“Talent cannot be taught, but skill can.”
Advances in digital technology
In the past decade digital technology has become inherently involved in almost every artistic creation. Artists use computers at various stages of their work, employing them for diverse tasks. Even if the final work is not directly connected with digital technology, various software can be used to communicate with other artists or collaborators, organize the creative process, gather resources, or publish the artistic outcomes.
Many professionals have had to reinvent the way they work or to convert to a completely different specialization. Their methods of seeking inspiration and developing a concept have also had to be adjusted so that they use the benefits of technological progress. It is possible nowadays to create films and animations without computers, but it is completely impractical. Books can also be published manually, by means of letterpress printing, but it is much easier to use desktop publishing software. However, there are some art domains, such as web-art, video-performance or extended reality, where it is impossible to create without digital technology. Thanks to dynamic development of digital technologies and increased affordability of both hardware and software, digital tools which were once beyond the reach of an ordinary artist are now available for everyone.
Traditional practice and emergent technologies
Every time a new technology appears, people try to use it in an old-fashioned way and to describe it with existing terminology. A good example is photography, which has finally developed into an independent art form, but was initially treated as another emanation of painting. Pictorialists tried to apply traditional painting or drawing techniques in the first darkrooms, while developing prints and films. This approach also started the debate on the relationship between a technical and an artistic aspect of the medium.
A similar situation has occurred recently in relation to the new media and extended reality. People try to adopt old patterns to new circumstances, while contemporary challenges require a new approach. The attempt to connect the old and the new allows the general public to grasp a new technology and to make it more accessible to use from the very beginning, but it also imposes rigid limits on the scope of its possible applications. As Murch points out, during the transitional period after introducing the new technology the means of communicating the content are more perceptible than the content itself.
Only after some time, after the complete assimilation of the new technology, does the content regain its primary position. New technologies very often offer a new way of telling an old story. The rapid development of digitalization in the mid-90s brought about a new phenomenon. Computers provided a common platform which facilitated the process of spreading specialist software used in one artistic field into other activities. Various software techniques were employed in different fields of art.
One example is the possibilities enabled by NURBS curves. They were primarily developed for the automotive industry and then improved in Maya, VFX software. When architects started to use 3D software originally designed for film special effects, the logic of the animated form entered architectural thinking. It led to an aesthetic and intellectual revolution and engendered a new expressive language.
Animation software conceptualizes form as being inherently and infinitely variable. New techniques of modeling pushed architectural thinking away from rectangular modernist geometry and toward the privileging of smooth and complex forms made from continuous curves. Another example of the impact of a new tool on the language of creation is the evolution of digital sculpting. It has emerged as a result of the development of ZBrush. In the beginning, ZBrush was only an extended painting tool, differing from other painting programs only because it could understand depth. While most 2D programs treat the working space as a grid of pixels, ZBrush uses a propertiary “pixol” technology which contains additional information on depth and material. It was described as the first painting program where you use a traditional 2D brush to paint with fully rendered 3D objects. This advantage was not so revolutionary until someone discovered that one of its tools, a polymesh tool, is ideally suited for 3D sculptings in a sort of virtual clay. This new application opened utterly new possibilities for CGI artists, jewelers, traditional sculptors, etc. It enabled several new specializations in the film industry and created the original art domain of digital sculpting.
Visual effects are a specific type of tools within the digital creation group. They can be used in a similar way as other tools, and choosing a particular tool is like choosing between gouache and charcoal.
In the twentieth-century, the role of the cinema was to capture and to store a visible reality. Now the reality can be constructed outside the film image. New picture editing possibilities offered by computers bring all visual techniques down to the most basic element, that of a pixel. For the viewer it does not matter how the pixel was made, and this actually equates the real world with the computer-created one. During the transition from celluloid film to digital filmmaking, the medium has lost its permanence. VFX department is seen as a distinctive symbol of this transition but this lies beyond the scope of my artistic research.
It seems crucial for modern art to embrace digital techniques to create a bridge between different specializations, not only on the level of technology, but also on a higher level in general.
Computer-generated effects are such a creative instrument of communication with the audience. Their primary aim is to tell an amazing story. As the power of digital tools has exploded exponentially, the departments that were once separated have become more consolidated with full digital environments, sets, characters, and visual effects. Visual effects artists sitting at the computer are becoming increasingly responsible for carrying out those tasks by means of knowledge, technical ability, and skills offered by the new technology.
Storytelling and triggering emotions play a crucial role in many contemporary art forms, but CGI can leave little to the imagination. This drawback is caused by the repeatability of frequently chosen approaches, by lack of ingenuity or by mismatching the means of expression. If visual effects are successful, they may add to the cinematic experience some of the charm of a magic show. But, just as in magic shows, the audience gets used to the tricks of magicians.
Integrating new technologies
Contemporary technologies allow for developing unique solutions. They might become a source of inspiration for a whole team. Virtual Reality can be treated as a final medium of distribution or as a tool for solving creative problems. It can be employed for exploring distant, less accessible locations, or it can be used to create new, imaginary ones. Being able to see simplified three-dimensional models of a space can bring additional inspiration or help to plan a spatial solution for the scene. This feature is particularly useful for building a new world, concrete or abstract, during the development of an environment which does not exist in reality. Last but certainly not least, technology can be used for the creation of a new and exciting visual language.
In my teaching, I incorporate the above ideas and approach to art and technology. I believe that talent cannot be taught, but skill can. I view learning by doing as essential, and I prefer to work with small seminar and workshop groups where possible – and I am happy to work with students of different skills and discipline levels, focusing on the content of a particular module.
However, I am also of the view that theory and context are an important part of an artist’s education, and am happy to deliver lectures as appropriate – though my method is always visually based as far as possible. I think it is the duty of the tutor to assimilate theoretical and historical material and communicate it to students in a language they can understand. I don’t believe in forcing information upon students, but in offering it in digestible portions, as attractively packaged as possible. But every institution has its own culture and ethos, and I enjoy both bringing my own approaches and adapting to the particular culture in which I am teaching. Because I work professionally as a creative technologist, I am very used to directing my own knowledge, skills and artistic talents towards developing and supporting a variety of work by a range of people: I very much enjoy the challenge of nurturing students and their projects without imposing my own tastes and practices upon them, instead eliciting their core ideas and aspirations, helping individuals to find their own vision and voice.
Dr Rafal Hanzl