Andy Lomas, a digital artist and mathematician, likes to let the virtual world spin out of control. Using software code to creates very basic rules, Lomas then sits back and watches his digital “growth systems” bloom, fractalize, shape-shift, and otherwise behave in organic and emergent ways.
Yesterday, at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Arts (LACDA), Lomas’s Morphogenetic Creations opened, giving digital art enthusiasts the opportunity to see his dynamic virtual systems up close. The exhibit includes work from the Aggregation, Flow, and Cellular Forms series. To coincide with the exhibit, Lomas uploaded a view of these digital growth videos to Vimeo. Startlingly beautiful to behold, they’re a bit like Ernst Haeckel’s Art Forms of Nature animated with a cyberpunk edge.
I recently rang up Lomas, who lives in the United Kingdom, to talk about Morphogenetic Creations. We talked about his background in mathematics, his early fascination with D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, and how his work as a computer-generated effects artist for film (The Matrix sequels and Avatar), where highly-predictable outcomes and stability predominate, served as a springboard for the more random digital forms he now creates.
The Creators Project: What can people expect to see at the Morphogenetic Creations exhibit at LACDA?
Andy Lomas: There will be four animation pieces from the Cellular Forms series in the windows, but also then some 44x44-inch big prints of new and old work. They’re ridiculously high-resolution at 12,000x12,000 pixels.
Another thing I have at LACDA for the Aggregation series are picture frames with these old, Victorian-style stereo viewers to create a 3D effect. The frame only contains two pictures, but through the stereo viewer it really looks like this three-dimensional thing. I believe they’re going to pull those out for this exhibit as well.
Is Cellular Forms the most recent series?
The two Cellular Forms videos are the most recent. They’re almost exactly the same date because they’re basically differently rendered versions of the same thing. That would be Cellular Forms and Cellular Forms (X-Ray version).
What I quite like is the idea that there are two things: the creation of these three-dimensional data structures, where the goal is to create the most organic things possible with very simple rules; and that there is no one correct way of doing that. One shows you everything solid, while the other gives you an x-ray that reveals what’s actually going on inside. Neither is the original, if you like. They’re just different views into the data.
And you wrote the software code for this series?
Yeah, I wrote the software for Cellular Forms. I’m a code junky. I write it for my own pleasure. There are two main parts to the code. One is what I call the simulation engine, which is the thing that is actually almost like running a growth process. It starts with a sphere or ball of cells, with rules for how they divide and have forces between them, how it moves, changes shape, and grows over time. Then there is the rendering stage, which takes the data produced by that simulation and turns it into something you can see. It produces pixel data out of cell data, if you like.
Did you use this code in your film work, or did you build it on the side for this specific purpose?
It’s completely built on the side. It’s very much a labor of love. When I worked on The Matrix sequels for this company I was working with then, another person there used a much simpler version of what’s called Diffusion Limited Aggregation for some of the effects work. It was used for when Agent Smith was turning other people into other Smith’s with these tendril things. DLA inspired the code I wrote.
When you’re doing things for films, you have to construct things in a very different way—you have to make things very controllable and directable. Whatever you do, when the director or visual effects supervisor looks at it and says, “That’s great, but can you change this and modify that,” that is what you spend most of your time doing. One of the things I like about my own work is that it is trying to be almost exactly the opposite. You’re hoping for the things which are unexpected.
It’s almost like growing plants; you don’t know exactly how a plant is going to grow. But, you start to learn that if you cross-breed that with that, then it might do something interesting. Maybe nine of the plants end up really uninteresting, but one does something really interesting and maybe different than what you thought it would. People talk about emergence, where things emerge that you didn’t expect, which you almost can’t use in professional production.
Do you prefer the lack of control that your solo work affords you?
I’ve got to say that I prefer the lack of control. As soon as things become digital, people think that they can control everything. When you get to a certain level of complexity, you can explore it more than control it. I prefer the things where 99% of the time it doesn’t produce anything interesting, but that 1% of the time is like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” I’m not a control freak director. I actually want the work to surprise me instead of do exactly what I thought it was going to do.
What specifically might have influenced Cellular Forms and your other series?
I’ve always been fascinated by sculpture and form. I also used to scuba dive and look at coral. To my mind, organic things go from really hideous to incredibly beautiful, whereas most engineered things go from ugly to something quite interesting. In organic forms, there is a very visceral reaction. Trees look beautiful and mold looks ugly, and things like that.
My original background is in mathematics, which I studied as an undergraduate. One of the main areas I got interested in is what’s called Dynamical Systems, which is sort of the math behind Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory—the math of how things change over time when you almost reapply the same rule again and again and again. So, the combination of those two, it’s almost like how simple could the rules be to make something that is as beautiful as a tree or coral or something like that. So, those two have always been like two germs working together. And, to my mind, computers are the things that allow you to actually try that out.
Any other critical influences in your work?
There was a Scottish mathematician named D’Arcy Wenthworth Thompson, who wrote a book about a hundred years ago now called On Growth and Form, which is basically him talking about the constraints of the real world. When you think about how things grow, are the sorts of forms that you see in the real world just the results of almost the only things that can grow? With a computer we can actually test that. Often, it doesn’t work quite how you expected.
For more of Lomas' work, head over to his website here.