Cookie Shapes

A new video, about an afternoon taking a break from math to bake with friends. No math allowed! Right?

Gonna talk about the process of creating this video, but first, the people.

Gwen Fisher is a mathematical artist whose work I’ve known for many years. Every time it’s something new: a new technique for creating woven beadwork (along with a math paper that generalizes the technique), or new fractal beadwork (along with a theory of what path the thread needs to take), and years ago when I posted about some beadwork hyperbolic planes I made, Gwen was the first to send me an email saying she’d tried my instructions, and then followed up with some new hyperbolic variations of her own that were well beyond anything I had the skill to create. After that, we finally ran into each other at one conference, and then another conference, and then I found out I’d just moved 10 minutes from her house, and the rest is history!

When Gwen introduced me to her sister Ruth I was surprised to find I was already a fan of her work as well: she was the Ruth in Sweets by Ruth! I like my coffee to taste like coffee and my chocolate to taste like chocolate, the perfect combo of which I’d found in Ruth’s brownies at Red Rock Coffee (please don’t stalk me), so I thought it a fairly strange coincidence. When we pitched the idea of making mathematical gingerbread shapes to her, she knew exactly what we needed: a sturdy dough that wouldn’t change shape too much while baking, while still being delicious, and would we like it to come in a number of bright happy colors that would suit themselves to being filmed? Yes, yes we would! And besides all those perks, switching from the gingerbread idea to shortbread allowed the most amazing edible pun.

I can’t remember when I first met Andrea Hawksley. She’s another person where I came into contact with her or her work many years ago, and have done so again repeatedly until it reached a tipping point. It could have been 6 years ago at MIT in the context of mathematical origami or computational geometry, or maybe it was at one of her mathematical dance workshops, or when I read one of her papers. I knew we were destined to be friends a couple years ago at a recreational math conference when I saw her casually and informally leading a group of people in cutting slits in extra conference flyers and slotting them together with icosahedral symmetry. That’s when I found out I’d moved not far from her as well!

I make mathematical art for a living, but I also like to do it for fun, and in the past couple years I’ve met up with Gwen, Andrea, and sometimes others, to have fun figuring out new technique for creating new math art, or see a visiting colleague’s latest work, or, in this case, to try out some mathematical baking. Except I had a new camera to try out, so I finally broke the casual just-for-funness by filming for a video.

That was over a month ago, and I’ve been working on this video since! Well, along with other things. But this video presented a lot of new challenges for me.

First, I usually start with a complete concept for a video, spend weeks on the script, then film and edit to that script. Many vloggers are extremely good at filming hours of footage of unpredictable things as they happen, then remembering and pulling out good moments to turn into a coherent story, perhaps framed and pulled together by footage of themselves talking face-on to a camera.

Sorting through hours of footage and pulling out anything resembling a story is not a skill I have developed, and if making this video taught me nothing else it is greater respect for those who do so on a weekly basis. I pulled out the best footage and sound clips I’d managed to get (working with a new camera, some stuff came out horribly), re-arranged events to follow more of an arc from less-mathy to more-mathy, and ended up with an edit that had no story and would only really be fun to watch for people who recognize an aperiodic tiling or truncated icosahedron when they see one. So I did what I do best: I created a story and wrote a script.

This is a trick taken from vloggers. Narrate about your day, cutting in actual footage of it. But I don’t “vlog,” my story was invented, and I wasn’t especially interested in following the standard format of talking to a camera. Could I do the frame story in my second-person notebook style? The notebook makes things personal, hands-on, as if you could be drawing this stuff yourself. It’s badly-drawn visual representations of things, not the things themselves, letting your imagination do the work. Would it make any sense to try to integrate that with real footage of real things?

Doing it in standard vlog style, except replacing talking-head with notebook, turned out much too jarring. I needed something more natural, something that helps your brain make the connections between what’s going on in notebook world and real world. Thus, I decided to try out real footage overlaid and framed by notebook-happenings. Then, there’s notebook footage, real footage, vocal narration, and real dialogue, and if I wanted to sometimes do fake narration over real footage, I had to make it super clear what was narration and what was real time, clear yet not jarring. For this reason, whenever there’s a switch from narration to real-world sound, there’s usually a cut from notebook to footage, or from footage to notebook. Sometimes real footage is paired with narration, so when switching back to the actual sound I can cut to footage-in-notebook view, which gives your brain all the cues it needs to make the transition seem right. Then, real-life and notebook-land is brought even closer together by sometimes popping up a quick notebook person to say something that’s clearly being said by a real person in the real footage, and it happens so quick that you don’t have time to worry whether it’s a transition to a different thing before you know it’s not.

All this was done carefully and consciously, so you can imagine why it took me a month!

Then, there’s the sound itself. I’d been worried about how the narration and natural sounds would work together, but as soon as I tried layering some stuff I realized I’d had a stroke of luck: my new camera records sound in 5.1, which turned out to be perfect, because it makes it really clear what is narration (mono, artificial) and what is from the footage (all around, like in real life). I knew I could take advantage of this, layering real noises on top of narration without the listener having any trouble keeping track of which is which. Still, the initial introduction of real-sound after narration was a bit jarring, and so I introduced the real noises by purposely mingling them with the narration, fake narration-me yelling about the broken color symmetry along with real-me, which connected the two sound stories right at the beginning and makes all the natural sound make sense and feel connected later.

Maybe you can see why one of my pet peeves is when people say I am naturally great at video editing and have some genius talent, which is both untrue and denies the hard work I put in. The truth is that I spend a lot of time identifying problems (lack of story, inaccessible to non-mathy people), studying what other people have done to fix them (frame story, narrating over footage), trying those things out and identifying problems with that (frame story is in wrong style, now add in rough transitions, things are worse than before), then trying out fixes for that (connect frame story to real footage by every means I can think of: overlay video, overlay sound, switch so quickly you don’t even notice), see what works, iterate. Even after years of doing this for a living, sometimes it still takes me a month to figure out a new problem.

Hopefully what you notice in the end is not the editing at all but the actual things we were making and the awesomeness of the people with whom I had the pleasure of making edible mathematical art. A lot of the frame story is made up (we went in with the full intention of making mathematical cookies, but that’s not a story, and is hard to sympathize with if you’re “not a math person”). The ending, however, is mostly true: after hours of patience, Walter took his chance to gobble up some of our best work.