So, my artist residency in Montpellier is done - there's an exhibition in May in Spain and then a final presentation of the work in September back in Montpellier, so I have some time to refine the work. For those of you reading without knowing a bit about the project, I've been using a Microsoft Kinect (or two) to motion capture a dancer, whose movements I then plugged in to a 3D crowd simulation tool called Golaem. The project was selected as part of an open call for ENCAC, a scheme managed by Laboral and the residency took place at a contemporary theatre company called humainTROPhumain in Montpellier, France.
Overall, the experience was good. I've learnt so much about the software and hardware and have worked with some really fantastic people, from the dancer Anya and the musician Daniel to the drivers, administrators, technicians and builders. I've never had quite so many talented people working to help realise my stuff, so that was a pleasure and a privilege. Here's a few shots of the work:
There were a lot of cool outcomes to the work, but being of a critical nature - and still quite exhausted from the project - I've also been reflecting on what could have gone better. The main downside to the residency was the sheer amount of work. Why was I working so hard? That's a good question and the answer is below, but first the cool stuff.
The triptych projections looked fantastic. Rendering everything in white for projection gave the work a chalky luminescence and quite accidentally erased a lot of the noise in the render. My work has been shown on really big screens before, but I've never been part of the process to this degree, and I'm slightly in love with the physicality of projection now. I took quite a few pics of the setup and was very inspired.
From the outset, I wanted to use a choral soundtrack and I found a plugin called Strezov Storm Choir which has hundreds of fantastic samples. I worked with the theatre's resident sound guy Daniel Romero to create a limited palette of sounds alongside these choral samples, and he set up a procedural way of sequencing these sounds. He tried sculpting these into specific shapes and patterns over the two weeks, and it worked well, but we both found that the most interesting use of the sample library was just to let it sing randomly. I could listen to it for hours.
Working with a dancer
I had a fairly clear brief for what I wanted the dancer to do, and Anya very patiently executed my demands with a lot of skill and refinement. The Kinect didn't always reproduce this faithfully, and in retrospect I'd probably work a bit more with the limitations of the hardware, rather than against it. We captured too much data as well - we had four sessions of a few hours each, and it became clear early on that more mocap meant more cleanup and more delay plugging the mocap into crowds. By the fourth session we'd got the hang of it and things really began working when I let Anya do her own thing. In marked contrast to the rhythmic, regimented gestures I wanted her to create, she came up with an alternative technique informed by classical dance that involved sketching out a sudoku-esque diagram that would dictate how long to hold a pose for. If you're lucky enough to have a thoughtful, talented collaborator, trust her.
So, here's where I try to understand why the work overtook the creativity.
I apologise in advance for talking candidly about money. The French hate that, apparently.
The fee for the residency was pretty good - €4000 , €2500 of which comes straight to me for my fee. I didn't pay for accommodation, flights and expenses, so overall this is a very well-funded residency considering it's a two week project. It works out at £2000 or $2850 for 10 days work - that's £200 a day. I ended up working all 14 days (as I expected) at a slightly lower £142 a day. Pretty good for an artist, right? I wanted to protect this rate by making as much progress as possible during the residency. I could then go away and render (the time-intensive component), reflect, tweak and refine for maybe another seven days and submit something cool for the exhibitions in May and September. That's 21 days of work at about £100 a day. I'm still OK with that. One month's living costs in London for one month's work.
So the pressure was on to make the most of the time I had. What got in the way, however, was the presentation I had to make at the end of the two weeks. Initially it was billed as a small internal presentation, then a few more people from the local tech scene would attend, and it eventually transpired as a fairly large networking event for local businesses with my work as evidence of the effective partnerships between arts and industry. That's cool - I understand the reality of arts funding - but it was a fairly ad hoc arrangement that put pressure on me to materialise work before it was ready - and enough work of a high enough quality to justify people travelling to an out of town theatre to see. That meant rendering for a three screen HD projection with synced audio. In total, I rendered around ten minutes of footage with an average frame time of two to three minutes, on two machines. For those of you working in CGI, you'll probably feel a bit sick at that idea. In retrospect, I should have avoided rendering entirely. I could have documented the process of working with a dancer, I could have shown some of the technical processes and the potential of the software.
