Of course, the old Chinese curse says "May you live in interesting times," and there is no doubt that the shoulders of the infopike are going to be littered with flaming wreckage, as many new ventures crash and burn. So we keep meeting and talking, hoping that by sharing information and ideas we can keep from being casualties-which, if you get right down to it, is the primary reason I partnered in Digital Domain. I figured that the only way to keep from being pounded by the tidal wave of new techniques and technologies was to surf it on in.
Curiously, I find myself as a filmmaker skipping hand in hand with a lot of people I never would have guessed I had business in common with; people in software development, telecommunications, gaming and interactive media, publishing, education, theme park development and special venue entertainment-top scientists and technologists from mega corporations both here and abroad. I love it, and of course am constantly amazed by the power of filmmaking to bring the disparate realms of science and art together. In no other field that I can think of are the human heart and soul operating at eye level with the mind. Our most passionate, irrational and impulsive creative side is reconciling moment by moment with our most advanced left-brain technical progress.
The hunger for fantastic visuals on the part of the audience has created an unprecedented market for the new skills that we filmmakers as a group are perfecting. Look at the summer movie lineup for this year: "Casper," "Judge Dredd," "Crimson Tide," "Batman Forever," "Apollo 13," "Congo," "Water World," "Indian in the Cupboard," "Species" .*.*. one effects film after another. Many creators think of effects like sex; they all want it, they just don't want to get pregnant.
And what about filmmakers themselves? How do they view effects? Usually, unless they've come up through the ranks of visual effects production like David Fincher, directors have in varying degrees a dislike for the process.
I think the reason for this goes a bit beyond the difficulties of effects and animation work. It has to do with authorship, or auteurship. Directors are for the most part egotistical animals, which is the force that drives their creative energy and gives focus to a project. For them, effects are a no-win deal: if the effects shots look great, they didn't do them; somebody else may have, in essence, done what was best about their film. And conversely, if the shots look bad, the director's film suffers, and directors still have to shoulder the responsibility, because ultimate creative responsibility for the film falls at their door.
Given this no-win scenario, it's not surprising that the majority of directors and clients are techno-averse and don't actively embrace effects as a way of realizing their creative vision. This is something that everyone in this business must deal with. You'll either be directors or authors of some type yourselves, or you will be creating images that fulfill another person's vision.
Both the filmmakers and the digital image creators must learn to understand each other, and, more importantly, become each other. The interface between these two somewhat dissimilar organisms will only be solved by each adopting components of the other. The people sitting at workstations must teach themselves to be filmmakers, to think in terms of narrative, character and human emotion-all the things that make a film more than just a series of images.
Conversely, filmmakers must learn these new tools, and, most importantly, learn to view this revolution as empowering all artists. This is not about creating a new techno-elite. This is about giving new colors to the existing artists, allowing them to expand the dimension of their craft.
This learning process is happening already. But the real revolution will happen when we collectively embrace it as a way of life. We must adopt the philosophy that change is constant; that new tools are always becoming available, and advances in technology do not diminish but expand creativity. And we should never forget creativity. The ability to make the audience laugh, cry, learn or even buy products does not necessarily come just from incredible images but it starts and ends with great stories, concepts, scripts and ideas.
However, the benefits of this will inure to both filmmakers and digital image creators. Recently, the greatest strides forward in digital image processing and animation tools have taken place on a handful of well-funded film and commercials projects that have had the money and the need to will into existence new tools. These projects have taken place because some filmmaker or account executive talked some hand-wringing studio executives or advertisers into ponying up the big bucks to make it happen.
To a large extent-and I know this gives some of you the willies-directors control and channel the money that is spent by the studios and agencies. The key to truly advancing the art of digital image creation is to seduce and involve the filmmakers in the process. Historically, we have had a syndrome on effects films that I call "the wizard complex meets the director." Many practitioners of the black arts of visual and digital effects think of themselves, consciously or unconsciously, as wizards or magicians. They know things we mortals don't, and they don't like to reveal what they know. Satisfaction for them comes from unveiling the magic in finished form.
They do not view the director as a partner. They view the director as a sort of moron king, a drooling idiot who does not understand what they do and never will, but whom, perversely, they must please and impress. And given their take on the director, one can only imagine what these wizards think of commercials production company exec producers.
Thus they enter into an uneasy creative marriage. Directors don't love this process either. The director is the captain of the ship, and as such must be right at all times. Directors naturally tend to avoid situations they cannot control and realms of endeavor in which they may appear ignorant. They do not like processes that are vital to their film to be out of their sight or beyond their understanding. Effects and animation are not hands-on processes for the director. They represent an area where a great deal of the film is given up to those evil wizards.
