Originally Published on "Angry Animation" - May 19, 2012
I’ve been in Portland OR for the past few days spending some time with Ian Bogost who is equal parts philosopher and game designer with a dash of gastropubologist. This is reason enough to travel to Portland seeing as he and I never see each other despite both of us living in Atlanta and he being a client of mine on the wearable sculpture side of things. Ian is the creator of Cow Clicker and the proud owner of the one and only Cow Clicker Skull which Black Rainbow made for him last year.
Aside from catching up with Dr. Bogost, I was in Portland to speak at WebVisions, a conference on UX and Interaction Design. My talk was on the visual development of Black Bottom Parade and visual development for non-traditional surfaces.
Ian was there to speak as well, touching on a sort of metaphysical approach to computing and the world in general in promotion of his new book Alien Phenomenology (which, if it is anything like his talk, will be totally fascinating.)
Our talks were not well-attended. Not sparse, but lacking the riot-like crowded atmosphere that we would have liked. By contrast, talks on WordPress, CS, and HTML5 were standing-room only. It’s been my experience that this kind of thing is common at UX conferences and Ian and I had a chance to talk about it that night over a pair of sazeracs and a plate of raw yellow-tail.
As an animator, I know very little about computing, code, and the like. However as a digital artist, it’s still part of my world. As a filmmaker I’m content-oriented. I spend more hours than I’d like to count banking on the phenomenon of creative whole being greater than the sum of its individual processes and parts. To someone at one of these events doing a talk on the wonders of coding, I would ask “coding what?”
“We fetishize our tools,” Ian said when I brought up the point to him. Ian’s an artist like me. He makes things.
I pointed out that ours were the only creative industries which allowed this extent of fetishism of a tool for creating content and he agreed. I’m speaking specifically of digital animation and digital game design. From my side – the art side – I’ve seen a cult-like fetishism of tools like Maya, Cinema 4d, Zbrush, Adobe CS, and Mudbox.
In other creative industries like painting, sculpture, writing or filmmaking, one finds a study of the process or the thing that a tool does or is created to do, but this rarely includes isolated discussion of the tool as an object. For example, we can study cinematography as an aspect of filmmaking. It is a study of photography over time. This is something that a motion picture camera is designed to when operated by a cinematographer. By itself, the camera is quite useless. A camera as an object is no more capable of shooting a film than is a chicken wing. It’s cameraness comes from the act of being used as a camera. In the digital world, an animator can literally assign cameraness to anything with a transform node. I have looked through a polygonal sphere and could render an entire film this way.
Even the camera as an object is an assemblage of objects. If we fetishize the camera, we must fetishize the shutter, the lens, the chip, or the mechanical fasteners that hold the body case together. After all, these objects are as purposeful and complex as their summation. Imagine attending a summit of digital video camera machine screws. Breakout sessions on how to tighten them, a panel discussion on keeping the rubber around the viewfinder supple and comfortable to the ocular bone of the DP. A keynote on the striations on the ND filter switch in contrast to the smooth, flat headed focus manipulator and the duality thereof. If I understand the broad strokes of Ian’s book correctly, the existence and relative value of these components is an important part of his writing.
If this sounds absurd, bear in mind we see this with software constantly. Zbrush, for example, is listed under “skills” in many employment postings and CVs. A mere tool for digital modeling and sculptural texturing, it is literally worshipped by amateur modelers in both animation and game art.
I have students claiming that they “need” to learn Zbrush as if it were a stand-alone skill to be mastered. Void of any real sculpture ability, they will march bravely into the digital frontier armed with tips and tricks harvested from message boards only to find that Zbrush has no answers for them. It is for many of them an orphaned tool: a sledge and drill without capable hands to wield it. They will dig deeper and begin to dissect the whole. Fetishism of the software becomes fetishism of the plugin, the Cintiq pen, or whatever component that is to be euphemistic patsy to the lack of real skill in application. Then comes fetishism of the plugin yet to be created: the one that makes mediocrity look profound.
In capable hands, any tool can be wielded deftly. Madeline Spencer, generally considered to be one of the best digital modelers in the business and someone who has created the best and most comprehensive tutorials in Zbrush, is first and foremost a sculptor. She studies sculpting and specifically sculpting for concept art. She can do this in oil-based clay, stone, metal, Maya, Zbrush, or any other tool that is given to her. For her, the skill is character modeling. Mastery of the digital tool? Certainly. Contextualized, of course, against the prospect of making a believable digital character or environment. Identifying and bringing to form the sculptural planes, reinforcing the character’s silhouette and creating expressive line and shape to precise specifications from the story-level.
At the conference, I attended a talk on WordPress and discovered that I’m not using the tool correctly which was a surprise since I’d been using WordPress for a successful custom jewelry business for quite a while. It made me wonder if in neglecting to fetishize the instruments of my trade, perhaps I’m using othertools incorrectly. I’ve made a few films, helped design a few games. There were so many tools involved (some pre-existing and some that I had to make) the odds of complete and utter tool-use failure were incredibly high. I’d used Maya to make a good film, but was I a good user?
I wrapped up the conference last night and had an early morning breakfast of eggs, bacon, and a side of poutine ( I now know what this is, but not why ) before getting on a plane back to ATL. I thought the event was outstanding, I have to say. But it brought to light problems in my own field that I’m going to begin to address more aggressively both in my teaching and in my own work.