Annihilation’s fractal ecology
by Ben Platt, University of Cambridge
As Lena descends towards the centre of ‘Area X’ she plunges into ever refracting spatialities and weird, looping temporalities. She is a biologist—tasked with determining the alien source of a shimmer which refracts genetic material. This shimmer undulates with petroleum-like effects in the background the diegetic landscape. As she makes her way through a pine forest, suggestions of mutation are evident. Beams of light shimmer as though refracted through a dispersive optical prism (Figure 1). Lichen populations proliferate in explosive colour—evolutionary processes seemingly twisted. As she exits the forest, she enters a littoral, geomorphic landscape littered with crystalline trees and skeletal remains. The geomorphic temporalities and atmospheric processes of Area X are juxtaposed with the seeming mutability of Lena’s biophysical rhythms and bodily refrain as she moves through the landscape (Figure 2).
She descends further …
These perforating crystalline structures and undulating petroleum-like effects are the outcome of the use of three-dimensional Mandelbulb fractals at multiple points in filmic production (Whitehurst, 2019; see also Failes, 2018). Mandelbulb fractals were originally speculated, in all but name, by California-based science-fiction writer and mathematician Rudy Rucker. In his 1987 short story, As Above, So Below A 3D Mandelbrot Set Story, Rucker took the foundational assumptions of Benoit Mandelbrot’s work on the fractal—namely, the infinite complexity of patterns whereby each spatial scale is irreducibly, yet non-deterministically, connected to every other—and multiplied it into three-dimensional space. In 2009, two mathematicians, Daniel White and Paul Nylander, along with a wider fractal forum community, coined a name for this project: the Mandelbulb. Using a spherical coordinate system, and mathematical formula, the pair projected the Mandelbrot set into three dimensions. While the flat set exhibits infinite complexity, the Mandelbulb reveals that complexity in a fuller magnitude.
The use of fractals in cinematic production is neither new nor novel. As early as the 1980s, Loren Carpenter, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, who read Benoit Mandelbrot’s Fractals: Form, Chance, and Dimension, began experimenting with fractals to make his computer graphics look more realistic. His animation, Vol Libre (1980), was the first ever fractal generated computer animation. The techniques developed gave rise to software programs now widely used, not only within Pixar but also across the computer graphics industry to create special effects—including fictitious landscapes and imaginary worlds. Loren Carpenter’s work and legacy shows how fractals were used to create some of the very first ‘realistic’ digital animations. This was about surface/texture imitation and composition—it had a pre-defined idealistic outcome that looked to replicate or represent the complex patterns found in Nature.
Annihilation’s Mandlebulbs are similar post-production, compositional techniques—in digital, algorithmic form. Using the Houdini software package, Whitehurst and the production team produced, coloured, and rotated Mandelbulb fractals using an algorithm to edit filmic material. “We experimented with different geometric patterns and speeds, undulations” says Whitehurst when we spoke in 2019. They rendered and manipulated algorithmic co-ordinates which embodied remarkable plasticity: its marks, its shape, its composition could be moulded according to artistic whim. Whitehurst (in Failes, 2018) remarks how the team “unwrapped a Mandelbulb, made it into a wall, and then had multiple different Mandelbulbs running at different speeds […] which would ebb and flow continually.” In effect, the algorithmic code of the post-production software became a substitute for the paint on a brush or the celluloid reel in a film camera (Rodowick, 2009 ): a plastic compositional medium to be moulded at the artists whim.
