Surface Detail is a computer generated short video created by Tom Beddard, featuring a hypnotic and ever-changing landscape of 3D fractals. To find out more about how this video and its author, I interviewed Tom via email:
Quito: Hello Tom, thanks for this interview. Tell us a little about yourself.
Tom: Hello! I am an Englishman now living in Scotland just outside Edinburgh. At university I studied physics and then went on to do a PhD in laser physics. However, while doing my PhD I got more and more interested in web development (no small influence of the first dot com boom) and built up a small portfolio. Once I had my doctorate I decided to change career and got a job doing web development specialising in content management and ecommerce systems.
I now work at a company in Glasgow called 55 degrees currently working on all the interactive software for a brand new transport museum opening later this year.
Quito: How long have you been experimenting with computer generated imagery?
Tom: I’ve been using Flash since v4 but in 2008 after I redesigning my site yet again I decided to focus on more generative graphics using Flash and other technologies.
Quito: What is it that drew you to fractals and made you want to express them visually through computer graphics?
Tom: I’ve always had an interest in raytracing ever since I spent an hour watching mirror balls render on my dad’s old Mac LCII. I love the little details in anything visual and fractals have an infinite amount of detail! It was only in late 2009 that new algorithms were developed on fractalforums.com by some serious maths enthusiasts that true 3D fractals became possible.
Creating my own raytracing programs to render these new algorithms was a very rewarding project and there are still some fascinating structures yet to explore.
Quito: So what exactly are “true 3D” fractals?
Tom: True 3D fractals are structures that continue to reveal more detail the closer you get in a never ending way.
Quito: I was particularly drawn to your video “Surface Detail”, it’s quite mesmerizing and beautiful. What was the inspiration for this?
Tom: Thank you! Like so much with fractals the process is of exploration. I was actually working on a different animation when I accidentally came across the structure shown in Surface Detail. I was listening to some music by Jon Hopkins and the start of his piece “Second Sight” seems to fit with the mood of a slowly evolving surface. That was also the inspiration for the soundtrack I created.
Quito: How has been the response to this video, is it anything like you had expected?
Tom: The number of views and comments on Vimeo has been amazing. Totally blown over by the response. All I was hoping for was a few retweets when I announced it on Twitter :)
Quito: What was your process for this video, how much of what we see is deliberate and how much was left to chance?
Tom: The process starts as an exploration of the various parameters (there are about 70 tweakable controls in my renderer!) When I find an interesting structure I focus on it carefully fine tuning certain parameters to emphasise certain characteristics. Then I start key framing either camera movements or changes in the fractal formula parameters. In Surface Detail I’m only changing about 3 or 4 parameters over the course of the animation but in the process some fantastic details and structures are revealed.
Quito: The video is in black and white. Are you interested in producing work in color?
Tom: My personal preference is for a refined colour palette. In the past fractals have gotten a bad reputation due to garish over saturated colours. I also need to refine my raytracer some more before I’ll be happy with its colour output.
Quito: What tools or methods did you use to create “Surface Detail”? Was there a lot of customization/programming involved?
Tom: I have written my own raytracer which is basically an OpenGL GLSL shader, so it runs on the graphics card which makes it significantly faster than an equivalent programme running just on the CPU. I’ve been hacking around with the code for about a year optimising it as I learn more about the huge area of OpenGL programming.
Quito: Is the raytracer you developed available in any form to the public?
Tom: I have released a couple of Mandelbulb fractal raytracers in the form of PixelBender scripts. Pixel Bender is a free image processing tool developed by Adobe that you can use to write scripts that will run as plugins within Photoshop and After Effects. My Pixel Bender scripts are available from my website subblue.com
Quito: Visually speaking, fractals are kind of like the rock stars of the mathematics world. Are there other areas of mathematics or science that have not been explored so much from the artistic/visual standpoint?
Tom: Fractals certainly have the pedestal for the most visually varied and spectacular area of mathematics, especially given the surprising simplicity of their formulae. Ultimately though many of the shapes we find in fractals we are already familiar with from the natural world. From an artistic standpoint 3D fractals still have a lot to explore, after all they are less than two years old.
Quito: Fractals have already been used to create photorealistic landscapes such as mountain ranges in film. Do you think 3D fractals will open up new possibilities in terms of digitally recreating nature or will they best be served in creating entirely new and abstract worlds?
Tom: I’m sure we’ll be seeing abstract 3D fractal landscapes appearing more and more in the future.
Quito: Has anyone approached you to create some animations for a film or a music video?
Tom: I have had a few enquiries and hopefully one or two might go somewhere. Here’s hoping!
Quito: Thanks again for doing this interview, I look forward to seeing more of your work in the near future.