ruminations on a series of unrelated events
Artist C. Thomas Lewis
3D Artist Nick Kinder
3D Animator Mike Lulgjuraj
Thanks to everyone who helped make this piece possible. Thanks to Mark Ruschman who invited me to submit a proposal and helped usher it along a very long path. Thanks to the Indiana State Museum for the opportunity to be part of this important museum experience. And thanks to Autumn Eastom for documenting the installation process.
Some of the images used are derived from Creating Films Through Community Engagement to Address the Opioid Crisis in Austin, Indiana, an IUPUI Arts and Humanities funded project. Visit opioidstories.org.
January 4, 2020
From Inside to Out is a projection-mapped tryptic I am about to install in the Indiana State Museum as part of a large exhibit called Fix: Heartbreak and Hope Inside our Opioid Crisis. I am one of a handful of artists invited to be part of this exhibit, which is an ambitious show featuring all types of experiences designed to engage audiences around the opioid crisis and to dispel stigma associated with use disorder.
(I am going to have a QR code on my statement at the museum, so any visitors curious enough will be able to link to this blog entry and learn a little bit more about the thinking and processes behind the creation of my piece.)
Having spent the last two years working on a large grant-funded film project about the opioid crisis in Indiana, I have delved deeper into the topic than I ever imagined I would. (You can read about that work here Opioids in Indiana and here The Making of the Scott County Stories and here The Long Run, and here The Scott County Filming Continues and here Impact of Indian’s opioid epidemic demonstrated through film by IUPUI faculty ) Given my experience over the last 7 years with projection-mapping, (some of which you can read about here From Now On) it all made sense when I got a call last spring to see if I would be interested in creating some sort of projection-mapped entry piece for an exhibit about the opioid crisis. (What an odd niche I have stumbled into.)
When making a proposal in the form of silent projection-mapping to deal with a subject as large and complex as the opioid crisis, I am forced to think about the topic as elementally as possible. For me, on that level, it comes down to the facts that various chemicals meet brain cells, which affects the people who take them, and then in turn affects society at large. With that thinking in mind, I created three pieces that essentially zoom out from the cellular/molecular level to the larger societal level. Consequently, the piece traces the intersection of biology, opioids, human behavior and the larger societal ramifications and responses.
The first piece of the tryptic, which is the first piece people will see when they enter the show, has a 3D visualization of brain cells and text that sets the stage in terms of what happens to the brain with the use of opioids. With this piece I really wanted to put biology out there first and foremost as the common denominator in the constellation of biological, chemical and psychological factors that play out every day with dire consequences and hopeful results.
I have embedded the mock-up videos I submitted to the museum so they could rest assured I was making progress.
At this point in time, 5 days out from the start of install, I only have one of the pieces actually completed. (And yes, I am slightly concerned because the second piece still needs some conceptualizing for the final few seconds of content.) Despite their super short duration, which is necessary given the speed people walk through museums, the pieces are labor intensive and take a long time to conceive, create and render. Luckily the show doesn’t actually open to the public until February 1st, so I do have a little cushion.
The first piece (seen above) will be projected onto two screens, with the text screen in front of the 7′ wide hexagon screen. The projections are 4K, so the level of detail will be impressive. This is the first opportunity I have had to map with 4K, so that is exciting. The brain cell, which were modeled by Nick Kinder, took about 20 hours to model and the camera animation took 50 hours to render on seven high end computers.
The second piece of the tryptic is the largest, with the large hexagon 8′ in diameter, and it may be the most ambitious. Conceptually, I wanted this to be the piece where the opioid molecule meets the user and I wanted this conveyed in a couple of ways.
I had Nick create molecular models of the nine common forms of opioids and Mike animated them to recede into space; itself a 56 hour render. (The choice to have them recede and then vanish into a plane in the background, as opposed to coming at camera, was thought to convey a sense of the drugs entering, as in entering the bloodstream. Going with a blood red background seemed a little heavy-handed so instead I went with prescription bottle orange.) On the text panel, we first see the chemical formula for each drug, then its medical name, its brand names if any, and finally any street names. Through the process of presenting the various types of names that identify these drugs in different contexts, they are brought from the lab to the street, so to speak, where they enter the slang of the larger culture. And it is there, on the street, where they are used (and by used, in this context, I mean used off-label).
