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Virtual Real with Rob O’Neill

In Art, Feature, Interview on February 28, 2010 at 1:05 pm

“Dataprojections” render 003

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Most have heard the term Web 2.0, though something equally as important is Art 2.0.   Which is to say, with the total convergence of the visual arts–synthesized by an array of creative technical applications–the multiplying effects have become something entirely different and much greater than the sum of its parts.  So for instance, the digital world has created programmers and software developers–career fields that never before existed in the entirety of human history.  That in itself is stunning enough, but what happens when a illustrator studies anthropology and later becomes a programmer–also being an author?

How do you define this?  What do you call that person?

We used to say multi-disciplined or polymath, but could it be that new language is required?

I presented these questions and more in a recent conversation I had with Rob O’Neill, an Adjunct Assistant Professor @ Pratt and the current Acting Director and Research Associate in the Pratt Institute Digital Arts Research Laboratory.

Having been a character technical director at Dreamworks Animation, on films such as “Shrek 2” and “ Madagascar, O’Neill is the author of Digital Character Development: Theory and Practice, and a founding partner of Kickstand: Animation Research + Development.

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Virtual Real with Rob O’Neill

An interview by Max Eternity
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O’Neill at work, teaching a class at Pratt Institute

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ME: Hi Rob, welcome to AD Mag

RO: Thank you very much Max.  It is a pleasure to speak with you.

ME: In researching your website, I see that you are described as “an artist, programmer, and researcher working at the intersection of art and science.”  That is a complex set of titles and skills, yet it seems increasingly to be the case that artists of the last century are slowly being equaled by the “Creative Technologist” of this Art 2.0 century.

The language I use for this is TADAE, meaning Traditional And Digital Artist-Engineer.  But I would be curious to know how you interpret this phenomenon—can it be distilled in a word?

RO: I like the term “Creative Technologist.”  And feel like it is the best term out there for this phenomenon.  Though, I feel like it emphasizes technology.  In animation production there is a constant call for the “technical artist” which is a flip of the term leading me to think that they are both describing a continuum but emphasizing one direction or another.

Your TADAE concept is very interesting for describing the spectrum.

For a long time I just called myself a researcher, probably when I was trying to figure out where the research would go.  I think it’s actually transitory, and that in a few years we will be back to calling ourselves artists or engineers, because more of the boundaries will be stripped.

Everyday we see more work done by people who are creative, who develop technology, who can distribute that work commercially, who promote the same result as fine art.  I think we are working in an interesting time where artists are developing the tools they want to use in their work.  This has been true throughout time but I think we are seeing a diversification of the types of tools artists are creating.

Most digital artists rely on commercial tools, but it is the extension and augmentation of these tools, and the creation of new ones that really interests me and propels my process.

I do not think it can be summed up in a word and I tend to describe myself differently depending on the context.  Sometimes I say artist, sometimes filmmaker or animator.

Website (screenshot)

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ME: So how about some background information, where did you grow up?  How long have you been an artist?

RO: I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and attended Brooklyn College (City University of New York) but did not major in art.  I majored in Anthropology and Archaeology as that was my professional goal at the time.  I studied human anatomy and evolution and took film and studio art classes along the way.  I always considered myself an artist to some degree, drawing and taking photos was a natural part of my life and I knew an artistic practice would be a component of whatever direction I travelled.  I worked for a time at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) researching the collections, and over time I realized that science was actually the basis for my art–that I wanted to create forms of visual storytelling.

I found the stories reveled by nature and evolution to be fascinating, as were the stories from the history of science itself; subsequently developing a portfolio of work, which led to the pursuit of 3D animation.

ME: In continuing to talk about your educational background, you left Brooklyn College and went over to Parsons…right?  But also talk more about filmmaking, storytelling and 3D animation.

RO: Yes, I attended Parsons School of Design, earning an MFA in Digital Design and Technology.  There I was encouraged to explore themes of science and engage it with a more rigorous art and design practice. I created my thesis film “Repatriation” which was a direct result of my time working at AMNH and told the story of a woolly mammoth transported from his prehistoric deathbed to reclaim his bones from a museum display.  It was during this time that I scratched the surface of many of the themes I still with today in my work: stories from science, imaginary/invisible/extinct creatures, and technology.

Watch “Repatriations” @ Vimeo

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ME: Were you a scientist before being an artist?

RO: In a way yes, but only in the degree granting sense.

As a child I never saw any distinction between the two.  Art could be made about science, and used to document and explore scientific discoveries.  It could also be used to document fantastical things in the same way.  Over the years I would swing heavily from one side to the other and believed that I had to choose.  As I grew and studied history, I realized that there was a time when that distinction did not exist.  Now I realize that both art and science have a lot to learn from each other.

I continue to read and study a variety of scientific topics including human evolution and paleontology as they are filled with amazing environments, unbelievable creatures, and fascinating historical characters that have been part of those worlds.  They are also subjects that the public understands visually through the work of artists. I wrote an article for Leonardo a few years ago that discussed how animation and the anatomical sciences have been deeply connected and how many anatomists are using animation software as research tools now.

