Developing a Model for 3D CG Education

Summer 2011: v.07 n.01: Under Fire: 3D Animation Pedagogy

Rachel Clarke
Associate Professor of Art
California State University, Sacramento

During my first year of teaching 3D Computer Graphics it gradually occurred to me that a number of the students in my classroom weren’t applying the same perspective to 3D CG that they would apply to other studio classes. It wasn’t that these students weren’t creative, more that they didn’t see 3D as a medium within which they could express their creative ideas. When they walked into the 3D CG classroom, they were envisaging themselves compiling a portfolio to get them an industry job—the common assumption being that creating work that was a facsimile of prevailing movies or games was the way to make that happen.

This powerful attitude created a deadening effect in the classroom for two reasons: narrow student expectations, based upon derivative approaches and visual mimicry, led to limited, uninteresting work; secondly, it assumed that my role was to deliver skill-training to facilitate the production of an industry-standard portfolio. I needed to understand where these entrenched attitudes and assumptions came from to figure out how to address them. Fostering a creative learning environment that was in keeping with the goals of a studio art degree program was essential to the evolution of the curriculum. It was not tenable or desirable to focus on specific skill sets or orient myself towards vocational propaedeutics.

It seems that, of all new technologies, 3D CG has had the most difficultly defining itself both in relation to new media and to contemporary art practice. Part of this has to do with a general ambivalence towards animation as a serious art form, as evidenced in Christiane Paul’s writing on animation in Digital Art:

…a genre that has recently experienced a revival within the movie industry as a result of the advances of digital technologies. Animation is one of the genres that is most resistant to classification. It has continuously merged disciplines and techniques and still exists at the border of the entertainment industry and art world. Exactly how far animation can and should be considered an art form remains the topic of debate, but it certainly is now more frequently incorporated in exhibitions. [1]

Despite its rich history, because animation is so widely used in games, advertising and high-end movies, it’s almost as if by association, the medium itself is eyed with suspicion. As Paul Wells and Johnny Hardstaff note in Re-Imagining Animation: “It has always been, however, a form of expression, which has been easy to dismiss as, ‘the cartoon’, or children’s entertainment, or a mere vehicle of popular culture.” [2]

In addition, the recent prevalence of the 3D CG Hollywood blockbuster movie has meant that “ computer-generated 3D work has become dominant form of the mainstream animated film…what Shiloh McLean calls the ‘new traditionalist’ animation.” [3] Wells and Hardstaff point out that the stylistic trope that is the Pixar film emerges from the Disney tradition, and while being technically ground-breaking, it is essentially a conservative genre. This ‘new tradition’ has become inseparable from the notion of what 3D animation “is” in people’s minds, creating a general impression that 3D CG inhabits a particular place in the culture, that it’s a fun, gimmicky, and yet rather hollow medium for creative expression.

Yet nothing could be further from accurate with regard to the diverse possibilities the medium offers to artists as a form for experimentation. In the same way that artists have always taken the popular/ubiquitous media of their time and turned it to their open use, a growing number of innovative artists have been working in 3D CG for well over a decade. For example Jennifer Steinkamp’s early projected works date back to the mid-nineties, [4] and Open Ended Group’s experimentation with human motion resulted in the highly acclaimed 3D animation, Ghostcatching, in 1999, and the floor-projected public artwork Pedestrian, in 2002. Initially conceived and presented on the streets of New York City, it ultimately traveled internationally. In writing about Pedestrian, Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar note their subversion of Hollywood cinematic devices, and their experimental approach to narrative structure and voyeurism:

It is now a routine move in Hollywood to first put you airborne, soaring in a helicopter over a mysterious landscape glimmering below. If it’s an urban drama you’re watching, then this opening shot evokes the vast complexity of intertwined lives, events, and spaces that constitute the city. Very soon, however, the camera picks out a more particular locale below, where you spot the film’s hero, usually an actor you already know in the odd intimate way of our celebrity culture…The dramatic structure of Pedestrian, such as it is, is decidedly strange. For while it does have you following individual characters within a scene, it’s never for long—it veers off as if distracted to follow another character intersecting in the scene, and then another, and another. This succession comes to seem like an odd and unwitting relay race or game, each figure taking and then passing on the baton of your interest. It’s a series of partial and broken narratives, whose beginnings and endings are left to you to imagine. [5]

In New Philosophy for New Media, Mark Hansen discusses Robert Lazzarini’s anamorphic 3D skulls in his essay, “The Affective Topology of New Media Art,” as exemplary of the way new media art catalyses an emancipating, embodied affectivity that takes the place of perception:

skulls [is] exemplary of aesthetic experimentation with the digital image. In a certain sense, this account brings to a close the larger argument pursued in this book: for by extending the function of bodily spacing beyond the domain of virtual perception and by soliciting a response in which affectivity takes the place of perception, skulls calls affectivity into play as a phenomenological modality in its own right—that is, a mode of experience autonomous from perception and indeed, one with a certain priority in the context of contemporary digital convergence. [6]

The issue is clearly not that 3D CG is an inherently limiting medium, or one that is marginal in relation to new media practice. Instead it is that the discursive context for 3D animated experimental work has not been developed to any significant degree, mainly due to a misunderstanding of its significance and potential. This lack of serious dialog ultimately reflects back to the issues in 3D CG education: “…animation needs…to once again reflect upon what it is, how it might be taught, and how it is received in institutions.” [7]

