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Manuel de Layet [Celluloid 07.30.14] scifi

This year's edition of the Festival du Film Merveilleux was as entertaining as ever, but... There's always a but isn't there?

On one hand, the visual quality of the shorts on schedule was in overall higher than before, sadly this was in many cases plastered over a non-existent script. Only a few had a real story going on, and of that group fewer even were feeling like a complete work and not a teaser to get budget for the feature film they were hinting about.

Based on that it's no wonder Strange Fruit, being next to the only one combining real art direction and a story (a preachy one yes, but story nonetheless) was hailed as winner by the jury.

You can as always check the whole list of winners here.

Now for my part in all this the, now annual, Quiet Earth prize:

Many of the shorts were of that blend of science fiction involving a female protagonist and the vast emptiness of space. The point of spending years rendering nebulae and space dust just for the hell of it is beyond me, all that work for something that looks like "Eve Online" on a good day is a waste of time and talent in my book.

That is why I was so delighted to see Beyond the Spheres by Meghdad Asadi.

No female in a space-brassiere, no mental-ray volumetric clouds, but real space data converted into images via various algorithms. The whole reminding me of early experimental CGI, back then when the medium was trying to do things beside dumbly copying reality. With this time the added bonus of being based on actual real out-of-this-world data and not just a random numerical seed giving a "jelly-bean jar shakedown" final product.

I encourage you to continue reading for Meghdad's own, very detailed, explanation about the project which follows the short below.

From director Meghdad Asadi:

"Beyond the Spheres is a good example of the marriage of Art and Science. Not only the concept is based on science, but also the progress of producing the film is based on some technical and mathematical approaches.

As an engineer becoming an artist, I always try to merge these two fields. Making scientific concepts look beautiful, or manipulating art with technical ideas. That's what I do or at least try to.

Having the joy in particle effects, made me learn and play with particle stuff during my spare time. The opportunity of leveraging this joy and experience happened in a 10 week Experimental Workshop course, taught by professor Stephanie Maxwell, an international award winner filmmaker mostly known for her experimental films. I can't forget that I was the only CG artist amongst all the live action students!

The first two weeks of the class was just focused on brain storming about different ideas and how experimenting can become a base for filmmaking.

Being familiar with my technical background and CG abilities, Stephanie suggested me to have a meeting with professor Joel Kastner, professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy just to have a friendly talk about their studies. This brief, friendly meeting ended up with Stephanie and I auditing his entire course called "Music of The Spheres," which was all about how the movements of the spheres in the space can form a harmony and if you go further, you can actually hear the music that these spheres are composing and playing.

It was in that class, along with Stephanie's great method of brain storming, that I thought it might be a good idea to go in reverse, and see how the "music" of those spheres can make a visual movements.

Stephanie provided me with the list of all those Saturn and Jupiter's space voices which were recorded by NASA's Cassini and Voyager and I started experimenting with different technical and CG methods to see how I can produce something out of it, making it in a way that is visually appealing as well.

After several try and errors that took 4 weeks of my time, finally I realized that if I extract the data out of the space voices, and let these real audio features drive the animation, the result is going to be something interesting.

So first step was how to extract the audio features. And by features, I mean Amplitude and Frequency of the audios. Fortunately, Adobe AfterEffects is software that provides you with this option and lets you extract the amplitude of any audio.

Fig 1 and 2


The only element used in this film is Computer Generated Particles. Generally speaking, no matter which software you use to generate particles, you will have parameters to control the behaviours of generated particles, parameters such as speed, direction, color, size, life and path of movement.

The plugin that I chose to work with was Trapcode Particular, a plugin for AfterEffects, all in AfterEffects.

Now that I have the audio amplitudes of space voices, I just needed to plug the data to each parameter of the particles for each sequence. To give it more variety, I tried different attributes for each part.

The only thing that I needed to do before plugging the amplitude feature to the attributes, was that I applied a "Linear" function to the values to predict the range of amplitude values, so that I would make sure that for example, the range is always between 0 and 100. I called this remapped data "linearAmp."


In order to drive the colour of particles, I needed to drive the Hue value of generated particle using audio amplitude. Then I converted the generated trio values from HSV to RGB space and plug the result into the colour parameter of particles. One more consideration was making sure that the Hue will not exceed 360 degrees.

amplitude = linearAmp /100; --> to make it between 0 and 1
HSL = [amplitude/2,1,.5,1]; --> [Hue, Sat, Lightness, Alpha]
RGB = hslToRgb(HSL);


In order to have the audio drive the particles in a circular path, I used Sine and Cosine functions, sine function driving emitter along X axis, and cosine function driving emitter along Y axis. By plugging the amplitude of the audio into the Frequency parameter of both sine and cosine functions, the particle emitter will now move along a circular path, the higher the amplitude of the audio, the further the emitter travels along the circular path.

amplitude = linearAmp * 3.1415 / 50;
valueX = 250*Math.sin(amplitude)+640;
valueY = 250*Math.cos(amplitude)+360;
positionX = valueX;
positionY = valueY;

I added those two offsets, 640 and 360, to put the centre of the circle in the middle of the screen, i.e. 1280/2 and 720/2. The value 250 is just the radius of the circle I want to make, in pixels.

Fig 3

Time Factor, Displacement:

The other parameter that I chose to manipulate using the audio was "time factor." This attribute actually warps the overall timing of particles, just like having a footage and watching it in slow motion (time factor between 0 and 1), or speeding up the whole movement (time factor more than 1). The result was audio-based time warp for particles.

Also tried to distort the shape of the trends based on the audio.

timeFactor = linearAmp / 10;
affectPosition = linearAmp + thisComp.layer("Sliders").effect("timeFactor")("Slider")

Fig 4

Here is snapshot of one of the shots inside AfterEffects. As you can see, for this specific shot, there is no keyframe animation happening! All using expressions inside AfterEffects.

Fig 5

So by listening and playing with these few space voices over and over, I ended up producing this 2 minutes film, which satisfied me experimenting particle effects with a concept that most of us love: space.

The awards I got on this piece, including the 40th Student Academy Awards nomination in 2012, and now the Quiet Earth award proved to me that it's always a good idea to push the envelope and experiment something that might not be doable, or might not be a good idea, but by stepping into the work and sometimes even letting the concept leading you, you may end up with some interesting results.

I kept this in my mind and pushed myself for my next project I was working on. My 3D Animated MFA graduation film, Simorgh which got the faculty award in the School of Film and Animation at the Rochester Institute of Technology as the starting point and is now touring various festivals around the world.

You can find more about me and my projects at my website and see the trailer for my upcoming thesis film below."

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