“And now we see what has brought everyone here under the guidance of the conductor’s organizing light. Now we understand this urge to converge. Now we see what Red is looking at: there, in the velvety dark circular basin before us is a glowing facsimile of the entire Kingdom of Sound. Think of it as mostly line drawing, but with block lustrous colours we’ve come to associate with the various districts. The camera is tracking slowly around the facsimile, which is extruding as we watch…“
From the script for Red & The Kingdom of Sound, August 2016
Back in August 2016 I finished writing the script for an animated adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra. Script-writing is a funny thing; you’re essentially describing the action of a film or animation that exists very completely in your own head, but nowhere else. More peculiarly, you’re watching something that already exists in your mind’s eye and transcribing the action onto paper in order for someone else to ‘remake’ it.
It is one thing to describe something in words, quite another to translate it onto the screen. I started this Throwback Friday post with an unspecial thumbnail drawing I did on the back of an envelope – literally – before hastily photographing it and sending it to Red & The Kingdom Of Sound’s production designer, Emily Clarkson. This untidy little sketch was my attempt to show what I was seeing at the climax of the animation – a hovering, extruding citadel, comprised of musical instruments, hovering within a deep architectural basin, while a giant modernist effigy of a conductor towers above it…
Yes, you’re quite right; my small quick sketch conveys very little of that grandeur and spectacle, but when you have the good fortunate to work with people who likewise have very powerful film projectors installed in their heads, a small quick sketch is often enough.
So from a few describing words on a page, via that hurried thumbnail sketch, we arrive at these concept paintings by Emily Clarkson…
Emily Clarkson, concept drawing of the maestro’s city in Red & The Kingdom Of Sound, 2017
Emily Clarkson, concept drawing of the maestro’s city in Red & The Kingdom Of Sound, 2017
… and, eventually, from these concept paintings – via the ingenuity and hard graft of an entire team of other creatives – we arrive at the climatic scenes as seen in the final animation, which has now been enjoyed by thousands of people all over the world in concert halls and at film festivals.
The maestro’s city in its full pomp at the conclusion to Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018)
Trailer for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018), including the Maestro’s City
Sometimes, particularly at the moment, there are days when it’s harder to apprehend the value in what we do, or to find the motivation to keep doing it. On days like that, I take comfort from what is unremarkable about my quickly-scribbled thumbnail sketch, and the world it went on to build with the help and vision of so many other talented people. I think to myself, ‘yes, this is how everything of value begins’ – with a big idea made visible and shared.
In addition to inviting Dee to collaborate on the exoplanet project, I also took the opportunity to catch up with her for a longer conversation about her life and times and the continuing impact of the ‘new normal’.
The ten planets of Wanderer (2020), created by Deanna Crisbacher
Phil: It’s potted history time, Dee. So you graduated back in 2018… what happened next?
Dee:Things for me were extremely hectic post-graduation. I had begun applying for jobs a few weeks prior, so by early August I was attending interviews at a few studios around London. During this time I was preparing to fly to the US for my annual family visit, but that year I was also going to Vancouver to volunteer at the SIGGRAPH conference.
Phil: What’s SIGGRAPH?’
Dee:SIGGRAPH (ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics) is a yearly computer graphics and technology conference that showcases the latest technology and computer graphics for film, TV, video games and more. This includes anything from visual effects software used to create films by Pixar, Marvel, etc. to artificial intelligence and 3D printing. A huge array of companies such as Google, Industrial Light & Magic, Disney, Nvidia, Microsoft, EA Games, Weta, Sony and many more participate to exhibit, share and educate others on upcoming technology. What is really cool about it is it’s not just about visual effects or films, but also video games, coding, hardware and more abstract art applications. There is SIGGRAPH North America and SIGGRAPH Asia that each takes place once a year in different cities around the world. As a student volunteer it was a great way to meet people in the industry, apply for jobs, get special insight into the developing technologies, and to get showreel feedback.
It was hard managing all of this at once, especially because I had several interviews at a company called The Flying Colour Company (TFCC) and the day before my flight to the US they offered me a job as a Trainee Visual Effects (VFX) Artist. I needed to head into London to collect paperwork that day on short notice. It was stressful, but very exciting. I then took a little time off with my family, went to Vancouver to volunteer and meet some amazing people at SIGGRAPH, before returning to London to begin my new job. Since then I’ve learned how to use Autodesk Flame, but also helped integrate more 3D work into TFCC’s workflow.
Phil: Autodesk Flame sounds like you were being taught how to use a military-grade flame-thrower or similar! Without getting too technical, what is Autodesk Flame and how does it fit into making tv shows and film?
Dee:Autodesk Flame is a compositing and VFX software. Flame gives VFX artists tools to blend live action footage with other pictures, video clips, artwork or 3D CGI assets to create the final image. For example, a VFX studio may be given footage that was filmed in front of a greenscreen. We will then use Flame’s tools to replace the greenscreen with whatever the director wants in the background…such as a cityscape. We can also use Flame to do things like remove safety wires, add gore, remove crew members from reflections, replicate crowds, adding rain, inserting television screens, adding 3D assets like helicopters, changing lighting and so on. The possibilities are almost endless really. The name is a little deceptive…although we can also add fire using it if we have the right assets for the job! It has been intimidating and overwhelming at times but very rewarding and fun. I’ve gotten to work on some amazing shows like Killing Eve, Peaky Blinders, Years and Years, Baghdad Central and more. I’ve learned so much during that time; I look forward to learning more in the future.
Phil: Ooh, Killing Eve – expectations around shows like that are immense. Do you have to sign non-disclosure agreements? And what is it like living with spoilers etc? Do people try and wheedle out plot points from you or try and trip you up? (Of course, I wouldn’t try and do that, other people I mean).
