Zed

I, journeyman, await the judgment of the guild. Am I master or fool?

The dogs prowl the perimeter. I pour a glass of rye. I check my watch again: how many hours removed is the west coast?  If I’m sitting in a stationary building on Thursday in spring during a waxing moon, am I two hours ahead or three? Are we saving the daylight now, or were we doing it last winter?  What is the relative velocity of California?

Rye again.

*            *            *

My skill is zed.

Our guild has no formal body, only a loose association of masters.  There is no crest or seal or fundraising jamboree. If I pass my journeymanship I will gain no additional letters after my name. There is no recognition but trust.

But that’s worth something. Because zed is hot, my friend, very very hot. Zed is putting gas in my car, and oatmeal in my children.  Zed pays the tax man. Zed helps me get ahead.

Why hasn’t my thigh rung? It’s almost nine.

They can put a man on Pandora but they can’t call me back on time.

I mean, shit.


*            *            *

My fascination started young. I was a child at the time.

Apprentice to a watercolourist six hours a week.  British expatriat with a big white beard and a natural perfume that veered between earthy musk and unsanitary public stall. Yellow teeth, bright blue eyes.  A harsh clap of his hands: “Let’s get on with it!”

I wash brushes while looking down his wife’s blouse.  She’s explaining aerial perspective – that is, depth implied via desaturated colour shifted toward blue.  “Why blue?” I ask.

“Because we live at the bottom of an ocean of air, and that air is blue.  The further you look, the bluer it gets.”

I lean in closer, and almost catch some nipple.  A valuable lesson is learned: artists’ wives don’t wear brassieres.  Also, the aerial thing.

Though I’d never dare say so I find the watercolourist’s paintings flat.  He does not exploit aerial perspective.  Instead, his style verges on the cartoon – a love of graphic shapes, of sweeping lines connecting unrelated elements, of the painting as an act of visual writing before anything faintly photorepresentational.  There is no modeling, no solidity to the forms.  The entire dialogue takes place at the picture plane.  There is no zed.

Jazz on the radio.  I smell popcorn.

He claps his hands right beside my ear.  “Let’s get on with it!”

*            *            *

You’ve been there.  You’re at an art gallery.  You’ve walked past a hundred paintings with nothing to say to you and then you find yourself stopped.  Suddenly one of those framed pieces of cloth on the wall has broken the picture plane – it’s become a window.  Inside that window is a space.

That’s zed.

As elite establishment interest in representational art waned throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, stylized graphic approaches came to dominate over simulated depth in painting.  Post-Impressionism signaled the death knell for an era matured in the Renaissance in which artists studied light in an effort to generate virtual spaces which would seem to have authentic depth to the viewer.  In modern times implying space came to be seen as pedestrian, a concession to representationalism.  Verisimilitude became gauche, and zed along with it.

But nobody cares about that when they’re standing in front of a painting that has become a window.  It may be gauche but it’s nifty.  It stimulates the imagination to project yourself into that space, to guess how you might explore it.

Aerial perspective, linear perspective, modeled shading and careful manipulations of scale have contrived to convince you: that painting is a place.

*            *            *

Art school. My teacher’s hair is a ferret.  Your argument is invalid.

I try to play along. I’ve been bullied out of representationalism and I’ve obediently set my sights on meaningful abstraction.  My lesbian girlfriend is leaving me and all my marks are low.  I try to focus on my major, to gain approval by excelling in what I’ve been relentlessly assured I have a knack for.

Our school is like Fame.  The normal kids go home before tea but I don’t get off until supper.  Girls in leotards are stretching out their calves against lockers, actors litter the quadrangle smoking cigarettes as they memorize lines.  The art studio smells like pastel dust and a ghetto blaster is blasting Boney M.

I use a meter stick to draw faint pencil lines across my canvas, then sub-divide each quadrant.  I begin to sketch in the forms from my dataset, a meticulous tracking of my own moods throughout a month.  The rhythmic rise and fall of my spirit is a repeating signature, and I reproduce it graphically.  After so much conflict, I will finally be on the winning side of our next class debate about the merits of non-representational art.

My teacher approaches, hair bristling.  She asks me to explain myself, so I do.  She cries.  I sense that I have moved her.

