Visualizing The Energy Flow Of "Life": Meet Digital Art Studio FIELD
For the better part of a year, UK-based digital art studio FIELD have been thinking about energy, that invisible life force that courses through every single particle in the universe. After watching social upheavals (the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement) and a staggering number of natural disasters take place around the world last year, Vera-Maria Glahn and Marcus Wendt, the couple behind FIELD, couldn’t shake the feeling that a global energy shift was in progress. Something about these events felt linked and interconnected. So with the world around them seemingly in turmoil, FIELD embarked on their most ambitious project to date, in partnership with The Creators Project, producing an artistic exploration of energy and the physical, social, and spiritual tensions in our world.
Called Energy Flow, the project is a non-linear film experience composed of 10 story lines that are interwoven to create a unique audio-visual tapestry every time the film is viewed. FIELD describe each story line as a sort of “digital painting in motion”—inspired by real-life events and processes, but offering a more abstract, expressionistic take on them. Viewers are left to construct their own narratives from the cross-links and form subjective reads of the connotations presented therein.
“We’re interested in expressive images and storytelling, and how it is influenced by the ways we consume news and information over multiple channels, the web, broadcast, social networks, etc. That’s the starting point for the generative film compositions of Energy Flow,” explains Glahn.
After developing the concept for some time, FIELD enlisted the help of 22 collaborators on the 3D graphics and animations, and tasked several prominent digital animators like Andreas Nicolas Fischer, Sergio Calderón and DXMIQ with providing their own interpretations of “energy flow.” The result is a film that is much more dynamic and diverse than any of FIELD’s previous body of work, which largely consists of code-driven generative video pieces and installations like Communion (a collaboration with Matt Pyke and Universal Everything), Muse and Interim Camp. Their distinct aesthetic style still pervades—the vivid use of color, an almost architectonic emphasis on structure and form, expressive use of movement and motion—but for the first time, they’re leaving behind abstraction and rooting the visuals in real life.
A still from Interim Camp (2009), a generative video piece created using custom software that generates the topography of these floating icebergs and glaciers in real-time.
Energy Flow will premiere as an app experience for iOS and Android in early December, and will later tour with The Creators Project event series in 2013. In the meantime, we’ll be bringing you weekly editorial coverage that takes you deep into the design and technical wizardry that’s powering this experimental film. Trust us—they only make it look easy!
Start out by visiting FIELD’s studio in London’s Hackney neighborhood in our behind-the-scenes profile (top video), then check out the short teaser for Energy Flow to get a sense of the film’s look and feel (second video), and finally, dive into the intricacies of character design and composition for Energy Flow’s first story line, “Life” (below).
Be sure to check back every Wednesday for more insight into the creative process behind Energy Flow.
FIELD Take Us Through The Creative Process Behind Energy Flow’s “Life”
“Life” takes a close-up look at two archetypical opponents of nature: leopard and impala. The animals’ instinct-driven movements are framed into eight scenes, like sculptures in motion: darting off for the hunt, sensing the danger; while colorful streams of energy flow through skin, muscles, veins, and nerves. With the range of Energy Flow stories touching on many different themes, “Life” observes the most fundamental, biological cycle of energy: hunting and feeding, survival and death.
The Creators Project: This film is much less abstract than your previous work, you’re working with imagery that’s a bit more representational than we’re used to seeing from you. How was the process different for you this time?
FIELD: We’ve explored landscape-like abstract visuals in many of our projects in the last few years, and we felt like like moving on into more tangible, recognisable [forms]. Applying a similar level of abstraction and detail to real environments, the bodies of animals, objects from real life, was one of our biggest aims with Energy Flow.
What we like in our approach is that we keep it open-ended for as long as possible, instead of working towards a particular image in our heads. It’s the research and development for visual effects that we do at the beginning of a project that actually brings about many of the features of the images; features that we couldn’t have created on the drawing board.
An overview of how many design iterations went into the development of the visual style of the characters, environment, and lighting.
What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered in terms of character design? Can you walk us through the development of one character, like the leopard for instance, and chronicle its evolution?
Things that are alive and very familiar to us are the hardest to recreate in animation, and to make look believable. For all Energy Flow stories, we are trying to build up on a very natural and physical representation of real events. They’re the basis that we can relate to when the visuals become abstracted, graphical, and painterly.
For “Life,” that started with realistic 3D models for the animals, which then need to be rigged to a skeleton. All motions are animated by hand, frame by frame, always comparing each part of the body with lots of video references (we’re very versed in safari documentaries now).
We wanted to make the inner processes of energy transformation visible, but it was tricky to find a starting point how this could look and behave. We eventually developed a second model, a representation of the animals’ muscle costume, which became the basis for the veins and muscle looks.
We spent weeks developing test animations for how the motion, the natural behavior of the animals could drive the aesthetic results—for example, the breathing motion of the leopard that lets color stream through its veins, or the skin giving way to the muscles when the animal sprints ahead with full strength.
How did data inform the animations? How is this different from the way we normally relate to data or even data visualisations?
The films are not representing data, but instead the notion and aesthetics of data and science visualisations was a big inspiration for Energy Flow. They’re a new aspect of our visual surroundings, a metaphor for our new digital nature. Like data visualizations, the animations are based on aesthetic systems, where parameters of form and color are connected to data parameters. In “Life” for example, the color flow through the muscles is driven by the tension of the surface, which comes from how fast each part of the body moves.
Each animation clip is created in a custom animation system that extracts data parameters from the movement, such as the tension in the individual muscles.
This data then drives the visual effects: streams of color reveal the muscle power under the leopard’s skin; oxygen flows through the sleeping leopard’s veins. The motion, form, and color of the creature become one.
Visit EnergyFlow.io for more information on the project and more behind-the-scenes imagery and videos on “Life.” Check back on The Creators Project every Wednesday for an in-depth look at a different storyline or feature of the film.