Dee: Yup! That was a pretty huge part of getting hired and all of the paperwork involved. I can get into major trouble if I leak anything, so I often don’t even talk about what I am actively working on. I tend to wait until it is airing on TV before I say ‘hey I worked on that!’. That can be tough with shows like Killing Eve, where we have worked on multiple series so when a new series is confirmed people assume we are working on it. I have had a few people try to get some spoilers out of me before. It can be tough especially if you’ve never watched a show that you are working on, such as Peaky Blinders for me, so sometimes what I see I don’t even know I’ve seen a big plot point. So it’s just safer to not talk about it till it’s been aired! But for shows I do watch, it does sometimes ruin the surprise… but it’s also fun trying to piece disjointed shots together. We don’t get things in chronological order so it doesn’t always make sense.
Phil: Your graduate film, When, is largely autobiographical – tell us something about what it means to make such a personal piece of work.
Dee:I think it means being willing to explore yourself even if you do not like what you find…and being honest and transparent about it. It takes a willingness to be open and vulnerable to others, strangers and friends/family, about topics that are very deep, personal, and sometimes painful. I think there also needs an understanding that even though it’s personal to you, others may not be interested. They may not like it, not be interested in it, or just straight out reject it. I think it takes a willingness to face that sort of rejection but remain true to your goal. To me, it was worth feeling a bit uncomfortable to encourage people discuss these complex topics.
Phil: Were there moments when you thought, nope, I’m not going to share that? Did you have second thoughts at all?
Dee:Yes, anything that involved other people I either didn’t share or had second thoughts about sharing. Involving my family members, especially if I couldn’t ask for permission, made me wonder if they would want to be part of it or not. I never want to cross a line when it involves others’ privacy, since they may not want to have their part of the story told and it’s not in my right to violate that – also some of the more ‘serious’ stuff I decided to just hint at more than explicitly say, which I think is enough.
Phil: When has a very specific look. Can you tell us a bit about some of the creative decisions around the film?
Dee:One of the main things I wanted to achieve was the uncann, rather than horror. So I didn’t want to go for a standard ‘evil dark hospital’ theme. I wanted it to be recognisable, but not quite right. Realistic but distorted and fractured, like how it felt when I was ill. That also feeds into the sound design, where there are recognisable sounds, like fluorescent lights flickering or crowds of people, but to also take pieces of that and morph it into something very unsettling. The same goes for the narration vs the distorted whispers. I wanted there to be a thread of realism disrupted by the concept of ‘illness’ that makes it become unfamiliar.
The theme of hospitals also played into the graphic design of the project. There is an interesting similarity between medication prescription labels and nutrition labels. Numbers and nutritional information played a huge part in my illness, so including that obsession with numbers and a deep need for complete control was important to portray in the look of the project, to show how stark and life-draining that experience was.
The choice to use archived footage was an important one, because there needed to be a break out of that stark place to show the audience that it is a true story, with real people, feelings, and experiences behind it, that while it is not a horror film, neither is it a story that ends with a ‘happily ever after’. It was really difficult to figure out a way to incorporate them into the film, but I think it helps get across that fractured nature of it and the real lives behind it.
Phil: When went on to win many awards at film festivals; I know you were interviewed about it and did a few talks around mental health as a result. Were you surprised by the reception of the film?
Dee: I knew it had potential, since my second year film, Dysmorphia, seemed to strike people in a sort of similar way. I also knew it could totally flop, given how open I tried to be about everything and how untraditional the art direction was regarding animation. Depending on the situation, people cower away from these difficult topics when faced with them directly. I think if I had made the film a few years ago, perhaps it wouldn’t have gotten the same recognition since now mental illness is a more openly discussed. But the stories I started hearing from people about their experiences with eating disorders specifically surprised me. I find that while people are more open about mental illness in a general sense, eating disorders are still not talked about much. Given how abstract it was as well, there was a risk of people not ‘getting it’ so I’m glad that it made sense to people.
Phil: What is it about CGI/VFX that speaks to you as an art form?
Dee:I think it’s the world-building aspect of it. Granted, technically every art form is ‘world building’, but I find CG can bend reality in a way that feels more tangible. It’s a difficult medium to work with, but that is part of what makes it so satisfying when you achieve what you want, even if it’s somewhat of a compromise. Everything you do is a sort of puzzle; there are endless ways to create things using CG and VFX, and learning new tools is really fun and exciting. It’s a strange mixture having extreme control at times, but zero control at others. Sometimes the lack of control provides even better results, which is why I really enjoy simulations despite how frustrating it can be too.
A break-down of some of the key shots Dee created for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018)
Phil: Okay – so you’re going to have to talk a little about what you mean by ‘simulations’ and where they fit in terms of VFX etc…
Dee:When I talk about simulations, I’m referring to anything involving particles or volumes (smoke, fire) but it can also involve liquid, shatter/destruction and cloth creation. These sort of effects need to be simulated by the software, meaning they take in a math formulas based on real-life physics such as gravity in order to create a realistic outcome. For example, when simulating an explosion Maya takes into consideration the temperature, velocity, and density settings to calculate the colour, luminosity, speed, transparency and movement of the explosion. You can also add wind, turbulence and other factors to further art direct the look of a simulation. The beauty of it is that it is totally random, it needs frame 1 to calculate frame 2 and so on… but that also means it can be unpredictable and time consuming. You can tweak things, like making gravity more or less intense than in real life, but it is largely a guessing game. But that is how you get more realistic results since it uses real-life calculations and formulas!
Phil: What has been your experience of COVID-19 so far, and likewise, the ‘new normal’?
Dee: It’s been a struggle. In one respect it’s been nice not having to commute…it ate up 3 hours or more of my day during the week and was also pretty expensive. So having that extra time and saved up money has been nice. However I find it’s been difficult in other regards… I miss being able to discuss work with my peers. Sat at home, it’s not as easy to ask for help or feedback when you’re alone. It also takes a lot longer to share work back and forth and feedback can be confusing when no one is there to point at the screen and go ‘there is the problem’. I really miss seeing how other artists work and what they are working on. I do admittedly feel I get more done though, since those sorts of conversations don’t happen now. It’s also more of a struggle to remember to stop working…it’s very easy to say ‘just one more shot’ and before you know it, it’s 10pm or later…but it has little consequence because you are already home. But in the long run with overworking like that, I’ve found burnout sets in very quickly if I’m not careful.
Phil: Lockdown meant the end of lots of film and tv productions – what has the impact been on your sector: you can only produce VFX sequences for stuff that has been filmed and made available to you, right?
