Maxim Zhestkov The CG animator inspired by shape-shifting cuttlefish

WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

Cuttlefish are weird. They have the ability to instantly change color, blending into their surroundings to stay hidden from predators. And it’s these clever sea creatures that inspired Russian CG animator Maxim Zhestkov when making his art film Volumes. In it, a wave of shiny black balls rapidly changes color in bursts of bubblegum blue and pink before switching back to black as the mass tumbles.

Maxim’s films are a series of hypnotic visual experiments where unidentified substances move and morph, sticking together and pulling apart at the whim of an invisible force. His films are deeply satisfying to watch and the sensations they inspire are familiar, like the feeling of a fridge door sucking closed, pouring vinegar into a pool of olive oil or pressing your hand into a pinscreen to leave an impression.

Each film is set within a room he designs, drawing on his background studying architecture. “I really wanted to be an architect but later understood that I’m not the right person for an extremely long project with deep engineering and other technical sides to it,” he says.

The process, which starts with him writing lines of codes in Python to test what the effect is on the image, still takes concentration and perseverance though. He’s based in the small city of Ulyanovsk, far from any major cities and their distractions, where he works alone on his films.

“I chose animation because you can combine design, architecture, physics and sound into one project. I love to juxtapose natural phenomena with graphic design and architecture.”

The rooms look like a lab or a gallery where the experiments or moving installations take place. Fluorescent bulbs or skylights provide the light source in stark white or black computer generated rooms. He often fools people into thinking they’re real places.

Instead of adding recognizable objects to the virtual rooms, Maxim’s films use abstraction and the unknown to bring across an emotion. The movements of the shapes are based on the beauty and elegance of nature. Maxim finds endless inspiration watching David Attenborough documentaries. “I can watch Life and Blue Planet forever,” he says.

But in contrast to the nature documentaries he loves, the laws of physics are more like suggestions in Maxim’s work. He asks questions like “are there some emotions in electromagnetism?” through his pieces.

“There are no real-world limitations on imagination,” he says. “Thinking about how to cheat nature and the laws of physics is an extremely exciting experience.”

In his film Optics, Maxim studies the behavior of artificial light and color in digital environments. He plays with the idea of light fragmented by water, but twists it to create an “impossible” effect. “Light and refraction in reality can behave only in one way and in one condition, but in the digital world, where we don't have real-world restrictions, we can animate every condition and step further into the understanding of light and color,” he says.

For years Maxim only worked in black and white, “but then I didn’t feel the same connection to it anymore.” He has spent the last two years exploring the possibilities of color.

“I’m not the person who started doing this fifteen years ago. I’m thirty-three and my life has totally changed. I became a father of two boys and all the teenage frustrations are gone,” he says. “Working with colors has opened a new door into a completely new universe with loud creative voices and bright emotions.”