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Confessions of a Creative Maniac: Of Wills and Ways

COW Library : Art of the Edit : David Biedny : Confessions of a Creative Maniac: Of Wills and Ways
CreativeCOW presents Confessions of a Creative Maniac: Of Wills and Ways -- Art of the Edit Editorial

There's an old adage that time really flies as you move ahead in years, but it seems to me that it's more about the rate of flow, or acceleration -- perhaps it's just gravity having a say in the way my brain responds to the rate of change around me. In some ways, though, it feels like certain elements of computing technology are starting to slow down in an appreciable fashion. We're beginning to hit some limits to the endless growth I witnessed in the earlier part of my career.

Take CPU speed -- doesn't it seem like we're not seeing the huge increases we became accustomed to for so many years? Every time a new computer was announced, we would wonder just how many more Hertz we'd see squeezed out of a chunk of worked silicon, how many more minutes of our lives we'd snatch back from the maws of time, that rarest of resources, and for a significant spell, the increases were as predictable as the seasons. And its not like anyone is complaining about how slow their quad-core processor iMac feels these days when they cruise the web, play music or write emails about the high price of gasoline. Folks seem generally content with the speed of their digiboxes nowadays, right?

OK, so that was a trick question for this audience, there's not a set of eyes reading these words right now, that wouldn't like to see faster rendering times, disk reads/writes, data throughput; those of us who have a real appreciation for the concept of "realtime" know who we are. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in any pro level video editor, 3D, audio or any other media creation tool is probably never going to be completely satisfied with the raw performance of any technology. The simple fact is that we're on the bleeding edge of the sword, we're the ones pushing the whole cart forward with our demands for more speed, more performance, more everything. We look at a videogame and the smooth playback of the action, and we're well aware that it takes all sorts of under-the-hood coding, prebaking and back loading work to make that seamless reality happen, and we know that there will always be a differential between the working speeds of production versus consumption.

And yet, paradoxically, we find ourselves in the era of trying to make due with less, even though we are actually drowning in certain types of abundances -- information, for instance. Heard anyone complain lately about a lack of websites, typefaces, images, sounds, video sources, words, thoughts?

All of us would like to think that we're smart enough to make the most out of the tools and resources in hand, especially in the days when many of us are expecting Apple to finally put the Pro towers to rest any moment now. Outside of the busiest post houses, many of the folks I know are having a rough time making a decent living, most of us have seen our incomes decline in the last handful of years, and invariably, we need gear to last longer before being replaced.



"Rocketeer" had the unfortunate fate of opening against "Terminator 2", but I was pulled into doing this shot because of my working out the problems with motion blur BS matte extraction during T2, a major problem that plagued "The Rocketeer". No puppets were harmed in the making of this shot.


The Adobe upgrade game has really worn a lot of folks down, and prosumers are routinely facing the choice between investing in a new Suite or paying the utility bill. Every year, we hear the media machine proclaim that you can't make video and sound without the latest and greatest, staying competitive means upgrades, it's an endless Moebius Loop that keeps the hardware and software vendors happy and in donuts, insures that trainers will have a cycle of confusion, teaching and learning, wait a year and repeat, and all the other momentum that goes along with a vibrant, dynamic market.

Meanwhile, the Zen ideal reveals that there's something to be said about hardship and ingenuity, the lessons of trying to make the most out of a limited set of options, the discipline of being truly creative, using the power of the mind and the spirit to overcome worldly limitations and wring the most from the tools you have in front of you. Sometimes less is indeed more. It's a good way to approach life, especially in times of declining resources and stressful realities of everyday life.

When I wrote the very first Photoshop book, it was more a reflection of how I found myself using the software at the time, which included applying it to the task of creating animation. In a time before After Effects, my multimedia production team was using PixelPaint, ColorStudio, Director and other tricks of the trade to deliver interactive kiosks to corporate clients, and we had gotten our hands on a very early copy of Photoshop, thanks to my connections at SuperMac Technology, the leading video hardware vendor and publisher of some great early stuff, including the beforementioned PixelPaint (the first good color painting program for the Mac II), and the very first version of Premiere.