Dee:That is correct. Luckily at the time lockdown first happened, the productions we were working on either had finished filming or had enough material to fill in the gaps. So once we finished doing the VFX for those productions…that was it really. We are still waiting on shows to get back to filming so we have stuff to work on but until then it’s just a waiting game. I know some other VFX and games studios are up and running again but it depends on what is being made. Some commercials for example are pure VFX/CGI… and same for games I suppose. It’ll be interesting to see how filming adapts to this new post-COVID world to ensure everyone stays safe.
Phil: Who and what inspires you and recharges your creative batteries?
Dee: Several people I met at SIGGRAPH I follow on sites like LinkedIn and Artstation inspire me, I like seeing where people go and how their careers and talents progress. Seeing art in general encourages me to create my own art. Ryan Barry is a good friend of mine now, we share art with each other regularly and have also began experimenting with ‘style mashups’ between his drawings and mine. He also does 3D work, more so for video games rather than film and TV so it’s interesting to see the process he goes through vs me.
Here are a few other talented artists I met at SIGGRAPH and try to keep in contact with/follow:
I’ve had more time to do some reading during lockdown and I enjoy taking different characters, worlds, or ideas and imagining what they’d look like or personify as. Normally I’d get a lot of inspiration from my co-workers and the different productions we are working on…but during this pause I’ve tried to keep up to date with what developing software and technologies are out there, which makes me excited for future learning. I also really love seeing any behind-the-scenes footage/articles about film and games. I really miss going to movie theatres though. Regarding specific films that comfort me…I’d definitely say Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings is what got me interested in art and filmmaking in the first place. So times where I feel I am struggling to feel motivated I watch those movies or the behind the scenes features. I find it exciting and fascination how much goes into making a film, and how much love and dedication is poured into some productions. The same goes for the original Star Wars trilogy. The innovation and creativity that was needed to problem solve makes me feel inspired and hopeful. Especially since “we didn’t know how to achieve this, but we tried our best to figure it out” is a common theme from junior artists to the directors. I know I often feel that way, so knowing that pretty much everyone in the industry feels this at some point is comforting.
Phil: When you’re not producing CGI work, what other creative outlets do you have? I know from your Twitter feed that you paint, for example…
Dee:So I do create some CG work on my own, more experimental stuff or things that I want to make in order to practice. However, behind CGI I also do like to draw both traditionally and digitally. I often find I prefer the basic structure of my traditional sketches and doodles so I’ll bring them into Photoshop and paint over them. I’ve mentioned as well that I have begun doing some style mash-ups with my friend, Ryan Barry, so that’s been a fun side project. I also try practicing some traditional clay sculpting, basic needle felting and baking if I don’t feel like drawing. I used to write short stories and poems as well, but I sadly haven’t done that in a long time now. But my creative interests are always changing so maybe I’ll get back to that!
By way of a preface to this week’s Kick-About, some info courtesy of Judy Watson: “TRAPPIST-1e is one of the most potentially habitable exoplanets discovered so far. Your descendants may be living there one day. It is similar to the size of Earth and closely orbits a dwarf star named TRAPPIST-1 which is not as hot or bright as our sun. One side of TRAPPIST-1e faces permanently towards its host star, so the other side is in perpetual darkness. But apparently the best real estate would be the sliver of space between the eternally light and the eternally dark sides – the terminator line where temperatures may even be a cosy 0 °C (32 °F).”
“I started painting some plants for this new world, and I imagined that they would all be turning towards the dim light of their star. So I made a world where everything was evolved to point in one direction only, sucking up the warmth, the light, the energy; a single-minded yearning, shared by every living thing on the planet. It made me ponder on humankind’s perpetual yearning, which leads us to disaster over long roads and short. If only we could all focus as readily on the majesty and wonder of the world that we already inhabit. There was nothing I could paint for this new world that could rival the natural wonders in the one we already have. I made the new inhabitants – refugees from Earth – look on in wonder. And then, because of their pose, looking upwards within the vivid setting, it put me in mind of a propaganda poster. which made me laugh.”
“I was really inspired by Olafur Eliasson, in particular his exhibition – The Weather Project. I imagine a planet vibrating with orange hues against cool tones, with piercing shadows, and the ground of this planet cracking and buckling”
“This planet is something which I had never heard about before, and I was inspired to do some machine embroidery which loosely shows the arrangement of the orbits of the planets around Trappist. I layered various different materials on top of each other then added different textures for the planets b to h, using a zig-zag stitch around them. In the centre I put an origami star for Trappist itself. The fun bit is when you have finished stitching and you can slash away with your scissors. You never quite know what it will turn out like.”
Come take a trip to Trappis-1e Ages 50 plus go free! Don’t be put off by the distance We’ve everything for your assistance. There’s luxury slumber pods and sleep swings You’ll never feel the slightest thing. 40 light years may seem a while, But our Dreamland films will make you smile! You can download your happiest memories Whilst we ferry you along at lightening speeds. So don’t delay, and book your seat – Our on-board menu’s a real treat! We have masseurs and therapists while you snooze You can become anyone you choose! No covid quarantine when you alight So just relax and enjoy the flight!
“For this Kick-About, I returned to making monoprints in the same vein as I did for the Alice Neel prompt from the Kick-About #5. I wanted something spontaneous and bursting with energy. I sat down and calculated how many Trappist-1e years I would be now and it was humbling to say the least: I am 2,307 Trappist-1e years old. The other two numbers represent my Earth ages: 38 years old, having spent 14,072 days orbiting our star. We don’t actually know what Trappist-1e looks like (the picture in the prompt is an artist’s rendering), so I let my imagination run wild making planets on the inking plate.“
“As I write this, the UK is having its expectations managed regarding the continuing effects of the pandemic. Our worlds will continue to shrink a little more. I’ve been going ‘off-world’ for months now, journeying into largely uninhabited terrains to breathe lungfuls of fresh air, and go exploring. The word ‘planet’ derives from the Greek word for ‘wanderer’ – how apt, I thought, considering my wanderings through these ordinary/extraordinary landscapes. This prompted an idea I couldn’t execute by myself; what if I could literally turn some of these havens into actual planets? More than this, given the gauzy, impressionism of many of the images – and the suspensions of gaseous colour – what if I could transform these earthly/unearthly spaces into nebulas? Fortunately, I knew just the person to help me realise this plan, VFX whizzkid, Deanna Crisbacher, who took my photograph below and ‘plugged it into’ her CGI-dream machine, and used it to generate an all-new planet and its accompanying nebula!”