The compositional nature of Annihilation’s fractal is thrown into further relief by Whitehurst’s citation of Andre Takovsky and J. M. W. Turner as artistic influences:
All of the production team are massive Tarkovsky fans; we really do try and use the landscape in our work (Whitehurst, 2019)
We looked at some of Turner’s work to get some inspiration […] the way he foregrounds the natural light in his landscapes was useful in editing and composing the frame (Whitehurst, 2019)
This seems counterintuitive—since Tarkovsky and Turner appear irreconcilable in their compositional method and medium. In his publication, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky (1989 ) foregrounds the undulating currents of duration which impinge or indeed overwhelm diegesis—what he calls cinematic “time-pressure” (pg. 6). Turner, on the other hand, channels the sublime explosiveness of light and colour to subvert figural landscape. What Whitehurst takes from the pair, however, is their shared ability at maintaining the swelling duration or lively potential of the landscape within the compositional medium of their respective works.
Whitehurst and Garland both subscribe to this desire. They wanted to maintain the geomorphic, lithic, and littoral rhythms and atmospheres of Holkham beach’s profilmic landscape. The fractals plasticity allowed this absorption—translating them into Lena’s slow, swelling descent:
I think we managed to capture the rhythms from the beach in the scene. Emphasising the silence, the wind, the tides, the waves. It really contributed to the feeling of the shot which we wanted to build (Whitehurst, 2019)
Annihilation’s fractal not only maintains the geomorphological natality of the landscape, however. As a compositional technique the Mandlebulb fractal is itself immersed within the very same processes of ‘emergence’ and ‘interconnectivity’ to which the films narrative portends:
You […] see a commonality across images of life. Mimicry and mathematics occur in nature that way. Everything is connected to everything else (Whitehurst, 2019)
It simultaneously represents and embodies, within the films compositional medium, an “emergent fractality” which is descriptive of the so-called Anthropocene (Guattari, 1995 : 64)—a putative epoch in which boundaries between the human and nonhuman have eroded towards indistinction.
The is why we thought the fractal was interesting, because it is part and parcel of the world we were trying to explicate (Whitehurst, 2019)
In this sense, the fractal becomes more than merely a technique of filmic production and composition. It becomes a self-reflexive technology.
This, again, is not uncommon. Many speculative cinematic production techniques use technologies which function as narrative elements (Bukatman, 1999). One need look no further than Alex Garland’s (2016) Ex Machina as an example. Garland uses artificial intelligence and body suit sensors, on actress Alicia Vikander, to represent Ava, an AI, as a transparent machine. When hyper-red crimson light flood the networked, surfaceless space, the glass between Ava and Caleb, the protagonist, disappear, rendering bodies—automated, simulated, biological, and cybernetic—indistinguishable (Figure 3).
What makes Annihilation particularly interesting, however, is the way in which the fractal is manipulated as the narrative progresses. As Lena progresses towards the centre of the shimmer, she descends into an ever more crystallized spaces. As she moves along the beach, past brittle skeletons and crystalline trees towards the lighthouse, referentiality progressively dissolves towards surrealist abstraction. The progression and accompanying panning shot functions as a kind of durational ‘cork-screw’—reminiscent of Tarkovsky. As Lena advances the weird, looping temporalities and refracted interconnectivity gradually yet palpably condense within the frame.
The Mandlebulb plays an active role in this spatial and temporal constriction. As Lena enters the lighthouse, she descends through a crystalline, graphite passage, into the ambiguous, dark, geomorphic centre of the shimmer (Figure 4). This passage was itself produced by the Mandlebulb (Whitehurst, 2019). As she descends pressure builds within the frame. All spatial, organic-inorganic, biological-geological boundaries blur into a kind of metamorphic zone—a subversion of landscape through a black hole of pressure.
When Lena arrives at core of the shimmer, she is confronted with a crystalline space which fuses with a nebulous, pseudo-biological, gaseous cloud (Figure 5). Produced via Mandelbulb VFX (Whitehurst, 2019), this alien being’s molten hot, pyroclastic appearance represents the most condensed point of biochemical, geological and morphogenic contraction. It undulates and pulsates as it opens up—gradually consuming, refracting and merging with Lena’s genetic biochemistry.
