Interview: Nick Thornton Jones, Warren Du Preez & UVA

published on 25 March 2004

Image-makers Nick Thornton Jones and Warren Du Preez, and Matt Clark of creative collective UVA, speak about their collaboration with designer Hamish Morrow with Magda Keaney.

Image-makers Nick Thornton Jones and Warren Du Preez, and Matt Clark of creative collective UVA, speak about their collaboration with designer Hamish Morrow with Magda Keaney.

Magda Keaney: Before we start talking about how you collaborated on the film I wondered if you could say how you work individually. How would you describe what you do to someone who didn't know much about fashion or photography or image making?

Matt Clark (UVA): UVA is a collective currently of three people, myself, (Artistic Director), Chris Bird, (Technical Director), and Ash Nehru, (software designer). We specialise in visual content creation for live performance, integrating bespoke software development for each project. Each project is taken on its own merits and necessarily they are very different and require a subtly different blend of our skills.

Warren Du Preez: The parameters of the jobs we all take on define our roles. We strive to communicate. Individually and as a collective we have one foot in the art world and one foot in the world of commerce, in order to survive and persevere. To pursue personal passion and desire, which is to express yourself. 'Art' is a strange term but it's something that drives us.

Nick Thornton Jones: I think what drives us is a search to look for something which we necessarily haven't discovered before. What makes us buzz is collaborations with people like Matt, where we can create a project on a level that hasn't been tackled before. These are all things which drive us and give us roles within a project. It's very hard to define. I think the day we define it will be when it implodes because by keeping it flexible - we call it freeform - within a raw process, it allows us to manipulate anything. That way we're not pinned down. We work with fashion clients, artistic clients, and commercial clients. We are lucky enough to be able to work them in an interesting way, not necessarily within a formula. I suppose what we stand for is lack of formula.

MK: What was the impetus for the project? Obviously, there was Hamish Morrow's fashion collection (Spring/Summer 2003), which is essentially the subject of the film. Was that the starting point and how did you come together to work on the project?

WDP: We work with Hamish out of a love and respect for his creativity. So, on Hamish's project, because we've art directed his show. It gives us a lot of pleasure. We had met Matt and Ash and Chris (UVA) through the Massive Attack collaboration.

NTJ: Matt comes from an art direction background, so it was very easy for us all to work together. It was very important to create a piece that was derived from the collection. It had to have some understanding, meaning and thought process. So I suppose we started it three or four months before the show. Most shows happen very quickly. We decided to force ourselves to start understanding the collection from the earliest point of its inception. The collection was roughly based on sailing and sail technology - if you were to strip away the collection you would be left with the contours and shapes of a sailing ship. The sail, the ropes - anything nautical.

WDP: It's quite graphic. A fashion designer picking up on an abstract graphic inspiration; in this case sailing gear and all the paraphernalia and technology attached to it. Hamish calls it techno luxe, a design somewhere between luxury and technology, which has been formed by a science. We were interested in how you move a vessel in the ocean; how the wind hits the sails and that kind of stuff.

NTJ: That was the beginning. And we had to work side by side with him. We had to be thinking about all of the parts of the show: 'lets explain the emotion of wind', 'lets explain the fluidity of water'. But once you understand that the show is for fourteen minutes, you realize that can only do so much. Sometimes it's good to have one idea as opposed to four all-singing-all-dancing ideas.

MC: You soon realize that the wind and water are quite obvious ideas. We took the inspiration from the patterns for the dresses, which were deconstructed geometric shapes from the sails. We were interested in this project for two reasons really. Firstly, we mainly work in the music industry with bands, which we love doing. Music is our passion. It drives us but this project opened up a whole new arena for us, not only to expand into the world of fashion but it was something different and that was quite exciting. It was also for a short moment rather than working on a music show that might last two hours. That was a challenge. So probably the biggest reason was creative freedom and the fact that Warren, Nick and Hamish were prepared to take a risk and do a live event with us. What we enjoy doing most is live performance, actually manipulating images, processing data in real time. You take big risks and are always thinking 'will it work? Is it going to look good?' You don't know until the moment it actually happens.

NTJ: Ultimately it came down to the graphic interpretation. What could initially be considered as quite literal but ultimately, with motion, became quite poetic from simple graphic shape and form.

