Digital Sketch Book – Tales From the City (1 minute)

May 15, 2014

This post explores various research and ideas behind my recent moving image project Tales From the City (1 Minute)

The video is made up from many different visuals and interconnected strands of research used to layer, collage and filter memories of the contemporary city. 

Underlying themes embedded within the final work and notes about experimental digital processes are recorded here in the form of a digital sketchbook, to illuminate my practice rather than explain the work as this must stand alone as self-contained artwork alongside the briefest synopsis.

Whilst work is in progress, each visual graphic, photo, audio-clip or map fragment holds personal significance leading me through the process of making. But once the work is complete, only glimpses of these fragments and their origins remain; this is an attempt to rewind and unravel some of the concepts and processes behind the work.

Drawings and Notes

I currently now work almost exclusively as an on-screen artist and no longer keep a ‘proper’ sketchbook in order to work through ideas.

However, occasionally I do make sketches

©Sandra Crisp - 'Telerings' sketch from Oceanics A drawing made towards a scene in a previous video Oceanics. A visualisation of stacked cylindrical forms, textured mapped with media images. These models are based  on orbiting space satellites and noted here as 'Telerings'.

©Sandra Crisp – Sketch from Oceanics; Telelrings.
Left: Pencil drawings of stacked, cylindrical forms in an old diary that contributed towards a scene in moving image project, Oceanics. Right: 3 stills from Oceanics show the same structure recreated as 3D models in Maya; textured-mapped with borrowed media visuals.  These ‘Telelrings’ are based upon found diagrams showing the inner workings of an orbiting space satellite.

However, most of the time I don’t create sketches for moving image projects, preferring the spontaneity and risk involved in evolving new forms and ideas directly on the screen.

More often than not, my visual ramblings appear more like this

©Sandra Crisp - Shorthand notes about time/duration, order of scenes etc

©Sandra Crisp – Shorthand notes about time/duration, order of scenes in Tales From the City (1 minute) etc

Below, another pencil drawing for Tales From the city (1 minute)

©Sandra Crisp - Drawing, Tales From the City (1 minute) Pencil on paper. The labyrinthine model appearing in scene 2 is based upon a section of this drawing which is worked up from a Google Earth map featuring an unusual city rooftop.

©Sandra Crisp – Left: Drawing, pencil on paper. Right: Labyrinthine model recreated in 3D using SketchUp: The second scene in Tales From the City (1 minute) represents a journey through a segment of this model. The drawing is based upon the rooftop view of an unusually organic, city building viewed via Google Earth; the aerial Earth image was rather distorted and fuzzy, with visual information missing; this has been translated into the drawing. The imprecise nature of the Earth image encouraged me to improvise and transform the structure into something entirely new and quite surreal.

Collage & Texture Mapping

Tale from the City (1 minute) continues my interest in how collage may be reconsidered in light of digital media’, using 3D modelling to build upon approaches within my large format digital prints to create 3D sculptural assemblages that are rotate-able in the space behind the monitor screen.

The models used in the video and their many different facets use a technique called ‘texture mapping’  where visuals may be  pinned to the surface of the models. For texturing, I used mainly camera-phone photos rapidly shot whilst walking through the city and borrowed online maps, such as Google Earth and Street View.

Although I had been experimenting with texture mapping for some time in previous works, for this work I reconsidered the different facets and transparent image-surfaces as memory-membranes: Forming a kaleidoscope of continually altering visuals that recall the city in a tumbling stream-of-consciousness.

©Sandra Crisp - Some of the phone photos and collaged online visuals used to texture map the models.

©Sandra Crisp – Some camera-phone photos and collaged online visuals used to texture map the models.

The City Scene 1

The video begins with the camera rapidly descending into a cluster of multi-coloured models depicting a futuristic and anonymous looking city space; this could be many 21st Century city spaces but the scene is actually based upon Canary Wharf, London.

