In a groundbreaking collaboration, visual artist Deborah Johnson — also known as CandyStations — uses her knowledge of Unity to build a distinctive visual accompaniment to composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 2020 record Mass for the Endangered. While compositionally a classical piece written for a choir and 12 instruments, the work conceptually functions as a requiem for the countless endangered species that inhabit the natural world. In it, Johnson invokes her mastery of virtual spaces built and performed in Unity to succinctly capture the ethos of Snider’s music.
A major overture of Johnson’s career as a visual artist is her consistent engagement with mixed media, using Unity and other tools to digitize and remediate art from the physical realm into the virtual. Her penchant for crafting iconic digital spaces has proven to be a major differentiator in her career, resulting in partnerships with high-profile artists, including generational singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and dance tastemakers Sofi Tukker.
“I find the Asset Store to be just incredible … It’s fun to take a deep dive and find the super freaky stuff, too.”
As collaborator and Unity programmer Louise Lessél describes, Johnson often uses Asset Store models as a framework, altering their composition in order to achieve a unique feeling within a scene. Lessél regularly employs shaders creatively to achieve a desired outcome, such as making a dolphin appear made of glass, noting, “We do a lot of material tests involving fine-tuning to get the look.”
This is a theme that Johnson returns to when contemplating her use of Unity as an artistic tool.
“There’s this saying that I tell my students – that ‘the software cannot define the art’,” shared Johnson. “But the thing that I fell in love with Unity for is that it often defined the art, intentionally or otherwise.”
For Snider’s Mass for the Endangered, Johnson and Lessél built unique Unity scenes for each song, generally starting from Cinema 4D scene layouts. Final shader work is implemented in-Editor and shots performed by Johnson are exported. Additional animations (sometimes handmade, other times digitally manipulated) are further composited using Adobe After Effects.
In order to inject all of these scenes with her signature flair, Johnson utilizes a multitude of tools in the physical realm to build a distinctive digital world. An example of this is pictured below, where Johnson mixes Skittles and dairy products to concoct a responsive, colorful compound that subtly informs the color scheme of each space.
Many of the objects within Johnson’s Unity-fueled virtual spaces originate from handmade sculptures and hand-drawn patterns. While Johnson creates with today’s most cutting-edge tools, she bases the composition of her scenes on the phenakistoscope and zoetrope — early 19th-century animation devices and precursors to modern film and animation. Though the final product is digital, Johnson’s interpolation of forms both old and new imbue the space on “Sanctus/Benedictus” (seen below) with a distinctively temporal feel, aligning with both her elegiac depiction of endangered species and the sentimentalism of Snider’s classical composition.
Johnson and Lessél also agree that the future of virtual live entertainment spaces, such as those built for Mass for the Endangered, is rife with potential. “It’s so interesting to see what we can do in this space to build more interactive music experiences,” Lessél remarks with palpable excitement. Johnson also expresses substantial interest in incorporating more interactivity in her future projects, citing a great degree of untapped potential for audience participation in both her past and future projects.
While Johnson’s work as CandyStations touches a number of different genres, one persistent theme among her projects is the use of Unity’s robust tools to build distinctive digital spaces. In Johnson’s own words, Unity’s best trait is the manner with which it helps her “play and experiment,” affording her the flexibility to create and refine her work.
Experienced in machine learning and image processing, Lessél admires Unity for its real-time pipeline and fast iteration speed, which allows her to quickly test and implement changes whenever artistic inspiration strikes.
The entirety of Deborah Johnson’s visual accompaniment to Mass for the Endangered, the main focus of this article, can be found on YouTube.
Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered can be found here.
For more information on Johnson’s work, check out the CandyStations website.
Finally, to chat with the Unity community about this work, visit the World Building forum.