Sphere: Final Critique

You can have all the technology on earth, but without a message and some form of engaging content, it’s just a chainsaw in the hands of a baby”  (Faulkner, 2006)

The above quote has been my mantra throughout the creation of Sphere. The project is my first attempt at creating a projection mapped video installation piece – consisting of three movements; micro, earth and macro. Although using a range of new and unfamiliar technology and techniques, I had to ensure that I was not swept away with technology and the real focus was the creation of a narrative structure with engaging visuals.

The aim of the piece was to explore our place within the extreme scales of the universe, with a focus on the micro, earth and macro scales. The piece was inspired by my interest in the universe and some of the theoretical concepts of Stephen Hawking’s and other cosmological theorists.

“Einstein’s theories of Special & General Relativity deals with the nature of space and time and the force of gravity. Quantum mechanics deals with everything else…it’s simply a physical theory that describes the way things behave” (Cox, 2012)

I aimed to explore these theories through my own interpretations using projected visuals and music in a live performance. The general term for this technique is VJ’ing – the “means of improvising visuals, specifically those rendered via projected light” (Spinrad, 2005). I also intended to explore projection mapping, the process of distorting visuals to map onto 3D objects, creating the illusion of movement on a physical shape. Overall, I feel the project has been a great success and achieved the aims set out in the initial learning agreement, although their are areas I would like to develop in future projects.

The combination of live visuals alongside music is not a new one, in fact it can be traced back to the Color Organ “a device which embodied the light-as-music metaphor” (Spinrad, 2005) in the late 1800’s. It really developed as an art-form in the 60’s, with the advent of “Wet Shows”, which used different coloured melted oils and paints in a glass jars projected alongside music, which was described as a “non-drug re-creation of a psychedelic experience” (Spinrad, 2005). Technology has advanced substantially since then, with the idea of live visuals alongside music really coming into popularity in the late 80’s with club music and culture.

In clubs, DJ’s perform the music. This is visually quite disinteresting for an audience to watch, so the idea of using visuals alongside the music really came into play. The idea of appropriating footage and creating montages was created by experimental filmmakers such as: Walter Merch, Stand Brakage and Bruce Conner. Frank Capra, a mainstream director even dabbled with the concept in his 1943 propaganda film Prelude to War, which was made entirely from re-appropriated footage. “In one quick sequence of two-second clips, Capra reviews the entire history of the U.S., from conquering the land to electrifying the cities, backed by an inspiring Gershwin score”  (Faulkner, 2006)

Since then, the ways messages are conveyed using this medium have substantially increased in sophistication. One of the key pieces I studied before starting the project was a collaboration between HexStatic and Coldcut called Timber (1997). Timber explored the destruction of the rainforest by combining visuals and audio in a way that created a complete synergy between the audio and image. The visual loops, such as “man chopping down tree with chainsaw” or “machines stripping branches” combined with the diegetic sounds of these events to create the music, conveys a powerful message in a unique way.

I wanted to explore and apply this synergy between music and visuals in Sphere. This idea was incredibly important to the piece, although the intention was to create it in a non-diegetic way unlike Hexstatic. From the outset I intended to create the visuals alongside music, and due to time constraints, I contacted Chris Weeks, an electronic musician and friend, who allowed me to utilise his music on the project copyright free. It just so happened that the album I selected the tracks from, A Deconstructed Sun, was based on a similar theme to the one that I was working on. The album is a concept album based on the elements that combine to create our sun, and seemed a perfect fit for the piece. The three pieces of music selected for Sphere were picked purely for artistic reasons as I felt they would suit the visuals I aimed to create.

