In 1959 Miles Davis spent two days in the studio with a band recording the album “Kind of Blue”, now considered one of the cornerstone records in jazz, and 20th century music in general.
In the liner notes pianist Bill Evans wrote:
“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.
As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time,. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.
Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”
In the documentary about the recording of “Kind of Blue” Herbie Hancock says this:
“He would put people who play one style with people who play another style, a different style, or maybe a contrasting style. Most people wouldn’t dare do because that’s not going to work. But Miles would put these things together because he would trust in the honesty of each of the musicians trying to figure out a way to make it work.”
Jackie McLean: “His music kind of represented who he had in the band”
Or as Carlos Santana asks himself in the same documentary: “How do you go into the studio with minimum stuff, and come out with eternity?”
There is an interesting question here, and very relevant to my research. For the wider audience the name Miles Davis is probably well-known. But Jimmy Cobb (drums), Bill Evans (piano) and Paul Chambers (bass) are likely much less familiar. But for Miles Davis they were irreplaceable ‘ingredients’.
Cannonball Adderley is heard saying: “The band was a workshop. Miles really kind of talked to everybody what to not do. Not so much what to do. He never told anybody what to play.”
Maybe I can draw a comparison here with how Ridley Scott directed Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Actress Sean Young said: “Maybe Ridley was giving me more attention than he was giving Harrison because he was making the assumption that he didn’t need that. Harrison was never happy on that show.”
Actor Dave Holden adds (about Ridley Scott): “I find him really easy. And very encouraging. To do what you feel, go ahead. And then if he liked it he’d just smile”.
The connecting factor in these scenarios seems to be that there needs to be enough shared foundation, to be able to let go. Maybe set some very strict rules, and then stop talking at all.
In the case of Blade Runner, this would be the script. As long as Harrison Ford spoke the lines, his interpretation could be his own and apparently he received frustratingly little feedback from his director. In the case of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis ‘invented’ a modal approach to jazz: instead of changing chords he would stick to a single scale. A limited number of notes that could be used.
The groundwork for this approach was laid when Miles David had to record the soundtrack for “‘L’Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud” with a band that he did not know very well, and has no time for rehearsal with the French band. So he prepared the ‘rules’ on the night before in his hotel.
“One characteristic of Kind of Blue is (…) the simplicity of the compositions. An economy of means. Less is more. It was so finetuned without being rigid.”
Kind of blue: documentary:
Dangerous Days: Making of Blade Runner. Dir. Charles de Lauzirika. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007.
On “The Savage Mind, chapter one: The Science of the Concrete”
by Claude Levi-Strauss (1962)
In the first chapter of his book “The Savage Mind”, Claude Levi-Strauss distinguishes two different approaches towards acquiring knowledge. He explains how primitive societies used ‘mythical thought’ – or what Levi-Strauss calls ‘science of the concrete’ – to make sense of the world. He explains this science of the concrete as the primitive logic of understanding the environment through smell, taste, texture and interaction with the environment. The idea that the logic of the world reveals itself through a very hand-on subjective approach.
Using mythology as a way of illustrating this science of the concrete, he states that all myths are bases on a limited number of core ingredients, and all that the mythical thinker does is recombine these elements into new variations.
In contrast, modern (western) science has a much more deterministic approach, and tries to explain that which cannot be experiences or sensed, resulting in new knowledge that was not existing before.
Elaborating on this definition of mythical thought, he introduces the concept of ‘bricolage’ (a French term that roughly means ‘tinkering’). The bricoleur uses the tools and materials available to him, and although there may be a vague imagined outcome, the endresult is predominantly shaped by the process, and will therefore “always be removed from the initial aim” (p.21).
On the modern scientist he writes: “The engineer is always trying to make his way out of and go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization while the “bricoleur” by inclination or necessity always remains within them.” (p. 19)
In the last part of the chapter the connection is made to art and the tension between working with the materials (letting the available materials determine the process) or with a model (blueprint, or pre-imagined outcome).
And finally he compares art to mythology, where art is the outcome of objects that are shaped through events, and myths are the outcome of events that are shaped through objects.
Levi-Strauss has an anthropological perspective based very much on linquistics. His writing is extremely dense, and on the face of it, it may seem that he prefers the modern scientist over the inherently limited mythical thinker. The engineer over the bricoleur.
But apart from acknowledging that the “difference is … less absolute than it might appear” (p.19), and “both approaches are equally valid” (p.22), he also also states that “art lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought” (p.22).
Although the name of Levi-Strauss is only mentioned once in Richard Sennets book “The Craftsman”, Sennets thoughts on craftmanship are building on his ideas.
In my research I am exploring the idea that there is a lot of value in integrating the thinking and making when applied to making visual effects for cinema. In this context the term ‘bricoleur’ and its relationship to craftsmanship becomes important.
Although (or maybe because) Levi-Strauss’ writing is somewhat opaque he has influenced a lot of later thinkers and writers on the subject of craftmanship.
“The engineer works by way of concept, and the ‘bricoleur’ by way of signs.” (p.20)
“The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, ‘being’ and a ‘becoming’, in producing with his brush an object which does not exist as such and which he is nevertheless able to create on his canvas.” (p.25)
These quotes show that Levi-Strauss must have had an influence on Richard Sennett, who elaborates on his own ideas on this subject in the book “The Craftsman”.
When exploring authorship in the context of cinema, there is no getting around the auteur theory.
The auteur theory came out of the ideas developed during the nouvelle-vague in France by the likes of Francois Truffaut: that the director can be seen as the major creative force and to some extent sole author of a movie. As Francois Truffaut wrote: “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”.
