For decades, paleoartists have told the story of human evolution through sculpture and drawing. Now their tools have evolved, too.
Computers allow a level of detail and control that isn’t possible with other media. Their creations can come closer than ever to bringing our ancestors to life.
“What’s driven my work has always been, ‘I want to see that thing alive. I want to see that world,” said paleoartist Viktor Deak, who provided the reconstructions used in the Becoming Human documentaries, which aired in November on PBS. “Computer graphics is developing to the point where, in movies like “Benjamin Button,” you don’t know what parts are not digital.”
Deak still begins his reconstructions in traditional fashion, sculpting bodies from clay. Like other paleoartists, he doesn’t know what his fossil interpretation will look like when complete, but comes to an understanding of anatomic nuances, of tissue and muscle thickness and how it might have linked to ancient bone, while working with his hands in three dimensions.
Once he’s done, he converts the work to digital format. For a 78-foot-long mural now traveling withLucy’s Legacy, a touring exhibition featuring the famous 3.2 million year old fossils, he photographed his sculptures and imported them to Photoshop. There he added hundreds of layers of texture and light, tweaking them for maximum combinatorial realism.
That was the old way. For Becoming Human, he worked with ZBrush, a 3-D modeling program that lets him work with the sculpture in even greater detail. “The nuances of the skin, the way light scatters underneath it, they figured all that out,” he said of the program’s naturalism. “There’s no limitation on what you can do, as long as your machine can handle it.” He poses his sculptures in desired position, then renders it with different materials and lighting. The renderings are then sent to Photoshop, layered and tweaked for maximum realism.
“They look realer to me,” said Deak. “For a couple seconds, people might say, ‘What’s that a photo of? Where’d you get that picture? There’s that moment of belief when they’re not looking at it as a painting or sculpture, but as a living thing.”
“He does wonderful stuff,” said Rick Potts, curator of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Potts described the digital transition as something that many artists have greeted reluctantly if at all, but is necessary.
“I’m excited about it, because it means you’re not just dealing with static appearance,” he said. “One of the great challenges of science communication is taking dead, dusty things we find in the ground, and helping people understand that these were part of a living world. Our ancestors were living and dying, just as we do. Bringing things to life in the digital world can really help.”
The ultimate form of resurrection is as animation, which was done in Becoming Human by mapping Deak’s models onto the motion recordings of suited human actors. But no human can ever move quite like a creature with a different skeleton, and relying on other people to realize his ideas of how ancient hominids moved adds an extra layer of separation.
“Learning animation is my goal right now. That would cross out any ambiguity between the science and the final depiction of it. Once I get the software down, then I can do the whole thing and create the vision of human evolution I have banging around in my brain,” said Deak.
Of course, whatever the tool, the task is still poised at what Potts called “the edge of science and art.” Even for scientists, fossils are heavily interpreted — Lucy, the most complete ancient hominid skeleton, is only 40 percent complete — and Deak immerses himself in the field’s literature, taking in every new find and revision.
“I’m an anthropologist who happens to do art. I don’t write that well and would get bored doing 30-page papers on mandible synthesis,” said Deak. “In my mind I have a tree of skulls that I’m always repositioning and thinking about. As much thinking and analysis as possible goes into each work. I’ve taken it upon myself to be a voice for these fossils.”
Images: 1) A finished Homo ergaster, from Becoming Human. 2) Detail from the mural for Lucy’s Legacy. 3) Early- and late-stage renderings of Homo heidelbergensis. 4) Viktor Deak in his studio.
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