Martha Fiennes: Exploration of Undiscovered, Digital Aesthetics

1. Salma Hayek and you. How did this collaboration with Yugen come about and how much fun has it been working with her?

It’s been amazing fun working with her. The collaboration came about as I was lucky enough to know her in connection with another project, so I reached out when this commission was emerging because I was super excited at the thought of working with talent, after all I am a Director, talent is our fodder, our clay, our muse. So I showed Salma my first piece ‘Nativity’,  which is the first generative dynamic moving imagery piece that I developed in 2011. Then we set to work and I described to her the kind of character that I was looking for – it’s non dialogue, actors can bring that great skill and it’s an incredible quality that she has, she’s completely brilliant to work with, she’s intuitive, she’s got her own incredible intelligence and emotional energy, openness and interested and insipred to explore, and also very funny. So there couldn’t have been a better choice and I felt that she really grasped the principles of the idea and ran with it under quite restrictive circumstances as we were shooting under huge time pressures (all characters were shot in a 2 day time period) and on a massive green screen set. One knows that the magnitude of the work is gained by getting as much into the camera in those 2 shooting days and you have to be ambitious and push so hard to get as much as possible – it really is like going into battle!

Do you think much would have changed if you’d had 3 or 4 shooting days?

Yes, it would have changed. There would have been even more than 29 hours of footage, because we shot so much, as you will remember Andy, we’re shooting at extremely high-speeds which means that the rushes are exponentially longer than the actual shooting time, and from that I had to make choices and selections of individual scenes before Orka, the fabulous post production team, could make use of anything. You sit there and you actually have to learn your rushes, I’m a no stone left unturned Director – I watch absolutely everything that was shot and it is actually very arduous and painstaking and very detailed and sometimes very boring but sometimes you find gems that you didn’t see the first time around – I’m also very alert to strange things, I take my inspiration always from aesthetics, places, environments, beautiful things, nature, exciting spaces like the one I’m in.

(We were doing this interview in the Immortal headquarter – the fabulous Old Central St Martins building in Holborn, London)

The green screen set must have made the shoot incredibly complex. Unless you actually know everything about how the environments will develop, which at that point you could not, you had an idea but not 100% knowledge of scale etc…

That’s so true – we didn’t really know, we had that rough sketch to work with and it evolved and evolved. Usually you go into a commissioned job knowing exactly how it will look in the end as that is normally the only way that the finance can be raised, which to be honest kind of kills it, because when it comes to shooting you are actually not free to go off on tangents and blasts of exploration but you are bound to deliver exactly what you originally committed to – so we had incredible freedom.

2. I know from past interviews (and our meetings for Yugen) that the essence of SLOimage is that the computer coding drives and makes decisions in real time to decide what image will be shown and in what context. This process must make the Director of the piece (you) the quizmaster in a way – you have so many possible outcomes to predict. A nightmare or a treat, please elaborate.

What a good question and I love you referring to the Director being the ‘quizmaster’ because it really is quite close. When I’m asked how this works I say,  look when you make a movie we all know it’s always going to be the same, once completed, so you can fast forward, rewind but everything is going to always stay the same. With this system you load it up into a computer engine that is in effect a brain, and that brain is intelligent enough to go and say I’m going to do this next, I’m going to choose this, I’m going to choose that, randomly because that is how it’s been coded. For this project we didn’t have editors, we had coders.

The more potential you stuff into this machine, the greater the range of experiences you will have at the time you decide to sit in front of it. So I’m coming to this in a totally different approach to moving image which is that I say unlike a movie it is not a fixed length, you can stay there as long as you want and you leave when you are finished, in the same way as you would encounter an art work or a painting in a gallery; I’ve absorbed it and now I’m moving on. There are lots of components within the work that I have lovingly crafted but the machine makes all the final decisions.

3. One of the characters – space alien, time traveller, oracle type thingy (see pics below) – you found out over lunch he could sing opera! He then proceeded to make the most incredible sounds on set that afternoon – were you able to incorporate that into the finished product?

