Thu 9th Jan 2014, by Meleah Maynard | Readerproject
3D artist and graphic designer, Mike Winkelmann (AKA Beeple), takes on the complex topic of privacy in his latest film, Transparent Machines. Unsettling and thought-provoking, the short film makes clear the contradictions inherent in our simultaneous demands for privacy and desire to upload personal information to sites like Facebook and Google.
Read on to hear what Winkelmann has to say on the subject of privacy, as well as the making of the film for which he used Cinema 4D, V-Ray and After Effects.
Seeing all the people on Facebook complaining about privacy, Mike Winkelmann couldn’t help thinking, “Hey, if you’re really concerned about privacy, why are you on Facebook posting all of this stuff about yourself in the first place?”
Winkelmann: Honestly, I didn’t have this topic in mind when I started working on this film. I was working on something completely different and it kind of evolved into this. My idea was to make a giant cylinder machine that just kept building itself over time. It was going to be one long shot, and I worked on it for months and months, playing around with it in V-Ray until one day I found a glass texture I really liked and I downloaded it from their site. I applied it to the whole thing and liked the way it looked. That got me thinking about making something about glass and how it’s become popular in our society in terms of touch screens and Gorilla Glass. But then all the NSA stuff came out and everybody was talking about transparency and the government. I thought it would be interesting to connect this transparent structure to the concept of transparency and what I got was a happy accident, really.
Video clips and pseudo-infographic elements were added to the film in post.
Winkelmann: It’s true that I normally set out to make something that looks cool and go from there, and I definitely didn’t set out to make a statement. But once I thought more about this topic and about all of the people complaining on Facebook about privacy issues, I thought, ‘Hey, if you’re really concerned about privacy, why are you on Facebook posting all of this stuff about yourself in the first place?’ That seems kind of stupid to me, so eventually I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make that point without overtly stating what I was thinking. I considered a lot of options but decided to use narration, which I’ve never done in a video before.
Winkelmann: People sort of agree with what the film says, but it still seems like people are like ‘Yeah, yeah this is totally scary and but, oh, wait, I’ve got to go post something on Facebook right now. In a way, that makes sense because all of this stuff is so integrated into people’s lives. It’s amazing how much corporations just know about you. We just had a kid and it’s crazy how much stuff we’ve gotten in the mail like formula and diapers and other stuff. We didn’t sign up for any of it, but somehow it seems like everyone just knows we have a kid now.
Winkelmann started the project by modeling huge sections of the machine using Maxon’s Cinema 4D.
Winkelmann: I don’t really keep track of how long I work on things, but looking back at my files I started in April of last year and I would say about 150 days, maybe a couple of hours a day. I started modeling in C4D, keeping in mind that I needed to make a lot of small pieces because the machine was going to build itself up piece by piece. After I modeled a decent-size section, I took each individual piece and animated it appearing so when you see each piece appear, it looks like the entire thing is building. I could have made each piece with a cloner, but it wouldn’t have had the organic look that I wanted, so I did everything by hand so the project has thousands of keyframes.
To make things easier to animate later, each piece of the machine was a separate object so it could be animated to appear in relation to the other objects around it.
Winkelmann: Yeah, there were lots of different little modeling things that I’d never done. Some made it into the piece, and some I learned on the side. I also learned a lot about how to manage render times. When I first started out trying to render the glass look, I had a regular lighting setup with all the usual settings and GI (global illumination) and AO (ambient occlusion) turned on. When I saw that this made the render time insanely high, I started peeling off some of these settings and saw that they made little to no difference in the final output. This taught me a valuable lesson that has stuck with me since then. Just because you can use things like GI and AO, doesn’t mean it necessarily makes sense. Sometimes, I think some of these more advanced render settings can be hindrances.
Winkelmann rendered some of the clips at around 4K to allow for panning around the frame in post for precise cuts to the music.
Winkelmann: Kyle Vande Slunt of Standing Wave did the sound design for this and a bunch of other projects I’ve worked on too. I grew up with him and we’ve been friends a super long time. He came up with the idea to use a woman’s voice for the narration and I thought that was awesome. I don’t know why, but I thought a British woman’s voice would sound better so I went on Voices.com and picked a bunch of different samples to listen to. I was able to have people audition by reading the script, so I got exactly what I wanted. I did a treatment on the voice to make it sound a little more cold and robotic. For the music, I picked out Pulverized by Hecq (Ben Lukas Boysen). But I didn’t have permission beforehand to use it and I never got a response from him, so I took that as a non-implicit ‘Yes.’ Luckily, when people saw the film and started posting ‘Congratulations’ on his Facebook wall, he got in touch with me and was great about it.
Final compositing and color correction was done in After Effects, and the project was rendered out of C4D at 32bit to allow greater control in post.
Winkelmann: One tip, for people who are maybe a little newer to Cinema 4D, is that you don’t need V-Ray to open up and use these scene files. V-Ray is just the renderer, and the only thing it’s used for in this case is glass material. You can still open the files and use them for anything by just applying a different material and rendering with the standard renderer. Also, these files will undoubtedly be extremely slow on your computer as there is a huge amount of geometry and animation in the scene. I would recommend using this great, free plugin called Magic Solo because it will really help you isolate just one piece.
Winkelmann: I've been making short films for the last 10+ years and most of my work focuses on a mix of sound and video. I went to school for computer science but quickly realized after graduating that's not what I really wanted to do. So I taught myself design and video work by just playing around and practicing and starting my everydays project to help me get better. I live in a small town in Wisconsin and still have a day job as a web designer but my work as 'Beeple' is an outlet for more of the experimental stuff that I'm interested in. Besides short films and my everydays project, I also release a lot of free visuals under Creative Commons that people can download and use for anything. The source files are also included with these as well.
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.