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Futuristic Portals to the Stars: Artist Akiko Yamashita Has Range

Akiko Yamashita is a Japanese artist best known for projection mapping and light installations. She currently works with VT Pro Design, a full service creative design studio known for its innovative work for major technology and entertainment companies. We recently talked to Akiko about her inventive use of TouchDesigner on a broad range of projects and collaborations. Thanks for taking the time Aki, and to our readers enjoy!

Derivative: Can you give us a short history of life before TouchDesigner?

Akiko Yamshita: Before I discovered TouchDesigner, I was doing VJing and projection mapping with Maya, After Effects and Resolume.

D: How did you discover TouchDesigner and how did you think it could be useful?

AY: A couple of people in Mapjacks, a projection mapping artist collective I started, were using TouchDesigner. I saw they were doing audio reactive visuals or projection mapping with 3D models. I was also looking for a software I could use Kinect with as well. 'TouchDesigner can do anything!' that was my first impression.

D: Did it affect your future work? — Or, how does TouchDesigner fit into or extend your other tools and workflow? Did it add creative potential?

AY: Definitely. Especially the interactivity and 3D part was a game-changer. My workflow before TouchDesigner was render animation and playback with preset effects but now I prefer to do real time rendering and create my own system tailored for each project.

ANDREA BENINI "Drumphilia - Vol. 1" 'El Guerrero' Promo

D: You have a lot of "range" in your work and capabilities but what interests you as a visual artist and how do you pick your personal projects?

AY: I am interested in art, fashion, nature, architecture and music. Personal projects are to explore myself as an artist without any boundaries. Often it's for R&D purposes too. For example, with the video I made for Drumphilia Vol.1, I had wanted to use TouchDesigner and Ableton to recreate a drum machine animation, and I wanted to learn how to use Substance Painter.

D: There can be a perceived learning curve with TouchDesigner. How did you learn and what advice would you give people starting out in TouchDesigner who don't have experience with a procedural workflow?

AY: I was lucky to have some highly accomplished mentors. I learned a lot from watching people like Jarrett Smith of Derivative, Matt Wachter, and Jeff Smith who I have worked with at VT Pro Design.

I think the best way to learn TouchDesigner is start from what you are interested in, either if it's rendering 2D or 3D images, working with audio analysis, coding or programming etc. The beauty of TouchDesigner is that you can do so much, and you don't have to know everything. Finding motivation is key.

And check out tutorials all the out there. Also utilize the forum. From there, you have to find new ways of making your vision become reality.

Into the Light

D: How did "Into the Light" come about and how did you end up making that piece? Did you also create the space for the installation or work with certain parameters?

AY: Kate Parsons, a stunning video artist and educator at FLOAT referred me to the producers of Kaleidoscope 5, an exhibition for UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital charity that honored Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexandra and Sean Parker. I was thrilled to show my work with other internationally known artists that included James Turrell.

Currently being based in Los Angeles, the Light and Space movement has a significant influence on my works. Into the Light was placed right after the entryway, the first artwork that welcomed guests to the special exhibition. I did the structural design and LED animation and mapping with TouchDesigner. It was produced by VT Pro Design where I work.

I created 16 animation sequences inspired by the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text. The structure itself is inspired by numbers in music. I Ching is a hexagram that goes up to 64 and I animated connected lines and broken lines inspired by the first 16. I created my own sets of rules for connected lines and broken lines, applied colors depending on what kind of feeling I got from the pattern that came out. As a result, the negative space starts to look like life-size windows or doorways. I like how 'calming' the animation became, not everything needs to be flashy.

The unique aspect of the artwork was that people could go through the forced perspective tunnel, being lit with colors that were changing over time. A lot of celebrities enjoyed having their photographs taken in the light tunnel as if like it was a futuristic red carpet.

D: Portal is different than "Into the Light" but again you're working with a passage or tunnel... Is that a coincidence or is there something about the form-factor?

AY: Portal is a light hallway I designed and animated that was commissioned to light up an existing dark corridor and make it "pop" to catch the attention of pedestrians. It has received a Silver A'Design Award in lighting design. I modelled the building and came up with the design which is a line that wraps around the whole surface of the hallway creating a spiral.

There is something I really like about the tunnel. It is in a way a 360 environment with directionality in its character. We feel excitement going through a passage that takes you to somewhere else that you are about to discover. The reason why I love creating immersive art is that it is more interesting for me to design lighting for dimensional space rather than a flat screen.

Also as a former dancer, I am definitely interested in setting up a stage - space for people to be immersed in lights. I think lighting is not only for a dancer or actors on a stage, but everybody should be able to feel like that magic on the stage forgetting everyday nonsense that may not be so important. Naturally my works end up making people dance, sing and express their own creativity.

D: You collaborate quite a lot -with artist/architect Mike Nesbit for example and have worked with USC students at the Getty Unshuttered. What attracts you to collaboration and teaching/leading?

AY: Often people come to me looking for projection mapping and animation. The passion project with fine artist and architect Mike Nesbit was fantastic! As a part of One-Night Stand LA, a non-profit event and publication project by a group of emerging architects and artists, we transformed a motel room into a projection mapping and VR installation with sound designed by Boris Griggs.

