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How Do You Define an Artist?

I recently witnessed a conversation where a young fine artist told a Flame artist to his face that he did not consider him an “artist.” Obviously things heated up. As films employ hundreds of creative contributors, who among them do we really consider an “Artist?”

Some years ago the buzz words “follow your bliss” instead of “find a job” entered the American lexicon. Employment solely for the purpose of maintaining a shelter, putting food on the table and clothes on your back was no longer enough. The culture at large was beginning to support the idea that if you pursued what you loved to do you’d never work a day in your life. Where does everyone want to work?  Where does everyone’s bliss lie…? Undertaking? No. Working for the police department? Nope…In the “film business” that’s where.  Where else do you hear the word “passion” thrown around so cavalierly?

Filmmaking lets those of us that possess art skills but no burning personal vision to express those skills collectively in service to someone else’s vision. I was recently witness to a conversation where a young man with fine art skills and aspirations told a Flame artist to his face that he did not consider him an artist. Obviously things heated up with the Flame artist voicing his displeasure at not being recognized as an artist (which he clearly felt he was) while the other held his ground pointing out that the computer artist had no other art skills beyond whatever the computer offered and was neither capable nor inclined to conjure up a sketch of Tippy the Turtle or Spunky the Donkey – both well known for adorning the matchbook covers of art correspondence schools. The Flame artist skills are limited to what options the computer provides and rely heavily on someone else setting the table technically. From the young man’s perspective the Flame artist was an “operator” not an artist. Some folks define this distinction as artist with a small “a” versus artist with a big “A.” 

At university the definition we used was “an artist is anyone who calls himself an artist.” As a visual effects supervisor I have found myself working with all levels of service artists. As quickly as possible I assess their strengths and make an attempt to assign the shots appropriately based on skill and temperament. Most supervisors, me included, prefer an artist with a strong art background. These operators can move the images forward without a lot of supervision. It’s much easier to steer the boat if it’s moving forward. I remember reading several years ago that there are more scientists living in our times than there have been throughout the entire history of the world. I suspect this is also true of those that call themselves “artists.” 

True artists (capital “A” artists…) are those that point to things inside and outside of us that we may have missed while swept up in everyday living - the artist being the bellwether of the rhythms and directions of the times in which they live. In January when James Cameron was asked after a screening of Avatar if he had any trouble dealing with the numerous big egos that he found himself working with he essentially responded by saying that everyone was cheerfully on board and contributed their ideas to the overall effect of the film and were satisfied to get their single brush stroke on the canvas. Personally I feel the goal of Art is to reveal the soul of both the subject and the artist. I’d rather see an expressionist exhibit than an impressionist exhibit. Ultimately I find impressionism a bit of a bore after you acknowledge the technical virtuosity of the painter. Often no more than a snapshot of the moment recorded. It doesn’t tell me anything but what the surface looked to be on that day.

These days we work as collective artists – each contributing his part to the overall tapestry and creating a small piece of a work that is ultimately rolled together to create a film. A film at the level of Avatar is comprised of several thousand man-machine years. Just take a look at the credit roll. There are too many names to even list them sequentially; instead they are listed side by side. Some of these names are of artists who have made significant contributions to the artistic effort; others are of scientists and technologists who have supported the filmmaking process by providing new or revised tools to enable the on-the-box artists to realize Mr. Cameron’s vision. Where will all this take us? Ultimately everyone will be able to call themselves artists (not just in visual effects but globally) provided they’re utilizing a computer. As the power and speed of the computer increases the operator-artist will rely on voice commands to motivate the machine. Nothing will be between the operator and the art. You won’t even need fingers to be an artist.