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The Pixel Priestess: The 3D World Beyond Superheroes

The Pixel Priestess takes time out to think about vast worlds other than entertainment built of pixels and time.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Here's the thing about computer graphics and visual effects. For the most part, we who scour the cyber halls for hints, clues and fascinating news about the latest effects, newest animated shorts, all the while listening for gossip about who might be moving to which company, are somehow part of the world responsible for creating those effects. Maybe we're students who want to make the next Star Wars or Toy Story; maybe we're producers; maybe we're animators working on a really cool short or programmers designing that really cool new game my kids will spend all their time playing after school.

And although we marvel at digital cloth, at webriding superheroes or dancing, skeletal pirates, chances are that, amidst our interest and amusement, if we're creating images for an audience, we're probably not considering the companion industries that also use computer graphics but require a whole different way of thinking. So, with SIGGRAPH hovering around the corner, it seems a great time to think about the 3D that results in something other than animated heroes, explosions and vast worlds built of pixels and time.

First of all, take a look around you. Maybe you're reading this in your office: your fabulous Aeron chair, most likely designed and modeled in 3D? What about that anthro desk you're working on? And the building in which you're working? OK, maybe not if you're working somewhere like my old house, but if you're lucky enough to work in architecturally conscious surroundings a great warehouse with a fabulous conference space, for instance you're probably working in a space realized at least in part via 3D software. The remarkable thing is that while architects have been using high-end CAD applications for years, it is now entirely possible to model your own house, down to the plumbing and landscape design, even if you don't use Maya. Like many industries (ours included), it takes more than software to make you a master, so while most of us still won't be I.M. Pei or Frank Gehry, it's pretty incredible that these tools are now available for any of us who have a desire to realize our dream house, whether or not we actually build it.

Many of these CG-using industries have a way of colliding with our imaginary universe. Forensic pathology is one such field of work. I know of at least one pathologist who uses Maya to reconstruct crime scenes and uncover the stories within. He uses splatter patterns and angles of bullet holes in walls to reconstruct a scenario. Morbid, perhaps, but in a television show like CSI, protagonist Gil Grissom could easily be based on an amalgam of many actual crime investigators working in the real world. Art (or something like it) imitating life.

Even more specifically, we have the Visible Human Project. This is a National Library of Medicine project to create a "complete, anatomically detailed three-dimensional representation of the normal male and female body." Though you won't find any visual effects artists working at the NLM, I'm sure this research would have been welcome for the Leeloo reconstruction sequence in The Fifth Element (an astonishing eight years ago is that possible?), another example of art imitating life or something like it. In fact, these worlds of fact and fiction collided when, for Hollow Man, Sony Pictures Imageworks consulted with anatomical specialists to make sure Kevin Bacon appeared and disappeared with absolute integrity.

While we're busy pushing pixels to make movies, though, molecular biologists are rendering biological objects at the molecular level. By creating either a computer display or a stereo-lithographed physical rendering, they're able to physically manipulate elements invisible to even the most powerful optical microscopes, which they've achieved for the T-cell and the polio virus, among others. According to Dr. Arthur Olson, professor in Molecular Biology and director, Molecular Graphics Laboratory at Scripps, "Molecular rendering is a type of scientific illustration they help scientists understand the physical characteristics of these molecular objects, generate hypotheses about how they function and, in some cases, design drugs and vaccines based on that understanding." And that's the divine duo where art meets science head on.

Scientific visualization is perhaps the most compelling intersection of science and art. In many a SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater that great bastion of new and remarkable computer graphics achievements we've watched various interpretations of the scientific universe. Just last year, we got to take a trip through a DNA strand via the Molecular Visualizations presentation, and a couple years ago we embarked on an incredible journey through time. As I've been fortunate to be involved in more than a few Electronic Theater jury meetings, I've seen that there still isn't enough great sci-viz out there (though I can't wait to see what's in store for us at this year's Electronic Theater), so I guess this is where I make my plea to scientists and artists to talk to each other even more and create some really great images for us: it helps us understand the compelling universes we both contain and inhabit. OK, so that sounded a bit too grade school, but who out there remembers that really cool Monsanto ride at Disneyland forever ago, the one that simulated a trek through microscopic world? (Please don't tell me you're all too young: that would be beyond depressing.) And, according to an article in this very publication, CG is no longer necessarily taught only in animation schools, but it's a tool used to teach everything from medicine to driver's education.

Speaking of the car you drive (shameless transition), we are all totally aware that cars find their first realities in CG, and then make their way through concept to the car show (though I wish they'd make some of those into hybrid convertibles I could actually drive!). For decades even this process has been intercepted and reinterpreted for our entertainment. Most recently there have been the Audi RSQ for I, Robot and Harald Belker's Lexus 2054 for Minority Report. You can go back to Batman, of course, or 1982 when the incomparable Syd Mead designed the Spinner for Blade Runner. I just wonder which we'll be driving first (and, of course, I wonder when we'll get to actually customize our car the way we can customize a Nike or Vans shoe online).

Naturally, computer graphics transcends these accessible consumer industries to those we barely know about; or if we know about them, we may not get to see much of their product. Consider the military. Regardless of your (or my) opinions, it's indisputable that the budgets available to the military allow for some pretty extraordinary development. Much like rapid prototyping makes computer graphics models tangible, robotics renders them interactive. Irobot, the same company who makes mine-seeking robots for the military, manufactures the really cool Roomba, a vacuum cleaner that can determine the dimensions of your room. There are robots in space, robots in our kids' rooms and, if you're truly lucky (or addicted to toys), Aibo (or the SDR) doing silly pet tricks in your den.

With so many facets of our lives informing or being informed by computer graphics, it's no wonder that so many of us adore and pursue the world of bits and bytes. With all of this development, it's only a matter of time before CG moves permanently off our movie screens and desktops and into our living rooms. Increasingly, 3D is quickly becoming something you can hold in the palm of your hand and interact with, adding yet another really cool dimension to 3D. No wonder we love this business.

Jill Smolin has been a grateful member of the visual effects industry for about a decade, and has documented the industry (before it was one) for about twice that long.