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Programmers are Artists

I have always felt that a visual effects programmer is an artist using a programming language as a tool to produce amazing visual effects.  The following quotes have inspired me to hold to this belief. 

Writing software is the same kind of introverted, concentrated work that building models was.  It satisfies the same creative desire.  When I'm writing  a piece of software, it is craftsmanship--crafting this really complex and beautiful thing.
-- John Knoll, Co-Creator of Photoshop, ILM

When a spaceship is being designed, an artist will do a sketch of the ship and if George likes the general look of the design on paper, a 3D model will be built usually out of paper board.  It is important at this point to hold it in hand , rotate it and see what it looks like from all angles,  for it will of course be filmed from many angles and must look good from any view.  Again changes are usually made on prototypes before work begins on the final model .
-- Thomas G Smith in ILM: Art of Special Effects

If Thomas G Smith were instead talking of visual effects software development at ILM, he might have said:

When a software is being designed, a programmer will do a flowchart of the software and if George likes the general look of the design on paper, a prototype will be built usually out of an easy to program language like Java.  It is important at this point to run it immediately on the computer, test it and see how it responds to different types of inputs, for it will of course be used with different inputs during production, and it must work well in all cases.  Again changes are usually made on the prototypes before work begins on the final software.

If you are an artist, do it -- just practice, practice, practice.  Learn as much as you can, so that when the opportunity arises you can bring your work to the producer and really have something to show.  And always remember, in special effects art, the point is to make a scene work, not to show off your painting talent.  You never extra points for being a good artist, you get extra points for brining a scene to life.  Some matte artists, will look at a painting and say, Boy, that guy can really paint clouds.  But I'm not interested what he can paint.  The matte painter can only equal reality, never go one better than reality and anything less than reality is a failure.  It is not always possible to get a handle on the reality of  a scene.  Sometimes you never do.  But if this is the business you want to get into theres only one way to do it.  Make art and lots of it.

-- Harris Ellenshaw, Matte Painter, ILM

If Harris Ellenshaw where to advise a visual effects software developer like me, he would have said:

If you are a programmer, write programs -- just practice, practice, practice.  Learn as much as you can, so that when the opportunity arises you can bring you work to the producer and really have something to show.  And always remember, in special effects programming, the point is to make a scene work, not to show off your programming talent.   You never get extra points for being a good programmer, you get extra points for bringing the scene to life.  Some programmers will look at a software and say, Boy, that guy can really write object oriented programs.  But I'm not interested in what he can program.  The programmer can only solve the problem,  nothing more than that, and anything less than that is a failure. It is not always possible to get an handle on the problem you are trying to solve.  Sometimes you never do.  But if this is the business you want to get into theres only one way to do it.  Write programs and lots of it.

Michael Pangrazio can make a small photolike painting on white paperboard in less than an hour.  Though it looks like a miniature masterpiece he regards it as simply a working illustration.

. . . Lower this mountain line and enlarge that cloud . . . Pangrazio took the paintings and drew on them with a ball point pen, making the  rough changes requested.  This was not a theatrical display by the artist, the pictures were just working documents, not fine art.

. . . Artists working in motion pictures in general, and ILM in particular, must be willing to discard work and start all over again when changes are made in a film.  It is the finished film that matters, not its artifacts.
-- Thomas G Smith in ILM: Art of Special Effects

The greatest message in this quote is leave your EGO at home.    If Pangrazio were a visual effects programmer, the text might read:

Michael Pangrazio can make a small useful program in Java in less than an hour.   Though it works perfect and seems to require no improvement, he regards it simply as a working program. 

. . . Remove that text box and put it here . . . Pangrazio opened the source code in a text editor, yanked a few lines of code, added some more code, making the changes requested.  This was not a place to show that programs took long to develop, the programs were always evolving, not etched on stone.

. . . Programmers working in motion pictures in general, and ILM in particular, must be willing to discard work and start all over again when changes are made in a film.  It is the finished film that matters, not its artifacts. 

Design is intuitive.  You have to give people something interesting to look at.  If the eye has nothing to focus on, it will wander all over the place.  Its the designers job to lead the eye into the frame and show it where to look.
-- Joe Johnston, Art Director, ILM

Joe Johnston is talking about what Alan Cooper calls Goal Directed Software Design.   The software you write must help users achieve their goals.  If it doesn't, they will wander off  your software.  It is your job to lead them into your software and show them how to achieve their goals.  

Not only was it (the y-wing replica) an absolutely professional model in every sense, but Lorne Peterson who had worked on the original one used in Star Wars, said it was better than the (original) one given away to Alan Ladd Jr !
-- Thomas G Smith, ILM: Art of Special Effects

Many people think that developing something that exists already in some software is a sin.  I feel that if you can copy a technique and better it, you have done a great job.  

A Film is never made, it is abandoned
-- George Lucas

In ILM, we have a saying "It never gets done.  You are out of time"
-- Kevin Rafferty, Digital Effects Supervisor, Dragonheart

A software to me is a work of art.  And you can never stop adding detail to your work.  There is always something more you could do.  For example, if you left your work and came back to it after a week, you might think how did I leave it at that state?

 

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This page was last updated on: December 9, 1998
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