To be honest, we could not manage that much sound synch as the technical challenge of that was insane but what did come out of that was the intensity of his face, his mouth open almost like a Munch scream, so it led to something fabulous even though we couldn’t use the synch.

(Please go to www.yugen.art for a fuller explanation of how the process works and also listen below.)

4. Do you prefer this way of working (as the quizmaster) or the more traditional story telling in feature film, with a beginning, a middle and an end?

I really enjoy exploring a whole new way of encountering moving images through this system because I enjoy to go through this amazingly, completely challenging, arduous and unknown process. I actually love sitting back and watching it at the end of the day when Pete, my Producer, and I sit there and we do not know what we’re going to see, what it’s going to do – you’re given it the set instruction and you recognise “Oh yes it’s doing that now” but it feels bigger than you – it’s really amazing.

Have you seen any parts that you criticised the machine for doing?

Well, the immediate thing that jumps into my head is when I’ve been watching for a while and X character hasn’t been shown and I know X and I love X, where is X, why isn’t X there? So I go back to the coders and say “Why isn’t X there, I’ve been watching for a couple of hours and this character hasn’t appeared, are you sure it is programmed correctly? And of course it is but it just hasn’t made an appearance yet! If you want it to be random be careful what you ask for!

Which restrictions have you placed on this? Salma’s characters have their own world and then there are other worlds that she dips into and visits.

There are some restrictions where we have said we wanted to be sure that it visits certain places with an even handed regularity so that everything gets a look in; Salma is the dominant force, she is the eon or the cosmic curandero (a Mexican Shaman), she is absolutely designed to dominate these environments. As the viewer, without knowing the making process, you can grab what you are shown and take meaning from it. This is what is really exhilarating as it feels like the machine has this intelligence, I’ve given the machine a lot of freedom to compose and edit itself, I’ve given it all the things to edit, but it can make all the decisions. I think of it as being the Oracle, some of the scenes are quite dark, some are playful (the children, the lovers in Elysium fields).

There is lot of AI discussion at the moment, it seems very timely to release a piece like this.

Lucky happen stance of thinking this up and wanting to make this a few years ago -instinctively being part of a curve and not strategically but we do find ourselves here with people exploring… what is intelligence, what is art?

5. How was your Venice unveiling for Yugen? All the press and pictures looked fantastic. What was your highlight of the trip?

Well anything in the city of Venice is always a highlight, however I must say I had the pleasure of having dinner with Anselm Kiefer, the great German artist, and he said “What are you doing going to that Disneyland!” I did have to laugh.

We unveiled it at a private evening red carpet event at Scuola Grande di San Rocco and then it went into the Palazzo Grassi museum for a 2 day showing. I reckon that every artist brings a bit of their DNA, I do feel there is an Italian connection – I was having a discussion with somebody the other day, people talk about beauty and aesthetic but everything that has been built into the background are fractals – this is sacred geometry, this is math visualised. The post production guys said to me “Never work with children, animals or FRACTALS,” they are the order of the cosmos… Fractals make up all the dimensions, other than Elysium fields. It is only now that we can achieve this, sacred geometry manifested with high end computing – it’s super exciting, it’s only now you can show this stuff! These fractal worlds I find them mouth watering. I wanted to show this written in large in Art.

(hear more in interview below)

The computers are the artwork – obviously with as big and beautiful screens as the showing space allows, and an adapted unity gaming engine. 

6. I hear a world tour is now on the cards which must be fantastic for you and a real validation of this incredible process that you have created.

Well it does seem there are very exciting opportunities to exhibit and show the piece, and now when a piece comes out you tend to think globally rather than nationally, also you see where the best fit is for the content.

Would you ever do a book on the project – it would be a beautiful coffee table art book!

Yes I’d love to do a book on it.

When are you able to start thinking about your next project and can you tell me anything about it yet?

I never stop thinking, I have a whole slew of ideas of how to expand and continue this concept. In my house there is a stove Andy, and it’s bubbling away and I’m stirring all those saucepans simultaneously and smelling continuously to see which ones are ready!