May.01.10 PETER SISTROM, PLASTIKMAN CONTEST WINNER on TOUCHDESIGNER
We recently had a brief interview with LA-based architect and motion graphics/visual producer Peter Sistrom who is one of our recent Plastikman Visual contest winners to get the scoop on his experience as a new TouchDesigner user. Peter had a lot of really valuable insights to share and as you'll see from what he had to say, an infectious amount of enthusiasm and tenacity that make him a welcome member of the community.
Can you first tell us a bit about your background - what you do, and the tools you use.
I am schooled in architectural design, and have worked in architecture for my relatively short professional life. About 2 or 3 years ago in my spare time, I started getting interested in motion graphics and visuals, particularly in a synaesthetic relationship with music (as is all the rage these days)! My good friend and collaborator Matthew Davis is a talented musician with high ideals towards the future of visual and sonic art and their intermingling and eventual fusing. We have been working on our own system, performance and set of theories and ideas for these sorts of endeavors, mainly centered around a work we call [namethemachine]. Currently, I work in an architecture firm, while honing my visualist technique in my spare time and continuing to collaborate on [namethemachine]. I am not sure when or how I will transition to doing visualist work as a more full time endeavor, but it is something I am very much considering.
I had no background in computer programming, motion graphics or film before embarking on this journey, so I have been teaching myself everything by the seat of my pants.
After digging into the scene and combing YouTube I quickly discovered Processing and began going through the basics of learning artistic computer programming. After quite a bit of experimenting and brainstorming with my partner I beared down to build my first performance system. This combined a core Processing sketch with Pure Data, VDMX and a link to Matt's computer running Ableton Live and his DAC. So those tools, along with OSC and MIDI links have been my main experience in the realm of new media computing and art making.
The other tools I use, and have even more experience with are architectural modellers (CAD, Rhino, SketchUp, Revit) and trusty old pen and ink. I love to draw, and hope to bring my analogue art into a better sync with the digital realm. I've used all sorts of 3D modellers for architectural and design applications, and have always loved when something gets so complex or something breaks and polygons go flying everywhere that it looks more like digital art. I am slowly picking up Maya as well, which is very useful because of ease of linkage with Touch.
Had you ever used TouchDesigner before entering the PM contest?
I had been using TouchDesigner for maybe 3 months prior to the announcement of the Plastikman contest. It was actually a very fortuitous timing, as I had sort of just decided I was going to 'port' a lot of my previous work to Touch and use it as my main platform. I had done a hacked up demo piece using Touch with my collaborator to generate sound based off of the continuous strokes from a Wacom tablet (using some of the drawing synths found on the boards as a start). The video is pretty rough, but you get the idea!
Otherwise, I had just been testing things out and figuring out working methods for how to bring my old work in Processing in and advance it further. The contest gave me a concise goal and a kick in the ass to make something quickly and concisely, a great learning experience, sort of like on the job training!
I only really knew about TouchDesigner because a friend and acquaintance of mine always pestered me to look into it. He is an acclaimed effects artist and long time Houdini user who knew Greg and the Derivative guys as they struck out to make Touch. Every time I would see him and talk about our mutual interests he would ask me if I had looked into Touch yet.
I finally bootcamped my mac and dove in after hearing that Scott Pagano (a big inspiration of mine) was moving to the environment. Now I've scrounged together a performance PC desktop as my Touch machine, and I don't think I'm looking back!
Tell us about some of the motivations and concepts driving what you do...
I've always had an appreciation for music of all sorts, though I have no musical background whatsoever. My experience with really good music is almost always of a visual nature, and I think one of my main drives in pursuing live motion graphics is to some day be able to reproduce some of the light shows I play for myself on the back my eyelids when listening to really next level music.
To take that a step further, Matt and I would like to reach a point where one's visual expression can directly affect the music it is paired with, so that the barriers between expertise in a particular artistic discipline are dissolved by translations between the mediums (and vice versa for music --> visual) especially in a live collaborative and improvisational atmosphere.
Of course, that end goal may take some time, and the experimental tangle that inevitably must proceed that 'state' holds a massive amount of aesthetic potential, that I am pretty stoked about exploring, and something that I think Touch is particularly suited for because of its ease of data translation.
In short, I'd really love to create some amazingly complex, deep, psychedelic and provocative motion visuals, particularly in a live context in unison with music! Don't we all!?!?!
Can you describe your experience using TD? If and how it might differ from the tools you normally use?
My immediate thought is efficiency. Touch has so many of the methods and classes I find extremely useful, and they are much more robust and fast than I could ever hope to cobble together myself. Plus, so many ways of doing things that I hadn't considered.
For example, utilizing small textures made with the Ramp TOP and sending that data to affect different aspects of arrays of objects like sizes of particles or postion or color. I am a visual person who takes much longer to think through the math of an equation without seeing its visual representation, so Touch has been great for that.
The funny thing, is that the system behind my main visuals 'piece' was really me striving for something like TouchDesigner. In Pure Data I had created my own little Lag and Mach CHOPs to normalize, scale and smooth control data, my own receive methods and such in Processing to interface with big arrays of geometry and appearance parameters, etc etc. As great of a learning experience as that was (sort of like learning chemical photo developing before learning Photoshop) Touch takes care of all that sort of thing and way more! Being able to quickly tweak all the parameters of different objects is an amazingly amazing and useful thing!