I used CamSchnappr to project onto every piece of furniture and details of room thanks to the precise 3D geometry modelled by Mike. All the animation was done procedurally in TouchDesigner, one of our favorite looks was the Banana! It was also when the Oculus Rift just came out, so we added VR where you are in the same room in the virtual version. Our immersive room exhibit had the longest line to get in.

D: Tell us a little bit more about the Getty Museum project - the experience and process. There were a lot of 'parts' scanning, mapping, creating animations, mentoring…

AY: Getty Unshuttered, an outdoor experience at the Getty Center Museum, was a great collaboration with director Mike Patterson and USC School of Cinematic Arts. Mike approached VT Pro Design to make sure that everything looked great for the projects, and for me to mentor the students in projection mapping. I led the team to create a projection mapping show for 14 buildings.

Most of the buildings required simple corner pinning, though there were two that were technically challenging. Rotunda, one of the main buildings at the event, has a curved surface which is not easy to align the projected image with. I created a 3D model in advance providing an animation template for the animators and directed artists to make effective graphics for the surface.

I also animated blocks of the Rotunda entirely in TouchDesigner via instancing with multiple lighting setups and PBR materials, as well as organic motion from the noise with filter applied to change the scale of the blocks.

For the mapping I combined 3D mapping (CamShnappr) and 2D image warping (Stoner) to align the projected imagery. When the virtual building aligned perfectly to the building it was something really satisfying for the eye.

Another difficult location was the rock water fountain at the Getty. For this I did photogrammetry, creating a 3D model with 74 photographs we shot. The rock geometry came out very detailed, after some cleanup, I created an animation template with camera setup. Cameras were positioned exactly where the two projectors were placed, and I calculated the projector lens in advance with Mapping Matter which is a very useful tool for projector studies.

For this CamShnappr worked out great too and I managed to blend two projectors seamlessly. I used various types and projection axis of Texture SOP to apply 2D animation to a 3D model. I also made procedural animation in TouchDesigner and made pre-rendered 3D reaction diffusion using Houdini.

The event involved an interactive part and I brought TouchDesigner and Kinect expert Will Michaelson a.k.a CutMod to lead the students. After the event, our team received warm comments from Erik Bertellotti, Exec. Producer, Digital Media at J. Paul Getty Museum, saying "Wow. Honestly, what else can we say? It was an incredible night thanks to your talent, sweat, and dedication to this crazy endeavor. You blew past all our expectations, entranced 2000+ people, young and old, museum lover or not. Every person I spoke to was amazed and surprised by the spectacle and stories…"

D: VT Pro Design has created several installations for Google, tell us about one of your favorite projects for them?

AY: Yes we have done a lot of projects for Google at VT Pro Design. I enjoyed doing art direction for Google Home Max booth that was first installed at Coachella's artist area and then at Google I/O. It was a massive speaker from the exterior, inside were LED video walls with iridescent laser cut acrylic layers of panels.

The experience starts with a tuning sequence then you can ask "Hey Google, Play ...'x song" to play any song streaming from YouTube. We needed to create an audio-reactive animation for this and I directed the talented artist Shuvo Das and more. Shuvo's GLSL shaders were a highlight of the booth, we created particles and water ripple scenes reacting to sound.

I also created a minimal look to react to voice when requesting songs where simple bold shapes cascade out from the center behind the speaker, perceived in a spectrum of colors through the dichroic panels. I can't imagine making an installation like this without TouchDesigner. Matt Wachter made it communicate with Google Assistant, creating a system that runs the whole sequence. The booth was featured in press articles such as Engadget, Digital Trends, Ad Week and ZDNet.

D: And since it's a very fun project and well, George Clooney, what is Casamigos photobooth about?!

AY: It was a video booth for Casamigo's Halloween party and guests were able to choose different themes that get live-composited with pre-filmed George Clooney and Rande Gerber with background made by Jordan Halsey, entirely in TouchDesigner.

I made interactive effects and a user interface to control the photobooth system on a tablet to facilitate manipulation of the themes, and to allow guests to email themselves copies of their videos. The A-list guests were captivated and fully immersed in the live compositing display. There were celebrities lining up to experience the booth, with many returning to experience the different themes.

D: What excites you right now in the AV world, other artists, techniques, forms, technology etc?!

AY: I've been seeing GLSL shaders doing a lot of amazing things. Vincent Houzé's works always blows my mind. I also love WhiteVOID's works. New technology-wise, recently I checked out Lightform by Phil Reyneri. I am so excited that it enables more people to create projection mapping!

D: Is there something you really REALLY want to make or learn?

AY: As a side project, I made a special lamp I named Supersymmetry. It's a light art that makes a beautiful spectrum of colors mixed with each other. This one is not yet animated, but I'm very excited to make this concept with animated lights controlled with TouchDesigner I hope to create a series of light installations for museums and galleries.

D: If you could design your own TouchDesigner operator what would it be?

AY: Prism TOP - Refraction in real time… ?!

Sounds good! Follow Akiko on Instagram @akikoyamashita3d