08 August

Getting Started on TouchDesigner with Elburz Sorkhabi

Being hungry, having a good attitude and capitalizing on immersive technology

13 mins read

Elburz Sarkhobi is a Canadian programmer in control of the arc of his career. Whether he is creating content for his blog or teaching, he always tries to push his skills to the next level. He specializes in TouchDesigner, a node based visual programming language for real time interactive multimedia content, developed by the Toronto-based company Derivative.

Under the pretext of his visit to Mexico City to run a TouchDesigner workshop along with Vincent Houzé and Cocolab, we sat down with Elburz and talked about TouchDesigner, his artistic references, the value of collaboration and the current situation of the interactive scene in our country.

Elburz Sorkhabi favors a practice free of traditional formats, a way to approach creativity that econmpasses existencialist books, the struggle against the amalgamation of technology and corporate interests, and spicy Thai food.

Creatively speaking, where do you come from and who are your artistic and cultural references?

Elburz: That's tough. I guess my prime years of soaking up creative juices would be classical music school. I left music school because it wasn't my kind of environment. It was a very rigid place. But I carry a lot of those processes. I think very long term when I'm creating art and that's because some of my favorite pieces are an hour and a half long symphonies instead of three or four-minute songs. So, even though I’m working on installations, it's really natural for me to think about art not as a two or three-minute thing but as something that is probably going last days, months or years and people are going to see different parts of it and I think that comes a lot from my experiences in classical music.

In terms of references, I've been very lucky because my peers are my inspiration in the field. You know, we're working here with Josue in Cocolab, and they’re doing amazing work, and my friends in New York that I get to work with all the time, they're doing amazing work. One of the best, Vincent Houzé, is coming down to Mexico City for the TouchDesigner workshop. So, I am very lucky that the people that are the best in the field are also my friends. But, I guess that’s a pretty spoiled answer. Also, I have a lot of references in classical music like Herbert Von Karajan who was the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Glenn Gould, people who kind of decided they wanted to take their expression the way they wanted even if it wasn't the popular direction to go. Some people love them, some people hate them, I'm one of the people that loves them.

How did you discover and get involved with TouchDesigner?

Elburz: So I was doing music school in Toronto, where I'm from, and TouchDesigner is made by a company named Derivative who's also in Toronto. When I left school I was really interested in trying to take what I was doing in classical music, and in music in general, and experimenting with electronics and technology. At that point I was using other software like Max/MSP and Ableton and it was the perfect moment in time because TouchDesigner was really starting to mature at that point: the first Amon Tobin ISAM appearance and Plastic Man came back and both of them were using TouchDesigner. I also went to MUTEK that year where both of the premiere shows were using TouchDesigner and I was like ‘Oh my God if both these amazing shows are using TouchDesigner then it must be the best software to do all this cool stuff.’ So I started learning TouchDesigner a little bit on my own. At that point in time there weren’t as many developers or resources and I kind of figured out a good system for using TouchDesigner and Ableton and made a short little video about it. Derivative were dear friends of mine and told me ‘Hey we noticed you’re in Toronto. Come say hi.’ So I got to meet all the crew that makes TouchDesigner and it was really natural for me keeping in touch with them and working with them on different things, growing as a TouchDesigner developer. And here we are today. It is one little step at a time going forward.

Do you feel like TouchDesigner is an unequal tool for visual creators and artist across the board?

Elburz: I think yes and no. Here's the thing: with other software you get certain tools that do some things really well. A lot of theater people use Isadora; all the audio people use Max/MSP; all the VJs and music concert event people use Resolume. So, there's already a lot of software that do one thing or two things or three things. But what's crazy about TouchDesigner--and I think makes it unique, but also really hard for a lot of people to try and get involved with--It just does everything pretty good. And I know that, when I say it like that, it sounds bad. But then, when you see all the things that people make with TouchDesigner you’re wondering what are the possibilities, because it has all these different inputs that you can connect to all these outputs and get all the data from these places and use Python and processors and shaders and all this stuff all mingled together in one place. So it's kind of like having the ultimate Swiss Army knife.

