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Experience The Nativity Scene As A Generative, Ever-Changing Digital Painting

"Nativity," a pioneering artwork created by filmmaker Martha Fiennes and VFX experts MPC, is on view again at the National Gallery in London through July 6th.
July 3, 2014, 4:45pm

In 2011, filmmaker Martha Fiennes premiered a new take on the Christ Nativity scene with a hi-tech cinema experiment that The Guardian once described as "a moving Christmas story like no other." The artwork, titled Nativity, is a pioneering motion-picture piece where all of the scene's details are constantly evolving in ultra-slow-motion—a generative film loop that can run for months without ever repeating its own imagery.

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Created in conjunction with producer Peter Muggleston and motion graphics experts MPC, Fiennes' visual piece was the first realized project of SLOImage—a custom-built video encoding software that allowed the team to stitch together separately composed shots of actors and props across a digitally-illustrated background.

Groups of actors, the lighting, birds in the air, and stars in the sky all work together to create images, just like in a traditional film, but in Nativity, each component exists on its own plane, culled into frame by the program. Countless combinations of people, lights, and wildlife converge upon the screen in fresh ways that even the creators have never seen—and may never see again.

After originally debuting in the Convent Garden piazza in London, the current iteration of the project will be on desplay through July 6th at the exhibition Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery in London. The randomized, perpetual, self-generating moving image, draws from many disparate elements to create Fiennes' exquisite take on the classic Renaissance scene. When it comes to the technical aspects behind the project, however, Nativity is anything but classical.

Shot on a high speed digital camera at hundreds of frames per second, the actors have a smooth, dreamy quality of movement. All of the action was captured in perfect loops, so that each could be stitched into the ever-morphing tapestry. To ensure the exactitude of this incredibly complex procedure, the programmers behind the encoding software actually had to be on the set during the entire production, upholding the technological bounds and limitations for the cast and crew. The intricate design processes can be watched through a "Making Of" video by MPC here.

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"It is an image that is alive," Fiennes told The Guardian. "That brings together ideas, creativity and technology.” Endlessly complex, generative, and coded in a mystical beauty—it’s impossible to predict what will happen next in this digital artwork—Nativity is the zenith of the as-of-yet unparalleled SLOImage technology.

Though undeniably influenced by iconic Renaissance paintings, Nativity was inspired by Fiennes' feeling limited in the moving image world. This work was a chance to "challenge the conventions of moving image editing in which images and sequences are 'fixed' indefinitely," explains SLOImage on the work's about page.

What fascinated me most,” Fiennes told The Guardian, “were all these Renaissance paintings of the Nativity…And what drew me in were things like the representation of women, the place of the mother figure, all of which have been lost in Christianity. The pull for me was to interpret anew the world of this iconic story by making use of this incredible technology.”

The work may be a modification of a famous religious scene, but she notes its not meant to be controversial or sacrilegious. "My aim was to create a contemplative piece of art," that pushes the boundaries of technology and moving images. In a way, choosing a famous ancient scene is the perfect subject to explore technology that brings art into the future. It may be summer, but when it comes to a stunning, multi-layered project like Nativity, we'll happily celebrate Christmas in July.

Nativity is on view through July 6th at the National Gallery in London. Images courtesy of SLOImage

For more on MPC visit the effects company's site here. And for more on the exhibition see here.

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