On the third panel of this second piece, I animated words I have encountered while working in this arena for the last 2 years. These words are both positive and negative. They are two sides of the same coin, as they relate to the struggles that confront users and society. I have alternated these words with images, (derived from my fictional films–so fear not, they are actors acting) of people in the struggle as they prepare to ingest drugs. The images are not intended to literally illustrate the words, but rather to resonate off the words, to create dissonance and harmonies that question the current state of affairs. Do we have community? Is there adequate support? Are we truly accepting? This sets the stage for the final piece–what comes after.
Finally, in the third piece, I present the complexity of the issue as it plays out on a larger societal level. Here I use snippets from the fiction and documentary films I have been creating to show the multifaceted aspects of the crisis. My goal was to comprehensively reflect this complexity in a form that could be quickly perceived and yet sufficient to do it justice. I felt that the piece had to be multi-nodal and simultaneously display different content in order to show a web of effects and responses. Obviously, showing it all at once would relinquish the control of being able to draw people’s attention to any particular image. The structure I ultimately used, with the flipping back and forth of hexagon panels, is reminiscent of the game of Concentration. Besides formally helping me convey a lot of content intermittently, the reference implies that this is a matter that demands concentrated attention. By showing such aspects as M.A.T., harm reduction, naloxone, recovery group meetings, jail, the criminal justice system, first responders, hospitals, overdosing, etc., I am trying to display the enormity of the issue as holistically and as condensed as possible. This piece is in the form of an arch that spans the exit of my piece. I think of it as a gateway that welcomes people into that complexity and into the show.
Tuesday January 7th, 2020
Today, I managed to solve a content issue I was having with the second piece that was causing me a little consternation and stress. That was the last creative hurdle to cross for the whole installation. Now all that remains are just technical hurdles. The first one to tackle today was creating depth of field in the brain cell animation. The animation rendered successfully over the weekend, but focus (what is referred to as z-depth) is applied afterward in an additional compositing step. After rendering out the animation of the model, a gray scale of the animation is rendered and in After Effects a process is set up to apply blurriness to the image. We realized that the grayscale we had rendered over the previous night wasn’t cutting it for us, so we had to render out another version overnight. So that became tomorrow’s effort.
I am not a 3D person, but it has been a pleasure to sit with Nick, Albert and Zeb and learn a tiny bit about the process. I can see why people really fall for doing 3D. If I had a tolerance for sitting in front of computers for long durations searching through complex menus, I could get into making 3D models too. Just what I need, another passion that eats up all my waking hours. I think I already have enough of those.
Wednesday, January 8th, 2020
Today, we managed to crack the nut of setting up the focus and racking focus to different elements in the animation. Once Nick and I figured out how to set it, with the help of Albert and Zeb and a few online tutorials, we were able to get it to work surprisingly easily. The render was fairly quick and just like that we had the final animation. I went home, composited it into the composition and suddenly I was completely done. Finally, and two days to spare. Well not completely. Completely as far as creating all the assets ahead of time is concerned. Part of the installation process is precisely lining up the projected images with the custom made screens, the mapping process, in their final installed position. Once they are all mapped, which I hope will be done by the end of day Saturday at the latest, then everything has to render.
Tuesday, January 14th, 2020
Friday was almost exclusively spent getting the screens installed and hanging two of the projectors. It is a very lengthy process and I was only able to start the mapping at the end of the day, consequently I wasn’t able to get very far on Friday. But Piece number 1, with the brain cell animation, got mapped and it looks great.
The museum staff manufactured the screens as well as most of the other items in the show and everything looks beautiful. The mapping, which I was able to really get underway with on Saturday and Sunday, involves projecting the various videos on their respective screens and using software to distort the images to seamlessly fit the screens. So far I am really happy with the results. Now I just have one last piece remaining to render in order to wrap things up. Unfortunately, piece 2 is proving very stubborn as it has crashed two times so far, the first time after nearly 30 hours of rendering. But it’ll get there. We have plenty of time. I plan to head back over to the museum on sometime in the next few days to install the final elements. Fingers crossed for no more crashes.
This past weekend after some unexpected technical hiccups we were finally able to get everything installed. So the piece is done and I am very happy with how it all came together in the end.