According to Deleuze, we all live in the realm of cliché which is like an umbrella sheltering us from an infinite realm of meaningless chaos. When art moves us on a bodily level and disrupts our perceptual habits, it punctures a hole in the umbrella and lets a little chaos shine through (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994).
20th-century painter, Francis Bacon knew this intuitively. He wanted his paintings to “bypass the brain” and be “more poignant than illustration” (Sylvester, 1975: 17). To achieve this, he used the messiness of paint to disrupt his own habits and avoid pictorial conventions. Encouraging drips, splashes, and accidental marks, he clearly valued a painter’s capacity to respond as much as their ability to control. According to Bacon, what made Rembrandt a great painter was his “profound sensibility, which was able to hold onto one irrational mark rather than onto another” (Sylvester, 1975: 58). Like painting, animation can communicate on a level below cognition. Like other artists, animators can puncture the umbrella. Automated animation tools can confine us to the realm of cliché, but they can also help us avoid it. The crucial difference lies in our “profound sensibility” – our capacity to see, feel, and respond.
I started my career as a painter and have worked as a 3D animator for 20 years. During this time, I have experienced the trend toward automation across various toolsets including lighting and shading (where PBR rendering is now ubiquitous), modeling and rigging (check out “MetaHuman” for Unreal Engine!), and the simulation of natural phenomena (the variety, complexity, and efficiency of current solvers are amazing). Another big change has been an increase in proceduralism including prebuilt systems such as “off-the-shelf” tree, forest, or landscape generators, as well as the ability to build custom systems using node-based programming. This post uses examples of the latter to discuss dangers and opportunities arising from the general trend toward automation. Specifically, I focus on user-built procedural systems made with Sidefx Houdini, a 3D animation and FX package renowned for its procedural architecture.
What is a Proceduralism? – Whether modeling, simulating, or animating characters, procedural workflows feel very different from more traditional “linear” approaches. It is basically the difference between creating a single item (linear) vs creating a system for creating various items (procedural). As an example, a linear approach might use polygon modeling or sculpting techniques to make a table, while a procedural approach uses node-based coding to create a system for making tables (or for making furniture, as in Figure 2). The linear approach is quicker but it is not as flexible and it is not scalable. More pertinent to this post, proceduralism promotes particular qualities of practice relevant to the theme of response (some of these are listed below).
Attending to relationships – More than linear workflows, Procedural workflows promote attention to relationships. For example, building Procedural Furniture provoked questions like, what properties are shared by all tables? What makes a table distinct from a set of drawers? Proceduralism also promotes attention to relationships within a scene. Populating a room with my Procedural Furniture I can quickly change the shape of one item while seeing it in relation to another. I can also make changes to the tool which propagate to all items simultaneously.
Noticing small changes that change everything – Bacon suggests that to avoid cliché we need to notice how localized changes alter the work as a whole. He says, “moving – even unconsciously moving – the brush one way rather than the other will completely alter the implications of the image” (Sylvester, 1975, p. 121). He is talking about subtle shifts that make a significant difference when seen in context. I have encountered these subtleties as a painter and 2D animator but it is harder to notice them as a 3D animator because we traditionally build individual components and add them together at the end. Proceduralism can help because it allows us to see changes in context and in real-time. For example, I have recently discovered how to make topology changes to an animated character with immediate feedback (Figure. 3).
Developing a feel for materials – There are approaches to 3D modeling that feel intuitive like using clay; procedural modeling isn’t one of them. It requires an understanding of core CG concepts including data types and coordinate systems and is, therefore, a great way to become familiar with the “stuff” of 3D i.e., the recipes and calculations behind the interface. This is like becoming intimate with paint, brushes, and palette knives and not using colors straight from the tube.
Responding to surprises – Painters use the agency of paint to disrupt their own expectations and habits in subtle and profound ways. Similarly, animators can use procedural systems to disrupt theirs. It takes longer to create a procedural system than to create a one-off item but, once created, you can generate countless variations including some that surprise. You can manually adjust parameters, or they can be randomized to automatically generate variations. Building your own system is like designing a space to play. (It is interesting to note that the capacity to easily generate an infinite number of clearly labeled variations makes proceduralism a powerful partner in machine learning).
3D animation sits within a broader digital landscape where algorithmic forces create a powerful pull toward cliché. Because they work with an algorithmic medium, 3D animators are uniquely placed to investigate and divert these forces in their own work. Embracing the agency of algorithmic tools while honing the capacity to respond will become an increasingly important skill, for independent experimental animators as well as 3D artists in commercial studios.
Deleuze, G., and Guattari, F. (1994). What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press.
Sylvester, D. (1975). Interviews with Francis Bacon (first edition). London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Dr. Gina Moore began her career as a painter, sculptor, and illustrator and worked for many years as a 3D animator in the advertising industry before entering academia in 2017. She is a lecturer in the School of Design at RMIT University, Melbourne. Her practice, teaching, and research are focused on 3D animation and visual effects, virtual and augmented reality.