Author Archives: Kat Carlsen

Conference Project Post-Mortem: Cloudbirth

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When I signed up to take this course, I knew that I ultimately wanted to learn digital art skills that could pair with the electronic music that has been my primary artistic practice for the last couple of years. Since the theme of the class is “club visuals,” the idea to make visuals that could be projected behind me during a live performance was an obvious choice of project, and perfect for the type of music I make. Being new to digital art, I had no idea how the project would shape until I started using Photoshop and After Effects and learning what was possible. Early in the semester, I was drawn to psychedelic imagery and color palettes and thought my conference visuals might be psychedelic, and incorporate fractals and kaleidoscopes. As I worked in After Effects though, I began to think more critically about abstract shapes acting as characters, and how to build narrative that develops formally. My work shifted away from executing very literal and categorizable ideas like psychedelic imagery, and opened up to more experimentation with how the expression of color, shape, and motion can set a mood and build a work’s personality. When it was time to make my conference piece, I decided the best course of action would be to build a framework guided by the tone of the music to set the mood, and then fill in the narrative with different shape characters that I could develop formally, calling upon all the techniques that we worked on in class. The piece I used is an ambient interlude piece called “Cloudbirth Interlude,” and so the project became the three minute long video, “Cloudbirth,” an ambient visual piece for the music of “Cloudbirth Interlude.”

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The piece opens with a dark purple glitter field that connotes outer space as well as elegance, setting the tone for the piece. The piece “Cloudbirth Interlude” comes in with a “glittery” sounding synth patch, and as this sound enters, the title of the piece, Cloudbirth Interlude appears in an elegant red font over the glitter field. From here, the piece launches into glittery fractals that move across the screen as the music expands. At first, I was almost afraid to use fractals, because of their potential to limit the space and ideas of the piece, but in using them so simply and overtly, as well as in pairing them with the glitter field, I felt satisfied that I was not leaning too hard into the trope of a “fractal space.” The main character of the piece is what I grew to refer to as “the ovules,” which are gray ovular elements that appear in the space and slowly move around. In my first draft of this piece, they had a lot of motion, partially because I was afraid of them becoming stale if they weren’t very active. However, as I edited the piece, I realized the power in the ovules moving slowly, and on their own conditions, even if it felt slower than I thought I “should” have an element move, to keep the piece dynamic. They move around a bit and then rise up, as the next element, red stars are introduced to the piece.

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In keeping with the space theme, my other important character in this piece is the red star, that flashes up from the fractal field and out toward the screen. This happens for a few minutes before a particle rain comes down and the screen strobes with a red “light” that eventually takes over and becomes the new backdrop. Here, our ovule friend can return, alone this time, and express other ambient sentiments, like rippling, and slowly changing from grey to blue to purple, and slowly swelling — though not without returning to its original form just before its departure. This final section of the piece is one of my favourites because of the “eye,” formed from ovals flashing and shaking. At this point in the video, it is almost the end, but all the elements from the fractal world have found a new iteration to take on, unified by their connection to their original identities, as well as to a unifying color palette, and the grounding of the ovule’s return. As the music comes to a close, this scene “strobes out” and flashes back to the glitter field, which serves to bookend the piece, but also to be functional if I wanted to loop the piece during a live performance.

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I found the project to be largely successful, considering its intended purpose. While previous work of mine in the class sometimes had a lack of motion that made imagery too stagnant, the nature of this piece was such that motion could be slower and simpler, and my lack of rapid perpetual motion worked as a stylistic choice. In its first draft phase, I felt the need to move the ovule characters, and they ended up taking on a “cuteness” that did not serve the piece. I think the edits I made helped the characters to be confident in their slow pace, and remain true to their identities within the space. That being said, adapting to making a piece that could serve a slightly different purpose that just a video work and allowing the slow pace to live itself out was a challenge, and I think there are still places where the video would benefit from being slowed down even more. One of those places that really sticks out to me is the part where the particle system is spewing from behind the singular ovule. While I love this scene, the particle system is moving too quickly, and I could not figure out the best way to get it to slow down without changing its identity within the space. I guess in this way, the pacing is one of the most successful elements of the piece, but also one of the unsuccessful ones in the places where it did not come across exactly how I wanted, as disruptions in the flow detrimental to this type of piece.