In reflecting on these ideas as published in the French magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema, Andrew Sarris (an American film critic) even went so far as to suggest that “good directors make good movies, and bad directors make bad movies”.
Although in these discussions it is never denied that the rest of the film crew contributes substantially to the movie, it is asserted that it is still the result of a single dominant voice and vision.
One example that is often used to illustrate the auteur theory is the milestone science-fiction movie Blade Runner (1982), where director Ridley Scott is seen at the author of the film.
In the documentary “Dangerous Days” about the making of Blade Runner Ridley Scott himself can be heard saying:
“Sometimes they don’t comprehend, what I do for a living on a big movie. My performance is as important as any other performance of any person on that film. Particularly the star. The film that I make, at the end of the day is my movie. It may be a team thing as well, but I’m tacking the knocks, I’m taking the bashed, and probably I’ve developed it etc. So yes, it’s my movie, and I’m inviting people to come in and do it. That’s what a director is”.
But the same documentary is filled with examples of individual contributions that became essential parts of the world of Blade Runner. It is often argued that Ridley Scott is one of the modern examples of an auteur filmmaker and Blade Runner is a prime example of his vision. But I could as easily make the argument that Blade Runner is the result of a wild collection of individually developed ideas and elements that somehow became more than the sum of their parts.
Do androids dream of electronic sheep Of cours the first hint that the authorship of Blade Runner is a lot less concretrated than just the person of the director is that fact that the script is an adaptation from a book by Phillip K. Dick. After multiple drafts of the screenplay were written it was sent to Ridley Scott, who turned down the project at first. Only after he dropped out of Dune, he was persuaded to reconsider directing the movie that became Blade Runner.
Jean Moebius Gireaud
As admitted by Ridley Scott himself, a lot of the visual style of the world of Blade Runner was inspired by the work of French comic artist Moebius – specifically the story ‘The Long Tomorrow’. Scott tried to hire Moebius as a production designer but he was busy working on an animated feature at the time.
Darryl Hannah was one of the actresses doing screentests for ‘Pris’, all with completely different looks. The actresses doing the test scenes had to develop their own interpretation of the character before the audition. Hannah had seen Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu and went with a Klaus Kinsky look with blacked out hollow eyes. The iconic ‘Pris’ was very much her own creation.
Edward James-Olmos developed his mash-up multilingual language for “cityspeak” mixing up Hungarian, German and French all by himself. Olmos says about Scott: “He never questioned it.”
Tears in the rain
Possibly the most famous lines of dialogue in Blade Runner: Roy Batty’s “Tears in the rain” speech, was re-written by actor Rutger Hauer the night before the scene was shot.
The scene had been written by David Peoples, who was hired to re-write the original screenplay by Hampton Fancher.
These are just examples of how the world of Blade Runner is not so much the result of a singleminded director, but the accumulation of all these little contributions that become more than the the sum of their parts.
Denis Villeneuve, the director of Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Blade Runner said this when asked about auteur theory:
“If I wanted to have total control and be a dictator, I would do ice sculpture in my basement. If I want to make a movie, I’m going to work with 500 people and I will have to work with their strength and their weakness. The idea, as a director, is to be able to bring everybody on board and to inspire and give energy to everybody and to explain specific color, specific ambience. I need to be very precise, but I think I’m a better director when I’m more a channeler than a dictator. When I look at the result, it’s better than what I had; then, it’s tough for my ego but it is (better). And that’s the poetry. The beauty of cinema is, like, 400 hundred people shooting at four o’clock in the morning for a month, trying to create poetry.”
That voice-over Towards finishing of the film, the producers were worried that the narrative would be unclear to the audience and it was decided to bring back the voice-over that Scott had removed from the script. In the last recording sessions for the voice over Scott was not even present. Harrison Ford was not happy about doing the voice-over and although he has denied intentionally sabotaging the voice-overs you can tell from his rendition that there’s a distinctive lack of enthusiasm.
When a ‘directors cut’ was released Scott removed the voice-over again, but a wide audience (including director Guillermo Del Toro) prefers the version with the voice-over, with the bland acting becoming part of Ford’s android character.
As some of the articles below demonstrate, one can just as easily make the argument that Ridley Scott is indeed the main author of Blade Runner. If you take into consideration that there are seven known versions of Blade Runner, of which five were widely released, it becomes clear that that at least the process towards the final version was also one of experimentation and back-and-forth testing with audiences.
I am not interested in taking away anything of the remarkable accomplishments of Ridley Scott. But I think it is important to realize that a director or team leader can have a strong and identifiable voice, without suppressing or limiting the voices of the team members.
Maybe a good illustration of this is Miles Davis, one of the most influential jazz instrumentalists, composers and band leaders of the 20th century. As a bandleader he is famous for developing very minimal frameworks for his band members to improvise within. Considering that Davis hired many young and unknown players that developed to become distinctive voices in their own right: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Mike Stern and Joe Zawinul to just name a few. I try to make that connection here.
After working with the team to develop two versions of the ‘Atlas of Rotterdam in 2070’ I lost a bit of momentum. Although the Atlas sessions were very powerful in bringing the team together and provoking conversations, it did not ‘magically’ lead to actual design decisions.
So what can I take away from the Atlas sessions?
– Collecting and organizing existing images to roughly ‘paint’ a world is a very low-threshold way of provoking conversations. It is very inclusive and because the images and designs are not ‘our own’ there is not a lot of critical attachment to them. This means everyone can speak freely.
– The responses from the team members were very positive: it was clear to them they were invited to participate at a really essential level of concept development.
