Tag: digital materiality

On material consciousness

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.




On digital drawing



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, mechan[1]ized 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


1,2 Hosea, Birgitta, Drawing Animation, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 5 (3), Sage Pub, 2010, p353-367

Digital Craft

I’m not sure whether any of this will be really relevant to my research – but it’s part of the context.

With the comodification of digital tools in the last decades, there is also a decline in respect for digital craft and crafstmen. There is a renewed interest in traditional craft and a fascination for manual skills. Facebook is flooded with videos that demonstrate this.

It’s no surprise that this trend is also visible in cinema audiences. When Terminator 2 (1991) and later Jurassic Park (1993) were released, audiences were fascinated with the new possibilities of computer generated images (CGI).

But more recently digital effects work is frowned upon by parts of the audience (I’ll put some examples in the bottom of this post). For Mad Max: Fury Road (2016) the sales pitch was that most of the film was shot ‘in camera’ with minor digital postproduction work afterwards. As it later turned out the movie had a lot of digital work done.

So why is it that there is such a backlash in public opinion against digital imagemaking?

Is it nostalgia?
Is it that traditional craft has become exotic (and thus ‘magically attractive?’).

There is a very common notion that when work is done using a computer the machine does all the heavy lifting and thus the result is not really man-made. The term ‘computer generated images’ that the industry has adopted does not help the case in this regard.

It’s as if Rembrandt would refer to his work a ‘brush generated images’.


Hollywood’s turn against digital effects

2015 is the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback

10 reasons why CGI is getting worse, not better

6 reasons modern movies look surprisingly crappy