After the music was selected, I wanted to create organic visuals for the piece. Sphere aims to explore and convey the scales of the universe from the sub- atomic particle to the entire known universe, in a way that will allow an audience with no prior knowledge to experience these abstract concepts. Although initially I intended to create the majority of visuals from scratch, in the final piece I created some specific custom visuals. Alongside this I used some public domain footage. In the micro movement, edited clips from a film called “Microscopic Life: The World of the Invisible” (1958) were used to obtain some good footage of microscopic creatures. Some of these visuals were inspired by a piece called “Sons et Lumieres” performed by Mark Boyle and Joan Hills (1967). I tried to obtain access to a microscope and explored attaching a DSLR to it, but the costs involved in this were prohibitive. I ordered a microscope attachment for my iPhone, which produced some quite impressive x90 visuals, although it arrived too late in the production to be of use. One of the fundamentals of VJ culture is the “re-appropriation of visuals in different and unintended ways” (Spinrad, 2005). As the intention is to exhibit the piece publicly, it was important that the usage rights of all visuals were copyright free.

On the other end of the scale, rather than creating abstract CGI for the macro movement, footage was obtained from the ESA, ESO and NASA, which again had liberal usage rights. As long as I include information in the credits of the film and do not state that my work is endorsed by these organisations, I am able to use it in the installation. This allowed me to obtain lots of amazing footage, perfect for the project; the Hubble Telescope Deep-field view, representations of dark matter and other extreme objects. It would have proved difficult to create the final part without this source.

Although it proved incredibly challenging from a technical perspective, I decided to project the final piece onto a large sphere (the object for this happened to be a large 70cm polystyrene ball sourced from a craft supplier). Their are a variety of connotations for this shape, especially in this topic. From the shape of Atoms, to theoretical “Balloon universes” (Hawking’s, 2010). The initial aim of the project was to perform it on a large scale, and now the work is complete, this is still something I would like to do. During the process, I made some good contacts with companies that specialise in multimedia projection and installations. A variety of technical difficulties, costs and time limitations prevented this from happening within the project timescale. The project was scaled back, with the intention of the piece to be an installation work in a gallery. The ultimate aim of the piece would be to perform it at the Sonar festival, a festival which specialises in “advanced music and multimedia art” (Currie, 2005) held in Barcelona or a similar event(s). The piece is easily scaled up and down in size and it can easily be performed in different environments.

One of the key parts of the piece that I particularly enjoy is that it is performed live each time, so every time the piece is viewed it is slightly different. This is intentional, as again with theories like “multiple universe and quantum theory” (Hawking’s, 2010), even though the components are the same, each universe is going to be slightly different – “Everything that can happen does happen” (Cox, 2012)

The final piece is a one off performance, which has been recorded using multiple-cameras. Although the final piece is intended as an installation, for submission reasons I have created a film of the performance. After showing the initial recording in a group critique shot from one static camera, the lecturer Mark Aerial Waller, suggested an important point, which was that their was a complete lack of depth to the piece in this format, negating one of the important parts of the project, which is that of the physical 3D sphere. The final piece has been edited together from five static cameras with different shots of the piece and one free moving camera. This adds some movement to the recording and I feel it gives a sense of the 3D shape. Sphere was recorded on a black background; the aim of this was to remove the sense of scale of the object and edited in Final Cut Pro X. The video does suffer from flickering issues, which I have been unable to resolve. This is due to the refresh rate of the projectors and the fps the camera records at – it is hard to avoid. The film is an archive recording of a live performance.

I feel the final piece of work has turned out particularly well. The work has achieved what I set out to do. To truly experience the work, the piece has to be seen as an installation, but I feel the final video purveys the objects shape and depth well. I aim to exhibit the work next year in Norwich. I have been influenced by a variety of contemporary VJ’s and artists and have explored the link between sound and image. The early research helped shape the type of imagery and format of the final piece. I feel the quality is on a par with other contemporary video artists and VJ’s. Although influenced by others work, it is a unique piece. Sphere will have life after the submission of the work. As it is the first time I have explored this format, I am keen to develop the techniques learnt during this project further. Using light enables you to turn any surface or shape into something different and is visually engaging. I feel the work enables the viewer to experience some of the theories discussed above and works really well in conjunction with the music.


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