I like to believe that the science-art feedback loop is tightening.

ME: And how does programming fit in.  Connect all these dots if you will

RO: Programming for me is the glue that binds my practice together.  From stand-alone tools to extensions to 3D software I use code to create systems of artistic exploration.  Sometimes these tools are created to handle tedious processes of batch manipulating files but more often I write tools that read and write datasets.  These datasets are often historical, and more recently, are generated through simulation.  Most of the tools are specific for a task relevant to my own work, but I have also released tools that I thought would be useful to others.

Additionally, I developed an open-source animation production pipeline that independent animators and small studios use to manage production.  Building this tool was a task that most people find dull, but I was curious about how to generalize the problem and decided to put the time in to build it.

It is a tool that is not inherently creative in its functionality but eases the process of animation production some to pave the way for the real creative work.

My first public tool was a plugin for Maya that allowed users to create an art directed flock or school of characters.  That was my introduction to system programming and from there I was hooked.  Another example was that I created an extension for Maya that allows an artist to export their 3d model for rapid prototyping also known as 3d printing.  I have seen whole classes use this tool, at Pratt, where I teach, and elsewhere.  Artists are using it to create amazing sculptures as well.

ME: In a moment, we’ll talk about some specific work that you’ve done, but first tell me about your writings.  I understand you’ve written a book(s)?

RO: Yes, I wrote a book called “Digital Character Development: Theory and Practice”.  It is a software agnostic look at the art and science of modern character setup for 3d animation.

My education in anatomy and 3d graphics put me in a good place to become a character rigger for production animation.  This is the process of taking a 3d model and creating all the bones that allows an animator to move it and the muscles for it to move appropriately.

I was a character technical director at Dreamworks Animation on films such as “Shrek 2” and “Madgascar”.  Dreamworks was an awesome place to work filled with brilliant people.

As I settled back in New York and started teaching I realized that there was a gap in teaching materials that documented the “why” questions of character setup and everything was centered around pressing buttons in software.  So I started the long process of trying to look at the theory of character rigging and generalizing the thinking about it.  I feel like it is a great first step but there is much more to research and document.  In addition to the book, I have written articles for Leonardo, Computer Graphics World, and spend a fair amount of time lecturing.

“Dataface: Brown Ian Tree”

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ME: In listening to you speak, it really gets conveyed that collaboration is central to your overall creative process, which involves seamlessly intersecting scientific studies with artistically rendered, visual computations.  At this moment, I’m thinking about a project you’ve been involved with called the Morphology Research Project, which by looking at some of the imagery, resulted in the digital construction cranial forms.  Could you talk about that experience…who and what was involved?

RO:  Collaboration has been a big part of my work even if I’m collaborating with scientists who lived in the 1800’s.  The Morphology Project was in many ways an artistic exploration of craniometrics or the measurement of skulls.  It was a way for me to look at topics that had interested me in the past through the lens of art and technology.  Part of the intent of the series was to explore historic techniques and theories and to take them to their furthest extent.  For example, the biologist Darcy Wentworth Thompson outlined very visual theories to describe the relationships and differences between species by fitting like biological species in Cartesian grids and warping between them.  So with this in mind, in “The Theory of Transformations”, I created replicas of his grids and placed 3D laser scans of a chimp and a human cranium inside them.  From there I wrote code to warp them from one to the other based on Thompson’s illustrations.  What I came up with was not as clean as his drawings but pseudo-species that are in many ways more interesting.  I’ve presented this as a looping video and sculptures created from the transformed 3d models.  Further along, I created a generative system that evolved a human cranium for generations in the piece called “DataFace”.  I started with the database of measurements collected by the anthropologist W.W. Howells who travelled the world collecting a series of measurements on thousands of crania.  I turned the data into a 3D hull, of sorts, which I then used to cycle through the measurements as analogies for genes which I then applied simple evolutionary models to see what would happen.  It ended up having simple results that always just looked human because in the end human skulls are very similar and I had no viable means to introduce mutation.  The work exists as a generative projection that is always unique – a sort of fast forward generational film of pseudo-evolution.   The work always involved discussions with scientists to gain a deeper understanding of the data.  Their insights were incredibly valuable and I tried whenever possible to give back to their work by creating custom tools and sharing my knowledge of 3d data with them.

“Dataprojection” render 004

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ME:  And the series “dataProjections”, part of the Morphology Project, could you talk specifically about those works?

RO:  Although I didn’t plan to do a chronological series about different craniometrics techniques – that is exactly what I ended up doing.  “The Theory of Transformations” was about two-dimensional deformation of shapes, “DataFace” was about shapes derived from a large collection of one-dimensional measurements, and “dataProjections” utilized modern three-dimensional point clouds.   For these pieces, I worked with an anthropologist who was collecting shape data from a series of gorilla crania.  I wrote a small tool to turn the data into paths.  In watching him, I was intrigued by the gesture of the act of collection and I realized that the 3d stylus was actually capturing the path of his hand in action.  So the pieces are digital prints that are drawings by a scientist seen through the tools I developed.  My hand in it is the passing of light through the structure and creating a graffiti-like image on the wall, projecting the image analogous to the way that theories are projected from data.

