Saturday, 6 April 2013

Altered States.

In March I created and performed live visuals with James Holden and band as part of a performance lecture by Marcus du Sautoy. The video, below, is a ‘regular’ edit of the piece accompanied by an audio recording from the event. The rest of this article documents the development of the piece from start to finish.

Over Christmas 2012 I received a telephone call from One Of Us a boutique studio based in Soho, London. They were developing lighting and visuals for a performance lecture by Marcus du Sautoy to be held at the Barbican, Europes largest multi-arts conference venue. The evening was billed as part of, “…a season of events that explore, and are inspired by, the human brain.” The British musician James Holden was providing sound throughout the show, culminating in a live performance with invited band members.

The lecture explored notions of consciousness with the live musical performance providing an opportunity to reflect upon the evening’s topics and an investigation of the penultimate topic, collective consciousness and altered states as experienced through art. It was the visual aspect of this section that One Of Us invited me to be involved with. The duration of the piece was dictated by the music, approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. As this was to be a live performance it was agreed that the visuals would by necessity involve a live element. Otherwise, the project had all the advantages and hurdles of an open brief.

I spent time over Christmas reading around the subject. Frequently I found myself returning to research by Lewis-Williamson and Dawson that proposed Palaeolithic art was inspired by visual phenomena experienced by Shamans and spiritual leaders during altered states of consciousness. The work focused on the similarities between entoptic images and abstract rock art. This seemed like an ideal jumping off point for the piece.

Entoptic Phenomena, from the Greek entos, "within" and opsis, "seeing", are visual effects that occur anywhere within the visual system. As they require no external stimulus they can be observed when the eyes are open or closed. There are many types of entoptic images, typically categorised by stimulus. They can be invoked or experienced passively.

A ‘floater’ is an example of an entoptic image that is experienced passively. Created by deposits on the eyeball they are visible because of the shadows they cast on the retina. Hallucinations created by mind-altering drugs such as mescaline or psilocybins are examples of intentionally stimulated entoptic images. Prior to legal regulation research into the effects of such drugs was practiced. Heinrich Kluvers work on form constants, recurring geometric patterns experienced by different users, is particularly interesting. It’s worth mentioning that form constants are also experienced in naturally occurring hallucinations.

Left: Floaters. Right: An example of a form constant (both images from Wikipedia)

Drugs are not the only way of invoking entoptic images. Sensory deprivation is another well-documented means. Whilst a gonzo approach to the project did have its charm, the latter approach seemed more sensible. An isolation (or floatation) tank provides comfortable sensory deprivation. Users float on salt water at body temperature in a light and soundproof environment. I visited a floatation centre several times and recorded my experiences. The entoptic images were subtle but interesting. In addition to sensory deprivation I found pressing against closed eyelids effectively stimulated entoptic images. The results were much different to that of the isolation tank but definitely from the same palette.

By their nature the entoptic based concepts were very similar, typically noisy, primary and secondary colours on black (this no doubt because of the dark environment in which they were experienced) I resolved to investigate a different approach in an effort to give these works some contrast.

I attempted to create entoptic images within a digital camera, replacing my own visual system with that of the equipment. I endeavoured to adjust the cameras perception via shutter/film speed and focus, whilst recreating entoptic effects such as after images and light blooming by shooting long exposures directly in to various light sources. I manipulated the material using my previous entoptic tests and reading as inspiration.

James Holden had a plan of how to approach the piece musically, however, due to other engagements he and the other band members would not meet until 3 days prior to the performance. The intention was that each of the musicians would bring their expertise in saxophone, tabla and percussion and that the piece would develop collaboratively. Consequently production of the visuals had to begin before the audio.

Whilst I do not consider myself a narrative film-maker/artist I do endeavour to create an arc of progression across my time-based work, a beginning, middle and end, otherwise I find I am just not engaged. James Holden and I discussed the performance and agreed that this ‘arc’ should begin simple, monochromatic, before introducing light and colour during the finale. I reviewed about two-dozen concepts forming two storyboards that document the change in passages.

