Saint John Walker

The VFX course leader dis­cusses how to best build skills

3D Artist - - CONTENTS - Saint John Walker VFX course leader at Nor­wich Univer­sity of the Arts nua.ac.uk/bavfx

The Nor­wich Univer­sity of the Arts VFX course leader dis­cusses the im­por­tance of skill build­ing

Univer­si­ties should stop ob­sess­ing over sto­ry­telling and start teach­ing world­build­ing skills, says Saint John Walker of Nor­wich Univer­sity of the Arts

it’s said that when Rus­sian ruler Cather­ine the Great made a grand tour of the Ukraine in 1787 down the

River Dnieper, prince Grig­ory potemkin was so keen to im­press her that he or­dered fake vil­lage fa­cades to be erected along the banks com­plete with peas­ants act­ing out cha­rades of in­dus­tri­ous­ness. This vis­ual pro­pa­ganda masked the poverty of his mis­rule and, so the story goes, fooled the monarch.

These days, potemkin, with his in­dis­putable skills of or­gan­i­sa­tion and vis­ual de­cep­tion, could find a place to work in the film in­dus­try. Those of us in­volved in vis­ual ef­fects can in­creas­ingly be thought of as world builders, cre­at­ing vis­ually de­tailed 3D spa­ces for ac­tion or sto­ries to take place in.

His­tor­i­cally, VFX and ‘fool­ing the eye’ have both been given a bum rap when used be­yond film and tele­vi­sion, es­pe­cially when they’ve been em­ployed by politi­cians like (but cer­tainly not lim­ited to) potemkin. They’ve of­ten been utilised in pro­pa­ganda – for ex­am­ple, the re­cent pho­to­shopped im­ages of cloned north Korean mis­siles tak­ing off. How­ever, the time has come to ap­praise the idea of us­ing VFX and world-build­ing skills in the real world, out­side of en­ter­tain­ment, as a force for good.

We tend to priv­i­lege nar­ra­tive in to­day’s world of me­dia ed­u­ca­tion – af­ter all, it’s a big deal. We moan about how poor we thought the story was as we emerge from the cin­ema or dis­cuss the plot and story arcs fea­tured in episodic tele­vi­sion. We’re start­ing to un­der­stand how the sto­ries we tell af­fect how we see the world, with their moral­ity and char­ac­ter re­wards.

in 1985, Ali­son Bechdel for­mu­lated the idea that any film that fea­tures at least two women can be an­a­lysed to see if they talk to each other about any­thing other than a man. This ob­ser­va­tion be­came known as the Bechdel test, and even to­day you’ll be sur­prised how few films pass the chal­lenge. While this is not an in­di­ca­tor of qual­ity or how well a film is made, it does re­veal some com­mon un­der­pin­nings in our stan­dard cin­ema sto­ries.

i think it’s time for us to move our main at­ten­tion away from sto­ries, which don’t al­ways tend to unite us in a com­mon shared world any­more and some­times even ex­ac­er­bate our dif­fer­ences. in­stead, we should be­gin to think more about build­ing imag­i­na­tive dig­i­tal worlds or spa­ces where peo­ple can create their own tales. But this will be harder than you might think.

our imag­i­na­tion is slowly be­ing in­vaded and stunted by brands. Science fic­tion is a par­tic­u­larly use­ful genre to en­cour­age de­bate about where we are col­lec­tively go­ing through the lens of where we are now but i’ve no­ticed just how hard it is for VFX stu­dents to­day to think be­yond the in­ven­tory of the pow­er­ful screen im­agery that they con­sume on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Given the choice, VFX stu­dents will of­ten de­sign and build dystopian, post-apoc­a­lyp­tic scenes or im­agery of eco­log­i­cal col­lapse, which are usu­ally im­i­ta­tions of cer­tain cin­e­matic science fic­tion themes. They draw on Blade Run­ner’s rain and neon, or the to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism of The

Hunger Games, or the waste­lands of Mad Max. How­ever, this isn’t en­tirely sur­pris­ing as think­ing up a con­vinc­ing and op­ti­mistic new world that has its own logic takes a con­sid­er­able amount of mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary think­ing, and world build­ing as a method­ol­ogy has never re­ally been taught at school. in our small way at nor­wich Univer­sity of the Arts, we are look­ing at how we can create new worlds to bring about change. For in­stance, we are work­ing with the Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Lon­don on a project to save South China’s en­dan­gered Hainan gib­bon by cre­at­ing im­agery to raise aware­ness of its plight. We’re re-imag­in­ing its world and pre­sent­ing 3D im­ages to the com­mu­ni­ties that live among it, as well as in­ter­na­tional ecol­ogy groups. it’s an in­verse potemkin vil­lage show­ing the world as it is, us­ing VFX to create a vi­sion of the gib­bon’s world that will be able to change hearts and minds. it’s about cre­at­ing a world where sto­ries and myths about the gib­bons can be re­mem­bered and re­told.

now is ex­actly the time that we need to en­cour­age world build­ing as a 21st-cen­tury skill to de­sign new imag­i­na­tive spa­ces and re­claim a vi­sion of what our fu­ture could be and to make world build­ing the new sto­ry­telling and this isn’t merely an aca­demic ex­er­cise.

now more than ever we need world builders and so­cial ar­chi­tects to imag­ine new ways in which we can live to­gether. Gov­ern­ments around the globe are start­ing to imag­ine smart cities as more of the world’s pop­u­la­tion gath­ers in conur­ba­tions, and these cities need re-imag­in­ing by artists and de­sign­ers. With the threat and prom­ise of driver­less cars, the in­ter­net of things and com­pet­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence bots, we need to de­sign these spa­ces, imag­ine new ways of liv­ing, and let the pop­u­la­tion live out their own sto­ries in them.

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