Makers of Zbrush, one of many popular 3D computer animation packages, say that their software “allows you to create limited only by your imagination” (Pixologic, 2015). The idea that 3D software is a creative tool at the service of a proficient user is common in the 3D animation community, but it is a sentiment that downplays the agency of the software. Drawing from a range of theoretical sources, and through practical investigations, I examine and challenge pernicious notions of transparency, representation and the status of digital media objects.

Standard approaches to 3D software emphasise efficiency and control. This research seeks a more empathic mode of engagement; an actively receptive comportment which I refer to as a “conversational” approach. How can a 3D animator adopt a conversational approach to 3D tools to extend the creative capacities of the medium and move beyond its implicit design biases?

To answer this question I have created a series of short experimental animations using commercial tools in unusual ways. I have also coded custom tools that enable and encourage unorthodox practices. Rather than being designed in advance, experimental animations emerge from my response to everyday physical things, including my response to computer glitches (which I regard as aesthetic suggestions).

Phenomenological enquiry is my starting point, but the finished animations embody a distinctly non-human gesture reminiscent of digital objects and object oriented programming (OOP). Findings from this research indicate that, rather than a means to an end, 3D animation is better conceived as a stylistic exchange between a variety of things – including the software, the hardware, the user and other objects. Embracing 3D animation as a conversational process reveals capabilities of the software that extend beyond its design, suggesting that (like all things) digital objects have the capacity to continually surprise.

As computer software becomes an increasingly prevalent and powerful force in our lives, it becomes increasingly important to recognise that algorithmic models are not simply tools for organising or explaining; they are (potentially reductive) ways of revealing the world. The challenge facing 3D animation practitioners is how to stay in the messy zone where situations and entities are encountered in their complexity. My research finds that exploring the generative potential of material practices can help us avoid the reductive potential inherent in digital tools.