The Substitute | A northern white rhino is digitally brought back to life

Work April 29, 2020

We worked with Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg to digitally bring a northern white rhino back to life. Informed by developments in the human creation of artificial intelligence (AI) and based on research from AI lab DeepMind, the rhino was built to perform as an artificial agent, an autonomous entity that learns from its environment.


This unique collaboration combined ambitious creative audio and visuals, and gave the user an opportunity to be confronted with a sensitive topic with an important message. Visualised as a projected moving picture artwork of a full scale Rhinoceros, the installation has lived at some of the world’s leading Art Institutes.


As the artificial Rhinoceros habituates to its space, its form and sound toggle from pixelation to a photographic render—reminding the viewer that this living, breathing Rhinoceros, coming to life without its natural context, is entirely artificial.


We helped Daisy connect the narrative and technical dots, understanding how to interpret the machine learning data into the real-time rendered visualisation. We were also tasked with coming up with an aesthetic that was sympathetic to the two stories of machine learning and the extinction of a natural species, with specific emphasis on representing the Northern White Rhinoceros at true scale.


The Rhino’s behaviours and sounds are adapted from rare research footage of the last herd, provided by Dr Richard Policht. Using this footage, our VFX rigging and animation team were able to expertly recreate the motion and personality of the Northern White Rhinoceros. Our creative technology team then developed bespoke procedural voxel FX to visualise the transition from pixels to full scale digital creature using real-time rendered techniques in Unreal Engine.


In support of the full scale Rhino, the A.I. experimental data plays out in unison on a smaller second screen, showing the path and development of grid cells developed via machine learning.


This thought provoking installation asks the viewer to consider their negligence of lost species and what they are doing, or not doing, to protect endangered creatures in the wild. The piece was supported by The Cooper Hewitt Museum (US) and White Cube Gallery (NLD), and more recently The Royal Academy in London.


Find out more information here.