– But the next step should be more concrete, and less of a macro-view.
Around the same time I had a conversation with director Simon Pummell, and he reminded me that on the film Shock Head Soul I worked in the opposite direction: the design vision developed from a single object outwards. It started with the ‘Writing Down Machine’ and slowly that logic spread wider. The Writing Down Machine came to represent the logic and esthetics of the hallucinatory world.
I actually tried to follow a similar approach on ‘Identicals’, developing and designing effects while the script was still in development, but all the scenes I designed for ended up being removed from the script before the shoot.
So with that in mind: can I identify parts of the world that are compact enough for an actual design process, but could feed the design vision and logic of the larger world?
The first obvious candidate is ‘cybernetics’:
– Cybernetic implants are essential to the narrative so there is no risk of having them removed from the script.
– Through cybernetics we can say a lot about the nature of the society in our futuristic world.
– It also allows us to design a ‘history’ of the technology that can shape the world.
– And not coincidentally cybernetics were already part of the Atlas so it is in a way a continued conversation from the atlas.
On “The Craftsman” (Richard Sennett) Chapter 4: Material Consciousness
In The Craftsman Richard Sennett explores the the idea of craftsmanship, the desire to do a job well for its own sake – as a template for living. Very broadly speaking the book deals with the integration of thinking and making.
In the chapter about material consciousness he specifically discusses the relationship between a craftsman and his materials and tools. “
“The painter Edgar Degas is once supposed to have remarked to Stephane Mallarme, “I have a wonderful idea for a poem but can’t seem to work it out,” whereupon Mallarme replied, “My dear Edgar, poems are not made with ideas, they are made with words.” (p.119)
Sennett proposes that a craftsman is driven by the ability to change things, and that their thinking revolves around three key issues: metamorphosis, presence and anthropomorphosis.
Through three stories on pottery, brick making and stucco, Sennett argues that these crafts and the thinking about them have developed over the centuries through intimate interaction with the materials, through trial and error. Gradually perfecting techniques, or applying them to a different context. But also identifying themselves in and with the work by leaving makers marks or signing. Sennett uses brick making as an example of how anthropomorphism becomes part of the discourse:
“Honest”brick describes brickwork in which all the bricks laid, say, in a Flemish bond course come from the same kiln, and even more, “honest” brick evokes a building surface in which the brick work is exposed rather than covered over: no cosmetics, no “pots of whore’s rouge” have been applied to its face”. (p.140)
This is in contrast with the developments in stucco, which could be used mimic other materials, or hide any underlying materials. This sparked a modern debate on the virtues of naturalness, and the contrary freedoms of fantasy artifice, with brick embodying the Enlightenment desires to live in harmony with simple things.
The projection of human qualities to materials (anthropomorphism) leads to a philosophical debate on simulated materials or objects, made to look like they were hand-made.
Position of the author
Sennett is not one to take a very explicit position but throughout the book it is clear he is proposing the craftsmans integrated thinking and making as a model for living a productive and meaningful life. On multiple occasions he is critical of the split between thinking and doing that has been central to a lot of western thinking since Plato.
Why is this relevant
Within the last century effects for cinema have moved from physical and photo-chemical to much more metaphorical using digital tools.
My argument is that although digital visual effects may not have as much of the tactile physical interaction that, say, clay has – it can be seen as craftsmanship in that the result is shaped through integrated thinking and making. For most visual effects artists, their craft is part of a way of life, and they are driven by a desire to do great work for its own sake.
Second: I am exploring the issue of material ‘honesty’ and how it relates to digital work. On the ‘surface’ it would be convincing to propose that digital effects are to traditional effects as bricks are to stucco (which according to Sennett renowned historian John Summerson classified as ‘fake material’ p.139). This would imply that for instance brick (and especially hand-made brick) have an intrinsic honesty whereas stucco is actively trying to fool people.
Upon further thinking this concept seems more and more ridiculous. Or better: it is a cultural construct. But nonetheless an important part of my motivation.
In spring of 2017 I created the Atlas of Rotterdam in 2070. This document was an attempt to curate and bundle the outcomes of a team session exploring our thoughts and ideas for the world in which to set ‘Fight’, a science fiction feature film that is being developed.
I discussed the outcome with the director who was really excited by the material and we agreed that the next step could be to make the selection more specific: create more specific chapters and categories within the images and look for stories within those.
To open up the process I printed all the images that we had collected (many more than ended up in the previous Atlas). We put them on the wall in random positions, without adhering to earlier categories or order.
This opened up interesting conversations about contrasts and similarities between the images, and we recognized new patterns that we had not noticed before.
We started reordering and regrouping the images and this sparked more detailed conversations shaping our vision of the futuristic world of ‘Fight’.
Printing out all the images that we collected through sharing Pinterest pins was at first meant to be a conversation starter. Intuitively I wanted to get the team in the same space and have an organic exchange of ideas. Huddling 5 people together over a digital screen was an unattractive idea (although I was not sure why).
Upon reflecting I realize what I’m doing is alternating convergence with divergence. During the first session we were mostly divergent, thinking out loud and collecting as many thoughts as we thought useful. After collecting more material I converged the process by bringing these images into a unified Atlas.
From this it would have been easy to converge further and go into detail but instead I presented my interpretation in the form of the Atlas, but at the same time opened it up by presenting all images without order or hierarchy.
In hindsight this process of alternating convergence with divergence resembles the ‘double diamond’ as proposed by the British Design Council in 2005.
Accidentally, or maybe intuitively, I invited the team to take part in ordering the images by making the process really accessible.
