Ways of expression: the impact of VFX technology on modern storytelling in film and interactive media production.

The Norwegian Film School, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences

_ VFX as a versatile tool.

In the past decade digital technology has become inherently involved in almost every artistic creation. Artists use computers at various stages of creation, employing them for diverse tasks. Even if the final work is not directly connected with digital technology, various software can be used to communicate with other artists or collaborators, organize the creative process, gather resources, or publish the artistic outcomes. Many professionals have had to reinvent the way they work or to convert to a completely different specialization. Their methods of seeking inspiration and developing a concept have also had to be adjusted so that they use the benefits of technological progress. It is possible nowadays to create films and animations without computers, but it is completely impractical. Books can also be published manually, by means of letterpress printing, but it is much easier to use desktop publishing software. However, there are some art domains, such as web-art, video-performance or extended reality, where it is impossible to create without digital technology. Thanks to dynamic development of digital technologies and increased affordability of both hardware and software, digital tools which were once beyond the reach of an ordinary artist are now available for everyone.


Every time a new technology appears, people try to use it in an old fashioned way and to describe it with existing terminology. A good example is photography, which has finally developed into an  independent art form, but was initially treated as another emanation of painting. Pictorialists tried to apply traditional painting or drawing techniques in the first darkrooms, while developing prints and films. This approach also started the debate on the relationship between a technical and an artistic aspect of the medium. A similar situation has occurred recently in relation to the new media and extended reality. People try to adopt old patterns to new circumstances, while contemporary challenges require a new approach. The attempt to connect the old and the new allows the general public to grasp a new technology and to make it more accessible to use from the very beginning, but it also imposes rigid limits on the scope of its possible applications. As Murch points out,  during the transitional period after introducing the new technology the means of communicating the content are more perceptible than the content itself. Only after some time, after the complete assimilation of the new technology, does the content regain its primary position. [1]


Visual effects domain is based on new technologies. They very often offer a new way of telling an old story. The rapid development of digitalization in the mid-90s brought about a new phenomenon. Computers provided a common platform which facilitated the process of spreading specialist software used in one artistic field into other activities. Various software techniques were employed in different fields of art. One example is the possibilities enabled by NURBS curves. They were primarily developed for the automotive industry and then improved in Maya, VFX software. When architects started to use 3D software originally designed for film special effects, the logic of the animated form entered architectural thinking. It led to an aesthetic and intellectual revolution and engendered a new expressive language. [2] Animation software conceptualizes form as being inherently and infinitely variable. New techniques of modeling pushed architectural thinking away from rectangular modernist geometry and toward the privileging of smooth and complex forms made from continuous curves. Another example of the impact of a new tool on the language of creation is the evolution of digital sculpting. It has emerged as a result of the development of ZBrush. In the beginning, ZBrush was only an extended painting tool, differing from other painting programs only because it could understand depth. While most 2D programs treat the working space as a grid of pixels, ZBrush uses a propertiary “pixol” technology which contains additional information on depth and material. It was described as the first painting program where you use a traditional 2D brush to paint with fully rendered 3D objects. [3] This advantage was not so revolutionary until someone discovered that one of its tools, a polymesh tool, is ideally suited for 3D sculptings in a sort of virtual clay. This new application opened utterly new possibilities for CGI artists, jewelers, traditional sculptors, etc. It enabled several new specializations in the film industry and created the original art domain of digital sculpting.


Visual effects are a specific type of tools within the digital creation group. They can be used in a similar way as other tools, and choosing a particular tool is like choosing between gouache and charcoal.  In the twentieth-century, the role of the cinema was to capture and to store a visible reality. Now the reality can be constructed outside the film image. New picture editing possibilities offered by computers bring all visual techniques down to the most basic element, that of a pixel. For the viewer it does not matter how the pixel was made, and this actually equates the real world with the computer-created one. During the transition from celluloid film to digital filmmaking, the medium has lost its permanence. VFX department is seen as a distinctive symbol of this transition but this lies beyond the scope of my artistic research.


It seems crucial for modern art to embrace the new methods of visual storytelling which use digital techniques to create a bridge between different specializations, not only on the level of technology, but also on a higher level in general. Computer-generated effects are such a creative instrument of communication with the audience. Their primary aim is to tell an amazing story. As the power of digital tools has exploded exponentially, the departments that were once separated have become more consolidated with full digital environments, sets, characters, and visual effects. Visual effects artists sitting at the computer are becoming increasingly responsible for carrying out those tasks by means of using knowledge, technical ability, and skills offered by the new technology.


Storytelling and triggering emotions play a crucial role in filmmaking, but many CGI-enhanced films leave little to the imagination. This drawback is caused by the repeatability of frequently chosen approaches, by lack of ingenuity or by mismatching the means of expression. If visual effects are successful, they may add to the cinematic experience some charm of a magic show. But, just like in magic shows, the audience gets used to the tricks of magicians. [4] Contemporary technologies allow developing unique solutions. They might become a source of inspiration for the whole team. Virtual reality can be treated as a final medium of distribution or as a tool for solving production problems. It can be employed for exploring distant, less accessible locations, or it can be used to create new, imaginary ones. Being able to see simplified three-dimensional models of location can bring additional inspiration or help to plan a spatial solution for the scene. This feature is particularly useful during the development of the environment which does not exist in reality and is called virtual production or on-set post-production. Technology can be also used for the creation of a new visual language.


In my research, I focused on the possibilities that VFX tools provide for contemporary artistic realizations. While the benefits for feature shoot planning seem rather obvious, it is not so straightforward for less typical realizations. That is why I explored two extremes, the documentary and the virtual reality production. In both cases, the most important aspect was the storytelling development.


As a research method, I have chosen to work as a creative technologist during two productions, one of each type. Alongside, I verified my findings during workshops and lectures with students. My research was also meant to determine the areas of expertise of the range of activities of a creative technologist. Another focus of my exploration was the unconventional use of VFX tools. I wanted to test to what extent a particular development imposes its mark on the final content. I had to learn how to make a creative use of necessary technological glitches. The best way to explore it was to determine the faults of the analog tools and to  use the traditional approach as a starting point. In digital technology, adding imperfections to artistic realizations makes them unique, which is an obvious aesthetic asset.


My research allows me to admit, looking back at my past professional career, that I have repeatedly undertaken the typical actions of a creative technologist quite unconsciously. However, this research is my first attempt to genuinely understand this new discipline and to comprehend the meaning of contemporary VFX tools in the palette of artistic possibilities.



2019 >> Rafal Hanzl >> Ways of expression: the impact of VFX technology on modern storytelling in film and interactive media production.