Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Learning Curve

Lately, I've been thinking about the idea of a "learning curve" differently, since I've started classes in the 3D animation and modeling software program Maya, which now literally shapes many cultural artifacts from contemporary architecture to film.

Perhaps I have curves on the brain today, because we are learning about path animation and u-values, which measure the distance of a curve as it twists and turns from its beginning (a value of 0) to its end (a value of 1). This afternoon, we were expected to produce a sun/earth/moon animation of three nested rotating spheres, a cone on a slow down-speed up roller coaster, and a soaring plane that banked as it made its turns. Since just this morning I was working on animating a simple bouncing ball with basic squash-and-stretch dynamics, I sometimes wonder what a nice literary girl like me is doing in a place like this.

The answer has to do with three areas that I think are important for doing digital media research.

First, it's useful to know something about a given system's available operations and the workflow practices among user communities, particularly if you are talking to designers of 3D games and virtual worlds -- as I often do -- and would like to have some vocabulary in common if need be.

Second, it's helpful to know about the interface and the menus, so a critic can have a sense of what is easy and hard to do, what are the defaults, and what are the most basic constraints. Since I write about rhetoric, nothing is more mortifying that reading a theorist who just assumes that all aspects of digital message-creation are intentional or explicit.

Third, if Lev Manovich is right and we need to be cognizant of "transcoding," we can't understand much about how software shapes our social practices and lived environment if we don't know anything about the distinctive properties and procedures of the software itself.

Of course, I find the experience of taking these classes daunting in a number of ways, even after a year of the grind of digital video editing and effects creation and another year of ActionScript at the same institution.

First, I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm a terrible observer of physics. I tend to notice social and linguistic interactions much more readily than those of mass, position, and motion. For example, I'm fascinated with the variation in how people do seemingly simple things, especially things that they've learned to do themselves, like snapping their fingers or whistling. But I can't reconstruct or imitate those gestures, even if I have a whole classroom, cocktail party, or restaurant discussing them and comparing them at my instigation.

Second, as someone who supports interdisciplinary collaboration and a DIY sensibility, I'm discomforted by the post-Fordist division of labor in the computer animation industry, where people only do one thing for hours all day. Lighting or particle effects or rigging or texturing or scripting are essentially separate guilds with their own mysteries.

Fortunately, at least "Xanadu" was an answer to one of the first tests in the class, even if it was a movie about Olivia Newton John as a roller skating alien, not the familiar electronic file structure system developed by Ted Nelson.

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