Meeting Claudia Hart a few years ago was the beginning of an ongoing conversation about how to address both the pedagogical issues facing anyone who teaches 3D CG, and the corresponding lack of critical and visual resources. 3D CG allows for the creation of objects and environments that though their verisimilitude, lighting, shading, texturing and spatial relationships, can simulate the photographic, cinematic, sculptural or painterly, and yet infinitely expand on all of them. This affords 3D unique properties that tie it to all aspects of a studio art curriculum:

While the notion of impossible objects would seem to reference only the sculptural nature of 3D representations, this term equally connotes their post-photographic quality. Impossible objects in the 3D realm can only be perceived by the computer’s documentation of them. 3D is therefore a hybrid of sculpture with two-dimensional imagery, of sculpture AND photograph…[8]

In Hart’s innovative curriculum, Experimental 3D, the assignments contextualize 3D CG as studio practice and emphasize conceptual ideas and experimental approaches. This served as an inspiration for my own curriculum development. Devising conceptually interesting assignments that force students to rethink their approach to the medium and its relationship to a fine arts practice establishes new parameters for their work.

Developing tutorial resources rather than using industry-training resources allowed for further re-contextualization. Many online learning resources are aimed almost exclusively at males aged between 16 and 25, who want to create 3D virtual girlfriends, combat figures or medieval ogres. Many textbooks revolve around the skills needed to create concept art for games and the movie industry. While drawing on industry-training resources may alleviate the burden of addressing the teaching of endless technical skills, industry-centric examples frame the medium in a way that ultimately undermines a fine art approach. Linking my tutorials more closely to my assignments, and generally de-emphasizing structured tool training in favor of a more learner-centered self-discovery process (learning the tools needed to make what you want to make) promoted a more creative and personally rewarding learning experience for the student.

In addition, the resources on practitioners were scattered and hard to find, but as I became more aware of the range of artists working with the medium, my expanded repertoire of references engendered more experimental approaches in the classroom, revealing to students an expanded field for research and exploration. The students’ work evolved through a greater degree of critical engagement with visual aesthetics gleaned from this larger frame of reference.

A significant number of students who desire to learn 3D CG also desire to work for Pixar, where there are many applicants for very few jobs. Not only does this ambition therefore become unrealistic, it is also limiting, since 3D CG is ubiquitous and the applications are innumerable: “…there is a lack of engagement with the bigger picture in relation to the arts, society and commerce and the ways that the individual may be positioned in relation to the political, creative and economic demands of these contexts.” [9] By scrutinizing the nature, affect and cultural significance of the medium, by looking at many other applications of 3D, and thinking more about its relationship to art historical and contemporary art practices, students gained a more realistic perspective, and could envisage an expanded sense of the applications and possibilities available to them.

After I implemented these changes to my curriculum, 3D became more exciting to teach, and student work broadened in scope and quality, while also becoming more individualized. The students were evidently more engaged—in a sense their own ambitions had been too limiting.

In order for 3D to establish its place in the academy, the pedagogy must become integrated with art school principles, elevating original ideas over formulaic approaches, and promoting innovation over complicity with industry: “Arguably, the commercial industrial arena is not a forum where new, dangerous or innovative things happen…If the new, the dangerous and the innovative cannot happen in educational contexts then they cannot happen at all.” [10]

3D pedagogy is bogged-down by industry training models that are woefully inadequate for higher education—where conceptual development always coexists with skill development, and where students are challenged to become intellectually and creatively adept.

Moving away from mimicry, students can be guided to find their own creative voices—regardless of the chosen medium—as Tolstoy discusses in What is Art?: “…sincerity will impel the artist to find a clear expression of the feeling which he wishes to transmit.” [11]

In addition to this self-reflection that is at the heart of traditional art school education, comes risk-taking, and experimentation in the formulation of a personally driven aesthetic. Alongside these are the development of intellectual rigor and clarity of purpose: “Nothing can be learned if what is in place remains unexplained, un-interrogated or unquestioned”. [12]

Finally, as Welles and Hardstaff point out, [13] it is not the place of education to ‘feed’ the entertainment industry; rather, education should promote progressive ways of approaching 3D CG, to develop future innovators that can envision new outlooks for both industry and the creative arts.

1. Christiane Paul, Digital Art (Second Edition) (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008, p.110
2. Paul Welles and Johnny Hardstaff, Re-Imagining Animation (Switzerland: AVA Publishing, 2008), p.16
3. Ibid., p.30
4. Retrieved 5/30/11
5. “Pedestrian”, Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, in The Cinematic Imaginary After Film, Edited by Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, (Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 2003) p.520
Documentation of Pedestrian: Retrieved 5/30/11
6. Mark B. N. Hansen, “The Affective Topology of New Media Art” in New Philosophy for New Media(Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 2004) p.205
7. Paul Welles and Johnny Hardstaff, Re-Imagining Animation (Switzerland: AVA Publishing, 2008), p.21
8. Claudia Hart and Rachel Clarke, “Impossible Objects”, (2011), Retrieved 5/30/11
9. Paul Welles and Johnny Hardstaff, Re-Imagining Animation (Switzerland: AVA Publishing, 2008), p.18
10. Ibid., p.56
11. Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art? (General Books LLC, 2010), Ch.15
12. Paul Welles and Johnny Hardstaff, Re-Imagining Animation (Switzerland: AVA Publishing, 2008), p.19
13. Ibid., p.56