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Written by Colette Finkbiner, blogger/writer with Three Horizons Productions.

from the interactive installation "(un)stable" by Gaelen Sayres

from the interactive installation “(un)stable” by Gaelen Sayres

Gaelen Sayres graduated from the University of Washington-Seattle’s DXARTS program. He was drawn to the program by his love of science, technology and art. I spoke with Mr. Sayres about his student work, his contribution to Three Horizons Productions’ Out Of Focus and his look toward the future. Emerging artists such as Mr. Sayres benefit from a larger community of talent and mentorship. Independent entities like Three Horizons Productions seek to engage and inspire these young artists.

What made you decide to go into the DXARTS program?

In high school we didn’t really have an arts program. It was a small high school. I used to hate computers mostly because I couldn’t type well. Then, one of my friends introduced me to his digital video camera and it started from there. We started making really short, silly films. It gave me a medium to work in artistically. Before that I did some drawing but wasn’t really talented. But editing and software clicked with me. Senior year, a friend and I were in charge of what was called “Friday videos.” We would show these short videos in school, at lunch time. It had announcements but would also have a music video or something else. We would mess around with the technology and software. My friend went to film school, but I felt like I might want to go into one of the sciences. Then, I saw the DXARTS program online. I saw projects that borrowed from astronomy and film and merged them. It was a good mix of science, technology and art. The moment I started I took all of the prerequisites. Every step of the way confirmed that it was for me.

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from ‘The Immortal” by Gaelen Sayres

The interconnectivity of every subject shows that it can be combined. What kind of work are you doing now since graduating?

I am freelancing for special effects and motion graphics. On the side, I’m working in the corporate art world and still working on my own personal endeavors. I’m also looking for jobs that involve motion graphics and effects jobs. Freelancing is great for setting your own hours and such, but it is also stressful because you can’t work for 8 hours and then go home; it’s always present.

How do you go about getting your freelance jobs?

Well, early on, I taught myself to use After Effects. I connected with other people interested in film. I did some work on an experimental ad campaign that a friend was doing. It did really well. Since then, he’s done really well so he keeps coming back to me. I like the whole process.

You also did some work for Three Horizons Production’s Out Of Focus.

The mind-link effect between Aella and the object she touches — the light, magic effect is what I focused on for that film.

What kind of software did you use?

Mind Powers in Out Of Focus Movie

Mind Powers in Out Of Focus Movie

Mainly After Effects, which is the main tool I use. I wanted to do a fluid dynamics type of effect, a smoky effect, but After Effects is not really good for that. You have to go to a 3D program. I did find this great tutorial, in which this guy figured out a way to do great fluid dynamics with After Effects. I tried it out and it worked really well. Brian Maffitt is one of the main After Effects gurus. It was my first time working with Red footage and working with other people on a project.

Would you have changed anything on the project?

I would have liked to have worked with the crew in person. I feel there is a lot to be learned by working with other people. That is why I would like to get a steady job in a studio because of that ability to learn.

I saw your short film “Someplace Beautiful.” Was that for the DXARTS program?

That was the first narrative film course I had ever taken. It was an awesome course and fast paced. We had to storyboard the screenplay and everything. I’ve had the idea for a while. One of the coolest parts of doing something like that in Seattle was making a call for actors and have people come out of the woodwork. People came out who had no reason to help me out with my film other than that they think it would be interesting. I met some people I’d like to work with in the future.

I think it is along the lines of encapsulating a moment, which is hard to do — to keep it simple, brief but heavy with meaning. Tell me about your installation “I Light This Candle In A Transaction.”

It was shown in the DXARTS Media show in Seattle and again in Spokane. The piece is mainly commenting on modern consumer society and how it is affecting spiritual practices as well as in what ways mechanizing the spiritual process can help or distract from the spiritual experience. In this piece, I got the idea from a Catholic votive candle stand. You light a candle and make a prayer for someone else. I was interested in the evolution of the votive candle stand because it is kind of mimicking how our consumer society is changing as well. Now there are electronic votive candle stands in many churches for fire hazard reasons. They still have the donation box, which is unnecessary since they no longer need to defray the cost of candles. But, it seems to me, people have this mindset they must pay for their prayer to be heard.

Like the Medieval concept of indulgences?

Yes.

Did you find people were a little afraid to use it?

"I light this candle in a transaction"

“I light this candle in a transaction”

People were a little afraid to use the credit card machine even though I was charging nothing. To me, it is interesting how people will use their card for absolutely everything, but when it comes to a religious transaction people are automatically skeptical. I’d eavesdrop on people in the gallery. People got it. It was all about placing your trust in someone else or in God. The most interesting interaction was friend groups because one person would figure out how to use the piece. They would then get all their friends to try it out. It became a community interaction. If people were alone, they would mainly look at it and then walk away.

Group mentality versus the individual.

The group mentality made it more of a game. The prayer was mechanized to a point that they wanted to keep using it for the novelty value rather than the spiritual value.

Did you have different prayers programmed?

card_op_votiveThe prayer system was borrowed from a votive prayer site online. On this one site, you can click on a candle that has been lit and read someone else’s prayer or write your own prayer and click to light a candle. I went to that site and copied hundreds of different prayers into a text file. I used a code that can look through text and find patterns: for example, if you fed in Shakespeare, it would print out something very similar to Shakespeare’s writing except it would be completely unique.

