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VFX: a model for the successful union of art and science

The UK’s creative industries are quietly turning into a UK economic powerhouse. In fact, they are now larger than the financial services sector, with one and a half million people working in the creative industry or creative roles.

But there is something surprising that underpins all this creative growth: technology.

Technology and creativity used to be seen as mutually exclusive. Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt used the Guardian’s 2011 Edinburgh TV festival to criticise the UK for separating people and skills into two distinct camps of artists and scientists, or ‘Luvvies’ and ‘Boffins’, to use his words. 

I’m not quite sure where this impression came from. Surely we now live in a world where it’s obvious that technology pervades absolutely everything, even creativity.

It actually feels to me like the collision between creativity and technology is being celebrated. The Barbican, for example, is about to open season of performance and debate, Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain, precisely to examine the magic that happens when art and science meet.

We even have a new genre of uber-cool jobs: ‘creative technologists’. Where older generations may have aspired to take to the stage with a guitar, our next generation of talent aspires to be the new Schmidt. It feels like the prophesy that ‘the geek shall inherit the earth’ is now being realised. Could creative technology be the new rock n’ roll?

The marriage between art and science is nothing new, however, and VFX is a prime example of how art and science have been feeding off each other for decades. The record-breaking Harry Potter movie franchise is testament to the UK’s success in marrying art and science because most of the films’ effects were created on home turf. In fact, virtually no leading box office release is without a significant application of the science and art that UK VFX industry brings to the media.

The VFX industry is an example of a creative discipline that is heavily dependent on technology. The guys behind the effects are called VFX artists… and with good reason; for the technology itself can’t render artwork. But, conversely, these artists can’t create the artwork without the technology. It’s a symbiotic relationship, totally interdependent. There is certainly not separation between luvvies and boffins in our thriving industry.

Computer graphics – that game-changing darling of VFX – is actually a paradigm for the union of art and science. One of CG’s ‘Eureka’ moments came when Boeing Computer Services engineer, Loren Carpenter, used fractals to develop convincing CG landscapes for an airplane simulation video. What a perfect example of bringing art and science together.

Carpenter went on to co-found Pixar and the example he set of marrying art and science went on to produce many successful progeny, everything from enabling surgeons to train on photorealistic simulators; to Formula 1 finding that elusive second a lap in computer graphic evaluation techniques.

In our increasingly tech-dependent culture, technology is nothing without creativity; and creativity is severely limited without technology. It’s this very combination of left brain and right brain thinking that is responsible for the UK’s successful track record in the creative and media sectors. In fact, the UK is so good at combining art and science that all around the world, it’s not uncommon to find this type of British talent in leadership positions; Apple’s lead designer, Jonathan Ive, being one of the early 21st century’s finest examples.

Pretty much all today’s visual media draw heavily from both technology and artistry. And because Britain is known globally as a cutting edge leader in the field of contemporary visual media, it suggests that science and art are ideal bedfellows... very bankable bedfellows, at that.

The UK’s creative industries now account for 2.9% of gross value added and 10.6% of exports of services. The film industry alone is worth an estimated £1.6bn to Britain's GDP and employs about 44,000 people.

If business can embrace combined left and right brain thinking on a wider scale, this type of success can only spread. It’s this very combination of luvvie and boffin that is responsible for the creative industry’s soaring success. If left and right brain thinking can be adopted on a wider scale, the geek shall inherit the earth… and the creative shall rule the world.

William Sargent is Co-Founder & CEO of Framestore



Posted 20 March 2013 by William Sargent
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