“What a topic change! From all those lovely intimate pieces, to Trappist 1e! So it’s earth like and travels around a red dwarf (yellow or white in color) and what would humankind’s motivations be if we eventually reached it. Would we want to mine it or farm it? Would we decimate any possible indigenous occupants – how much respect do we have for our own little world. So I realized I needed to add a narrative to protect the indigenes and planet. What if the indigenes fed on greed and hatred? That’s where I went in and left it. Would this be good or bad for humankind – would the indigenes farm humans? Could this be interplanetary heaven or hell? Stay tuned…”
“Marcy Erb’s prompt for the Kick-About #11 was the planet Trappist 1e, an earth-sized planet orbiting the Trappist-1 dwarf star 40 light years from Earth. What makes it special? Scientists believe it is potentially habitable. But not the entire planet–“there would be only a sliver of habitability”–as the planet does not itself rotate–one side is always facing towards the sun, and the other side is always in darkness. The habitable area is called the teminator line, or in more familiar terms, the twilight zone, as it is always stranded between the darkness and the light. The idea of a sliver of habitability seems relevant to the current situation on earth–the balance of the ecosystem is delicate, and we are narrowing that sliver day by day. My two mandalas represent my idea of Trappist 1e and the waves of exploration and communication we are sending out in the hopes of finding another blue and green island in the vast dark cosmic sea.”
life spills out into uncontrolled spaces—still mystery, still yearning for parallel growth, revelation—
who and where do we think we are? tiny ex plosions look ing for intersecting lines that collide and cross,
waving brains tides hands energy electric magnetic– mapping the unseen with disturbances,
promises of what could have been– had light years been compressed into overlapping sounds—each a mirrored reply
“In a cramped concrete room, a man covers his head. A window, high up, frames the Milky Way. Ink black. When we look up at a clear blue cloudless sky it’s almost impossible to imagine infinity and darkness beyond, or the space debris circling our planet, or the other orbs in our solar system, or pieces of rock the size of our house hurtling towards us, or even other worlds light years away that possibly, just possibly might spawn life forms as ours has…because, despite the clearest of images beamed across space/time it remains an abstraction… a concept… slippery and seductive…an escape.
We’re in the middle of a voracious pandemic, our lives restricted, so in many ways, we are all Trappists now…facing the back alley of our own thoughts and imagination and that is where we travel….beyond the walls of our homes to faraway places that might or might not exist and within these lie dark corners unknown and unpredictable..both in real space and the “space” in our heads.
Arundhati Roy reflects that ‘the pandemic is a portal between one world and another…an invitation for humans to imagine a better place…‘ A Trappist 1e of the mind.“
Ink on board and stone. “Hidden in plain sight”
Toned & hand printed photograph
“At a time when our world seems to have shrunk to the four walls of home, it can seem difficult to envision the exploration of a whole new planet. I decided to crochet my own “new planet” and incorporate into it all the swamps and mountains, deserts and polar wastes that were the early building bricks of imagination for those of us who grew up with Flash Gordon, Forbidden Planet, and the original series of Star Trek. When you can’t explore the world, create a new world to explore. It may not be art – but it was damn good fun!
(NB – I have been reminded that some say the Creator made the world in 6 days and on the 7th he rested. Well, if he’d been crocheting, it would have taken him/her/it longer than 6 days! And I don’t suppose they had anyone leaning over their shoulder asking “What’s that bit supposed to be, exactly?”).
I’m really getting into this free-form crochet! Who knows what could be next? Robby the Robot perhaps, or the space-time continuum…”
“An utter flight of fancy on a classic theme – I have started to get the feeling that my studio is like a portal, a kind of feminine creative principle. These subjects, from an unknown place, have materialised. I have no idea what they are capable of!”
From an artist’s impression of a real world celestial body, the Kick-About #12 focuses our attention on a celebrated example of artists’ impressions of fake celestial bodies – the Cottingley fairies and the photographs that fooled the world. Thanks to regular kick-abouter, Marion Raper for our next creative prompt! Have fun and see you all here again soon.
I always look forward to the moment when I get a Skype notification, which usually means artist-in-residence, Tom Beg, has something new to show me. Tom’s been super-busy of late doing sensible things like enriching the vocabulary of his Japanese students, but has somehow found the time to put some finishing touches to his Miro-verse menagerie! We caught up for a brief chat recently and it gives me very real pleasure to share once more the fruits of Tom’s labours!
Phil: Hey Tom. I hope all is well over there in Japan. So, you got all critters modelled, textured and rigged… and then you went back to some of them to make some refinements. What was missing from them originally, and what changes have you made and why?
Tom:I thought everything had something of flat CG look, which was making everything not as satisfying to look at as it could have been. It was probably a case of me being a little timid when it came to turning on some of the extra switches after a long time out and not really knowing what kind of extra steps turning on said switches would introduce. Most of the changes are pretty subtle, but I’ve tried to throw a few things into the mix. For example, making the surfaces reflect and absorb light a little more interestingly, making the highlights pop a bit more and so on. There will be definitely be some more changes when I start animating and see what happens when these things move and react to light more dynamically.
Phil: I know you’re not supposed to have a favourite child… but do you have a favourite creature, and if so, how so?
Tom:I like the red orb with the metallic blue shell! Funnily enough of all the original sketches it’s the one I find the least appealing, but in its 3D, form I think it’s very cute and graphical. It has this mischievous personality that comes across even without an obvious face.
Phil: You’ve been looking at, thinking about, and working on these characters for months now… how have you sustained your interest in the project?
Tom:I enjoy seeing the results each step brings, so I just chip away and take everything day by day! These are strange times, so I don’t beat myself up about missing whatever informal deadlines or goals I’ve set in my mind.