“I can’t believe that after everything we’ve gone through, how far you’ve come…” she begins, chin quivering.

“Yes?”

“…That you would do something like this – this mockery.”

The smile drops off my face.  I blink.  “What?”

“Don’t even bother to submit this for critique,” she says.

All my base are belong to her.  She fails me.

Years later I send her a note expressing my thanks for her perseverance and patience in teaching me, and express my gratitude at being possessed of an elite art education.  It is among the kindest lies I have ever told.

She writes back, Thank you for your gift to me.

Just call me fucking Santa Claus.

*            *            *

Apprentice to an oil-painter.  Short, Sicilian, profane.  A lot of bravado but too chicken to marry his wife.  While I’m scraping his palettes clean I peek between the oriental screens and watch her change.  She has a long back and freckles on her bum.

“Do you know what’s so fucking great about the Mona Lisa?” he demands savagely, brush pointed like a weapon.  I turn around and admit that I don’t.  “No shit,” he agrees. “No shit you don’t, Brown.  Nor could you.  You understand?  Try.  Go to fucking France.  Go to the fucking Louvre.  Look up at that bitch.  You still don’t know.”

“I did go to France.  I did go to the Louvre.”

“And you still don’t fucking know.  You don’t know anything.  That’s why you’re my fucking apprentice.”

“Okay.”

He steps even closer to me, nose to nose, reeking of beer and linseed and terpentine. “You don’t know because she’s inside a glass box.  You have no access to the whole fucking trick.  It’s fucking lost on you.  It’s lost on everybody.”

“Why?”

He explains.  The technique is a sub-specialty of chiaroscuro sometimes called fiume (smoke), pioneered by Leonardo da Vinci and predicated on using dozens of layers of semi-transparent applications of glaze and paint to build up the image with literal dimensionality.  Pigment from deeper within this stack of glazes would reflect light differently than layers closer to the surface, creating an effect of exceedingly subtle depth.  In this way, the eyes of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo seem to eerily follow the viewer as they examine the famous painting from different angles.

The effect is neutralized when the work is reproduced photographically, or when it is viewed through layers of reflective bullet-proof glass.

“It’s three fucking D, Brown.  You understand?  That shit has zed.”

I spend the next six months glazing his paintings, applying Leonardo’s technique layer by layer, millimeter by millimeter, tint by tint.

Wax on, wax off.

*            *            *

Zed has always represented a kind of freedom to me.

When I was a kid, on my bike, I would choose something very small at the limit of my vision and then locomote to it, causing it to swell and gain detail, to open up in linear perspective like a blossom.  Zed was power.  Zed was the visual expression of the capacity to translate through space at will – to pick a speck, and inflate it to become a place.

When I drew I carved space out behind the paper, when I painted I called space forward out of the darkness, stroke layered on stroke.  Even with abstract subject matter my clumsy work yearned to trick you into seeing false volumes.  I could not escape my fetish.

Anti-representationalists hated everything I did.  Art college was a sad rehash of past debates.  I never seemed to fellate the right people for achieving an exhibition.  It was whispered behind my back that I might be suited to a more pedestrian pursuit.  Like fishmongering.  Or, worse, commercial art.

I don’t care for fish.

*            *            *

Like rye well enough, through.  Don’t mind if I do.

*            *            *

Dropped out of school.  Went to work for my father and his fledgling radio jingle business.  “The radio jingling business isn’t panning out,” he said.  “So now we’re doing corporate-themed rock parody songs for business conferences.”  It still sounded like a paycheque to me so I signed onboard, and helped him record Beatles songs with alternative lyrics about Pepsi.

This is what is known as the desecration of art.  It’s a theme we’ll return to.

Business was booming for some reason, so my father invested in expanding the operation and broadening its product.  He announced that we would make slideshows using computers to take famous photographs of the Beatles and replace their faces with those of our clients, and to that end he pointed me toward a stack of boxes.  “There are computers in there,” he said. “See if you can’t figure out how they’re supposed to work.”

