Studio Above&Below on its powerful short film of augmented objects derived from the river Ruhr

Commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Science of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the short film explores digital material ecology for “a greener approach to the future”.

7 June 2021


In 2018, we first heard from Daria Jelonek and Perry-James Sugden as they kicked off the launch of their new London-based studio Above&Below. Nearly three years have passed, and it’s safe to say the studio has grown in terms of its wide mix of projects and experimentation with 3D environments. Having initially joined forces right out of the Royal College of Art, the duo jumped into founding the studio and started to build on their portfolio, succumbing to the exploration of how digital tools can create positive change in our environment. “We still have the same energy,” says Daria, “however we’ve grown, our projects and practice are larger and we work with larger teams and collaborators to develop ambitious ideas. We are still questioning and aiming to influence the future of art, design and technology in regards to a diverse environment.”

The studio has evolved three specific parts of its practice, including mixed reality experiences, CGI art and future research. Much of its process is heavily influenced by data, contributed by collaborators or gathered through their own research and then mixed with interaction design “as we often work with technologies that only a few people have worked with before,” Perry-James tells It’s Nice That. “However, the visual side is at the forefront of our work and hence we are using CGI, combining it with data, generative elements or meaningful storytelling. Visually, this can either lead to a combination of slick geometric renders and unexpected textures which we see as a symbiosis between machines and us, both doing some decision making.” Although sounding like something from a distant and dystopian future, the work that Above&Below puts out into the world is inherently related to real-time situations – analysing our relationship with tech, machines, sustainability and the environment.

This can be seen throughout the entirety of the studio’s practice, but most notably within the newly launched Aquateque, a short film and multimedia installation that uses visual AI tools and 3D software to navigate the river Rhur, a 200km-long stretch of water in Germany. All of which is shot through the lens of a computer, capturing the river from “spring to mouth” and exploring “the term digital material ecology in its context,” says Daria. A place where nature, machines and humans bound together, the piece was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Science of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, co-directed and co-produced by the Germany-based artist Elinar Fehrholz and various other 3D designers and directors of photography. “Based on thousands of images and sounds we have taken of the river, we created our own material dataset and library to process through two artificial neural networks,” explains Perry-James. “These formed the alternative and hybrid new landscapes and materials which may emerge in this area one day.”

GalleryAbove&Below: Aquateque, co-directed by Einar Fehrholz. Film stills (Copyright © Above&Below and Einar Fehrholz, 2021)

The river Rhur is located in western Germany and runs through the heart of the Ruhr district. One of the reasons for focusing on this particular river is because of its local context with the commissioner; North Rhine-Westphalia is in fact located in this western state. But additionally, the team had all been “examining and experimenting with water in previous explorations,” explains Einar Fehrholz, the co-director of the film, which made it a natural excursion for the project. “For me as a resident of the region, it was also the urge to focus on something local in these times. The river Ruhr and its historical context offered us a variety of themes and topics like the man-made impact on natural landscapes, transformational processes in the region and the ongoing restoration of a landscape as an attempt to answer questions regarding a greener approach to the future.” The film also serves as a necessary merger between the immensely digital realm we’ve all found ourselves in, which has only been heightened over the course of the pandemic. Aquateque, in this sense, aims to reconnect its viewers with the natural world and habitats around us – including rivers – done so through the “visual and sonic spectacles of our surroundings,” continues Einar.

The film in total took five months to create, built through a blend of the studio’s own audio visual datasets compiled from thousands of images of the water, including the rocks, trees and green landscapes. “In order to train these on a popular GAN – which a large audience calls AI art – we did this until we found surfaces we were happy to create with and become the real augmented experience,” adds Daria. “This was done in a thoughtful way running the code on carbon neutral cloud computing.” By working with traditional 2D GAN aesthetics and transferring it into the 3D and CGI space, this was the first time the studio had experimented with this method. Additionally, through a mix of Houdini 3D animation software the team were able to “influence meshed surfaces and generate 3D forms”, finished off with Cinema4D, Octane and Redshift for the renders.

All in all the project has the power to make its audience stop and think for a minute; to observe the natural wonders and elements of our planet and to see them in a new and heightened manner – achieved through the detailed, minute and macro possibilities of technology. “We want the audience to think about how we will collectively work with machines and ecology in the future within the art, design and technology field,” says Perry-James. “We wish to inspire and push how digital material ecologies and modelling of objects could be created and designed using popular artificial neural networks (AI tools).”

“We want makers to be aware of their footprint,” he concludes, “even though we are all just a small fragment of the global computational use. We should be aware from the outset that these tools could exponentially increase very quickly and become a norm.”

GalleryAbove&Below: Aquateque, co-directed by Einar Fehrholz. Film stills (Copyright © Above&Below and Einar Fehrholz, 2021)

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Above&Below: Aquateque, co-directed by Einar Fehrholz. Film stills (Copyright © Above&Below and Einar Fehrholz, 2021)

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Further Info

Full credits:

Aquateque directed by Einar Fehrholz and Studio Above&Below
Concept & Development: Einar Fehrholz, Studio Above&Below | Daria Jelonek, Perry-James Sugden
Directors Of Photography: Leon Schirdewahn, Ravi Sejk
CGI: Axel Schoterman, Studio Above&Below | Daria Jelonek, Perry-James Sugden
Cut & VFX: Studio Above&Below | Daria Jelonek
Sound Design: Einar Fehrholz
Programming Development: Studio Above&Below | Perry-James Sugden

About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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