So what would you say is the most interesting aspect of TouchDesigner?

Elburz: For me the boring answer is how well it plays back video files. I can play the biggest video files ever in TouchDesigner. The good answer though is the way it makes you think about what you're doing because it's a mix between the node based environment where you have all these little blocks and they all do one little thing and then you start connecting each one of the little blocks and all of a sudden you have an application. But you can also really get in there and code your own stuff. You can use Python or GLSL and it's a very interesting mix because a lot of software are either really heavy on one side and you're basically just coding and you never see anything until you're done or you're on the other side and everything is pre-built for you. So TouchDesigner is interesting because it's a little bit of both: you have the visual aspect of it, it's really intuitive and when you're working with clients they love to see all the little blocks and It helps them understand what you're doing.

What is the best way to learn and get the most out of TouchDesigner?

Elburz: Okay so there are a couple of answers. And the first answer is--I'm completely biased about this one--I have a new TouchDesigner subscription group called elburz.io Learn TouchDesigner HQ, which is the first resource of its kind that combines videos, tools, templates, and really step by step support from a professional like me through your whole journey in TouchDesigner. That aside, there are lots of really good blogs. My blog, Matthew Ragan's blog. There are lots of people doing videos: Licht Pfad AKA Stanislav, in Berlin, has a lot of cool videos on GLSL. He does workshops as well. Going to the summits every year is probably a really good way to learn TouchDesigner because, basically, we all go there and teach something that we think is interesting in TouchDesigner, and then all of those videos get put on YouTube too. So the possibilities are much better now than they used to be. But also, shoutout to the TouchDesigner HQ group, my group, we’re the best!

What are some of your own favorite projects?

Elburz: So... I think everyone loves their first project, you know, their first big project. The one that’s like your baby. You made all the mistakes ever on that project and somehow you still managed to finish it. You're on the job site, no one's sleeping, and it’s the first time you experience that, so you kind of never forget. For me that was working with AV&C out of New York who brought us on to work on the Seattle Art Museum with the artist Doug Aitken who designed a really interesting system. I guess that was about six years ago and it's a permanent installation now so it's still there. It has all these different LEDs on the outside of the building with lots of sensors that check the environment and then change the display on the outside based on what's going on. So it's a really cool project. It was the first big project I did and so many mistakes were made, but it was a really fun time and it's very memorable.

What about other artists or projects that you like?

Elburz: Actually, Josue’s work here in Cocolab was really interesting for me because my career has always been from that viewpoint of doing really, really big corporate work, you know, so the big brands, the big clients, Google, IBM and all these other ones. That's kind of where we live in our work, and for a long time I would say I want to make a good career and make good money and so on. That's a really good direction to go in. Then there's the artist way where you kind of do festivals, galleries, residences and things of the sort. And then, when Josue told me about the process that Cocolab has and all the different ways you're trying to bring more cultural projects and build your own projects and later finding clients for them . . . I thought that was really interesting. So, I guess it's more about the approach. And I think that's something that is unique to Mexico City also, which is a city with so much rich culture that's bringing up the art scene and interactive scene at the same time. Doing the work … not for culture, but in the sense that a lot of the projects you guys are doing here don’t have like a giant bank, phone company or any kind of company behind it. It’s like that projection Cocolab is doing at Teotihuacan, which is now a permanent exhibition. The only other place I’ve seen that, in my experience, would be Japan, which is also another scene that has so much culture and love for art.

What attracts you to collaboration, and teaching?

