'How did you do it?' asked the client

July 10, 1998

Fluency with a toolkit of 2D and 3D applications is the secret of creative graphic art, says Fay Stephens

The musician Frank Zappa once said:

"The computer can't tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what's missing is the eyebrows" The challenge for the artist using image generating applications is to denote nuance, "the eyebrows", a visual narration of perceived symbolic relationships; the essence of individual experience and imagination.

If science is about intuition, hypothesis and repeated testing of the formulated idea then three-dimensional computer modelling is also about testing and refining intuitions and formulations. The subject has a further association with science through the necessity for artists to work with programmers and mathematicians in developing and extending creative applications.

Computer imaging has always been a chicken or egg question, the software inspiring the artist and the dreamt possibilities of the artist challenging the programmer. They have not been reluctant bedfellows. The artist broke new contextual ground, and the programmer discovered new techniques applicable well beyond the making of innovative images.

Today, 3D imaging applications, while not being tailor-made for any specific need, are remarkably sophisticated, especially when combined in a designer's toolkit. Occasionally, having completed an illustration and while backing up the source folder, I have been surprised by the number of applications I have used to create or transform elements of the image. The reason lies in the quality of freedom this way of working affords, using the strong features of many applications and ultimately utilising them as a coherent whole.

This was not always possible. One of the great aids to computer creativity has been software developed without the proprietorial isolation that once existed between competitors. Increasingly, import/export commands have taken into account other manufacturers' formats. This, together with the emerging format standards, has created the situation where on producing an image to an art director, the remark has been "How did you do it?" - a high accolade as all too easily artists using the computer are lulled into using some application features that, while being aesthetically pleasing, surreptitiously stamp the software's stylistic hallmark into the expressive fabric of the work, immediately distracting from its content.

Three-dimensional modelling applications are designed to imitate real world physical attributes and behaviour. Perspective is automatic. Lighting effects are achieved by a mathematical system which mimics the real optics. Many people find working in this virtual space causes them to re-evaluate the optical subtleties of the real lighting of objects. Most applications include optional raytracing. Their individual algorithms produce varied results, but all to a greater or lesser degree place shadows naturally by referencing the sensitive settings that control the virtual illumination arriving, either directly or reflected at the object. Controlling these variables produces the "mood", from the dramatic look of the film noir genre to a hazy, high-noon burn out. The creative impression is achieved though individual experimentation. This process is accelerated, thanks to current processor speeds, encouraging the artist to vet ideas continuously during the decision-making process, accepting or rejecting, prodding and testing, in the search for a desired aesthetic.

There is a wide diversity of object-building techniques utilised by different 3D applications and finding an interface and method that is personally comfortable can be a time-consuming study. Realism is often recognised in the small details. The slightest variations of angle and curve, when misjudged, can make an object appear manifestly gauche. An approach I employ in learning to apply these tools is to avoid expectations and preconceptions, instead preferring to just play. A random collection of lofted shard-shaped objects, textured with varied hues of glass-like material, lit by an array of multi-coloured spotlights and rendered as viewed from a wide angle camera at short range, can create imagery with an intangible, engaging quality, that when placed into the context of, for instance, a jazz album sleeve, emotes free improvisation. The fun in producing it belying the skills learnt.

Each modelling tool has individual strengths. Among these are options allowing for Boolean functions, deformers and particle generators, the latter principally used in animation. The creative use of these additional object manipulators can produce unusual and fascinating forms, albeit at a cost: the additional polygons imply extended, time-consuming rendering. Shapes and kerned text designed within a 2D vector application such as Freehand should be able to be imported for use as templates in the 2D to 3D lofting procedure.

Certain 3D applications are invaluable for specialist modelling. Poser is adept at editable human figures (and now animals) drawn from its extensive library. These can then be exported using a thoughtful array of formats. Bryce started life as a landscape generator and although growing in complexity with each release, still enjoys the reputation of ease of function, along with the libraries we have come to expect of products from Kai Krause's company Metacreations Many artists make extensive use of model libraries that come packaged with their 3D software, often editing the model for their specific purpose and saving the time consuming task of modelling from scratch. Third-party models are also commercially available, but at a handsome price, making a well-stocked model library an advantage to seek out when choosing applications. Models employing the 3DMF format, developed by Apple Computer as part of QuickDraw 3D, largely eliminate the description problems that DFX suffered when importing and exporting objects across applications, freeing the artist to exploit each product's virtues. Render speeds vary widely according to the algorithms employed by different applications. Cinema 4D makes a selling point of its efficient algorithm and fast render speeds; the time saved makes the product practical for animation, especially for the user who requires a relatively simple application. Ray Dream Studio is also fast, the user also benefiting from an interface that includes browsable palettes, a visual catalogue of goodies, bulging with selections of deformers, behaviours and unusual render filters. Infini-D has been slow to render in past versions, but release 4.5 has been optimised for efficiency. The pre-release publicity material quotes Phong shading, but conspicuously not raytracing, and warns of rendering complex scenes. Raytracing imparts a beautiful and stylish intricacy to the details in reflections and texture maps that is hard to better if time is taken out of the equation.

The advantages of 2D image manipulation applications such as Photoshop and their built-in, third-party or shareware filters extend the creative possibilities of texture mapping. Most 3D environments have wide controls for bump, viscosity, transparency and so on, as well as choices governing projection wrapping and composition. When applying a texture map, created within Photoshop, to an object, I can be assured it will react correctly within its environment, even with out-of-view elements. Mask-rendering an object using an environment map of a pre-constructed background design places reflective details on the surfaces that appear perfectly integrated when placed within the map's original 2D document. Distance rendering, using a z-buffer mask for import into a 2D application and remote "fuzziness" applied with a Gaussian filter, make the illusion complete.

The three-dimensional world we inhabit is projected onto our retinas as a two-dimensional image, and yet we perceive our environment making judgements about the position, distance and size of objects with certainty. This applies equally to the 3D computer-generated image, even when viewing virtual reality through full immersion goggles. So why work within 3D applications at all? After all, the illusion of perspective has been created by artists for generations. Many artists working digitally use their understanding of form in relation to light and shade to create a realistic dimensional impression, exclusively within the layers of 2D paint applications such as Photoshop. When the artist has decided the viewpoint, most considerations of worldly physics may be simulated using advanced manipulation techniques.

Part of the answer is that, as part of an artist's imaging tool-kit, the advantage 3D software offers is its ability to describe accurately the real world, the fly-around interface, mimicking our physical comprehension, inspiring the reproduction of what the mind perceives, allowing for opportunities and possibilities for creative representation limited only by the artist's imagination.

Fay Stephens is a freelance computer artist and visiting lecturer in computer imaging at London Guildhall University. (fay@loosetorque.com)


Adobe: Photoshop 5.0,

Illustrator 7.0 (www.adobe.com).

Macromedia: Freehand 8.0, Extreme 3D (www.macromedia.com).

Corel: CorelDRAW 7.0 (www.corel.com).

Deneba: Canvas 5.0 (www.deneba.com).

Metacreations: Painter 5.0, Bryce 3D. Painter 3D, Poser 3.0, Infini-D 4.5, Ray Dream Studio. (www.metacreations.com).

Maxon: Cinema 4D (www.cinema4D.com).

Kinetix: 3D Studio (ktx.com)

General graphics information: www.3dartist.com & www.3dsite.com

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