The Cloths of Heaven

Commissioned by UNKLE’s James Lavelle for  Meltdown festival, Warren Du Preez and Nick  Thornton Jones’s three-and-a-half-minute film  Worship pushed VFX house Glassworks to the  very limit. Rachael Steven talks to the  creators of an extraordinary piece of work 

For ten days each summer since 1993, London’s Southbank Centre has hosted an experimental festival spanning art, music, performance and film. Meltdown is curated by a different musician each year – past directors include David Bowie, Nick Cave and The Kinks’ Ray Davies – and this year’s was staged by UNKLE producer and Mo’Wax record label founder James Lavelle.

Among performances by Chrissie Hynde and Neneh Cherry, orchestral re-workings of drum and bass tracks and an exhibition of art from Mo’Wax’s archives, was an intriguing audiovisual collaboration between Lavelle, Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones.

Introduced by a reading of WB Yeats’ poem, The Cloths of Heaven, the three-and-a-half minute film guides viewers through a series of swirling, abstract landscapes, rendered in fleshy reds and pinks, and shades of yellow and green. It looks both like something viewed under a microscope, and the surface of some desolate planet, and is an impressive work of CGI.

Du Preez and Thornton Jones have been working together since 1998, and specialise in creating photographic and moving image work with a striking use of colour and light. In an interview with CR back in 2007, they described their unique aesthetic as a kind of hypervisuality. “Every time we go into a job, we’re trying to create something you’ve never seen before, something pure, that inspires or excites us,” they said.

The pair’s clients include Bjork, Massive Attack and Alexander McQueen, and their film for Meltdown is one of several collaborations with UNKLE – as well as designing artwork for various albums, they directed the video for 2010 track Follow Me Down 2 3 and last year, released a stunning short, Erebus, which used dance and music composed by Lavelle to portray the work of sculptor Augustus Rodin.

While a digital construct, the UNKLE film (titled Worship) has a painterly, ethereal quality, achieved largely through light, colour and the fine detail and depth of each image. “That painterly quality was really important, as we wanted to elevate people’s perceptions of digital – particularly those who might see it as a lesser art form,” says Thornton Jones.

Eventually, Du Preez and Thornton Jones hope to extend the piece into an immersive, multi-screen gallery installation. “We want to create an engaging, sensorial experience on a large scale – something you can’t get from a laptop or TV screen,” adds Thornton Jones.

Worship was created in partnership with London post-production house Glassworks, and was born out of research for an ad. The ad never ran, but introduced the team to the software used to create the CG environments seen in the film. “The brief was to create something that looked like it could be huge or tiny: a juxtaposition between some kind of massive galaxy, and something microscopic,” says Glassworks CEO Hector Macleod.

“Roman Vrbosky, one of our 3D experts who is fascinated with space and nebuli, discovered a piece of software that he thought could achieve this effect. He asked if we could buy it, then spent a couple of weeks in the dark room, and came back with these unbelievable images generated on a computer, but look like they were shot in space,” adds Macleod.

Utilising real data gathered from space, the programme generates detailed images of galaxies that can then be manipulated and added to on screen. Once desired effects are achieved, simulations are ‘crunched’, creating scenes made up of billions of particles.

Vrbosky then worked closely with Du Preez and Thornton Jones to add lighting effects timed with the track, while Flame expert Duncan Horn blended visuals with images of cloud material and smoke, as well as in-camera footage of particles floating underwater.

At one point, the film also featured footage created using Glassworks software that simulates a CG human heart, creating a journey through the human body. The footage was later removed, but there remains a sense within the film that viewers are glimpsing inside some kind of living organism, an idea Du Preez and Thornton Jones are keen to explore more in a gallery piece. The pair are reluctant, however, to impose any kind of explanation of the film which could influence viewers’ perceptions of it.

“We want it to be universal. We could talk about how it’s influenced by certain artistic forms, but it’s not meant to be understood by a small group of people. It’s about the universe, the body and where we all come from, and I’d like a child to be able to enjoy it as much as an adult,” says Thornton Jones.

“I could give all of these intellectual explanations for why it looks like it does, but ultimately, it’s driven by light and colour,” adds Du Preez. “Red is associated with passion and love and the heart, but also death and blood, so it’s open to interpretation. It should make someone feel one thing, and someone else another, and it might make some people feel uncomfortable.”

Accompanying music is also key to how viewers interpret the piece – UNKLE’s composition creates an ethereal, uplifting feel but, as Du Preez points out, the soundtrack could easily be changed to create something much darker.
At Meltdown, the reading of Yeats’ poem provided a moving introduction, echoing a sense of love, life, and heavenly beauty with the lyrics: ‘Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths/Enwrought with golden and silver light/The blue and the dim and the dark cloths/Of night and light and the half light/I would spread cloths under your feet/But I, being poor, have only my dreams/I have spread my dreams under your feet/Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.’ “It really captured that essence of light, and dark, and something ethereal – that essence of something beautiful, but quite haunting,” adds Du Preez.

While born out of a commercial project, Worship has been a labour of love, with Du Preez and Thornton Jones keen to push the boundaries of new software, and create something emotive that viewers can connect with. The pair see these self-initiated experiments as integral to the development of their craft, and the industry. “Sometimes, you need to make things for making things’ sake – to create something that makes people think, driven by artistic purpose, rather than a commercial end result,” says Du Preez.

R&D projects are also an important focus for companies like Glassworks, often leading to new commercial commissions, but Macleod says as budgets get tighter and time pressures greater, the role of R&D in post-production houses is changing.

“Now, most of our traditional R&D efforts are focused on finding existing software and doing something new with it; finding something useful among the massive resources available from “off the shelf” products,” he explains.

“There’s not the same appetite from clients to invest in bespoke scripting, or writing things from scratch, and I think this has led to a drop in quality across the commercial VFX industry – the truly amazing commercial projects are often few and far between.

“With projects like this, however, there’s a real freedom – we can take something and run with it, without having to change things because of client or marketing demands, and create something really beautiful,” he adds.

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