ME:  Your website is called Morphometric, what does that mean?

RO:  Morphometric is the measure of shape.  Scientists use morphometrics to do statistical analysis of natural forms.  In many ways, artists are constantly measuring shape so it has always been a term that I felt worked on many levels and is a nod to my background.

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ME: I’m looking now at a video you created called “Cryptid Memior.”   This film is described on you site as “the hidden nature of creatures studied by pseudo-scientific cryptozoologists.” What’s the interest there, and is your short-film a debunking of sorts?  Is it meant to be humorous?

RO:  In the course of my work I looked into notions of fringe science, people who were studying things that might not have existed.  Often they have as much evidence as researchers who are looking at creatures from deep prehistory.  I also became interested in the use of photography and film in documenting or hoaxing so called cryptids or hidden animals.  The film is totally meant to be humorous: I paint figures in and out of frame and use the classic Bigfoot footage as a means to create an Rorschach pattern.  It’s a pretty blunt take on “what do we see in an image” and how it can be manipulated by tools or our own desires.  This was a quick project but I would like to return to the themes.

ME: I find it very interesting how digital technology seems to a gateway to self-discovery for so many people, whether they be traditional artist and sculptors, internet pioneers, architects, physicists, or in your case, an anthropologist.  With that said, what would you, say to someone who’s of the belief that using computers to create art is cheating—that digitally created art is not art, or that it is less than “authentic”?

RO;  I think digital tools are just another medium, and while it might be faster to the end result or quicker to iterations, I think that honesty cannot be cheated.  Honest work isn’t tied to any medium and can only be judged by the artist.  The outside view is interpretation that can revel a lot about the work.  New technologies will arrive and become old techniques but the good work will remain and be regarded for what it is.

Click image to read O’Neill’s “Emerging Congruence” article

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ME: In your article “Emerging Congruence between Anatomy and Animation” you talk about how the Disney Studios encouraged their animators to study anatomy.  Later in the article, you also say that scientists are often called in to consult with animators.  None of this surprises me.  However, I do sense that a lot of people might not realize the kind of intellectual scholarship that is required for naturalistic mimicry in animation.  In your role as an educator, do you find that to be the case?

RO:  Animation, in general, leaves the artist with a clean slate every frame – twenty–four to thirty frames a second. Whether depicting realistic or stylized imagery the animator gets little for free and everything must be created.  When it comes to creating something realistic it’s really about observing the natural world and learning to recreate it smartly and with your own vision.  It requires a deep understanding of the phenomenon that does not come from just watching footage but actually trying to experience it.   As an educator, it’s about finding a balance between teaching process and giving students the tools to build anything they can imagine both conceptually and technically.  The challenge is that every student is telling a different story with a unique set of challenges.  So the scholarship, in the end, has to be self-directed but after a while you learn how to provide a framework that comes from being part mentor and part producer.

ME:  Earlier you mentioned your book, “Digital Character Development.”  When was it written and how has it been received?

Who is its intended audience, and what would you say that book has achieved thus far?

RO:  The book was released in 2008 after almost two years of research and writing, is intended for students and professionals interested in character technology for games and animation.  The reception has been positive.  I’ve heard good things from peers and from studios that have adopted it as part of their artist training programs.  It was a great surprise to have it used to further train professionals.  It was a really cathartic process to put all these ideas in one place and to give something to the community that I love being a part of.  When it was done and published I was happy with the results but felt like it was the first step in a very long journey and that there is much more ground to cover.  In many ways, it took a large chunk of experience that I had amassed and I put it into another form of memory.  It opened my mind up to learning again, refreshed me to get back into production, and pointed me in some new directions for character technology, animation production, and creature creation in general.

ME:  As you and I both know, there can often be a heavy learning curve for mastering new technology.  And yet, for those less familiar with digital technology as an everyday occurrence, what might you say to help that person move toward acclimating themselves with user-friendly experiences.  Along those same lines, what would you say to a young person who’s thinking of pursuing a career similar to yours?

RO:  It’s impossible to learn new tools in a bubble – you have to have a reason, usually in the form of a project, to learn something.  I’m a big proponent of learning by doing.  The bar to entry for most of these tools is getting lower and lower on a daily basis.  There are free tools that do what all the big commercial packages do so you can start learning hands-on without investing large sums of money.  I think young people will have it easier as all these digital tools are commonplace.  I was lucky to grow up in a household where we had a computer from when I was young so it has never felt foreign.

Generally, I encourage younger people to seek broad educational goals and to mix their art classes with all the other subjects they might be interested in, so that they minor in geology or political science, for example, to try to wrap their head around a piece of the world outside of pure studio work.  That interplay is where I work and it’s been a good start for me.

ME: Rob, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

RO:  It was really a pleasure Max, thank you.

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