Photographers will move into CGI, they’ll have no choice,” says leading car photographer Carl Lyttle. First used in the movie industry then picked up by architects in computer-aided design, computer-generated imagery hit car advertising about five years ago. It’s now being used to advertise everything from mobile phones to holidays, and photographers are only too aware of the fact. “We’re fast approaching the tipping point,” says Lyttle. “Those photographers who aren’t moving into 3D won’t be around in three or four years.”
Why is CGI so popular? The answer is simple – control. Car advertisers first picked it up because it meant they didn’t have to send expensive prototypes on unpredictable, costly shoots, but they soon discovered other advantages. From exactly specifying the visuals to being able to manipulate them, the plus points were clear and they quickly drew in other advertisers. At this stage, the products involved tended to be made of render-friendly materials such as glass or metal, and had usually been designed with cad files, which could be reconfigured as CGI. Now, with technology and know-how improving, organic objects, locations and sets are also becoming increasingly popular.
CGI specialists Saddington & Baynes recently pushed the boundaries by creating a photorealistic piglet for high-resolution print, for example. An boundary-breaking in-house research project, it took three weeks in total – intensive but, as managing director Chris Christodoulou points out, still easier than shooting a piglet and getting it to smile. And once created, it could be reposed multiple times and animated. Saddington & Baynes is also working on a project for a London ad agency to create a realistic human face, something Christodoulou describes as the ‘Holy Grail’ of CGI and which has been researched by the movie world for years. “You would think that with all the people in the world it would be easier to shoot someone but we get asked by agencies all the time, eager to avoid the issue of model release fees,” he says. “With CGI you could design exactly the person you wanted. There’s an incredible amount of work to be done in CGI, both for print and interactive media. We’ve been working with it for five years and we’ve only scratched the surface.”
The changes have lead to an interesting turnaround in the industry’s structure. Where once art buyers turned to photographers for artwork, and photographers brought in retouchers, art buyers are now increasingly cutting the photographer out of the equation says Glen Taylor, managing director of Taylor James, a creative production studio that evolved from a highly respected retouching house. “When the company was established, over 10 years ago, all of our work came from photographers,” he says. “Today, photographer-led projects are only a small portion of our workload.
We are commissioned directly by art buyers or producers. Within our firm, the position of Creative Lead works one-on-one with agency creatives, acting as the photographer when working on a print campaign or as the director on an animated feature.”
It sounds bleak for ad photography but there is still a place for it. Some images will always lend themselves to straight photography while others rely on photographic elements to create convincing results. Lyttle is banking on the latter, having set up the Moofe image library with fellow advertising photographer Douglas Fisher and business brain Eoin O’Connor. Featuring landscapes and locations from around the world, Moofe’s images are purpose-shot for CGI, photographed from a variety of angles with a 3D ‘moofecube’ to help compositors to drop in elements. The images are also backed up with High Dynamic Range images, lighting data, and are colour calibrated and balanced. “We’re trying to provide an out-of-the-box experience,” says Lyttle, “because 3D by its nature is very complicated.”
Moofe’s attention to detail suggests photo-realism but 3D can also go in a different direction, creating fantastical, otherworldly objects and scenes. In this respect it takes its lead from illustration but, says Dr Eugenie Shinkle, senior lecturer in the department of photography and digital media at the University of Westminster, it may take a while before human imagination catches up with the technical potential. “The way we look at things is always shaped by broad cultural paradigms and they can take some time to evolve,” she comments. “In the case of landscapes, for example, we still rely on paradigms laid down in the 18th century. They have narrative structures governing the fore, middle and background and although CGI and virtual landscapes offer the potential to shape very different perceptions, we have yet to fully explore them. Computer games allow users to encounter landscapes in very different ways and quadruple that linear perspective, for example, but so far they haven’t really departed from it.”