WDP: We used references from some old graphic work that we had explored in the past as a beginning point to create a language, which we then gave to Matt. He took that with Ash and used that as a premise, a grid to evolve that process further to create a language that was used, a code that was written.

MK: I'd like to you to try and explain what your roles were and how the video was made.

MC: We decided we wanted to do something live and something special so we came up with the idea that we would position cameras facing the catwalk, which would capture images of the models walking down the catwalk. We had two cameras with projectors either side. When the models walked down the catwalk the cameras would project a moving digital silhouette onto the back wall. That silhouette was a graphic interpretation, even though it was the footage of the model we put it through a filter, which was art directed by myself, Warren and Nick. The look of that could be manipulated in real time using computer code.

MK: What do you mean it was put though a filter?

NTJ: It's basically a piece of computer programming. Say you went into Photoshop and wanted to make your image 'fuzzy' you'd go to the 'fuzzy' filter.

MC: Ash, who writes computer code to generate our own software treatment, came up with some code that allowed you to process the image of the models in real time and you could modulate that image live so you could deconstruct it all in a similar vein to nautical patterns.

WDP: It's a process of synthesis. To break it down, it's like an analogue synthesizer. If you put a noise in and manipulate it, it alters the noise. We applied it as a visual process, as opposed to an audio process. The reason I'm so anti the word 'filter' is that filters are the cheapest tricks used in today's visual communication. There is a real cheapness to it that I don't believe belongs to this project. What Matt, Ash and Chris create is a customised application; they write code for each project. The point I'm trying to make and what these guys is doing is that through communication, discussion, art direction and collaboration, you inspire yourself to write and challenge yourself to create something. This is an embodiment of what you set as a parameter or the creative art direction that you've laid down.

MK: One thing that really struck me about being really significant to the film in the music and I was wondering how you came up with that?

WDP: That was a guy called Michel Gaubert. He is an old-school French DJ. He's very submerged in the fashion world. He does music for a lot of shows. He puts together the Colette compilations.

NTJ: Michele Gaubert is 'Mr. Fashion Music' in Paris.

MK: Was the music written before the show or was there a live performance aspect to that too?

NTJ: It came very quickly to the show but it was abstract enough that you could pulse to it live, visually. And then it was re-cut to the piece afterwards so the show music was very similar but it was different. It was more organic; they were mixing it live.

WDP: Michel's done Hamish's shows for the last couple of years. Hamish is quite an aficionado on music, especially electronica, and Michel is an aficionado of electronic French music. It's what inspires them both. Their reference points are quite similar.

In a show there is something spontaneous and slightly edgy. We didn't want to lose the pace.

MK: So the music is fundamental to the finished piece. Was it there from the beginning?

WDP: Michel was also involved from the beginning.

NTJ: We actually went into a studio and did a whole session working with captured stills. We experimented with the various speeds, the look of what we were going to try on and from that very small couple of seconds, and the piece was created. We sent it to Michel so he had an understanding of how abstract he could go with the piece.

Obviously, the piece he created was relative to Hamish's show but because of the organic nature of the actual final graphic treatment. It meant he could be looser with his sounds because the visuals and the sounds could make sense to each other. They didn't necessarily have to be correct all the way along.

MC: And because of the way you can manipulate the graphic treatment in real time and use midi controllers, it allows you to modulate all sorts of parameters - size, shape and speed- and you're playing a kind of visual musical instrument live. You can feel the intensity of the music.
I think what struck me when I saw the film for the first time was that the images were being 'mixed' in a similar way a DJ would mix music. Then I found out there was a term for that: 'VJ'. We get called that all the time and I hate it.

NTJ: I suppose where it stops become 'VJ-ing' is when you are creating and not just manipulating. The piece is for the moment. You don't necessarily see the undercurrents but they are all there and that's why this project is validated as being something quite special to us and to Hamish. The reason the SHOWstudio guys wanted to do it was that it was something different from a fashion show that was unique and being output live. The movie's one thing, but to see it live... To see a girl walking down the catwalk followed by her projected graphic shadow is amazing. To us, it meant something.

MK: So the live aspect was of primary important to the whole project and film that was made subsequently?