Phil: How’s ‘the story’ coming along – though I’m using that term very loosely!
Tom:I’m aiming for something short and sweet which probably does indeed mean a very loose story! I’m leaning towards something a bit faux-documentary, not too much editing and just letting the creatures’ movement and visual style define how the ‘story’ progresses.
Phil: What can we expect from your next update, Tom? What’s on your to-do list?
Tom:Animation and lots of it! All these critters need someone to get them wiggling and shaking and that’s my job!
Tom:Unfortunately, the cicadas have just about cried their last call of the year, but now hornets are on the prowl and those do actually kill people so I think I should just stay inside and make this animation!
Agreed, it’s all been a bit quiet on here recently – no laughing flatworms or lunatic blobs – but that is not to say that some progress isn’t being made on Gelata Spongia Oculus Eruptus – the really rather silly animated short I’m developing with Ethan Shilling, which uses long-forgotten BBC sound effects to give a surfeit of life to a series of simple computer-generated organisms.
In what is in no way a strange email thread for the two of us, Ethan and I have been discussing the nuts-and-bolts of making an Ernst Haeckel-inspired jellyfish laugh. In truth, Ethan has been figuring out how to make our jellyfish react to the sound effects in a suitably ‘jellyfish’ way, while I’ve been writing things like, ‘Um, I think it needs to be more pink.’ Remember, it’s the sound effects themselves driving the animation, courtesy of Ethan’s ‘spectrogram’ widget, last seen in action here. See below for our latest efforts.
Early animation tests by Ethan Shilling
Our pink jellyfish modelled by Ethan Shilling after Haeckel’s zoological illustrations
Last time, I caught up with artist-in-residence, Emily Clarkson, I was able to introduce the new project we’re developing together, an animated short entitled Gertie. Things have been moving on since then; the song that underpins the whole story is finished and was given some much-needed spit and polish by a freelance arranger courtesy of the Fiverr site. There’s so much more to be done musically – not least sourcing the vocal talent – and I’m working on that too.
Emily has been working hard on finalising the character designs for the animated short, before turning her attention to some of Gertie‘s more highly-strung set-pieces. Em and I caught up on Zoom a few days back to talk character design and possible stylistic approaches to ‘bringing the mayhem’. You can listen in below.
Emily Clarkson’s character design development drawings for the trio of bullies in Gertie
Emily’s design development drawings for Gertie’s teacher character, Mrs Mason
The not-inconsiderable job of re-working a selection of the original synesthetic paintings into an uninterrupted sequence of abstract animations fell to Tom Beg and Jordan Buckner, who took the paintings we’d created and gave them dynamism, character and energy, pushing the music back though the imagery it had inspired in our collective imagination.
Come the premiere of the animation, Tom, Jordan, Keith and myself were all stuck behind the screen onto which the animation was being projected while, in front of it, the orchestra performed, so we couldn’t see the audience’s faces as the film played out – but the moment of hush, followed by enthusiastic applause, confirmed something rather magical had taken place – a transportive synthesis of sight and sound.
Back in March 2013, I was tasked with conceiving of a way in which an entire community of animation students, staff and alumni could work together on a big external EU-funded project, the goal of which was to visualise classical music engagingly and thus initiate new audiences into the concert-going experience:
“On Friday, July 12th at Grays Civic Hall, Essex, the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne will be performing a programme of music on a theme of ‘rhythm’. The programme of music will explore ideas of rhythm in classical music and in the celebrated jazz of the late Dave Bruebeck. The director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne, Marc Feldman, has challenged our creative community to work collaboratively to create an original work of animation designed to accompany his orchestra’s performance of one particular example of early twentieth century music that blends classical and jazz rhythms to exciting effect. The animation will be rear projected onto a large screen measuring 8.5m wide by 6.2m high, in front of which the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne will perform live.“
That ‘particular example of early twentieth century music’ was Darius Milhaud’s 1923 ballet, La Création du monde. I was entirely unfamiliar with the piece, but on hearing it for the first time, I was struck by its many contrasting textures, moving from lyricism to rattling percussion, and back again. My mind offered up abstract shapes, ribbons of colour, starbursts, wheeling cogs and the metropolitan rush of beeping cars and honking trains, and all the clamour and noise of modernity. What a gift to animators, I thought, and so it proved to be.
Over the course of ten consecutive days, the course community were challenged to listen to Milhaud’s ballet and ‘draw what they could hear’, producing abstract digital paintings as quickly and instinctively as possible in an effort to ‘photograph’ the synesthetic imagery inspired by the music. Of the many exciting projects my students and I undertook together, this stint of extra-curricular activity was particularly joyous, as everyone just rolled up their sleeves and painted. In the end, a huge range of speed paintings were generated in response to Milhaud’s music, the entire collection of which can be viewed here.
I’ve gathered by own efforts here, blowing off the dust. Produced very quickly, produced blithely, they still manage to cheer me up. When I look at these images, I recall the fireworks of Milhaud’s music instantly and likewise the very real pleasure of working side-by-side with such a lovely bunch of bright young things.
One name you won’t know is Keith Burden, but I’d like to change that. Keith Burden is a consultant in audio-visual technologies for performance spaces and the wizardry of project mapping, and the unsung hero of my various excursions into synesthetic concert experiences and the live synchronisation of animated imagery.
Happiest left to his own devices behind the scenes, usually dressed in stage-blacks and hunkered down behind a bank of hotly-humming computers, Keith is not one for blowing his own trumpet, so in this edition of ‘Spotlight’, I’ve taken it upon myself to strike up the horn section on his behalf.
Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France – December 19th, 2013 / If you very peer very closely at this image, you’ll see Keith Burden seated behind the table in the ‘cock-pit’, surrounded by computers, controllers and lengths of cable. Tom Beg and I are conferring in the background. We’re at the back of the stage hidden behind a huge screen, onto which we will soon project La Création du monde in live-synchronisation with the Orchestre de Picardie. Not sure what the shopping trolley is for.
His face illuminated by one of his three monitors, Keith continues his scrupulous pre-performance checks to ensure a glitch-free projection.
