Oi Polloi

Interview: Phil Wolstenholme and the Exciting World of 3D Imagery

Published: Fri Aug 08 2014

Record sleeves don’t get much better than those that housed the early Warp compilations. Utilising the most advanced computer sorcery of the era, these 3D vistas were the perfect visual accompaniment to the music held within. The man behind these masterpieces of early 90s CGI is a chap named Phil Wolstenholme. He now takes pictures of caves and can often be found on the roof of a stately home.

I sent him some questions and, thankfully for the sake of this interview, he answered back.

I suppose the main thing I wanted to ask you about were the record covers you designed for Warp in the early nineties. How did these come about?

I’d been producing a few covers for names like 808 State and Pop Will Eat Itself (via Designers Republic), using the Commodore Amiga. Being based in Sheffield I knew Warp were looking for interesting cover art, so I introduced myself to Rob and Steve, and rather cheekily asked them to advance me some cash to buy some new equipment and software in return for three new sleeve designs. Surprisingly, and rather bravely, they agreed.

Were you into electronic music or was it just another job?

I was into a large variety of music as well as electronica, and was well aware that the fledgling world of CGI would blend seamlessly with a lot of modern music being made at the time. So it definitely wasn’t just another job — this was about creating a new genre.

Other forms of important musical development, like psychedelia, punk and Two Tone all had accompanying visual forms that moved forward with the music, and indeed often heavily influenced the music.

Electronic music goes hand in hand with computer graphics. Why do you think this is?

The sudden availability of enterprise technologies, and creative people (mainly working in industrial cities) on the make were the primary driving forces behind much of these new forms of music and art. It wasn’t surprising that the two forms would combine.

Nearly everything at the time was created on Atari or Amiga platforms, and though low-res by today’s standards, both platforms set a standard for accessibility against price that was hard to beat. Original Atari STs are still being used to create music, even now.

I’m not going to pretend I know anything about computer graphics. How did you go about making those images?

Much 2D source material was produced via video-capture, either from tape or camera. Flatbed desktop scanners weren’t really available at the time, so everything had to either be created in paint programs or input for image-processing via video-capture. I had a B/W video camera on a stand with a 3-colored filter wheel for exposures! Then the early 3D packages appeared, and finally solid objects could be created and even rudimentary ray-tracing could be utilised to output ‘realistic’ images. This was a very exciting development for someone working at home on a low budget.

How long did making something like that take?

All the sleeve images I created for Warp with 3D elements would take several days to create on the Amiga. The computer was relatively slow and the software was quite simple, so everything would take a lot of planning and deliberation before committing the machine to a two-day render to create the final output image. Mistakes could be very time consuming!

What sort of software were you using?

Deluxe Paint and Digi Paint for 2D paint work, and a package called The Art Department for image-processing. For 3D work, the first program available really was called Sculpt 3D. Eventually I moved onto a program called Imagine, which finally allowed features like texture-mapping, which is when things got really interesting. That program was behind most of the 3-dimensional sleeve designs I produced for Warp, and others.

Which is your favourite of the covers you designed?

I don’t really have one. They’re all of their time, and are as inspirational (and as dated!) as that time would allow. The most amusing, and probably most important, was the first Artificial Intelligence compilation. It was amusing in the sense that we got to deflate some of the already-building pomposity of the electro-scene with the use of classic 70’s stoner albums and the king-sized skins. It was also amusing in the fact that it was immediately copied, and I remember a German techno compilation rush-released with a sleeve with another robot guy smoking a spliff on it, which was an odd situation to be in. It got passed around the Warp shop to howls of laughter.

But overall, it made an important difference to the way the music was treated from then on — more seriously from a musical standpoint, but hopefully less seriously from a cultural standpoint. Sheffield (and indeed Warp), was never a po-faced, over-serious place to work within, and it still isn’t.

Computers have got a bit more advanced these days. Do you think computer graphics have lost their charm now that they’re so perfect?

I don’t think they’ve lost their charm so much as their ability to astonish, and paradoxically, with more realistic imagery, the dramatic effect is often lessened. Personally, the effort involved in creating the objects and worlds in order to make up the images could make spontaneous work very difficult, and I always had to find a balance between simplicity for technical reasons (memory, render-times), and complexity for realism and believability.

The last few images I produced for commercial use, like The Lovers café, or the factory scene for The Beat Is The Law took a very long time to do, as I was using HDR lighting and radiosity rendering, and whilst incredibly ‘realistic’, were still as time-consuming to do on a high-powered PC as they were on an Amiga 20 years before! So I’ve pretty given up on 3D modelling now.

Seeing as this is a clothes website, I suppose I better ask you a clothing-related question… what were you wearing back in 1992?

Utility clothing — jeans, overalls and t-shirts. It wasn’t a fashion scene at all for me I’m afraid, just music.

And what do you wear now?

Utility clothing — jeans, overalls and t-shirts! The only ‘fashion tip’ that I can offer in all honesty is for Scruffs Drezna work-jeans. They’re easily the heaviest-duty jeans I’ve ever seen.

I’ve also developed a range of fractal fabric designs which were an interesting and exotic diversion for me and still, I believe, have a great deal of potential, especially for custom-printed hand-made garments. No repeats!

You now take photographs of caves and mines. What led you down there?

It was partly a need to fulfil a long-held curiosity about holes in the ground. Coming from a mining area, I’d always been intrigued about the history and technologies used, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was coupled with the possibilities for the underground landscape of natural caves — there’s a vast amount of interesting material to work with. It’s no small challenge in terms of accessing these places either. That’s how I learned the mysterious world of rope-work.

I was going to ask you about that actually. You do rope-access work. Can you divulge any tricks of the trade?

There are no real ‘tricks’ as such, as there’s not much useful to pass on in that regard, but the photographic possibilities are obviously rather interesting. It’s almost like the underground world in reverse, with as many technical challenges going up as down!

The best part of this work is the variety — I’ve worked on the roof of Olympia, medieval city walls, office blocks, power stations, schools, hospitals and also, of course, in caves. There are plenty of different environments, each with their own challenges, which always keeps the work interesting.

Have you got anything else you’d like to add?

Not really.

Fair enough then, cheers Phil.

See more of Phil’s work here