Contemporary Magazine - Issue #57 - Autumn 2003 - London

by Rene Daalder

HISTORICALLY, Hollywood has had a rather conflicting relationship with artists pursuing a strong personal vision on their own terms. Production designers in Los Angeles routinely draw inspiration from art publications but the original artists, whose intellectual property inspires the filmmakers, are almost without exception considered to be unemployable by the industry. There have been many incidents where a studio has been successfully sued, as in the case of the great architectural renderer Lebbeus Woods, whose work was copied for Universal's 12 Monkeys (1995), or Frederik Hart, whose sculpture for the National Cathedral in Washington ended up virtually unaltered in Warner Bros' Devil's Advocate (1997). Similarly, Los Angeles-based architect Greg Lynn noticed a few years ago that the art department of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) was hiring away all his interns. Not only were some of the movie's futuristic designs reminiscent of his work, but the art directors wanted to know the secret behind the innovative architect's manufacturing techniques as well. The list goes on and on, but few artists can afford to sue the major motion picture studios.

On the plus side, the film industry occasionally provides a source of supplemental income to the local art community. I befriended Jim Shaw, for example, when we worked together on some storyboards, and I know many West Coast artists who have worked in movie art departments as set painters or model makers. But in these instances, the artists are usually working undercover, never revealing their higher aspirations to the intransigent movie folk.

From time to time, motion pictures have provided artists with legitimate exposure. The Swiss sculptor H. R. Giger, for example, became famous for his brilliant designs for the Alien franchise, as well as more mediocre efforts like Species (1995) and Poltergeist 2 (1986). Another famous example is Salvador Dali's dream sequence in Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), and a more recent attempt to integrate art in the movies is The Cell (2000), which features a wild pastiche of digitally animated artworks that threaten the demise of a psychiatrist played by Jennifer Lopez.

One of the people who worked on The Cell is computer animator Richard 'dr.' Baily, a West Coast artist whose work doesn't readily fit the requirements of galleries or museums and instead gets its exclusive exposure in the cinema. This is a mixed blessing, as Baily can attest. Take, for example, his recent work in Steven Soderberg's Solaris (2002), for which he created the cosmos in which George Clooney and his fellow astronauts appear to be losing their minds. Baily's work is the absolute highlight of the otherwise seriously flawed movie, and can in fact be considered as the only contribution that somewhat redeems this bland remake of Tarkovsky's masterpiece. However, anyone trying to spot the artist's name in the credits will have an almost impossible task. It is hidden at the very end, long after the last carpenter, electrician and teamster has been mentioned.

A veteran of many great effects sequences, such as the disintegrating buildings in David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), Baily is a Hollywood anomaly who has worked at home most of his professional life instead of punching the clock at effects facilities like ILM or Digital Domain. There the computer animators are referred to as Maya-, After Effects-, or Inferno-artists, after the off-the-shelf software that provides them with their marketable skills. Baily doesn't fit any of these categories, which makes him one of the few artists who has managed to survive this brutal industry. Hollywood shows little patience with true artistry, let alone a reclusive computer genius like Baily who is an intense, well-preserved graduate of the psychedelic revolution, who sports long dark hair and is seldom seen without his trademark high-heeled women's shoes.

A student in the CalArts class of 1975, along with Los Angeles stalwarts Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley, Baily goes back to the days when CGI artists still had to develop their own software in order to extract art from the computer. The Solaris cosmos, for example, has been created with his proprietary software (SPORE), an ultra-high-speed rendering system capable of generating 10 to 20 million particles per minute, allowing him to create a density of a billion particles, which starts to resemble photon light.

Like many of the most talented computer animators of his generation, Baily's sensibilities are first and foremost musical, and one of his early ambitions at CalArts was to bring the work of the abstract Czech painter Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957) into a 'higher reality' through cell animation that turned the screen into a window. In Los Angeles he connected with the Visual Music Alliance, a group of filmmakers and artists who were dedicated to the creation of visual music in the tradition of Oskar Fischinger, a German emigre who worked on Fritz Lang's sci-fi flick Woman on the Moon (1929) and Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940). But Baily had set his sights on giving his abstract cinema trance-like properties in the style of his hero Jordan Belson, a virtually unknown Bay Area filmmaker who Baily calls the 'premier artist of the twentieth century still alive'. Belson's work too has been featured in a few movies (Demon Seed (1977) and The Right Stuff (1983)), but only recently, thanks to a foundation for the preservation of abstract films called the Iota Center, does the public have access to the awesome celestial experiences and sensory trips into the self he created.

Baily, who had been building his own music synthesizers, found early in his career that computers would help him realise his mission to insinuate his own brand of psychedelic cinema into mainstream movies and, like a painter of the past inventing his own paint, he started to learn how to write code.

There were other inspirations along the way, like Japanese CGI pioneer Yoichiro Kawaguchi, whose stunningly organic-looking biomorphic computer simulations had a profound influence on anyone attending the yearly computer graphics convention Siggraph in the 1980s and '90s. It featured at least one of his groundbreaking short films every year. But, as is the case with almost all computer artists and especially those who develop their own software, Kawaguchi now lingers in the world of academia, ignored by the art world as well as by Hollywood.

Richard Baily, however, has managed to become the exception to the rule, exploring his obsessions with what he calls 'the technological fetishes of the dreamtime', while hiding out in his converted bedroom studio. This is where every filmmaker who needs to visualise the realms of inner or outer space will find him, ready and willing to 'channel the divine' and provide worldwide movie audiences with the trippiest images they have seen in a long time. But perhaps the real Trojan horse for the likes of Baily may prove to be the movies' DVD releases. They will increasingly allow viewers to skip the movie altogether in favour of the multiple bonus tracks by abstract filmmakers that have traditionally been buried in Hollywood's incessant narrative clutter.