For the “Infinity” chapter of their digitally animated film experience Energy Flow, FIELD set out to depict a sprawling landscape rarely gazed upon by human eyes. Drawing inspiration from the hulking supercomputer towers and vast digital expanse of the world’s data centers, “Infinity” gives form to the omnipresent “cloud” we use every day but have no real visual metaphor for.
“These huge landscapes formed by server racks become a fascinating symbol for our digital nature,” says Vera-Maria Glahn, FIELD co-founder. “They are a crucial part of our global infrastructure, yet hardly anyone has ever seen them. Sometimes we might forget that the lightweight digital and virtual services we rely on actually do have a heavy, complicated, machinic infrastructure behind them hidden away.”
It’s a fitting thematic focus for a film project that’s exploring the transmission of energy through our world—from the natural to the mechanical—and the sense of interconnectivity this “energy flow” fosters. Images of data coursing through the intricate information architecture of the web, and the supercomputers and servers that power it, feel wholly modern and representative of the particular moment in which we live. They also seem to herald the future as yet unexplored and undiscovered—as Glahn notes, “most scientific discoveries of recent times would not have been possible without the computing power of supercomputers, for example in quantum physics, weather forecasting, climate research, molecular modeling, physical simulations, and so on.”
Though the digital landscapes of “Infinity” were already conceived, FIELD noticed the recently-released images of Google’s data centers, were interesting in a very similar way because the photos marked the first time most people caught a glimpse of what the information super-highway actually looks like.
One of Google’s data centers.
The group also looked at the work of photographer Andreas Gursky, whose large format images of architecture and mundane landscapes like those of supermarkets share a similar feeling of boundlessness, grandeur, and awe.
Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent.
The 3D modeling of “Infinity” is made with a process called instancing, which duplicates, distributes, and randomizes a series of pre-defined building blocks, such as the different rack types, ceiling structures, etc., to create the illusion of a massive scale.
As the viewer moves through the digital panoramas of “Infinity,” the digital beasts begin to fragment and break apart, breaking down the immensely complicated networks into simple blinking bytes of data.
The Creators Project: The hulking rows of servers depicted in “Infinity” are a staple of our every day lives these days, yet we never see them and only think about them when one of them crashes and brings down our favorite website. Because they lack a common “visual metaphor,” as you say, what sort of challenges or opportunities did this present to you in your artistic depiction of them? How do you represent something that’s too large to really fathom?
FIELD: I think these landscapes feel fascinating because we can’t see what they do. It’s a complete mystery to us what calculations they are working on—it could indeed be running your favorite website, it could also be calculating the likely path and intensity of a hurricane, or running simulations that change our understanding of the universe. This wide span from the trivial to existential is what makes them a powerful metaphor. It’s tingling your imagination.
Can you tell us a bit more about the 3D modeling process applied to “Infinity”? How many different “building blocks” did you end up creating to be instantiated? How did you ensure variety in the landscape while still allowing the process to be replicated/semi-automated?
It’s just a balance of enough unique elements vs. number of repetitions—from a certain scale onwards the scene becomes a pattern that our eyes struggle to question for details. All units in the racks are modular and combinable. The explosion and its timings are slightly different and offset for each rack. Small irregularities like that make the scene feel natural, like the loose cables.
It’s interesting to see that supercomputers like this found their way into your film, since I know that you relied heavily on the rendering power of some custom computers from Intel in order to be able to process the huge digital files you were creating for Energy Flow. When you were shaking your fist at the computer, wishing it would process faster, did it add an even more personal touch to this story?
Yes, in fact we do have a rack like this in the studio where all our render machines sit. I wished they’d be supercomputers often enough! And we had a hands-on visual reference for the surface texture of the racks :).
Visit EnergyFlow.io for more information on the project and more behind-the-scenes imagery on “Infinity.” Check back on The Creators Project every Wednesday for an in-depth look at a different storyline or feature of the film.
Meet FIELD in the video below…