It is also a good example of the value of geographic proximity: this was a lot easier to organize with all teammembers living in The Netherlands.
Birgitta Hosea is an animation artist, curator and practice-based researcher working in the field of animation and moving images. She is also Course Director for the MA Character Animation at the Royal College of Arts in London and PhD supervisor at Central Saint Martins.
In her article ‘Drawing Animation’ she examines the meaning of ‘drawing’ as a material process in the context of animation. Drawing as a performative act.
Drawing is usually seen as leaving marks with pencil on paper. However she argues that to limit the definition of drawing to making marks on paper is too narrow and does not allow for inclusion of a range of work made by contemporary animators and artists.
A traditional view on drawing is often associated with immediacy, authenticity and even honesty. This appreciation of traditional craftmanship stands in contrast with the perception of images created with digital tools. Even the common phrase of ‘computer generated images’ has implications of mechanized mass production disconnected from the human gesture, having lost it’s authenticity.
The result of these views is a juxtaposition of drawing as a direct, subjective and unmediated form of expression, in stark contrast with the manipulated perfection of the computer generated image.
This does not do justice to complexity of digitally creating images.
“As computer technology increasingly becomes an essential part of the production and dissemination of all media, the notion of a binary opposition between the digital and the handmade becomes meaningless and a new synthetic paradigm – the post-digital – emerges.” 1
As part of my research on craftsmanship and individual authorship in the context of collaborative work in animation and cinema, I raise the question of the materiality of digitally crafted images.
Most research into digital images puts the emphasis on the reproduction mechanisms, and copyright law. I am however more interested in looking at digital images from the perspective of a painter. Can digitally mediated images carry the ‘fingerprint’ of the maker? Can authorship be recognized not only in the content of the images but in the ‘texture’?
This article by Birgitta Hosea is one of the few sources that attempts to compare traditional analog techniques to digital animation, and question the validity of the common term ‘computer generated images’. I would even go one step further and question her use of the term ‘handmade’ (in the quote above) in opposition to digitally mediated images. Without resorting into semantics, it seems to me that to have this discussion in earnest, we need more appropriate terminology. If photography was called ‘camera generated images’, and painting ‘brush generated images’ I think we would have very different conversations about those fields.
For the time being I will use ‘digitally mediated images’ as an alternative.
In the end even Hosea’s article does not produce satisfying answers. As some point she even sabotages her own argument by stating that even digitally created images are often preceded by pencil drawings’:
“It is essentialist to conceptualize traditional drawing and hand-drawn animation as honest, personal and subjective in opposition to the bland, mechanized perfection of digital imagery in which individual work is homogenized through the use of standard computer software. Drawing is used in the design and conceptualization of digital animation and in the training of animators: traditional drawn animation is scanned, cleaned-up, colour corrected and edited on computer. “ 2
In august we spent a week with Bureau Buitengewone Zaken, to experience their hidden design method. During the week we were challenged to design and develop interventions aimed at testing our questions, engaging with participants and collecting data to further feed our research.
The first day was spent mapping our objectives as a starting point for the first steps in designing some kind of interaction with participants.
I started out with the main research question that formed the center of my poster essay, and developed a sub-question that would be the basis for my work during the next days.
At first I was struggling to come up with an idea that could be executed in the following days. There was no real possibility to do a session with my filmmaking peers. But following a conversation with one of the coaches I realized I could use my activities as a rugby youth trainer to experiment with the hidden design method.
While a lot of rugby coaching is done through ‘drilling’ the intended behavior, the best theoretical outcome is that the players play exactly as expected of them. In practice this is never the case of course, especially with children. During this workshop I wanted to test what role I can play in inviting the players to be creative in their solutions, developing new (to them and maybe to me) types of play. The thought is that this may lead to developing a playing style from within the group, making it ‘their own’, which may be more enjoyable, but mostly better suited to the specific skills and attitudes of the group of players.
And this is where the parallels with my professional research in the field of visual effects and filmmaking start to emerge. I propose that by inviting the individual creativity and craftmanship of the teammembers and making this central to the design process, this will lead to new ideas that will also be better suited to the skills and qualities of the teammembers.
This leads to the following question:
“What role can I play to stimulate this creative process, and what are the possible threats or stimulating factors to take into account?”.
This I wanted to test on the rugby pitch.
The approach I took was to create a realistic game situation, and invite the players to design a gameplan to execute together in response to it. I used the Hidden Design Intervention Card to prepare.
Session 1: players age 12 – 13
Players were a bit confused by the invitation to think of a plan. They were clearly expecting the coach (me) to explain what I would like them to do. The team had just started training together this week so some were still getting to know eachother. In this agegroup with players from group 8 up to 2nd grade high school the players were very self-conscious.
The general approach of the players was not very playful, not a lot of adventure.
PIVOT I simplified the explanation to the bare bones, expecting the younger age group that followed to be even less responsive.
Session 2: players age 8-9
This age group was really positively excited about the freedom to play. They had no inhibitions whatsoever and after an attempt ‘failed’ they were really keen to try it out again, or come up with a new idea. They kept wanting to do new experiments and were sorry to see the session come to an end and have ‘regular training’ continue.
This group was a little distracted by the camera.
OBSERVATION: if I want more ‘productive’ or ‘effective’ useable results, then I need to be a bit more specific and give a little more direction. This is paradoxical to my original statement.
The available time is brief for getting actual results with groups that are not used to being asked for creativity. The solutions were not very imaginative. The atmosphere felt ‘not safe’. After talking to their coach he confirms that the age group of 12-13 is very difficult in terms of self-consciousness and risk-taking is a complex issue.
