The problem with CGI (and a solution)

By Simon Danaher

I have a guilty secret: I don’t really like most CGI images. That might be a problem for a CGI artist, but the ‘CGI look’ is not what drives me, its light and ideas, I just happen to use digital tools to do that.

Light, as every photographer knows, is everything and as someone who is swapping a glass lens for a digital one the quality of lighting is my main technical focus. While digital light is physically very close to the way light behaves in the real world 3D programs don’t actually get you very close to the beautiful lighting you’ll see in most photography. At least not straight out of the box. 3D light can be realistic and if that’s your only goal that’s fine, but that shouldn’t be the only goal of an artist. If all you worry about is how real the images look there’ll be something missing. You have to make a conscious decision to work at taking the lighting beyond mere realism and that takes experience both with digital tools and with ‘real’ light.

I try to work with as few lights as possible in order to eke out something interesting and it can be really painstaking work to find the sweet spot with digital tools. Its often so much easier to simply add more light sources than it is to go through a lot of iterations with a single light, and I think that might be the cause of a lot of the bad rap that cgi gets. But its not a fault of the tool, it’s the execution. There’s actually a lot you can do with just one light, especially in 3D because you’re not limited where you can physically put it.

You also need to keep in mind how you intend to process the image in post because your initial lighting needs to support that later process and not restrict it. So my workflow is a holistic one that intrinsically combines 2D and 3D.  Exactly what the ratio of 2D to 3D is for a given image just depends on the nature of the image, the skill comes in knowing what the proportion should be and that’s something that comes with experience.

I’ve also started incorporating Adobe Lightroom in my workflow because I find it can add just a little bit of extra photographic feel at the mastering stage – even after doing photoshop work I might take the master file into Lightroom to just work on the shadows a little or add some differential toning (raw cgi renders can be way too linear tonally). Its different to photoshop and I’m always looking for ways to get a little extra lift and vibe into my images, to differentiate them from the dreaded ‘cgi look’.

So really you can think of me more like a photographer as that is the visual aesthetic I try to achieve. I rarely look at other cgi work but I’ve always got time for great photography, and there are so many wonderful photographers with amazing lighting out there that I find inspirational. My mission is to create great work, its really incidental that my ‘camera’ is inside a computer.