Stephen Bell's Notes on Antarctic Sonata
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What these notes are about









In the summer of 2007 I worked on graphic animations for a project conceived by composer/performer Prof Kevin Jones and Prof Nick Petford, who is an expert in volcanology and magmatic systems. The project culminated in a performance by Kevin of the piece "Antarctic Sonata" at the Bicentenary Conference of The Geological Society in the September of that year.

My role was to use images based on samples collected by Nick during an expedition to the Antarctic Dry Valleys to produce an animated sequence that Kevin could interpret musically.

When I joined the project Nick and Kevin already had a strong concept, which we then refined together. The original idea had been to do a fly-through of a 3D visualisation of the Antarctic, homing in on the Dry Valleys, then to zoom down to microscopic level to explore the visual beauty of the rock, using the imagery to inform Kevin's composition.

A quick investigation revealed that the data needed for the flythrough would be hard to come by and given the time and facilities available I started experimenting with ideas using Nick's initial images to familiarise myself with the potential visual qualities that could be explored. I also found out what I could about the Antarctic Dry Valleys and Antarctic exploration* to try and get into the spirit of the place and humanity's relationship with it. As I worked I made work in progress available to Kevin for feedback - to find out just what he needed to work with - and we then asked Nick for further images based on what he told us was possible using the microscope that he had access to. By an iterative process of gradual refinement I put together three sequences to form the visual component of three movements. The notes on this page are those that I produced as I worked, to record the process and to make the tests available to Kevin and Nick.

When it all came together on Tuesday 11th September 2007 'Antarctic Sonata' was received well by its audience of conference attendees. After the performance one of the delegates made it very clear to me that visually I had managed to reach the audience when he asked whether he and his colleagues had worked out correctly what I had done. They had indeed and I was very pleased and relieved to hear it. I had been concerned that the geologists might find the way I had processed and composed images that they would normally look at professionally as scientists trangressional or trivialising. What appeared to have happened instead was that I had been able to contribute to an event where we could all celebrate the beauty of the phenomena revealed by geological research.

Please Note that videos are not linked yet ...



notes in reverse chronological order


To follow the process chronologcally, scroll down to the bottom and read upwards


A week after the performance and time to reflect.

First of all I have to say that I was very lucky when out of the blue Prof. Stephen Deutsch informed me of a project that our new Pro-Vice Chancellor Research, Prof. Nick Petford was proposing and asked if I would like to get involved. It has helped to put me back on my feet in terms of productive art practice after a long period of relative inactivity.

I found the project very rewarding; for one thing it opened my eyes to the beauty that can be found in microsopic views of rocks - something that I had not really realised until looking at Nick Petford's samples. Then, when I began to understand a little of the processes involved - how the crystals will have formed at different times; some first and then the small ones filling in the gaps, as the temperature of the magma dropped - I could see how the patterns we see in way these rocks form and those we see in the way humans behave may have something in common and began to think about ways that I could explored this in my future work. So as well as enabling me to work on a piece that was rewarding in itself, that has inspired me to explore new areas in my broader practice.

Working with Kevin Jones was enjoyable and suited my own practice as he has an approach to composing music that builds on the surprises and unexpected compositional results that can come from algorithmic approaches. This is similar to my own approach to generating imagery using programs and scripts. Nick Petford showed me a paper that Kevin had written about the way visual shapes could be interpreted in compositions and I saw immediately that we might get on.

When Kevin showed me how he was generating the opening part of his Antarctic Sonata by mapping the Antarctic coastline onto a musical score it really appealed to me; I liked the conceit of using 'polar' coordinates but particulalry the neat idea of using the ice flow coastline as well as the physical coastline. The resulting music worked remarkaby well.

The way that Kevin used a colour coding to produce a 'harmonic series' which would inform his interpretation of the selected rock crystal images was also interesting as it was a way of projecting order onto the complex visual imagery. What I chose to compose in the moving imagery would to some degree contribute to the nature of the finished piece. Engaging in this relationship between making images and music was completely new to me as I have for many years avoided using sound or music in my work as I find that sound in gallery installations can be a problem. I also did not know for sure exactly what Kevin would play - only that it would be related to the colour and shape of the crystals. I only heard Kevin play after I had already done quite a lot of preliminary work.

The reading that I did to get a feel for the visual material I was composing was absorbing and enlightening too; finding the documentation of the work of Bruce Marsh and colleagues whilst searching the net for images of Antarctica reminded me of the impact of insight; finding blogs by people working in Antarctica it was fascinating to realise what lengths people will go to to gather data.

In putting together the three sequences of images for the movements of Antarctic Sonata I let this background reading filter through indirectly rather than making any explicit references to it. My process was to spend ages just looking a the original samples that Nick gave to me, looking for shapes that I found aesthetically interesting.

An insight into this process may be found by looking at the material that I put online for Kevin and Nick to look at as I worked:


The graphics for the project are now on DVD, ready for the performance on Tuesday 11th September.


I have been working on these examples for the past week or so.

I have all the tiff frames saved for these. I also made avi's of them, which are higher res.than the wmv files linked to below - but they are too big to download I think.

The movies are listed latest first.


maincam24a.wmv 2.5MB

After talking with Kevin on 2nd August I put this together. It shows zooming in and out of details whilst rotating and slow tracking. Possibly closest to what I think Kevin has been suggesting. Let me know Kevin :)


geoworldbeta2b.wmv 6.8MB

In this one I tried a bit of everything. The sequence starts at medium range and then zooms in using just one of Nicks' zooming in series of images. It then shows how the piece might end.