In hindsight not surprisingly the 8-9 year old group was a lot more spontaneous in their responses and really enjoyed the chance of fooling around.
What would I like to get out of the next iteration?
If I want more useful or more surprising results I need to be a bit more specific in my briefing.
I will have a bit more authority in the next iteration because it’s my own group.
I can make the challenge a bit more explicit by demonstrating clearly what is at stake.
Stay as close as possible to the original idea to compare.
Session 3: players age 10-11
In the third session there was a slightly different dynamic, partly because the age group sat right in between the previous two groups, and I had already been training them in the previous season so they accepted me as their coach very easily.
The players were eager and excited about trying things out, and were rehearsing (I did suggest they could)
There was a very open exchange, I did not notice any inhibition.
When stimulating creative interaction within a group, the emotional safety within group is a huge factor. This is also affected by age.
The relationship with (credibility of?) of the coach within the group is a factor in the teams willingness to take risks.
There is a fragile balance between too little and too much input: too little direction can leave the teammembers uninspired, or results may be totally irrelevant to the goal.
If teammembers are not used to be called on their creativity in a specific context it will take time to get them to ‘play’.
As small and futile as an experiment may seem, they can sometimes lead to substantial insights.
There are many more parallels between coaching rugby, teaching animation and coaching creative teams than I was really aware of.
Trust and emotional safety are essential for creative interaction.
Too little information can actually be counterproductive when trying to stimulate creative experimentation. Some fuel needs to be provided to allow it to spark.
My full presentation that I did in the end of the week can be downloaded here.
As a visual effects designer and colourist for cinema, I work in a landscape that is dominated by large facilities with dozens, or even hundreds of employees with a high degree of specialism. You only need to look at the endcredits of a typical hollywood movie to get an impression. As a result, many of the images in todays visual effects blockbusters look remarkably (and depressingly) similar. Digital images for cinema have become a commodity and the people making them are as anonymous as the stone-cutters working on a medieval cathedral.
In contrast, in my own practice I am working relatively solitary, although filmmaking is always a collaborative exercise. On films like ‘Shock Head Soul’ and ‘Identicals’ which feature hundreds of visual effects shots ranging from small tweaks to complete digital environments I have done the bulk of the work myself, with additional work done by a freelancers that that follow my lead.
With these films I started work on these before there was a finished script, and was the last person to touch the images before they were projected. As a result, images carry in a way my signature, and I feel I hold a certain level of authorship over the images.
With each film that I work on becoming bigger in scale and budget I feel that I have pushed this way of working to its limits. On the next projects there will be more work, and there will be some pressure to do it at a higher pace.
So the question rises whether I can find a way to adapt my way of working to accomodate these bigger projects, while maintaining and further developing my signature or fingerprint.
There are a couple of considerations here.
A crucial one is that I really enjoy being hands-on with the images and don’t have any ambition to become a human resources manager. But I also know that there will be some level of hierarchy since a film director doesn’t want to have a conversation with ten individual crewmenbers. So I will need to explore collaboration methods that will allow me to be a solitary individual and at the same time be the conductor of the visual effects orchestra.
Another aspect to this is what is my ‘sigature’ as an image maker? I think my work differentiates itself by being less obsessed with photorealism and being more stylized and, if you will, painterly. So as part of my research I also want to explore the material qualities of digital image making.
As part of my research I developed a prototype of a subjective atlas. This atlas could be the starting point of a ‘world bible’ to develop the design of the world of “FIGHT” a science fiction film that is currently in development. Written and directed by Simon Pummell.
Although the actual questions this atlas explores are very specific to our imagining of a world 50 years into the future, my underlying research questions are not specific to this project.
I stated my expectations for this project in a previous post:
This is first and foremost an experiment in designing a creative process. So I hope to learn about creating a shared mental space that is an emotionally safe space for the participants to really engage in an open collaborative atmosphere.
I will be working on a shared design vision of a futuristic world specifically for a feature film that we will be working on during the years to come.
On may 24th I spend three hours in an open conversation with three others: Tim Roza (film editor), Jasper Wessels and Adriaan van Veldhuizen (both animators). I explained a couple of basic parameters and invited a discussion speculating on how we could envision a future world. During the conversation images were collected and discussed, and after the conversation we put those into a Pinterest board that we kept contributing to over the following week. From my notes of the conversation and these collections of images I selected material to create the Subjective Atlas of London Freeport in the year 2070.
My main surprise is how excited and motivated the contributors were to be part of this process at this stage. There is no budget yet, and not even a guarantee that this film will get made (although we are optimistic). But there was an enormous willingness to participate.
I have in the past been very reluctant to invite people to collaborate without budget, wanting to avoid ‘wasting their time’, but unintentionally I have been keeping them ‘out of the loop’ and ‘at distance’. Whereas working on this atlas together clearly shows me there is a more exiting way.
This way of working also has an influence on how we position ourselves. In the past we would have been credited as visual effects artists, but at this point we are much more speculative designers of fictional future worlds. Not sure how this will end up in the final credit roll though…
Although the first session was only a week ago, and I have just created the first version of the atlas, I am very optimistic about using this atlas as a conversation piece to collaboratively further develop this fictional world. I will keep the director informed of our ideas and will ask for contibutions but we all agree that at this point it is good to avoid too much focus on the narrative scenario, but much more let the world tell its own story.
So on the surface this atlas may look like a straightforward collection of moodboards but for me it has opened up the design process immensely.
This type of document is not new. On the surface it will look like any moodboard even. But for me it is a small breakthrough in inviting participation and taking the design process out of my head and hands and into the group.
