I got into 3D animation by accident. I’d studied art at Brighton and then won a competition to study visual effects at Escape Studios - for free. I’d been curious about CGI for a while, but the cost of studying was prohibitive. For someone who’d graduated from what was essentially a conceptual art course, getting stuck into a technical challenge like this was both a welcome change as well as a culture shock.
At Escape, I was studying with a diverse bunch of people. Some were reskilling from analogue effects or 2D animation, but most were financially privileged full-fee paying students. The demographic was very young, quite awkward and almost totally male. There were only a couple of female students in the hundred or so students enrolling that term. Almost everybody was very into visual effects: they read the magazines, they idolised industry figureheads and wanted to reproduce the spectacular shots they’d seen in blockbuster movies.
I however, was older, had just finished a degree in conceptual art and was pretty much the gayest guy in the room. To me, the whole experience felt anthropological. I wasn't just studying visual effects, I was studying the culture of visual effects.
And what a particular culture it was. I felt like I was fourteen and back in the woodwork studio at school. Here, the tools had grown up but the boys hadn't. One of the most popular questions in the class was “When are we going to blow things up?” This is one of the eternal questions in a VFX classroom.
The training lasted three months and by the end I was dreaming in software. Amongst what was one of the most intense and worthwhile educational experiences of my life, a couple of moments stick in my mind.
First, towards the end of the course, we were modelling a male figure in ZBrush. Classical art training is one of the things idolised by computer arts culture. Life drawing, landscapes, still life, golden ratios, complimentary colours, the lot. So the fifteen other students spent plenty of time carefully sculpting abs and pecs of their Davids, but (as is common in VFX) skirted over the buttocks and genitals to produce sexless male mannequins.
I therefore thought this was a good time to craft a full cock and balls out of vertices. I have to admit enjoying making everyone else feel embarrassed for me. I was not ashamed. It’s uncomfortable to participate in a culture that privileges and normalises problematic images of gender. Of course, I'm talking about shit like this:
I’m not on a crusade to prevent people from making these images or to enforce the mandatory sculpting of cocks and balls! I just want people to know that discomfort flows both ways. Yours does not get privilege over mine.
So that was the first memorable moment and I feel like it continues to be reflected in subsequent tensions I've found working alongside largely male teams.
The second moment I recall was when the Head of School took a class for a day. He was a cocky guy – nice, but with an ego to match his job title. He paced before the room of eager faces and asked each of us to raise our hands in response to a question. That question was: “Do you want to work in commercials or film?” To my surprise, almost everyone wanted to work in film. Only a couple in commercials. I didn’t raise my hand, feeling mildly panicked at the implication that I should have decided this already. Having not saved up eight grand to study here, taken out a bank loan or been subsidised by my parents, I hadn’t needed to figure out exactly what I was doing this course for. It seemed to me that I was here to discover exactly that. The Head of School made it clear that these were my options and I should decide immediately. I did not.
It took me a couple of years to start working in animation. I continued working as an artist (doing projects like this) and I’d done some work writing e-learning, which continued to pay bills, but I hadn't quite assimilated visual effects into my life. Finally, I spent a few months putting together a showreel of my work, and applied to an animation studio in London. I got an entry-level role and moved from Cambridge to work at the wonderful Mainframe, where I stayed for a couple of years. They took a punt on me, and I’m glad they did, but I was never able to shake the sense of being an anthropologist in an alien world.
This alien world has a set of values that it holds to be self-evident, yet they have emerged from a wider set of almost unspoken attitudes towards technology. When a new technology emerges, people tend to reject and accept it in many different ways. If it does something faster, better or cheaper, it has an impact on the labour market. This type of repetitive trauma, visited equally on us as it has been on countless generations before, has resulted in a narrative about technology that we see replicated across culture at many levels: new technology alienates us from ourselves. It has an inherently negative impact on people.
I say new technology, because people tend to exclude the technologies of their youth from this discrimination. Those born in the 1940s loved gramophones, those born in the 1960s loved vinyl, those born in the 1980s loved cassettes, and so on. There's a strange hypocrisy is that new technology alienates us from the truth, yet technology has been part of who we are for tens of thousands of years. We all feel this hypocrisy in our seemingly objective preference for marginally more primitive technologies.
The unique thing about CGI in this story of technology is how it has displaced not one, but multiple previous craft-based technologies. It's the big boss baddie. Those working in CGI have internalised this cultural critique and they unconsciously seek to redress this by fetishizing the cinematic, the photographic and the artistic. For those from a computer science background, this feels like a legitimisation of their craft as craft.
For me, coming from an arts background, no legitimisation was required: CGI is a limitlessly creative medium. I didn't want to make the same explosions, sculpt the same busty babes, armored trucks or assault weapons. I didn't want to model shampoo bottles or sports cars or vaccuum cleaners. But all these things were fascinating to me - CGI culture was so closed, like a tropical hothouse that bred ever more self-referential strains of imagery.
A critical, reflexive approach does not gel with the commercials industry, however. I had to put aside much of my critical approach to art. Through GCSEs, to A-Level, Art Foundation and beyond, my artistic appreciation and practice had evolved: I'd come to understand how movements like Surrealism, Dada or conceptual art operated as artistic strategies that responded in unexpected ways to their historical context. That impulse to look deeper was something I'd need to suppress. Critical reflection and experimentation is hard to do with bills to pay and a client with a product to sell.
These two factors: client-driven projects and the need to legitimise technology as craft are what results in the CGI industry we have today. An industry that fetishises and slavishly reproduces effects like photographic depth of field, orthodox theories of colour, composition and editing. To the CGI artist, Dada never happened. Dogmatic ideas of what makes an image 'right' or 'good' were not to be questioned or subverted, but were accepted and propagated by schools and studios full of technically adept and socially privileged white, male heterosexuals.
In these studios, the most valued and revered works were the slickest, most polished and cinematic. Almost every day, someone would come across the latest high-budget Nike or Honda commercial and the studio would crowd round a monitor with gasps of awe and cries of "Dude!". Less successful works were critiqued with razor precision over poor camera tracking, compositing or animation. Going to the latest blockbuster with a VFX artist is not recommended: they will rip a shot to shreds whether or not it's technically accomplished.
This attitude is incredibly prevalent and is a prerequisite for working professionally in the industry, yet the flipside is that CGI artists can be absolute fascists! So accustomed are they to spotting the joins that any work that does not confirm to their industrial standard is disregarded. These standard are the site of my biggest beef with CGI culture and also it's most glaring contradiction: it seeks to legitimise itself as a craft but is unable to operate as anything other than an industry. An industry that produces standardised, polished products where traces of production devalue the product.
This week, I've been thinking about many of these issues in relation to education. Few artists like me get the opportunity that I had - to study CGI (for free!) at the highest level and to be part of the evolution of a fascinating and powerful new artistic medium. And when I say artists like me I suppose I firstly mean fine artists as opposed to computer scientists, engineers, and designers. But also those with a critical approach, female and queer artists, those without private income and those who simply might never normally have access to CGI software.
For that to happen, the medium needs to be understood as fundamentally experimental and expressive. It should be understood as much as a tool for sculptors as it is a tool for engineers or animators. The software needs to be incorporated into classrooms from junior school to college, Art Foundation courses to University, and only then will artists voices chime as loudly as those in industry. Free CGI!!
Research Update: This week I’ve been in and out of Houdini, ploughing through tutorials. There’s a steep learning curve but I’m attacking it. Not too much to report on that front, just absorbing a lot of information and pursuing some tangential projects.