Behind the Mask: Exploring the Origins of the Transformation Mask

by | 17 May 2018 | Art, Conferences, Industry Leaders

The SIGGRAPH 2018 Art Gallery will fuse technology and art to bridge the gap between the past and the future. The theme for this year’s gallery is “Origins,” which aims to articulate myth and technology, science and art, the deep past, and the computational present. All of the 2018 Art Gallery selected pieces can be previewed on the SIGGRAPH 2018 website.

One of the works to be showcased, and fits the theme remarkably well, is “Transformation Mask.” The piece “appropriates the traditional aspects of metamorphosis with the transformation from bird mask to human; yet in this adaptation, the human mask has been altered, upgraded, and merged with the machine.”

We spoke with two of the creators — Shawn Hunt, a Heiltsuk artist as well as the lead technical artist of the piece, and Robert Butterworth from Microsoft Garage — to understand the ideas and techniques behind “Transformation Mask.”

SIGGRAPH: Shawn, where did the idea for the Transformation Mask originate? How did it evolve during the creative process from what you originally envisioned?

Shawn Hunt (SH): The idea for the transformation originated with my Heiltsuk culture. The transformation mask is not a new idea, it’s a very ancient one. I have just updated and done it in my own way using materials that are modern and of this time. The original transformation masks would be carved from cedar, and the opening and closing (the transformation) would be mechanical in the form of twine and pulleys. The vision that my mask displays when an individual wears it is produced by Microsoft’s HoloLens. With the ancient masks, the vision would be real and individual to each wearer.

The mask didn’t change much from my original idea as we built it. It was just a process of me having this concept in my head and then trying to convey the concept to a team of technicians and artists at the Microsoft Garage in Vancouver. I explained to them what I wanted, and they interpreted my ideas into reality. They never once said “no.” That’s a nice way to work. When I originally went to the Garage, the idea was for me to simply create a work of art there. Stacey Mulcahy was there to show me how the tools worked and facilitate the production. It started out just the two of us, but by the end of the project, there were 10 of us working together to make this happen.


SIGGRAPH: What do you want the Transformation Mask to do?

SH: Basically, I want outsiders to experience my culture in a unique and interesting way. Most people, even Heiltsuk people, will never experience wearing a transformation mask. Most often when people see our masks, they are totally out of context. They are usually behind glass held floating in midair by some kind of museum armature or stand. It becomes sculpture, when its original intent is for it to be worn ― worn in a ceremony. So, I would like the [attendee] to realize that our art is more than just artifact or even art; it has a purpose and a function that is both of this world and another. That it is an important part of our culture both in the past but also the present.


SIGGRAPH: Robert, as the technical artist, what about the Transformation Mask excites you?

Robert Butterworth (RB): Working with a Vancouver indigenous artist on a collaborative, interactive art piece tops the list for me. I was excited to be part of a team that helped construct Shawn’s vision to bring traditional transformation masks to life and provide an animatronic and holographic experience for attendees. The fact that nothing like this has been done before added to the magnitude of the project. The medium we were working with was also something that I am deeply passionate about. The combination of HoloLens, animatronics, electronics, and 3D printing made the entire process even more gratifying.


SIGGRAPH: SIGGRAPH 2018’s Art Gallery theme is “Origins.” How does the Transformation Mask fit into this theme?

SH: I think the mask fits perfectly within this theme. It is both an origin in itself in that it’s the first time it [a transformation mask] has been done this way. It is a new way for me as a Heiltsuk artist and person to tell my stories. It is also, however, a work that goes back to ancient times to the origins of my culture and my people. It’s like a new beginning based on a copy of something that may have [existed] at the very beginning.

RB: The tradition of the transformation mask has been performed through the generations. Transformation masks are commonly seen at Potlatches (gift-giving ceremonies) and used to illustrate stories that include the transformation of an animal mask to human. Our interactive art piece ties in nicely, in several ways, with the theme for SIGGRAPH’s Art Gallery this year. The mask is not only a generational piece spanning from its origins to the present, but it also describes the evolution of humans for generations to come. SIGGRAPH’s location this year also holds significance, as the mask was crafted here [in Vancouver] with Shawn, a local artist, in the Microsoft Garage, using technologies that were developed here.


SIGGRAPH: Robert, can you talk about the various technologies that contributed to the making of the Mask?

RB: Microsoft HoloLens is the conductor of this art piece, controlling the timing not only for the holographic and spatial audio on the device, but also signaling the hardware via Bluetooth to trigger actions as well. An ultrasonic sensor is used to detect when a viewer is present in the mask, relaying it back to the HoloLens and making the art piece autonomous. After the experience has started, three linear servos drive the motion of the mask. Windows phones are triggered to play sequences for the eyes while strips of NeoPixel RGB addressable LEDs are animated. All hardware that interfaces with these systems are controlled by an Arduino Mega and custom shield. Additionally, there is an RF controller that is used to control states and remote operation of the mask in presentation mode.


SIGGRAPH: Microsoft HoloLens is one of the most interesting features of the Transformation Mask. Why use mixed reality for this project?

SH: I was intrigued by the HoloLens. I had never used anything like it before. I’m interested in visions, the spirit world, and other dimensions. In a way, the HoloLens kind of mimics this visionary process. It’s as if science is always trying to play catch up with what we are or were already capable of. It seemed like an intriguing way for me, as an artist, to tell a story.

It’s as if science is always trying to play catch up with what we are or were already capable of.

