Monday, July 26, 2010

Cool is Boring (Which Is Why It's Cool)

Today at Siggraph we saw presentations by a bunch of the geeks who made Avatar possible. I took a way a few lessons for my students and more perspective for understanding what was going on in the animation side of the program, but I went cross-eyed from the tech stuff long before it was over.

And I came away with one lesson for all artists and writers.

If you want it to be cool, you have to go through boring stuff.

This is not a criticism of the presenters - they were not boring. For that matter, what they presented was not really boring. But in many ways it was incomprehensibly, obsessive-compulsively meticulous, AND demanding. (As all really spiffy engineering is.)

The first presenter talked about building the character models - how they not only did the motion capture of an athelete making an action move, but then had to basically build multiple layers of anatomy into their model for that to translate into something that looked like more than a cartoon. They had to build in musculature, and think about whether those muscles were actually moving or just tensing. With real humans (and creatures) the skin doesn't move exactly with the muscle under it, so they created a sheathing layer between the muscles and skin, and the skin on top of that. And that was just the background prep work to create the models for the animator to animate.

The lighting guys had to go even deeper into theory and physics to get light and the interaction between it and the atmosphere, and all the objects (like thousands of plants in a jungle, some of which were translucent). These are guys who will fuss for years trying to come up with a mathematical algorithm that will allow the computer to depict the exact right kind of sheen on hair, and how that looks different than fur. And since these algorithms take up huge amounts of computer power, the then spend years coming up with ways to do it faster and cheaper (or even possible).

Now, the lesson for writers in all this is NOT world-building. This isn't about populating your planet with the right vegetation, or building your alien with the right anatomy. Who cares if you think that stuff up if you can't pull off the story?

No, the lesson here is that - whatever your story is full of - none of it will be cool if you don't geek out on your tools. Put in the time, and energy on the one medium we work in: Language.

We have words, punctuation, syntax, grammar. We need to do our best to understand those the way the virtual lighting guys understand the physics of light and color.

(In the meantime, we started the day with excellent dim sum at The Empress Pavillion in Chinatown and ended it at a very hip Italian place called Bottega Louie. Fabulous stuff, and both places meticulous about food. I am geeked out on "mastery" today.)


Anonymous said...

Camille - What an important lesson. It takes a lot of time and energy, and meticulous attention to detail, to write, and even more to write well. Thanks for the reminder.

Mary said...

My own experience is that you not only have to learn them, you have get in the habit of using them. Large reading vocabularies help only if you can transform them into writing vocabularies. Being introduced to such grammatical forms as the gerund helps remind you of their existence, but you've actually got to put them on the page. etc.