point of insight, rather than focussing on his conceptual/artistic input, I may have lost his cooperation. Again, I think we both only began to understand our expectations of each other whilst deep into the collaboration.
· What is collaboration?
There was a crucial moment in the collaboration just after I’d spent three weeks doing tutorials online to get a practical understanding of Houdini. I wanted to get to a point where I could work alongside my collaborator and assist with construction. I’d reached a point where I felt confident with the features and functions of the software and I wanted to spend a couple of hours with him, working through the construction of a more advanced scene, so I invited him round for dinner after work. He responded, confirming he’d be there, but he expressed a reluctance to become my Houdini “tutor”. I let this lie for a little while, but the more I left it, the more it nagged me. If he didn’t want to share his knowledge with me, what was the point of this collaboration? Why should I share my knowledge with him? Can you collaborate without learning from each other? Should I have just treated him as a technician, executing my demands without trying to understand the labour? Or should I let him take the lead? I was confused and frustrated.
The lesson here is that my collaborator had misplaced expectations, despite my efforts to flag the nature of the project up front. I believe now that he came into the project with a very laissez-faire attitude that we would just “make cool stuff” together. Perhaps I fostered this to ensure he’d be enthusiastic, and if I did, that may have been a miscalculation.
· What is creative agency?
Here’s something worth remembering: when you’re working with a non-art collaborator, their ideas of what could be considered art are likely to differ to yours. Few professional artists even agree on what art is, but they will have at least spent a lot of time experiencing, interpreting and thinking about that very question. A non-art collaborator might feel either very certain of their opinions, or insecure about them – especially in regards to critically engaged art. This is going to necessitate an artistic strategy which will probably fall in between the following two extremes:
Had I asked my collaborator where on the above scale he expected the collaboration to fall, I think he would have said 2. I would have said 4. I don’t think either of us need to defend our positions here – both are fine, but if I enter into another formal collaboration, I’d use something like this scale to determine expectations ahead of any commitment.
- CGI is seen as a tool for emulation: VFX artists and technicians identify firstly, and intensely, with the emulation of photography, and secondly with the emulation of retro (pre-millennial?) visual styles. Convincing a VFX artist to step into uncharted aesthetic waters is hard.
- Being an artist, producer, accountant and conflict mediator is hard.
- Houdini is really hard.
Going forward in 2016
Since the collaboration ended, I’ve been working to recoup the funds I lost to my collaborator. I’ve taken on some commercial jobs and hope to use that private income, alongside my contingency fund, to revisit the unfinished projects. I still require input and assistance to fully realise the Houdini work, and I’ve encountered further stumbling blocks in my attempts to reach out to other collaborators: many seem initially interested in the work, but contact peters out once I’ve sent outlines of the brief or budget. In the coming weeks, I’ll redouble my efforts to find a suitable collaborator. It may be that I have to treat this more as a commercial tender and adjust my expectations and budget accordingly.