Saturday 27 August 2022

Change is coming: AI renderers

Midjourney rendering of a geisha woman
Midjourney Geisha. All the images in this post I 'created' with text prompts using Midjourney.

And when it arrives, it will be quick.

I've been enjoying the Light & Magic series on Disney+, about ILM and all the creative marvels who have worked there. Their enthusiasm and idealism are infectious; these are not so much documentaries as recruiting commercials. 

One thing that did strike me: when the shift was made between traditional and digital effects, which reached a tipping point with Jurassic Park, it happened fast. Very quickly large numbers of people were packing their bags and heading out the door. When the lead stop motion animator saw the first Tyrannosaur walk sequence created in 3-D software, he said to Speilberg, "I feel extinct." Spielberg loved the line so much he said he'd put it in the movie. 

This particular gentleman managed to find a berth as an animation director once his lifelong vocation became obsolete.

A stylized portrait generated by AI Midjourney
A stylized portrait

I remember taking some courses at Sheridan College back in the day, when I toyed with the idea of getting into 3-D (I'd been accepted to their animation program but elected to pursue illustration instead). The security guards there were all former master typesetters; their careers had evaporated with the introduction of digital layout programs. 

The Luddites are generally smeared as an ignorant bunch of louts who were afraid of technology. They were actually skilled weavers and textile workers who were being put out of their jobs by mechanized looms, at a time when there was no social safety net: losing your job could well mean starvation and death to someone in 1780.

An AI generated picture of a squid man in the style of Heironymous Bosch
A gluttony demon in the style of Heironymous Bosch

Change is constant, and rest assured friends, it's coming for you. We have to be prepared for the rug to be yanked out from under us by some new fangled invention.

Which, incidentally, is one reason education has to be a lifelong endeavour. 

It will also be increasingly necessary, I suspect, for higher education to be free for all adults. The US gave tax cuts worth 1.9 trillion for the rich, which is apparently the same as the size of the US student debt, according to Robert Reich. Empowering young Americans should be a greater priority than providing tax cuts for oligarchs to fuel trickle down economics that don't, and never have, worked. It's also disturbing that corporate America is now pumping more money into ephemeral stock buy backs than they are into R&D. It jazzes the stock price for shareholders, but it does squat otherwise.

An AI generated landscape in the style of Bosch
A deceptively peaceful landscape, in the style of Heironymous Bosch. No hint of the coming turmoil.

As we move more and more into a knowledge based economy, education will becritical to establish competitive advantage over other nations. We should really get manufacturing of essential items back, as well; just in time production is so lean it provides no cushion when shocks hit the system. 

And AI rendering is going to be a shock to the system. A major shock. Currently the renderers are limited in what they can do, particularly when it comes to specifics. But they will get better. We should not feel complacent just because of what they can't do today. They are going to get better and better and better. 

Four AI Generated cats in the style of Bosch
Cats in the style of Gustav Klimt. You don't have to just pick one influence, you can combine several, creating something (potentially) distinctive.

I have been playing with MidJourney, which seems to 'photobash' images. Stable Diffusion, however, seems to have some 3-D renderer sensibility behind it. Things Midjourney can't do, Stable Diffusion can. Check out this article on it here. I haven't gotten my grubby little hands on it yet, but I intend to. 

And there are more renderers coming out.

From the linked article on Stable Diffusion

"Artists and other creative professionals are raising concerns and not without reason. Many will lose their jobs, unable to compete with the new apps. Companies like OpenAI, Midjourney, and, although superpowered by the work of many creative workers, haven’t retributed them in any way. And AI users are standing on their shoulders, but without asking for permission first."

Where will they be in ten years? Hell, where will they be in one year? 

Midjourney has only been out a few short months. I believe Stable Diffusion has just been opened to the public in the last day or two.

This is new. 

