3S9 Final reflections on the dolls house

The Doll’s house became a stage-set within which I could experiment with drawing, animation, 3D modelling, filmmaking and AR. It is the culmination of the research and experimentation across the course of the MFA, bringing together my technical skills with those that are art-based. Given its pivotal status, I felt it useful to reflect on the work and evaluate it, as a record of the work and my feelings as well as a setting up my next AR projects when the course has completed. This is therefore something of a gloss on what I wrote in the day-today blog posts.

Doll’s house with my doodle wallpaper – the stage is set

A few words first one what it is and how it came about.

Three years ago I had the idea of using a doll’s house as a stage set for drawing. I did not want a commercially manufactured doll’s house, not a plastic one; nothing that was about consumer aspiration or branded. Instead, I was on the lookout for a scratch-built doll’s house that echoed British urban architecture from between the 1930s and the 60s. I was looking for an ‘ordinary’ house that was built from scraps from that time. During COVID I scoured auction sites to find what I was looking for and eventually put in a bid for the one used for the project. Why had I set my sights on a scratch-based doll’s house?

As a child, I visited what we kids called the ‘witch’s house’, a derelict cottage set apart from the village where I lived that was still full of the material goods of the presumably deceased occupant. It was a magic place..of dangerous wonder…scary and decaying…very different to the ordered word of my mother’s over-tidy house where even the dishcloths were ironed. The derelict house as a trope and as an experience holds enchantment and horror; it speaks and smells of entropy, of death, human frailty, and of transgression, trespass, experiences outside the controlled domestic space, exciting and outside parental control;  the first cigarette, the dumping ground for illicit paper-based pornography, of first sexual encounters a space neither inside nor outside. This myth-laden edge space was what I at first wanted to get at with the dolls house, although it moved on somewhat more towards the demonic and seemingly impossible geometries of HP Lovecraft’s short story ‘The Witch House’ (including a 4th dimension), of which more below in relation to the use of AR.

I am someone with a busy mind and I find it hard to focus in all-too-long meetings unless I doodle. As such, I have numerous notebooks, going back across my 30 years in academic life, in which I had developed a very distinctive doodle style. They are complex, iconographic, and look more than a little gothic, highly suited to my folk horror theme and the urban myth of the ‘black house’. Scans of these doodles, much like layers of graffiti, then became the wallpaper that I pasted into the interior walls of the house. Because they are highly detailed, I later intended to make these work with the AR either as a backdrop creating depth or as integral to the AR (as with ‘the charm’s wound up’). When I first got the house, I intended to furnish the house with objects, however, I had often expressed my interest in holographic technologies by saying that my aim with these was to haunt my own house using it. That was then the way forward (I had told myself how to proceed way before the event).

Artivive recording of part of the ‘Charm’s Wound Up’ animation
Film footage of crow (Artivive phone recording so low resolution)
Crow animation (direct footage from Maya – indicative of quality of ‘real’ thing)
Low res recording of the basic animation for one room – Bats spawning (black background so that can be made transparent in final cut)
Low res recording of the basic animation for one room (black background so that can be made transparent in final cut)

Experimenting with the ARTIVIVE app convinced me that this was feasible to use in a gallery context because it is a phone-based app (not a browser-based form of AR) and doesn’t require goggles or an expensive kit.  My first AR experiment was to augment a tree that I had painted (sparkles of energy whizzing around the tree located in a cornfield bathed in golden hour magic). The painting had points of light painted and scratched into the surface and it was these I animated, using Photoshop, After Effects (VFX) & Pro (for the film). This work went down well in the three shows that it appeared in, and many people were able to download the app without much trouble. Continuing with this method of making, I wanted each of the rooms of the dolls house to have something within (like an advent calendar) – yet each of the individual pieces would work in some way with the overarching theme and also have a structural, visual and semiotic relationship with each other.

Tree animation

I realised with the Tree piece that bringing movement into a 2D image was intrinsically about energy and kinesis. Energies, forces beyond the control of the human sphere are at the core of folk horror – the inability to command nature through magic and the tragic folly of that notion which provides the source of FH’s inherent pessimism (as I argue in my research paper). As such movement and energy would then make sense to the way that I’d ‘haunt the house’ – not with generic ghosts or grand guignol horrors, but instead with cosmic ones (chiming with Lovecraft’s take on ‘sublime’ folk horror…Lovecraft and Turner’s preoccupations with sublime light, steam etc… and therein lies a paper).  

