From Shawn Mendes to His Dark Materials – Meet Simon Russell
Are you passionate about sound and music? Do your interests in art and technology set you apart from the crowd? Do you strive to blur the boundaries between physical and digital worlds? We’re currently recruiting students to start our new BA (Hons) Creative Technologies and BA (Hons) Sound Arts degrees, both launching in September 2022 as part of our School of Arts + Media.
Situated within an arts and media practice, with natural affinities to fine art and film, BA (Hons) Sound Arts places an emphasis on experimentation, for students to immerse themselves in all aspects of sound. Sitting at the intersection of art and technology, BA (Hons) Creative Technologies is an expansive, future-facing course that covers everything from virtual reality, creative coding, data visualisation, projection mapping, interactive installation and 3D scanning and printing.
We sat down with Simon Russell, a freelance motion graphic designer specialising in sound reactive design and projection mapping, to find out more about his varied and innovative career, which to date has spanned collaborations with artists including Shawn Mendes, Elton John and U2, as well as film and television projects that include His Dark Materials, James Bond and Black Mirror. Simon explained why he feels that courses like BA (Hons) Creative Technologies and BA (Hons) Sound Arts are the future, with infinite possibilities to turn your passion into a sustainable career.
A frame from Simon's work for U2, Love Is All We Have Left
How did you start on your creative journey?
Although I didn’t study at Plymouth College of Art, I got my start through a qualification that you also offer here, the Foundation Diploma in Art & Design. This offers a great way to get a broad understanding of the range of disciplines that are open to you, particularly if your creative options in school were limited. It gives you a chance to understand yourself at the very beginning of your journey as an artist and explore what disciplines you naturally gravitate towards.
I gravitated towards motion graphics. This led me on to a degree in Visual Design and Moving Image. My first real subsequent job in the creative industries was for Cartoon Network. I then went to a design agency, before embarking on an ill-fated startup. The benefit of that failure was in learning that ultimately I wanted to work for myself, taking on projects that followed my passions. Which led me to a career as a freelancer.
Have you always been interested in sound reactive design?
My first realisation of combining sound and vision was when I discovered Wassily Kandinsky during my GCSEs. He was interested in exploring the idea of multi-sensory art, of visual music and the correspondences between different mediums and different senses. This was the start of exploring and pursuing these ideas.
I’m not sure why I find sound reactive design so fascinating. I feel like when it’s done correctly it seems to come alive, becoming almost a new form of language. I enjoy that the field challenges me technically and artistically, but it’s still do-able. It feels like an unexplored continent.
Simon cites Wassily Kandinsky as an inspiration for his work. Pictured: Cossacks, by Kandinsky
With specialisms in sound and projection mapping, has that led to many opportunities to work with musicians?
I directed several sections of Shawn Mendes' Illuminate live tour visuals. The production used a number of techniques, from sound responsive animation, LIDAR (light detection and ranging/3D scanning), live action, real-time effects, projection mapping and a lot of particles! It was great to be involved from conception through to the final production. I’d had the idea of using LIDAR for a while and this gave me the perfect opportunity to try it out.
I made visuals for part of Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road stadium tour. I also worked on the U2 iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour, developing some of the concepts into a video for ‘Love Is All We Have Left’. The idea was to create something beautiful, intricate and hypnotic that revolved around ideas of growth, decay and fragility.
Are there any other big projects that you’ve taken on that combine sound and art?
I got the chance to explore synesthesia with composer Alex Eckford. Alex experiences synesthesia, a condition where stimulation of one sense leads to secondary involuntary experience in another sense, like tasting colour or hearing smells. We collaborated on ‘The Long Walk’, an artistic representation of a day's walking from sunrise to sunset. The main portion of the animation is driven from the audio data (both MIDI and the audio file), meaning that barely any manual (key frame) animation was used. The MIDI controls the position and velocity of the emitters, which generate the symmetrical wave structures and bass elements.
My work has also been shown in LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall accompanied by the LA Philharmonic. This is the great thing with working in this sector, you aren’t bound by distance or time. I work from home and my clients are all around the world. There are limitless possibilities around who to work with.
Do you work primarily in sound arts, or does your work encompass other fields?
I try to bring an element of synchronicity to all my work and I like to think that you can see elements in all I do. I was involved in the ‘dust’ particles for the television adaptation of His Dark Materials. I find myself extending my approach into the design elements, which you can see good examples of in the fictional user interfaces that I created for Black Mirror.
I also worked on the most recent James Bond, making maps of Safin’s (Remi Malek’s) lair. When you have a passion for particles/visuals, you find it weaves itself throughout your work. It also shows how versatile the application of art and computers are. You will find these technologies in the most unusual of places, sometimes you won’t even know you are looking at them. Art and design inhabit our world and seep through into our everyday life.
Elton John performing in front of Simon's visuals during his Farewell Yellow Brick Road stadium tour
How do you see the sphere of art and technology evolving?
I think that if Kandinsky were alive, he’d be stunned that his ideas are now technically possible to explore. Digital and creative technology is at the point where you can begin to really push art and design into unexplored realms. Computing power and creative software are massively empowering the artist and the designer. And these new skills are going to be in huge demand. Just look at the billions of dollars that Facebook/Meta are investing into developing virtual reality. The big investors see a future where augmented reality will be part of our everyday lives.
The horizons ahead of us are vast and they will need people to build, develop and push the boundaries even further. Students starting out on new courses like Sound Arts and Creative Technologies are going to find themselves at the vanguard, leading the evolution.
My background is in linear, traditional animation but increasingly VR, AI, GPU-driven real-time technologies are transforming the area. If I were to start my studies now, I would definitely look at specialising in real-time, responsive technology. It’s where it’s at. I can see it’s future in so many areas, not just art. It could be used to train surgeons how to operate, or behavioural science and the study of crowds.
"Visions of America" at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A. Simon's sound reactive projections accompanied the live orchestra.
What other advice would you give to students starting out?
I would probably say throw yourself into it. Follow what you love. Cast your net as wide as you can for your inspiration. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Copying is fine and an excellent way to learn, but only to a point. Listen to your tutors, the thought leaders, the ‘rock stars’, but also feel free to throw it all out. Everything is evolving so quickly. New ideas and energy is needed.
On the other hand, don’t underestimate the traditional foundations. There is real commercial value in understanding colour, composition, lighting, rhythm, music, semiotics etc. If you can understand them, practice them and apply them there are jobs out there. Also get involved! I recently worked in Europe's biggest immersive dome, which is right here in the South West at the Market Hall in Devonport. I developed the visuals and Plymouth College of Art BA (Hons) Animation & Games graduate Sam Grotzke assisted me on it’s launch.
What has been your favourite professional project?
I think my favourite project is always my current one. For example I’m working on visualising a piece of jazz music now. The client is great and gives me time and creative space to explore. I love working on visual music. On seeing sound come to life. I’m always interested in new ways to explore sound and visualising the unseen.
Simon's designs for Black Mirror
We commissioned Simon Russell to create an original work of art for the launch of Market Hall as the first Artist Fellow for our StudioLab for Embodied Media, working with BA (Hons) Sound Arts leader Neil Rose and BA (Hons) Animation & Games graduate Sam Grotzke. Watch ‘Hello World’, a piece of original work created in 2021 by Sam Grotzke for the StudioLab for Embodied Media.
Find out more about exploring experimental instruments with BA (Hons) Sound Arts or read an in-depth interview with sonic artist Neil Rose here.
Take the next step towards your creative future and get a feel for life at Plymouth College of Art by visiting our next on campus Open Day on Saturday 15 January 2022.