Monday, 27 July 2015

Performance Capture
at Manchester Art Gallery

Performance Capture, by digital artist Ed Atkins, was an exhibition coinciding with the Manchester International Festival 2015 demonstrating the performance aspect and rendering process of the computer-generated imagery we see in many Hollywood blockbusters today. As well as in films, it is also frequently used in the development of video games, robotics, sports, medical applications and in the military.

The exhibition offered a unique opportunity to go behind the scenes of the production of a computer-generated moving image work laid out across three rooms pertaining to the production process; from the early stages of capturing the actor, to the rendering 'farm', to the finalised product.

Neytiri from Avatar, Gollum of both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, and Dobby from the Harry Potter series are the most popular examples that come to mind when motion capture (or mo-cap) is mentioned to me. The complex procedure focuses around tracking the facial expressions and body movements of an actor, through the use of a specially-equipped suit, which feeds information to a computer that is then matched to a 3D avatar model to be edited and used in a variety of avenues such as those mentioned above.

The Art Galleries and Museums group, from Henshaws, went to visit the exhibition for an audio described talk and tour of what is possibly the most elaborate show we've had to date! Audio description was provided by the award-winning Anne Hornsby, who was recently the recipient of the International Achievement Award 2015, for her in audio description over the past 27 years, and she was joined by Curator Natasha Howes. As a big fan of fantasy and sci-fi movies, I was particularly excited by this month's visit to Manchester Art Gallery to learn more behind the ever-evolving art of motion capture!

The exhibition began in an open space studio comprised of various equipment including rigging, lighting and a stage; with television screens and early-concept illustrations adorning the walls, giving an interesting insight into the detailed planning work that takes place long before a motion capture session even hits the studio. Computer screens to the centre of the room presented the auto-cued script to the actor as well as a tracking screen showing the performer moving on the 3D model avatar in real-time as captured by their suit.

The group and I were present as a dancer suited up to take part in the tracking, and after she was fitted we then viewed her performance twice. The first performance focused entirely on her interpretation of Atkins' script and how she enunciated, even over-exaggerating, certain words and phrases. The second performance focused more on her highly emphasized movements. Different performances from various actors and dancers involved with the Manchester International Festival this year would make up the final rendered product.

After the dancer had finished, Ed Atkins joined us to read out a portion of his script and it was particularly interesting to hear how he told his verse as opposed to an actor or dancer reading from the auto-cue. His script was nonsensical, sometimes poetic, and represented the complex, confusing and often chaotic space in our minds. The interference of excessive information in everyday life was another big inspiration in his written piece for the exhibition.

The Rendering Farm was showcased in the second room, away from the studio space, and this was my favourite part of the exhibition - to have the opportunity to be right there and involved in the environment as the digital artists edited the content that was fed into the computer by the actor's performance. We were encouraged to speak with the digital artists and ask any questions. I really enjoyed being able to speak with quite a few of the animators - finding out about the software they use to track movement and create avatars, their previous experience in the field, and what interests them in animation.

The final portion of the exhibition was located in a dark curtained room, housing a large cinema screen, highlighting the finished work completed so far. Emblazoned on the monitor were the previous performances that had been edited within the Rendering Farm from the start of the exhibition. I was intrigued with the film hearing the various different performers read the script differently from one another, executing it individually with their use of body language matched with the 3D model, yet it flowing together seamlessly as it used the same avatar throughout. It was obvious that a lot of work had gone into the finished piece and that the performers themselves had had a lot of fun with the part of the script that was allocated to them.

As I mentioned, I am a big fan of the movies that tend to incorporate this capturing process so it was very special for me to be able to have that first-hand experience of seeing the medium in all of its wonderment from start to finish and having a sense of involvement. This was truly a notable exhibition and I wish Ed Atkins all the best with his future work.

As always I would like to say a big thank you to Mary Gifford, group leader of the Art Galleries and Museums group, for selecting yet another informative and engaging exhibition, to Anne Hornsby for her wonderful audio description and to my guide and volunteer driver, Mary Tantrum, for her continued support and companionship.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Henshaws Summer Appeal 2015

Henshaws, a charity I volunteer for weekly and have been a service user of for over 2 years, have recently launched their Summer Appeal; complete with new branding, as seen on their website, social media accounts and in their new mailings to fundraisers and supporters, which features photos by yours truly from my recent photo session

As part of the Summer Appeal, I recount how before becoming a service user I would barely leave the house, after leaving high school and losing more of my vision to the point of near blindness, and felt like my life was over. Henshaws helped me to meet new people in the same position as myself, make the most out of the accessible technology that is available today and learn daily living skills around mobility and cooking.

They have had a huge hand in improving my confidence, independence and my sense of self-worth to go beyond expectations. I am now planning to return to my art and illustration this September by going to the Leeds College of Art; and this is something I would never have dreamed of doing before going to the Henshaws Resource Centre in Old Trafford. After having a huge lack of support the first time I went to college I was put off going back into further education for the longest time, but with completing the Skillstep course last summer I was given the reassurance I needed that going to college was the next logical step in my journey!

