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The Pixel Priestess: Art Has Bumped into the Ceiling of Technology

In her debut Pixel Priestess column, Jill Smolin ponders the tension between art and technology in vfx and where we go from here.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

At the Visual Effects Society awards last month, Life Achievement honoree and visual effects guru George Lucas noted: Thirty years later, art has bumped into the ceiling of technology, and you are at the forefront of that challenge.

This brought up a slew of questions for me a lowly practitioner and observer of this most captivating of industries and disciplines: What is the challenge? Is it a challenge of art or technology? Or something else entirely?

Ours is an alchemic industry, where art and technology collide to create a product that exceeds either of its parents. Since the dawn of the industry, when J. Stuart Blackton drew moving pictures on a static blackboard, or when Winsor McCay thrilled his audiences with a dinosaur onto whose nose he apparently climbed, weve been wondering: Howd he do that? And whyd he do that? For art? For technology? To tell a great story? If he produced it today, would it be for the box office? Or did they create their magic for the sheer thrill of doing something that hadnt been done yet?

George Lucas speaks at the VES 2004 awards. What is the new challenge to filmmakers? Photo by Sarah Baisley.

George Lucas speaks at the VES 2004 awards. What is the new challenge to filmmakers? Photo by Sarah Baisley.

The inventions continued. When Melies shot an astronaut into the surface of the moon, we winced, laughed and marveled. Though we were engaged in the story of the astronaut and his journey to the moon, we forgot everything when he took his lunar plunge: the visual punch line became more important than the story. By the time Kong fought airplanes from the Empire State Building, and Jason fought the skeletons with his Argonauts, more curious artists in the audience wondered, How did he do that?

Jump forward a few decades and where do we find ourselves? In the mid 1970s, when a young Lucas wanted to shoot a movie in space with all the environments and creatures his imagination could conjure, none of the technology existed to support his art. So Lucas started Industrial Light & Magic, a company that changed the landscape and our perspectives. Once again, like the viewers who preceded us, we sat in awe and astonishment watching the Mos Eisley Cantina, TIE fighters and the explosion of the Death Star, again wondering, How did they do that? But, whether we knew it or not, we loved something more. This was more than technical wizardry; this was myth and archetype, an epic narrative. We had a connection to the heros journey and loved each encounter along the way.

In the years since Star Wars, the visual effects world has changed radically. Yes, like Melies and Blackton and Harryhausen and those who followed, we are still trying to make the unbelievable feasable; were still creating worlds and creatures, and were still trying to move pixels in ways that have never been attempted. On the surface, the artists tasks are much the same as theyve ever been: Artists still sit in darkened rooms moving characters, growing trees or building bridges one frame at a time: patience and diligence borne of an insatiable curiosity take precedence over either art or technology.

Winsor McCays Gertie the Dinosaur: Howd he do that?

Winsor McCays Gertie the Dinosaur: Howd he do that?

The great danger is one of malaise and jadedness, a natural outgrowth of this embarrassment of riches. We happily accept as reality multi-limbed creatures and the vast planets from where they derive. We watch our characters melt, fly or leap buildings. We almost expect creatures to emerge from the bodies of their human hosts, and were scarcely moved when they fall in a gelatinous mass to the floor. Even the magnificent Gollum is so real that by the third movie, we hardly wonder anymore; we just watch. Perhaps our expectations are the very ceiling that Lucas says weve reached.

So, we return to the question: Whats the challenge? Well, lets take a look: Since Star Wars blasted off the screen, weve gone to distant planets, ventured to Middle-earth, journeyed to the center of the earth, for that matter; and stayed right here on our own planet. Weve encountered humans who change into other creatures, creatures who metamorphose into humans, dinosaurs who entice and terrorize us, weapons of incalculable size and ferocity and, in some cases, humans who become those weapons. None of those examples could have come into being without the fusion of art and technology, the artist to imagine it and the technology to realize the artists imagination. But what else? What about the extra something that not only dazzles our imagination but stirs both our hearts and minds?

That something more. Therein lies the essence of our response to Lucas challenge. And it requires an evolution of the most basic and crucial element: Story. Its not enough to catapult a man into the face of the moon, or to show us beautiful vistas and extraordinary characters. Rather, it takes a great story to help us appreciate what were watching: When I watched Star Wars: Episode II, I marveled at the beauty of the scenes, the extraordinary characters, the seemingly endless parade of incredible, animated creatures. I sat in open-mouthed awe, admiration and astonishment when the six-armed Dex hugged the human Obi-Wan: everything looked perfect. But ultimately, the experience lacked impact. Why? Because unlike the first trilogy, there was little to anchor me to my seat; no journey to go on as I did with Luke Skywalker so many decades before.


Wheres the story? Star Wars Episode II and The Matrix Reloaded accomplished great technical feats, but felt hollow. Star Wars: Episode II © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All rights reserved. Digital work by Industrial Light & Magic. The Matrix Reloaded courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.


Sadly, the same fate befell The Matrix. The first film rained onto the screen with the promise of new thoughts and sights to absorb; a comic book come to life; a journey into the psyche. Unfortunately, Reloaded and Revolutions fell victim to the look and the hype: though there was art and technology a-plenty, the story couldnt support it. In fact, by the end of Revolutions, the story had all but evaporated.

Thankfully, this has become less common than in days past. Now that the technology and the art have caught up to the imagination, it seems that people are writing stories worth augmenting with the genius of this industry. Look at Pirates of the Caribbean, X2, T3 and, of course, the majestic Lord of the Rings.

So, now that the exceptional is almost expected, where does that mystical fusion of art and technology take us? Or, more appropriately, how do we get stories that support it? The original Star Wars films had their roots in ancient mythology: the heros journey. Frodos journey to Middle-earth was equally heroic, highlighted by the creatures and wonders of a fantastically realized universe. Optimistically (or egotistically), I like to think that by creating these beautiful amalgams of art and technology, we are fueling the imaginations of new Homers and Tolkiens and Clarkes and Heinleins and Rowlings.

As I see it, the challenge is to meet these stories as they emerge, extraordinary or not, with the most beautiful alchemic elements we can render. By creating riveting images, maybe we can coerce the screenwriters and storytellers into giving us equally compelling scripts, and maybe thats the answer to Lucas challenge: now that the art has indeed bumped into the ceiling of technology, its up to us to inspire stories that take us through that ceiling to the great unimagined universes beyond.

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.