About the Artist
I’ve thought that maybe art is a program designed to run on humans. For me it’s a decent definition. In a sense we’re all massive fuzzy parallel processors.
One of my main motivations is the creation of synesthetic art.
Newly enabled by technology, this wasn’t possible previously. (The early modernists painter) Wassily Kandinsky’s point to line and plane is now point, vertex, and polygon. My worldview is grey, or rather mixed not black and white. Everything is gradient and interactions and feedback and complexity. I aim to get that into my work. It’s about flux and transience. I’m interested in cycles, feedback loops, complex systems, relationships, and non-deterministic outcomes.
His website is at http://simonfarussell.com.
Exhibitions and Professional Clients
59 Productions / Esa-Pekka Salonen / The Barbican
I worked on several sections of an animation for a projection-mapping piece called ‘Array’. The production took place in the Beech street tunnel in central London. The music was a piece called Karawane composed by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The idea was to create an “immersive audio-visual feast to place audience members inside a piece of contemporary classical music”.
Quartet for the End of Time
Commissioned by Sinfini Music
Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time premiered on 15 January 1941 in the prisoner-of-war camp where the composer was interned during World War Two. To celebrate the 75th anniversary Sinfini Music commissioned me to create an animation around it. I choose the first movement of the work, the Crystal Liturgy. Working with Prof. Marcus du Sautoy I used the piece to explore Messiaen’s complex relationship to mathematics, music and religion.
Visions of America: Amériques
L.A. Concert Hall in conjunction with Refik Anadol.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s multimedia presentation of Edgard Varèse’s Amériques launched the new in/Sight series at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Using custom-built algorithmic sound analysis to listen and respond to the music in real time, the visuals, projected on the walls, used the architecture as a canvas. The result was a powerful and immersive experience for the audience that engaged their visual and auditory senses.
Seasons 3 + 4
Various contributions: motion graphics, design, and art direction with the design studio Painting Practice and Netflix
Contribution with ISO Design
I worked with ISO Design to help create content for the Commonwealth Games 2014 Opening Ceremony. I provided three particle based sequences to be shown on the astoundingly large screen, which was over 100 meters wide, and weighed more than 38 tones.
March 19th, 2018
By Kirill Grouchnikov
The universe of “Black Mirror” continues to expand with each new episode, adding more layers and nuance to how technology of today can evolve in the near future. From the very beginning, the show was focusing much less on the technology itself, but rather on how it can change the fabric of our everyday interactions from the micro level of a single individual to the macro level of the society at large. And yet, the presence of technology in the universe of “Black Mirror” cannot be denied, even through the most fleeting glimpses at the outer manifestation of that technology – glass surfaces, or screens.
Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it’s my pleasure to welcome Simon Russell. In this interview he talks about his work on audio geometry experimentation and music visualization for concert stages, the symbiotic relationship between tools and imagination, the difficulty of creating something truly new and the drive to best serve the storyline with screen graphics.
Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.
Simon: I did a degree in visual communication and moving image design at Ravensbourne, and then started working in the motion graphics industry. My first job was at the Cartoon Network, doing lots of kid’s stuff. Then I did lots of shiny R&B adverts for a company that was in the music business and then for a startup that basically stopped quite quickly, I’ve been doing freelancing in the last eight years or so.
My direction changed somewhat when I started 3D. I found it stimulating and challenging in a way I hadn’t found 2D work. Then I began to bring particles and simulations into the work and something really clicked. And that’s where I’m sitting at the moment – somewhere in between VFX and motion graphics.
Recently I’ve been doing music visualizations for concerts and projection mapping, and that brings me back to my college days. I did projects on Kandinsky when I was 15, and I loved the idea of visualizing music even then. And now many years later I’m coming back to it. It’s oddly circular.
Kirill: It’s quite interesting to see the hardware advances in that area and how much they are enabling in the last decade or so. You go to a concert or watch award shows, and it’s amazing to see all those screens in different shapes and sizes everywhere. And it didn’t even feel a gradual process. All of a sudden, these gigantic screens were everywhere.
Simon: I’ve been interested in music visualization for so long. I went away from it and now I’m getting paid to do it on such a big scale. I did visuals for the Shawn Mendes world tour visuals, and the screens were insane. It’s the hardware and the playback that make it possible. It’s really exciting.
My motivation is to see it as pure experimental design. Everyone puts their own spin on it, and people see it on these futuristic screens. Aside from “Black Mirror” and live event work, I’ve been doing audio geometry experiments on my site. I’m getting some work from that, and it’s driving the jobs I’m doing. It’s nice and surprising that it’s working out like that [laughs]. It’s not often that things fall nicely into place like that. Maybe I’ve been doing it for so long that eventually it just clicks.
Kirill: We’re talking about number of screens, each with its own shape and size which is usually quite huge so that it can be seen from the back of that space. When you sit down to first think about it, what’s your approach to visualizing it? Do you do it on paper, or in some kind of a digital environment?
Simon: You start thinking about the idea, about what it is you’re trying to get across. For that, it doesn’t matter what is the shape of the box and how you are trying to draw it. It’s the same process. You get your concepts, you sketch, you make little experiments to prototype it in 3D. A screen is just a 2D surface, and it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to do it.
