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The Nexus of Art and Science, Part 2

We recently blogged about students from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) making animations inspired by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

Another student, Turner Gillespie, also from MICA, spent the summer working on an animation of the “sound” of a gamma-ray burst (GRB). A scientist was working on turning a GRB into music, with one note for each photon detected, and Turner used that as a jumping off point for creating an animation.

GRB suite from Turner Gillespie on Vimeo.

We talked to Turner to learn more.

NASA Blueshift – Hi Turner, tell us a little about yourself!

Turner Gillespie – Hello! My name is Turner and I am an animator, a visualizer, communicator, artist, and story-teller. I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Animation this past spring from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) located in Baltimore, Maryland. I grew up in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia and continue to perfect my own version of the Philly Cheese Steak. I spent a semester abroad in rainy, yet wonderful England studying Animation at the Arts University Bournemouth. While abroad I was able to travel through Germany, France, Italy, and the Czech Republic which greatly expanded my perspectives of animation, art, and culture. I’ve worked in New York City with design and fashion studios and taught animation and graphic design at pre-college summer programs. I always enjoy getting away from the city every-once-in-a-while to spend some time outdoors swimming and hiking. I have a musical background in percussion (which has always heavily influenced my work, especially with the NASA collaboration) and try to relax by playing drum set when I can, although I’ve been getting more into ukulele.

Turner Gillespie

NASA Blueshift – Tell us about your internship here at Goddard!

Turner Gillespie – This summer I have been collaborating with Sylvia Zhu to take data and interpret it in a very different way that can be communicated to a wide audience. This project has been a culmination of data sonification and visualization through animation. Our main subject that we have been focusing on has been gamma-ray bursts (GRB) and the FERMI Gamma-Ray Space Telescope.

NASA Blueshift – How did this animation come about?

Turner Gillespie – The head of MICA’s animation department, Laurence Arcadias, had come into contact with some of Sylvia’s data sonification work. At this time I had been focusing on music visualization in my animation work at MICA. Laurence put the two of us together in the hopes of bringing our two interests together to produce a unique piece of work.

NASA Blueshift – How were the sounds themselves created?

Turner Gillespite – My partner, Sylvia Zhu, was involved in converting the data sets to music. She used a program to convert the data into midi-audio files. We had a large selection of instruments to choose from and decided to break it down into the 4 genres (jazz, percussion, atmospheric, and orchestral). It all comes from a digital midi-sound library which we converted into an mp3 format. I would take those tracks and use them to compose my animations.

NASA Blueshift – Can you describe what we’re seeing in your animation?

Turner Gillespie – You are basically seeing a different interpretation of raw data. Instead of using charts and graphs, I’ve chosen to depict energy levels of various GRB events through layers of animation. As the energy levels rise, so does the pitch of the music and the visual complexity occurring on screen. I’ve matched high, medium, and low energy levels to different instruments and then matched those to various animations. As these energy levels overlap, so does the music and animation.

Jazz sequence (GRB 130427A)
Jazz sequence (GRB 130427A), Credit: Turner Gillespie and Sylvia Zhu

NASA Blueshift – What was the hardest thing to represent?

Turner Gillespie – Finding the right motion or gesture of animation to match with the specific musical instruments was one of the toughest parts of this film. I would listen to the musical tracks created from each separate GRB event and sketch out shapes, forms, or patterns that I felt matched the rhythm and flow of the music. It’s hard to visualize a sound, but it involves a very experimental process which I find enjoyable. I would make countless small animations and then play around with them as I began to synchronize them with the music. Some animations began to make more sense than others when matching them up with the various instruments and I would develop those movements as I went along. I wish I could have interviewed and talked with more of the people around me to gain their interpretations of the sound and see what they would do to visualize certain instruments. I feel that my interpretation of the sounds will always be very different from anyone else, so trying to pool together a mixture of interpretations could push the animation even further.

Jazz sequence (GRB 130427A)
Jazz sequence (GRB 130427A), Credit: Turner Gillespie and Sylvia Zhu

Orchestral sequence (GRB 080916C)
Orchestral sequence (GRB 080916C), Credit: Turner Gillespie and Sylvia Zhu

NASA Blueshift – What’s the most surprising thing you learned during your internship here at Goddard?

Turner Gillespie – One of the most surprising things I’ve come across at Goddard is the amount of creativity that goes on here on a daily basis. Physics and engineering are just as creative as the arts, but in very different ways. They have different approaches and processing and mind patterns, but some of the work they have produces here blows my mind. I guess I came in being a little cautious that people may shrug off the arts as something not as necessary in this environment. It’s happened to me before in certain situations, but Goddard has really opened its doors for creative collaboration.

NASA Blueshift – What’s next for you?

Turner Gillespie – What’s next? I know that I will definitely continue to develop the work I’ve done with the GRB visualization project and perhaps turn it into something bigger, using more data from Goddard. The idea of opening up some of these complicated concepts to a wider audience through the medium of animation is something I think is very important and has a lot of potential. Besides some of the Goddard work, I will be working in Baltimore with a video/animation production company, among some additional freelance and personal work.

NASA Blueshift – Thank you!

You can visit the website for this animation to learn more:

Here is a poster created for the project which has a good collection of information about the piece:

GRB Poster
Credit: Turner Gillespie and Sylvia Zhu

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