The next-youngest person at the company was an uptalker from Vancouver whose chubbiness was expressed primarily and most magnificently through her bosom.  We spent days upon days scanning photographs for manipulation by freelance graphic artists.  We agreed between us that her job was to place each photograph squarely on the scanning bed tray, and my job was to click the buttons on the computer.  This satisfied us both because it saved her from feeling foolish when the computer confused her and it gave me ample opportunity to ogle her ampleness as she fussed over the scanning bed.

Being a mammal is awesome.

The thing is, the computers weren’t that hard to figure out.  Soon we weren’t hiring the freelancers anymore.  I could make my own clipping paths to isolate sections of scanned photographs.  More, I could combine isolated elements from diverse photographs and modify them to simulate aerial and linear perspective, arranging them into new, composite situations.  By projection mapping the elements onto 3D geometry in a virtual coordinate system, I could navigate these invented places at will.

Fiat volubulis!

*            *            *

I quit my job. I was a freelance cowboy.  Computers had violently transformed commercial art.  The old masters were marginalized and the void filled by young upstarts full of piss and vinegar and inexperienced ineptitude.  I earned a reputation as a special kind of fix-it ninja called in to rescue projects from the hopeless conundrums utilizing this kind of bleeding edge personnel necessarily entailed.

It was hard to define my trade.  Certainly, there were specialists in 3D animation and I was not one of them, though I could play on their swingset with novice confidence.  Certainly, there were specialists in character design and modeling, and specialists in motion graphics and picture editing and matchmove and rotoscoping.  My truck was in simulated depth: an obsessive zeal for the illusion of space – imaginary cameras, fanciful optics, parallax and perspective.

Zed.

Pure, pure zed.

*            *            *

A Cartesian coordinate sytem: the horizontal axis is X, the vertical axis is Y, the depth axis is Z.  There’s an imaginary fish tank inside the computer with rulers on the glass.  0.00, 0.00, 0.00 is the geometric centre of the tank.  By clicking the mouse, you may view the tank from any angle.

*            *            *

I’m young again.  I don’t even have hair on my balls.

Stop-motion animation.  Hot lights threatening to melt the plasticine.  The script is getting torn as we flip back and forth, trying to figure out where we goofed up.  Every frame is a key frame – that is, for every photograph snapped by the camera we adjust the positions of each of our elements by a tiny increment.  There are no Koreans in a sweat-shop filling in the “tweens” after selected keys established by lead animators; instead, every frame must retain full translational fidelity with the frames preceding and following it in a free-flowing continuum.

Depress the plunger.  Snap a frame.  Consult the script, check your math.  Nudge your characters a hair’s breadth.

Do it again a thousand times.

*            *            *

An imaginary timeline.  Key frames are created by recording the states of virtual objects at particular points in time.  The computer interpolates the intermediary frames via automated tweening available in various mathematical styles: linear, logarithmic, Bezier.  No Koreans are involved whatsoever.

Turn, turn, turn.

*            *            *

So this one time a major international automotive corporation commissioned the creation of a point-of-sale video depicting “lifestyle” segments designed to appeal to key-buy demographics, and somebody thought every twentysomething wanted to be a DJ, so they made a video about the fake DJ frontman for a fake band driving around in their pre-release car.  Sure.  Why not?

Because twentysomethings were perceived to be highly Internet savvy it was deemed obligatory that the fake band wear T-shirts advertising their fake website.  The address of this fake website was featured throughout the heavily stylized video, captured in a very trendy “shaki-cam” style no doubt familiar to any media-literate denizen of this twenty-first century after Christ.

But because fortysomethings are not necessarily highly Internet savvy, the production company had only the foresight to check that the address for their fake website was not already taken.  They did not go to the trouble of actually securing the domain for themselves.

When the video was presented for the regal appraisal of the powers that be in Tokyo, they turned to their laptops to visit the fake band’s fake website.  Said domain had, in the meantime, been registered by pornographers, thus treating the shocked executives to a panoply of multimedia centred around the theme of Asian virgins being gangbanged by a cadre of foul-mouthed Afro-American gentlemen whose calling in life, apparently, was to produce and express truly remarkable quantities of semen.

Enter the ninja: my job was to correct the website address in the video to a new, non-pornographic destination, tracking the fabric-scrunched text through all changes in lighting conditions and focus across each and every frame of stylishly epileptic cinematography.  To achieve this I told my computer to memorize a bunch of properties at given points on the timeline, and then encouraged it to interpolate intelligently between them.  I danced the words through zed.

