Down to the wire

CG technology is totally revolutionising the way that print ads are created, but while its use solves problems, will it be to the detriment of the images? asks Sean Ashcroft

Paper supplanting stone as the substrate of choice. Caxton’s press. The emergence of Photoshop. The creative timeline is marked by historic developments in technology that revolutionised techniques, processes and relationships, and that for a time affected the balance between creativity and technology.

While the emerging use of CGI in print advertising might fall shy of historic status, its affect is challenging and changing long-held beliefs and creative practises.

CG’s role in the mainstream creation of moving images dates from 1973 (when it made its feature debut in the sci-fi flick Westworld) but in print, CG technology has been unable to deliver the billboard-sized photo-realistic images that advertising creatives demand. Now, its increasing use is beginning to change everything – photographers are shooting automotive ads with no vehicles, CGI is replacing traditional product studio shoots, and relationships between photographers, CG artists and art directors are rapidly becoming redefined.

In no area are these changes more marked than in automotive advertising, with the move to CG being driven by the car manufacturers themselves. “The CAD data used to tool the car is available to us the minute the car hits the production line,” says Chris Christodoulou, director of Saddington & Baynes, a London-based retouching and CGI specialist. “It means advertising material is ready before a car leaves the production line, instead of waiting for it to roll off and only then organising photoshoots.”

The automotive photoshoot is becoming something of a misnomer because, increasingly, photographers are shooting backgrounds only, into which a CG-generated vehicle is later dropped. The photo-realism is generated using data from a high dynamic range image (HDRI) that captures the lighting and object information needed to make for realistic reflections in the CG car – a process unavailable until recently, explains Christodoulou.

“Changes in new photographic techniques that developed out of forensic photography enable us to capture a 360-degree environment shot of where the car would be, so you can reflect it back into the 3D car. This is where the problems were before. People tried to put three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional photographic backgrounds that didn’t have any information on what was around that object.”

Shooting this way demands much of photographers, and many are taking to CG with gritted teeth. “Photographers come to us with different levels of enthusiasm,” says Ben Taylor, director of creative retouching studio Act Two. “Some approach us quite reluctantly because they see this is the way it’s going and that they don’t have much choice, while others are more enthusiastic. There’s a strange relationship between CGI artists and photographers on this one at the moment. As technology speeds up, the process will become easier and easier. It’s not brilliant news for traditional car photographers.”

Particularly not photographers specialising in studio shoots, because here CG has the potential to eliminate the need for photographers altogether. “With regards to studio photography I like to think CG won’t completely take the bread out of photographers’ mouths,” says photographer Richard Prescott (www.richardprescott.com), a leading exponent of CG who works closely with Saddington & Baynes. “I like to think a good CG house will work with an experienced set of eyes to help them create the correct camera angles and to use the right virtual lenses and lighting to produce a final image. I can see photographers becoming more like directors of photography.”

Discussing CG vehicle location shoots, Prescott stresses that experience is more important than technological know-how. “One needs the ability to create a final image in your head prior to shooting the backdrop,” he explains, “so when you research a location you’re picturing the car and angles prior to creating the background plate and the HDRI. When capturing the HDRI image you’re visualising the light and reflections on the car. It comes from having an expert and experienced eye.”

CG automotive shoots are also hugely cost effective, a factor that will see it become the process of choice for agencies and manufacturers alike. “On a CG shoot there’ll be the photographer, an assistant, the art director and perhaps the client,” says Prescott. “Using traditional methods to create car pictures it’s not unusual to have a crew of 16 people, including three assistants, drivers to take the vehicles to the location and car prep people.”
The automotive industry is in the CG vanguard, but other sectors are catching on, meaning quality CAD data is being made ever-more available to agencies. “There was always a disconnect between the engineering and design parts of a company and its marketing people,” says Christodoulou. “Certain companies have now realised that these should work closer together.”

“CG is becoming more prevalent in print advertising,” confirms Taylor. “Everything from cars through to aeroplanes and razors.” Act Two’s razor campaign was for Gillette, who surprised the agency by providing a high-quality wireframe of its product. “Normally they’d give us a real razor, ask us if we could make it from scratch, then express surprise at the cost, because there’s little appreciation of just how complex and time-consuming it is to reproduce a complicated product in this way,” says Taylor. “People at the agencies are wising up to this now, and know if they can obtain a good wireframe of the object they want to advertise it saves quite a lot of money.”
Christodoulou says mobile-phone companies are among those embracing this new approach. “CAD data for a new phone is re-usable for the life of that phone. They can send it to five different CG houses around the world for different campaigns. They don’t have to send five phones out for five shoots and then get it retouched five times to ensure uniformity.” 

Christodoulou adds that companies are realising CG is also sympathetic to multi-channel campaigns: “The big draw for a client is you have a piece of data that can be used across all media. It can be used to create content for iPods, mobile phones and for interactive, as well as print and TV.”

But support for CG in print is not universal among senior agency creatives. Bartle Bogle Hegarty head of art Mark Reddy decries the “dead hand” of CG.
“The purpose of making any image is to make something that has distinction, power, idiosyncrasy and originality,” says Reddy. “Good photographers charge between £5000 and £25,000 a day because they are makers of iconic images that are memorable. Nothing can beat the eye of a photographer and the veracity of an image that has been created in reality. I don’t go to someone who sits at a Mac in a studio cobbling together bits and pieces.”
Reddy concedes that “it is possible to create great CGI images” but believes “there aren’t many people who can do it”. “It’s like design,” he adds, “where there are designers and there are Mac monkeys. CGI is just another tool – another way of making an image. The trouble is it can be in the hands of someone who knows how to make an image, or in the hands of someone who doesn’t.”

Ben Taylor agrees that sometimes there is a creative cost with CGI. “As the [CG] process has become easier and a lot less expensive in recent years so there’s been an explosion in the number of CG houses, but just because someone can pick up a brush and put paint on a canvas doesn’t make them a good painter. There’s a lot of average work out there.”

He adds: “Making sure there’s not a creative cost involves getting inside the creative’s head, and not being afraid to have a strong visual opinion. If a creative comes in with an idea we’ll quite often have five or six other visual ideas, and they might take an element of one or more. You get a slightly different creative process going on.”

The disadvantage, says Taylor, is that creatives are more used to dealing with photographers “who have a certain look and kudos” than CG artists.
“There’s a learning curve for all parties,” he says. “One of the disadvantages [for art directors] is not being able to go on shoots and see how the car looks. They have to have a bit more faith in the rear end of the process. But creatives are now getting used to working with CGI artists, and are giving us the same creative freedom that they give photographers.”

Taylor believes CG houses can also help nourish the creative talent of CG artists through thoughtful managing of workflows. “As far as possible we’ll give a project to a single CG artist, so they come to own it and put their style and artistry into it. We’re trying to avoid becoming an image factory.”
It is the creative possibilities of CG that Christodoulou points to when reassuring advertising agencies of CG’s worth. “The thing we’ve tried to stress to creatives is that CG frees up the creative process – there are probably a million great ideas that never made it past the ideas stage because they were too expensive to produce, or too impractical. You can tell better stories creatively, and this is what we’re advocating for CGI.”
Christodoulou adds: “We got into this because of the potential for great creativity that isn’t possible through current traditional methods. That’s where we feel the power is.”

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