Monday, June 29, 2009

#0003 What makes a shot succeed

For today's post, I thought we'd look at an unpublished piece I intended for an audience of CG artists producing shots for a television show. It remains generally applicable.

The piece is the beginning of a discourse on a larger issue, the essential qualities of a good shot, or put another way, the aesthetics of visual effects and commercial graphics. I have found as a cg supervisor it is easy to show someone a method or technology. But conveying an aesthetic vision is much more difficult and often meets with resistance. I believe decomposing the issues will help artists to understand that aesthetic decisions by supervisors are rarely arbitrary.

What makes a shot succeed
Sometimes, looking at a shot, it seems some artists believe that a shot gets approved because the clock has run out and their work fills the hole adequately. Experience in the on line edit bay shows that a shot that fills the hole 'adequately' may not be acceptable in some essential aspect of storytelling, concept, composition, style, production value, or aesthetic execution. Failing in one or more adequacies can often lead to delivery delays while a shot is reworked. Worse, the work may be cut from the show –a waste of effort and resources, or both. As artists, we must work to make our shots succeed in all essential criteria. Our professionalism and artistic spirit should drive us to exceed acceptable.

Some artists, trained in their tools and the process, lack basic design education. Some may have only a basic high school or elementary art education. Excellent trade schools may give students superior training in using specific software and know-how to construct 'representative' projects. But some workers in the computer graphics craft lack any formal instruction in the elements of shot design and aesthetics. As a result they struggle to build satisfactory shots and have trouble evaluating their aesthetic sense. In short, they lack “an eye” from which to pre-envision the results of a task and know when it works. Together, this leads to overworked shots and shots that don't succeed.

The artist who can intuit what a shot needs –who has vision and 'the eye' is rises from being an artistic worker to become an artist. Our goal is to help you begin your journey to find the artist you can be.

One could approach this task with a set of design rules. This is efficient if we want to hire a bunch of computer graphics technologists to do specific, tightly designed shots, with little or no artistic contribution on their part. Sounds like the job from hell for both the supervisor and the artists.

Let's remember that computer graphics is an art form. Like all art forms, it is the human component that makes it art, that helps it succeed. An artist must think and feel for his work, and while technical controls may help with collaboration and keep a pipeline fluid, they do not compel good art.

The expression, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” may seem a cliché , but when it comes to getting a shot approved –the ultimate test of whether it succeeds or not –it's an axiom of all graphics professions. So let's consider how the beholders we work with behold our work:

Expanding Your Viewpoint

Before we construct the essential elements of shot design, let's expand our artistic horizon. It's obvious many people collaborate to make a shot work. Considering how each person conceives and receives a shot from their role will help us to better enumerate the criteria of the successful shot. In fact, it's crucial to understanding.

Without attempting to include every detail, let's look at those of likely importance.

The 3d artist
First take the view of the typical 3d artist is looking at details like geometric form, camera, texture, light, movement and effects. Due to specialization, some artists become proficient with certain details while others remain essentially blind. For example, a great modeler may, looking at an object, see how well the virtual form succeeds to replicate a real object. The modeler may appreciate the flow and break of the surface form and the technical details like limb curve smoothness, intricate detail, data efficiency and so on. At the same time the artist could be completely blind to how to light the object to show off these details to best effect, establish mood, focus attention and so forth –all second nature to the lighting artist.

The compositor
The technical viewpoint of the compositor is fixed on how well the elements integrate with one another as good graphic composition or good visual effects. The compositor is looking at details like blending, color, contrast, and so forth, with the main object to integrate objects into the scene and focus attention where needed and pull it away from problems. This idea of attention is important, and relates to the duty of the compositor to compose good images, or compositions, that work in the 3 dimensional canvas –-horizontal, vertical and time. While with effort and skill a good artist can improve or save a shot with poor assets, this compositor's view of what makes a good shot depends entirely on the quality of the resources given.

The director
The director represents and interprets the goals and desires of the production executive. If the director is not also the writer, he also interprets and refines the vision of the writer. As such one of the main areas of concern for the director is how the visuals work to support the written story and any implied stories. The director is looking for how singularly and collectively the visuals work to move the viewer in some way –a documentary may move the viewer to understanding; an entertainment introduces characters, propels the viewer through the plot, and evokes an emotional response. Documentaries with a 'wow!' factor will usually have a stronger entertainment essence, often accomplished by engaging the viewer with intellectually and emotionally exciting visuals. When the director plans and evaluates a sequence –and many directors think in sequences rather than shots –the object is to carry the story and stimulate the intellect and emotions. Story and visual interest (WOW!) go far in the director's assessment of what makes a shot work.

The editor
The editor plays an important role to achieve the vision of the executive. Like the director, the editor is concerned with efficiently and effectively telling the story and moving the viewer. Clarity of concepts, visual presence or production value, visual interest, beauty, composition, motion, pacing are all areas an editor may look at in addition to raw story support. The editor bears some responsibility for maintaining production studio standards and style continuity within a show and between episodes in a series. In addition, the editor has to consider the technical quality of the visuals: do they contain video or visual artifacts, distracting lens artifacts, inappropriately sharp or soft and so forth. Among other things an important aspect of the editor's job is to make sure shot continuity is maintained or deliberately abandoned, for example to avoid a jarring jump cut or to suggest a change of place or time. Online editors will be looking at color and contrast issues, technical quality, and audio synchronization with picture among other things. A great many factors effect the judgment of the editor on whether a shot works or must be replaced.

The executive
Ultimately, the executive determines whether a shot works. The production studio executive, who is making and selling a product to a network executive, will focus on the big picture and the minutia –encompassing all suitability criteria of those under his supervision and anticipating the criteria of the customer, who, as the saying goes, is always right. For the studio executive, how the network perceives the show in terms of production value (bang for the buck), potential audience response, network standards, and so forth are all important criteria. Shots require good design and good execution with strong support of the audio and storyline. Shots must be free of technical flaws, distractions from story, unbelievable motion, and so forth.

For better and for worse
While responsibility for making a shot in motion graphics or visual effects falls on the 3d artist and the compositor, neither the compositor's nor the 3d artist's natural viewpoint will guarantee a great shot. Each can help make the difference between a well executed and poorly executed shot. Take this in objectively –the natural considerations of importance to the 3d artist or compositor with excellent technical skills but limited design skills and aesthetic experience can only help make a shot better (given the same effort). A poor technician will struggle to make the shot as good, given the same direction, tools and time.

So at the level of the compositor thinking like a compositor or the modeler thinking like a modeler or the lighter thinking like a lighter all the artist can do is elevate a poor shot or drag down a good shot.

This is because the essence of a good shot depends on much more –good design and good aesthetic judgment. For any of us to rise above the level of artistic technician and really earn the title 'artist', we must acquire the knowledge and practice the skills of design and aesthetic judgment.


Anders Sundstedt said...

Excellent post. Very educational and a good overview of CG supervision.