Talking with Anne Powers about CINEMA 4D: The Artist's Project Sourcebook
Most graphics instruction books focus on the nuts and bolts of the applications they feature, and tend to fall short when it comes to creative inspiration. CINEMA 4D: The Artist's Project Sourcebook
, by Anne Powers, takes a different approach, in many ways more akin to arts-and-crafts guides than technical manuals. Each chapter teaches a different element of CINEMA 4D by going through the steps of making assorted cool graphics with it. Even the simple objects created in the first chapter are fun to look at and display the basics of the application at the same time as showcasing Powers' considerable artistic chops.
Each chapter provides a step-by-step guide through the project it features, along with multiple sidebars that explain the functions and concepts used in the chapter. This enables more experienced users to breeze through the chapter focusing on the steps of the project, while novice users can take their time and read all the sidebars to learn the application in depth. In every chapter, the goal is to make a pleasing image, object, or animation, rather than simply to learn how the program works. In the course of learning about primitives, splines, nurbs, deformers, and booleans, readers will create a box full of lightbulbs, a whimsical car, a viking helmet, a string of dice, and a bunch of fun odds-n-ends. Advanced chapters cover materials, lights, head modelling, character creation and animation, plugins, Xpresso. Powers finishes up with chapters on using CINEMA 4D as part of an artistic toolbox, and incorporating the skills learned in the book into a full creative process. The included DVD comes with all the scenes and sample files you'd expect, and also with a considerable goodies library of objects and materials that can be used in later projects.
Powers' qualifications as an art instructor include a BFA in Fine Art/Painting, an MA in Art Education, an MFA in Graphic Design, and thirty years of college teaching. Currently she teaches CINEMA 4D in the Digital Media Academy at Stanford University. She recently took the time to share her thoughts about the future of digital art instruction, about CINEMA 4D, and about her reasons for writing the book.Can you talk about teaching at the Digital Media Academy[DMA] and how it differs from teaching in a traditional college art program?
I come from 30 years of teaching in the naturally eclectic community-college environment, where many different kinds of students are mixed in one class. So I am used to classes where teenagers are working side-by-side with senior citizens and persons of different ages are learning from each other and valuing each other’s experience. My classes with DMA at the Stanford location have had an even richer, more varied mix. The students come from all over the country and all over the globe, and have extremely diverse educational levels and subject backgrounds. I have literally had a Stanford PHD guest lecturer sitting next to 14-year-old gamer. Their goals for learning 3D skills are usually the same. The mixes are unorthodox, but that makes for very interesting classes! Because all the students are focused on learning the subject matter in the limited time of a week, they all work side by side with generally the same mature concentration.
Which brings up the other difference about DMA. I cover the same material as a college semester in a week (Five days, 8-5 with breaks and lunches). Focus, focus, focus! It is a pretty intense learning experience, but it is amazing what these students are able to do at the end of the week. They are usually in shock that they are accomplishing so much in 3d after a week. The DMA environment is charged with creative excitement! Everyone there is serious about getting in there and learning as much as they can, and they have lots of fun doing it!Does your background in traditional media inform your approach to teaching digital creation?
Totally. The Computer Art and Design program at Roane State Community College (where I was Department Head for a number of years) was actually based on a cyclical relationship between digital media and traditional media, and also fine art and commercially-purposed art. Because I had a Fine Art background there was, in the planning of that program, emphasis on critical “Fine Art” abilities like drawing, painting, sculpture and the quest for content. There was also emphasis on bringing the richness of traditional media into digital work by importing or the use of natural media tools.
Also, the love and knowledge of traditional media makes a gargantuan difference in the look of digital work. Two ready examples of fine art shining through in digital work are the French (as with much European work) and Ringling School of Art and Design. It should be said that this was mucho difficult in the early years of digital art and animation, when artists’ dreams were limited by the technical boundaries. Everything was so stiff and difficult. Now, twenty years on, technology is leaping ahead to better serve fine artists’ visions.
The old cliché, “it’s just another tool”, applies. The artist’s hunger to communicate is the same, design principles are the same, but 3d digital tools bring certain advantages and disadvantages to the process. As technology improves, the disadvantages are shrinking and the advantages are becoming more pronounced. In contrast to the realistic engineered objects seen in many tutorials and books, the objects in your book are whimsical and frequently have no real-world counterparts. Is this your personal style coming through, or is it a deliberate choice for your teaching method? Or both?
I suppose it is a little of both. First of all, this book was born from numerous requests, by students and teachers, for short, fun projects that would keep students interested and teach them basics. So one of my main goals was to design projects that were engaging and short enough to be completed before the student starts to feel bogged down. And yes….fun! If you can learn the same skills and concepts with a dull scene or a fun scene, I choose fun! This summer in the Stanford Digital Media Academy (DMA) classes, I was able to use the book for the first time in a real teaching situation. On several occasions, students jumped up and yelled “Wow! This project is so much fun!” That was exactly the reaction I was going for.
While we’re talking about teaching method, it is important to say that I tried to design the projects so they could be very open ended and lead to personal options and a legitimate art process, rather than just being follow-the-leader. For example, students learn C4D’s six NURBS modeling tools in Chapter 3 to create elements for an animated box, but the design of the box can be personal.
One student at DMA this summer interpreted the box as an “automotive” box (complete with spewing mufflers, boombox audio speakers with vroooom vroooom sounds, chrome and auto paint, and a license plate) because he was personally into cars in a big way. It was cool and original, but he learned the same tools and skills as everyone else in the class.
