Making "Trinity"

The idea for the Trinity video originated over two years ago. One of the earliest modules I built for Oculon, named Tectonic, showed seemingly random blips with crosshairs on a black background.


These were actually the earthquakes from the past 30 days positioned on a hidden map. The data came from the US Geological Survey and the blips were sized relative to the quake magnitudes.

One night I was re-watching the documentary, Trinity and Beyond, featuring a great collection of restored archive footage of nuclear tests. At this point it occurred to me that there must be a database of all these tests, and if only the data included timestamps, location coordinates and magnitudes, then it could work with the existing Tectonic code.

After some research I came across a few data sources. They all seemed to vary slightly, and had discrepancies in the number of tests. I chose the one with the most complete data set, Johnston’s Archive and also the Australian Government Geosciences Nuclear Explosions Database as cross-reference.

Also during this research phase I found that another artist, Isao Hashimoto, had already created a very similar project in 2003, titled “1945-1998”. This is a great piece of work and I encourage everyone to watch it.

At first I was discouraged, thinking I should abandon the idea since it was already done before. After some time passed, this turned to inspiration instead. Trinity would tackle the same subject with a different aesthetic both visually and aurally, and would use the data in different ways. There is always room for multiple interpretations of the same data and different ways of exploring the same concept.

Once the data was formatted and the code could parse it, there were quite a few technical challenges to overcome before this hacked together VJ module could be turned into a presentable data visualization sequence. I worked on these problems intermittently for a while, without making much progress.

Earlier this year, I realized that 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the Trinity test, as well as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I thought this would be an appropriate time to release the project, as it would resonate and serve as a means to reflect on these events and the proliferation of nuclear weapons thereafter. Having a deadline is also a great motivator.

From the start, I knew this project would be nothing without sound. My initial experiments with generating audio with cinder did not yield promising results, and this had to done right. I called upon my fellow mechanics to handle all the sound. Patrick (Diagraf) created the background soundscape and Phil (Rusty Faders) created the detonation sounds. The sound design on both fronts really took the project to the next level.

To maintain tight synchronization and use the data to manipulate the sound properties, the visualization was run in real-time in Oculon while it sent MIDI data to Ableton, essentially like a live A/V set. This had the added bonus of allowing me to make adjustments on the fly, since nothing was pre-rendered or pre-recorded.

I’m very happy with the final result, and the reception so far has been truly incredible: currently at over 860k views and still counting! It was featured in Huffington Post, The Guardian, Vice/Motherboard, Gizmodo/Sploid, The Independent, Fast Company, and selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick, among the social media frenzy. I’m flabbergasted.

The response has certainly been a great source of encouragement, and we have big plans for expanding on the Trinity project in the near future. We’ve also seen how data can be both beautiful and powerful when combined with visuals and sound, and plan to explore further into this domain. Stay tuned!