Through Leviathan’s Eyes
AA Diploma Honours
We live in a time where cultural ideologies, aspirations and fears are as diverse and dynamic as ever. And yet, our world views are becoming increasingly singular, extreme, and sadly – polarised. Our media echo-chambers feed us personalised, self-affirming realities that keep us well within the boundaries of our own predispositions and assumptions. But what if the technologies that currently blind us, could somehow bind us together?
‘Through Leviathan’s Eyes’ is an optimistic, speculative glimpse into a world where reality is constructed collaboratively. The film is a non-narrative tour through a near-future condition of ‘cityness’ imagining a rewriting of technological priorities; turning the blinding drive for personalised reality into a truly mixed reality. Here, the unstable, ever-shifting, yet somehow intelligent collective compose space in a constant state of re-writing and over-writing, that every so often, coalesces into an urgent, moving obsession. The city renders itself as a tangible, augmented palimpsest. A cultural manifestation of Hobbes’ Leviathan.
What defined the aesthetic choices of the project?
In making a film about a mixed/augmented reality future, we wanted to depart from the typical transparent, blue tinged, holographic look that we have come to associate with virtual overlays. I say we because truthfully this film is the result of a total collaboration between me and my wife – Beth Edgoose. We see no reason for virtual materiality to be treated any differently from tangible materiality; a world where the real and the unreal speak the same aesthetic language is much more interesting to us. Because of this the process of making the film – compositing 3D virtual content into live-action footage – really reflected how we believe future augmented reality will feel. The action of simulating lighting in the real world, and having virtual and physical objects occlude, reflect and shadow one another is something that probably will become almost real-time in the near future. At the same time though, virtual objects obviously have some very different qualities to physical ones – for starters they are not limited by real-world physics. They can self intersect, they can ignore gravity, and perhaps most importantly for this project, they can change at a much faster rate. So the aesthetic of the augmented layers was driven by simultaneous needs to feel as real and tangible as possible, but also to generate a sense of strangeness through their impossible behaviours/characteristics. This notion of constant shifting and the abrupt intersection of fragmented elements describes both the visual effect we wanted to achieve and the way I worked on developing the 3D models.
In terms of composition, both the shots in the film and the structure of the film itself were hugely inspired by the genre of non-narrative film, perhaps best illustrated by Samsara and Baraka by Ron Fricke. These films are epic tours through culture and space, jumping from intimate to planetary scale scenes through thematic and visual links. This format of film making was useful to me as it places the focus on the world implied by the image rather than on the content of the image itself. Similarly Gursky’s photography – particularly (and probably obviously) his ‘99 cent’ piece – has this quality of making something banal and everyday extremely strange, and it is this ‘familiar-strangeness’ that we was striving to emulate. Something that is extremely evident in both Gursky’s photos and Fricke’s films is the presence of the camera. Although they are in a way documentary (in that they are records of real people, places and events), their consciously composed, highly curated subjects make them clearly portraits. That’s what we wanted this film to be, a portrait – but a speculative one – a portrait of a version of humanity that doesn’t quite exist yet.
How do the formats of both video and magazine work together and help in developing the projects in a different way?
The two formats were products of two quite separate agendas that we had. Earlier in the year, when I was trying to define the scope of the project (technologically, culturally and spatially), the magazine format was introduced as an efficient way to quickly sample and collect totally fragmented ideas, references and images. The making of the magazines, particularly issue one ‘Le’s Tribe’, was really just a curated and extended process of brainstorming – a pooling of material that may or may not have made it into the final project. On the other hand our approach to the film was very much that it needed to be a piece of active communication. Its job was to deliver the world that we had come to understand through the magazines, to an unsuspecting, fresh audience. So our criteria for internally critiquing and assessing both formats were quite different. The magazines by nature could be much more detailed, and fragmented, and so they became our way to find the strangest scenarios, to quickly create options without much consequence. The film on the other hand was very carefully scripted and every scene was slowly laboured over. I think we went through more than ten iterations of the final script before we even entertained the thought of starting to model/render scenes. The stakes are much higher when committing to rendering a film sequence than when doing a quick photoshop spread for a fictional magazine!
Therefore when working through the magazine we were driven by the question ‘does this material advance the idea?’. Whereas when developing the film, the question was much more ‘is this material communicating the idea?’. We certainly hope that from the audience’s perspective, the film is the heart of the project, and it certainly took the most of our time to make, but I must say that it was in the magazine format that most of the ideas took root.
How did you respond to the Diploma 9 brief? To what extent did you operate within the realm of Diploma 9?