As to personal style coming through, I hope my personal work does celebrate CINEMA 4D’s greatest advantage: the ability to create anything and totally disregard natural laws. I have been a college art teacher for many years, and with digital tools just as with traditional media I would naturally encourage students to personally interpret what they see in the real world. A powerful application like CINEMA 4D makes it so easy to explore the subjective because anything goes and the speed of the process allows the artist to virtually explore many choices!
Apart from that, I have used elements that I do value personally for their “fun” aspects, both visually and in their potential to be animated in enjoyable ways. Things like twinkly lights, energetic colors, surface qualities and patterns, magical elements like smoke and glitter, dirtied-up surfaces and the like. In a nutshell, what's so great about 3d?
I’ve worked in and taught about every media in art, taught music and photography, and taken dance. I love it all. To me, inventing and animating 3d worlds is the ultimate creative adventure. In 4D (3D + time), it all comes together. Infinite artistic possibilities and interactions are at your fingertips. It’s almost more than you can bear. Clearly, you have made a major commitment to CINEMA 4D, both in your classroom teaching and in writing a book about it. In a nutshell, what's so great about CINEMA 4D?
After teaching several major 3d apps to college students, I happened upon CINEMA 4D shortly after it came to the US. I knew the higher end apps and they were were fine for me artistically, but too steep a learning curve for my students, who worked hard learning the software but never managed to create anything. CINEMA 4D is elegant and intuitive and users can be quickly productive. That’s why students can make animations in Chapter 1 of my book. Also, I needed learn one application to teach and use personally. CINEMA 4D was the most powerful program that would allow me to do the artistic things I wanted to do, and that my students could succeed with. Also, I have to say I was shocked by how MAXON would actually talk to you. With the other apps, sales and support was like trying to contact someone on Mars. I’m sure this has had to change because of its growing popularity, but back in the old days the CEO would talk to you on the phone. After my struggles with other companies, that made a big impression on me.
When I first started teaching CINEMA 4D in a classroom, my students were absolutely amazed that they could PRODUCE with it. In their former experience, they struggled to learn bits and pieces but it was all so complex and unintuitive that they could never put it all together into actual work. They were tutorial rats with no demo reels. They were also blown away by the free demo, the availability of online documentation and the reasonable student pricing. Still are.What programs have you worked with besides Cinema4d? Which do you like the best?
Outside the CINEMA 4D arsenal, my top three would be Photoshop, Illustrator (3D Artists just about have to know those), and AfterEffects for compositing. Z-Brush, Studio Artist and Corel Painter offer endless creative interactions for surfacing and post processing. BodyPaint, Sketch and Toon and other MAXON Modules are an inherent part of my CINEMA 4D Arsenal.What traditional media do you still work with? What do you value about that experience?
To be perfectly candid, yes, my fingers do start twitching after a while and I have to go to the studio and squish tubes of paint and glue down collage elements and make sculptures. I still and always will value splashes and mushy paint, getting dirty hands and smelling mineral spirits. So obviously, those really messy hands-on kinds of things, well…I think they just have to stay hands on. That will never go away and I don’t want it to. To also be honest, I would probably steal elements from that experience and take it into the digital world as well. I just see them as two separate things, but both greatly influence and boost the other. I also do a lot of photography (both traditional and digital) and digital video, which I also integrate with 3d elements. Is there something particular that Digital media/Cinema 4d has freed you to do that you couldn't accomplish (or couldn't accomplish easily/efficiently) with traditional media?
The ability to try things out over and over and explore complex, exponentially increasing possibilities without expending media.How have the past 30 years changed the way art is taught?
Obviously, the equipment costs more and skills are obsolete after the semester final, so digital art education is a fast-paced proposition. The answer to that question depends on the type of learning institution. Some have continued to teach the same concepts and design skills and leave it to the student to master the digital tools on their own. On the other hand, many “skills-based” programs have sprung up which turn out those who kind-of know how to work the software but have nothing to say and lack design knowledge. I think most successful programs address everything. And that’s a big, big job. Is there any new teaching method you hope to see become standard in the future?
Yes; it has been my experience that most students would rather learn technical skills (for example: how to use xpresso to make a light blink randomly) alone at their own speed, asking the teacher questions as needed. I think educators need to do a better job of creating self-paced materials for that and let the teachers continue to address content and design. In the DVD of my book, I included some Snaps PRO “how-to” movies, some CINEMA 4D Files with integrated instructional notes….and other learning resources. The more resources like that a teacher has to work with, the more free they are to spend time on the conceptual and design material.You're uniquely qualified to weigh in on the "is it really art?" debate that rages between advocates of traditional media and digital artists. How do you personally define art?
That one could take a few pages, but the short version is : communication, visual or otherwise, that makes people think and feel and respond. I can’t imagine any artist who had witnessed Siggraph’s galleries who would question the validity of digital work as a medium. You can make art with backyard dirt if that’s all you have and you can say something compelling with it….something that makes that flat line in your brain twitch up and down and your inner voice say “ahhhhh,” “arrrrgh!,” “now I’m afraid,” “I never thought about THAT before,” “That’s PROFOUND,” or “I never noticed how beautiful that is.” Remember the floating plastic bag in the movie “American Beauty?"
Since Digital Art usually involves a steep learning curve, some “digital artists” think that’s enough and expect a pat on the back for making a model that looks like the real thing. Just like any medum, it’s about the personal idea, the fresh insight, or the well-crafted story. A lot of “digital art” you see is a rehash of someone else’s manga or game character, and a lot of it looks the same. (But when you think about it, that’s true for traditional media also.) Digital tools can also be used to create the kind of art made by, say, Anselm Kiefer or Deiter Roth but in multidimensional ways. I would just encourage young digital artists to push outward beyond what’s been done, and be active participants in the continuous redefining of the medium.
CINEMA 4D: The Artist's Project Sourcebook is available at Amazon.com.
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