30 December 2014

The Art of Simplexity

I think the world has developed a very strange idea of what the definition of art is, and I have an inkling as to where it came from. Ever since the genesis of filmmaking some 90 years ago, many of the most "classic" "popular" and "iconic" films are accompanied by some innovative visual accomplishment, such as technicolor in The Wizard of Oz, and realistic animatronics in Jaws. But over the years the evolution of filmmaking has been relatively gradual--that is, until about 20 years ago. If you're like me, you're probably wondering what in the world we are going to do after Avatar, but if you think about it, the principle innovation in Avatar was its digital graphics, a medium which, in my opinion, plateaued the world of filmmaking. And if you trace digital graphics back to its' first benchmark success, you'll find a little Luxo Jr. lamp staring back at you. Yes, I'm talking about Pixar.

Most people have no idea the widespread effect Pixar has had on the world. Many consider Star Wars as the great leap forward in movie-making, but while George Lucas was undeniably innovative, many of his methods--such as stop-action models and miniatures--were traditional methods in Hollywood and hardly used any more. Later, Lucas re-released Star Wars with more advanced computer generated imagery, but that was only after--you guessed it--Pixar. The movie that truly revolutionized Hollywood was not Star Wars: it was Toy Story. The idea of making a fully computer animated movie was unheard of before physicist Ed Catmull and animation junkie John Lasseter met up and decided to make a movie together. According to Catmull's personal account in Creativity Inc, Pixar got kicked out of both Lucasfilm and Disney (eventually getting bought by Apple) simply because they were inventing technologies that the world had no market for. I find that the weirdest thing, because now the world can't do without it.

The creation of digital graphics has had a global influence, in business and engineering as well as art. It's used for airplanes, skyscrapers, video games, cars, smartphones, commercials, in short, everything associated with the 21st century. You can't go to see a movie without finding some CG thrown in there somewhere. Everything from Avatar to the Geico Gecko was impossible prior to Pixar. If you think I'm exaggerating, take this example: in the wake of working toward the first computer animated film, Ed Catmull invented a processing chip called the Z-buffer (among many other things) which enables the computer to recognize the distance between objects in three dimensional space. That Z-buffer is now in every game and PC chip manufactured on earth. Don't take my word for it: look it up.

But if anyone told you that Pixar's digital revolution has made the world a better place, you didn't hear it from me.

Something was lost in the frantic battle for progress, and most of the world didn't even look back to see what we were missing. Let me put it this way: if you tried to make a hand-drawn animated cartoon now, it wouldn't sell--I can almost guarantee it. Disney learned that the hard way when they released The Princess and the Frog five days before Avatar came out, and got squashed mercilessly.  Later they came back with live-action CG saturated reboots of their own classics, and of course audiences are suddenly flocking into the theater by the dozens. Grown-ups are like that. It's kind of sad, if you think about it.

To sum it up, the simplicity in filmmaking is all but extinct, and it's all Pixar's fault.

Okay, not all Pixar's fault, but they were a pretty huge contributing factor. And over the years people have developed this idea that quality in art (particularly in movies) is defined by realism. This post is to clear up that misconception. Nearly every big-money filmmaker out there is competing to create the next visual spectacle: James Cameron calls it "pushing the envelope" and the director of Iron Man calls it "bigger and better".  I'm always hearing people walking out of thriller movies like 2012 and telling me "yeah, it didn't have much of a story, but boy were the special effects good".

I think this is largely due to the influence of progressive neo-Darwinism, but I'm not going to go into neo-Darwinism right now. All I'm saying is that if art has "progressed" at all since the cave-man paintings (which is highly debatable) it's certainly not driven by increasing realism. If that were the case, then what in heaven's name was human evolution thinking during the Romantic era?

But what is lost in computer generated graphics? What can you do with your hand that you can't do in the computer? Let me show you. Take this concept sketch of everyone's favorite Disney princess.

I want you to look closely at Elsa's eyes. They're almond-shaped and the irises are partially concealed by the edge of her eyelids. Doesn't look strange at all, does it? Now look at its 3D equivalent:

All  of the sudden, Elsa looks cross-eyed. Why? Any animator will tell you that a certain level of caricature is always lost when you enter the three dimensional world. Suddenly you are obligated to abide by the laws of physics, and subtle exaggerations like a brush-stroke of hair has to be replaced with millions of individual strands. That's why it's so much easier to believe in the penguins in Mary Poppins than Jar-Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, for the penguins only ask you to believe that Mary can see them, while Jar-Jar Binks demands you to believe that he is really there. Which explains why everybody hates Jar-Jar.