This is a huge moment in the development of visual arts technology, and we're all here to witness and play with it. It's an historic moment, only unlike with the fall of the Berlin Wall, you can sit at home in your pajamas and participate with a hot cup of cocoa.

I have pumped out an insane number of images using Midjourney over the course of two weeks, more than I could have done if I dedicated myself to painting full time for a year (or more), and while there are defects in the renders, they are also in many ways highly sophisticated; it would take a great deal of effort to match them, technically, when at their best. 

An abstract Midjourney generated cat
An abstracted cat. I think. 

When the tipping point is finally reached, AI Renderers will revolutionize commercial visual arts. They may upend fine art, too, while they're at it. Image making will become property of the masses; those with great skill may still be needed to refine things, but as AI gets better, their numbers will dwindle.

The real question to my mind is whether or not there are limits on what the AI can do. Can developers solve the issues they face now, or are some of them insurmountable? If so, that's good news for artists.

I can see AI 'script bashing' movie blockbusters, too; if not today, then soon. They're mostly written for an international audience, so they're light on dialogue and heavy on effects and action sequences. It wouldn't surprise me if AI could take 1000 action movie scripts and hodge podge together something indistinguishable from a Michael Bay film. 

A stormy scene of a radar tower under clouds
A Soviet monument, in a storm

Aaron Sorkin may be safe, but for how long?

Skill with actual physical materials will leave some artists safe for the time being, but sooner or later there will be robots with paint brushes.

What room is there for the human creative spark? 

The Empire State building made of pink feathers, generated by Midjourney
A featherly Empire State Building

Years ago I read about a computer program that came up with ideas for advertising posters by juxtaposing elements, such as making the dome of a stadium a basketball. 

No doubt it can do better now. 

I've greatly enjoyed playing with Midjourney. I am somewhat relieved it is limited, but I can see incredible potential, too. 

It will be a few years (maybe a few decades) yet, but it would not surprise me if seismic changes occur soon enough for me to witness live and in person.

I hope they aren't planning to replace the security guards at Sheridan with robots any time soon...

With any luck, I'll have retired before the AI Renderers take over. And I for one welcome our new robot overlords...

I made these images with tools from @midjourney, you can sign up for their private beta here

An Oni demon mask generated by Midjourney
Ghost Oni in the machine

Painting of an emo artist walking contemplatively along the shore as a storm closes in on him; in the distance looms a great AI rendered castle.

AI generated image of two people fighting in an office
An illustration of two people fighting in an office, with an Art Deco feel; this is what Midjourney delivered back. 

Wednesday 17 August 2022

Midjourney rendering AI: Crack for creative minds

A big lumbering steampunk battle monstrosity; the first thing I attempted, naturally

It's mind blowing, in so many ways, and also... limited.

Imagine an idiot savant who's capable of astonishing levels of sophistication, but doesn't understand fundamentals. 

Far as I can tell, the software is 'kit bashing' together thousands of source photos, with greater and lesser degrees of understanding. But beneath the slather of detail it pumps out, there's no real structure. A cynical view would be that it's a brittle egg over nothingness.

And yet, what an egg! 

You can produce images with a text prompt and the click of a button! In any style you want, with whatever lighting or mood you choose to specify. 

Just /imagine.

The result doesn't always stand up to close inspection. Yet when you look at them in passing, out of the corner of your eye, they can be dazzling. 

Patterns, simple objects, jewelry can be examined directly and I doubt I'd know it was a MidJourney creation. 

Some images are just flat out astonishing.

Is that big thing balanced on a bicycle?

There's something of an art to the AI prompts. Badly written ones will yield unintended or poor results. As you begin to understand the program better, you channel your efforts towards what it does well, and learn work arounds for areas it can't handle. Or leverage the happy accidents.

Animals and people, for example. Most animals are rendered as hideous deformed monstrosities, like they'd been passed through a Star Trek transporter and come back with a leg sticking out of an ear.

Once you know things like that, you can adapt. 

