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The chasm
The chasm

Artwork created in 2001

Making of the Chasm

[Concept][The troubles begin?][Shopping for monsters][The chasm closes][Credits]


All kids love to walk on the edge of the pavement, or on lines drawn on the ground, imagining that at the least misstep they will fall in the abyss wide open below their feet. Sometimes they run too fast and fall into the abyss with mock terror but resurrection is (usually) immediate. But a time comes when the kids - us - do realise that there is indeed a chasm and that we walk on the edge of it every day. Usually, we choose to ignore it. Other people despair and slide, or plunge, into it. Others make up their own reality about it. Very often, chasm-like situations have been integrated in the corpus of religious (or at least moral) representations of the world.

As a consequence, images and tales of the chasm have been used repeatedly by religious or moral authorities to warn people about what would happen to them if they didn't follow the straight line. The catch, however, is that when you want to retain people's attention, when you want to inspire awe, what you tell or show must be attractive. The only non-seductive proposal would be eternal boredom, but this is obviously hard to sell as the direst penalty. So, cautionary pieces are vivid, colourful, fun in their would-be horrible depictions, and ultimately tempting.

The Chasm picture is a sort of tribute, first to the kids we were (and still are), and second to those past artists who strove hard to make terror-inspiring images, but somehow failed in such magnificent proportions that their work have been admired for centuries as the epitome of imagination.

The troubles begin?

Making this image was a rather humbling task. It actually started as a small project. It was born on a long train ride, brought about by the dream-inducing "tatum-tatum" rhythm, along with two other pictures (the second one is The Taming of the K and the last remains to be done - it's another rather large project that goes under the work title as "The necks"). The sketches were quickly done. The first featured a child walking on a zigzagging yellow line over a mountainous landscape. This idea was dropped immediately because of a perspective problem: I couldn't see a way to have both planes in focus and still have them interrelated. The child would appear glued to, or floating over, the background. So I drew a second sketch, with the child running on the pavement's edge on the left, over some sort of rocky ravine. Two or three dragon-like creatures bared their teeth below. I planned to model them myself in Amapi.

Several weeks later, about May 15, 2001, having finished a few shorter projects, I started working on this one. However, it was less straightforward that it had first appeared during the train ride. First, I was not up to model complex objects with Amapi since I was just beginning to learn it. Second, using Jurassic Park escapees seemed unimaginative and parsimonious in retrospect and, after all, everybody knows that kids love, not fear, dinosaurs. So I went back to my art books, and had a good look at some of my favourite paintings, namely Hieronymous Bosch's "The garden of earthly delights" and "The temptation of Saint Anthony" and Peter Bruegel's "The Fall of the Rebel Angels".

Scans of the paintings below courtesy of Carol Gerten-Jackson, CGFA Virtual Art Museum.

La tentation de Saint-Antoine, panneau gauche, Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, Lisbonne.
Le jardin des délices, panneau central, Museo del Prado, Madrid
La chute des anges rebelles, Musée des Beaux-Arts at Brussels

I went to see an exhibition at the Louvre Museum dedicated to fantasy in islamic art (the Western bestiary of horned and winged creatures was largely influenced by its Asian counterparts). I reread bits of Jurgis Baltrusaitis' "Fantasy in the art of the Middle-Ages".

What could I borrow there that would be compatible with my rather limited technical and artistic means? Every corner of a Bosch painting is teeming with creatures that are not only all different, but are also complex, multiple chimeras of objects, humans and animals. In the bottom of the inner left wing of the "Temptation of Saint Anthony", we can see a small hunchbacked creature, mounted on ice-skates. It has a bird head with mean eyes and white-dotted wiener-dog ears. It wears a red coat with a badge, and a hat made of a funnel, with a small branch coming out of the funnel's small end, and a cherry hangs from the branch. The beak of the creature carries a sealed letter: it's a postman on its route, and three other creatures are waiting for him under a bridge.

Of course, we know that these improbable creatures are not completely gratuitous. They carry numerous symbols, or at least references to past situations, events or characters that are partly lost to us but that were obvious to everyone when the painting was made.

