Tools of the Trade

Posted on October 19, 2005 by psu

If there is one inescapable fact of life in our dynamic technological society, it is that if enough people are interested in a given activity, the tools that enable that activity will change. I was thinking about this recently as I was presented with two press items about the film industry. One was a loving lament for and tribute to the last of the hand-drawn animation studios at Disney. The other was a review of the new Wallace and Gromit movie. Each piece drew the inevitable comparisons between hand-animated films and films animated by computer. The authors expressed their perfectly valid preference for the hand-animated style. Strangely though, each also came to the completely unjustified conclusion that computer animation is why they don’t like computer animated films. This is a stupid thing to say.

If they don’t like computer animated films, it is because the people who produced those films did work that they do not appreciate, or worked in a way that resulted in a bad film. It’s not the computer that made a bad movie.

Admittedly, I have something of an axe to grind here. I work with computers every day and am overly sensitive to claims that creative work on a computer is somehow of less value than that done “by hand”. But, I do think that the effect of the machines on art forms that until now had used more manual methods is somewhat misunderstood.

In the context of animated films, the argument went that the hand-animated films had a depth of character and individual style that was missing from the more modern work because in more modern works there was not one artist dedicated to doing most or all of the animation associated with a given character. Because of this, the argument goes, computer animated films “can never” have the distinct stamp of that individual style. The logic, I guess, is that since the computer allows for mass production and automation of the animation to some degree, it must follow that the only animation that you can make with a computer will look mass produced and automated.

Of course, it is easy to find examples to counter this logic. In the abstract, one just has to note that it is perfectly possible to produce all the art for an animated film in a computer, but do it by hand, drawing the film frame by frame. Of course, people don’t do this for various practical and economic reasons. But these reasons exist just as much for films drawn without using a computer. I don’t really know that much about animated film production, but I will claim without proof that it is a rare and expensive film where every frame of animation for a given character is actually produced by the same artist. Even in the Wallace and Gromit short films, there were teams of people who worked on the shots in parallel. I know because I watched a documentary about it.

Other examples abound, of course, in the Pixar films. I don’t even mean the new shiny Pixar films that made millions of dollars. I mean the shorts that John Lasseter used to make as demos back when Pixar was a struggling software company. One famous one in particular animates a desk lamp with more character and appeal than 99% of the hand-drawn animation ever produced at any time in our history. Sure, every frame may have ultimately been rendered by a computer, but the animation was all Lasseter.

My main point is that it is ultimately the care and vision of the individual artist that dominates the quality equation in a work of art. The best artists achieve wondrous things in spite of the tools they use. Thus, Lasseter utilizes a tool which we associate with mass production and automation to produce singularly individual visions. It’s as if he drew every frame by hand.

Another area that I know a bit more about than animated film production is the production of photographs. Here again, we are undergoing a drastic evolution of the tools and here again, the new tools have become the whipping boy of anyone who has decided that all the new stuff is shallow crap. The main argument that you hear is that the digital print cheapens the artistic value of the photograph since “anyone” can just “pick up Photoshop” and crank out perfect prints “automatically.” This, of course, is nonsense.

To create great work in Photoshop takes just as much work, and knowledge and sweat as creating create darkroom prints. The only thing it does not take is a tolerance for breathing fixer. Most importantly, after you know how to make the print look how you want in Photoshop (or in the darkroom) the real challenge is always knowing exactly how you should apply this knowledge to each picture. This takes a combination of visual sense and good taste that takes a long time to develop, if it ever develops at all. Not surprisingly, this knack for knowing how to pick a good look for a picture is also completely independent of the tools you then use to produce that look.

Now, I have some sympathy for the position of the old time darkroom worker since I’ve made my share of black and white prints in any number of darkrooms. In fact, I can say with confidence that there are various ways in which black and white prints made lovingly by hand in a darkroom on fiber base paper (see note below about what fiber paper is) are superior to digital prints. For example:

  1. The paper feels better.

  2. The print smells better.

  3. It might last longer, if you know what you are doing.

  4. Some people might be impressed that you printed it yourself while sniffing weird toxic chemicals.

One thing that will not be clearly better in a non-digital print is the quality of the print itself. As much as I’d like to be able to believe that this is not the case, I have seen no evidence that a hand printed black and white fiber print has any real visual advantage over a well produced digital black and white print. In fact, there are even outfits that will print your digital files directly to fiber black and white paper.

So, if, like me, you love the way the old stuff looks, then by all means try and keep the craft alive. I hope I’ll be able to start making prints again at some point when I have time. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that the old stuff was in some way inherently better because of the tools that the old timers used to produce it. The tools of the trade do not make someone into a master. That’s why my photos are still better than Pete’s even after he picked up that fancy new camera.

A Short Appendix About Black and White Paper

By “fiber” paper, I mean traditional black and white paper where the emulsion is coated directly on to the surface of a paper made out of cotton or other fibers. This is in contrast to more modern papers which have a coating of plastic over the paper base which keeps the base from soaking up chemicals and whatnot. Fiber paper has certain tactile and archival characteristics which RC paper does not. In fact, there has been no lack of wanking over the relative image qualities of fiber and RC paper. For most of its history, RC paper was generally spit upon as an inferior tool for students and lazy dilettantes. Happily, this doesn’t happen much anymore. People just complain about inkjet prints instead.