My Secret Heart (2008)

Excerpts from the film


My Secret Heart premiere at the Royal Festival Hall, London, UK 2008




Early tests of visuals on the ‘aquarium rig’ (built by Gaianova)


Initial AI, flocking and behaviour controlling tests


Open-source tools and libraries developed for My Secret Heart






Audio-visual installation and performance
1ch 6K (or 6ch XGA) projection, 8ch sound, custom software
Duration: 48:00
Dimensions: 6m (diameter) x 3m (height)

My Secret Heart is a music and film installation & performance commissioned by Streetwise Opera with music composed by Mira Calix and sound design by David Sheppard. The new piece is inspired by the Allegri’s 17th-century choral work Miserere Mei, a piece so protected by the Vatican that they put an embargo on it. Working with video artists Flat-e, we created a film to accompany the 48 minute performance, as well as versions for an installation and short film.

Streetwise Opera

Streetwise Opera are a charity who use music as a tool to help people who have experienced homelessness move forward in their lives. They run a weekly music programme, resident in 10 homeless centres around the country – and also stage an annual production which gives their performers the chance to star in quality shows where there are high-expectations, no compromise and no patronising. The voices you hear in the music, and people you see in the film, are from Streetwise workshops around the UK. 100+ Streetwise performers also sang at the My Secret Heart premiere at the Royal Festival Hall in December 2008. My Secret Heart is about their story.

The film

The film has an abstract narrative derived from individual conversations with each of the Streetwise performers. It is a direct emotional response to their stories combined with the haunting beauty of Mira Calix’s composition. Instead of focusing on a specific plot, the film embarks on a complex journey through various states of emotion, starting from pre-birth through birth, curiosity, exploration, excitement, playfulness; through to fear, anxiety and isolation. While it maintains a relatively dark and eerie mood overall, intertwined with the feelings of desperation are strong elements of hope.

The process – digital puppetry

The visuals were designed and created primarily with custom software written in C++/openFrameworks, with some Quartz Composer elements, rendered AfterEffects sequences and live action footage. The custom C++ app is audio-reactive and user-interactive, allowing the visuals to be ‘performed’ live with full control over the behaviour of the virtual inhabitants of the cylindrical aquarium-like rig.

Over the course of a few months, and after many conversations with Mira Calix and listening to the soundtrack over and over and over again, we decided roughly what the visuals should do and what kind of behaviours we wanted the visuals to perform at specific points in the song. After a lengthy coding period, I had an application that when you ran, did… nothing, but it had the potential to do everything I wanted. The application was a live performance tool with full control over its environment as well as audio playback and control, and an input recording / playback system.

Once the application was complete, I sat down with Robin from flat-e, and pressed ‘play’ on the app – this started the music playback and the physics recorder. While the music was playing we could control the inhabitants of the virtual world with many sliders, knobs, touchpads, mouse etc. As the music was playing we would respond in realtime by sending messages to make them move gracefully, erratically, flocking together, swimming apart, getting excited, slowing down, speeding up, telling them to die, slowly start twitching, come alive, swim to the surface, sink to the bottom etc – our actions being recorded gave us the ability to later go back and scrub to certain positions in the song and overdub and mix new behaviours we might have missed in the first round. In the end we found that actually we had to do little to no editing. The best overall performance was the one we recorded in a single 50 minute take.

The sensation of performing and recording the visuals was that of actually directing a film with thousands of virtual actors, commanding an army, digital puppetry – an approach I’m sure I will be revisiting in the very near future.


Made with openFrameworks.

Related Dates

2010 Jun 26,
Exhibition , My Secret Heart,
Syndey Biennalle, Australia
2009 Jun 13-27,
Exhibition , My Secret Heart,
Edinburgh Film Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland
2008 Dec 3,
Exhibition ,Performance , My Secret Heart,
Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
2008 Oct 19-22,
Exhibition ,Performance , My Secret Heart,
Lucerne, Switzerland

Related keywords

c++, computer vision, cylindrical projection, david sheppard, flat-e, fluid simulation, generative visuals, glsl, installation, live performance, mira calix, motion tracking, open source, opencv, openframeworks, optical flow, particles, processing, robin mcnicholas, streetwise opera