Featured Artist: Scott Pagano, Los Angeles
Los Angeles-based Houdini artist Scott Pagano works at the intersection of digital art, design, and music. His work with Neither-Field has been commissioned by bands like Skrillex, Zedd, Kings of Leon, Wolfgang Gartner, Dryo, Flying Lotus, and the M Machine. Here he chats with GridMarkets about “Betamax”, his spectacular new video for musician State Shirt.
Ethan Tufts (State Shirt) writes about his latest album Lost Hills: “There is this recurring dream that I have. At some point in my future, everything I grew up with and everything I know about my past is replaced with a sprawling empty city, devoid of any life. It's taken me years of reliving this dream to finally realize what it was trying to tell me, with the help of Alan Watts: "The past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is." How did you work these thoughts into the imagery created for the Betamax video?
The whole record has a nostalgic cinematic vibe to it, which felt like a great background to a futuristic road trip through surreal worlds. I wanted to create a calm, but intriguing journey through a range of environments for our spaceship-creature’s travel. The growly synth sound in the verses inspired the idea of a mechanical-organic protagonist whose movement at points is driven by its signature low warbly synth “voice”.
There is a melancholic yet hopeful feel to the song and I wanted to represent this by travelling through a fracturing and changing world with buildings emerging through a breaking ground. All of the destruction however results in carefully designed shapes and not a chaotic array of fractured shards. There is change occurring, but in a positive and elegant way, despite the potentially aggressive force of destruction. I wanted to inject a hopeful take on powerful changes completely out of our control that occur around us constantly.
So can we see the whole video as a synthesis of past, present and future? And if so, then which elements of your composition point towards the future and which towards the past? The color palette is nostalgic, while the landscape seems mostly futuristic, am I correct?
There definitely is a blend nostalgic and forward-thinking elements in the piece. The color palette and neon light vibe draws from the classic 80’s magenta/blue neon look, which was a perfect controlled color set to use as a base for all lighting and shading decisions. But we have none of visual pop vibe that is associated with that era. This is a more singular introspective journey. Our world evolves, but the base elements of landscapes, cityscapes, and constant evolution are always around us in modified forms. Being present, curious, and positively evolving amid the chaotic jumble in which we are immersed is important. Rather than separate which parts belong to which part of the continuum of time, it is more about how we exist across all spectrums, illustrated here in the explorations of the underwater, mirror cave, cityscape, and water chamber worlds.
Can you comment on the final scene of the video, where we re-encounter the orbs from the opening shot?
We resolve in a cave chamber with the orbs from the opening shot converging like pieces of an atom through dark mysterious liquid. Simple components create new forms and energy, resulting in a structure that is greater than the sum of its parts. I wanted to create a fairly still moment to enjoy the organic lusciousness of the fluid animation driven by the simple and orderly animations of the orbs converging. The result is a lovely interplay between synthetic and natural form and motion.
What inspires your work?
A great source of inspiration for me is the overlap and intersection of synthetic and natural forms. Looking at how simplicity and complexity of shape and texture emerge and evolve in organic and manmade contexts provides endless study of our environment and decisions. I am a lover of cinema and take strong cinematographic, compositional, and color palette cues from that world. Architectural forms have also played a large role in my work and are a source of constant visual inspiration.
What do you like to see in a music video?
This format is superb for creating glimpses into surreal worlds. There is such a gamut of inspiring work in this realm. Early in my artistic development I was struck by the works of Chris Cunningham and Alex Rutterford as well as by the fabulous evocative sci-fi worlds explored in movies such as Blade Runner and Alien. I grew up watching 120 minutes on MTV in an era of My Bloody Valentine, Garbage, and Nine Inch Nails videos. These were all gorgeous textural explorations and departures into a myriad of psychological states. I also am smitten with the videos that Jonas Akerlund has directed for Lady Gaga. They are clearly radically different to the kind of work I create, but I appreciate their bold visual strength, surreal moments, and wild design. We see such incredible visual effects in cinema these days, but so often they lack inventiveness. Music videos and short form content can be a wonderful place to explore visual boundaries without the constraints imposed by large-scale dominant mediums.
How do you first approach a new project, particularly a music video like Betamax?
The first thing is to immerse myself in the song by listening to it over and over and over. There are often visual ideas that I wish to explore that influence the overall direction I take - but it is critical to let the song reveal itself visually. It is akin to a changing state of matter. Melting the ice that is the song to become the mist that is the image. I listen, eyes closed, and imagine a world of forms, actions, and colors.
