Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

No Allowances Needed

Rick Sayre

Three years ago, Computer Animation was split into two independent categories, Computer Animation and Visual Effects. The continued blurring of the lines between the disciplines has led to a re-unification this year, with the jury considering them together as part of something we don''t yet know how to label. "Computer Film" and "Digital Film" are evocative, but reference a dying media. "Computer-Potentiated Linear-Time Visual Media", while semantically accurate, is rather unpleasant. So, for the moment, we continue to use "Computer Animation/Visual Effects".

While the disciplines blur, the need for disparate contexts by which to evaluate the two types of work persists. At least for the present, short-form Computer Animations tend to be the product of small teams and singular visions. We typically judge them as complete works, and if they undertake traditional storytelling, the work must have a good story. While last year''s Golden Nica winner was an encouraging departure, Visual Effects are generally sub-contracted as components of vast studio efforts. The work of which they are a portion may further involve Visual Effects from several entirely unrelated production companies. If the "story" of the big-budget feature film sucks, if other sequences from other companies are poor, if the film itself is a hideous failure, can we hold it against the submitter of a particular Visual Effects sequence? This jury thinks not, or rather "it''s more complex than that". Visual Effects remain a potent force in media culture; indeed, the jury saw several short Computer Animation pieces which themselves referenced Visual Effects sequences of previous years. If the work is groundbreaking, clearly influential, or simply done incredibly well, it must be considered on its own merits, even if embedded in a filmic disaster. Perhaps, however, this simply reveals that we are still in the formative stages of a new meta-medium.

The jury was faced with more than 250 entries to consider. Our somewhat Byzantine process represented a continued evolution from years past. While structure is important in order to fairly consider a large number of works in a short time, we also strove to arrive at a decision which felt good to each of us as individuals from disparate yet complementary backgrounds. The result of an arbitrary statistical process could only be a starting point. It is a great credit to the Prix Ars Electronica that the juries may develop their own methods, which suit the makeup of the group and the number and quality of submissions each year.

We first went through all of the pieces submitted, in a phase of minimal discussion. Our goal was to build context for subsequent discourse. Any of us could say "yes," and the piece would be immediately stopped and set aside for later full consideration. In contrast, to terminate a piece early and reject it required a majority vote. We thus attempted to allow compelling yet controversial work to resonate with any individual, while trusting that "badness" would be more universally recognized.

And, unfortunately, there continues to be a fair amount of badness. Juries in years past have commented on the proliferation of "eyeballs and tunnels" in Bad Computer Graphics. This year was no exception. A remarkable new phenomenon became known as the "Bad Character Effect". A piece would open with perfectly reasonable backgrounds, perhaps even develop briefly and lyrically, and then be destroyed by an abysmally designed, modeled or animated character. Often all three. Evidence, perhaps, of the machine using the user, rather than the more desirable obverse.

Another common annoyance was epitomized by the "Screen Saver" entrants, pieces indistinguishable from screen savers, old SGI demos, and WinAmp plugins. Copying the forms of Oskar Fischinger is not enough, one needs also at least compelling choreography. Similarly, there were pieces jokingly referred to as "scientific". To simply use the computer is not enough, a work must also succeed aesthetically.

At the end of the first day, we had a list of 47 contenders. The next day began with the complete viewing of each work. A piece needed at least two advocates to remain under consideration, and there was in depth discussion of some. This discussion led to essentially majority picks for each of the pieces.

At this stage, we had 20 pieces. They were all strong, and all had their defenders. We therefore decided to award all 12 Mentions. This is significant - we would have awarded more if possible, so please look upon the Honorable Mentions as works of unique merit, not in any sense "also-rans". While the rules state that only five minutes will be considered, the complete pieces are shown at the Ars Electronica if selected. With this consideration, we felt compelled to see the entire works. In some cases, we changed our minds after seeing complete pieces, which was somewhat unsettling.

Rather than prune from the bottom, we decided to concentrate on the top. Our goal was to make the best decision for the Nominees and eventual Golden Nica winner, and for that decision to inform the context of the Mentions. We therefore each voted for our personal three Nominees. This was an agonizing process, as many of us felt there were four very strong contenders. At the end of the vote, we had a short list of eight.

This was exactly the goal of our previous endeavors - a short list of works to intensely discuss. We watched them all again, sometimes more than once. We discussed and debated down to four, and used an arcane process to select, from all possible orderings, a personal awards selection. This turned out to be an interesting majority decision, but it was only an intellectual exercise. We wanted to have one evening to live with a decision, discuss with others informed by that context, and then to re-evaluate by the harsh light of day.

That final day saw more intense discussion. We watched the three we had picked, and then went back to the short-listed eight works. We watched them again. We discussed. It was decided to vote again for the top three Nominees, throwing the list of contenders theoretically wide open. Amazingly, we had unanimous agreement on our three Nominees. Balloting for the Golden Nica led first to a split decision, and then to a majority. We then each argued the merits of the pieces, and came to a unanimous decision.

We used a similar process of voting and discussion to arrive at our list of Mentions. From our list of 17, we knew we must eliminate five. We each voted for the five pieces we would like to see removed, and found we had exactly five majority candidates. We then went back over the full list, allowing for both compelling argument and regretful second thoughts. Any rejected piece could find an advocate for resurrection, if we could agree on which piece would take its sacrificial place.

Wer macht die Kunst von morgen? It is a wonderful irony that we now talk about making allowances for big budget studio work, for 2001 opens the new millennium with a quiet revolution in computer animation and visual effects. There is not a single student piece amongst the Nominees or Mentions for which any "allowances" need be made. The student work competed on an absolutely equal footing with work from the big studios and commercial houses, and was in fact superior in most instances. Two out of three of the Nominees, and most of the Mentions, are student works. This is an occasion to be celebrated - the tools have reached the point at which they are "good enough", and students are acquiring the discipline to undertake works within their means.

The three Prize Winners and every one of the Honorable Mentions represent strong, fully realized work, of commendable maturity and breadth. If any of this work is unfamiliar to you, seek it out, and watch it! It is all well worthwhile. The three Nominees each have a completely different, fully-realized "look". And yet, while the final list is undeniably strong, we were struck by what seemed to be a strong dichotomy amongst the entrants. The polished, fully realized works tended towards very traditional storytelling. The less polished work bifurcated towards incredibly derivative or utterly pointless. Notably absent were unpolished works which shone with energy, innovation and personal statement. While it may have made our jobs as jury members easier, it left us feeling vaguely uneasy. Why is it that the raw, unpolished work tended to be more derivative than the more "commercial" and "accessible" pieces? Why is the spark missing? The students have demonstrated that the tools really are now good enough. It is up to the visionaries to find them. The innovation to be seen this year comes, by and large, not from big studios, but from small schools and independents. We eagerly await the Takeover.

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