What is new, is that usually these types of documents are created by a production designer or concept artist – who then sends the material to the craftsmen who will create the sets, costumes and props. Practically or digitally. But in this case it is these craftsmen, who are usually not invited until much later, who are part of the co-creation process.
And by starting the design of this world at such an early stage (before the scenario is finished) allows for the narrative to be partly informed by the world design, which should lead to the futuristic world being much more than a wallpaper backdrop to set the narrative against.
For the Subjective Atlas I want to combine multiple aspects of my research into one exercise:
For the science fiction film ‘Fight’ – loosely based on a short story William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) I will be designing and creating the futuristic world in which a classic boxing narrative takes place. This film is currently in development – meaning there is funding in place to write a film script. There is no production planning yet, but I would expect principal photography to start end of 2018 or early 2019.
Together with writer-director Simon Pummell I will be developing the futuristic world that will form the arena for a classical boxing movie.
PLAN: I will invite a couple of collaborators to work with me in developing a vision of a futuristic world in which to set the narrative.
I will write a short introduction of a few narrative elements that we will need to accomodate – and I will set a couple of themes / key words to anchor the session. I may send a snippet of information prior to the session so that participants may bring material if they have it.
In this session I will frame us as a team of speculative designers that “uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions, and givens about the role products play in everyday life” (Dunne & Raby, 2013).
We will be world-builders first. My role will be that of moderator and collector.
Examples of questions to set the scene:
In the future separate computer displays will dissapear and we will interact with computers, devices, networks and eachother through social platforms in a much more seamless way.
– How can we envision this development?
– How can we visualize this development?
– With self-broadcasting becoming the norm, what is our relationship to surveillance?
“No one is ever alone” (William Gibson)
– What is the state of cybernetic bodies and structures?
– What is the state of transportation?
A large part of the story takes place in an isolated European metropole.
– How can we envision the future of cities in terms of architecture, and how do we avoid the cliches of futuristic cityscapes that are dominating the genre?
– What could be the dominant (visual) culture (if we avoid the esthetics of Neo Tokyo as seen from Blade Runner to Ghost In The Shell?
– What kind of governmental structure do we envision and what could be the impact of this on the visual culture?
FORM AND LOCATION
For practical and planning reasons on this particular occasion I will need a room in Rotterdam, where we sit and talk, collect, present.
For the precise format I’m still thinking about whether to keep the session very open or create more structure and active moderation.
EXPECTATIONS Primary goal:
This is first and foremost an experiment in designing a creative process. So I hope to learn about creating a shared mental space that is an emotionally safe space for the participants to really engage in an open collaborative atmosphere.
I will be working on a shared design vision of a futuristic world specifically for a feature film that we will be working on during the years to come.
In april 2017 I spent a couple of days in London on a short excursion. I am still processing my impressions and collecting my thoughts on the experience but I will try to briefly summarize the first results from the trip:
INTERVIEWS WITH VFX PROFESSIONALS
I conducted two interviews with visual effects artists that work in London. Together with Vancouver, London is the biggest visual effects ‘hub’ in the world. A huge amount of visual effects work is done within the Soho area in London. I have recorded the conversation in audio and video. To not have to worry about framing the camera I recorded using a 360 degree video camera. This results in a full panoramic image with both the interviewee and myself in the frame.
Ant Walsham is a veteran visual effects artist and compositor who co-founded The Mill – one of the leading postproduction studios in London. After spending years in that studio he has been freelancing in London and Los Angeles since 2009.
Rudy Massar works as a creature modeller at Industrial Light & Magic. ILM is arguably the leading visual effects house in the world. Rudy is part of a team of hundreds of artists working on huge films like Star Wars and the new Steven Spielberg movie. Before working at ILM Rudy spent a couple of years around the corner at MPC working on Jungle Book and other films.
I talked to Ant and Rudy about the work environment, what they need to do their best work, and their hopes and ambitions for the future.
The biggest revelation was when Rudy described the feedback system in place at ILM: every week the director (at that moment Steven Spielberg) would record feedback on all the work done on video. So every weel Rudy receives a video message from Steven discussing the work he has been doing. But Rudy can also view the feedback videos for every other artist, and that way get a really good impression of the way of thinking of the director, beyond the specific task Rudy is working on.
There were two studio visits that resonated with me: there was a presentation at Rehab studios where the ‘creative technologist’ presented his views on the future of social media and the dissapearance of displays from our daily life. The way we interact with social platforms and technology will be much more integrated and seamless.
The other visit was SixThirty, a two-man graphic design agency that has initiated a group project “Unread Messages” that invites artists and designers to speculate on the future of our relation with technology.
In short what I have slowly become to realize is that my work on films could also be framed as a kind of ‘speculative design’. In rethinking my position as a designer and collaborator on film, this could provide a good framework.
NESTA – BAS LEURS
By interesting co-incidence I hooked up with old friend and former colleague Bas Leurs. I have worked with Bas Leurs when we were both teaching interaction design at the Willem de Kooning Academy and we spent a couple of years developing the curriculum of a new program together. But then our ways parted and we’ve not had much contact for a couple of years.
It turns out in the mean time he has spent a lot of time researching the design of creative collaboration: developing tools and techniques for organizing and facilitating creative processes in teams. During our 5-hour long diner we realized that there is a lot of overlap between the challenges I am facing as I aim to develop my professional practice and his expertise and research area.
As a direct outcome I have received a lot of reading materials and tips from Bas, and will have a good conversation partner during the continuation of my research.
