Kevin Mack, an Academy Award-winning visual effects designer, has been an artist his whole life. He comes from a family of artists—his parents both worked at Disney, his mother was even the original model for Tinkerbell. Logically, he ended up following suit, and eventually helped pioneer computer graphics for visual effects in the 1980s. Virtual reality was always a distant dream for him, though relegated to science fiction and talk. But now, much later than Mack expected, VR is finally realizable.
Mack’s currently developing Blortasia, an abstract maze through psychedelic sculptures for the HTC Vive. His previous project Zen Parade is now being used for brain studies, because of its history in reducing stress and blood pressure for viewers. We recently sat down with Mack to talk about his life’s work, and what’s next for Blortasia.
Versions: What would you describe as the moment-to-moment action in Blortasia?
Kevin Mack: Story is always about a person relaying an experience about themselves or about someone else, whereas in virtual reality you actually have an experience. That’s what I’m basing my reality on, the idea of spatial presence as a very powerful communication medium. So with Blortasia and [my previous project] Zen Parade as well, I like to say that I’m trying to depict the transcendent visionary experience. So as far as a blow by blow, it’s hard to say because it’s different each time you use it. There are no predetermined sequences of events, or even predetermined events. It’s just a world, and you’re transported there.
It’s filled with thousands of animated living sculptures, which you can perceive any number of ways. Some people see them as characters, some as alien life forms. Some people see them as fluid blobs of paint. Other people see animals and creatures and all kinds of scenes. It exploits the phenomenon of pareidolia, which is when we see things that aren’t there in essentially noisey information. So when you see faces in the clouds, or animals in a rain pattern, that’s pareidolia. Our brain has a tendency to try to recognize and identify meaningful content wherever we look. So if you stare at a cloud, after awhile your brain’s gonna try to guess what the shapes are. It draws upon your own imagination and your own conscious thoughts.
“It exploits the phenomenon of pareidolia”
V: What goes into designing something that is so hard to predict? Like is there a generative algorithm at play here, or is it something different?
KM: I’m a big fan of generative art work, and I use a number of the tools and processes. There’s a lot of really wonderful fractal artwork out there, but I’ve found for my own work that I try to hybridize many different processes to maintain an element of individual self-expression. [Contrary to fractal art], I feel like people can identify my work pretty easily, just because it has a unique style that comes from combining different methods and processes. Some of which are just manual painting and sculpting, but I do use a lot of procedural systems and rule-based systems, so the rules I make are at least partly grown or generated.
V: You mentioned earlier that Blortasia and even Zen Parade to an extent are kind of an antithesis to what people expect VR experiences to be, because they’re kind of nonphysical in a way. What life experiences or art have inspired this psychedelic style, in particular?
KM: Well, music is a big inspiration for me, in a sense that instrumental music is abstract and it’s something you explore. I was inspired by films that have been non-narrative, like Fantasia. But on some level, my real inspiration comes from nature. I’m really fascinated with nature and physics and natural systems. So when I build a world, I build it like a natural system, but I create my own rules of nature.
I’m also really inspired by technology. The technology for computer graphics that I use for generating these worlds, and the tools I’ve spent nearly 30 years developing, are so inspiring to me because often people will say, oh with this new technology or this new thing we’re only limited by our imagination. But I find that’s actually not true anymore. For me, with the technology and tools we have access to, I discover things I never could’ve imagined. Technology has enabled me to create things and styles and looks that I never would’ve dreamed of.
You can read more about Blortasia here.