Installing Your Own 4D Vision Add-On:
An Interview with Thorsten Fleisch by Timothy David Orme
Thorsten Fleisch is a moving image artist based in Berlin. He has worked on such varied projects as Gaspar Noé’s film Enter the Void, made visuals for Basement Jaxx’s live tour in 2009, the TV series Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, and most recently released his first video game, Teslapunk. His films have screened at hundreds of festivals, winning numerous awards.
Frequently drawing from scientific experiments and a frame-by-frame approach, Fleisch’s experimental works often highlight the process of experiment itself. These experiments span a variety of different forms: electrified photographic paper, 3D animation, 2D animation, fragments of films, experimental time-lapse, etc. Fleisch’s works are brilliant sound and image combinations that aren’t only the results of various tests, but that test us as viewers. They build and destroy their own audio, their visual, their audiovisual, all while moving to an end that so often feels like the culmination of a beginning.
Picture Particles (2014) by Thorsten Fleisch
These films remind us the world moves with a rhythm, in fractal patterns that fan and retract themselves at intervals. We see it and then we don’t. We see it and then.
Electricity pulses through these films, but that should come as no surprise. There’s electricity pulsing through all of us, though we often don’t see or hear it. To watch a Fleisch film is always to be born into a particular way of seeing and hearing that reminds one of one’s own body as a part of a set of infinite connections. With this new FleischVision or FleischHearing a viewer of a Flieschfilm might approach the world cautiously, excitedly made more aware of the visual one can’t see. As if somehow these gritty, often black and white films have made visible the unseeable ultraviolet rays dancing and reflecting off us all.
Energie! (2007) by Thorsten Fleisch
Timothy David Orme: When I think of the moving image, I often find it helpful to think of how it is it comes to be. It seems to me there’s some sort of continuum between what I might call “capturing” an image (more direct photography, documentary), and “making” or “creating” an image (maybe animation on the furthest extent in this direction). There is, of course, an exciting mess of different approaches in the gray area. Where on this continuum do you see your work stemming from? And how do you approach capturing/making moving images?
Thorsten Fleisch: I guess for me it’s more a dialectic of creation and capturing. In many of my films I try to instigate a process that then unfolds on its own, where I’d be watching and directing it in ways that I find interesting. For example in Gestalt feeding a mathematical formula with different parameters or the high-voltage discharges in Energie!, the blood on the filmstrips for Blutrausch – Bloodlust. I don’t really feel like I created any of this but rather got a process going and then continued working with the results, modifying some of the parameters for further iterations of the process. for other films like Picture Particles or Wound Footage it’s a bit different, I take a captured image sequence and through different techniques in post make it my own. I still work with iterations of image manipulating processes in that case as well.
TDO: Right. And the way you’re speaking of the role of the writer/director here is really interesting: as a kind of co-writer, co-conspiritor working towards the film’s end. Not someone outside the process, but one within. Really, the hum of the work’s process is really audible in so many of your films. The voice of the filmmaker is so different, distinguished by its malleability, its play.
Dromosphere (2010) by Thorsten Fleisch
TDO: If your films teach us how to view them (and I think they do), it’s by taking the viewer through the process of the film’s creation. To view so many of these pieces (Energie!, Dromosphere, Picture Particles, etc.) is not to passively participate in their process, but to actively engage in the process as maker (of perception, of time, of meaning). How much of that are you aware of in the process of making a film? Could you articulate how it is you negotiate between someone who listens to the film and someone who speaks through it?
TF: I think I grew more and more aware of it simply by continuing to work with film and trying new techniques. A turning point in terms of self-awareness might be Dromosphere where I included the set-up of the ‘machinery’ in the actual film (simple description for those who haven’t seen the film: I shot a toy car on a dolly. the dolly is connected to a still camera that takes a long time exposure of a certain length. while maintaining the precisely moving car along the dolly tracks in a long time exposure the camera is moved after each shot. this results in a three-dimensional exploration of the blurred toy car). It starts as this mysterious rotating blur without any reference point except its rotation around an axis.
