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This interview was conducted a few months ago by me for the independent film company Three Horizons Productions. Currently, members of the Three Horizons team are in Cannes, where a version of the supernatural thriller short film “Out Of Focus” has been accepted to the Short Film Corner. Check out the website, the Facebook page, or follow along on Twitter and Instagram. Our team in Cannes is updating almost daily about the Cannes experience.

Andrew Theisen was interviewed by Colette Finkbiner, writer/blogger with Three Horizons Productions

As anyone in the arts or entertainment industries can attest, digital media has become increasingly integrated into filmmaking, design, gaming and more. The University of Washington has an exciting program through its Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS). Andrew Theisen recently earned an undergraduate degree from the program. Because of the interdisciplinary aspect of filmmaking, Three Horizons Productions (THP) wanted to speak with these young digital artists in order to gain perspective on the unique blend of technology, art and sensory experience.

Out Of Focus

Out Of Focus – Supernatural Thriller

You did some work on THP’s Out of Focus.

I rendered some of the opening title sequence and did some lighting for it. It was early in my digital media career. I learned a lot working with very large files. I learned the importance of organizing your projects. I did some camera work in 3D.

Did you have any challenges?

I had a fair amount of technical challenges since the texture files were so large. What I had to output was so large that I had to build a render farm. I had to set up the system to support the files.

What equipment did you use?

I went to used PC shops for cheap machines to build a small render farm. You don’t need the most powerful machines, just a lot of them. You sync them up and set up a local network so it speeds up the resolution file. It got me started into the open source world more. I used Maya. I installed Linux on those machines and used open source programs like DrQueue to manage render jobs.

How did you overcome any challenges on the Out of Focus project?

When a problem arises, I just want to solve it and knock down the obstacle.

What are some of your own projects?

I worked on two student animated short films and an interactive art piece using a game engine with real-time sound synthesis/processing. I’m currently creating a realistic 3D face for research at UW.

To better understand the possibilities of the interconnectivity of digital media, I recommend viewing Mr. Theisen’s sublime senior project, “These Spaces We Form”.

I found your project, “These Spaces We Form,” fascinating. Is it intended to be a user-interactive game environment?

Yes. It was presented in a gallery setting. It’s meant to be an interactive work. You use a Wacom tablet to navigate and draw the gestures. You wear headphones and both see and hear while you’re forming the experience as you’re progressing.

When I was watching the video, the canvas reminded me of that opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where did you get the inspiration for it?

I was walking around my city – I’ve always had this desire to manipulate my environment and my experience. One thing I tried to translate into the experience itself was the interaction with previous users’ gestures as well. In more recent versions, which I don’t have videos of, more clearly show that. When you walk around a man-made environment, there are a bunch of different peoples’ interactions and experiences that you can play in your own mind in a solitary moment. You also have the experiences you bring to the places where you are that make it unique – it’s not just the people who build it but the events and the emotional cloud that builds up. I think there’s that detail we all pick up from all around. We may not be able to pinpoint it, but there is something that is happening.

So you’re saying the design builds upon the experience of each user?

Yes. It stores up to three previous users as well as yourself. I started reading about this philosophical/psychological concept called intersubjectivity. A basic example would be like an inside joke, a shared meaning between people. Everyone has their own definition of things, but there is this shared space. Another example would be how commonsense is agreed upon. We all have our different meanings or definitions of certain words, but then there is a meeting place where we can understand each other. I’m trying to explore that meeting place.

It sounds like a synchronicity sort of experience. Are you going to continue to move the project forward, perhaps to market it?

I want to keep iterating on it. I want to make a more complex environment, yet I want to keep the environment simple because the experience should come from the users. I want the blank canvas feel at first. I want it to seem like it is pretty empty because you bring something to it and other people bring something to it as well as I, as an artist, bringing something to it. It was presented in a gallery setting twice. I actually think that is a weakness of it. One thing I have noticed is that people are very apprehensive about interactive work in those settings. It’s hard to get people to start from the beginning and get to the end. People would stop in the middle and then others would pick up in the middle and be confused because they miss out on the beginning piece which teaches you a bit about the environment. It’s my first interactive system, so I’m learning a lot about how people play with it. One idea is to release it online for people to use in the comfort of home like reading a book or playing a video game.

It seems like something that would be great online, for people to play with their friends. Friends in different cities could play and see where it goes. In my experience, things that are interactive seem to do a lot better with kids. Have you seen any kids interact with the project?

Actually, yes! Interesting you bring that up. The first time I showed it, a few kids came up to play with it while their parents watched. The kids would actually play from the beginning to the end. People would say, “How did you get there?” And the kids would say, “Well, I just kept going.” Another thing I noticed is that people, who play video games and other interactive systems, rarely got to the end. Non-gamers more often got to the end. In games these days, there is an explicit drive on how to move forward, so I guess when they don’t have that they get lost. I need to be able to reach a middle ground so both groups can enjoy it. That’s something that’s very important to me. I don’t want anyone to have to have any sort of gaming knowledge to enjoy this interactive system.

binaural soundI like how you chose to use binaural sound for the experience.