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As I evaluate how this piece relates to my other work, I think it was one of the first works where my voice and style felt liberated to come through. Not just because of the use of my own music but because I felt justified in building a slow, ambient world, and am starting to see my elements execute themselves with confidence in their identities. The mix of purples and blues and reds and greys set a mood that suited the music and the narrative, and while it was a somewhat limited palette, I never felt like I had to hold back or constrain the ways in which I used them. Similarly, the patterns established by the elements were always interconnected, but not too tightly; the stars find their way back into the piece in a vastly different iteration, as do the ovules, and their ovular backdrop. Motion is the element that is probably the most constrained, as it is super simple, but it feels like I am now developing a sense for when and where elements need to move, in relation to the piece, in order to not become stale.

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Cloudbirth is really just a first take on visuals that I could project with my music. Until I actually use these visuals at a show, I will not know exactly what elements need to change and what can continue to be thematic in my work, but as I continue this kind of work, I plan on expanding on each of the moods set by the different scenes, playing with how slow and ambient I can let them be, while still introducing enough motion to make them interesting as a backdrop for live music. The element of the large oval with waving edges that appears in the fractal world would ideally become a kind of bright frame around my body at the live shows, with the particles and stars embellishing without detracting from me as the focal point. This project, and the wrapping up of this class tied together all the technical and conceptual skills we had worked on and forced me to start considering my own voice as a digital artist, now that I have a basic understanding of how to structure animation art. After finishing and reviewing the work I did on Cloudbirth, I feel like I have reached a point where I can start building exciting visual narratives to go with my music and other artistic projects.

Kinetic Text

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For the kinetic text prompt, I decided to animate a poem that I wrote last year, called “free.” Originally, I was going to put this text to my own music since combining my different art forms has always been part of my interest in this class. When I starting sketching out my ideas though, it became apparent to me that a song whose tone fit the piece much better than my own music (maybe because my music is electronic, but jazz is always at my core) is the jazz tune, “Black Narcissus” by Joe Henderson. Since the version I wanted to use is five minutes long, I started out by mapping approximate placement of frames, how long each one would last, and how many there would be, in order to make sure that the text could fill five minutes. It seemed like it would, as long as the text’s pace was relaxed. I wanted a minimalist aesthetic for this project, so it seemed to fit.

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Once I started building the project, I realized how surprisingly long it takes to animate what feels like a short piece of text. This poem is 70 words, which is one of my shortest poems. Once I was in After Effects, it became apparent that 70 words is a lot to keep track of — especially timing-wise, when trying to coordinate animating them in and out. I had gone into it thinking that maybe some words could be in the same text box or layer, but since my vision involved making each word stand on its own, with its own personality and timeline, I realized they each had to be edited in their own layer and every word had to be given more consideration than I had recognized when I began this process. To deal with this, I split my workflow into steps. I made a background layer, and then made a layer for each of the 70 words. Once I imported the music track, I spent a long time listening and relistening to the track and marking where each word would enter and exit, and taking notes on what kind of transition would bring the word in (a fade? an abrupt entry? a dissolve?). It was tricky figuring out how to pace the words so that they suit the flow of the music, but could also still fill out the length of the song, not leaving music or words over at the end. I wanted the words to speak to the music, and since timing is crucial in jazz, the timing of each word’s entry with a cymbal hit or saxophone note was important to me. I based conceptual ideas of timing and flow around what the instrumentalists in the song are doing.

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Once all of my word layers were in their proper time places, I moved on to the next step in my workflow which was to position them all on the screen, in relationship to each other, as well as in relationship to their timing in the overall context of the piece. This piece has a lot of open space which left a lot of room for play. I went through and arranged the words in different configurations, trying to figure out how to place them on the screen in a way that accented the tone. This piece isn’t supposed to look tidy or advertisement-like, so I tried to find a way to place the words randomly, while also still keeping it clean and have it legibly make sense. Once they all had their places in time, I went in and made all the transitions. Most of them are opacity fade-ins/fade-outs that I hand-animated because it felt like the best way to get everything to line up with free-flowing nature of the music. On certain hits, where the instrumentalists all hit a note together, I found it interesting to not use a transition to bring words on, but to abruptly bring the words onto the screen, so that they “snap,” into existence in imitation of the cymbal hits, and then “snap” away in time with the hits as well. I tried to make these kinds of juxtapositions between slow fade-ons and hard snaps, to keep the viewer engaged and feeling the right vibe.