I used  Google Street View maps of the area to construct the models, the flattened perspective of the aerial maps acting as a guide to trace out and elevate the various rectangular structures. The tower block surfaces are textured mapped with Street View images of nearby much older residential Poplar housing estate that exists in the shadow of these wind-swept, glass and steel towering structures; highlighting the shift between old and new development existing cheek-by-jowl in the city.

©Sandra Crisp - Screen grabs from scene 1 showing visuals of a nearby housing estate captured via Street View, used to texture map the main central tower block.

©Sandra Crisp – Screen grabs from scene 1: Visuals of a housing estate near to Canary Wharf, captured via Street View’s cameras, are used to texture map the main central tower block building and surrounding structures.

Then, as the scene proceeds, a small rectangular graphic in rapid motion positioned in the bottom left corner of the video frame pops-up and sweeps the viewer into the next contrasting subterranean-like scene.This flickering mini-video depicts Street View in action captured in the moment when the viewer pushes through the virtual streets using a mouse within the browser window.

I am fascinated by  Street View’s illusion of reality that is seductive and convincing until a glitch or error in the the seamless panoptical view occurs by way of a blurred-out road, gap between structures or a mis-matched building; reminding us that this is really a kind of collage put together by code and algorithms.

Glitches: Errors in the usually seamless panoptical view presented by Google Street View; where visual information is mismatched or blurred

Glitches: Errors in the usually seamless panoptical view presented by Google Street View; where visual information is mismatched or blurred

Scene 2 – The Heygate Estate

Work on Tales from the City (1 minute) originally began after a visit to the soon-to- be-demolished Heygate housing estate in Elephant and Castle, Wandsworth, London. The estate was home to more than 3,000 people but only a few of the residents now remain. I spent a sunny afternoon in October 2012 meandering around the estate with it’s striking Brutalist buildings, furniture discarded outdoors, boarded up windows and barricaded elevated walkways all pointing towards the Heygate’s imminent demise.

I expected to find a foreboding place but discovered activities taking place such as Parkour in a clearing beneath a dense canopy of old trees and a lush community garden with it’s own irrigation supply, endless wall paintings saturated the walls.

Overall I was fascinated by the cycle of decay already set in motion due to the relocation of many of the previous tenants.  The photos taken on that day were eventually used in the 2nd scene to texture map the labyrinthine 3D model (see sketchbook drawing 3, above)

At the time of my visit in October 2012, the Elephest festival was also in full flow and various artist’s site-specific installations added an extra layer of interest to the estate; these artworks were also incorporated into the video

©Sandra Crisp - Scene 2 using Heygate photos. Above image show: 1) Articles of clothing attached to a long washing line placed there by one of the artists; marking the estate's entrance 2) Hand-made paper-making underneath the concrete walkways 3) Nadia Berris 'The Last Waltz' performance, where the public danced on the crumbling tarmac of the five-aside football pitch

©Sandra Crisp – Scene 2; incorporating the Heygate photos.
Left to Right – Frame 1) Articles of clothing pegged to a washing line straddling the entrance to the estate
Frame 2) Hand-made paper-making underneath the concrete walkways
Frame 3) Nadia Berris ‘The Last Waltz’ performance; the were invited to dance on the crumbling tarmac of the estate’s five-aside football pitch

Shortly after my visit I discovered Anna Minton’s page-turner Ground Control as an illuminating, impassioned account of contemporary urban gentrification and loss of personal, and psychological space in 21st Century UK cities – A critique of heavily surveilled, squeaky clean and ordered new city spaces  such as Canary Wharf, and Liverpool One.

The book confirmed my own negative perception of over-large oppressive and depersonalised shopping malls that lack the lively/ human cacophony of noise and activity present in the irregular networks of open-air, ground-level city streets. These concepts eventually permeated the video by way of the contrasting upper and lower level spaces in scenes 1 and 2, via  juxtaposition of organic/ geometric forms and austere/ bustling spaces.

