Clifford Ross

Sun 15th Jul 2012 | News

Artists are known for having muses that inspire them. Most muses are people: Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollock and Ruth Kligman, Salvador Dali and Gala. But some muses are not flesh and bone, and this is the case with Clifford Ross, a visual artist who for many years has been inspired by a mountain. Colorado’s Mount Sopris to be exact.

Ross “fell in love” with the mountain in 2001 during a time when he was simultaneously doing a lot of realistic photography and creating abstract artworks based on photos he’d taken in the midst of a hurricane. Ever since then, Mount Sopris has been the inspiration for much of Ross’ work, including Harmonium Mountain, an animated, short form, 3D video created using Maxon’s CINEMA 4D.

“Plans are currently being made for a “Harmonium Mountain” exhibition at the Museum of Image and Sound in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2013. Right now the features an original score by Phillip Glass but future iterations will include musical collaborations with international composers such as China’s Wu Tong.

Right now, Ross is working on creating an immersive, long-form version of Harmonium Mountain as part of his multimedia exhibition, “Landscape Seen/Landscape Imagined.” The immersive material is specifically designed to surround viewers with oversized screens on which the video will be projected. Venues will offer the exhibition in various environments, including cyclorama rooms, which are circular and include multiple screens.

The enormous film-based image of Mount Sopris on which “Harmonium Mountain” is based was shot using the patented R1 camera, which Ross invented and in 2002 in order to capture large-scale, high-resolution photographs of the mountain. “I thought, ‘Okay, if there is no camera that can allow me to bring this mountain to the viewer I’ll build one myself,” Ross says.

Though the large-scale format offered a much more intimate and detailed view of the mountain, it was not Ross’ ultimate goal to portray Mount Sopris in a realistic way. For him, conveying the mountain’s “emotive power” was the ultimate goal and to do that Ross knew he needed to move beyond replication of the real world. “Because you always fall short when you do that,” he explains.

For help, Ross turned to his animation director, Liron Unreich, asking him to choose the right 3D software to allow him to turn one special photograph into animated “harmoniums,” capable of expressing the mountain’s essence and power, “I am not Mr. Technical, so we looked at a lot of software applications and Liron chose Cinema 4D and I soon fell in love with the process of using a computer to create complex images.”

Using C4D Ross and Unreich created a library of colors, which they called harmoniums. (See a gallery of harmoniums here: And those became the basis for Ross’ vision of how to visually express the mountain. One harmonium alone looked good, he recalls. But when they put for or five of them together, they got a “note” that could be animated.

Working closely with Maxon’s technical support staff over four years, Ross’ and his creative team developed the software capabilities they needed to create “Harmonium Mountain’s” animated world. “Maxon helped us realize my vision by making their company and people available to us and I’m very grateful for that,” Ross explains.

It was MoGraph that really convinced Unreich that he’d found the right tool for executing Ross’ vision. “We don’t do a lot of modeling, but we needed fast, accurate renderings and the ability to do a lot of real-time grid and particle work and MoGraph made that possible,” he recalls.

MoGraph and Thinking Particles were used to create and randomize the seemingly infinite number of colorful harmoniums in the video. “It looks like heavy particle work, but it’s actually very tight,” Unreich explains, adding that Xpresso and MoGraph were used to control the parameters in some of the “most insane scenes.”

Because the whole project began with still imagery and evolved into animation, nothing was pre-determined or constrained by size limitations. This gave Ross and his team the freedom to create physical objects using CINEMA 4D without fear that they wouldn’t fit the space where they would be shown.

Now that Harmonium Mountain will be traveling for shows in its immersive form the team has started doing more pre-visualization of environments, including cycloramas, says Unreich. “We usually get CAD drawings or at least measurements and charts from the architects so we can create models of the spaces for all our shows in CINEMA 4D.”

Describing the mountain as an “inexhaustible subject,” Ross sees Harmonium Mountain as a project that will continue to evolve over time. “Everybody thinks there’s something slightly mad about how many years I’ve spent on this bloody mountain, but the project seems to be striking a chord with people all around the world and we’ll continue to enrich and expand it globally.”


Related links:

Clifford Ross’ hurricane photographs
Meleah Maynard

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