In The Little Prince, Antoine Exupery's small and cozy asteroids and five pronged stars work fine in his simplistic two-dimensional illustrations, but the moment you try to imagine what asteroid B-612 might really look like, the whole thing falls apart. You simply can't scrutinize it too closely, because the act of observing changes the thing being observed. In the final cut of Frozen you will notice the almond-shape in Elsa's eyes are significantly reduced and irises are spaced farther apart.

But surely nobody's nerdy enough to actually have a problem with that sort of thing, right? Right? Erm. Ahem. Let's move on.

Compare the computer-generated depiction of Paris from the 2012 film Les Miserables to Peter Ellenshaw's matte paintings of London in Mary Poppins.

Les Miserables looks vast, sharp, and photorealistic. During the film, the camera often sweeps over Paris in a way that would be impossible with a matte painting. But does that necessarily make it better? Of the two pictures, which of them really makes you feel like you're there? I know art can be subjective, but I feel like Ellenshaw's impressionistic environment is far more haunting and enveloping. To make the city lights, the Disney artists actually poked holes in the painting and shone lights through it, slowly brightening them through increasingly dark composites to achieve the effect of a setting sun. I don't know about you, but that sounds way more genius (not to mention more fun) than just making it in the computer. Once again this brings us back to the difference between a realistic world and a believable world. One of them looks more realistic, the other feels more realistic. 

Every medium has some limitation, and you can't change the medium without losing something. Because of the pioneering of computer graphics, realism was purchased at the price of--if you will--feelism. And now Hollywood is re-making everything from Indiana Jones to Star Trek for no other reason than because they "didn't have the technology before". I cannot stress this enough: quality is not defined by realism.  I would go so far to say that non-realism may indeed draw us closer to reality than realism. Let me show you what I mean.

Interestingly, Pixarians are the last people to tell you that CG replaces hand-drawn animation--in fact, they insist the exact opposite. Director Andrew Stanton had to pull his animators back from getting too enthusiastic when simulating water in Nemo. They had gotten so good that you couldn't tell the difference between the live action footage and the animated footage. Stanton told his crew it was "too real". "We want you to believe that it exists," he explained, "but we want you to also feel that you're in a make-believe world."

To describe the stylistic approach to their movies, the Pixar artists came up with the word "Simplexity". Production designer Ricky Nierva explains it this way: “[Simplexity] is the art of simplifying an image down to its essence. But the complexity that you layer on top of it—in texture, design, or detail—is masked by how simple the form is. ‘Simplexity’ is about selective detail.” 
An example of what simplexity looks like is the intercut between puppets and live actors in our music video Little Forest Boy.  

Sharon Quick did an amazing job designing these costumes, which were made to be an exact replica of the marionettes from the Czech Republic. The idea behind it was in fact to translate caricatures into a real-live setting, something that Nierva calls "chunkification".

"When you scale down an object for a diorama or a doll's house," he explains, "you take away detail. The textures are exaggerated, blown up, or 'chunkified,' as on a doll's clothes or the trim on a stop-motion puppet. Patterns become bigger and thicker, creating a charming, toylike quality." 

It's very interesting to point out that when you give these artists the tools to creating anything they can possibly imagine, you will not find them trying to create perfection, but re-creating imperfectionAs the famous Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki once said, "do everything by hand, even when using the computer." Sure, we could do a lot of things with live actors that we couldn't do with marionettes, but we didn't discard the puppets because live actors were more "advanced" or "sophisticated". Two dimensional mediums are not invalidated by three dimensional mediums. Lewis put it this way when explaining the divinity of Christianity: "as you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways - in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels."

Here's one last beautiful example of simplexity (not to mention a beautiful song and a beautiful story). But I'll let the video speak for itself.

With all that said, understand that I have nothing against realistic art. The point I'm trying to make is that realism isn't the end goal. If you look at the world one way, you will find it a very grim and serious place, if you look at it another way, you may find it also a very whimsical and ridiculous place, in which case painting the grim and serious alone would be an unrealistic portrait. I will always be trying to find that balance--not just as an artist but as a human--to delineate without separating the paradox of a simple yet complex world.

Oh simple things, where have you gone?
I'm getting older and I need someone to rely on

-The Minstrel Boy

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