Brendan Dawes
Analogue + Digital

Making The Art of Cybersecurity

A year on from when this work was commissioned, I thought I'd write up my thinking and process that went into The Art of Cybersecurity — my motion graphics and still images piece for Trend Micro, all born from cybersecurity threat data.

The Brief

The Toronto based agency McMillan got in touch with me in early 2019 to ask if I'd be interested in working with them on a campaign called The Art of Cybersecurity for Trend Micro. Myself and five other artists were being approached to make a piece of work from supplied cybersecurity threat data. I of course said yes.

Sketches

Pencil and paper is still the best way for me to freely think when first starting a project. I love the freedom to just scribble stuff that I still don't find when using a digital equivalent. At this stage I'm not judging anything that appears on the paper, but just allowing myself to throw anything down, so I can then see what may start to emerge as an idea.

Scribbling down ideas
Scribbling down ideas

For inspiration I began to look at organic structures in nature — from deep sea creatures to flowers, looking at their geometric systems.

Inspired by nature

The Concept

As with anything like this I had to base it on a solid concept. Yes the brief stated it could be as abstract as I wanted, but for me, I needed a creative theme to wrap it around. Doing this adds a strong foundation to the work.

In the end I broke it down to three core pillars. The attacks, the system that protects you from these attacks, and finally the creativity that is allowed to flow because your system is being protected. After all, isn't the point of deploying a protection system such as this, so you can get on with doing what you're meant to be doing, not freaking out about why your computer won't work anymore?

Three core pillars
Sketching out the three core themes of the work

Now I had three core parts to work with, the next stage was to bring in the data and visualise these three parts of the story.

The Shape of Data

Often times I will throw all the data into the system I'm building to see its shape or form. What does 250,000 data points look like as giant rock of data, or a grid, or something else? There's no logic here — no academic data methodology (I wouldn't know what they are anyway), instead I'm playing. Just playing. I shared all this stuff with the client. They're conversation starters — purely something to criticise and get us talking about form, intent and direction.

Data in the form or a giant rock
Data on a grid
Data as metaballs

The Form of the System

One of the first things I wanted to do was work out a way to create a form that would represent the Trend Micro system. In the data I had been sent, I noticed it was split into so called industry verticals such as Media, Government, Banking etc. Words are data, except I needed a technique to take those words and create numbers I could then use to drive an algorithm to create unique forms which could form the basis of the compositions.

I then remembered a few years ago I had a used a technique to generate colours from city names, using an MD5 hash. An MD5 hash is a way to create a string of letters and numbers from a word or phrase, often used in security. I figured I could use that same system to generate a unique set of numbers from these industry verticals, and once I have those numbers I can do things with them. Using Processing, I created a little bit of code to read in the supplied CSV file and generate these numbers based off an MD5 hash of the industry verticals and then spit out another CSV file with the results, ready to be used in Houdini. Below is a table of some of those numbers I generated using that approach.

A sample of some of the numbers generated from the industries
A sample of some of the numbers generated from the industries

Using Houdini, I then set about using those numbers to create the shapes that would represent the Trend Micro system, each one unique to an industry, born from a security algorithm — a nice bonus and something which adds a extra layer to the work.

A shape formed from MD5 hash
A shape formed from MD5 hash
A shape formed from MD5 hash

After the forms were created I then did a little animation test of the forms growing. This was done really simply using a boolean operation with a sphere to seemingly grow the shape. Since doing this work I've learned of a better way using group expansion, but still, it worked great at the time.

The Threats

I wanted to make the threats themselves be devoid of any kind of personality. They needed to be seen to try to attach the system, but eventually be rendered useless by that very same system.

In one of my first sketches, they looked way too happy and not menacing at all, but from a movement point of view they had the desired effect of attacking and infiltrating.

This was all born from the data, so each little block was actually a data point. As always, this was shown to the client as an early stage concept.

The Flow of Creativity

The final part of the composition was the representation of creativity which can still blossom because the threats have been stopped. I wanted these to be the exact opposite of the threats — free flowing, organic structures which suggested the beauty of creativity.

I created vector noise fields for trails to flow through, made from a giant cube which had the core shape cut out from it. In this way the trails would flow around the space left behind rather than through the shape itself.

Below is a very early prototype. You can see there's still lots wrong with this, in the way it jitters and the movement of the trails. Not to mention the colour palette was all over the place.

Putting it all Together

Once myself and the client were happy with the individual components, it was then a case of putting all the parts together for the final UHD animation. I scoped out the narrative in a story board format and got that signed off before putting the final render together.

Scoping out a storyboard
Scoping out a storyboard for the final animation

I was really keen on using music that was slightly unexpected in respect of what you might normally see or hear from a tech company. My idea was something akin to Philip Glass or Michael Nyman. After much searching and trying various pieces, I managed to find and license a piece of music which worked really well and had the feel I was looking for.

To render these final 4K UHD frames, I used a combination of my own machine, plus the cloud rendering services of Gridmarkets. Using their service I could setup a thirty machine system and have it render in the cloud. All at a cost of course, but for meeting a deadline, it was a perfect solution.

The renders were then composited and edited together using Hitfilm, having ditched Adobe Premiere long ago. Have to say it was a real joy using Hitfim and the final export quality was stellar.

Here's the final piece:

Since the project went live last year, the work has been featured in three exhibitions, long listed for The Lumen Prize and rolled out across the entire Trend Micro brand including on their website, and across all their marketing and conference materials.

If you'd like to talk about commissioning me for your project, then please get in touch.