RB: After being shown what was at his disposal in the Garage, Shawn knew that the HoloLens would be essential to his vision. Traditional transformation masks typically have an inner mask that depicts a human face within an animal mask. In this cybernetic art piece, the HoloLens and viewer become the inner mask representing a new generation, Human 2.0. Mixed reality gave Shawn an opportunity to show aspects of a mask ceremony where the wearer, after opening the mask, is transformed and is able to see things others can’t. HoloLens has forged a path as a new medium with artists in numerous forms, including the stage. I believe this will only become more prevalent as this kind of artwork increases in exposure, and as artists find new ways to interact and augment the world to craft their vision.


SIGGRAPH: Shawn, what do you hope someone who has just engaged with the Transformation Mask walks away feeling and considering?

SH: I guess, at its core, I want [people] to have a deeper connection and understanding of my culture, and to try and include them in it in some way. I would like for [attendees] to see that my culture and my people are not some relic of the past, something found in a museum. We are a thriving, evolving, modern culture, and people who gather strength from the history of our ancestors.


SIGGRAPH: Robert, talk a bit about the experience of respecting traditional indigenous forms while creating something wholly new with technology. Did this pose a challenge?

RB: Not at all; we were fortunate enough to be able to talk directly with Shawn through the entire process. Having this ensured we were true to his vision and respected the traditional forms. Reviews were carried out in several ways, including 2D paint-overs for forms and lines, 3D in VR for the physical mask experience, and HoloLens for the final mixed reality holographic and special auditory experience. For the inlay details in the mask, we asked Shawn to give us scale drawings so we could digitize, and laser cut them to fit in the jaw and behind the eyes. By empowering Shawn, we were able to capture his intimate knowledge of the forms, and then digitize and adapt them to our technology.

By empowering Shawn, we were able to capture his intimate knowledge of the forms, and then digitize and adapt them to our technology.


SIGGRAPH: Talk a bit about your experience using 3D printing during the creation process.

SH: It was quite different for me — not my usual process. Most things I make are made by my hands and my hands only. With this project, much of it was done in meetings with sketches or over email and video. I have never been so detached from the actual making of a piece. My friends at Microsoft became my hands, and they did an incredible job.

RB: 3D printing was core to Shawn’s vision of how the mask should look. After several tests for its texture, print quality, and speed, we finalized the settings. The total print time for the 20-plus parts was just over 300 hours and was completed only days before the show. The whole form was created in Houdini as a procedural mesh with a surface finish that was faceted to simulate traditional carving but with a futuristic tone. One of the major benefits of building procedurally was that with the tight deadlines, we were able to start printing parts before the model was fully completed. We used several different 3D printers to finish various parts: Ultimakers for the main body, FormLabs for the nostrils, and a Pursa for all the mounting components.


SIGGRAPH: Share your experiences working collaboratively as a team on this project.

SH: It was great to work with a team — a very exciting way to work. Everyone has their specialty, and I just got to try and pull the best out of them. It was a very talented group of people with a lot of integrity. They all wanted to do the best they could do for the project, and they all worked incredibly hard. It was humbling to see their faith in my vision, especially from someone whom they had just recently met. I learned a lot on this project — way too many things to put to words — and some of what I’ve learned I am still yet to realize, I’m sure. I would definitely work this way again in the future.

RB: Shawn was on board from the beginning and was excited to get his hands digitally dirty. We were eager to provide Shawn with the tools we use, empowering him to create as much of the artwork as possible. All the animals seen in the holographic experience were handcrafted by Shawn in virtual reality. It was excellent to see how he leveraged his skills to create in this medium. We then combined his work with animation, volumetric effects, and spatial audio to provide the viewer with the final elements of the transformation ceremony experience.


The Transformation Mask team


SIGGRAPH: Share your favorite story from the Transformation Mask creation process.

SH: When we started talking about the project, there was no timeline or deadline. It was just me and Stacy. But by the time we had assembled most of the team, it was decided that we would debut the mask at the Vancouver Art Gallery‘s FUSE event. FUSE is a big art event with thousands of attendees. We had no idea if we could get it done in six weeks or if it would even work. The mask became functional only a couple of hours before the event, and it worked incredibly well with only some minor glitches. I guess my favorite story is the whole story. It was a magical project.

RB: There are so many fantastic stories to tell, but one of my favorites was when we introduced Shawn to VR for the first time. As a traditional artist in a brand-new world, this was a true digital transformation. It took a little bit of time to calibrate to using controllers, but once this was overcome, he got straight into creating the animals for the experience. Once he experienced this way of creating, we had a tough time keeping him out of the VR room. VR became a familiar and natural way to sculpt and sketch out forms and ideas for the mask and the experience.


SIGGRAPH: You’re both very familiar with Vancouver. What can SIGGRAPH 2018 attendees who have never been to the city expect? What would you recommend they see and/or do?

RB: There are numerous things to see and do in Vancouver. If you’re after outdoor activities, there’s the Stanley Park seawall, which is a casual one-and-a-half-hour walk, and the Grouse Grind, nature’s grueling stair master mountain climb with fantastic views at the end (or you can take the gondola; I won’t tell). There are many shops around that make great coffees and cakes: Revolver, Nemesis, Pure Bread, and JJ Bean, to name a few. If you like sushi, I would recommend Black Rice.

SH: Vancouver is beautiful. Walk around downtown. Hit a dispensary and head over to the north shore. Take the Grouse Mountain gondola up to the top of the mountain, take in the views, and enjoy the vibes. If that’s not your thing, I would hit the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, where you can see hand-carved traditional transformation masks, as well as many other kinds of masks, art, and even architecture from First Nations cultures from all over the coast of British Columbia.

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