The result of this intense period is a lot of learning about the process, a sore back, a significant piece of experimental work and... lost time. All that rendering and desperately putting together work for an audience has meant that I'll essentially have to remake the work to a higher technical and artistic specification for the coming exhibitions. That 21 days at £100 a day is looking more like 30 days at £65 a day, just over UK minimum wage. But I'll get flown out to Spain and France for both exhibitions, so maybe it all balances out. And I have plenty of footage to reflect on - a lot of the subtle motion capture I thought would work doesn't, and some of the panicked scenes I cut together quickly feel quite vital and interesting. It might be a few weeks before I can look at the film again, however. Some kind of PTSD has kicked in.
Here are some other more specific thoughts.
Learning software, squashing bugs
As detailed in an earlier post, learning buggy software sucks. I had trouble with Golaem (though I think on the whole it's a good package), trouble with Kinect (I had to bite a bullet and upgrade my whole PC because of hardware/driver/OS conflict issues) and trouble with the limitations of the mocap software (IPIsoft and Brekel). I have a student edition of Golaem, and ran trials of Brekel and IPISoft, so the lack of financial outlay compensated for the disappointment and frustration I had with some of the features of the software. Optical consumer-grade mocap is tricky. You can get something polished, but it's a delicate and restrictive process. What's more, I found myself caught between embracing glitch and polishing it away. Still not decided on this one. The fact that I rendered crowds (meant to blend into the background) close-up and in bloody **white** meant that little glitches became very obvious, but somehow not obvious enough. Just enough to attract the eye, not enough to stay interesting.
Not all digital artists are laptop hackers
International residencies favour a lightweight practice, and the popular idea of the digital artist is of a countercultural nomad hacking WiFi in cafes, compiling code on trains and staying up all night eating pizza and drinking beer. How I wish CGI could be done this way! There are few laptops powerful enough to run the software I use, so my desktop machine had to be shipped to France for the residency. After a last-minute failed UPS collection, I shipped the PC as hold luggage with Easyjet. This was a remarkably easy and cheap option, but not without risk - expensive electronics aren't covered in hold luggage and no-one wants to be a sweaty man carrying a big box through a departures hall - or a sad man picking up three grand of bashed equipment from a luggage carousel at the other end. The degree of planning, project management and mitigation that I've done on this project has so far totally eclipsed the creative component. I'll have to make up for that and I look forward to doing so. It feels like I've been project managing my own creativity.
Rendering takes how long?
I had some worried looks when I told the residency people that each frame could take a few minutes to compute, though their surprise doesn't surprise me. Again, the misconception of digital practice as something very dynamic, spontaneous and lightweight doesn't apply. It would have been great to use a render farm to outsource large amounts of rendering, but it's a significant extra cost and for many reasons, crowd sims are difficult to render in the cloud. That said, my render times were pretty low due to the simplicity of the look I went for.
The reality of rendering is this: you can spend all day trying to work around a small technical problem (your crowd isn't moving the way you want it to) only to find after 10 hours of trial and error that there's a limitation in the software that means what you want to do simply can't be done. You find a workaround but the workaround has another problem that you manage to solve after another 3 hours work. You get the scene working, then you have 1 hour until the last bus home to set up a scene for rendering. You think everything is cool until you click the render button and then suddenly you have 8 minutes to solve the problem, pack your bags, and lock up a huge dark theatre on the outskirts of a city in another country where you don't speak the language. Rinse and repeat for 10 days.
Deliverables with multiple funding partners
Having worked commercially, I know how deliverables can escalate. They call it scope creep, and the more people involved in a project, the more creep there is. In multi-partner arts funding, there are bound to be many agencies with different priorities and schedules all wanting a piece of the action. These are likely to change as the project progresses and people start to get a better idea of what is being produced. But the tricky thing is that I now have three deliverables for this project - the presentation at the end of the residency, the exhibition in Spain and the festival in Montpellier in September. The focus for each is different: the presentation I've already written about, the exhibition is for an arts context, and the festival version of the work should apparently be more "performative" or durational because of the theatre context. All this information has gradually evolved (as it tends to) the closer the residency got. I initially proposed and won the residency based on the delivery of one moving image work, but there's a feeling that I might be better off producing three versions of the same work. This is kind of fantastic - I get to speak to three audiences and expose the work to more people, but I do worry about the workload, reimbursement and my ability to deliver, though I'm sure I will. Again, I think there's a tendency to assume that digital artists - and maybe all artists - are anarchic geniuses who thrive on the unexpected. Not true. We work with information, we like information, give us all the information, now!