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
After the long, slow, sleepy life-cycles of the Kick-About#8’s cicadas, I felt we needed a bit of clatter, percussion and forward velocity in the mix. I knew just the thing, unleashing John Adams fast machine and setting it rocketing off into the bloggosphere. You can see the full range of work Adams’ music inspired here – everything from adorable little witches riding steampunk brooms to strange abandoned industrial sites in Berlin.
It was to Ethan to whom I turned again to meet the challenge of the KickAbout#9, who took Adams’ Short Ride and converted it into a spectrogram – a visual transcript of the whole piece assembled out of its assorted frequencies.
Short Ride In A Fast Machine as a spectrogram.
I knew I didn’t want to fiddle too much with the resulting spectrogram, otherwise what was the point of producing it? That said, my over-riding feeling in response to the spectrogram itself was in direct opposition to my emotional experience of the music originating it. If anything, the spectogram has a distinctly calming effect. (Indeed, in his comment on the Kick-About, fellow blogger João-Maria suggested the spectrogram reminded him of the moonlit Seine, and now I cannot see it otherwise!). This changed when I divided the spectrogram into quarters. All at once I felt I was looking at POV shots of someone plummeting past Fritz Lang-inspired skyscrapers or views from great glass elevators speeding up and down. To be honest, once my brain had connected these images with the POV of falling people (a very short ride!), they in no way felt representative of Adams’ music, the energy and aliveness of it, and perhaps this can only be expected if you take something as dimensional as music and flatten it into a monochrome 2D strip!
Then how to restore the colour and light-fantastic into this clever/fascinating/boring strip of data? And what is that tickle of association in my brain, triggered again and again by the horizontalism of the spectrogram, by its flaring rectangles and bright little squares? Oh yeah…
Maybe this is where it all comes from – that compulsion to pull light and image out of music? One day soon I’ll finally do it, commit to discussing my love affair with this film, but until then let me just come right out and say Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) burned a bloody big marvellous hole in my head when I first saw it as a nipper. Those final rhapsodic scenes – with the mothership, the singing lights, and that rainbow-coloured graphic equaliser-thing – woke me up to image and music – and to fast machines powered by music too. So, with a nod and a wink at Spielberg’s science-fiction classic, I tried a couple of colourised versions of the Short Ride spectrogram to go some way to linking the image back to the idea of music, momentum and technology.
My restlessness continued however, as I still waited for the clunk-click that accompanies the moment you arrive at something you’re truly convinced by. I fiddled around with the idea of ‘the machine’, taking the spectrogram and collaging it digitally to produce something with the semblance of cogs and moving parts. I started to get something interesting – something that reminded me of another film a little less celebrated than Close Encounters – At The Earth’s Core from 1976 starring Peter Cushing and Doug Mclure! I could see the barbed head of that movie’s mechanical mole machine – and that’s where I left things, because Adams’ music is very clearly not the sound of a giant drill-bit chewing through rocks!
But something about that cheesy b-movie with its drilling machine brought me to Luigi Rossolo’s 1911 futurist painting, The Revolt, with its forward thrust of heat, noise and energy; and something about The Revolt associated with the opening credits to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) – and my exhilaration in response to them as a wide-eyed child (I get goosebumps even now, so perfect is this combination of soaring score, heroic typeface and sound design!); and from Superman‘s title sequence, it was another short cognitive jump to Kubrick’s celebrated stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, this is the stuff! This is what my short ride in a fast machine needs in order to leave the ground!
The Revolt, Luigi Rossolo, 1911
Opening titles from Superman, Richard Donner, 1978
The Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968
So in the end it was actually very simple: first, you turn Adams’ Short Ride In A Fast Machine into a spectrogram, which you colourise suitably to suggest heat, light and sizzle, and then you steal from Donner and Kubrick and give the whole thing some cinematic swoosh.
Last week, I was able to announce work is underway on a new animated short designed to keep Ethan Shilling and myself out of trouble for the next few weeks or two. Since then, Ethan has clearly been hard at work in his secret laboratory deep within the catacombs of Red’s Kingdom giving bristling life to a series of computer-generated flatworms… That’s not a sentence you type very often, but in our continuing quest to envision a clutch of old BBC SFX as ‘living fossils’, there will be stranger proclamations on here I have no doubt!
It’s very early days, but Ethan Shilling and I are working on a new animation project together. Ethan has been my friend and technical director on a whole bunch of whacking great projects, usually involving entire uncharted territories and ridiculously tight time-frames and budgets. Miraculously, Ethan is still talking to me.
I like to think when I email Ethan, his face lights up with glee at the prospect of another adventure in sight and sound. In reality, I suspect he probably groans a bit, because he knows what’s coming next – from me, lots of ‘What ifs?’ and ‘What happens if we do this?’ and from Ethan, lots of ‘Sorry, you want it to do what?‘ and ‘Doing it that way will cost you thousands of pounds’.
One of our last big gigs together was conceptualising and producing over forty minutes of CG-animation for a series of live-synchronisation concerts in France and Poland. The short version is we turned four movements of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet into episodes of abstract animation. The long version is Ethan invented a plug-in to work within Autodesk Maya that took Berlioz’s music and transformed its every note and nuance into a series of instructions to drive the behaviours of all the animated elements on screen. We had tumbling obsidian blocks against a sullen red sky that tumbled exactly in time with Berlioz’s music; we had dancing swirls of light, a dizzying riot of golden balls, and a balletic spray of petals that danced on screen for a full fifteen minutes or so, and which always got a round of applause from concert goers for their sheer hypnotic loveliness.
I think Ethan and I both knew Romeo and Juliet wasn’t going to be the last time we were going to fire up Spectrogram and play around some more with idea of the visualisation of sound. There’s just something wonderfully experimental and unpredictable about this process, and working with Ethan is like working alongside a magician. He allows me to ask for stupid things and muck about a bit and ‘not know’ what I’m trying to achieve from the outset, and that makes the ‘not knowing’ bit very recreational and playful.
The last project Ethan and I worked on together was Marcus and the Mystery of the Pudding Pans for the Seaside Museum Herne Bay and Heritage Lottery. I mention this only because it was while working on the sound design for this film that I happened upon the online BBC Sound Effects archive. The actual url address for the site is bbcsfx.acropolis.org.uk – an acropolis being an ancient citadel. This image of this collection of sound effects existing within the vaults of some dusty, cavernous environment really fired my imagination. I also experienced a weird pang of sadness for all those strange categories of sound effects – sonic relics going otherwise unheard. My mind’s eye then presented me with a fleeting image of some abyssal trench, where deep down in the dark, these disembodied sound effects circled each other like rarely glimpsed species of marine life…
And that was it. A few email exchanges later with Ethan, and we’d agreed to develop this idea a little further. A few more emails later, we were already experimenting, and as of right now, we’re moving forwards on a fun idea for a new short animated film we’re calling ‘gelata spongia oculous eruptus’ – which is bastardised Latin for ‘jelly blob eye pop’ – the title Ethan gave to one of our first little experimental clips.
What follows are a series of very early experiments in which a bunch of very silly sound effects dug out from the BBC acropolis are given the Spectrogram treatment. I’m going to say ‘enjoy’, because you probably will, for these are childish joyful things! If Silly Putty could make a noise, it would make noises like these!
As Ethan and I continue to develop this project from these early trials to something more coherent, I’ll be sharing updates on our progress here. More blob-shaped sonic oddities coming soon.