Monday, September 2, 2013

Philosophy and Shared Ideals in Computer Animation

[draft; being written; the following is at best a brief preamble to what I hope will be a major theme of this blog, which is a discussion of the history of ideas in computer animation]

Are there any ideas in computer animation?

Well, what a strange question to ask, of course there are ideas in computer animation.  For example, ray tracing, or radiosity, or antialiasing.   But that is not what I mean, exactly, although those are certainly good examples of ideas, or technologies, or inventions.

So idea is the wrong term or concept.     Maybe I am thinking of one of the other meanings of the word "philosophy".    "There are more things in heaven and hell, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy".    In this case I am referring to the underlying theory, the ideals, the shared beliefs, of the founders of a field, and whether those ideals and beliefs were vindicated, or corrupted, or forgotten or shown to be invalid or a mixed blessing or successful beyond their wildest dreams.

These beliefs might seem obvious to people today but were actually somewhat visionary when the field was being established.

Lets imagine what a shared ideal might be for another relatively recent field:  the field of modern aviation, or what was sometimes known as "powered flight".  One shared belief might be "Powered flight is possible and it will transform the world when it is invented".    Many, many people did not believe that powered flight was possible, and even if it was, they did not believe that it was practical, so this belief which may seem obvious to us, was certainly not obvious at the time.  Another example of a possible shared belief of many of the pioneers of aviation was "When powered flight is invented it will quickly obsolete all other forms of warfare".     This second belief, which was held by many of the early pioneers of flight, turned out to be more true than most people in the military believed, but less true than many of the pioneers had believed.  (See note 1)

So what would the shared ideals of the people who founded computer animation be?  What would it have been for the founders and inventors of the field, back when the field did not exist and most people did not believe that it was either possible or useful?

One of those beliefs might have been something as obvious as:  1. That we can create a formal written description of a scene (e.g. its objects, lights, materials) and translate that description into a 2D image (most images are 2D, traditionally speaking) that might appear 'real'.

Certainly that was a fundamental belief of the pioneers, so fundamental that it might never or rarely even been articulated.  Of course, I object that culturally-laden term 'real'.  "Reality is a useful measure of complexity", Alvy Ray Smith was alleged to have said, although he denies it.  Still, I personally think that many non-professionals, and far too many professionals as well, misunderstand and overemphasize this issue of apparent reality as we have argued on this blog.

Another shared ideal might be, 2. The use of a branch of mathematics, computational geometry, in conjunction with various 3D visualization techniques as well as modelling techniques of other types such as finite-element analysis, will prove to be a qualitatively important tool in architectural and mechanical design.

Or it might be, 3. the use of various visualization techniques when applied to concepts and ideas in sciences such as astronomy or particle physics will not only result in materials to help explain those ideas, but will assist in the further development of those ideas in their respective fields.

In other words, its not just that visualization helps to understand concepts in astrophysics such as galaxy collision, but will actually help scientists develop new ideas in their field (not just outreach but a tool of the fundamental research as well).

Or it might be, "4. the use of techniques such as 3D visualization and image processing, will result in a transformation of the cinematic production process and will lead to fundamentally new types of content in traditional media such as cinema, and that this new content will be culturally important" 

I am differentiating here between traditional narrative media and emerging interactive media because I think that they are very different things.

This is not an exhaustive list, at least I hope not, nor is it intended to be.  It is a list to help stimulate discussion and better refine what "shared ideals in computer animation" might be.

But if we do look at this list of 4 points, I would suggest to you that 1 and 2 are valid, that 3 has not occurred (e.g. visualization has not been recognized as contributing substantially to the research in those fields, although it is used for outreach), and that 4, that we would help to create new and interesting content in cinema is debatable even as our techniques have been used throughout the production process. 

Why debatable?  Because the bitter truth is that not all society recognizes or is willing to acknowledge the fundamental cultural importance of giant robots and superheroes/heroines in cinema.  It may indeed be a long time until Scooby Doo in 3D is acknowledged for its impact on the cinema, and on our society as well.

In other words, sure the use of computers in general and computer graphics in particular has changed movies, television, etc, but has it make it substantially better in terms of content?  Or make it worse?  How about just different ?     I think that it has been a mixed bag, actually. 

So what are the other ideals and shared beliefs, articulated or not, behind computer animation and computer graphics?


1. The history of the origins of powered flight is deeply intertwined with the history of the transformation of warfare of the 20th century.   The Wright Brothers demonstrated powered flight in 1903 in a very early form.  By 1914, or a mere 11 years later, a much more advanced version of the airplane was already flying for the armed forces of all sides in Europe and the at least one of the sides in the Middle East.   Yet ultimately the belief of many early aviators, that all other forms of warfare would be replaced by the airplane, did not turn out to be true.   "Air Power" was important, it may or may not have been "decisive", but it was not the end of warfare as we knew it.  For a good history of this, see (insert reference for makers of modern strategy essay on "air power").

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