It’s been almost seven years since we first featured Chris Lavelle’s experimental particle animation ASCENSION on the DN podcast, and much like the inevitable motion of time, since then Chris has moved forward, increasing both the scope and artistry of his conceptual creations. This development as a visual artist is clearly evident in his recent collaborations with photographer Rebecca Lilith Bathory, whose urban explorer images Chris has transformed from 2D stills into stunning environments of living decay. Chris was kind enough to accept our invitation to explain the multi-step process he uses to bring these dead spaces to vibrant life.

Sometimes seeing it all come together is very emotional.

I originally got involved with the urban exploration community because I wished to use their images for some set builds for music videos I was producing. As well as being wonderful images and compositions they can also be used in a narrative form. I loved the beauty that can be found within decaying scenery and the stories one can imagine from a single image, or the imaginings it inspires in our minds. It added an extra dimension to the visual story telling I was producing at the time.

Rebecca Lilith Bathory reached out to me from word of mouth among the urban exploration photographers. She asked me if I would make a video for her forthcoming book Fukushima. Rebecca sent me some images which is when I realised this was a very emotive and compelling story that should be handled with care. But it was a story I knew I had to produce. With a collection of images and glut of apps and various slideshow programs, looking at a series of images in transition is now easier than ever and it’s now so ubiquitous I needed to provide another angle on this, a more immersive experience. With this in mind I decided to use camera calibration and camera mapping.

Fukushima was very well received and whilst being the first almost experimental piece it was clear Rebecca and I worked well together. That is why I produced her next piece Orphans of Time. This has much more subtle and refined techniques. Some of which I will discuss here.

Process

The process I use would enable me to bring the images to life and add elements which the conscious mind may miss but the subconscious will register as an actual live scene rather than the image of a scene. This is used to immerse the viewer in the piece as much as possible. To achieve this I gathered hundreds of images from Rebecca and distilled them down to a few which I thought produced a narrative that I felt would work well.

Process Step 1

I take an image into Photoshop and I start separating all of the elements that are relative to depth in the scene, or the elements that sit on different X,Y,Z planes. Then I need to hide each element and complete the background behind it using various techniques. This means that when the element is removed the background is continuous. It is much more visible in the latest piece for Rebecca Orphans of Time.

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Process Step 2

Once I have completed the Photoshop step I then move to Cinema 4D and start the camera calibration. If I provide Cinema 4D with the correct data it can best guess where the actual camera was when the photograph was taken. With this information I can replicate the real life camera with a virtual one including all of its settings.

Process Step 3

I then build geometry within Cinema 4D to represent the objects in the image using the virtual camera. Starting with simple shapes.

Process Step 4

Projection Man is the next step and it really is a time saver. I have used many 3D applications over time and for this kind of work Cinema 4D is a far better tool for my work flow. I drop the objects created into Projection Man and apply the elements I have previously isolated in Photoshop, onto the geometry. This will gradually rebuild the image onto the 3D geometry for me.

Process Step 5

Now it’s simply a case of producing a subtle camera move. However, now we have true parallax and also true depth. I can even rack focus if I wish. At this point I can do anything in real 3D. I can relight the scene if I wished to apply some bump maps to the generated textures. I can add particle effects and have certain areas dissolving into smoke if I wished it. It really does open up some very creative options.

With Fukushima and Orphans of Time I rendered the camera move and placed results into After Effects. Further elements and effects were then added into the scenes. The beauty of the integration betwixt Cinema 4D and After Effects means that I can even import the camera and specific locations (nulls) in 3D space that I can then reference further. Some images take a lot longer than others to process depending on the intricacy of the elements. On average it takes me around a day per image for the technical process. The creative process takes place alongside and afterwards and can be any length depending on what I wish to achieve.

Breaking times down for an image with an average amount of elements:

  • Photoshop – 4hrs
  • Calibration and mapping – 2hrs
  • VFX in Cinema 4D – 2 hrs
  • After Effects – 2 hrs

All of the final sequences are then placed into Premiere to reflect the initial storyboard. When this is in place another creative step takes place and it’s probably the most important. Whilst building the piece you must maintain focus on the end goal. It’s very easy to get lost in process if you are doing the entire project. Shifting focus from one to the other is a difficult task and can only be achieved through practice. At this point I will have all my sequences and an idea of the sound scape I wish to use. The pacing of the camera moves and the visibility of the effects will reflect this (pre-planned). I will then start working on the soundtrack and sound effects. This can take a long time as it is really the telling of the story holistically. I will find some sequences that simply don’t fit as I want and they may be cut or moved elsewhere. It’s pretty organic and my favorite part. Sometimes seeing it all come together is very emotional and I can only praise the amazing musicians for their wonderful talent in producing this glue for me. The glue that binds the narrative and visual into so much, much more.

What I’m Doing Next

I have a short story I wish to direct very soon, it’s the project I have wanted to work on for some years. I feel now, through the processes I have learned and the tools I have acquired over the years, I can now see a much clearer path to producing more compelling work. I also have another music video in the pipeline. I do hope to work again with Rebecca in the future. She has some wonderful images and some compelling ways of seeing the world. So yes I would like to assist her in getting that vision across.

It’s essential to remember that whilst most of the above is the technical process, the creative narrative is much more important, however it could not exist without the former. If I did not have these tools in my skill set then I couldn’t imagine up the piece. I simply would not have extended the boundaries of my imagination to encompass that way of thinking.

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