It’s supposed to be a very immersive space. The first time I showed it, for my senior thesis show, I used a cubicle desk, so that the user could be partitioned from the physical space. You basically would have the sound and the video in front of you. I’m interested in immersive spaces, universal spaces, that aren’t exactly where you are. Sound, I think, is one of the most important parts of that, especially if you have good sound localization. I still feel like I have a lot of work to do with that, but using binaural sound along with filters to mimic distance from a sound source, for example, as well as smearing the frequency spectrum as you get farther away. So if you get closer to a plane, the detail of that plane is more prominent. Something I would want to do for the future is that you could hear gestures more prominently as you got closer to each plane. For example, if you drew some really quick gestures on one, you would get very rhythmic sound or a flowing sound on a different plane. In the center of these planes, you hear all of them wash together, so you hear the space differently. Another thing is the proximity to each plane. It will kind of shift the experience of space.

It’s fascinating to bring that sensory and physical interaction with digital media together. Tell me about the DXARTS program you went through at the University of Washington.

Page from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

Page from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

I had a great opportunity to take that degree. Unfortunately, it will no longer be offered as an undergraduate major for the time being. They are keeping the undergraduate classes and the graduate program. Their philosophy is that the arts are always an experimental process. They are really interested in that concept in the sciences as well. A great piece of art must change something in the culture like science does, such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. In the arts, for example, you have Beethoven who, in the beginning of the Ninth Symphony, alluded to what he would do in the final movement. You see a lot of people doing that now with electronic music, which is more on a timbral spectrum but is very familiar in form. The argument is, as an artist, you always want to be experimental, to explore something and use media to do that. It doesn’t have to be a digital medium, but it has so much potential these days. It’s grown so much in the last 40 years. I think we’ll really start to see some interesting things happening in this century as we become more familiar with how the digital world works and bridging it with the analog world. A lot of artists there (DXARTS) try to create an analog sculpture that is controlled by some digital thing. So there is this meeting space that happens.

They are keeping the major classes around. For instance, how I got all of the sound work done was through their sound series where they teach music in a very different way. You’re not learning to compose with a pen and staff paper; you’re writing code. You have to think quite differently. At the same time, we’ll listen to Bach in our classes because everything we do can be traced back to that (the classical masters). They want us to extract that knowledge. Sometimes they stress the technical less because they want us to do that on our own. They do teach us to do it on our own, but they want also to teach us the higher concept of composition and how it’s built on history.

I think we need to bring these ideas in music and art history to the younger ages. Getting kids involved with digital arts and hands-on learning with interactive environments needs to be explored a lot more. Even game developers like Valve are looking at the way they teach players to use their games and to use those concepts to teach things like motor skills and abstract concepts that might help kids with math.

Interior of Seattle Central Library

Interior of Seattle Central Library

I have a 14-year-old son who is very into digital media. He wonders about the prospects for a digital design artist in the coming years. What is your opinion?

The wonderful thing is it is so open. It seems like there are so many worlds you can go into. There’s the entertainment industry, Hollywood, a game company. Microsoft and Google are doing a lot. I’ve seen Microsoft Kinect used more for art projects than games. It was born out of an entertainment concept. The art world is bringing installation art and art into the public setting. For instance, a piece at the Seattle Library keeps track of every single book that’s checked in and checked out and shows on displays those books.

Then there are those in-between spaces where people are pulling from both the entertainment and the art worlds. The digital medium is great for the educational world as well. You can start creating really intuitive systems that rely on a tactile sense. Of course, it’s not easy to do. I really think it has unlimited potential just as the analog world does. It will be interesting to see how they start to meet. They both have their strengths. When they are combined – like when you hear an instrument recorded with a microphone and it’s digitized and processed–, you have a really organic sound that you can never get anywhere else. There is tons of opportunity.

How did you get involved with digital design?

It probably started around when I was 13 or 14. I always played with computers a lot. I started seeing the artistic side of it. When I was a teenager, I approached it as an analog tool. You could make really nice designs and 3D models with it. You could do these elaborate processes that you could never do by hand. You could program and create these dynamic works. This whole world opened up. It was curiosity.

I chose to use the Unreal Development Kit because it does 3D processes in real time. It’s something I’m seeing a lot more. Unity is another program I have not used myself, but I’ve seen a lot of people using it to create tools with it like storyboarding or interactive systems with Kinect, where a dancer is recorded by the Kinect and visual and sound representations are fluid. It’s interesting how we can create these complex connections. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the technical aspect. If we bring in a meaningful structure to it, we can bring in art, education, entertainment.

Another question from my son, who asks, what open source software or tools do you think are great?

If you’re interested in 3D applications, a good one, which is not open source, is Maya. There is also Blender which is completely open source. Unity is not open source but good for learning programming logic. The great thing about learning programming with such tools is that you’ll see the results quickly. For sound, I used SuperCollider. That’s open source and very powerful. You hear what you’re doing right away. Starting early will help with algorithmic thinking so when you go to college you’ll have a leg up.

What direction do you hope your career takes?

For now, I’d like to work for a company that does something different with the medium. Then, I’d like to return to school and study art further.

What advice would you give a high school student who is interested in digital arts?

Dive into it. Get on the Internet and look up what people are doing. Talk to people who have done this for a while. Motivate yourself to try it out on your own. If you do, you have a head start. Don’t worry about being too conceptual. See what you want to experiment with. Surround yourself with people with similar interests. Keep going down the rabbit hole of curiosity. Don’t be afraid. It might not work right away. Teach yourself how to learn these tools. The tools grow so fast; being able to adapt is healthy. Don’t worry about specializing right away. There are a lot of open source tools out there. And don’t be afraid to break things. You should be breaking things all of the time. If you are breaking things, then you know you are learning something because you won’t want to break it again.

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.