Unstill Life

In the hands of artists rob and nick carter and VFX specialists MPC, paintings come to life and art discovers a new genre

Moving Picture Company (MPC) is a world leader in visual effects for blockbuster films and commercials. In the last year MPC projects have included creating, animating and compositing a photo-realistic moonwalking Shetland pony for mobile network 3, whipping up impressively stormy CG seas for Ang Lee’s film version of Life of Pi, and conjuring up vast hordes of demented zombies for Marc Forster’s epic forthcoming horror, World War Z, due for release this summer.

However, in the same time frame, MPC has been garnering a reputation in hitherto uncharted territory: the art world – for works that it’s spent years (and several thousand man-hours) creating with London-based art duo Rob and Nick Carter.

Regular readers of the CR iPad app may recall that we showcased the first fruit of this collaboration in our April 2012 edition – a screen-based artwork inspired by a 17th century Dutch still life painting, Vase with Flowers in a Window by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder. At a glance, the artwork looks for all the world like the original Dutch still life painting as it hangs on a wall in a wooden frame. Only instead of housing a painting, the frame houses a computer screen which plays a three-hour looping animation that moves through the cycle of an entire day from morning to late night. Every single element of the painting – from each individual petal and leaf in the depicted bouquet of flowers to the various insects that also appear during the sequence – has been separately modelled, texturised and animated, taking a total, according to MPC, of 3,768 man-hours to complete over a period of almost four years in development.

The artwork caused something of a sensation at the old masters-focused 2012 Maastricht Art Fair, where it was displayed on the Fine Art Society’s stand. All 12 editions sold out, with one buyer, Sir Peter Blake, crediting Rob and Nick with creating an entirely new genre. The Mauritshuis gallery in Holland also acquired a copy of the work with the express intention of hanging it next to the original Bosschaert the Elder painting from 2014.

“MPC have been champions of our work really from the beginning, they collected an artwork we’d made back in 2000,” explains Rob Carter of the origin of the collaborative relationship which has now yielded two further artworks. In 2006 the art duo were then introduced to MPC’s managing director Graham Bird who invited them to spend a day in the facility. “Graham invited us to come and see exactly what they do and how they do it and asked us if there were any projects that we could dream up that they could help us work on,” says Rob.

“We’ve actually worked with artists for years in various forms,” says Bird. “Sometimes we’ve done work with stills photographers who are branching into video or some form of content for an installation or something. In fact, we got our Banksy [displayed downstairs] through working together on a project and there’s actually a lot of art around the building that we’ve acquired through collaboration.”

“I’m very conscious that at MPC we’ve got a whole building full of artists,” says Bird, “and [getting Rob and Nick interested in collaborating was] a really great way for us to take the creativity and the technology and exploit it in a way where it’s not perhaps a feature film or a commercial or content for an event but actually real art. It’s just another medium for doing what we do.”

When the Carters expressed interest in finding out more about what MPC could do, the timing, Bird says, was perfect. “The advances in our technology and the ability to produce certain imagery in relation to the way that we can now display it, it’s kind of become a bit of a sweet spot for art,” he says, “and I think it was a really good moment for Rob and Nick to think about how they might harness technology to drive what they do on different platforms into different areas. They had a look at some of the research and development stuff we were doing, met Jake Mengers, who is our 3D creative director, and I think they got hooked. It became a really exciting meeting of minds and an ongoing conversation.”

The Carters came up with a relatively simple sounding concept for a collaboration – to take a painting and bring it to life – but then spent months searching for the right painting, eventually settling on Bosschaert the Elder’s Vase with Flowers in a Window because it was both a still life with flowers and insects and had a landscape background, meaning there was more scope to have fun with bringing it to life. So much scope, in fact, that MPC didn’t realise quite what it was getting into.

“We thought on the still life project we might be able to break it down into 2D sections and introduce a bit of movement,” recalls Mengers, “but it soon became very clear that to make something really groundbreaking we were going to have to do a lot more than that, so we ended up putting more and more into it, hence the three year plus turnaround.”