Phil: Hello Keith. Thanks for doing this. I know this isn’t your thing, being in the limelight and all that, but you do this transformative, rather magical job for people and for places, and I wanted to drag you – kicking and screaming if necessary – out from behind your kit. We met back in 2013 for the first of the sound visualisation projects, working with Darius Milhaud’s jazz-inspired ballet, La Création du monde (1923) to produce an animation to accompany a jazz-themed concert headed up by Chris Brubeck. I knew you first as ‘Clever Keith’, a guy with some seriously heavy-duty flight-cases, a vanful of cables, computer monitors and some very expensive, very powerful projectors. You were a bit like an agent in a Mission Impossible film, only in a fleece, and with bits of gaffer tape stuck to your trousers. How would you describe your role in our various creative collaborations?
CleverKeith: I see my main role as a form of conduit to get your plethora of artists’ work integrated with the live artists’ performance.*
*Keith is being characteristically modest here. Keith is much more like the black sleeve that encases hundreds of other smaller wires in some heavy-duty, utterly essential cable! Keith’s jobs include conceptualising the response to the space in regards to the logistical relationship between the hardware, the image, the audience, the musicians and the existing infrastructure – and then adapting everything at very short notice when the performance space is actually nothing like he was told it was going to be! There’s the install of the kit, all the time spent familiarising himself with the music and the visuals, there’s the checking and re-checking and checking again, and last but far from least, there’s the adrenalised act of live-synching the visuals and music itself in-performance, which can be like landing a passenger plane on a very windy day.
A selection of the various different concert venues across Europe to which Keith and I travelled during our adventures together in light and sound, all of which presented their different challenges in terms of projection and synching visuals with the nuances of the different orchestras.
Phil: When I was at school, I did one of those ‘career-picker’ exercises; I think I got ‘Florist’ when I inputed all my existing interests and career aspirations! I don’t remember seeing ‘projection-mapper’ or ‘live-synchroniser’ or ‘projector-wrangler’ being on the list. How did you get into this line of work in the first place?
Keith: A whole series of happy accidents after school, including my interest in photography, allowed me to develop a fairly unique set of skills. I was fortunate enough to be trained by three companies, Linn Products, Naim Audio and Quad Electro Acoustics, which provided, not only the foundation of my audio work, but also the signal chain for the visual and control element. Specialist 2 channel Hi-Fi turned into Home Cinema, which then became Custom Installation, which led onto interactive projection mapping.*
*Projection mapping, similar to video mapping and spatial augmented reality, is a projection technique used to turn objects, often irregularly shaped, into a display surface for video projection. These objects may be complex industrial landscapes, such as buildings, small indoor objects or theatrical stages. By using specialized software, a two- or three-dimensional object is spatially mapped on the virtual program which mimics the real environment it is to be projected on. The software can interact with a projector to fit any desired image onto the surface of that object. This technique is used by artists and advertisers alike who can add extra dimensions, optical illusions, and notions of movement onto previously static objects. The video is commonly combined with, or triggered by, audio to create an audio-visual narrative. In recent years this technique has also been widely used in the context of cultural heritage as it has proved to be an excellent edutainment tool thanks to the combined use of a digital dramaturgy. (Thank you Wikipedia).
So begins the process of blending the images of two separate projectors to produce a single seamless rear-projected image on the big screen at the Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France, December 19th, 2013. The checkerboard image is used to ensure the two projected images are aligned perfectly. I suspect Keith sees this checkerboard in his dreams..
Phil: Tell us about some of the jobs you’ve done, the unusual ones, the spectacular ones, the most expensive ones, the strangest ones….
Keith:One of my favourites is the Painted Room in Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College. Less than 2 hours to install and calibrate a seven projector system onto the walls, ceilings, and on this occasion, also the floor, to illuminate the performers. With one technical rehearsal the previous month, we were able to use the projections to illuminate the appropriate elements of the Painted Hall that tied in with that part of the performance.
I would say some of the most enjoyable works are where we are able to project discretely, where the audience get to experience the projections without being aware of all the technical elements. St Johns & St Elizabeth’s Hospice Light Up a Life Christmas projections have allowed us to project within the courtyard area of the hospital. In Turner’s old art studio, we were able to transform the space into a Tuscan landscape that subtlety changed to an evening under the stars, as the scenes changed throughout the evening. Leeds Castle fireworks was a fantastic canvas that allowed us to choreograph the visuals to the music and the fireworks for one of the finest fireworks displays in the country.
Most live events have challenges, but when you are sharing the stage with other performers, and in addition you have moving platforms with flames and lasers firing from them, it makes the set up not so straight forward! At Glastonbury we provided the visuals for The Egg when they headlined the Arcadia Stage.
The Arcadia Stage, Glastonbury
Some buildings lend themselves to projections and other have been painted white to allow us to project onto them We projected onto the Turner Contemporary in Margate, back in 2012 for the Olympic Poetry projections with Lemn Sissay. The clean lines of this building made it great visual experience. Bycomparison, a small disused unit in London was painted white, along with all its fixtures and fittings, converting the space into a “Doodle Bar”, not only for the benefits of the projection mapping and interactive projections, but for the people attending the event to doodle on any surface they wanted.
Phil: One of the things you do is make ordinary spaces into magical ones through light, colour, illusion and sound. Is that the element of the work you enjoy?
Keith: Being able to create these magical spaces, allowing structure to breathe and move in ways people do not normally see, is massively rewarding. We are so lucky to work in many architecturally beautiful spaces, but many events are in marquees, function rooms and sports halls.Rugby Portobello Trust use a basketball court/sports hall, with our operating position being located in the gym adjacent to the room.
The transformed space at the Rugby Portobello Trust.
Park Village Studios is a photographic studio with a 3-sided curved white walls and we operate from a walkway overlooking the area. On one visit to this venue we turned this studio into a Cotton Club for a wedding.
