“So I need to know: Are you ready to be transformed?” shouts Scott Ross to the 900-strong crowd in the auditorium. They respond with raucous applause. To them, Ross is a legend. He ran George Lucas’s visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in the 1980s, then founded his own Oscar-winning effects firm with James Cameron. His audience is largely made up of young people looking to follow in his footsteps: animators, video game designers, concept artists, illustrators and effects specialists. These are the people who build the digital worlds where we’re increasingly spending our leisure time – in movies, games, and virtual reality. They are transforming culture and they’ve come here to transform themselves, even if they’re not exactly sure what into.
Welcome to Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn. If the name sounds odd, that seems to be the idea. It takes place in Troia, Portugal, an idyllic peninsula just south of Lisbon. Its organisers describe it as “Burning Man meets TED Talks”, though it’s equally a spiritual retreat. Students and young professionals come here from across the world, as do big industry names looking to hire new talent, make connections and softly promote their brands – brands such as Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar, Google, Oculus (the Facebook-owned VR company), King (the makers of Candy Crush Saga) and Unity (makers of the pre-eminent game engine).
“It’s not a fair, it’s not a conference, it’s not a festival. There’s nothing to buy. It’s really an experience,” says André Luís, the 36-year-old creative force behind THU, as it’s often abbreviated. “It is one week where you come to change your life, and understand what you are doing.” Founder of the country’s first computer graphics school, Luís launched the event five years ago, frustrated at the difficulty Portuguese students had in getting recognition from companies abroad. The first year, 100 people came. Last year it was 600. This year, most of the €600 tickets sold out in 24 hours.
This is a booming industry, and a global one. All but three of the 20 highest-grossing movies this year so far are effects movies. Until the 2000s, VFX was primarily a Hollywood concern; now, thanks largely to the Harry Potter movies, the UK is one of the world’s centres, employing some 6,000 people. ILM (which is now owned by Disney) opened its London office four years ago. It now employs 500 people, supervising big titles such as the Star Wars series, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World 2.
Much of what we see in big-budget movies is now digital, even in movies we assume to be “live action”. CGI is not just used for mythical creatures and sci-fi worlds but also costumes, props, sets, crowds, buildings, cities. Gravity, for example, whose Oscar-winning effects were produced in London, was entirely CGI apart from the actors. Technically, it is animation. Movies such as Disney’s recent, uncannily photorealistic Jungle Book point to a digital future indistinguishable from the real thing. All of this depends on human artists like the people who come to THU. What appears on screen begins in their minds and sketchbooks. The movie and gaming industries could not exist without them.
As well as giving this dispersed community a place to commune, THU is giving them an identity, a mythology even. They call themselves “the Tribe” and their logo is an ancient Greek shield. Ticket-buyers are “Warriors”, the industry insiders are “Knights”. These 40-odd knights give talks and lead workshops, but easy social mixing is equally encouraged, be that a drink in the open-air bar, a karaoke competition or a midnight “virtual reality battle”. They also manage expectations, in an industry where hopeful, creative individuals could find themselves animating a troll’s eyebrow for several months.
This year’s knights include Paul Briggs, who oversaw animation on Disney’s Frozen, anime director Shinji Aramaki, and British concept artist Rob Bliss, who started as an illustrator on comic book 2000AD and went on to design iconic characters such as Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, and Dobby from the Harry Potter movies.
Digital art is still frowned upon by fine artists, with its emphasis on sci-fi, fantasy, cartoons and comic books. This is not art with a capital “a”. These artists – mostly male, it has to be said – skew more towards dedicated misfits than louche bohemians. But as fine art becomes more hands-off and conceptual, digital artists are ironically sustaining the classical disciplines of drawing, painting and sculpture. It is a common sight at THU to see people scribbling in sketchbooks, though they’re often equally versed in 3D computer modelling or sculpting in VR. They prize technical skill and individuality, but their work is often a means to an end and a form of communication.
“The future is imagery,” says Ross. “Language no longer works in a global society. The Chinese guy doesn’t understand me, I don’t understand the guy in Japan, but if we start showing images that becomes the global language. And in the world of digital art you’re able to move and manipulate art globally. The future, we believe, is about the digital artist.”
In contrast to the dystopian futures its tribe members often consume and create, THU aims to put this community on a gently utopian path. Some have already been transformed. Spanish animation colleagues Jaime Maestro and Nadia Ruiz came to THU three years ago, got inspired, fell in love with each other, quit their jobs and founded a new company based along similar principles of ethical capitalism and respect for artists. Based in Valencia, they have a team of 40 artists. Their company is called La Tribu – Spanish for “The Tribe”. “What we wanted in the studio was to keep the same feeling we had here,” says Maestro.
Five groundbreaking moments in special effects
The first use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in a major movie. To render the viewpoint of Yul Bryner’s android, the team scanned and treated two minutes of footage, resulting in a low-resolution pixellation effect that looks quaint today, but took months to perfect.
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
The Steven Spielberg-produced children’s adventure features the first fully CGI character: a knight made of panes of stained glass, who leaps off a church window and waves his sword for 30 seconds. The scene was created by future Pixar founder John Lasseter.
Toy Story (1995)
The first entirely computer-animated feature, which paved the way with its marriage of technological and storytelling sophistication. Possibly the first time CGI characters generated as much empathy as live-action ones.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
A watershed in motion capture – using the movements of a human actor (Andy Serkis) to give a CGI character (Gollum) uncanny expressivity. The technique now powers entire movies, such as this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes.
The Jungle Book (2016)
Proof of how far CGI has come since Toy Story. Apart from Mowgli, everything in the movie is computer-generated, but it is almost indistinguishable from reality. Disney is now giving other old titles the same treatment, such as Aladdin, Pinocchio and Dumbo.
Source: The Guardian