Interestingly – apart from his work on creative collaboration, NESTA (his employer) has a strong focus on innovation, and in that role organizes an annual festival FutureFest which centers around speculative design!
When using a text as part of a research project it’s important to be able to judge the origins and context of the text. Especially now that texts are so easily published and spread, the quality of texts available is wildly variable. Who wrote this? And what makes him or her an authority on the subject? And what agenda is being pushed?
I believe that I generally have a decent ‘bull-shit radar’, and I tend to quickly become a bit adversarial when I come across strong statements…
But although this may be helpful most of the time there is no method to it, and it’s also not very helpful in developing my understanding on any subject. And of course we are all inherently biased even when we think we are not. So in that regard reading these texts together was a really good reminder of the inherent bias we all carry around. Adopting a more methodical approach to critical reading can be Essay:
“My city is the city where 2000 people died in the ﬁrst two days of a massive heat-wave last week, among the ﬁrst wave of casualties to global climate change, and where thousands of citizens mobilized and shouldered the responsibilities of supplying overcrowded hospitals and clinics with water, ice, and medicines when the government failed to act and the clergy was still exhorting people to keep fasting in the heat.”
Ahmed Ansari sketches a dramatic image of urgency. People are suffering. Today. And in the mean time the white privileged design professional is entertaining himself with frivolous provocations and showing very little understanding of today’s world. Or this is at least what Ansari states.
And it’s not hard to see where he is coming from. It reminds me of the image of a daydreaming child, looking up into the sky, imagining space travel while oblivious to the traffic around him. Some problems are more urgent then others, and it’s a good idea to plug the holes in the boat before setting a course for the horizon.
And I cannot help but feel Ansari is talking directly to me: the white privileged designer who has never had to worry about the roof over his head. So it makes sense then that organizations like WhatDesignCanDo sets up competitions to invite designers to engage with these urgent challenges, such as the refugee crisis.
But of this “Refugee Challenge” organized by WDCD Ruben Pater says it is “…absurd to suggest that design can come up with solutions for a crisis that is political and socio-economic at heart.” Which also makes sense. Developing better refugee shelters is not likely going to bring peace to the Middle East.
Or, as Dunne and Raby put it:
“Clearly, the world is not in a good shape and there is plenty of scope for making things better, but using design to solve problems is not always possible, especially when we are facing such an extreme and complex situation.”
Obviously there are are contrasting philosophies here, and emotions can run a bit hot even. Especially when topics are as polarizing as the refugee crisis.
But I’m going to take a slightly unexciting position here. These approaches are not mutually exclusive. There is a need for designers to work on todays urgent challenges, responding to the world around us with direct solutions or comments. But if we dismiss any project that is a bit more speculative or fictional as provocations that “reﬂect the fears, anxieties, desires, imaginaries, and ultimately, politics of an intellectual, liberal progressive white middle class that believes in the promise and purity of technological progress” (Ahmed Ansari) that also disqualifies most art, music and a lot of other things.
My point of view on the subject of social design, in response to the articles we read:
First of all ‘design’ is a word that is used in different ways – and it seems to me we are not always speaking about the same thing in this debate.
As people have different types of personalities, talents and skillsets there are a range of very different types of designers. Some designers are really good at solving small day-to-day problems. Other designers are really good at bringing people together. Other designers are more interested in looking beyond short term challenges and want to bring future problems to our attention. All these approaches are valid
nd I don’t think it would be productive to have all designers work on the same subjects, with the same philosopies. I
With the release of the live-action remake of Ghost In The Shell (after the original anime from 1995) the internet is ablaze with material and documentation.
In the wake of the premiere a lot of contributors are now releasing work they have contributed to the film in one way or the other. I stumbled upon the work of self-proclaimed futurist Monica Bielskyte who was apparently asked to contribute to the concept art before the script was finalized. But apparently not much of her work ended up being used and she’s not too happy about how the film turned out…
There are two things I find interesting here: first that she is actually seen as a futurist that plays a role in science fiction world building, and how she has built a small fan-base of followers.
But at the same time she does not seem to actually create visual work, but rather collect and curate work. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but there is an irony to placing an uncredited still of Blade Runner in a mood board and then complaining about Ghost In The Shell (2017) not presenting any original visuals. With one of her concept boards for GITS she tweets: “Too much Hwood sci-fi is stuck with retro ideas about future. The world of actual research in science & tech space is ripe with inspiration”.
So why is this relevant to my research? She presents herself as a creator of futuristic worlds – which overlaps with what I see myself doing. But at the same time she is also a clear example of what does not work: she was hired to produce some concept boards and do a bit of ‘consultancy’ and then her work was apparently dismissed. She was never part of the ‘band’ – so to speak. Which also means there was no dialogue between her and the material. So by studying that way of working a little bit it may also help clarify what I want to avoid.
Too much Hwood sci-fi is stuck with retro ideas about future. The world of actual research in science & tech space is ripe with inspiration pic.twitter.com/FU0dkkS7Sf
Trygve Allister Diesen is a Norwegian film director. Out of frustration with having his vision for his films compromized by (his words) ‘sharks’ he started a research project as a fellow of the Norwegian Film School. He has published a video essay in six parts documenting this process. Below I will summarize the episodes briefly and then reflect on it in the context of my own research.
His question: “How can you maintain your vision in an artform this collaborative and commercial”. The premise of his research is that in filmmaking there are a lot of people influencing the creative process, from writers to actors, cinematographers to casting agents, and the worst: producers.