Some of the projects I have most enjoyed, similar to the sound visualisation projects with you, is where I’ve been involved with the creative process from an early stage.The workshops we’ve done with Snape Maltings, Suffolk, have been massively rewarding, working with children and young adults with varying levels of ability, as well as with schools like The Charles Dickens School, based in Thanet, where all their work was finally presented to friends and relatives as projections.I’ve likewise helped with mapping projects for The Guildhall School students, including beneath Tower Bridgeand the beautiful Waddesden Manor
Right up to the lockdown, I’ve been working on a couple of live music projects that both use the visuals to compliment the music. With the Blues Chronicles, we are showing 20 short films introducing artists prior to the band performing them, and at the Jazz café I am responsible for the bespoke visuals behind Stompy’s Playground, who have assembled an outstanding 5 piece string ensemble to lovingly recreate the themes and compositions from classic Studio Ghibli films.
Phil: Talk us through the process: you turn up at a venue, you’ve got an empty stage, a massive screen, a couple of hours before rehearsal and cases of kit…
Keith: The process follows a similar pattern at each venue. After managing to get all the equipment onto site it is the connectivity of the system I initially focus on. All the power and signal cables are run between all the equipment, with the appropriate control cables. Once this has been completed, we can fire up the system and check each component is working and they are talking correctly to each other. However many times I do this, there is always a moment when you see all the equipment powered up and running correctly and you can relax, take a deep breath and get ready for the calibration.
With the work on your projects, we have been working mostly in theatres, who have been sympathetic to the projections. With the house lights turned down, the calibration of the control and projectors starts, usually with the projections, ensuring we’re hitting the correct surfaces with the correct projectors, then stitching them together to complete the final product. The control element is refined from this point onwards and put through its paces during rehearsals. Unfortunately, the nature of rehearsals means there is a lot of starts and stops, which is not always helpful for the visual element, but allows us to push the system to the limit. The doors then generally open, and the next time we see the visuals is when the orchestra start the piece.
Phil: How nerve-wracking was it, live-synching visuals to classical music in front of audiences of hundreds of people?
Keith:Sometimes the nervousness starts before we reach the venue! Once we have the final material, and it has been played successfully on our machines, then initial nerves subside. Usually I have been provided with the music prior to the event, so I can rehearse and familiarise myself with both the music and the visuals. That said, the sound of the different orchestras and venues, along with the different conducting styles, did create totally different landscapes to work within.
Phil: What does it feel like when the synch between the sound and image is perfect?
Keith: It’s like covering your body with honey, then allowing the bees to lick it off over the next few hours.*
*For the record, Keith is also a bee-keeper. If you were thinking this is just a rather colourful turn of phrase… it may not be.
Phil: What does it feel like when it doesn’t go to plan mid-performance, and how do you get it back on track?
Keith: At first I was afraid, I was petrified – kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong, and I grew strong and I learned how to get along…*
*For the record, Keith can also be very silly.
Phil: What were your favourite events you worked on as part of these European projects?
Keith: The first event is always exciting, as it usually when a lot of talk and convoluted explanations are realised by all those involved – the visual artists see their visual projected for the first time, the orchestra see the visuals for the first time. Working with you and your team, then Milhaud in 2013 has great memories, along with the bonus of Mr Brubeck’s performance alongside ours. It’s hard to choose a favourite event from the projects, each venue offered its own challenges to a greater or lesser extent, but at all these venues we were always made welcome and I think the orchestra staff and their crews really helped make these events very special. The most enjoyable element was being exposed to Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde and Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet – prior to these projects I was unfamiliar with them both.
Phil: For me, one of the great pleasures of working on these projects was sitting in during the rehearsals and getting to know the musicians and their music. How about you?
Keith: I totally agree. Although we became very familiar with the La Création du monde and Romeo and Juliet, so we get to hear these performed by the orchestras, but then we get the additional bonus of the pieces of music that are being performed alongside, such as Strauss’s Don Quixote, Verdi’s Requiem – and we mustn’t forget The Snowman in Zilina*
*We were out in Zilinia in December to screen La creation du monde. We were on a double-bill of live-synch performances that included the Christmas classic, The Snowman. There is so much more Keith could tell you about this trip, not least because we drove there from the UK, but what happens on tour, stays on tour, right?
Phil: In light of Covid 19, how do you see the future of your industry? Any big ideas?
Keith: I think in the near future interactive projections and immersive installations may be an area that could be worth investigating. With all the hardware safely away from the virus, it may make it a more practical solution for many users.
Phil: It’s high-time we had another adventure in light and sound! What are we going to do next?
Keith: I think we better get the egg and toffee hammer out!*
*I’m not going to explain this reference either, which has nothing to do with a) projection-mapping or b) bee-keeping, but in someway associates with the culminative effect of two people sitting in a car together for hours on end on their way to-and-from Slovakia.
“Even after I’ve long since left this place I currently call home, cicadas more than anything will be the thing I associate the most about summer in Japan. Of course, the amazing sound they make is their most recognisable and iconic trait, but they have another peculiar behavior I find quite morbidly fascinating. After they do their yearly cicada thing, the final resting place of an unlucky few ends up being in the middle of the street, helplessly stranded on their backs, their legs still sometimes twitching, left to roast in the searing summer heat. Presumably, big black crows (which are the other sound of Japan) then come and scoop them up later on for a crunchy crow feast. Their short-lived life, once they emerge from their slumber, is truly bizarre!
Cicadas are also a traditional subject of origami art because of the charming simplicity of the easiest design which anyone can make, but also because of the huge degree of complexity and mastery required to make more realistic designs such as by the likes of Akira Yoshizawa. I’m not an origami master, in fact I’m quite sure I couldn’t even do a nice mountain fold, so rather than wasting a lot of paper, here’s my tribute to the fallen cicada inspired by origami but not actually origami.“
“The prompt is Cicada, and those little creatures are old friends at this stage. I spent two weekends working on this prompt. The first one I spent learning some animation techniques, and my original intention was to make an animation by selecting material from Searching for Cicadas either working with some of the unused artwork, or developing a page from the book.
But on the second weekend I wandered in a different direction. It began with thinking about cicadas in a less realistic way and thinking about drawing some She Cicadas in the style of my Metropolis Bird Women. Then I thought about the unique, and seemingly magical qualities of a cicada (in particular, its life cycle and metamorphosis) and how easily cicadas might fit into a fairy or folk tale. I haven‘t written anything like that since The Woman, the Chicken and the Grapes. And it seemed the perfect break from intense illustration work.
