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Michael McAfee's artworks are vignette capturing psychedelic creatures

STIR speaks with visual artist and digital animator Michael McAfee to explore his fascinating creative practice that straddles traditional formats and digital genres.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Feb 07, 2023

Michael McAfee is a self-taught traditional visual artist and digital animator who produces stunning works informed by retro-futurism and pop surrealism. Looking back on his creative journey, he tells STIR, "I went to university for film, where I intended to pursue a career as a cinematographer, but dropped out in the middle of my second year when I found out I didn't like being on a film set. I have always been fascinated by animation—I created stop-motion animation as a child with clay figures, and before that I made flip-books with stacks of post-it notes. When I got a computer, I created animations with Adobe Flash and posted them online to websites like Newgrounds.”

It was not until McAfee was contacted by Tycho, an artist he respected, during his first year at university, that it finally clicked that he could make a career out of creating art on the computer. Explaining their creative relationship, he says, "He asked me to work with him on animations for his upcoming album. Tycho is a Grammy-nominated musician, but before that he was a well-known designer called ISO50. Working with him professionally at such a young age, along with a plethora of personal issues, was probably what informed my decision to drop out of school, and find out what I could create.”

Polymorphic Still 1, 2022, digital art| Polymorphic | Michael McAfee | STIRworld
Polymorphic Still 1, 2022, digital art Image: Michael McAfee

The artist finds inspiration in creatives across a variety of mediums, but he seems to have a particular affinity for film and television—he recalls being blown away by Neill Blomkamp's work on District 9. McAfee expands on this, saying, "The expensive CGI was in the background, obscured by shaky camera work and video artefacts. I apply a similar treatment to my work." He views each piece he creates as a vignette captured by a film crew, and references National Geographic in this regard. “But instead of filming cheetahs and gorillas,” he says, "the crew is capturing psychedelic creatures on a Martian landscape." 

This is not to say, however, that the artist's influences do not extend to more traditional mediums—he adds that he often references artists such as H.R. Giger and Zdzislaw Beksinski within his pieces, especially for the way that they fuse the organic and artificial in their work. The artist explains that it is something he finds himself emulating often, and it is quite plain to see in the forms he uses within his art—composite organic constructs mixed with strange mechanical miscellany.

Polymorphic Still 2, 2022, digital art| Polymorphic | Michael McAfee | STIRworld
Polymorphic Still 2, 2022, digital art Image: Michael McAfee

Discussing his process, the digital artist says, "I think about all of my work as vignettes existing in one massive universe that I call Polymorphic. The visuals for Polymorphic almost always begin with the creatures, often in a very iterative fashion. I don’t go into the designs with a sketch or idea of how the creature should look—somewhere along the way, I tend to regurgitate forms and anatomical features from existing animals into the designs. I take a lot of inspiration from deep sea creatures in particular.”

Polymorphic, 2022, video Video: Michael McAfee

Each iteration of the creatures that the artist creates in 3D art is informed by theorising how he thinks those beings would exist in their imagined natural environments—How do they move? What sensory features do they use to make sense of their environments? Do they travel by themselves, or in a group?

It is his aim that every visible feature is well-informed, and that it serves a purpose. He says, “I design and animate all of my work in 3D software, and I don't even think about colouring, texturing, or lighting until all of the animation and design work is locked. All of the colour work is done after the fact, in 2D software. Separating the colour work and animation work helps me to not get overwhelmed in the process—and I think this inevitably informs the look of each piece. I aim to give my work a hand-drawn feel, but take full advantage of CGI software—some of my work features textures that are actually drawn by hand, by my girlfriend.”

Hellion Spawn, 2020, video Video: Michael McAfee

The digital artist has partnered with various big names, and his last such project was a piece for the network channel Adult Swim. He looks back at this with great excitement, telling us that it had been a goal of his for some time. Many of his heroes have been commissioned by the channel, or have had their work featured on Adult Swim. He says, “It was a bucket list item that I got to check off." It is only very recently that the artist began pursuing his own art full-time. He states that just a few months ago, he quit his design gig at Google, where he was working on a VR prototype.

The artist hopes that now, he will have more energy to put into a better realised version of the Polymorphic universe he is building. McAfee elaborates, "My art was just featured at an amazing venue off of Michigan avenue in Chicago. I had the opportunity to design work that spanned 10 massive LED screens across a 190-foot ceiling. It was amazing to see my craft experienced in a physical space instead of on a smartphone or TV. In early 2023, I will host my own solo show that I will put on myself in Chicago. I am being ambitious with the vision—I intend to create an immersive space that is audio-reactive and features light shows that sync up to the movements of the creatures. I am in the process of finding sponsors and grants that will help fund the purchase of the necessary gear to pull this off.”

Profile Picture, 2022, Image | Polymorphic | Michael McAfee | STIRworld
Profile Picture, 2022, Image Image: Michael McAfee

The artist concludes by saying, “I'd like to take my work into the physical realm—I want my work to be entirely experiential, and have it be unique every time it's experienced live. I think that a lot of art shows, and the art industry in general, can be pretentious and exclusive. I like the open-source nature that artists like The Grateful Dead cultivated—I like visual art that plays in tandem with music—I like technology—I want to combine all of these things into an experience that makes people want to come out and show up.”

What do you think?

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