In terms of the technical development, I started off trying to make an exploding pumpkin just as a kinetic force experiment – learning how to use the various particle effect forces within Maya (a 3D modelling tool), getting timings right, and ensuring visual interest. Using velocity, changing gravitational force, controlling how the randomising of particles worked over time as well as setting up lighting in terms of colour direction and movement, etc., finding ways of making the background transparent etc. The trials in the house using Artivive looked pretty good (better than I expected) – the animated film filled the room and stood out bright against the murky background.

I also wanted a crow/raven in the house (all things mythic and a reference to Poe). I found some stock footage of a crow in flight and managed to position it to fly through the door where its tail feathers looked like hands and make the background transparent. For the next piece and after quite a lot of research, I attached the word ‘crow’ to individual particles in Maya and after creating spawn points then animated them using physics-based controls– thus marrying the two previous pieces within the third. A similar approach was taken to the 4th piece using bats; the last piece used different particle effects and forces to generate and dissolve the phrase ‘The Charm’s Wound Up’ (from the witch’s ‘hubble bubble’ speech in MacBeth). The phrased very usefully had an action/verb and therefore animation baked into the words (wound). Each piece is tallied with the piece beforehand to make a kind of visual poetry, in some ways an AR version of EE cummings graphically potent poems. Each of the pieces worked with physics-based forces that reflect (Newtonian) universal energies, forces that one could call, and have been called, Occult (as in its Latin meaning – hidden). Occultists working with hermetic traditions and Alchemists, were all in search of these occult forces, adding another resonance to the piece. (How magical thinking as demonstrated in folk horror literature differs from occult sciences is also another paper…). AR is an illusion, a conjuring trick, making 2D things appear 3D…very much in the tradition of Renaissance perspective. AR is a departure as a new tool that is potentially in the hands of anyone with a phone, yet it still works with the same ideas and principles as geometric perspective. It does though need a shift in mindset for 2D artists in particular because you have to place 2D films, even if they are films of 3D objects, in real space. This is what is new about AR art and once the conditions of that are understood, then it can work in ways that don’t simply feel like an overlay on a screen. I hope that the doll’s house demonstrates that.

Evaluating the piece and reflecting on the practice:

This piece came together after quite a long process of gestation and gathering, this provides some of its power.

The piece used AR effectively because each ‘film’ is located spatially in a room – an enclosed space that enhances the sense of it occupying real 3D space rather than just a flat 2D projection. If working on a 2D trigger the projection is less convincingly 3D. Light levels also make a difference – the glow of the screen image can make the filmed object more present when it is in a darker space (hence the boxes idea for the final year show)

In presenting the work at 2 different locations, attaching the house to the wall as if floating and at head height worked best allowing audiences to peer in, get close (as the AR scales, once triggered), and also create a somewhat dreamlike feel, more so than when resting on a solid plinth.

Audiences were really engaged with the piece (lots of great feedback usually starting with the word ‘wow’), although they seemed even more engaged beyond the ‘wow’ factor when I explained where it had all come from.

This work consolidated my sense that I want to work with AR in a painting and drawing context but that needs to have a ‘real’ 3D component for it to work really well with Artivive; I will explore other methods of delivery that may give greater scope, including HoloLens type headsets.

The work has developed my learning in terms of the peculiarities of AR affordances, and in terms of filmmaking, animation, modelling. along with the collaborative NSA pieces that I made animations for.

It has fuelled my interest in spatialisation and movement; and the use of physics-based forces (in a modelling/animation context) as a storytelling method. I now want to talk about the work in terms of kinesics and proxemics, using terms used within semiotics of theatre to help realise kinetic and spatial narrative and potent spatial relationships.

I think that the visual/poetic structure gave the piece a coherence that meant it wasn’t JUST a haunted house, adding a different modality to the more dominant pop culture grammar of folk horror.

I will go on to explore different types of creating AR experiences but will continue with painting and drawing, regarding all these as a) skills to be developed and b) part of my palette, beyond the end of the course.

Based on this work, I will also continue ploughing in the folk horror field as it is a rich one and suits my location and interest in ‘dark cornwall’.

Kate Edwards-Reeves wrote a piece on my work based on an interview with me, here is the transcript (PDF)

By tanyakrzywinskablog

After working in the computer industry and spending some years conducting research into cinema and digital media, I became convinced that the innovative qualities of videogames as participatory media required closer academic attention. As such I have spent most of my career championing the inclusion of games within the academy, and arguing for games as an art form, a role I continue as a Professor at Falmouth University. Alongside this, and my scholarly work on the Gothic, I also maintain, in various forms, a visual art practice. This blog comes out of enrolling on the MA Fine Art degree programme at Central Sr Martins. It is mainly a record of my reflections on the work that I have undertaken for the degree. After having written about folk horror in games and cinema as an academic, this blog will focus on folk horror as a focus for my art practice.

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