However, I was forgetting my tendency towards perfectionism (strangely combined with a loathing for neatness, exactness or fussiness), and so, Kick-About time is up and the fairy tale is not complete. But never mind! Here are some images I began for it…”
“Only knowing cicadas from Animal Crossing, I thought I’d have a look into them. Did you know that they can live up to 17 years? AND make a sound louder than 100 decibels! Impressive for a chubby little sap-drinker! They come in a few different colours, but a pastel one really resounded with me so here he is! A digital painting of a vibrant cicada with his little dancing feet.”
“An epic and bi-sectioned electronic piece telling the story of the cicada life from a more dark point of view. Beware – the first four minutes are much quieter than the last two. Good speakers or headphones are recommended.”
“Cicadas are one of many species that make multiple visible transformations during their lifespans. The longest living insects, they are symbols of both rebirth and immortality. What beautiful wings they have. I first painted the cicada, then glued wax paper down for the wings and embroidered on top.”
“A month or so ago, some old photographs resurfaced of a school production of the musical, Calamity Jane, in which I played the comedic role of Francis Fryer – a vaudeville act booked to perform in a spit-and-sawdust saloon bar for cowboys. The joke, of course, is ‘Francis Fryer’ is assumed to be a female performer, an assumption resulting in an impromptu drag act and a musical number that goes ‘I’ve got a hive full of honey for the right kind of honey bee’.
The year is 1989, I’m fourteen years old and I enjoy this opportunity to dress up and make audiences laugh. Sometime after this, the bullying will start and I will enter a prolonged period of change. You might say, I start to incubate new ideas about myself, not all of them positive. You might say, I start to slough skin – more than one – as I seek to establish some final form.
When I look at these photographs, I do so with discomfort, and not simply because the adolescent in the photograph is so scrawny and such a late-starter. I feel hugely protective of him too, for he knows not what he looks like. He does not know what drag is or what it ‘means’ to the world around him. At the point these photographs were taken, this boy doesn’t know what is coming; he doesn’t know he’s just walked into the cross-hairs. He doesn’t know while he’s making lots of people laugh on stage, he’s making other people hate him or provoking embarrassment and disappointment. When I look at these photographs, I see something soft that is very soon going to learn the art of cocooning for protection. I see a very long period of incubation, and not an ending with a beautiful butterfly in it, but a life-form in lots of ways less graceful, but, also yes, with wings.“
The subjects of the three faux zoological plates are digital collages created entirely from the two photographs below and are presented here as curios, a collection of still-incubating lifeforms once forgotten but newly available to scrutiny, dissection and my strange fascination.”
“I must say that I feel like I have turned into a Cicada in the heatwave this week! I had so many false starts trying to capture the essence of these amazing creatures. Eventually I settled for “Happy little Cicadas” after they have just emerged after 17years underground. Well you would be!”
“Cicadas roared in combined force with intense heat and high humidity challenging young (21 year old) endurance levels. That was summer of ’73 in glorious Sydney’s Kirribilli. We were surrounded in the thick of a city wide swarm and whichever way was possible to rattle you it came about, as inside was an inferno, so just you try drowning out mating cicadas when you’re behaving like a heated ‘frog in a sock’.”
“I’ve been wanting to play around with a fairy/insect taxidermy concept for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity. I took wings, colours and patterns from pictures of cicadas to make this unfortunate fairy, preserved and pinned, ready to go on the wall.”
“I didn’t grow up with cicadas or the sounds of cicadas. There are apparently 30 species of cicada found in California (and 3,000 worldwide), but almost none of them are commonly found or heard in the Los Angeles metro area. I remember hearing my first true ear-ringing buzz-saw worthy cicada at a private campground in Arizona as an adult in my early-twenties. True story: I turned to my friend and asked why the campground would play a recording of such demented cricket noises so loud on the PA system. My friend, who also grew up in suburban Los Angeles, shrugged and said she didn’t know. Rest assured, I have now heard the infamous cicada mating calls many times and have been made to understand how much a part of summer they are for many people around the world.
So when the theme for the Kick-About #8 was announced as simply the word “Cicada,” I knew I wanted to lean towards the absurd a little. What is a cicada to someone who has never heard or seen one? Insects are as vulnerable to climate change and extinction as any other creature – what happens when we start asking after cicadas when they don’t emerge as reliably? Or at all?
I wish to emphasize that no bugs were harmed in the making of this art. I went in search of local insects that had met their demise naturally. I was lucky in finding the Swallowtail butterfly wings right away, but then the supply of large naturally-deceased insects dried up. As they say, the fastest way to make something disappear is to go looking for it on a schedule. I finally found a mostly intact green june beetle.”
“I was a bit worried when I first saw this prompt. To be honest, I’m not big on bugs. But the more I learnt about cicadas and their life cycle, the more I wondered about their relationship with the trees – trees that sheltered the cicada young, fed them, provided a launch pad for the climax of their lives, and then stood amongst their corpses, while cicada eggs hatched among their leaves and dropped the next generation of cicadas at their roots.
As the prompt originated in Japan, and as seventeen is such a significant number in the cicada’s life, it seemed absolutely right to base my verse structure on the Haiku, a Japanese poetic form consisting of three lines made up of seventeen syllables in a five-seven-five format.”
“I have two images relating to the new kick-about “Cicada”. I love the sound of summer filling the day, the hot air on the skin, the smell of herbs and grass, they are my childhood summers on the Ligurian coast. One of the paintings is the summer grass, an image I have been trying to paint for many years and will likely keep trying to paint. The other one is a monotype on plastic made with raffia dipped in ink, I was trying to capture the movement of bamboo leaves and insects.”
“The sounds of the Cicada’s mating call transports me to a world where my senses are in overload, a world that could be filled with spine tingling horror, but also a world that is somewhat calming. The high pitched calls make the surroundings fill with texture that bounce and dance in conjunction with the cicadas’ return from beneath their muddy graves to molt and leave their skin littered across the land.”