Is film dead?

An advertising industry looking for ways to reduce budgets has taken ultra-realistic 3D representations of merchandise and even models to its heart, but at what cost, asks Dom Hall.

When a London-based advertising agency pitched an idea to a new client that involved photographing a Boeing 737 at a tricky angle for the basis of a new campaign, it hadn't exactly taken into account the logistics of acquiring such an image.

After what must have been a particularly hair-raising budget meeting, where quotes for the photographic job ran into tens of thousands of pounds, the agency scrapped the original plan and turned instead to computer-generated image experts Solid, who set about recreating the required shots in Maya, Alias's 3D content creation package.

Having carried out the same trick for lots of other clients, Solid was able to produce the exact images the agency was after at a fraction of the cost, and all without the hassle of hiring and photographing a sizeable aircraft over several days.

Solid is one of a number of agencies specialising in creating ultra-lifelike computer-generated images that are increasingly being seen as a cheaper and hassle-free alternative to the real-life content stills supplied by photographic agencies.

But at what cost? As packages such as Maya, 3ds max and XSI become cheaper and easier to use, are the traditional suppliers of commercial images being forced out by those able to knock up a computer-generated substitute?

Seeing is believing

According to Chris Ruffo, industry marketing manager at Alias (a company that's been developing Maya and other 3D content creation technologies since 1983), Alias' flagship 3D content package is already attracting new users from the illustration and design fields, eager to extend their 2D skills into the 3D arena. Agencies realise that ultra-real 3D images are often more convenient to shoot than real-life objects.

"A lot of photographers are upgrading to Maya," explains Ruffo. "Recently, there was a beer commercial that involved a bottle and some ice. Photographers hate shooting ice because it melts under the heat of the studio lights and it's difficult to capture successfully. With a computer-generated image, you have total control and none of those problems."

He also cites another example: a Fisher-Price toys catalogue that features 3D models created entirely in Maya.

Ruffo expects the software's relatively low price, along with an increased awareness of its capabilities, to draw increasing numbers of graphics artists into the fold.

"I don't think the cost will put anyone off - if you make your living as a graphics professional, $2,000 at the upper end isn't too much," says Ruffo. "It's also no more difficult to master than any other 3D package. A few years ago, there was no 3D in television ads; now you can't turn on the TV without seeing it. The same thing is happening in the professional space for graphics."

Over at Solid, director Gavin Lindsay explains that his company has been using Maya for the last seven years to create high-resolution computer-generated imagery for advertising. For Solid, the benefits are simple, the program helps the company to provide any kind of image without real-life restrictions and at relatively low cost. This is something clearly demonstrated in commissions the design firm has carried out for a number of high-profile clients, including Perrier, Land Rover and Kellogg.

"You can't achieve, in the real world the kinds of things we can using Maya.," he says. 3D software helped German design agency ReproLine to meet a recent commission from cosmetics manufacturer Este© Lauder. The agency had the rather pressing problem of how to present an image of a Clinique moisturising product that wasn't actually available to photograph.

"The moisturiser was still in development but we were able to create a poster as it would appear," Reproline's director, Andreas Achter, explains. "Being able to have posters ready to go before the product is even finished reduced time-to-market for our clients and it's a compelling service to be able to offer them."

The death of film

While plenty of people are clearly welcoming the broader use of 3D design packages, the development is not to everyone's taste - especially the traditional image powerhouses of the creative industry: the photographers.

London-based photographer Charlie Gray believes "a good percentage of photographers are concerned by the trend" - the advertising industry is already well aware of the many and varied ways 3D images can save money.

"This even stretches as far as live models and people shots. So many advertising campaigns are created using computer-generated people or characters in product shots. That way, they avoid expenses such as worldwide buyouts, which can be extremely fruitful to models and photographers alike," Gray explains.

"This could be damaging in the long run," he adds. "But, to be realistic, people were predicting the end of film when digital cameras came into the frame."

For Warren Palmer, a Hampshire-based photographer who specialises in corporate and advertising images, the trend for computer-generated images is just that - a trend that will eventually run out of steam. He reckons the similar look and feel of 3D images in advertising will eventually force agencies to re-think and seek out something completely different.

"Ad agencies tend to jump on the bandwagon. Once CG images reach saturation point, the circle will go back to the start again," he says. For the time being, though, it seems that we need to prepare ourselves for an onslaught of 3D imagery - as well as increasing commercial pressures that will force graphic artists to decide which side of the fence they're sitting on.