Diesen points out that on ‘Torpedo’ he had what he thought to be full creative control: he initiated the project, approached the producer, chose the cast and cinematographer and had the final decision over the edit. On set there were lots of conflicts eventually leading up to an actual fistfight amongst the crew. He describes his ‘vision’ for the film mostly as style: high pace acting, cinematography and editing.
In this part he describes that because he had a good relationship with the cinematographer, he could focus more on coaching the actors. But the lead actor on ‘Red’ mentions that he rarely gets any useful input from film directors – because they are more interested in their ‘vision’ than in the ‘truth of the moment’.
And then Diesen mentions how his advisor told him that vision could also be more related to how you see the world around you.
This is mostly anecdotal.
In part 4 he mostly discusses how his decisions about the shooting style (very loose camerawork) compromised the quality of the audio recording – but he thought at least the actors would be happy because of the ‘freedom’. Except that shooting extremely long days for weeks on end took its toll on the actors and all the other crew. But at the same time it is acknowledged that having more time to ‘fix’ things would not necessarily have made the film better.
In the second half of part 4 we have a look on set of another director: Per Fly. The atmosphere on this set seems much more calm and relaxed. On the surface the director seems to exercise much less control.
The plot thickens: Diesen accepts to finish an American feature film that was started by another director. It has been a long time goal to land a directing job in Hollywood, but it seems at odds with his research into maintaining his personal vision (even if he’s not clarifying what a vision in this context is, or what his vision is…).
Later on he states his vision for ‘Red’ was: “to take care of the story, and give room for Brian’s performance”.
In this last part Diesen is confronted with some strong visions involved with the film other than his own. The producers cut a scene from the film, and the lead actor forces him to shoot a very long scene without backup plan. He realizes that the visions of others can contribute to a film and make it stand out. Make it better. That when you control a work in every detail, you are limited to the boundaries of your own talent.
One of the reasons this project resonates with me is that I really see potential in the form. The narrative of his research really lends itself to this documentary approach. I am seriously considering video as a documentation and publishing tool for my research project.
Another reason is that the question of personal vision in the context of collaborative work is really closely related to my own, and as such forces me to secondguess myself. Interestingly on first viewing I thought Diesen’s conclusion was a bit stating the obvious. “By harnessing the visions of your collaborators you can make work that extends beyond your own talent and capabilities and can become much stronger” (I’m paraphrasing) is not a very surprising outcome of the research.
But after watching the episodes again and thinking about my own research I realize that in a way my own research question is similarly focussing on the challenge of maintaining my own fingerprint and authorship within the context of a larger team. This is still a valid question, but it seems equally important to allow for the collaborators fingerprint and ‘vision’ to manifest itself in the work.
I found this video essay a while ago. The content is relevant to my question in a couple of ways – but even more, I like the way it’s presented in the form of a video essay. I imagine a similar form might be really suitable for developing and shaping my research.
My father was a carpenter and woodworker, as were both my grandfathers. I grew up in the wood workshop and have been tinkering my whole life.
No wonder that I feel that thinking cannot be separated from making – and the dialogue between the hands and the brain is what shapes my work. Even though nowadays I spend most of my working life on an office chair looking at a computer monitor I still feel the same.
So the notion of craftmanship is central to how I see myself as a designer. I don’t ‘sketch’ so much as that I ‘shape’ or ‘sculpt’.
On february 24 2013 Life of Pi won four Oscar awards, out of 10 nominations. The award for ‘Best Visual Effects’ went to the team at Rhythm & Hues. But Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy a month before.
In recent years the biggest box-office successes can be categorized as ‘effects-heavy’ movies (www.boxofficemojo.com). Just in 2016 the top 20 is entirely dominated by movies that feature heavy digital work or are entirely animated. Actually if you look at commercial successes in cinema for the last century, the list is dominated with movies that rely heavily on effects.
At the same time the industry responsible for this work – the visual effects industry – is struggling to keep it’s head above water financially. In the 10 years between 2003 and 2013 over 20 studios closed or filed for bankruptcy (http://www.insidevfx.com/visual-effects-company-list), the contrast became most painfully clear at the 2013 oscars, leading to over 500 vfx workers protesting in front of the venue hosting the Oscars ceremony.
The problems underlying these struggles are many and complex – partially having to do with local and international trade politics. I have listed some of the many articles that paint the picture in more detail at the end of this post.
If all animals are equal…
In summary some countries (the UK, Canada, New Zealand, even Belgium) have been implementing tax constructions that effectively subsidize the work done on film productions. As a result is has been cheaper to make films in London or Vancouver than in Hollywood, and it’s cheaper to take a film to Brussels than finish it in Amsterdam.
Studios have responded to these tax schemes by opening up locations in these locations to be able to still attract the work on big budget movies. Many studios advertise their eligibilitity for tax shelters on their websites.
In the mean time the level of craft in visual effects has reached the point where virtually anything we can imagine can be created and seamlessly integrated into live- action material.
So with a lot of effects work effectively invisible – and your tiger being as good as mine – I’m not surprised that many studios are struggling to negotiate more feasible budgets for digital production.
So where am I in all this, and why do I care?
The truth is that as a visual effects designer I am not directly affected by these issues (yet). I have been working ‘in parallel’ to the more conventional film industry. I have worked on relatively small scale art-house films with directors that specifically choose to work with me. But the next projects will be larger in scale and one of the challenges I will be facing is to scale up – and thus I need to make sure I don’t step into the fire that is burning in the neighbours house so to speak. I have some ideas about the direction I can take – and on this blog I will document the design research I do.
Additional sources: Life After Pi is a short documentary telling the story of the bankruptcy of Rhythm & Hues, the studio responsible for the Oscar-winning effects on ‘Life of Pi’.