Midjourney does awesome wreckage

It would take me years, literally YEARS, to produce what I have with MidJourney in the space of a week. I've realized scenes, while not exactly what I'd imagined, are pretty damn close. 

It's like Creative Crack. 

The Great Library: wonderfully wonky and atmospheric

Another software program, Stable Diffusion, is on the verge of being released to the public, and from what I can see, it DOES have structure behind the images. Joints, logical shadows, hands, feet, etcetera. Rather than starting at the surface and working down, it seems to builds up from a solid structure. No doubt it too has limitations, but it can do some things MidJourney can't.

I did not think these software programs would be taking away jobs from artists at first. The lack of structure and the difficulty in getting a specific result mean artists will still be needed to bring the job home. 

But MidJourney excels at kickstarting concept art, finding a mood, initial play and exploration. Unexpected results can spark story ideas. If only I had the time to tell them!

It's great for aspiring writers who don't have money or contacts to make decent covers. MidJourney can pump out a generic retro 1970s sci-fi cover easily. Book publishers will use family vacation photos or whatever generic, unrelated sci-fi painting the editor can find. I've bought many sci-fi books where the cover was totally unrelated to the story.

MidJourney can do better.

A futuristic garden space

There are copyright and ethical issues. It is training on living artist work, so using it commercially may raise a mess of copyright issues. From what I understand, while you can use images generated with MidJourney (provided credit is provided to MidJourney), so can anyone else. Which means you can't stop someone else from using whatever you came up with. 

I've modified a good number of images I've pumped out. I tried like the devil to get images close to Theo Paxstone, but nothing was quite right. I simply cannot get the rendering engine to produce steam mechs the way I'd imagined them. 

Ah well.

But as a playground, it's a lot of fun!

Now if you will excuse me, I have more renders to ponder. 

Industrial farms team mech doing a crop burn

Tuesday 16 August 2022

Life drawing lives!

Went back to the studio for some post-Covid life drawing. First time in over 2 years! I'm definitely rusty. I decided to try out ProCreate brushes I don't often use. 

It's always a struggle, for me, trying to figure out the best way to employ a brush I'm not familiar with. 

I also wanted to explore abstraction, which I've done in the past, but never digitally. Digital is infinitely forgiving, which is great considering the number of mistakes I make and all the options I want to try. 

Of course I can't remember what brush this was.

Or this one. It's part of the default set; it has some nice texture to it, but not as much as the pastels do.

I reverted back to the virtual 6B because...

I was having some trouble with the oil brush.

Friday 12 August 2022

MidJourney renderings for Theo Paxstone

I have been playing around with MidJourney, making images for Theo Paxstone. You can see the first set I generated, of gargantuan mechs strolling through green woods, here.

The AI renderer pumps out some pretty impressive imagery, especially if you look at it out of the corner of your eye. If you look directly, you can notice all sorts of things that are amiss. There's got to be some skill in crafting the ideal text prompt, which will return the best result. 

These are all from the same prompt (I think). You can then guide the exploration by picking one of the four options, and iterate. 

It's fun to play with, and incredibly addictive...!

The people around the mech are a little dodgy, but could be edited in ProCreate...

Love the jet of smoke in the upper left one

What wonderful variety of shapes! Makes me think of Transformers, all the meaningless detail

You can go in a black and white direction

I did some full sized renderings from these, I'll post them later

Like an armoured centaur

As you can see, I went a little bananas. 

Once you've settled on some you like, you can do an enhanced render. I'll post some of those, from this set, in the next few days. 

I made these images with tools from @midjourney, you can sign up for their private beta here

Tuesday 9 August 2022

Marvel and the VFX houses

That looks like... a lot of work.

This article is an especially appropriate follow up to my last post about Exposure Crypto Currency. 

It details the exploitation of artists at VFX houses. What's happening is appalling and unsustainable for any one set of people. Like the gaming industry, it depends on a constant stream of new artists coming in to replace the ones they burn out and throw away. 