Whilst I had a clear plan of how the visuals would progress, the duration of each passage and the transition points were unknown (they were going to be dictated by the music) therefore these aspects of the project would be executed live. The term ‘live’ is broad. I would liken this interpretation to theatre stage lighting, where planned changes occur according to the performance of other artists.

Animation is labour intensive therefore artists try to create only those frames that are absolutely necessary. It’s a fixed linear process. Live musical performance is not. Whilst the band agreed on particular passages the length and moment of transition was grey, indeed it was this that made each performance ‘alive’.

I developed the visuals in two forms, as sequences (that progressed from beginning to end) and as loops. The first ended in the latter allowing for a ‘slack’ edit that could be mixed live. I built a live setup using VJ software and a MIDI control surface. Attending the rehearsals I learnt to massage my visuals around the musicians’ performance. The MIDI control surface allowed me to manipulate the visuals in real time, observing the cues between musicians. A MIDI signal from James Holdens electronic composition provided an additional stream of control synchronising pulses and other elements that would be too complex to control manually.

The live setup(anti-clockwise): Laptop, Fire Wire Drive, APC 20 MIDI Control Surface, External Sound Card (connected to James Holdens setup)

The main hall in the Barbican where the performance took place seats approximately 2000 people. I had never done any kind of live performance before so I didn’t know what to expect. Some aspects didn’t go as planned, others worked better than I’d imagined. I’ve attended screenings and exhibitions of my own work, but I was passive during those, in this situation I was part of the work. The beginning of this blog entry includes an online version of the performance that was edited in the traditional (digital) manner. Whilst this has been crafted, refined, I would not say that it is not better or worse than the live performance, that was simply a different version. What is different is the collective experience of a live performance, the very aspect Marcus Du Sautoy discussed when introducing this part of the evening. What I discovered was that the experience is not limited to the audience but also the [performing] artists themselves.

I’d like to thank Dominic Parker at One Of Us for inviting me to be involved, then providing his ever-steady critique. Louis Mustill for his creative and technical production support and finally James Holden and band, Ettiene Jaumet, Camilo Tirado and Tom Page who were an absolute pleasure to work with.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Back In The Day.

The last post contained my most recent 3D reel. Upon viewing it a friend pointed out how times have changed...

When I began 3D the internet hadn't quite taken off. It was painfully slow and the idea of streaming video was laughable. DVDs had just come onto the market, but access to this format was limited. Furthermore, you couldn't guarantee that companies would have a player or that you'd be using the correct codec. The only reliable way of sharing your work was on VHS.

In my experience,  reels didn't really get watched. Certainly in those days their main purpose was for adjusting the height of monitors or stabilising a wobbly desk. So, how to make a reel stand out from the other ergonomic devices in a studio? Make it bright pink! That way when you telephoned a facility you could say, "You know, the bright pink one", and I did.

When you make a reel it's necessary to provide contact information and notes on your role in the production. In those days these would go on or in the box. But why stop with those details? The idea of documenting all my information inspired the sleeve art for my reel, including portrait, height, weight and so on in a mixed parody of feature VHS case and cheap cleaning products (this from the garish pink)

When I made these sleeves digital photography was also just taking off. Colour printing was a luxury and something I only had access to through work. I feared my boss had noticed the correlation between empty red cartridges and my artwork, so I switched from pink to green when I updated the design. As you can see from the picture, this had repercussions on other aspects of the final print. As printer time was at a premium there was little I could do but embrace it. Who would know what race I was anyway?

Breaking into the industry I dispatched dozens of VHS tapes. Posting a jiffy bag was the final stage of a lengthy process. First, a master was  created on Betacam tape. Umpteen reels were then duplicated in real time (no pun intended) on an array of VHS machines. It was an awful lot of work and plastic for a reel that was less than a minute long. The modern format (Vimeo/You Tube) is easier to work with, better quality and is probably more likely to be viewed. The VHS format provides an amusing time capsule, but I wont miss it.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

R James Healy VFX. 3D Reel 2013.

