Florian Witzel: An Inspiring Contemporary Digital Artist

A single particle transforms itself into a series of complex organic shapes. A visualization program from an mp3 player leads to an idea that becomes a film that stretches time. A desolate landscape filled with frost-covered trees becomes a series of lonely still images that show the beauty and power of nature in winter.

Each of these descriptions represent projects created by the artist Florian Witzel. A lean, soft-spoken man in his late twenties, I had the pleasure of meeting Florian at the recent SIGGRAPH 2009 in New Orleans. I had come across his remarkable title sequence (“Vestige”) for the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival (the single particle that evolves) while doing a lot of research on SIGGRAPH. I found his marvelous self-created website and contacted him out of the blue for an interview. To my surprise, he responded positively. He made time in his busy schedule (he was presenting at the Autodesk booth) and we found a relatively quiet spot where I had a chance to ask him about himself and his work.

 


Florian Witzel at SIGGRAPH 2009

 

“I think when you work on a production pipeline you also feel a lot of pressure and sometimes you have to do things that you thought you'll never be able to do, but you know you have to do them. And you are surprised that it actually worked out in the end”
-Florian Witzel

Florian Witzel currently works for the effects house, Psyop, in Manhattan where he is the “Technical Director for Rendering and Lighting” (his official title). But, as Florian tells me, everyone works together and jobs get shared in the fever of getting a project done on the clients timetable. Florian grew up in Germany where he studied Media Design at the GSO University before going to Australia to study Film at Bond University. When I told him I thought that Australia was quite a change from Germany, he replied that the change helped him prepare for his professional work. He learned a lot about narrative film, scriptwriting and directing there which has carried over into his professional and personal work. His studies eventually led him to Psyop in 2004.

It's apparent in conversation that Florian is a very bright person who, as he says “tries to do what every artist does; observe nature and try to paint it on a piece of paper. We use a computer now and have a lot more advanced tools.” Dressed simply, but with a trace of elegance, Florian uses his hands to gesture slowly when trying to make a point. It's obvious this man is an artist. You can see it in his eyes and in every word he speaks.

Hesitant at first, Florian warms to the discussion of his remarkable title sequence for SIGGRAPH's Computer Animation Festival. I watched the piece on his website in large format and thought it superb, but it's nothing compared to the huge digital screen at SIGGRAPH where the movement of the forms became almost like watching evolution flash before you. He spoke of the technical challenge of creating the look he imagined in his mind. He wanted to mimic an “infra red” look, but with different colors so that even though natural shapes were animating, they would appear strange. On screen the shift from undersea to the infra-white forest is just...stunning. Like something from Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy, but without the monsters. No wonder SIGGRAPH chose this piece to back the opening titles of the Animation Festival.

 


Frame Capture from Florian's SIGGRAPH 2009 title sequence
(click on the picture to view in the Renderosity Video Center)

 

Before I met Florian, it seemed to me that much of his personal work was in sharp contrast to his professional work at Psyop. But after learning that he brings the same creative focus to both types of work, I've changed my mind; it's not Florian who's different, it's the style of work. I asked Florian about this and he felt that the work was much more result oriented when he works for a client. It's clear what needs to be done, it's just a matter of figuring out how to do it by a certain deadline. So, in a sense it's not as messy as his own personal work which can take a long time to gestate and may not even look like the project he had originally imagined.

His live-action film “Fall of Antioch” is a perfect example of this type of personal work. Begun from watching dots in a visualization program on his mp3 player, he initially imagined the film as “particles falling from the sky,” but since it started as a student project he was forced to include a narrative element, and the young woman and the car came into his head. “We mixed these two ideas together; the narrative of the last second of somebody's life with the idea of little particles dropping down.” And the result is a poetic film with a shock ending, much like the film version of Ambrose Bierce's “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge.” By the way, there's a great “Making of” video at his website.

 


Screen capture from "Fall of Antioch"
(click on the picture to view in the Renderosity Video Center)

 

We spoke of some of Florian's influences and it turns out that he is a big admirer of the painter William Turner. He is also a big music fan (currently listening to “The Knife”) and has a wide musical taste from classical to electronic. Anime films like “Ghost in the Shell” and “Princess Mononoke” (a personal favorite) are strong influences as well. Oddly, he hasn't read a lot of graphic novels though.

Florian doesn't have a particular favorite among the 3D software programs, although he does use a lot of XSI and After Effects. He likes to use whatever tool works for the particular job he's working on, which tells me he's probably a quick study for software applications (something I wish he'd teach me how to be). When I asked him about his very cool website, he told me he used a content management system called Indexhibit, which allowed him to set up his media easily and creatively. He had to learn some CSS to get it to look the way he wanted it to. I just love the sparseness of the site and the way the media is so easy to get to. The animation of birds (which seem to be a recurring theme in his work) is something he added from artbeats, I think it was. Anyway, take a look as Indexhibit is free and well documented.

 


Florian's website front page

 

Future projects for Florian include an adaptation of a Kafka short story “The Emperors Last Message” and a collaborative music video with an Italian musician whom he discovered playing on the speakers at an airport music store. When he asked about the music, the clerk told him he was friends with the musician and put him in touch. A bit of serendipity that I think Florian encourages. In fact, he told me that one of the reasons for his website is to find people to collaborate with. Something that doesn't surprise me, considering how open and honest a person he was in our conversation.

I think Florian Witzel is the best kind of new digital artist because he's able to combine two separate worlds of work, the office and studio, in such a way that they aren't really in conflict with each other. Besides, he's too busy taking pictures of frozen German farmland and dreaming up new ideas to film to care what location he works in. While I prefer his more hand-crafted personal projects (like the mentioned series of photographs at his website), his pro work is simply wonderful.

 


Winter in Germany, from Florians' Photos at his website

 

In the end, the real measure of someone's value of an artist may not just be their own work, but that they inspire others to create. And after talking to Florian in a noisy hallway, I am inspired by him and his work.

Thank you, Florian.

Notes:

The full audio of our conversation can be listened to here (apologies for some of the noise).

My thanks to Florian for being so kind to a complete stranger. Perhaps one day we will collaborate with each other on something.

I urge you to spend time at Florian's website and his Vimeo film collection as well. Most of the films are down-loadable. Plus, he has created some imaginative “Making of” videos especially for “Fall of Antioch.” Autodesk has a nice video of Florian's presentation at their SIGGRAPH booth on the “Milk” commercial he helped create at Psyop.




 


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
October 12, 2009

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