I experienced burnout in 2013-14 (in an entirely different industry) and it takes a long time to recover. 

David describes Guardians of the Galaxy as being one of the favorite projects that he’s ever worked on. But even he agrees that Marvel’s process is inconsistent. “The worst was when Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame were coming out. They actually bumped up that release by a month but they hadn’t told us. I remember being on the floor with my team and one of my artists comes to me and says, ‘Hey, you see this?’ and he shows me the article saying Marvel bumped the release date up a month.”


Another artist quote:

“I didn’t have a day off for five weeks. And those were not eight-hour days. They were ten-plus-hour days,” recalled Sam, speaking about his experience working on a Marvel show. “And that was because they did a reshoot a month before the show was due. So we literally got shots in at the end of December for a show that was due at the end of January.”

...Sources also stated that this constant vision shift feels driven by the egomaniacal ability to demand changes and see them acquiesced to, rather than considering the kind of changes that will actually affect the story. “Nobody is holding Marvel accountable,” H said. “So they don’t care. They’re like, ‘Fuck you guys. We can make as many changes as we want and you just have to deliver it.’” These changes can be major: Sam described an incident where an actor was filmed in a practical suit and the studio decided it was the wrong suit. “And you have to replace their entire body and just leave their head in every shot.”

It sounds like a gruelling industry. 

Give it a read.

Claiming it is all the fault of the VFX houses for entering into such contracts seems like a facile response to me. Marvel may posture as being socially responsible, but how they treat their subcontractors says something. 

And while it may sound like there is an easy breezy solution ("Just pay them more!"), I don't think it will be.

Friday 5 August 2022

Announcing Exposure Crypto Currency!

An Exposure Crypto Currency Bill

No money to pay creative people? No worries! Announcing Exposure Crypto Currency, specially designed for creative people.

A common request for art, sans moolah

Here's the gist:

Don't use cash to hire photographers, painters, illustrators, designers, actors or writers. Having money just makes creatives go crazy and spend it all on drugs, Vegas and food stamps.

Save them from being capitalist stooges!

There's a better way: a currency designed specifically for artists and their special needs.

Exposure comes in unlimited denominations, as each Exposure bill is worth as much as you say it is. 

I mocked up a faux Exposure website for the heck of it a few years ago, but never finished. It fell by the way side. Didn't get enough Exposure to complete it I guess. Heh.

It started out fairly conservative looking:

The usual photography route

Initial array of logo explorations, ending in a jester cap matched with a sun

But then I thought, why not go Full Obnoxious? 

Here's the logo taken to the max:

I think this is pretty self-explanatory

Here's a bill variant:

Is this bill worth a different amount of Exposure than the other? Who knows? You decide! 

In fact, multiple bill variants are not strictly necessary, as Exposure Crypto Currency is flexible in value... just like Crypto! It's very important to provide people with options.

Here's the non-existent never built homepage:

And what would Exposure be without rewards? How do you get the cash out of the crypto? Often people pour money into crypto and get bupkiss back. But we have a way you can get value for both your investments and payments. 

Meet Exposure Rewards:

Exchange your hard earned Exposure for things like authentic amateur poetry, or beautiful snow white Zoom backgrounds. The rewards are only limited to... well two. That's pretty much it at the moment, but soon, thanks to the power of paying in Exposure, we'll have limitless art works you can turn in your own exposure for.

Exposure harnesses the power of subjectivity, relativity and flexibility to allow you, the savvy investor, to buy billions for mere pennies. 

Invest your money today, and start paying your favourite artist, nephew, or influencer the savvy way: with Exposure!

ADDENDUM: Looks like the 4 (5?) years since I did this stuff up someone else has built an Exposure Crypto Currency site. Crap. Now there is no point in bothering, I might as well give up the URL and show the work that went into my aborted effort.