But the project I’m working on at the moment is this tunnel with 42 projectors super bright projectors. It’s going to be really long and really bright. And we’re using the whole tunnel, roof and all. The playout system we’re using can preview the setup in VR so you can really get a sense of the space and what you’ll be seeing. It’s amazing to see these particles waves flowing in time to the music, flowing down the tunnel. If it’s even close to that in real life it’ll be very powerful.
Kirill: Do tools matter as much as your imagination? The tools at your disposal continue evolving, but what good are those tools if, as a designer, you don’t have the right idea to work off of?
Simon: It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s a fair point that you can have the highest-end computer, but it’s useless if you don’t know how to use it and you don’t have any imagination. On the other hand, you can have crazy ideas and no means to achieve them. As ever, the truth is somewhere in the middle. This is where the design studio Painting Practice is so strong. They stand in the middle of that place. You have post-production houses that are very technical even when they have their design departments. But it’s hard to do simulations of what is physically plausible and still be loose and creative. You need to be in the brain-space to think about it in a purely creative way. It doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with those giant post places. This is where Painting Practice fits in. They lead conceptually, but also know how to follow it through and push those ideas down. It’s about defining those clear, beautiful, emotive ideas, about really creating a powerful concept, but being able to lead that through all the hurdles and challenges of a huge technical production and still keep that original essence.
It’s probably been said a thousand times, but you can have these multi-million dollar superhero productions and it can be dry at times. It is soulless because there are no ideas behind it, no heart. It’s all about the effects. Marshall McLuhan said that the “medium is the message,” and that’s the case here. Because they can do these huge effects driven spectaculars they do. The medium becomes the product.
There’s a lot of wastage in creating something new and genuinely fresh, it’s hard and time-consuming. You can just copy what has been done before and stand on the shoulders of those giants. Or you can start by building up on a concept from first principles, and it’s really slow. When I started doing music visualizations, I got into Houdini because it can handle audio as well. It takes such a long time even for the simplest idea. You start with a concept, which is the best way to create something original.
Kirill: Speaking about imagination and ideas, do you worry about your field being displaced by automated tools and processes in the near future? There are some experimentations around machine learning that try to come up with the answer to the question “what good design is” and taking it over from there. I’m not quite sure how feasible it is to replicate that creative spark that starts the whole process in a designer’s head.
Simon: It’s hugely difficult to predict what AI and machine learning are going to bring. I don’t think anyone knows really.
I like to think about the rising water analogy. The easiest things will get picked up by the machines, and you see it everywhere as things get automated. But the higher-level, more conceptual things will probably take much more time to be caught up with. Nobody can say how high the watermark can rise in theory. Some futurists like Ray Kurzweil think that it’s going to be completely automated. But I agree more with people who say that we don’t know where the bar will be. It’s going to be interesting to find that out.
And longer-term it’s probably going to be a partnership with machines. It will be a two-way communications, learning to work with each other. But no one can say where the barrier is going to be.
Kirill: So maybe the balance between your imagination and your tools then shifts towards the former. That becomes your differentiator.
Simon: If you’ve demonstrated that you can conceptually grasp it, organize it and lead that vision, you’ll be fine.
Kirill: I’ve been watching the episodes of “Black Mirror” that you’ve worked on, and while there are a couple of lower-level, terminal interfaces, the rest are closer to those music visualizations that you’ve been talking about earlier. You visualize certain patterns to highlight what is going on in the story at that point, sort of a graphical summary of it.
Simon: Screen graphics are a strange beast. It is 100% about telling the story, and you see that in any good feature or episodic production. There’s lot of thought and background detail in it, even though hardly any of it is seen explicitly. There’s logic and depth to it, and that’s what makes it feel real.
Kirill: Do you ever dream about coming up with a design that is so final and pure that nobody can come up with any suggestions to improve upon?
Simon: In the military they say that no plan that ever survives the contact with the enemy. And that’s quite similar to our field. I have had projects where they love it from the first sight and you go with it. Sometimes it’s that easy.
That’s what separates personal design work and creating a solution that fits a very specific set of needs. There’s also complexity and flexibility that keeps on evolving collaboratively throughout. And even for your own personal work, it’s such a complex beast that it’s hard to be pure about it. It takes a huge amount of work to bring something into the world. And if something is perfect, maybe it’s not really that good. Maybe it needs to be pushed.
I was listening to an interview with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, and she talked about ‘Songbird’, and said that it just came to her. Almost out the ether. You hear that a lot from musicians that something comes almost fully formed to them. In a way, I have ideas like that, but the process of giving birth to it is messy. The more people get involved, the more complex that Venn diagram becomes.
Kirill: But then if you look at your personal career so far, it has been largely enabled by advances in technology, including the Internet.
Simon: That’s not to say that I wouldn’t be happy creating, let’s say, wood etchings or whatever. It is remarkable and wonderful that I can create some of the things that I do. If Kandinsky could see the tools that we have now, he would be amazed. You can literally do what he was talking about, which is purely concept. It is utterly incredible and mind-blowing. It’s a complex multi-faceted picture.
All content copyright© 2007-2018 Kirill Grouchnikov
Ravensbourne University London 1998-2001
BA Visual Communication Design Specializing in Moving Image