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3D DIRECT • October 11, 2000

The Artist's Canvas

Where Have All the 3D Renaissance Men (or Women) Gone?

by Eni Oken

There is no question that 3D computer graphics is a new medium in the arts. I want to stress the word new, because compared to other media (both in commercial and fine arts), computer graphics' life span is just a speck of sand, covering at most 20 years since it started being used in a more popular and affordable way.

Some 10 years ago, 3D graphics appeared to be a new wave in the succession of new media, following desktop publishing. (How many of you are old enough to even remember what the term means?) 3D computer graphics was all the hype, and it seemed to be a bright, shinning star in the constellation of new media. As with any typical new wave, the medium started growing slowly; the pioneers struggling with technical limitations, but then grew faster and stronger, attracting many new surfers (in the literal sportive sense of the word, not the Web surfer), who saw the potential for growth, profits, enjoyment, and artistic fulfillment.

The first computer artists were not artists at all, they were programmers that came up with clever ways of representing perspective and dimensional-looking imagery on the computer screen. As soon as millions of colors and advanced technical resources permitted, along came game developers and filmmakers, who created all sorts of fantastical worlds and situations. Simulating realism in ways where you can't discern between computer graphics and reality is at the top of the list of every aspiring 3D artist since the introduction of the medium. Fantasy and sci-fi producers craved realism, increasing the suspense of disbelief from the audience and allowing artists to create alternative worlds in a god-like fashion. It seemed like the dream come true for all visionary artists: the combination of an amazing tool with the potential of a brand new artform.

Only a few years ago, adventure games saw the pinnacle of the 3D wave, as far as the individual artist is concerned. All a company had to do was hire a few star artists—talented and capable in every aspects of 3D—to guarantee a fabulous, graphical look for their projects. However, considering all there is to 3D, it's almost a miracle that anyone could succeed in being such stellar artist at all. This modern Renaissance man (or woman) had to have so many incongruent talents and abilities that today it is quite clear that he or she was destined to be a fluke, an extinct animal.

The many incompatible talents of the 3D artist

Most people are born with some sort of inclination either toward rational logic or intuition. Scientists know for a fact that these two different skills reside in opposite sides of the brain, and most people are born or develop a stronger side, which usually determines their professional life and career.

Typically, the following skills are associated with left and right sides of the brain:

Left side: verbal; analytic; the ability to read and understand symbols; abstracting (taking a small portion to represent the whole); keeping track of time and sequences; drawing conclusions based on rational, logical thinking and facts; using numbers; thinking in linear fashion.

Right side: nonverbal; intuition; awareness of things but without connection with words; putting things together to form wholes; relating to the present moment; seeing likeness between things; using metaphors; no sense of time; willingness to suspend judgment; spatial and visual perception; intuitive approach based on insights or hunches; holistic view.

It's clear that these two sets of skills are opposing but also very complementary. Now if we were to make a parallel with the skills a good 3D artist was required to have to grab a stellar job in any game or film company, we could similarly have two opposing lists of skills.

The technical skills would be:

  1. to be computer savvy and comfortable navigating through programs and computer basic GUI environment;
  2. to be comfortable using a pen or tablet, along with a mouse, to introduce information into the computer;
  3. to be able to use at least half a dozen different types of graphics software, each one having a completely different set of commands and structural approach;
  4. to be able to know those commands in sufficient manner so as to pick the right command for the right task at hand;
  5. to be a fast and self-taught learner in order to keep up with the constant updates being bombarded into the market;
  6. to be able to adapt to similar but not identical software to the ones already known in lighting speed due to client requirements (different 3D packages being used by different clients);
  7. and to be proficient in a variety of other nongraphical software that is related but not fundamental in order to further career and business relationships (Web browsers, search engines, chat groups, email, etc.).

These seem to be generally connected to the activities described for the left side of the brain, although some tasks, such as the use of tablet and mouse, may overlap. The second list of skills necessary in order to excel in the 3D field as a true artist, are the following right brain-related skills:

  1. a sense of composition, color, and imagination;
  2. the ability to extract images from reality and transpose those into designs to be created in the 3D computer environment;
  3. a flattening eye in order to be able to create a three-dimensional environment on a two-dimensional screen;
  4. sculpting abilities while using an extremely unforgiving sculpting medium (there is no lump of clay or marble stone to start chiseling away), so careful planning is consistently required (another conflict between left and right brain abilities);
  5. excellent painting skills to create the surface textures that will give 3D models realism and personality;
  6. excellent photographic skills with a strong sense of camera and object placement, along with incredible lighting skills;
  7. a strong sense of timing and movement, with the ability to mimic real-life movement (especially when doing character work);
  8. and a visual perception of space and environments while working through a two-dimensional window in order to create worlds and places.

These skills, even if not totally right-brain connected, seem utterly incompatible with the first set of skills.

Specialization: The obvious result

If at first it seemed that becoming this multifaceted 3D Renaissance person was the solution to being successful in 3D, it's clear now that becoming that type of artist was such a daunting task that it's amazing anybody ever managed to achieve it at all. Combining such opposing set of skills requires a special type of person, and it's now obvious that this career style was going to be short lived: film and game companies currently employ huge teams of dozens of artists, sometimes hundreds, each person responsible for a tiny little section of the overall project. Specialization has taken over, each artist being merely a part of a larger vision.

Can such people truly be called artists when they no longer carry their own messages and develop their visions; when they simply execute orders in a production line? Has the level of commercialization and mass production in 3D reached such levels that it risks no longer being a part of what we call Art?

The end of the wave

Right now, it seems that the 3D wave has reached the inevitable point that any other wave reaches: the end of the hype, the waters returning to the sea; and, on returning, leaving many potential artists to dry on the sand. Some of the smarter surfers, realizing that the wave would soon dwindle off, took off before the wave broke in search of a newer and stronger wave which today is seen in the World Wide Web and e-commerce. The remaining surfers of the 3D wave that still hang on with head above water are slowly getting swallowed by the larger companies, which impose horrendous working hours and designate their artists as "lighting technical director #15," or other equivalent anonymous titles.

Re-evaluate for a second the opening sentence of this article: "Today there is no question at all that 3D computer graphics is a new medium in the arts." For a newcomer, that may be true. 3D still holds its charms with attractive salaries and the promise of being an amazing artistic tool to make worlds and characters come alive. However, for the true multifaceted Renaissance artist who has been around for a while, it seems more like the beginning of the end: a tool that one day had the potential of developing into a new artform is reduced to mass production and lack of individuality.

The question is, Where do we go from here? Is 3D computer graphics destined to become desktop publishing; that is, a commercial art? Some may argue that the computer is taking over the graphics, even though it still needs the human hand to be directed. They say that 3D computer graphics is only being true to its form and original nature, which is essentially to be faster to get the job done. Some may say that 3D was always a commercial art, and it is only becoming more apparently so.

My question still remains, perhaps with a touch of sadness: where have all the true Renaissance artists gone? Have they let go of the 3D industry in favor of other waves?

Any answers, thoughts or even contrary views (hopefully arguable, for the sake of the industry) are gladly accepted.

Eni Oken is a freelance 3D artist based in Los Angeles. As an architect with 13 years of experience in computer graphics, she has participated in the creation of 3D art for numerous interactive projects and has won several awards for her work. Oken does not consider herself a 3D Renaissance woman any longer—her skills have fallen into specialization some years ago. You can reach her at www.oken3d.com.