After the break about two-thirds into the film it breaks with everything and introduces the room with the dolly, giving it spatial as well as somewhat technical context. At that time I was thinking a lot about self-referentiality. Also the inside / outside situation, actively creating the process and passively observing it. I wanted to merge it together. I actually shot a lot of extra ‘making of’ footage where I would operate the dolly connected to the digital still camera and explain the process, also other staged situations where I would fantasize about commercial exploitation of the technique (as a reference I was thinking about the ‘bullet time’ effect that became really popular after the first Matrix film and was first developed by Tim MacMillan with 16mm film) and staged artist statements around the idea of the film (Dromosphere).
My idea was to make a film called Making Off in the style of a DVD ‘making of’ that has gotten super generic / boring over the years (btw, the ultimate old-school (meaning GREAT) making of for me is the one made by Vivian Kubrick about The Shining). I wanted it to be super off and its own entity somehow, meandering into different territories, all based on Dromosphere but completely going in another direction, not so much about factual truth but about artifice and fantasy psychology or a narrative about the artist mind or something like that. Anyway, later I abandoned the idea and never completed the film.
So coming back to your question after wandering off I think I find it hard to separate the two, the listening and the speaking, the observation and the participation. As soon as I discover something interesting to work with I want to form it in ways that make sense to me. A process may fuel my imagination and then I’m on a mission. Not always it amounts to something, there are many projects that I abandoned like the one I mentioned before. Others might transform into something else.
Gestalt (2003/2008) by Thorsten Fleisch
TDO: I’m glad you’ve talked about Dromosphere in a little more detail as it’s a film I really do admire. It’s so hypnotic, perplexing, a film that always leads one towards the edge of their perceptive capabilities. We’re always on the hunch of something, but moving into its understand takes so much time and patience. In a very crude and oversimplified way, we might refer to it as an experimental time-lapse, an opening up of a form that is nearly inherently closed, but also that has its roots in experimental filmmaking (I’m thinking of something like Cassis by Mekas, numerous Brakhage films, Marie Menken, etc.). This conversation of process seems so important to me because animation is itself process. And although many of these films aren’t directly what people might think of as animation, the process is so intensive we might best come to an understanding of their work through a conversation about animation. How do you think of yourself as an animator when you’re working?
TF: Animation was definitely a starting point for me in dealing with film. I always loved animation and discovering the ability to do single frame shots with my dad’s old super 8 camera was huge for me at that time. I tried out different techniques like frottage (a technique I learned from Max Ernst’s paintings) animation and very crude plasticine animations. That was when I was going to high school. Later though I didn’t really consider myself an animator that much. For me it’s more an atomistic concept of film production, the single frame being the smallest unit to work with. It’s also a serial concept in that you string together small time units. I also worked with midi sequencers producing my own music, more when I was younger but lately again when doing the music for a video game. It’s a very similar approach for me.
There’s also differences as in music you work with parallel events at the same time which is not necessarily the case in film. Well, now thinking about it it’s of course done all the time in narrative cinema that you have different events going on at the same time but it’s been done in a fragmented time-space way through editing whereas in music these different instruments and notes are all there at the same time and creating a tension or harmony in the actual now and not a constructed sense of now as in narrative cinema.
Anyway, I think of all my films so far Dromosphere, Energie! and Gestalt are the closest to animation. Also, they all show different means as to how to produce single-frame images. Dromosphere has the classic take-a-single-frame-of-something-in-front-of-the-camera approach. Energie! uses images generated with a particular technique (high-voltage photograms) and through slight manipulation of these diverse single images they come to life in the film. This is very much an animation in the post process.
