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[In this bonus art feature, published onto Intel's Visual Computing section and originally created for Game Developer magazine, veteran Steve Theodore looks at how, visually, "although game technology seems to be at the height of information age modernity, the basic challenges of the working artist never really change."]
We geeks of a certain age experienced a little thrill of nostalgia during the blizzard of pre-Halo 3 marketing.
For most industry folks, the commercials featuring Stan Winston's mammoth "Believe" diorama were an intellectual exercise: a chance to speculate about the end of the trilogy, to nitpick about the details of the beautifully executed handbuilt models, or to debate the marketing merits of the ad campaign. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1: Stan Winston’s "Believe" diorama -- the missing link between modern game graphics and old-school modeling skills.
For the more retro among us, though, the mockumentary footage showing the painstaking modeling work resurrected some pungent memories, the lemony smell of polystyrene glue, the slimy slide of water-release decals, and the tedium of filing mold-marks off of various Panzer sprockets and Mustang manifolds.
The plastic modeling scene of 25 years ago might seem irrelevant to a magazine that specializes in whiz-bang next-gen game graphics. The technical challenges of modeling in plastic and in polygons are completely different, but the artistic demands of level design and asset modeling are actually quite similar to those facing diorama builders and other real-world model-makers, like effects houses and set dressers.
Physical and digital modelers both need to engage their audience in ways that differ from most of the other arts. Temporal media like animation or comics tell stories by controlling the audience's experience of time and sequence.
Traditional graphic arts like painting and illustration set the stage with a 2D composition that guides the eye and shapes the viewer's sense of occasion. Physical and virtual modelers, however, must both cope with a viewer who can inspect the finished piece from any angle or distance.
Of all the disciplines, modelers face the toughest challenge in reaching the audience emotionally. Just as animators still find value in the works of Seamus Culhane or Preston Blair (even if they've thrown away their pegboards), modelers should ponder the lesson of the pioneering modelers of the 1970s and 80s, artists like diorama builder Shep Paine, miniaturist Bill Horan, or ILM's Lorne Peterson -- even if we never need to know the right way to vacuum-form a new Messerschmitt canopy or how to unblock a dodgy airbrush.