“You saved the show, Brown,” says the executive producer as he strokes his long moustache.  “The Japanese are tickled pink.  Ready for another challenge?”

“What kind of challenge?”

“Have you ever worked in 3D?”

“What, like 3D with the glasses and everything?”

He nods.

I shake my head. “No experience.”

He continues to stroke his moustache, eyes squinted.  “I need you on this.  I’m going to put you in touch with someone who can show you the ropes.”

*            *            *

They flew me to Los Angeles.  That’s where I met my Yoda.

I’m introduced to a group of men in Hawaiian floral-print shirts with expensive designer sunglasses perched on their heads.  Their shaman is white-bearded and portly, spry and energetic, a special and visual effects wizard whose name I have seen scroll by in credits for years.  When I ask him out of professional curiosity how Spielberg had achieved his composited lens flare and volumetric lighting effects optically in Close Encounters of the Third Kind he replies unacademically: he tells me just how much sweat he had personally shed running those light rigs on rails up and down a Burbank soundstage for weeks on end.

The wizard had worked on almost every visual effects blockbuster of the past three decades, and now he was building stereoscopic cameras for James Cameron’s upcoming project employing a novel beam-splitting technology that allowed the virtual optical centre of the two cameras to be closer together than the camera housings would physically permit.  In effect, they had engineered a capture system capable of replicating human interocular parallax.  At will images could be translated negatively or positively along the Z axis to a precise point of convergence tailored for the action in each scene.  Their system represented a true breakthrough in stereoscopic media.

I spent a week shadowing the wizard, serving as his impromptu apprentice.  He took me on a tour of all the local theme-parks where his 3D attractions were showing, flashing his credentials so that the plebeians had to continue waiting in line while we butted in for a private screening.  “Take your glasses off now – look.  See what we’re doing here?  Watch how the point of convergence is slaved to the focal plane.”

He corrected my diagrams of virtual stereoscopic camera rigs.  He crossed out my notes and wrote corrections in his own ornate, twentieth-century hand.  He lectured me endlessly about how I must never forget that stereopsis is an illusion, a psychological mind-fuck, a sleight of light.  Your brain wants desperately not to be tricked.  Never the less, it can be.

Zed is in the mind, not the eye.

Om.

*            *            *

Modern stereography is substantially different from both the 3D cinema of decades past and from the way our eyes naturally see.  Old 3D employed twin cameras in parallel, like human vision.  Objects with the greatest disparity between their apparent positions in the two views are perceived as hanging out in front of the projection surface, with the least diverged objects appearing at depth infinity.  The primary difficulty with this approach is that foreground objects which touch or cross the edge of the screen (known as a “window violation”) give the brain a clue that it is being tricked when parts of the image disappear in one or both views.  The secondary difficulty is that two cinema cameras mounted housing to housing are wider apart than human eyes, thus giving the photographed elements the appearance of being captured by a giant’s vision: the net effect is that the action on screen has the wrong scale.  It looks like a diorama of action figures.

With a twenty-first century rig we can capture at a human interocular distance, putting the scale issue to rest.  We can also angle the cameras ever so slightly toward one another.  This means that the point of convergence (where there is no disparity between the two views) can be set at an arbitrary distance.  No longer are elements confined to floating forward from depth infinity – instead, we have the freedom to push them back behind the picture plane.  We can create space.

Navigating this volume of projected space ahead and behind the picture plane in a way that makes optical sense and doesn’t stress human vision is the essential mission of good stereo work.

*            *            *

I promised we’d return to theme of art desecration.  The theme of corporate short-sightedness never goes away.  At the confluence of the two is the year 2010, when every executive who wanted to hedge their bets on the rebirth of 3D is now scrambling to get aboard the bandwagon in light of the runaway financial success of Avatar.  The product of this scrambling is a crime against good taste known as “3D conversion.”