Making the Models – SketchUp experiments, process & Low-tech

Tales from the City (1 minute) also results from experimenting with a free 3D modelling program called SketchUp designed so that anyone who is not an expert CAD trained designer may make detailed models of  real-world building or objects.

SU is not able to render such dense high resolution animated frames such as Maya but  I do really enjoy the challenge of co-opting software such as this and adapting it for my own practice. My approach is to avoid using the software in the more usual ways by dispensing of pre-set tools in favour of finding and exploring small corners of the software in which to work: Using a rather go-against-the-grain approach in relation to what the software is supposed to do. In this case using SU to create intuitive, abstract and organic models texture-mapped with collage-based visuals.

Unfamiliarity with new digital process at the start of a project is an advantage as I then avoid the repetitive pitfalls of becoming a technical expert in specific software packages,  therefore my practice remains stubbornly low-tech to keep the focus on experimentation and serendipity.

I have always taken the approach of being consistently perfection-adverse in all chosen media including  previous printmaking where I exploited the unpredictability of chemical lithography or etching to alter and layer found photographic imagery.

Of course, the drawback to taking such a fly- into-the-unknown software approach is that it can take a long time to find that relevant small corner and along the way, many rejected test pieces occur that remain unseen! Concepts tend to arise as projects progress via ‘thinking through process’ rather than starting at any precise starting point; although I do frequently revisit themes such as the urban environment or today’s media saturation.

SU, originally owned by Google then Trimble, encouraged model production by the public in order to populate Google maps in the  form of crowd sourcing: This is indeed a pretty clever way for Google to populate their online map apps for free

Google held a yearly “Model Your Town” competition. These promotions certainly have added to the amount of 3D data in Google Earth, but the world is a big place and it would likely take centuries of such projects before the data was collected in one country, let alone the world.

As a result of the past connection to Google, the current version of SU still has a very useful tool via a pop-up window that can connect with and download images directly from Street View without leaving the actual program window; a feature that I used to directly grab Earth visuals and attach them to the surfaces of models.

Creating a Model

SU is really quite user-friendly even for beginners to make basic geometric models onscreen, facets can be grabbed and extruded using a ‘push/pull’ tool (See handy diagram below)

©Sandra Crisp Using SketchUp's  'Push/Pull' tool to elevate and transform flat surfaces into 3D objects. This model, which appearsd in final scene 2 ( see top left hand corner of the diagram) is based on **Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion world map projection.

©Sandra Crisp Using SketchUp’s  ‘Push/Pull’ tool to elevate and transform flat surfaces into 3D objects.
This model appears right at the end of the video in scene 3  (see top left hand corner of the diagram) and is based on **Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion world map projection.

Eventually I found a way to sketch out more fluid line drawings using a graphics tablet on screen and then extrude and elevate the lines  into forms that were much more organic and unpredictable.

As I progressed with model making and texture-mapping I discovered that a camera could be ‘taken for a walk’ around these virtual models to form an animated sequence viewable in SU. Finally discovering that these sequences could be exported to Quick Time and worked on in video editing software to produce the final video.

I always start new work in the same position of  anxiety thinking that I should know exactly where I am going. However, aside from vague starting points and intentions on the peripheries of mind, I never do; work has to evolve gradually through process resulting in a convergence of many different elements over time.

By shifting visuals from physical reality ‘out there’ (in the form of the Heygate photos for example) into digital space and transforming online Street View maps, and drawings of Google Earth into digital models: I am interested in exploring how digital tools may be used to filter reality through memory and the imagination, and how these new online spaces are continually forming new realities.



*Texture mapping is a method for adding detail, surface texture (a bitmap or raster image), or color to a computer-generated graphic or 3D model.’

**Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion map projection on Wikipedia

Many of my camera  phone photos taken at the Heygate can be found on a previous post HERE

View Tales From the City (1 minute) HERE

External Links

Southwark Notes Whose Regeneration? blog by Southwark residents about the Heygate estate development and imminent demolition.

Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first-century City by Anna Minton, on the Book Depository


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