Can you tell us a little bit about how a project comes together?
The first thing is to break down the various envisioned environments into their component objects. There is a degree of sketching that is done for form exploration, but this is just to get rough ideas into place and I hop on the box pretty early on.
Once the asset list is created, simple geometry is built to enable the creation of an animatic to see if everything is flowing visually the way I envisioned. I build geometry and animation with procedural systems and this allows for a lot of flexibility and play in the concept, design, and animatic phase. Once the shots are in place I then go in and flesh out the models to up the level of detail.
This project involved a few other tricks as well such as wire dynamic simulations for the sea-plant strands in the verse shots and the organic tendrils flowing off the back of our protagonist spaceship-creature.
Dynamics simulations were run for the ground plates that break apart as the buildings emerge, and a particle fluid simulation was run for the final cave pool scene.
On the software side, all the geometric and effects elements were built and simulated in Houdini and rendered in Maya with the Redshift GPU renderer. The 3D renders were then composited, assembled, and a final audio-reactive post-effects pass was completed in After Effects. This is a workflow I have been using for a while now and is quite efficient and leverages a great blend of long-standing and cutting-edge technologies.
What methods did you use to achieve your integration of visuals and music?
For this project Ethan provided stems, which I then used as a source for audio analysis in Houdini to create animation channels that drive various object and camera movement. On top of this I used Soundkeys in After Effects to add audio-synchronized post-effects on top of the edit for more audiovisual synchronization dynamism. Pure audio-analysis techniques can often be not as precise as I want, so I’ll also manually create “pulse” tracks in Premiere to have full control over the source that the resulting procedural animation will be driven by.
What are you thoughts on choosing a simulation based approach versus a procedural for the different effects you created in your video?
Occasionally there are techniques I wanted to explore that dictate the route, but typically it is about stepping back and assessing what makes the most sense from a time standpoint. There are a few simulated assets in the piece and besides the Flip fluid sim for the final shot, everything else is fairly simple and quick to setup. The ground panel destruction was simulated with low-res proxy geometry and then the motion was transferred to the full res geometry. This is a typical Houdini workflow and super effective for iterating simulations quickly.
The fluid sim was the main burly one, but straightforward to set up and tune at a low res and then leave overnight to cook at production resolution. Using simulations for secondary animations like the kelp-esque sea plants that our protagonist moves through is a clear choice as you get some lovely organic animation with ease via wire sims. The character and camera are animated with a mix of keyframes and procedural animation channels created in CHOPs for audio-reactive motion and the addition of organic drifts on top of the manual keys.
Maya has many modeling and animation tools, while Houdini also has a powerful Mantra renderer. What prompted you to choose to use Houdini on the front-end process and Maya Redshift as your rendering workflow?
Primarily speed on all fronts. Working procedurally in Houdini allows me to play and evolve shots super efficiently. Rendering with Redshift allows me to get to a final production image faster than any other renderer I have used. I switched to Redshift as my primary renderer in 2014 and use it for most every project I work on. Now that Redshift is becoming available in Houdini I’ll have the option of working directly in Houdini with my renderer of choice.
Do you imagine blending or selectively switching software for various purposes in this or other projects?
I abide by the mantra “Be attached to the problem, not your solution”. I find being adaptable and using various tools for their strengths works out best in the end. One must be selective to a degree and build up a skillset in a few core areas, but a broad range of knowledge can allow for the ability to choose the path of least resistance.
Artists are constantly striving to learn new techniques and develop new ways to translate their art onto the screen. Can you share one of your favorite new features or tools that you've just found and used in your Betamax project?
I am indeed constantly learning and developing new techniques. I enjoyed being able to use GI and crank up a range of settings in Redshift to get the image quality I was looking for without having to make too many compromises. Time and resources are always currencies to be handled with care and I have spent years managing stress related to rendering time realities. The leap forward in GPU renderers has been deeply appreciated on this end.
I have created a lot of visual work related to music and sound. The ability to constantly explore and develop new techniques in Houdini for creating procedural animation derived from audio is fantastic. Having an environment to create new tools yourself with each new project is one of the things that keeps the process of creating the work dynamic and engaging.
Scott Pagano 2016
By: Patricia Cornet