So it follows the sentence structure and pattern?

Yes. It looks at language patterns. I applied that to the prayers. So when you swipe your card, it would create a unique prayer based on those patterns.

Did the prayers make sense?

Yes! Some you have to generate meaning. I like the transaction between the computer and a person. It was surprisingly successful. It is what you get out of it.

In your project description, you discuss some inspiration coming from Douglas Adams’s “The Electric Monk.” Adams was an atheist but did have a lot of commentary on spiritual practice and the peccadillos of modern society. I found your piece interesting because it gives the user a “receipt” with a prayer on it. In order to make a prayer; I must make a transaction first.

Another part of the piece I like is that you are participating in a mechanized spiritual process. The viewer can determine whether or not it works. Does it hold spiritual value for them? Can they find meaning in the prayer a computer generates? I like to think about where does meaning come from? Is it generated? Does it come from us? Does the importance of a prayer come from the person making it, or does importance lie in its destination? Wherein lays the importance of a prayer? A prayer is a transaction in a sense, similar to a credit card transaction; you have to trust it’s going to go through and you are going to get what you want. But there is no physical transaction.

It makes me think of your sound composition and its description in which you talk about Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Immortal,” a mix of logic and fantasy. With the votive candle piece, did you construct it yourself?

I would have loved to have used a real votive candle stand, but they are surprisingly expensive. So I decided to build my own. I went off general dimensions. The stand is on a podium. I put a receipt printer and credit card reader into it.

At DXARTS, it’s not just media, but you can physically build something?

Yes! That’s my favorite part of the program. There is a series called Mechatronics. It’s all about bringing the digital world into the real world. They teach you how to use electronics and sensors and how to harness the processing power of the real world. Linking the real world with the computer and processing that back out to make interesting interactive pieces. They teach you how to work with materials as well, so you can build whatever you want.

Tell me about your project “(un)stable.”

We have a summer course before the Mechatronics course. It was my project for that class. The challenge with that one was that it was only a four-week course. I had recently gotten back from Japan, so I wanted to use my experience for that.

To me as a viewer, it is an encapsulation of the moment when you experience an earthquake. That moment when you look down and realize everything is moving.

Right. The tableware and the noise are important because of the clinking and the rattling that the ceramics make. I liked the idea that it would sit in the quiet gallery space; suddenly, you realize something is different. People are walking through the gallery and they hear a tinkling, which gets louder. They look around and see this podium that was once still is shaking and disrupting that normally quiet atmosphere. The dinner table is usually a family-oriented, stable environment. You hope that one of the basic human needs — to eat dinner with your family — will not be disturbed. The piece uses earthquake data from USGS. They get data from all over the world, near real-time analysis. It picks up that and starts rattling within minutes.

So your time in Japan was cut short because of the earthquake. Based on that experience, is that where you came up with the idea for the experimental film “Torii?”

Yes. I came up with the idea for that in Japan, on the day of the Tōhoku quake. A month or two prior to the quake, I had been travelling around Japan to take pictures of mountain shrines and Shinto gates, which are called torii. I really wanted to document them and do something for a piece. Then, in the middle of filming the torii the quake happened. At the end, the conversation between one of my Japanese friends and me actually happened while we were sitting in a disaster relief area of our school. The idea hit me. I was exploring these spiritual gates, the conversation — they seemed a good combination.

What made you want to go to Japan?

I’ve been interested in Japanese art and culture since I was little. I think in 4th grade someone introduced me to origami. Then, I got interested in Japanese calligraphy and landscape painting. I’d try to copy from books from the library. In high school, the only foreign language offered was Spanish, so I found a Japanese tutor and started taking Japanese and became connected to other Japanese programs in Spokane. I went on one of my first exchange programs the summer after my sophomore year. I loved it. I wanted to go back. In college, I minored in Japanese. I was interested in the culture and wanted to study abroad.

Lastly, what advice would you give a current high school or incoming college student who may be interested in digital arts?

Blue prints for "(un)stable" by Gaelen Sayres

Blue prints for “(un)stable” by Gaelen Sayres

I think it depends on what kind of digital arts they are interested in! I think film is a great intro into the world of digital art (which is how I first started experimenting around). Digital video is getting more and more inexpensive by the day as well as increasing in quality and ease of use, making it something viable for younger kids to play with.

Once I got a handle of capturing and editing digital video, I started to want to go further and recreate worlds that I had read about in fantasy and science-fiction. This led me to learning After Effects. It was not really until DXARTS and college that I started to think past entertainment and Hollywood-type narrative film and into more experimental art endeavors.

I was almost completely self-taught in film and FX, and the internet was an invaluable tool to do this. There are tutorials for almost anything online nowadays, so if you want to make a Star Wars or Harry Potter spin-off there will be lots of help to make it a success.

Another direction to go is electronics and I personally wish I was introduced earlier to them. I cannot give too much advice on this front since I am a recent initiate myself, but there are lots of resources for Arduino and Processing that can get almost anyone up and running. There are lots of easy examples and tutorials that can ease you into the more complex projects. I also use Video Copilot. Also, if you are looking for inspiration, try Motionographer.


Three Horizons Productions is a team of independent filmmakers who want to develop, acquire, and produce multi-media projects that showcase inspirational themes, compelling stories, and provocative characters to entertain or educate international audiences. Three Horizons Productions, located in Arizona, has a global outreach.