Wednesday, August 8, 2012

SIGGRAPH 2012, first courses

I'm here attending SIGGRAPH 2012 with a full conference pass and as usual, there is more to do and see than I can possible fit in each day. I need to make a few clones of myself. I'm a bit behind on a daily report of sights and events but here goes.
The conference kicked off on Sunday for those who were attending courses. I attended a course "Matte Painting Through the Ages." The presenter was Craig Barron, the author of  The Invisible Art. The Invisible Art is a large, beautiful book about matte painting originally published in 2002. (I'd recommend it to everyone but for its shocking sticker price of $500. Yes I didn't misplace a 0, that's $500 for a new one, though you can find a used one for around $150). The course covered quite alot but here are some of the highlights which stuck out to me.
One of the largest thoughts I took away was how much matte painting has been changing over the years, until it has transformed into very little painting in the traditional sense at all. "Painted" today doesn't mean what "painted" used to to the matte painter of yester-year. Clearly artists today use the computer, but they do not use paint programs but rather edit and manipulate photographs - combining them, color correcting them, doing some paint over maybe but not illustrating from scratch. An illustration from scratch just doesn't have the level of realism required by today's audiences. Go Photoshop.
Even more, however, while in the early years, matte painting was literally large paintings placed behind the actors to extend the set or make them look like they were in another environment, today most set extension is done with digital sets. As the speaker traversed the years, as he came to modern times he spoke of digital set extension, of modeling (in 3D) environments and rendering them with global illumination or "baking in" the look of global illumination. ("Baking in" means painting those lighting effects directly into the textures themselves.) The speaker felt that the future of matte painting was to create 3D environments with computer graphics. At the present time, he added, the budget isn't there so sometimes they are 3D environments, other times painted. When I think about this, however, I have to think about how the artists who make full CG 3D set extensions and backgrounds are modelers, texture painters, shading artists, and lighters. So to the extend that the background is a fully realized 3D set and not a flat image, the matte painter is out of a job really. But those working in the industry know this, which is why fewer traditional matte painters (if any) are needed on most shows.
What is around and what will no doubt stay around is a hybrid approach in which a "painted" image (an image crafted primarily from photo-manipulation) is projected onto simplified geometry in a 3D scene. The advantage of this is that the camera can move and the various background elements will have parallax. You'd be surprised just how far you can take this too, before things start to fall apart and the illusion is revealed. This approach isn't new - ILM was doing this back in The Phantom Menace (1999).

A surprising discovery for me however was just how related matte painting is to lighting. Of course, when pointed out it seems rather obvious but not being a matte painter myself, I always thought their concerns rather different from mine, but it turns out there is much in common. The speaker often pointed out how the matte painter was concerned with how light moved in the image - the time of day, the angle of the light. Other concerns were related to lighting - the mood created, and most importantly, how the image helped to tell the story (it is all about the story isn't it). Similar to the digital lighter, the matte painter has to understand how things look in the real world, such as how atmospheric haze affects the appearance of things. Also the recommendations Craig Barron made to aspiring matte painters are exactly the same ones I would make to aspiring digital lighters:
Study traditional paintings, such as painters from the Renaissance and the Impressionist movement. Study nature; we are behind monitors too much - get outside more. Develop traditional art skills like painting and drawing (even if you don't have to paint or draw that much). Make sure you understand color, color theory, and composition.

My two favorite quotes from the lecture:
"Our job is to help the director tell the story. We are not there to attract attention to the visual effect."
"It is imperative to get on location and to get away from the computer."

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