This shot for "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" was done by the author on a Mac II FX with less RAM than your iPhone. A LOT less.


When Photoshop came along, it did a better job at converting 24-bit images to 8-bit color than anything available, so we ended up using it as a major part of our animation pipeline, and we finally figured out that it was a great tool for creating animated elements for Director, and for tape-output animation. I decided to devote a chapter of "The Official Photoshop Handbook", the very first Photoshop book, to creating animation with Photoshop, something that surprised both Bantam and Adobe, but which generated a ton of great feedback from the readership. We were using the filters, like Twirl, with a gradually increasing filter value handled by an Excel spreadsheet, a trick I took with me to ILM and helped integrate into our production techniques there, along with the venerable QuicKeys macro software to handle the process of automation.

I invite anyone to take a close look at "Terminator 2: Judgment Day", and tell me you can see where we used Photoshop -- during a time when it didn't have layers, mind you -- all the 3D, animation and compositing work still holds up well, and who's complaining that we didn't have more than 24 bit color? The shot I created for T2 can only be seen in the Directors Cut version of the film, and it was the only shot produced by ILM that was declared final on take 1 (a story for another day). It was my very first full effects shot for ILM, and it served as my indoctrination by fire, with big handshakes from Dennis Muren and Mark A. Z. Dippe.

Or there's the bubbles shot in "Hook", where Tink is looking down at Peter, who has just taken a dive into water; we see Tink from Peter's POV, and as he's breathing underwater, air bubbles break the surface above his head as Tink hovers over the water. As I was working on a bunch of Tink flying shots, and had already precomped the glow on her element that was to be blended with the water shot, I was also tasked with comping in the water bubbles that were being cooked up by the CG department. Mind you, this was in 1991, when the technique of rendering liquid caustics was still not something quite as mundane as today; the 3D guys kept pumping out iterations of procedural 3D bubbles, but Spielberg kept sending them back, he was simply not buying into the look of the generated assets.

In the middle of a staff meeting one morning, I remembered seeing a water table in the main C building bay, and I realized that there was nothing to lose by trying out a silly concept: rig a scrim over the table, back project the precomp of Tink on it, hook an air pipe up below the table, blow some bubbles up through the water, and shoot the results back onto film. After I was done presenting my idea to the group -- I had come up with it on the spot -- the 3D team looked at me as if I had suggested torching a truckload of kittens. The idea of leaving the digital realm freaked them out, and they all declared it DOA.

My supervisor decided it was worth a shot, but during the shoot, the compressor was less than cooperative, and we couldn't get the pressure we needed for lively bubbles, all we could muster were some anemic-looking candidates, but we shot them anyway, and sent the test results to Spielberg to see what he thought of the new direction. Steven was thrilled, and declared the test shot a final. When I mentioned to my supervisor, Bruno George, that we needed to shoot it over, with real air pressure, he made a withering comment about the staggering workload we were facing, that Steven had FINALED the shot, and that was that. I learned a lot from Bruno.

All the technology money can buy is a good thing, but it's no substitute for creative thinking and problem solving. Try whatever makes sense, use whatever technology you have on hand, and learn the primary rule that is burned into the soul of every real photographer: the best camera, or tool for any given task, is the one you actually have on hand.







David Biedny is a multimedia artist, author and educator with over 30 years of industry experience. The author of various infamous Photoshop books and innovator in the early New York multimedia industry, Biedny worked on "Terminator 2: Judgement Day", "Memoirs of An Invisible Man", "The Rocketeer" and "Hook" at ILM, has authored hundreds of technical articles, reviews, columns and tutorials for a variety of publications, served as faculty at the School of Visual Arts, San Fransisco State University and NYU, lectured at Stanford University, and was present for much of the behind-the-scenes action during the formative years of the digital revolution. He currently teaches digital media in the design department of the Yale School of Drama.




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