With a steady, almost religious drive towards photorealism in animation and CG work, aren’t we in danger of losing out on something vital – art and our interpretation of the world?

Speak to 3D software makers today, and more often than not you’ll be able to watch a little propeller spin around on top of their head as they descend into complex flow charts, downright scary mathematics, and a rapid-fire delivery of acronyms. In a little over ten years, 3D and visual effects have transformed not just cinema, but sadly, it seems, our goals as content creators.

Today, it’s all about reality. If you work in the industry, no trip to the cinema to see the latest CG-heavy effectsbuster is complete without playing spot-the-effects, and laughing at poor clothing textures, and dull, lifeless 3D hair. How you’ll hoot at the sometimes jerky animation and scenes that look as realistically lit as those at a junior school disco. “Call that reality,” you’ll yell at the screen: “I could do better with a collection of clipart and a few hours work.”

The upshot is that we’re all striving to recreate the real. We want out pixels polished and perfect, our polygons packages and projecting how the world is outside our window. Then, the feeling goes, we’ll have done it. Cracked the 3D Holy Grail. Our lives as 3D makers will be complete.

Yet this is little more than playing with very realistic-looking Lego – and kind of misses the point about creativity. The last time I looked, art and design wasn’t about slavishly sampling the bricks-&-mortar of life; it is about the artistic interpretation of how life is.
Yet a trip to the backroom boffins of 3D – especially in movies – and the goal seems to be about making hair look better, or skin with pores that sweat, or modelling the stinky underarm pits of CG actors, for all I can see.

There are strong parallels in the history of art. Once, everything was very 2D and representative, and usually involved a religious figure or two. Then, people cottoned on to the fact that little things – perspective, a sense of depth, accurate colour, and realistic people – wouldn’t look too out of place in art. Realism reigned, and canvases were converted to the crusade of painting how the world was.

Admittedly, it took several hundred years, but art finally said “go buy a camera, or look out of the window, for God’s sake, and use your paints to explore how you see the world”. It doesn’t have to be accurate, as any visitor to a modern-art gallery will testify, but it does contain something that no amount of realism ever will.

Will this happen to the world of 3D? Will we get bored of figuring out the paths that light photons take, and maybe stifle a little yawn when people start talking of solving 3D hair? I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but the last time I solved anything was at school.

Maybe it’s time to not be so fussed about capturing what is real – after all, if you want realistic hair, simply look in a mirror, and if you want to model an armpit in a realistic way, be my guest. But if you want 3D art to actually contain a message, or social commentary, or to make a political point, then other styles and models should be your first port of call.