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Once the basic transitions were done, I interspersed a few interesting textural ones where I thought there needed to be a change or motion to keep the piece fresh. I was determined to keep the piece minimal, so I tried to avoid drastic effects, but went more with ones that added a subtle flow or motion change that enhanced the relationship with the music. One in particular, the “Raining Characters Out” effect seemed like it might be too grandiose, but then I ended up liking it and feeling that it really suited what the sax did at that point in the song. I incorporated more of these presets as the song went on, trying to subtly build new visual ideas and reflect what was happening in the story of the text and the music of the song.

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After all of the words had been positioned where they would come in and out, I moved back to thinking about overall composition and what elements I still needed to add. In my original sketches, I had a shift in the tone in the middle of the piece, where the sax solo comes in and the person in the text story is gathering their possessions to leave the place they are. At that point, I had a word scale up, to play with how the viewer was perceiving the space. I also changed some transitions so that the words move into their places via motion paths. I found that a change in the type of motion was effective in breaking up the sameness and keeping the eye engaged, while still remaining authentic to the tone. At this stage in the project I considered other words to scale and other types of motion to bring in to continue building up the engaging details.

In the time that I had to finish this, I was unable to clean up the project and add the other engaging details like more motion and color changes. For me, underestimating the time it would take to complete was the biggest issue with this project. I thought a minimalist poem would not take as long as other work I have done in After Effects (the last prompt was much more maximalist), and I just did not have enough time to stop and edit again or to add the final touches. Other than that, I had few issues, and found it to be fairly easy to come up with and animate my ideas. I plan on editing this piece and trying to incorporate some of my ideas about color, scale, and motion, as well as change the font in a few places and add a trim pat. I hope to experiment a little with how to make a minimalist piece more interesting, hopefully without changing the tone too much.

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Edit: Post-Conference

For my conference work, I decided to keep editing my kinetic text project. After I finished the original draft, I felt that it was still lacking in personality and wanted to introduce color changes and more dramatic effects to make it more interesting to the viewer.  Around 1:30 is where the piece begins to depart from its old identity with a stagnant color theme and very little motion. Here, I start to grow and wiggle the word “gather,” and as I do that, I slowly shift the background color and the word color. I feel like this change breathed a ton of life into the piece. Going through and adding animations to places where the words sat to long and added color shifts not only kept the piece visually interesting but enhanced the narrative journey expressed in the poem. The work now takes the viewer on a visual journey as the character in the story has her own journey. I feel like this enhanced version expresses my poetic sentiment and personality much more and liberated the piece from the flat world where it was trapped before, which makes a lot of sense considering that the title of the piece is “free,” and there should be a sense of freedom in the way the piece travels through its formal elements like color and motion.

Space Oddity

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When we were first given this assignment, I was going to do the song “Life on Mars” by David Bowie, but upon being given “Space Oddity” as the inspiration for the prompt I decided I should choose a song by a different artist, as a way to respond to Bowie with someone other than himself. My choice ended up being “The Handshake” by MGMT, which I chose because it met the length requirement, but also because its sound world is a bit psychedelic, and the lyrics have a poeticism that in some ways speak to the Bowie perspective on life.

Since the setting of “Space Oddity” is outer space, the obvious starting place for this work was the night sky. Originally, I thought the work would follow a narrative storyline where the viewer would “pass through a star” and move linearly into space, but I realized that this type of work – especially when there are fractals involved — lends itself better to a more abstract type of journey. I started making lists of concepts we learned in class and how I could build them into scenes that would respond to the changing cues in the music. Marking up the timeline with post markings right at the beginning of the project was very helpful; these became cues that I referred to throughout the process, from the very beginning until the end.

