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CGI Mastermind Beeple Takes on China—U.S. Cyber Warfare

Global cybersecurity has never looked this good.

Beeple, or Mike Winkelmann, has mesmerized online viewers for the last several years with an array of 3D visuals, from music videos to 2,555 CGI sketches. Near-instantly identifiable, Beeple’s video art often contains day-glo illumination, objects in rhythmic motion, psychedelic tunneling, and floating, simulated camera work, all edited with a composer’s sense of musical timing. Beeple may be known as a stylist with some puckish flair, but he’s also not shy about commenting on current events.

Continuing a through-line about internet technology and politics that began with his We Are The Transparent Machines™, a video that featured mechanized sound and vision with images of Edward Snowden, Beeple finds himself wading into the cyber warfare issue with his latest 3D animation, Zero-Day. Again, he vividly renders 3D machines, but this time the mechanized forms go haywire from state-sponsored viruses that wreak all sorts of techno-havoc.

Winkelmann says this “instrumental video” is a form of music that he’s been making for the last 10+ years. The basic concept is to animate every single instrument in a piece of music; the last being IV.10, which Winkelmann says laid the groundwork for Zero-Day.

The beginning of the video is supposed to be a virus moving through the system. It is, as Winkelmann explains, the virus controlling everything: pressing all of the right buttons at the precise moments to open doors, allowing it to tunnel deeper into the system to get exactly where it needs to go. “Like a piece of code that is triggering all the right functions and parameters to attack exactly what it needs to,” he tells The Creators Project.

ZERO-DAY from beeple on Vimeo.

Yes, the frenzied machines, flickering and moving in erratic fashion, are stylized and cool as all hell, but the video is a representation of what could happen in our extremely networked, Internet of Things future. Winkelmann wanted Zero-Day to be something like a “symphony of destruction” in terms of the robots working in unison to no longer help people, but destroy them.

As with his other videos, Winkelmann created Zero-Day with Cinema 4D, which he rendered with Octane. First, he modeled all of the robots, then assigned sounds to each, and with his buddy Standingwave, built the music out from there. After that, Winkelmann took the music and sequenced out each individual model and animation to make sure they corresponded.

“This part of the process alone took about 6 months,” he says. “Then the rendering took another month and a half, and I have a pretty fast computer.”

Zero-Day grew out of headlines Winkelmann had been seeing with alarming frequency about China and the US, as well as other state actors, waging cyber warfare on each other.  He was reminded of STUXNET, a virus allegedly designed by the U.S. and Israel that infected and sabotaged Siemens industrial equipment at the heart of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, setting it back several years.

“Outside of the tech community I don’t think it’s something that most people really know about still,” Winkelmann says. “I think when people think about hacking or cybercrime, they think of ‘oh darn, my credit card info might get stolen.' I don’t think they realize how close we are to it being ‘oh fuck, my house exploded because a computer virus turned up the gas really high and then turned on the furnace.'”

“There is a sort of staggering amount of material out there about China and US going back and forth,” Winkelman says. “Most of which I was oblivious to before starting the project. It really is a situation that is escalating, though. That being said, I am optimistic that we’ll ultimately work out a good peaceful solution, but there might be some bumps along the way.”

At the end of Zero-Day, a voice can be heard saying, “the greatest threat to cyber security is the United States.” This isn’t Winkelmann getting all anti-American, but it is an acknowledgment that politicians and the media usually characterize China as the bad guy.

“But at the end of the day, we were the ones who made STUXNET and now it’s out there for anyone to use and modify,” Winkelmann offers. “So we put that weapon into the hands of countless people and who knows what the next weapon we develop might be.”

“These weapons are fundamentally different from, say, a nuke, in that a nuke can't be 'reused' by some kid from Singapore two years later to attack something else,” he adds. “The U.S. is great at making weapons—maybe too good.”

See more of Beeple’s work here.

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