This reel* is composed of my favourite shows from the last five years. Subtitles indicate, the title, the facility where the production took place and the role I played on the project. The sound for this reel was created using audio samples from 1980’s feature films.  They are, in order of appearance: Robocop, Mad Max, Scanners, Blade Runner and [of course] Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back.

*What's a reel? If you aren't in the animation industry you may not not know what a 'reel' or 'show-reel' is. Simply, it's a moving portfolio. This particular reel is focused on my skills as a 3D craftsman. It is intended to show my ability to interpret direction and make the best visuals possible. I don't develop these projects alone, it's a collaborative process. On a feature film the crew may run to thousands of individuals, whilst a commercial may be less than a dozen. This work is commercial, but that should not be interpreted as non-creative. I'm involved with projects planned in the most minute detail as well as those that are blank canvases. All of them provide creative and technical challenges, I guarantee it!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

(G)OOD + (D)EVIL, 3D Making-Of.

My previous post contained Chris Turners short film, (G)OOD + (D)EVIL. Time Based Arts provided the post production magic and invited me onboard to create some 3D elements. I worked on two sequences realising cracking walls and billowing fabric.

In the first sequence, the heroine, painted black with white eyes, claws at the air. It's an intense moment. I created cracking plaster to suggest the environment was somehow reacting to her performance. The shot could have been little more than a 2D animation of cracks appearing, but the subtleties in shifting surfaces and sliding edges required a 3D solution. Due to the shallow focus and bizarre sense of time in the piece, I created only one animation sequence which was then retimed and repositioned for each shot. The making-of video, below, outlines the process. Note that lighting duties were performed by James Mann with Flame compositing by TBAs own, Mike Skrgatic.

A sequence depicting the heroines [extremely] disturbed sleep included a bed covered in couture fabric. Whilst it's not visible in the source footage (due to the grading) the fabric provided was considerably smaller than desired. Chris planned to extend the fabric in post, filling the room. Mike and Jim at TBA had seen the cloth work I'd produced for Harry Potter and suggested I come up with a 3D solution rather than executing a static 2D paint up. I created a number of tests, but by far the most successful were those that tied in the actresses writhing movements. Creating interaction between the cloth and the bed helped place the fabric in the scene. The making-of video, below, outlines the process and once again, lighting duties were performed by James Mann with Flame compositing by Mike Skrgatic.

Thursday, 21 February 2013


Back in autumn 2012, I helped out TBA with Chris Turners short, G(O)OD + (D)EVIL. Chris describes the piece, "G(O)OD+(D)EVIL is a study of the duality of human identity; love / hate, black / white, life / death, light / dark, beginning / end." 

I contributed 3D elements for two sequences, the cracking walls and the billowing fabric. A making of is coming soon... 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Best Of Now.

I recently competed a job with Time Based Arts for MSN/Microsoft. The spot was directed by Tomato. Their directorial approach is the opposite of Ben Hibons (who directed both sequences in my last post) Where as Ben knows his entire world in minutiae, a question to Tomato along the lines of, "does it look like this?" will typically receive an answer such as, "maybe". For them, the entire process is a voyage of discovery.
Tomato arrived with a selection of images and video clips. These were narrowed down to three core elements, a torus, a flock and a fractal. I created about a dozen animation tests for each, which were then refined and cross pollinated. Tomato constantly challenged me to 'break' the tools and conventional ways of working. For example, geometry that constantly changed topology, textures that 'swam' through models or a flocking system that flew through right angles.
I developed the modeling, animation and sequence. Lighting was executed by Remi. The flip text by Jess. Flame was handled by Mike, Jim and Sheldon. Production, JD and [lots of] coffee and cake by Stephanie. All at TBA. The [familiar?] voice is Paul Megan.