You can donate to Henshaws on their website, either by giving £5, £10, £15 or an amount of your choice. I recorded a "thank you" video with my Guide Dog, Tami, which is e-mailed to donors by way of a personal thank you for helping to improve the lives of many people like me in the North of England.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Please Help Me to Study
at Leeds College of Art!

I recently applied to the Leeds College of Art after visiting the university during their Open Day event in June. I fell completely in love with the place and the enthusiasm and friendliness of the staff and students! As a blind artist and illustrator it quickly felt like my "home" and somewhere where I belonged. Naturally I wanted to apply as soon as possible, had a sighted Student Ambassador to help fill in my form there and then, and I had my interview yesterday afternoon.

Both my application and interview were met with such positivity and enthusiasm from my tutor and I seem to be the ideal student! However, as the Level 2 course I want to study for the next year is not funded by a Student Loan, I am having major funding and accommodation issues. Accommodation with the college itself would have cost over £5,500 to stay in student halls, for just the year alone, and this is something I simply cannot afford.

After some research and discussing the issue with college staff, "host" families were recommended to me where my Guide Dog and I would be able to stay in a safe and friendly home environment with a family willing to rent out a room to a student studying in the area. The cost is much more affordable, at £22 a night, though this will still cost me £2,950 for the year of my part-time course studying 3 days a week. The course itself is not covered by a Student Loan, as I previously mentioned, so this is something I will be paying for myself. Just as with my severe sight impairment, I won't let these obstacles stop me from studying, enjoying what I love so passionately and achieving what I set out to do!

As sight-related charities and the college itself are unable to help me with funding, I am now taking matters into my own hands and have created a GoFundMe page - where I have already received a generous £185 in kind donations from friends and anonymous donors! The fundraising website was brought to my attention by a friend and I thought I would give it a try as my final plea for help as all other avenues were unsuccessful. 

I want to share a little bit more about myself for those who are unfamiliar with my sight loss story or may be visiting my blog for the first time. I was born as a premature baby suffering from underdeveloped optic nerves and Congenital Cataracts that weren't noticed until I was 4 years old; meaning that it was too late to do much to save any useful sight I could have had if it was detected earlier. After a childhood spent at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, constantly commuting from my home city of Manchester, having various operations and procedures I now have only 10% central vision in just one eye and light perception in the other.

Despite this, art has always been my passion from the very beginning; from having my operations and being delighted at having coloured pencils and crayons to look forward to in the playroom at the children's hospital, to my first day at Primary School heading straight for the easel rather than playing with the other children. Art continued to me my favourite subject throughout school life and I achieved an A* in my GCSE's in 2005!

Last year, I won the RNIB's Young Illustrator for 2014 competition reigniting my love for art and illustration. Every 2 months I produced an illustration for their Insight Magazine, based on different themes that tied into the magazine as a whole, and received media attention for winning the award. I was featured in the Manchester Evening News and Salford Advertiser newspapers as well as onscreen on ITV News and Granada Reports and online through various blogs and the Daily Mail Online website. More recently I can be seen in the August 2015 edition of Marie Claire as part of their "You'd Never Guess That..." feature explaining my dream to become an illustrator of children's books despite my severe visual impairment.

Since completing my run as the RNIB's Illustrator of the Year, I have also been involved with other projects, such as; designing the front cover of the UK Scouts magazine's Get Active! supplement, creating a Christmas Card for Henshaws, and being a part of the Memory Makers project in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust illustrating the story of Holocaust survivor Sabina Miller. Last summer I also had the opportunity of creating a birthday composition to celebrate John Lewis' 150th birthday which was displayed in their cafe at the Trafford Centre and I exhibited an illustration for the One Man's Vision exhibition displayed at Salford Museum and Art Gallery.

Now that I have some experience in the field, working with charities and organisations, it is now my aim to build up my qualifications at the specialist university Leeds College of Art; beginning with a Level 2 course to familiarise myself with the college, the tools available to me and the work that is required, before moving onto Level 3 (A Level) and a Degree in either Fine Art or Illustration.

Any help you can give, either by sharing my blog post or giving a kind donation, will be very much appreciated. I am extremely grateful, thank you! You can donate by clicking on the button below.

Friday, 3 July 2015

You'd Never Guess That...
Marie Claire UK!

"My blindness hasn't stopped me becoming an illustrator"

I was recently approached by the popular fashion and beauty magazine Marie Claire to take part in a new feature of their monthly publication. It's called "You'd Never Guess That..." and it aims to spotlight incredible women with incredible stories and encourage and inspire others to overcome challenges and stereotypes that they face.

I talk about my passion for illustration despite my severe visual impairment, having only a small percentage of central vision left in one eye that is deteriorating more over time, and how I won the RNIB's Young Illustrator Award in 2014.

"I'm blind in my right eye and have 10 percent sight in my life, so I draw from my mind. I'm an award-winning illustrator. My dream is to illustrate children's books."

The magazine article can also be found online in the features section of the Marie Claire website, which you can read by clicking here. It features more inspirational stories from women and a more in-depth look at my own; including my sight loss story, my favourite mediums to use and how I work by drawing the imagery in my mind. 

I had a wonderful time working with Marie Claire and I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity to be featured in their magazine, alongside many other strong and uplifting women with motivating life stories.

Marie Claire UK's August issue is out now!