In my eyes, Diploma 9 has two central thematics – the construction of the ‘architect’ as a personal identity, profession, and concept, and the manipulation of perception. For those reasons, I felt very at home in the unit, as the project’s key questions are very much aligned with the unit’s preoccupations. It was also a blessing that Natasha Sandmeier and Manolis Stavrakakis (the unit masters) were so open to allowing us to pursue our own interests and media. The brief this year was to assemble a world from a series of randomly generated statements, facts, historical events and opinions, to structure something coherent out of a sea of disconnected stories. I entered the unit wanting to do a film, and I knew in my mind that I wanted it to address ideas of collective intelligence and augmented reality. But whilst it may sound like the project was conceived independently of the unit I would say that really the opposite is true. The unit’s approach toward project making – the stringing together of new realities through connecting unlikely scenarios – is exactly what the film is at its core. I’d say that while the agenda for the film was perhaps set before my involvement in the unit, its methodology and ideology were hugely influenced by the unit’s approach as well as direct advice and conversation with Natasha and Manolis. One of the unit’s great strengths is in the diversity of agendas each student brings to the table, and it was a real pleasure to test a project that is all about coherence amidst diversity among such a committed and talented peer group.
Why do you see film as a valuable tool for the architect?
I think film, or at least video, is fast becoming the most familiar mode of information dissemination and consumption. As such, I believe contemporary audiences are most primed to consume complex ideas quickly and effectively through filmic (or at least time-based) media. Architects have always not only built, but also speculated on the future, and I think that film, like drawing, is a powerful way to transport an audience into new realities. However, I think that given that most audiences today are more familiar with the language and conventions of film than say the language of space or of the still image, I think that film is a logical choice for the communication of abstract or complex ideas, particularly when trying to cross disciplines. This isn’t to say that I think film is a better medium than any other, simply that it is more widely consumed and understood, and therefore has a more general appeal.
Where do you see this project going? How has your work at the AA defined and constructed how you will operate as an architect in the near future?
For me this project is part of a continuum – another musing within a general interest of mine. My previous academic projects have dealt with augmented reality and trend manipulation in online spaces, and ‘Through Leviathan’s Eyes’ although in its own distinct world, is really part of a series of investigations into the characteristics and possibilities for our increasingly media-driven societies. As an architect I believe that just like any other architect, my primary motivation should be to find new spatial conditions that provoke new human connections and positive cultural evolution. I also believe that ‘space’ is not limited to tangible, ‘real’ space, but includes all the territories in which we live today, online and offline.
The hope is that this project will one day see life in a more ambitious form, perhaps as a longer, more narrative driven film, or as an expanded series of works set in this future. For the time being though I am working to set up a studio with Beth that focuses on urban storytelling – from architectural visualisation, to anthropologic research, to narrative design and speculation.
What opportunities were there in the restrictions of the school’s curriculum and criteria that pushed you to explore a different side of the project?
At the AA our final year projects are expected to include a Technical Studies (TS) – a detailed investigation of the mechanisms behind our projects. While for many this entails an analysis of structural/engineering challenges, in my case the TS provoked a study of the current technologies around augmented vision – which formed the base for the second magazine I produced ‘Filtered Eyes’. In the end, what this revealed was that the project’s scenario of a total ‘mixed-reality’ world – whilst seeming somewhat fantastical, is more technologically achievable than one might assume. Just like the world building in Hollywood sci-fi is sometimes rendered believable because of its grounding in real science, the school’s TS provided a framework into which the film’s world’s mechanisms could be tested for plausibility.
What software and programs did you use when constructing the video?
I worked mainly through Cinema4D and After Effects to create the animated/rendered scenes. Some of the totally rendered shots were created in 3DS Max and rendered with v-Ray, but as the majority of scenes involve compositing digital content into live action footage, C4D’s native compositing tools proved to be the fastest to use. The film, once rendered was cut and graded in Premiere.
Nathan is a designer and storyteller, working through speculation, architecture and film to imagine futures from the scale of the home to the city. ‘Through Leviathan’s Eyes’ is his graduating project at the Architectural Association and his second short film, following ‘The Atlas of False Desires’ which was awarded Best Short Film at Sci-Fi-London film festival earlier this year. Earlier in the year he also collaborated with Beth Edgoose and Chong Yan Chuah on ‘Aisha’s Asylum’ – an illustrated short story that was awarded an honourable mention in Blank Space’s 2017 Fairytales competition. Nathan and Beth also collaborated on ‘Vital Networks’ – a global system of telemedicine that was awarded second place in the 2015 Advancing Development Goals Geneva Challenge. Nathan completed the Bachelor of Environments at Melbourne University, graduating with the University Medal. He then worked for two years at Melbourne architecture firm McBride Charles Ryan, before completing his studies at the AA. He was a 2016 recipient of the RIBA Wren Association Scholarship and his Part I project ‘The Augurs of Slave Island’ was awarded the Grand Prize at the D3 Unbuilt Visions competition.
Directed and Written by
Nathan Su & Bethany Edgoose
Helen Robinett Oxley, Annabel Spinks-Jones, Charlie Sturgeon, Chong Yan Chuah, David London, Stefania Montesolaro
Natasha Sandmeier, Manolis Stavrakakis, Chong Yan Chuah, Nicholas Zembashi, Sebastian Tiew