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My design ideas came easily at first because the music I chose was generative and I was excited to try out my ideas in After Effects. My process began as a dialog between After Effects and my sketchbook, along with some math notes calculating time approximations for scenes and how to make transitions line up with the musical changes. I would come up with a scene that I imagined would fit the music and the narrative, and then try to figure out how I could transition from the previous idea to the new one. Most of what I imagined up front was not difficult to create in After Effects. As the process continued though, ideas became increasingly oriented around what I could make in After Effects, with the sketches being used more as a way to map out technical aspects of what I wanted to build. Sometimes I would end up sketching images, only to realize once I began building them that I would not be able to execute it in the program as easily as I thought.

The black stars were one instance where my vision had to stray from my execution. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to incorporate black stars as a subtle homage to Bowie, so I sketched a few ideas of how I could incorporate stars into some of the scenes I had been building. My sketch helped solidify the concept, but once getting into After Effects, I was faced with difficulty in making many black stars that fell at the rate and motion path that I envisioned. I got them close to how I had pictured, but not quite perfected. The final “downpour” part was where I compromised the most; rather than a downpour of stars falling down at once, I used a repeater and transformed them into a giant chunk. I made the chunk wiggle a bit to decrease its rigidity, but it still took on a character that was much different from my original vision for it, losing its star-ness and becoming more of an abstract shape. While this was a hurdle to overcome, it is also showed me how new artistic ideas can be born in the program.

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The moon was one of the most satisfying elements for me, and it happened as a result of negotiating with After Effects. I had built the opening scene with the starry sky, introduced the big star that is a main character, and then transitioned into the first scene using fractals, where the rainbow fractals are moving rapidly in contrasting motion across the frame. When there is a change in the music, the fractal is “exited,” and the viewer is dumped back into open space, where the sky is black and the stars from the opening scene are still sitting, but dimmer than before. I thought that the scene needed another grounding character, so I built a moon out of shapes. This took way longer than expected, and when I finished, I was really disappointed in the result. I had been hoping to show some moon exploration here, but I found the moon’s character so embarrassing that I decided I needed to quickly abstract it – so I added a keyframe changing it red, and turning its “craters” blue and purple. From here, a new scene was born, where I added a repeater and turned the moon from a literal moon to a colorful shape that expands and contracts, and finally flattens down into a line. This type of play with dimensionality and representation would not have appeared on its own in my imagination, and came of my attempts to reconcile the difficulties I was facing with building images in After Effects. After this scene finishes, it goes back into a scene that I had built in my imagination and sketchbook, where the moon pops back up, and the viewer “enters” a crater, which is another fractal world. I’d like to think that David Bowie would appreciate the moon scene.

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Because of the trajectory my workflow took, the most challenging part of this project was the editing process, and coming up with an ending. I did the bulk of the project very quickly, and through working so intensely with After Effects, my skillset and workflow actually became more advanced from the start of the project to the near finish. This resulted in part of the editing process being my compensating for elements that may have been constructed inefficiently and trying to figure out how to compensate for it, if I even could. Some parts, like the jerky motion path of the moon when it scales up and “comes toward” the viewer, were difficult to troubleshoot because of the way they had been keyframed, and even after fixing them, they are still a little jerkier than I would prefer. Other parts, like keyframes that lined up with sound cues were just tedious to adjust. I found myself sketching out more technical diagrams and listening to cues in the music repeatedly, trying to parse out the correct timing for each transition. Sometimes this led to rethinking whether the scenes I originally conceptualized actually flowed together after all the changes that they underwent – and that I underwent as a designer — during the building process. I think that now, having spent so much time in the program, I would have some more fluid ways of building a few of the elements that I used.

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The only other outstanding issue with this work, for me, was the ending, which feels like it ran out of creative ideas. After all the time I spent working, I felt like I developed some “After Effects Fatigue” where I was up against a creative wall. To finish the video, I ended up using the kaleidoscope effect, and letting it take its time to play out. While the effect is visually pleasing, it doesn’t feel like it lives up to the rest of the creative ideas in the piece, and feels too stagnant. In the moment of creation, it felt like a satisfying idea, but in hindsight, I would have preferred to exit the kaleidoscope world much sooner, and pan back out into the night sky where more active ideas could play out, rather than just fading back into the night sky at the end, which is a much flatter visual idea. Still, being relatively new to After Effects, I feel mostly satisfied with the ideas I came up with and how I was able to fill the time and space of this piece. The biggest takeaway was that the more time I spend in After Effects, the more infinite the possibilities become for creating exciting and technically perfected work. The external inspiration of the music and of David Bowie himself were driving forces that pushed me to see how far I could take my creative ideas and expand my skillset.