You produced in a short amount of time a very complex and well-documented synth. From cracking open the contest kit and getting to work... how was that process?
There were probably 3 or 4 times while working on this contest where I had a little breakdown that I had made things too complex and I couldn't make sense of any of it, and had no idea what should affect what. It usually helped to write things on paper, doodle a little and focus on single things at a time!
I spent some time picking through the project kit and seeing how it ran, and I must say, the initial setup was extremely nice to use, thanks for that! I can't wait to see what the Ableton bridge looks like! I decided pretty quickly that I needed to use simple shapes and focus on animating them well.
The 'technique' I took over from my other work was very object based. I made 4 clones of a pretty simple geometry and started assigning them different broad spectral bands of the music in my mind and notes. This probably helped keep everything 'under control' the most, because then I knew, 'oh ring number 3 is mostly always affected by the high end sounds so I can make it jump around when the beeping 'sample 2' comes on' or some such scenario. Doing that you can also group together all the same parameters as channels in CHOPs and export everything based on object name numbers, etc.
Another big thing that helped me get it under control was learning to utilize Animation COMPs and sequence animations of different sets of parameters. I'd go through the whole song, pause it and scrub it at key points and tweak the same parameter on every object till it fit the point in the song, write it down, and keep going. Then just plug that set of numbers into an animation controlled by a master 'step' channel and on to the next set of parameters! The 'step' channel was then more meticulously keyframed to the musical timeline so that multiple parameter transitions were easily tweakable.
It was a big help having already learned the basics of Touch before getting into the contest. If I had anything critical to say of Touch, it would be its learning curve. Now that I feel comfortable with the basics, I can't fathom how one wouldn't understand how intuitive it is, but it is in fact a bit bizarre when looked at with fresh eyes! It's really just getting familiar with the new terminology and basic workflow/framework that took a bit of time for me.
Anything more you can tell us about the process?
Spastik by Plastikman/Richie Hawtin is now a very frequent soundtrack to my dreams...
Also, my entry changed very drastically at the last minute, when I decided to abstract the geometry I was rendering and use it as a mask for two layers of opposing circular animated ramps.
This is the sort of great thing that can happen when you apply a whole new lens on a framework you've been working on, and is made so possible by digital art making and its modularity.
With your experience now how else do you see using TouchDesigner... things you see being able to do with it? Has it opened any doors?
I have tons of things I want to try out as well things that I must do! I must learn to build interfaces and a robust parameter shifting framework.
I'm very excited to play with GLSL and learn its power a bit more. I am trying to develop a work flow and method for bringing in animatable meshes, even really detailed ones! The Wacom drawing is something I want to keep doing. Live camera feedback systems... its really quite endless!
What does TouchDesigner facilitate?
Again, I think it lends the efficiency needed to explore and try different methods of doing things relatively quickly. Like anything object based, the ability to make components and reuse them is very useful, and Touch has a great way of doing that.
I got to take a look at Jeff Smith's (of Eye Vapor) synth/network for his live visuals work and was totally blown away by its complexity and depth of control and extendability. It seems like such a great environment for adding to and building larger pieces.
Does it obsolesce anything?
Mainly my old and clunky Pure Data work, though I may still use PD (or Max if I can ever afford it!) to do some initial control sorting and translating, though I know I could probably do these things in Touch as well. For me it obsolesces Processing for the work I am mainly interested in, though I do have an appreciation for hand coded and very to the point pieces of digital art, and will probably still pull it out from time to time.
What else do you think you can do with it? ... the future...
It's endless! Though I am mainly focusing on a sort of live visual instrument, I am interested in other uses. Certainly installation work, I'd really like to check out the Herzog and de Meuron project at some point. If combined with computer vision and other sensor input I can see TouchDesigner being a great tool for making psuedo-passive large scale interactive installations. I was even talking with a friend the other day about how you could probably build a decently sophisticated video game inside of Touch! Large scale data visualization could be pretty cool too.
But in terms of the future of my own work and the progression of New Media art and synaesthetics in general I think the ease of data switching and translating is going to bring about some really cerebral works where sound, visuals, large data sets and human input all swirl together and feedback on one another to create a very next level sort of art, and I hope TouchDesigner will be right there on the technological forefront of the movement.
For those who've never used TouchDesigner, what would you tell them?
I've been telling lots of people how much I love the program! People who are veteran visualists or digital artists, should get pretty quickly why it's so useful, and then I'd just say, once you've learned the lingo and UI it's great!
I found the video tutorials of how to build the particle system pretty helpful. Even tough it was in 017, I think it gave me my first real run down of the different UI elements and working methods. From there I think grabbing as many .tox's and .toe's from the boards as you can, pick them apart and then start asking questions on the forum. The community is small, but very helpful. I haven't watched them, but I'm sure the new videos on all the basics are probably pretty helpful too.
Thank you Peter and we look forward to seeing more of your work!