WDP: That was the premise of the whole treatment. Live out on SHOWstudio, live as in it would be filmed and a split second later there was this code coming out which was following the girl. I think revolutionary on one level and only upheld in that moment, if you were in the audience. I think as everyone has said, the movie is a fraction of what being live was actually about. But it still doesn't take away the fact that the movie is special.

NTJ: It's hard to see in the movie but what the live event ended with was four blank canvases that Hamish created for us. So four of his outfits had no pattern, no texture, they were nude - well almost - they were white. The finalé was to retranslate some of the film footage and send it back onto the girls and hence a virtual print was made onto the dress of the changing graphics. For Hamish to take all that reinterpretation, all that energy, and then bring it back into a selection of garments made us feel like we weren't just visually entertaining people, separately. He actually respected and engaged with what we were doing.

MC: That was one of the first ideas, to do virtual garments. It wasn't just a gimmick, it was a work-in process. Also it's a progression from a traditional catwalk presentation. It's pushing that further too. I haven't been to many fashion shows so it was refreshing for us (UVA) to go in headfirst and bring out elements of what we might do for a band; the philosophy of doing stuff live in the fashion arena.

NTJ: It's all about those 15 minutes.

MK: How much work was done post-production and what kind of work? I think the final film is more than a record of the live show. Do you agree?

NTJ: We made the film to try and encapsulate a moment, to keep that feeling and the concept of the catwalk show, that fifteen minutes condensed. In a show there is something spontaneous and slightly edgy. We didn't want to lose the pace, the irregularity of how those girls walk terribly. That is an underlying factor to it.

MC: The process was to try and re-create what happened in the show but obviously when you're in a live arena. We started more abstract so people just thought it was these beautiful patterns, which then formed more realistic interpretations. Then people realised that this was a virtual image, being processed in real time. To make a film for the Internet wouldn't stand in the same way for various reasons, we had to address it differently. But it was important that we didn't use traditional tools. We actually used the code that we'd written to manipulate in real time so you got an essence of what happened.

WDP: I think the driving essence behind any motion picture piece, especially abstract, has to be the music. So that played the biggest starting point for the edit because whether you like it or not it drives you visually because you are moved by it.

MC: We waited till the music was finished. We cut to the music as the defining factor.

WDP: It was probably a combination of the music and what Hamish had to say. A premise based around abstraction, to some form of clarity, and back to abstraction. It was a journey from start to finish but it was connected back to the show and retained some form of discipline.

MC: It is quite a challenge to make a model walking down a catwalk interesting. What we (UVA) find when we do stuff in a live arena, (is that) we are designing stuff specifically for a medium that is going to be projected, or going to be a LED wall. Sometimes the graphics alone just don't stand up. They have to be in the environment, so it is interesting that this carries off.

MK: Because you're removing from the site-specific location that was initially created for?

MC: Yes. Exactly.

NTJ: But it still held its ground.

MK: I'm really interested in the point you made about moving from abstract form, colour and light to figuration.

WDP: We are all fascinated with levels of abstraction and clarity. It's a constant duality or sort of boxing match- the perseverance with that which is concrete and conscious and that which is subconscious and non-concrete.

NTJ: Distorting one's perception and then letting someone figure it out over time or never figuring it out. It was quite magical to see people understand that what they were seeing was actually a projection of the girls walking.

MC: We were fascinated by the images and patterns that were on the garments that Hamish had designed. Once we deconstructed the live image to an abstract form we had a synergy with the patterns that appeared on the dresses.

MK: So that part of the film is something that came out of the live show that you couldn't have predicted?

MC: Yes, the way a light shines on a model's face will make an abstract pattern react in a certain way. The art of it was trying to control the randomness to a level that complemented Hamish's direction for his show. That's what we deal with all the time, trying to control randomness. It isn't easy but there is a beauty in it.

NTJ: That's the difference between a filter and an applied treatment because usually with an applied treatment you lose the sense of the organic. An organic feel to something will always hit harder than anything that is contrived because it hits your subconscious. That's when people grab at it because they know it is real. It's not something they've been told to believe. To not go too techno with it and to be more organic about how you interpret the future is the way you avoid it feeling gimmicky.

Interview by:
Magda Keaney
Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, UVA (Matt Clark)



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