Shopping for monsters

The main constraint would be the memory requirement of the scene. I had rarely used more that 4 or 5 large different meshes in a scene. Having hundreds of them as in a Bosch painting was out of the question, so I had to know how many creatures I would need in the current layout. Using a dummy Poser character that I moved around and multiplied in the scene, I came up with about 20 creatures or groups of creatures. Then I started drawing sketches of the various creatures that I could possibly make, and the process became pretty straightforward from then.


I had a line-up of creatures drawn and positioned on paper, and worked on them one after another. Some of them were already in my Poser libraries, some were downloaded from Renderosity, some were bought from DAZ especially for this purpose. Each creature was posed and mixed with other creatures or props to obtain chimeras (nowhere as complex and significant as Bosch's or Bruegel's ones). Below are two Poser screenshots:

Smoking fish with frog legsBiker with deforming magnets

They were textured mostly with image maps, either original ones or ones that I painted or created out of material downloaded from the Internet. The whole process took 6 weeks (in fact 6 week-ends plus many late-night tweaking). A single creature could take several hours to pose, map and then place in the scene so that it would not collide with or hide other creatures. Regularly, I launched overnight renders of the latest version of the scene. The population was growing, as can be seen in version 7 and 8 below:

I watched with increasing uneasiness the memory requirements go over 100, 200 and then 400 Mb of RAM using small image size and low quality settings...

The Chasm closes

I wanted to use global illumination, a technique that gives incredible results when properly used. The final set up was a near-white top hemisphere with a black bottom hemisphere, a sky blue plane behind the camera and no regular lights. The light intensity was controlled by a diffuse value specific to each creature. All the tests were made using low-quality radiosity settings. I didn't worried too much about radiosity splotches, since the scene had very complex and "dirty" textures that would hide them (unlike The Classroom, which quite suffers from radiosity artefacts). The main downside of using high-quality radiosity was therefore the memory consumption. For that reason, I tried to avoid reflective and transparent surfaces as possible, and shunned absolutely all materials with refraction. It would decrease realism, particularly for the few metal textures, but this wasn't exactly a realistic image.

In the third week of June, I had all the creatures ready. A few of the original ones had been discarded for technical and artistic reasons (a thoughtful sitting cow didn't made it in the final picture because I wasn't able to pose it). Other creatures were created opportunistically because they were simple to make and looked good (thanks to their talented modelers, not to me), like this loving couple of leopard girls.

I launched a high-quality render and saw that I'd never make it with only 128 Mb of RAM, as the hard disc started thrashing immediately. The files used more than 500 Mb of hard disc, by the way.

So I bought 512 Mb RAM... You know you've been ray-tracing too long when etc.

At last I turned my efforts to the street. It should have been a masterly CSG construct, with several shop windows created from scratch... Something very realistic to create a strong contrast with the monstrous world of the chasm below. But, somehow, I was getting tired of the image and creating this would have taken a few more weeks. Anyway, I started making the yellow border, using the new rounded box function available in Povray 3.5, and was pleased with the result. I went to Jeremy Engleman's texture site and started hunting for wall and pavement textures. I mixed them using the pigment_pattern and crackle solid features. I created the windows by turning a window image into both a height field and an image map... I didn't go much further. Gone was the entire street, replaced by a single dirty wall and a couple of windows! I added some grass made with my old grass macro, a pipe from Begging for light (but re-textured) and a few minor characters, including a skating fire hydrant. After a few days more of minor tweaking, the picture was completed.

I started a standard-size render on July 4 that took a whole day. I modified a few items and launched the final 2400 x 3200 render on July 6, which was completed on July 18. Finally, I had to re-render the smileys on the Walkyries' buttocks, as I had mistakenly used a low-definition map for those...


The Chasm uses a large number of creatures and textures. Most of them were either bought from DAZ (Digital Art Zone) or downloaded from Renderosity. I've tried to track down all their respective authors but in a few cases all I have is a pseudonym.

Victoria (Vicky) and Michael (Mickey) are high-resolution characters from DAZ. Victoria 2 is an update on Victoria.