N.B. The text in the final sequence will be removed in the final version. I have emailed US to seeif I can get a version with out text. If I can't I will do what I can to photshop it out.


geoworldbeta1a.wmv 2.7MB

In this piece the camera moves over the sample and then moves in and holds on a detail. It then pulls up and awaya nd moves to zoom in on another detail.

I am not sure how long to hold on a still - this could be something to work out when we meet in late August.


maincam28.wmv 2.5MB

The camera moves fairly slowly across a sample but does not zoom in on any details. I did this as a possible intermediate sequence (I would only use part of it).


maincam27.wmv 2.3MB

The camera moves slowly across some larger crystals. In the final version camera could hold on some of these.


maincam26.wmv 2.7MB

This shows camera moving across a lower maginfication of sample. It is a bit like white noise. I am sureit can fit in somewhere but not quite sure where yet.


maincam25.wmv 2.5MB

This is quite a grey piece - lots of small crystals ... I could hold on some larger crystal features.



The latest example is this (624KB) which I think is getting closer to what may be the best approach. It is a very simple 1500 frame (approx 1minute) test where the camera moves over the surface of a sample and them moves in on a detail (a blue shape) - really it is a matter of finding interesting things to move in on and pausing for an appropriate length of time.

Dad's birthday on 24th so won't be working on project then, but back on to it on Wednesday (although I will also have some essay resubmissions to mark which will take up some time).


Yesterday evening I started using Softimage XSI and today came up with this based on feedback from Kevin.

The video is low res so can be quickly downloaded but worth a look ...

I am thinking now of eventually getting the final pieces recorded on DVD so that playback is consistent and not dependent on computer performance.


Selecting more image details - trying to line up features so maybe when cut together they may cause an interesting visual feature. shows this happening.

this was generated by cycling through


The feature is visible - but is it 'playable' so to speak?
I have added to show what happens if we dwell on each image longer. (this movie does not cycle) Hmmm ... not sure. I like the fast cuts visually but you get to see more of the image is there longer.

perhaps fast cuts then lingering on one frame then fast cuts again then linger on a different frame?


Using testformat04 (MPEG-4)

Saving to specialist format that I based on screensize

first test saved as
5 seconds for each 'layer' no mix
second test saved at full quality as
third test saved at full quality as this look feasible ...
use it for tests anyway and see what Kevin says ...

This last one is a 16 second sequence and takes up 105MB

So one minute might be 420MB

5 minutes would be 2100MB - this is 1.7 GB!

the sequence saved for web (lo res) takes only 160KB

project testformat070720i saved
and was used to produce for web



The movie yesterday was too big to save - realised that I need to use jpg all the time so try. Test is in, which has a full picture building up in 3 stages - will Kevin be interested in playing each layer as it appears? This way the audience may catch on more quickly to what is happening perhaps.

MPEG4 seems like quite a good format to open project in. But loses some of the frame ...


The movie yesterday was too big to save - realised that I need to use jpg all the time so try. Test is in, which has a full picture building up in 3 stages - will Kevin be interested in playing each layer as it appears? This way the audience may catch on more quickly to what is happening perhaps.

MPEG4 seems like quite a good format to open project in. But loses some of the frame ...

Pre 16/07/07---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

08/07/07 ...

My approach so far is to find details that make interesting compositions with what I consider to be significant features, often of similar colour or palette. They often seem like broad brushstrokes of paint in an abstract expressionist painting. Are the images that Kevin will be able to relate to? How should I mix from one to the next in the visuals? These are questions that recur as I work.

I continue to be amazed by what I see each time I switch to 'actual pixels' size in Photoshop and start to detect/select/project patterns in the image.

The first thing that I did was to look at the example that Kevin copied to me, that he had been sent by Nick.

I first noticed a jagged line in the first Image, I then noticed 'swirls'.

I next looked for ways I could have the frame split left/right, with a different 'character' to each side.

Hopefully by selecting a good number of frames with different basic compositions: symmetrical, split, homogeneous, centred on circular feature ... I would then be able to compose them in interesting and identifiably different sequences.

I decided that the eventual movie should be projected at 1024 x 768 format so used a 1024 x 768 rectangular marquee to select parts of the original images.

In afternoon started trying a different aspect ratio for the images - so that could make more satisfying compositions that might be seen as similar to scrolls or music - will Kevin like this? I don't know but I like the way that it allows me to balance shapes across the 'canvas'.

Does NP have a record of what scale each image was taken at?
Are they all from different samples?
If some are same samples at different scales - where are the details taken from?


The next three images are used for three different details used to build up a 'score' of 3 'staves'







The next four frames ^ have been selected as they have a veritcal feature on the right of the frame.

They are cycled through to create a fast animation with some consistency in

They are cross-dissolved in ... You don't see the continuity unless you know to look for it ...






This ^ is an alternative approach to such a sequence; building up the complete frame:

There is an animated version in





The next three ^ were designed to be shown one after the other as a sequence

























I propose that some of these will be the images that Kevin will base his performance on.

I have grouped them according to visual features that I have noticed when exploring the larger images supplied by Nick.

The first images are full screen.

The second set have a 'widescreen' format; a narrower slice of image; more like a scroll or a musical stave ...

ID Code based on that of Nick's jpg



Need to find interesting shapes/patterns by simply viewing all of the originals in detail, taking 'snaps' as I go. Using naming convention so can find the correct original again in case I want to re-frame or get a detail ...


I rather like this detail from the first sample Nick sent to Kevin.



These are general notes based on those I make as work on the project as 'stickies' on the Mac.

Hopefully they will give a feeling of where my thoughts are taking me.

Use image size 1024 x 768

Compose using iMovie on Mac