Many directors never realize some of their best dreams on film because of their aversion to the process of special effects. Directors can see and hear what an actor does, so they can influence and shape a performance, because it is right there in front of them. They like this process. Directors can look through the camera, and make changes before the shot is made in order to get what they want.
Most directors are meticulous planners who nevertheless do their most important work in an environment of rapid decision-making and crisis management. They operate in a heightened energy state where creativity is a real-time process, where results are immediate and where shooting becomes a day by day battle against time, entropy, chaos and those people sitting by the videotape monitor that the director doesn't really ever talk to.
Directors are willful, impatient creatures who get things done. Many of them are inarticulate about the visions in their heads, but they sure as hell know it when they see it. This applies to design, to photography, to performance-all aspects of this technical art of filmmaking. Actors provide an added deterrent to making films. In terms of deciding which film to make, directors often follow the actors to a project. Actors, generally speaking, dislike visual effects and animation, because they are nonintuitive processes, difficult for those whose craft is the creation of real-time truth.
We can eliminate this barrier. I see a time, in the very near future, when a director can walk into a performance capture suite with an actor, and have the data of that actor's physical and facial performance driving a real-time display of a synthetic character, the actor's alter ego, on a monitor, right there for evaluation and adjustment. The director may also adjust the virtual camera to the performance, adding camera moves and doing coverage in the same way it might work on the set. Then this synthetic character can be laid back into images captured in the real world, or the character can be put into completely virtual environments.
See, actors love masks. They love to alter themselves, to create alter-personalities. Sooner or later they all wind up trying the horrible process of eight hours in a makeup chair to create some physically altered version of themselves. They usually do this once. If actors can be made partners in the process of synthetic character creation, they will jump all over it. Now they're just sort of huddled outside, muttering about how we're trying to replace them. This is ridiculous. They will be given new bodies, new faces-virtual faces-with which to expand their art.
I'm not saying the director needs fingers flying over a keyboard to make this happen, any more than a director needs to know what all those knobs do on the console at the sound mix. For years I've said they can't possibly need all those knobs-there's really only two and the rest are props to intimidate the client.
Directors will flock to an exciting, highly interactive environment where creativity is enhanced instead of frustrated, and where filmmakers who previously did not like or understand the techniques will be made to feel at home and in control of the process. The environment is one in which composite work and animation are done interactively with the filmmaker, in as close to a real-time environment as possible. This high degree of real-time user interaction with digital imagery, digital directing, will revolutionize the business by improving the capabilities of filmmakers who currently use effects, and by demonstrating to effects-averse directors, producers and advertisers that they can retain the creative control and sense of personal accomplishment that they experience with conventional photography.
This is the true final barrier of the effects business: to demystify the process. To put the tools directly in the hands of the filmmakers. I cannot stress enough the necessity for this. Now that the possibility to do this is on the horizon, we must push vigorously toward it. When the director and the producer feel empowered to come in and play in the sandbox of visual effects, as partners and participants, not as clients and adversaries, then the revolution will expand geometrically, because it will create a feedback loop. The empowered filmmaker will then have the will and the courage to attempt even more daring and visionary projects. The hand on the spigot of cash will turn, the money will flow toward these projects and new tools will be created that will elevate the entire art.
Creators will find effects to be rewarding the more they can participate in the moment of creation, and the more that participation is a real-time act. Creators will bring their money and unformed visions, and those visions will be realized together. From design, through storyboarding, photography or CGI, through final composite, the process will be interactive for the filmmaker, a hands-on experience, and all will benefit.
We are at a turning point, not only in film but in the way we will be entertained, the way in which our children will be educated and the way in which we conduct business. While the situation is difficult, it is also exciting as hell. No one ever said that revolutions were easy, and, indeed, we are in the midst of a revolution. It is our revolution, and we as a community must claim it and insure that this new technology lives up to the hopes we have for it.
We are all pretty sick and tired of hearing about the infobahn, the information superhighway. We've all become so cynical-there's Al Gore sitting in front of a computer that he knows little about, talking about the World Wide Web. Then there are those interactive tests, the trials in Orlando, Kansas City, San Diego-what's going on?
But putting our cynicism aside for a moment, I'm sure you all agree that within the next decade or so the world will be a very different place, in large part due to digital delivery systems and putting digital tools in the hands of the people. And that democratization of information and media will empower differing points of view and allow for new and exciting content.
Together we must forge the creative interface of the future. This is the most important thing we will do in the next few years.
The above is adapted from a lecture given by James Cameron to members of the ad community gathered for the AICP Show at New York's Museum of Modern Art in June