Digital Tools: The Art of the GIF


When we first started making animated GIFs in Photoshop, I had no idea what direction I wanted to take mine, but I was excited by the possibility of depicting a short and whimsical narrative, as well as playing with color. This GIF, which I’ve come to refer to as “starbirth,” was an experimentation with both of those concepts. It tells the story of a star that falls through the dark blue sky and out of sight, where it crashes to the ground of a planet. The crash knocks up star debris which billows in bright green and rainbow clouds and then shoots up into the sky, lighting it up with the birth of new stars. I had never made any animated art before, so making this forced me to consider color’s relationship with an evolving narrative.

When the star fell, it was a semi-transparent bright green with a lavender shadow against the dark blue background which made the whole “sky” appear dimly lit. After the star disappeared, I used the same shade of bright green, but now at full opacity, to build the elements of the aftermath, and the story ends once the whole sky changes to that shade of bright green. I found the juxtaposition between the dark and the bright to be visually appealing and support the narrative, especially at the end when the bright green takes over the sky, signifying the brightness of the new birth and contrasting the dimness of the first set of frames. Most of the frames for this GIF were drawn using the paintbrush tool, but the stars were made using a brush I had created during one of our first lessons in Photoshop. Since the star shape was rough and sketchy looking, I felt that it paired well with the casual hand drawings and made the whole GIF kind of abstract and whimsical, like something from a child’s imagination. One struggle with this one was the hand-drawn illustrations though, because I had initially wanted them to be much neater, and found it difficult to draw using a laptop and the paintbrush tool. In the end however, I grew to like the imperfections in the way it is drawn, and am happy with it as a first exploration in GIF-making.


As I continued my exploration with GIF-making, I considered ways to work around my problem of illustrating with a computer mouse, and decided I would try different styles that involved more shapes and premade graphics. I began creating lines and playing with how I could animate them. When I was trying to space them evenly, I discovered the grid lines and the ability to snap graphics to these grid lines. This sparked the idea of making a gridded pattern and having shapes pass up and down through the grid. So I created a black background with green gridlines and filled in the corner boxes with blue and white, creating squares that I would move diagonally toward the center, and then back. Inspired by the theme of the class, “club visuals,” I flipped the grid colors in every frame, to create a strobelike effect. I found it really satisfying to make a GIF that appealed to the digital nature of this form of art-making. This GIF also seems like one that I could expand on if I want my work to go in that direction. Part of its appeal is the flashing effect it creates, which makes it almost difficult to look at, and creates subtle color effects as a result of the rapidly changing colors. I could build a series of these GIFs that grow in complexity through modifications to the color palette, grid, and motion of squares, creating different visual effects that affect the way the viewer perceives them.


This GIF could be considered a product of all my experimentations in digital art thus far. Previously, the GIFs I made were building on my skills in Photoshop, but this one came later, after we had begun working in After Effects. As I produced more digital art, an interest in color and the way it can affect perception emerged. When we started with After Effects, we had an assignment to use the LoopOut(); command. In class, we had used it in conjunction with motion paths, to make the motions repeat themselves. I took in interest in applying this to color. Inspired by the work of as well as psychedelic posters designed by Victor Moscoso in the 60s and 70s,I picked a rainbow color palette and assigned each oval a color. Then I created keyframes where the colors would change to the next color in the rainbow order, and applied the LoopOut(“pingpong”); command so that the ovals cycled through the rainbow palette and then cycle back for the duration of the movie.

Since the assignment was dealing with motion paths and not color, and also because I wanted to add some more interest, I decided to add some bright yellow stars that would meander from the top of the frame to the bottom as the colors went through their cycle. This was challenging because it was difficult to design the motion paths exactly how I envisioned them in my mind. My goal was to make them whimsical and floaty, but their motion ended up much more quirky than I had intended. When it was finished, it was just existing as an After Effects movie, so when I decided to turn it into a GIF, I dragged it into Photoshop and saved it using Photoshop’s GIF format. While it seems less complex than all the others, this GIF ties together a lot of the skills I have developed in both Photoshop and After Effects, and is starting to solidify the direction that I am going to take my future digital art.