The heavy, irregular, pulsation of Moderat’s The Mark [interlude] sonically enframes this “pulsating unbecoming” of the Human subject (Grosz, 2006: 6). Moderat, the German electronic music group, actually used fractal principles in conjunction with electronic synths in the production of the piece. Its metronomic repetition intensifies as the geomorphic orb engulfs the helpless mutability of Lena’s human matter (Figure 6)—engendering a rather disturbing feeling of hypnotic fascination and consumption.
As Lena’s subjectivity is dissolved, spectatorial space is itself subsumed—leaving the viewer palpably uneasy. This is precisely what Garland and Whitehurst intended:
Alex [Garland] wanted the viewer to feel like they were being engulfed by the scene […] being drawn in, along with Lena (Whitehurst, 2019)
The body of the spectator is synchronically drawn into post-cinema media ecologies by sonic pulsation and engulfing fractals. This is reflexively gestured towards in the penultimate scene whereby a portable film camera sits between Lena and the cloud which has completely subsumed/mimicked her form (Figure 7). The camera is explicitly not mediating between the entities. There are no screens or surfaces mediating the relationship. As a seemingly redundant cinematic apparatus, it is merely a technological manifestation, a lifeless, plastic product, of the processes of interconnectivity which are being played out before its eye.
This raises interesting questions about the dispersal of subjectivity and agency within digital ecologies: Where exactly is the fractal situated—profilmic ecology, cinematic/narrative space, spectatorial space, or post-cinematic? How does it create such corporeal affects—is the subject drawn into relation with the profilmic landscape, for example? How does a collection of algorithms resonate across seemingly disconnected spaces?
One could argue that the fractal exists on the same plane of ‘emergence’ as digital code and the unfolding of life itself. Immanent to becoming, to life, digital and non-digital—able to cut across space and time as process. The viewing experience of Annihilation entails peak fractality as the film ends. Visual and auditory fractals engulf the viewing subject, annihilating the artificial boundary between digital and non-digital.
However, this does not explain why it evokes such uneasy spectatorial reactions. But this, I think, is the useful thing about Annihilation’s fractal ecology: it raises questions, evokes uneasy feelings, and leaves them unanswered. It is ultimately an act of speculation. Speculatively foregrounding the ways in which algorithm, biology, chemistry, and geology all relate in novel and uncertain ways—in this case through cinematic ecologies—allows one to begin raise more informed questions concerning the so-called Anthropocene and its proliferating digital ecologies.
 The Ware Tetralogy is a series of four science fiction novels by Rudy Rucker: Software (1982), Wetware (1988), Freeware (1997), and Realware (2000).
 Such as the Genesis planet sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the damaged Death Star in Return of the Jedi and the cloud and trees seen in Up (2009)
Ex Machina (2016) [Online] Alex Garland dir. England: Film4 Productions; DNA Films [Viewed Nov 2017] Available on Amazon Prime.
Annihilation (2019) [Online] Alex Garland dir. Santa Monica: Skydance Productions [Viewed Nov 2019] Available on Netflix.
Bukatman, S., 1999. ‘The artificial infinite: on special effects and the sublime’. Alien Zone II: the spaces of science-fiction cinema (Kuhn, A [eds.]). New York: Verso., pp.249-276.
Failes, I. 2018. Mandelbulbs, mutations and motion capture: the visual effects of Annihilation https://vfxblog.com/2018/03/12/mandelbulbs-mutations-and-motion-capture-the-visual-effects-of-annihilation/ [accessed on 24/3/19]
Grosz, E., 2006. Bergson, Deleuze and the becoming of unbecoming. parallax, 11(2), pp.4-13.
Guattari, F., 1995 . Chaosmosis: An ethico-aesthetic paradigm. Bloomington, I: Indiana University Press.
Rodowick, D.N., 2009 . The virtual life of film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tarkovsky, A. 1989 . Sculpting in time: reflections on the cinema. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Whitehurst, A. 2019. Personal communication.
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