Gestalt is a classic computer animation, not in the 3D modeling software way where you’d work on a virtual object with the virtual tools the software supplies but more in the old putting-numbers-in-a-software-and-receiving-an-image-that-changes-with-the-different-numbers-you-put-in kinda way. With Energie! it was important for me to capture a similar intensity and force that for example a Tesla coil displays. I had build one myself and was really fascinated by it. I really wanted to do something with high-voltage. so I tried different things, putting my Bolex on a wooden handle extension and have it hit by the discharges from the Tesla coil while filming (this is possible as it works purely mechanically with no electronic components to suffer from the high-voltage). I also put 16mm film strips on the floor (in the dark) and then had high-voltage discharges expose them. That was interesting conceptually but the result looked boring to me. So in the end I used photograms as the source material that I made with the same technique as with the 16mm film strips and scanned them to have them available in digital format. With Photoshop I did little manipulations to the images to explore those illusions of movement with positive-negative alternating images (that I first developed in simpler form for Hautnah – Skinflick) trying to find interesting loops to string together for the film.
Hautnah – Skinflick (2002) by Thorsten Fleisch
As for Gestalt I began with rendering images with a Photoshop plug-in at that time (early noughties) called Kai’s Power Tools. it was a filter called Frax 4D and it made very mysterious images that were highly complex and sort of unfathomable to me. I was really into four-dimensional geometry at that time and also fractals were always interesting to me. So by the name I knew there was some 4D fractal thing going on but it wasn’t at all like the Mandelbrot stuff (which is 2D). So as I was exploring the filter and animating the images by gradually changing a few of the (very limited) parameters I came upon this very interesting book about fractals and it mentioned quaternions as an example for four-dimensional fractals. The image looked a lot like the ones I got with this plug-in so I googled ‘quaternions’ and found a free software called Quat which rendered quaternion fractals.
That was a revelation, it opened up a whole new universe of strange mathematical objects that seemed very alien but beautiful to me. I was getting very deeply involved with this software and started to render image sequences that later developed into the film Gestalt. I still remember how baffled I was with the first results I got with Quat. The images were very abstract, still had some references to perspective and space but very puzzling. Through parameter changes I tried to make sense of that weird aesthetic and space. It’s interesting now to think about it when we just talked about the inside / outside of the process as these separate approaches. In four-dimensional geometry our three-dimensional concepts of inside and outside are directly connected and can be turned inside out through rotation in 4D space (some nice info and an even nicer painting by the recently deceased Paul Laffoley here). it really shows that many of the things we humans perceive as opposites or even non-related are actually all very much connected and may be just some degrees of variation of that same thing. You just have to install your own 4D vision add-on.
Wound Footage (2003/2009) by Thorsten Fleisch
TDO: I suspect there are a lot of people who would be interested in a 4D vision add-on, and it seems to me like a really fantastic definition of the work certain types of experimental film aim to achieve. It may take some time, but I do believe works like yours can help teach viewers what that 4D vision might look like. Perhaps I am too much of a romantic.
You mentioned that Dromosphere, Gestalt, and Energie! are the closest of your works thus far to animation, but Picture Particles feels very much like a frame-by-frame endeavor to me. From the way the noise is animated into first rhythm and then song, to the way the picture is always seemingly trying to organize its particles into a picture that can never be, only to land on geometry (moving almost through the eye and past the image). While the construction isn’t one based on keyframes and tweening, I feel like I would classify it as an animation, and even bring it into the animation classroom. Am I wrong here?
TF: You’re totally right, it’s weird, in my mind Picture Particles is more in the found footage drawer together with Wound Footage but of course it is very much an animation film. Very similar to Energie! in the way that I treated and manipulated the individual images in post and tried to find loops and little sequences that worked together in terms of color and form while retaining a stimulating single-frame frenzy. Instead of creating the source images myself like with Energie! the individual images all stem from a found super 8 film, some holidays of XY in the land of Z. Through various copying processes (optical printing, filming from screen) with different materials (35mm slide film, 16mm, video) and cameraless cutting, glueing and scratching techniques I manipulated the original images in a more analogue way and made them more my own. The final stages of manipulating the images (mostly cropping, sharpening & color grading) and temporal organisation (looping & editing) were all done digitally.
