We at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores recently had a chance to sit down with artist Teun van der Zalm and chat with him about his work. Teun uses mathematical modeling and computer rendering to create stunning, 3-D images and videos of nebulae. His work can be seen in art galleries across the globe and the videos he creates have been used in short films and other visual media in the last few years. His work is both exquisite and inspiring (check out his website for more) and we are excited to be featuring some of his work over the coming weeks, starting with the first of his Nebulae Short Films

Greetings Teun, and thank you for sitting down with us to talk a little bit about your work. First of all, can you please tell us a little bit about your journey becoming an artist?

Since my childhood I have always been fascinated with creating images. Early on, I got a video camera from my father and made short films with my friends using Legos. In 2004, I began to study animation at the Utrecht School of the Arts. While there, I worked on two short films, City of Lights and Tears/De Breuklijn. These were screened at more than fifty film festivals all over the world. After finishing my studies in 2008, I worked for four years as a freelancer on various jobs, including creating animations for documentaries and short films. Then in 2013, I began my journey into the particle realm. First, I began with the abstract. I searched for new forms using physics and other mathematical methods. Now I have developed ways to create nebulae structures in 3D using only mathematics.

What inspires you about the universe? Why did you choose to express that interest in nebulae? 

Good question. Honestly, everything inspires me about the cosmos. From really big nebula structures to the single form. It was a logical decision for me to create these stellar nurseries. I began simulating abstract forms as a sort of art project. I wanted to create more stylistic work.  I was searching for a way to merge my old passion (astronomy) and my skills I had developed the last couple of years.

What’s a fun fact that you learned about the universe while creating your work?

That is difficult to say. My work began mostly with looking at Hubble images as an artist. Always asking myself the question, how would I do this on the computer? I began my research by dissecting all the parts that make up nebulae and reading as much information as I could about the supernova process. Combining these, I began to develop the look and feel of the nebulae using the math I learned. In this process, perhaps I learned more about the complexity of our universe and how I could translate that onto a computer.

Your website mentions that you use the Perlin Noise algorithm to generate your artwork. Can you share your process with us

I began using physics to build the basic nebulae form. This means that real world physics has been adapted to simulate the flow of the clouds. At this point, it is a volumetric cloud. After that, I transform these volumetric clouds to billions of smaller particles. Then I use different Perlin Noise variations to add all the fine detail and layers.

How long does it take to generate an image? Or one of those gorgeous videos?

That depends. The further I developed my process; the more details I formed. But that also increased the render and production time, especially as I began to use more and more particles. To take that finer detail into moving images was a real challenge. I had no idea how to do it without rendering for months. Then, while working on a project at the beginning of 2017, I developed a way to slice-render the nebulae as images and place them in a compositing program where I can animate the camera and add the stars. This way it was faster and more flexible for me.

Visual media has inspired a generation of scientists, amateur astronomers, and even the movie industry. For example, the work on visualizing gravitational lensing in the movie Interstellar resulted in academic research papers about the underlying mathematics. Do you have any plans on expanding your artwork to other media or to academic research?

The last 6 months I have worked on several VFX projects. But also, commercials, music videos and others. So, I already have been able to expand my work to several other media productions. I would really like to connect and develop my style with an academic background, but I’m still searching for a university or company who is interested.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists looking to work with mathematics in their work?

Well, I am more of a system-building person. In my work the process is king. Of course, there will be a lot of math, but if I fail at some other point in the process and I can’t figure it all out, I will take a longer route than some other people to find the solution. I always dissect the problems into parts to figure them out, not all at once.

What can we expect to see from you in the coming months? Any exciting projects or releases?

Yes, I have many VFX projects, planetarium shows, and other visual presentations coming up. For example, I will team up with the biggest dark ambient music artist, Lustmord, to create a journey through our universe for his upcoming shows. We will even create a full-dome experience.

What books are on your nightstand? 

Oh, not many. I am a bit embarrassed about that. A while back I read lots of books about the art of filmmaking and science-related books. Even many Stephen King stories. But at this moment I am mostly inspired by the technology, movies, television, and old 70’s progressive rock music.

Thank you so much for your time!

You’re welcome!