- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu tells us that the function of a cup or a bowl is in it’s emptiness, not it's material form. The inner space is what makes a home livable, for example, and the vessel itself serves the emptiness inside.
How does this apply to the function of the artist? And even a further stretch: What does this have to do with the daily grind of the highly technical work of a visual effects artist?
There is something quite beautiful to the idea that we are constantly mapping out invisible coordinates wherever we move, and that the material world exists only from the emptiness that surrounds it.
At the fundamental level, visual artists create form in an empty world. But we may also come to understand not only the creative process, but a closer connection to Lao Tzu’s idea by using the artist’s process as a point of reflection on the artist's actual resulting work.
This means seeing the processes themselves as an expression of the philosophy or idea beyond just the final piece. The act of creating is it’s own medium. Or, to twist an older idea:
"The medium has a message."
I once caught a fly and put it in a jar. With a video camera lens placed over the circular opening, I recorded it’s movements.
Later, I painted a line behind that movement, because I was curious what kind of drawing it would create.
The fly mapped out the coordinates of the empty space, and I simply followed it with a line.
Furthermore, it is the emptiness of the space the fly activates which holds the funtion and parameters of his movement.
Below are some stills from other videos I made early in life, in which I was attempting to satisfy my obsession with empty space:
Lao Tzu’s idea is not technical. This Taoist idea of empty space is existential: The matter itself has no function.
It is the emptiness that “matters.”
Although his view is a philosophical one, we will travel through the world of technology to arrive at a deeper view of Lao Tzu's statement.
From this meditation, we will appreciate our technology in a new way:
The most rudimentary way vfx artists simulate a three dimensional space is through manually modeling an object. The models are built, at a computational level, through trigonometry, to create meshes and vectors. These polygons increase to become higher and higher subdivisions, based on how detailed the model is.
On a side note, I was very surprised to learn recently that my uncle, who was an engineer for NASA, actually was involved in the early stages of this technology development!
I was in the middle of showing him some animation, and he barely noticed the story, but became extremely excited about the math he was seeing on screen. I was trying to share the motivations of the characters, and all he saw was trigonometry.
After learning that my own uncle was one of the early pioneers in developing this very technology I was using, so he could help improve space exploration, I certainly felt a sense of responsibility before beginning the animation on the next scene.
We stand on the giants and see further, as they say.
In fact, much of the technology the visual effects artists use today originally started in other fields and uses – such as aviation, NASA, and the military.
It was the artist who saw another potential.
I will share more about this, as we go.
In any case, manually creating 3D models allows the artist to use the imagination, as well as combine real world application, such as modeling a piece based on a photo or piece of architecture, or figure, they studied.
3D modeling itself relies heavily on the technique and skill of the artist, so this way of creating an environment is probably not going to be accurate enough to always blend in with detailed, real world interaction.
The artist will do anything to improve the quality of their work, even if it means handing over some of their technique to the technology itself.
Dot Your I’s And cross Your T’s
Did you know a three dimensional model of a real world object can be built by taking photographs of that object?
This is grammar. Photo grammar!
Photogrammetry is the science of making measurements from photographs. Photogrammetry is used in satellite tracking of the Earth’s geography, used in geology, and meteorology, amongst other practical uses.
But, of course, the artist took those ideas and used it to create their own worlds!
You will need several photographs of that object, or environment, in order to create a reliable point cloud. The point cloud is basically data which appears as a cloud of coordinate points within the 3d space of a computer:
Often, these photographs are not enough to simply build a model. The point cloud system is data for the computer, and usually the artist will be required to manually make adjustments and speak the grammar of the technology itself to complete the model.
Often, in filmmaking, the artist uses photogrammetry to create his or her own version of a space that the live action camera team will be recording. Let’s say, for example, some action takes place between the actors, and the camera is moving about the space. The artist may need to alter that space without the audience noticing it is a digital room. Through photogrammetry, the artist is able to simulate an accurate picture of the three dimensional room without creating any seams. The audience will watch the film without realizing a digital set has replaced the real one. This illusion gives the audience the enjoyment of the spectacle of the effect without being taken out of the real world the live action filmmakers have been creating.
LiDAR is an even more sophisticated and detailed way of using the same principles of photogrammetry.
This system of technology uses light, in the form of lasers, to measure precise detail of a material surface. It was first used in meteorology, soon after the invention of lasers themselves. NASA has used LiDAR to actually map the surface of the moon, and aviators use it to measure elevations of the Earth to help prevent flying into trees. Satellites are even using them to scan the Earth.
But my favorite use is from the artist.
Filmmakers use LiDAR to scan the environments they may need to simulate in a digital recreation. With these lasers, they track the coordinates based on where the laser is positioned within that environment. This part of the technology works kind of like a detailed GPS, but with the essential element of tilt, height, angles, and horizontal axis calculated in order to also balance the image result.
This data is recorded into a computer and can be translated into a point cloud system, similar to the photogrammetry system shown earlier above.
Essentially, the laser sends out a pulse. That laser’s pulse hits the object and then travels back to the LiDAR sensor. But one of the key elements here that separates it from standard photo based photogrammetry is the LiDAR system is also calculating the time it takes for that pulse to return to the sensor.
So, the signal is sent from the LiDAR unit. That signal travels to an object, and the signal is sent back to the unit.
The speed of the light multiplied by the time of travel, divided by two (light to the object and it’s return) gives us distance. With distance, we now have a measurement.
When the laser scans the entire environment in this way, it creates a powerfully detailed measurement of the environment.
Although time consuming, this is currently the most accurate way of those listed to arriving at a precise map of an environment.
This is due largely to the fact that we are not using a manmade ruler, for example, to make a measurement, but actually using light itself as the principle collector of data. Light can travel to the top of an object, giving data on the top of the object and back (distance 1), but also travel through the object and back (distance 2), giving us an accurate picture of what is on the other side, and the density of the object itself. This is very powerful, and if you think about it too long, you may understand all too deeply what Lao Tzu meant when he says the function of a vessel is it's emptiness.
So, visual effects does not need to be only a utiliterean tool to bring a simulated dinosaur to life to scare the audience on a movie screen.
The process itself may be a meditation on the very nature of reality, the distance between things, and the illusory nature of form.
Which brings me to my original obsession. What are we, but the emptiness between? Light itself may be used to measure not only distance to an object, but it's density.
We are defined by our negative space perhaps more so than the space we occupy.
Or to paraphrase Lao Tzu and the tenants of Taoism: It is the emptiness inside that makes the vessel useful. We may see this in visual effects whenever we seek to map out a real space. The point cloud systems which are defined through our various ways of measuring spaces hint at the very nature of space itself, arriving at a philosophy already developed in China in the 6th century of recorded time.
The Taoist philosophy of emptiness is put into practice through measurements. The next time you measure water to boil your spaghetti, remember, you are measuring, or defining, not only the material, but the empty space which gives your measurement their forms.