Mike Pelletier’s work pushes the boundaries on how new media represents the human body

By combining ragdoll simulations with motion capture data, the Canadian digital artist tries to defy recognisable movements.

9 November 2020


As a child in the mid-80s, growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, Mike Pelletier used to copy BASIC (a family of general-purpose, high-level programming languages) programmes out of computer magazines. He copied this recipe line-by-line for his first experiment: an animated duck made up of circles and ellipses who would flap its wings when the programme was completed. “I was a very slow typist and it took me days to complete the programme, although I did have help from my mother who finished typing out the code while I slept,” Mike tells It’s Nice That. Today, Mike works at the Willem De Kooning Academy in Rotterdam in the school’s Interaction Station teaching AR and VR.

“I’m not sure if it’s connected, but I ended up studying new media art in art school,” he says. “I had no conception of what new media art was, growing up in the middle of nowhere in Canada, but I was attracted to the fact that it was a developing field where none of the rules had yet been written.” It was during this period that he became interested in generative art, using software to create work with the possibility of endless variations and randomness.

Part of the appeal was how the discipline was not really bound by any rules. There were plenty of techniques and concepts to figure out without having to follow strict guidelines. “You could just make it up as you went along,” he says. For instance, one of his earliest inspirations was the prolific net art collective, Jodi. “I loved how they turned the medium of the web inside out, exposing the usually hidden source code and bringing it to the fore, twisting and turning it until it broke in interesting ways,” Mike explains.

His style today has been described as hypnotic and unsettling, a result of his continued interest in randomness and the unconventional. Working as an individual digital artist, as opposed to being backed by massive teams in big studios meant that Mike’s work had to take on a different quality. For him, this meant leaning into this concept of randomness to create work that is contemplative and exploratory.

“I tend to like making things that are slow and contemplative and I have a penchant for intense colour palettes and unconventional colour combinations,” he says of his aesthetic choices. “I feel like I am trying to make 3D animations as if they were paintings.” This painterly quality pairs well with his conceptual drive to explore representations of the human body using technology. “There are strange things that happen when the way we see ourselves is translated into numbers, formulas and engineering decisions. My work is often about finding the edges and the breaking points in these representations. Exploring the excessive potential within.”


Mike Pelletier: Constraint Iterations (Copyright © Mike Pelletier, 2020)

One recent series, Constraint Iterations, is the perfect way to see this approach come to life. In the series, ragdoll-like bodies shift and slide in a curtained room. Their latex-like skin is multicoloured and hangs freely off the CGI skeleton. There is something captivating, almost ghostly, about how these models move and dance around each other. Mike wanted to use motion capture as a way of generating randomness. Finding existing gestures in motion capture databases to be too recognisable, he processed them with a set of rules to create the movements we see in the series.

“I started by exploring ragdoll simulations, which are typically used in games when a player dies and their inanimate body is flung about. I took these ragdoll sims and blended them with the motion capture animations, which transforms these recorded movements into something more fluid,” he explains. “Eventually the bodies were transformed into cloth as a way of further abstracting the recorded motions.

Mike initially had plans to collaborate with dancers for one of the videos, as performers who might interact with this system usually come with their own set of rules on how to move. “In the end, I wore a mocap suit myself and recorded my own movements. I am decidedly not a dancer and I am not known for my fluidity of motion. I am mostly known for sitting down,” he jokes. This self-generated movement, along with Jacek Doroszenko’s music that accompanies the whole series, became the fourth animation in Constraint Iterations.

When asked about what he’s got on his plate in the near future, he gives a frank answer that most can relate to. “Does anyone have a good answer for this right now? Like most people, I don’t have much lined up,” he says. “I will be teaching online, spending time with my wife, taking my one-and-a-half-year-old son to the playground and retreating to my attic studio to make more work when possible.” Soon, he hopes that he gets the chance to show work in a real room with real-life human beings.

GalleryMike Pelletier: Constraint Iterations (Copyright © Mike Pelletier, 2020)

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Mike Pelletier: Constraint (Copyright © Mike Pelletier, 2020)

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About the Author

Alif Ibrahim

Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.

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