Elburz: Collaboration, education and moving around have always been three big things for me. Collaboration kind of happens naturally--it’s probably because people like my funny jokes! But education is something I really prioritize. I think mainly because I feel very fortunate about how my career developed and I had people who were way better than me always looking after me. People I can turn to ask questions, you know, Derivative, who's been very supportive of me and my peers as well. So I try not to break that chain. I'm always available. It's trying to pay it forward a little bit and spread the message. I have never in my life thought ‘Oh man, we have more developers than there are projects.’ Everybody wants something interactive and there are not enough people that can do that. So, the more people there are, the more projects there will be, and then the more collaboration. Everyone wins in the education game … and I'm good at it, so … I mean if I was really bad at it, it wouldn't make sense to be wasting my time. If people were like why does this guy travel around with his shitty workshops? No. I'm good at it, so it seems it all fits together for me, especially when we do these longer workshops that are a few days then you see people grow and they get pretty excited and tell you about projects that they're going to go try after the workshop. So it’s really nice.

How do you pick your personal projects, what inspires you?

Elburz: So personal projects are a funny one because I don't really have any. And that's just a reaction to my career having been so corporate for so long. I recently did an interview with Michelle Higa Fox on my blog and we were talking about personal projects, and trying to stay inspired, and she was telling her version of how she does it, and I was saying that when someone says to me ‘hey let's go look at that really cool art installation that's out at this festival nearby’ I’m like ‘ugh, that sounds like work, I don’t wanna do that.’ I'm sure the installation is cool. Whoever it is that did it I know I probably love them dearly, but if I’m not working I don’t want to look at that sort of things. So, for me, personal projects are things that are like completely outside of the field. Writing is something I do a lot and my blog takes a little bit of that. I do software development for smaller projects I'm interested in, I like space industry stuff. I kind of just mess around. I read a lot. I try to explore, go hiking. So my personal projects are anything I can do that just makes my brain do different stuff that isn’t work.

I really would be lying if I said I'm generally inspired. I'm very disciplined about my work so I don’t practice because I’m inspired, I practice because I need to get really good at what I'm doing. And then when I get really good at what I'm doing, I can express myself. So inspiration isn't even in my general work equation. I've put in so much time and energy and discipline into learning all those things that now whenever I want to express myself I can do that. I wouldn't say it’s perfect or healthy in every single way but... uh...my system works for me.

What’s a once a year thing you can’t miss?

Elburz: Spicy Thai food I think. Hiking a really big mountain. I’ve always loved hiking, especially the pain you feel the day after. I probably shouldn't miss the TouchDesigner Summit anymore. But definitely Spicy Thai food. In Bangkok. You go, you ask for spicy and then they’ll ask you ‘real spicy or foreign spicy?’ That's definitely a once a year I can’t miss. I wanna cry when I’m eating it.

If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?

Elburz: I've got a couple of answers to that. The first thing is, I would separate corporate interest from technology infrastructure because I think that is the reason why we have so many technology and “socio-technical” issues today: because corporate interests and technology infrastructure have been linked. Another thing would be ... bad jokes maybe? Illiteracy, fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are really bad. Currency exchanges cuz’ exchanging currency is a gigantic pain. The plastic forks that when you try and fork something with them the thing breaks. I mean, what is the point of making this thing if it doesn't do its thing right?

Any words of wisdom you'd like to share with the world today.

Elburz: I’ve got two. I’ve got one for TouchDesigner and one for life. The first thing is read lots of books because there are thousands of years of knowledge in books and I think people are so used to watching YouTube videos to learn stuff that they don't realize the universe inside of books. Go read some Sartre and go read some Camus; computer books. That's how I learned how to do everything. I mean, when I was starting YouTube wasn't that big so I had to read books to figure out how to do all the developing stuff. And a TouchDesigner specific advice would be for people to be hungry because a lot of people get really self-conscious about their lack of skills. TouchDesigner is a tool where you can do so much, that a lot of time it paralyzes you. A lot of people get Imposter Syndrome because they think they’re not good enough or don’t have the skills to really compete in this kind of industry, but it's like I said before: there's never enough talent.

If you show that you're willing to learn and you're hungry and you know you have a good attitude, those things are way more important than the skills you currently have, because skills can be learned, but a good attitude is really hard to teach to someone. I'd rather work with someone with a good attitude that I can teach technology to than somebody who doesn't have a good attitude and is really good at technology. I don’t wanna work with the second person, the first person is way better to work with.