Coming back to the 4D add-on, while I was exploring 4D geometry I was hoping someone would try to add 4D tools to 3D modeling programs like Maya. I know there is Cinema 4D but its only in the name unfortunately. I’m serious, there should be someone implementing 4D geometry tools in modeling software. I could see a whole new aesthetic that could be born from this. So please if any skilled plugin developer reads this, give the world 4D tools to work with. There is a visually amazing universe waiting for future animators to be explored.
TDO: I can’t even begin to imagine what that might look like, which is part of what makes it so exciting. Please let me know if anyone responds to your call to action!
I always tell my animation students that animation is a kind of dance. For beginners, that’s a very explicit dance between the timing and spacing aspects of making something move. For general image-makers, it’s simply the rhythm of the piece, and Picture Particles seems to me to be nothing if not driven by some internal rhythm that is always on the verge of making itself felt, some part of an image that’s always on the verge of making itself whole.
I want to shift gears here and ask you about a very different project you worked on, Teslapunk. I suspect many of your followers might not even know you played a role in it. Could you talk a little about what your role was in that project and how it differed (or maybe didn’t) from the experimental work you do?
TF: My brother Timo is a computer scientist and works in the game industry. At one point we were thinking about doing a game together. He’d do the programming and me the art part. So we begun working on a shoot-em-up game for mobile. A few month into the development we recruited Micha, a friend of ours and also an avid shoot-em-up lover, to help with the game and level design. From a smaller mobile game it later grew to a full console version, so far published on the Xbox One and soon to be published on the Wii-U.
Trailer for the XBox One and Wii-U game Teslapunk
My role in Teslapunk was developing the general concept, the visual art, the music and the sound effects. since this is a game set in a retro-future, right after steampunk (so instead of a world powered by steam everything is powered by high-voltage), I used old illustrations and photos from almost ancient, mostly technical books to give it a very vintage feel. These I did collage to space ships, UFOs, weapons and weird backgrounds. To make them more interesting I animated certain parts within the collages. The work was different than my films in that it was very concrete, with concrete tasks and technical limitations. Also working with a team with constant feedback and going back and forth with ideas and the input from Timo and Micha was different than my usual one-man-army situation. But it was also similar in that it was an evolving process. I had never done a video game before and was just figuring things out on the way by myself. For example the collaging and animation techniques and the work flow, creating little loops, colorizing old b/w material and finding an interesting color palette, developing different looks for each level, work with different layers (compositing), trying to be efficient within the technical limitations.
Together with Micha I tried to give each level a dramatic structure like I try to do in my films. So while you play you go through different emotions with varying intensity mostly guided by the music and of course the attack patterns of the enemies. It was very important for me that each level is like a musical piece in a way and also has its own identity and style. the game doesn’t really tell a complex story (Nikola Tesla tries to stop the martian invasion) but still works with and conveys very distinct moods and surreal situations (for example a blueprint style machine doctor that prescribes madness, a martian emperor who writes his own battle music, etc.). For one level I actually resurrected an old film of mine (Energie!) and used it to create a level-end-boss for the game.
TDO: Yeah, it’s really different from your work, and yet still really tied to it at the same time. Lastly, I just wanted to ask what you’re up to now.
TF: At the moment I’m making my first feature film. It’s a narrative film but with heavy experimentation as well. I would like to describe the style as ‘magical nihilism’. Very much on the horror side of things and quite surreal. I made a short called Hex Suffice Cache Ten a while ago and this was my first attempt to work with people and fragments of a story while doing most of the stuff still myself (camera, editing, lighting, music, sound, story, set design…). I recently finished writing the script for the feature and have already shot a few scenes. It will be a long process to complete as so far there is no money but then I’m used to try to make the best of the resources I have and I have a great team. So over time I hope to be able to finish shooting all the scenes. Again this is a lot of learning by doing and process oriented and I’m quite happy with the results so far. It’s definitely a big step forward for me compared to Hex Suffice Cache Ten. I really want to apply experimental techniques that I learned and developed over the years to narrative cinema as I’m a big fan of horror movies, b-pictures and exploitation films in general (not so much the contemporary ones though). So let’s see how this goes, hopefully I’ll have a rough-cut in 2017.
© Timothy David Orme 2016