Digital artists can duplicate nature in minute detail. So now what?

The march of progress in the visual effects world has been like something out of King Arthur: a succession of quests for the next holy grail. But one by one, the challenges of rendering realistic water, fur, clothing and skin have been met.

Reproducing nature is still difficult and labor-intensive, but even so, say industry leaders, no more will the cutting edge of CGI be defined by a quest for fire. Instead, the cutting edge of computer graphics and visual effects is moving in new directions.

One emerging area is digital performance. “King Kong” was one of the few studio special effects films to make the cut for Siggraph’s Computer Animation Festival this year, and Kong’s emotional performance is one reason why.

Sony Pictures Imageworks topper Tim Sarnoff says the effort to improve digital performance extends to digital elements, not just a character like Kong or Davy Jones in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

“When we talk about making the wave in ‘Surf’s Up,’ we’re talking about the performance of the wave, not how many bubbles we have in the wave,” he says.

He compares the difference to a young musician learning to play. “It’s no longer whether we can play the notes, it’s whether we can make the audience cry.”

That leads to a less glamorous but equally important piece of the edge: the software tools digital artists use to make their work expressive. Doug Cooper, visual f/x supervisor on DreamWorks’ “Bee Movie,” says, “One of the problems we have now is the time it takes for new artists to become productive, just because of understanding the tools.” He’s looking for that to change.

“We need to make interfaces to some of these applications so you can think of it in a way that’s intuitive for an artist to understand.” He suggests tools that would, for example, make hair look different by applying “hair gel” — something everyone understands. “We need to be moving toward a place where these digital tools are as simple to use as things in the real world.”

A third cutting-edge area is speed. Right now, the sheer power needed to render images like the water in “Poseidon” is enormous, and it takes a lot of time to churn out each frame. But as computers and data-management systems advance, everything should speed up. People will be able to do more in less time, or simply more with less.

That can already be seen in Siggraph award-winner “One Rat Short,” produced on a shoestring budget by Charlex Films and writer-director Alex Weil.

“One Rat Short” doesn’t shoot for the pristine realism of a “King Kong.” In that way it points to another part of the cutting edge: a shift away from reproducing nature or other art forms.

“We’re still in this innocent stage where we try to make CG look like something else,” says Cooper. The question is, “How can we make a new art form out of it that takes advantage of the new computing resources we have, that will make it very interesting and compelling to look at?”

What might that look like? Nobody knows. But says Cooper, “At some point, someone’s going to find it.”

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