Taylor James’ recent work for Tourism Ireland/JWT London hints at where things could go. A quasi-accurate 3D map of Ireland, it uses CGI to depart from a strictly realistic depiction of its geography, creating a new sense of perspective in which interesting regions and landmarks loom large as individual, though interrelated, microcosms. If you wanted to get highbrow, you could say it departs from modern conceptions of space to depict an updated sense of medieval ‘chora’, in which the world is a place of interrelated meanings not objects. At 20,000 pixels wide, each region can be printed at A4 for press advertising and the overall map is being used in print, billboards and digitally. “CGI was the only way we could create completely consistent maps of this scale, while maintaining the amount of flexibility and detail required,” says Taylor.
“The terrain was roughly modelled in 3DSMAX before we manually sculpted the land to our liking. Density maps were used for some renders such as defined hedgerows and trees, whilst some passes were just 100% vegetation, to be masked out in post-production. In all about 100 passes were rendered in Vue for each map, including masks and shadows, and with all the 3D elements literally hundreds of billions of polygons were used to create the images. We kept almost everything in separate layers for maximum flexibility and each map was created to 20,000 pixels, so that they could be used for a range of marketing material.”
For Taylor, maximising cgi is a question of education – as he points out, it’s hard for advertising agencies to push the technology when they don’t really know what it’s capable of. Admittedly, it’s a highly technical area. The main programmes – Maya and 3D Studio Max – are from Autodesk, a software company that dominates 3D imaging in much the same way that Adobe dominates 2D. They’re both complex, powerful programmes, and 3D designers also use a wealth of other programmes, many of which are useful for particular aspects of CGI. It’s a difficult field for any non-specialists to get a grip on, and even the specialists don’t know it all. “You need more people somehow for CGI,” says Christoph Bolten of Hackney-based cgi experts Recom Farmhouse. “There are three people in our UK office but 25 in Germany. No one person has all the competencies needed to create cgi – Maya alone would take a lifetime to fully learn.”
Other programmes are opening 3D visualisation up to non-experts though, and some are even doing so for free. “Maya is a pipeline tool but Bunkspeed’s HyperShot lets you see what you’re doing in real time,” says Douglas Fisher. “We wouldn’t use it for high-end images but it’s a useful way to see ideas. Google offers free 3D sketching, and even Photoshop has added a 3D element to CS4. These tools will get in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s where the industry will gain momentum.”
Taylor hopes this will help clients see the true potential of CGI, adding that it’s not just a case of replacing photography and illustration in traditional print campaigns. “Having created a 3D space, the camera can move anywhere around it, stop and pause,” he says. “When this content is presented online, people can really interact with the product or idea. Take Motorola City for example. We built a 3D city for a Motorola micro-site, which allows users to travel inside and explore an expansive world highlighting specific Motorola products.
The Tourism Ireland maps have a similar potential for animated interactivity, all from the same 3D assets as the print campaign.”
Taylor James worked on another interactive campaign recently, which approached CGI slightly differently. Commissioned by McConnells for O2, it used thousands of fans’ signatures to create images of rugby stars Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. “People were out on the Dublin streets with a digital pda collecting signatures, and throughout the Six Nations fans were constantly directed to the website,” says Taylor. “They could type in their name and see exactly where it appeared on the image. It was an interesting and innovative way of connecting with customers. People are communicating differently today: mixing new technology with great ideas is what really excites me about the future.”
His only worry is that the recession will halt progress, with agencies and clients forced to cut back and becoming wary of innovation. He points to CGI’s potential for pushing boundaries, creating more coherent brand identities and cutting costs. “The content that we create can be used in print, online and in broadcast, and that’s a huge advantage,” he says. “Traditionally ad agencies would have separated those disciplines and provided different content for each, which sometimes meant the media lacked synergy. CGI can help break that kind of thinking by solving those problems in a more integrated way.” CGI, it seems, isn’t just a sea change for photographers.
Diane Smyth is deputy editor of the British Journal of Photography.