Diarmid Harrison-Murray on bringing CG creatures to life in shots' Tech Special

Survival of the Fittest: 3D Creative Director Diarmid Harrison-Murray brings together the worlds of natural selection and cutting-edge technology in his opinion piece for shots magazine's Tech Special

Diarmid Harrison-Murray, 3D creative director at MPC ponders the evolutionary forces that shape his team's award-winning CG creatures, from the cast of Disney's 'Jungle Book', to Samsung's 'Ostrich' and John Lewis' 'Buster the Boxer'. His advice to designers aiming to breathe life into their CG creatures? Embrace the complexity of creation, hold back on the human and lose control of your tools.

"Digital Darwinism is a concept that underpins how I approach creating CG creatures. Every day throughout a production I see variations of models, textures, animation and shaders and make selections and rejections. Only the fittest survive, and slowly the creature evolves towards photo-realism. This natural selection extends further between the different species of our digital world.

We pan for the gold in each of our creations and pass that technology or creativity on to the next. We have to be proactive with this, to move with the times and evolve.

You can literally trace the bloodline of MPC’s recent CG ostrich for Samsung back through a flamingo, a seagull and a black swan to Monty, the fluffy Adélie penguin who became quite well known a few Christmases ago. You might even find a few strands of digital DNA from a T-Rex in a squirrel. And whilst the technical and creative aspects of our work evolve, so do we, the not-so-blind watchmakers. The artists working behind the tools are actually what really matter. It is more about nurture than nature, as we pass our wisdom and insights down to the newer talent. Here are some of the more esoteric notions that have served me well over the years.

Don’t rush. Building photorealistic CG creature is a time-consuming process that requires great patience and attention to detail – and an enormous amount of skill and creativity. Resist the urge to turn your computer on too soon. Compile a monstrously in-depth dossier on your creature of interest, full of references and cross-references of every kind. Mistakes made early in the process always come back to bite you.

Don’t get too hung up on the process and technical aspects. In the early days of CG, everything was based on clever tricks to try and fake reality using computers that were less powerful than our present-day smartphones. These days our toolset is more physically based and comes closer to simulating or modelling the real world more directly and accurately. However, everything is still a massive over-simplification compared to the complexity of the real world. The end image and the illusion of realism are what really matter; it doesn’t matter how you get there.

Realism and believability are crucial, but not the end game. There is always the need to engage emotionally with the creature or animal. An important lesson I’ve learnt over the years is that nature knows best. Don’t try to anthropomorphise your creature, look instead to Mother Nature for reference, and we humans will project the rest. It’s tempting to put too much human in because we’re trying to convey emotion in a short space of time, but, without fail, the animal doesn’t like it. The best emotional responses come when the animal is left to be itself – the emotion comes with the viewer. 

You need to lose control of the technology little. Your tools have to have enough complexity that they start to take on a life of their own. That’s when you get emergent behaviours or results that surprise you. A contained tool won’t give you that. Take Samsung’s 'Ostrich'. They are complicated looking birds, with wild fluffy feathers that bounce all over the place. Our Life team worked hard upgrading our feather system to achieve this. It was a truly wild beast of a tool when we finished it, and there came this point where we were freaking ourselves out with the realism of our own renders. That is the magic moment when you lose control of your technology and it takes a life of its own."

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