In 3D conversion, a work of flat media is post-processed to hold stereographic information.  There is no pretty way to do this.  The various elements of each frame are isolated – like the faces of the Beatles – and then manipulated in virtual space to introduce artificial parallax.  This means an artist has to spend tedious hours painting in the “missing pixels” revealed when occluding foreground elements are laterally shifted, as well as projection mapping moving elements onto virtual geometries so that they warp and bend in appropriate linear perspective.  Characters are meticulously clipped (or “rotoscoped”) from their backgrounds, any holes in them patched up labouriously by finding matching body parts from other frames, then the combined elements are projected into a new composite space and re-imaged from two different points of view.

There is no software to aid in this process.

There are no filters, no plug-ins, no scripts yet written.

Though this process is performed using the crude waldo of a cursor inside an imaginary fish tank within my computer, it’s not at all unlike having thousands of photographs which you must cut-up, fill in the missing parts using tape and popsicle sticks, and then set up as little cardboard puppets to be recaptured frame by frame with full translational fidelity across all axes.  It’s like stop-motion all over again.  And when it all comes back together, it’s supposed to look real.

It’s supposed to look like a place.

*            *            *

Because I owe Revenue Canada several thousand dollars, I agree to do this.  I spread my legs and salute, promising to tear apart thirty seconds of many people’s very hard work and bludgeon it into dimensionality.

*            *            *

Three hundred hours of pain, eyes professionally crossed.  Managing an overseas team of Russian rotoscopers working for peanuts, my thigh constantly ringing with their questions.  Sleepless nights; there is no rest, only dream.  I’m moonlighting on this while I’m paid during the day by someone else to desecrate something different, a multi-hole whore whose mortgage dictates he can’t ever say, “No.”

This is impossible.  I wish I were dead.

*            *            *

I get a first-hand report about the guy from Winnipeg who did the 3D conversion of Clash of the Titans being booed off stage at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.

I gulp.

*            *            *

The telephone rings.  I knock over my rye, but it’s empty.

It is the wizard, my stereoscopic master.  “Brown,” he says, “ten out of ten.”

“What — seriously?”

“I’m rarely left speechless,” adds the producer.

“They’re going to run it in front of Shrek 4.”

“Congratulations, Brown.”

*            *            *

I will receive no laurels.  I will be recognized with no awards.  But I can pay my mortgage and my electricity bill this month, and now I guess I’m some sort of master stereoscopic compositor.  I’ve been given the nod by the people pioneering the art.  This will mean more work for me – more brain-bustingly impossible work – and possibly a new tax problem and probably an iPad.

Within a year someone will develop commercial software to take care of great swaths of what I’m doing, but until that time people like me are the only game in town.  No one is learning what I know in school; the masters take on new apprenticeships selectively.  This conversion process requires an intimate and obsessive fealty to zed, such as only a master fool like myself can fall victim to; and an ability to act with reckless disregard to the artistic integrity of the work being torn apart, an issue which barely troubles a man with a bank balance such as mine.

*            *            *

I pour one last rye.  It’s time to sleep.

Zed…zed…zed.

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5 Comments

  1. John says:

    This is, to me, at least, the most mindfuckingly brilliant, funny, tragic-yet- hopeful post ever to appear on our little site.
    Welcome to Wetmachine, Cheeseburger.
    Rookie. Rock Star.

  2. peg says:

    But we thrive on brain-bustingly impossible work. Welcome to the (wet) machine.

  3. John,

    That’s kind of you to say. I’d be satisfied just not sounding like a complete tool. I’m very burned out at this point, and my sense of judgment is impaired by exhaustion and the bitter after-taste of productive mania.

    Also: LA says they have another job for me. It never rains, but it pours.

    Peg,

    Well, I suppose we’ve got to thrive on something — and thriving on battling the impossible is better for the figure in the long run than thriving on, say, modified corn syrup or those chocolate bars with bits of almonds in them. Which are also good.

    Thanks for the warm welcomes!

    Yours,
    Cheeseburger Brown

  4. Mark says:

    It does not surprise me that any site that receives one of your posts sees it as one of its best. You used your mastery of the written word to explain how you mastered something else. Loved the backstory, by the way. You lived what most (of those not trained in art) only see in movies.

  5. Sheik Yerbouti says:

    What Mark said. It’s good to see your writing again, whether fanciful fiction or brilliantly-translated menial tasks. You are a true artist, sir.

    Also, Clash blew… but it wasn’t just the lame visuals.

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