Hero Image: REAWAKEN by Chad Knight
In a recent interview I did with photographer and digital artist Pol Kurucz, he said something that piqued my fascination:
“Since 2020, I’ve removed more and more of the real-life part of photo-making. I’m about to start using something called MetaHumans for the models — I’m designing photorealistic humans. Now, I’m convinced that photography the way I was doing it — creative photography — will soon be dead.”
While the photo series that we were discussing at the time did involve human models, Pol has assured me that in 2023 he will begin creating photo series using Epic Game’s MetaHuman technology and a set of models he designs himself. This got me wondering about other creators using MetaHuman or other virtual human technology to create art and other forms of expression.
Browsing through some of the artists and virtual people out there, it’s obvious that the Uncanny Valley is shrinking.
Uncanny Valley Explained
The theory of the Uncanny Valley was first posited by robotics pioneer Masahiro Mori. The theory states that, basically, the nearer an artificial entity approaches human replication, the creepier it gets until it successfully reaches the other side of the valley.
In other words, a virtual human that is 97% of the way there elicits greater unease in people than a virtual human that is only 70% there.
To vault over the uncanny valley and into the simply uncanny, the “artificial entity” (virtual human or robot) must move and engage flawlessly while looking exactly like any other human. Anything less destroys the attempted illusion.
The first and most crowded stop on my research tour was the virtual influencer space. According to the virtual influencer–focused website Virtual Humans:
“A virtual influencer is a digital character created in computer graphics software, then given a personality defined by a first-person view of the world and made accessible on media platforms for the sake of influence.”
Software used in the virtual influencer creation pipeline includes Maya, Houdini, Cinema 4D, Unreal Engine, ZBrush, Modo, 3ds Max, Daz Studio, Blender, Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator, and more.
One element that the cited article stresses as critical is that the virtual influencer in question never alludes to their being virtual. They might mention their origins in space or that they were born on the internet, but they cannot make light of being “fake.”
Lil Miquela Sousa, created by Brud, is perhaps the first truly famous virtual influencer, debuting on Instagram in 2016.
Shudu Gram was created in April 2017 in Daz 3-D by fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson. Shudu’s fame rivals that of Lil Miquela, though she’s only one of seven virtual models comprised by the world’s first all-digital modeling agency, The Diigitals, launched by Wilson.
Imma Gram, a Japanese self-described “virtual girl,” has been cast for top brands like Porsche Japan, IKEA, Dior, Puma, Nike, Valentino, Amazon, Calvin Klein, and Valentino, among others.
Real People as Virtual Influencers
On the flip side of creating new humans from scratch, modeling agency Photogenics announced a partnership with Lilium Labs and Horizon Lab to create 13 realistic 3D avatars of existing models.
And recently, All-Star NBA player Luka Dončič handed his TikTok account over to his virtual human alter ego, Luk.AI. Using artificial intelligence, Luk.AI will develop its personality, skills, and hobbies iteratively through TikTok interactions.
Virtual Humans in Art
Virtual humans are already being used widely in the art world, with Cinema 4D and Blender being the most common applications, closely followed by Unreal Engine and others.
There are two distinct camps in the arts when it comes to virtual humans. There are those that create fictional portraits of different characters, characters that are rarely reused.
To name just a few of these artists, we have artists like Fvckrender, Xeus, Push, Catelloo, and Marcelo Cantu. Each of these artists brings a new and unique aesthetic to their virtual humans, laying the groundwork for an entirely new genre of portraiture and character creation.
Then there are artists who create characters that carry over across pieces, developing more depth and narrative.
Alexy Préfontaine’s Aeforia is a five-piece autobiographical piece created to express the process of growing up and finding one’s own identity and place in the universe. The sole character is accompanied in each piece by the enlivening anima of another magical virtual creature: a bejeweled dragonfly representing the spirit that leads to self-discovery.
LaTurbo Avedon is an artist who lives entirely in and across virtual worlds. She is a digital manifestation without a real-world referent, a being that has never existed outside of a computer. Though she is recognizable from platform to platform, her image does shift as technology changes. Avedon is an artist and curator who creates digital sculptures and environments with a complete disregard for physicality.
The three characters in LEViT∆TE’s Legacy Series appear across ten short films that, taken together, form a borderline-feature film built entirely by the artist in Unreal Engine. While the pieces in the Legacy Series took over a year of 12-hour days to create, LEViT∆TE acknowledges and awaits the developments that will even further democratize the creative possibilities of audio-visual art.
Other virtual humans seem to straddle the border between influencer and art project, such as Ruby Gloom (aka ruby9100m), who describes herself as a “transhuman” virtual being who blurs the line between man and machine and has worked with brands and celebrities like Grimes, Nike, Fendi, and virtual fashion house The Fabricant.
Androgynous it-girl Jazzelle Zanaughtti (better known as Ugly Worldwide) has created her own virtual avatar to accommodate impossible fashions and settings.
For a stunning primer on how artists are using virtual humans and settings to create work that could never be reproduced in the real world, one need look no further than H+ Agency, which represents Alexy Préfontaine, Jason Ebeyer, Chad Knight, Bloo Woods, and Giant Swan, among so many other brilliant 3D artists.
The concept of authenticity is increasingly under dispute, and the rise of virtual humans makes it even thornier. AI art is calling into question the underlying assumption that handwork or manual creation is what makes art art — though the assumptions underlying “what art is” have been under fire for a long time, with everyone from Pollock and Rothko to Duchamps and Yves Klein chipping away at any possible definition.
But that might be a different conversation because, in all of those instances, I just referred to people doing things.
How does one describe the work of LaTurbo Avedon? How does one attribute humanity to Shudu Gram? When a comely virtual influencer is hawking $20 bottle-pressed juice to its 5MM followers, who will call that authentic?
On the other hand of such trepidation, it’s hard to not feel some frisson of excitement that artists, filmmakers, and musicians are quite near a tipping point when the pipeline from vision to finished product is reduced to a single workflow
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