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Monthly Archives: November 2014

When I was a kid I purchased a Revell model kit of an AH 64 Apache attack helicopter.  With great excitement I brought the kit home, sat at my desk and un-boxed my new project.  As I opened the box it dawned on me the scale of the task I had given myself as a removed what seemed like endless little plastic components, each suspended by its own little plastic bracket framed in a larger matrix of other parts.  It seemed to my kid brain that there were thousands and thousands of these pieces.  Of course there were only a few hundred, but a few hundred nonetheless.  To my relief as I rummaged through the contents of the box I found a set of carefully rendered instructions that showed detailed drawings of each numbered piece, explaining in very explicit detail which pieces fit with other pieces and the proper order in which the various parts needed to be assembled.  Armed with my trusty E-XACTO knife, a tube of model cement and the instructions, I managed, over the course of a few summer days, to assemble a very accurate scale model of the AH64.

1230_2_rev4046_4 17862_3_a74cd1 Revell 85-5443 Apache

 

 

It never once occurred to me that I should discard the instructions found in the box and attempt to build the model without them, using my intuition as my only guide to assembling all those little plastic pieces.  In fact if somebody had suggested this to me I would have taken them for a lunatic.  It was hard enough to put the darn thing together with the aid of the instructions, but to attempt it without them would be a fool’s errand…. I still maintain this opinion.

As a grown up I don’t have much occasion any more to assemble model kits, although I think it would be super fun.  I have however had occasion to participate in assembling something that is far more complicated and with orders of magnitude more working parts than any plastic model kit, namely video game entertainment software.  Even though there were tens of thousands of functional components to the games I worked on, many of those who were responsible for the successful completion of our game chose to forego creating and following a thoroughgoing instruction manual that might aid us in our production efforts. Its not too difficult to predict what would have happened if I had ignored the directions when assembling my model helicopter, the results would be, well, sub optimal, thus were the outcomes of  many of the ill or no planned video game projects I’ve worked on.

As a young game artist in the early 2000’s I had never heard of waterfall, or agile or scrum, but I think if I had to characterize the way many of the projects I worked on were structured, I would have to say that they most closely resembled the agile model.  We had our meetings and our daily task lists and all that.  We also worked looong hours that resulted in precious little positive returns.  So having endured too many years of the same approach yielding the same imminently predictable results, I figured out  how to structure production in such a way as to offer the best possible chance that the game would be super engaging to the user and not make everybody on the team want to quit by project’s end. The specifics of what I came up with is probably too lengthy to describe fully in this post (I will probably go into greater detail in subsequent posts) but really, when you think about it, its no more complicated than what I learned as a kid the summer I built my Apache helicopter model, namely, when presented with the task of putting together a profoundly complicated thing, always, always, alway have detailed assembly instructions and make sure you have the requisite discipline to follow them.

 

Nothing comes from nothing said Rogers and Hammerstein and they were right. So the creative process can be a little bit mysterious to some.  Although I’ll argue that many, many people who may not consider themselves creative, are actually involved in all kinds of creative activities.  I would often hear from my programmer friends at work, after looking over my shoulder at some picture I was working on, say something like “man I wish I were as creative as you!”  I was humbled by the unsolicited compliment, but the thought inevitably would pop into my head, “of course you are creative, what do you think you are doing when you polish off your 12,000 line of code ?”.  But think about it for a sec, I think a fairly workable definition of  creativity would be to bring into existence something that had not existed before…. whether that is a  cake, a chicken coop, an illustration, a song or computer code.  So like I said, there a whole bunch of different kinds of people, from a variety of vocations and walks of like,  bringing into existence all kinds of things that did not exist before.  All this bringing stuff into existence being done by people that would never self identify as a creative person.

I think a lot about creativity and how we humans make stuff, how we bring things into existence, it fascinates me.  I teach concept art classes to undergraduate students.  My students are young people who have aspirations, one day, to become successful visual artists, many of them want to break into the video game business.  The majority of the assignments I give my students is to draw and paint some “thing” some sort of object living or otherwise.  Having said that,  unlike, say, a figure painting class, where the task for the student is to faithfully paint a reproduction of what they see in front of them in the form of a human model, in my concept art class, students are required to create something that has never ever been seen before, which is the special design challenge of the concept artist.  And not only to draw and paint something that has never existed, but to do it in a way that is so artful and clever as to cause the viewer to suspend their disbelief and imagine, even if for a moment, that somewhere, somehow out there in our vast universe, such a thing actually exists. The design challenge to create a pleasing representation of something that the artist is currently observing is hard enough, but to add the challenge of creating something that cannot be seen adds significantly to the problem.  So how does a concept artist go about creating say a Grapthark Dissolver?  Well she goes about it thru a process called in Latin, creatio ex materia, or creation from pre-existing material.

In theological circles there has been a debate for several years as to how exactly the world came into being.  For some religionists the world was created from nothing, how the earth came to be is a mystery, an arguably physical thing that one moment was not here and then suddenly  now was.  This argument is called creatio ex nihilo which is Latin for creation from nothing, now you don’t see it now you do.  The other argument posits that God basically constructed from stuff he had on hand, from existing matter, creatio ex materia, creation from pre-existing matter.  Its like God wanted to bake a cake so he grabbed some ingredients, combined them just so and viola! a delicious cake or uh a planet.  I’m a Mormon and we believe in the latter, of course I have no personal recollection of the dawn of time and how things went down nor has God personally shared with me how the earth was exactly made, but I like the creatio ex materia idea better, why, couple reasons, its not a late invention of sectarian christianity, and its seems to be more consistent with how I’ve observed the creative process works.

On occasion one of my students will turn in somewhat mediocre work.  When this occurs, my first question to the student is, “where is your reference” and usually the answer is “I don’t have any.”  If the assignment is to create a design of a military style automatic rifle, its impossible to created such a design if you have no or only marginal familiarity with military weapons.  Its like drawing water from a well and pulling up an empty bucket… its impossible to draw water from a well if the well is dry.

Its easy to see how this idea could apply to making concept art,  but I believe the this principle is universal.  Human offspring cannot exist without the union of an ovum and sperm. One cannot create a meaningful research paper without thoroughgoing references to source documents.  And, well as far as a video game goes, a development team must reference other video games, other traditional games, a host of cultural memes, and a bunch of other stuff which I cannot list here, in order to make their game interesting and enjoyable enough to capture the attention of the video game purchasing public.

So the next time you are combining ingredients to make something, remember that this act is an act of creation and and expression of creativity and the very process that is responsible for bringing everything we see around us into the world, and perhaps, even responsible for the very globe we stand upon.