The R&D of CGI

Innovation is crucial to the “perpetual aesthetic arms race” of visual effects. So how do CGI companies make sure they continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible?

Technological innovation comes thick and fast in the world of CGI, but to thrive in the field, companies need to do more than keep up with the latest software releases. Research and development is crucial to offer the best creative executions and push truly innovative creative work. “As a business we are driven by a competitive capitalist need to innovate. It is critical that we keep things moving forward so that we prosper in the perpetual aesthetic arms race,” is how Tom Painter, director at Brighton-based Bigman, puts it.

His company is not the only one in this particular race, and others put equally as much emphasis on R&D. At Saddington Baynes, for example, innovation has been woven into the business for some time, with the company setting up its SBLab as an umbrella arm for its development projects. It showcases the company’s work and creates experimental briefs that support its commercial projects while promoting a culture of inspiration within the team.

“Some of the best pieces in our portfolio are very often self-started pieces that we have done to push ourselves,” explains Saddington Baynes partner and creative director James Digby-Jones. “You don’t always get the most cutting-edge ideas from your clients – because often those ideas are formed from things that have been done before; or ideas are developed without taking much risk.”

The impetus to research comes from a number of different directions, he adds. For example, the team might notice groupings of a certain challenge in incoming client briefs, enough to warrant further investigation. If there is enough of a demand for it, says Digby-Jones, the company might spend some of its own time on developing new solutions. Alternatively, there might be niche areas worth exploring further.

“These projects are investments,” adds Digby-Jones. “Any time we allocate to R&D is an investment, which we hope will pay off, and also an investment in the artist to allow them to explore their own abilities.” For example, the company has been developing CG liquids for a number of years, and the early test pieces have led to high profile campaigns, such as last year’s project for Chase Bank, which included animation and print images for its new Chase Liquid Card campaign.

The company aims to commit a minimum of 10% of its artists’ time to R&D projects. “We try to create a balance between commercial and development work,” says Digby-Jones. “It allows us to hone our skills and do something not done before – also to do something we’ve already been doing, but faster.”

R&D is all about “pushing the boundaries”, agrees Christoph Bolten, creative director at Recom Farmhouse. “Also, for the CGI artists it’s a lot more fun to work on projects like that; they love the freedom of playing a little and not having a client breathing down their neck.”
Recom Farmhouse tends to have one such development project on the boil at any point, but fits them around its commercial projects. Per year, it does around four, says Bolten. “Sometimes they are really time intensive, and it depends on how busy we are.”

One recent project grew from the beta release of the software Fracture FX that offered different fracture and shattering effects. Recom Farmhouse approached their longstanding collaborator Holger Pooten, and together created complex shattering images – impressive additions to the portfolios of both photographer and Recom.

At Bigman, R&D usually starts with a creative idea that cannot be realised with existing software, says Painter. “The majority of CGI artists use the same off-the-shelf software supplied by a handful of monolithic north American corporations, and if we rely too heavily on these common tools we risk our work taking on a certain homogeneous look. Coding is a great way to liberate ourselves from these restrictions and to find our own unique voice as a studio.”

Once again, development there is self-initiated. “The average commission we receive from ad agencies rarely has the kind of relaxed schedules where we can sensibly implement risky and unproven experimental R&D technologies,” he explains. “We incubate our R&D projects over the long term, fitting them in around live productions until they are mature enough that we decide we can make the leap to a successful deployment on a client production.”

One such project has just come to fruition, with Bigman launching its new Pollock software. Developed over a year – with Painter able to spend only intermittent time on it – the software takes a left-field approach to the classic method of rendering a 3D scene, representing visual information in much the same way that a painter would, he explains. It can make a variety of marks, such as dot stipple, cross hatch or careful shading, but also has a very detailed knowledge of the 3D scene. “We are very excited by the commercial opportunities presented by Pollock,” says Painter.

But not all development work needs to be self-initiated. At Happy Finish, R&D usually arises “from a client asking for something near impossible”, according to its 3D Max specialist Simon Allan. “We then find a way to make it happen.” In fact, all projects, commercial or personal, require a certain amount of R&D, reckons Matt Painter, Happy Finish Modo expert. “It usually comes out of trying to push the envelope, perhaps truly mastering something that seemed challenging before. Most artists have an itch they come back to scratch. And with technology ever improving, yesterday’s headache turns into tomorrow’s solution.”

Mark Grosvenor, managing director at Tag Creative and Smoke & Mirrors Design, says a lot of R&D work can be self-initiated, “for PR and sales purposes – or sometimes just because we can”, but agrees that much development also happens on client jobs. He adds, though, that “most advancements are made on projects that are charity jobs”, essentially for a reduced fee. “It’s about the creative team and agency getting something made,” he explains. “Something that the client doesn’t necessarily want to pay for, which usually means it’s a risk and something that is challenging, and usually means that at the end of it comes really good work.”

Often these projects are also good PR for the company, he adds. “It’s a lot easier to get well credited for something, if you’re doing it for a lower fee, because you can place more demands on the client.”

For example, ten years ago, Smoke & Mirrors took on a project for Penguin Books. It presented a great opportunity to explore the CGI rendering of fur, in a poster that showed the evolution of monkey to man. The team created all the ape characters in CGI and blended some real photography for the man element. “It was produced for a minimal budget over two months, and really pushed our skills,” says Grosvenor.

More recently, it created a series of images, commissioned by Saatchi & Saatchi in collaboration with photographer John Parker for Voltaren. The challenge in the image was producing distorted camera angles while retaining photographic integrity, and everything was shot ‘for real’ and then remapped onto CG models. The series was produced for no fee, “with creative awards in mind”, says Grosvenor – and won a silver at Cannes.

Collaborating with photographers or directors is another way for CGI artists to keep innovating and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Recom Farmhouse, for example, has done a lot of development work with Pooten (such as the shattering images), and also recently worked on a series of images of smashed up vintage cars with Hamburg and LA-based photographer Markus Wendler. It allowed the CGI artists to experiment with all sorts of ageing effects, and as cars are one of Recom’s specialist areas, it was a great opportunity to drive its work in that niche forward.

Happy Finish, meanwhile, was recently approached by photographer Todd Antony to help him realise a dystopian vision of New York, in the series Too Big To Fail. Realism and subtlety in the execution and overall grade of the image was key, and the project’s concept and creative execution pushed the boundaries of what Happy Finish does.
That constant striving for amelioration and creative experimentation is essentially what drives all R&D. After all, any CGI is only as good as the artists that wield the software, rather than the tech releases that hit the market every month. “It’s about the powerful tool in the hand of the right artist,” says Digby-Jones. “And it’s what that person is able to conceive.”

Those that conceive and create the most impressive results are often within tiny companies or even developing by themselves, Bolten points out. He cites Alex Roman, a one-man CGI developer who impressed the industry with his photorealistic film The Third & The Seventh.

“This guy really pushed what photorealism means,” says Bolten. “The tiny companies often produce the most [ground-breaking] work, but they often do not have the time restraints. But we’re trying to create that atmosphere here.”

In fact, when it comes to R&D, that atmosphere of creative freedom – or “an ethos of honouring imagination”, as Digby-Jones calls it – seems to be the force that drives innovation above all.


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