Besides the project being worked on mainly in staff’s downtime between commercial jobs and even in their own time on weekends – and despite it containing no raging seas or zombies – Bird and Mengers maintain that this work with Rob and Nick has been hugely challenging. “Pretty much everything we’ve got in this building and globally, as well from a talent and technology perspective has been brought to bear on this so it does take a lot to make it happen,” says Bird. “Rob and Nick see it purely from an artistic and aesthetic point of view,” adds Mengers, “so when they’re asking for things they have no idea how that may be achievable in 3D. It’s down to us to do that and we wouldn’t want to say no to an idea simply because it was a challenging one. Just rendering two and a half or three hours of footage is a good hour longer than most feature films – so there’s loads of ways that this pushes boundaries for us.”

Earlier this year Rob and Nick Carter and MPC unveiled a second collaborative work, entitled Transforming Vanitas Painting, which, like the first, takes an old painting (this time Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger’s Dead Frog with Flies, c.1630) and brings it to animated life. In the two-and-a-half-hour-long work, a frog breathes its last before flies arrive to lay eggs and the frog decomposes (with the help of dozens of wriggling maggots) until eventually just a skeleton remains. However, unlike the first piece this isn’t a feat of photo realistic visual effects but rather of impressively painterly animation.

“It would have been relatively easy to come back and create another photo realistic piece like Transforming Still Life,” says Rob of the second piece, “but with Dead Frog with Flies, we were really challenging ourselves and MPC again to somehow keep all the exquisite brush work in the original painting and to create a living breathing painting, brushstrokes and all.”

There were numerous modelling and technical challenges to the animation from creating algorithms that dictated the movements and behaviour of the CG maggots to the complicated inclusion of brushstroke detail. There was also a lot of artistic license required to essentially decompose a frog in just two and a half hours without it ever feeling like a speeded up time lapse but rather like a real-time event.

Rob, Nick and Mengers at MPC describe the approach to creating these works as totally collaborative, each beginning with a choice of image. “Finding the paintings is actually the hardest part,” suggests Rob, “each piece has to be unique and stand up on its own without being a repeated version of another. Then we decide on a narrative, write a treatment and from then it’s an evolving process with MPC, a dialogue goes on, we have lots of meetings and Skype calls. It’s very much a collaborative process.”

And the dialogue doesn’t show any signs of stopping. Rob and Nick revealed to CR that there are more collaborative artworks in the pipeline, all of which will be showcased at an exhibition scheduled to take place at London’s Fine Art Society HQ in New Bond Street in October this year. And not all of them will be screen-based, which highlights another aspect to the challenge for MPC with this project. While it is used to creating digital content that can be beamed to screens as required, with Rob and Nick Carter MPC is creating physical artworks at the cutting edge of what technology allows. The first two pieces are essentially computer screens in art frames but the third piece of work to come out of the collaboration is an impossibly delicate black bronze sculpture of a tulip (based on a 1643 watercolour by Judith Leyster) created using a complicated 3D printing process.

Certainly the Carters and MPC are producing engaging new artworks using the latest tech, but with the process being so collaborative does it raise issues of authorship?

“What’s interesting is that sometimes with spectacular visual effects projects often the agency is reluctant to talk about the VFX part of it because perhaps they want people to believe it was achieved in camera and that the genius is in the idea and the direction,” says Bird. “But I think Rob and Nick are quite the opposite of that. We’re very well credited and they both talk openly about the process and that’s hugely exciting for us as a collaborator.”

“In the contemporary art world now there is a slight stigma attached to not actually creating your artwork [entirely by yourself],” admits Nick. “But of course we couldn’t possibly be creating these artworks without MPC.”

There is, perhaps, a risk that the magic is destroyed when the secret of how a trick is performed is explained, but Rob believes that in the case of these collaborative artworks such explanation adds to the experience. Each comes with a book produced by the Fine Art Society explaining in great detail how the work has been made. “I think that knowing what’s gone into each piece somehow makes it more engaging,” he says.

 

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