Chris Milk: HTML poet

In his interactive music video projects for Johnny Cash, Arcade Fire and Rome, director Chris Milk marries extraordinary technical innovation with great emotional depth

The adjectives ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘innovative’ are somewhat overused in the advertising and design industries. Just occasionally though, they are accurate: one such example is the recent work by director Chris Milk, who built a career making ads and music videos before coming out as an interactive pioneer. His pieces for Johnny Cash and Arcade Fire have won virtually every award going, and, alongside new work Rome, have led to him being heralded as an ‘html poet’, for his ability to inject emotion into the online experience.

It was back in 2009 that Milk made a connection that led to the creation of his first major interactive piece, The Johnny Cash Project, a website that invites participants to contribute to a video for the Cash song Ain’t No Grave. “I was presenting some of my music video work at a technology and art conference in Portugal,” he explains. “A developer named Aaron Koblin [of Google Creative Lab] was also presenting there, showing some of his web-based crowdsourcing projects. They were really fascinating. We got to talking about how to incorporate those techniques into a music video. By the end of that day, we had The Johnny Cash Project 95% figured out. At the time though, we just didn’t have Johnny Cash. That didn’t come until months later.”

A living, breathing memorial

The project needed an artist of Cash’s calibre to work. The idea was to allow visitors to the site to draw their own version of a frame from a pre-shot film, with the drawings then coming together to form a new, constantly changing video made entirely by the contributors. It needed a well-loved musician, so that people would be willing to expend their time and creative energy on the video; without the involve?ment of the online crowd, the experiment would have failed. Cash was a perfect choice, and the poignancy of the song Ain’t No Grave clearly struck a chord with his fans: over 250,000 people have so far contributed to what is described as Cash’s ‘final video’.

A short documentary on the site shows interviews with some of the participants, who talk with emotion about how important taking part in the tribute to Cash has been to them: “It really allows this last recording of his to be a living, breathing memorial,” says one. “I’m honoured to have inadvertently made a contribution to something so magical.”

A second collaboration with Koblin led Milk to create Wilderness Downtown, a website for Arcade Fire that uses choreographed pop-up windows to form a highly unusual ‘video’ for the song We Used To Wait. In contrast to The Johnny Cash Project, the interactive elements here are far more minimal, although no less personal. On entering the site, users are asked to enter the postcode of the address where they grew up. Using Google Earth, scenes from the streets of their hometown are then incorporated into other, pre-shot sequences. The whole work aims to thrust participants into one of the emotionally fraught periods in most people’s lives: the teenage years. Later in the piece, visitors are asked to enter advice for their teen selves on the site, which then also appears within the piece, written in elegant script. These texts were also channelled into an offline machine created as part of the project, which printed out the messages on seed-embedded cards that could be planted. The Wilderness Machine appeared in the Wired magazine pop-up store in New York last winter.

Unusually, the project came about not via the band or record company, but from the desire to find an unique way to demonstrate the capabilities of a web browser. “With Wilderness Downtown, Aaron and I were discussing Google’s interest in coming up with some way to showcase what was then becoming possible on the web with html5,” says Milk. “I happened to be friendly with Win [Butler] from Arcade Fire and knew that they would be looking for something visual for the upcoming album soon. I emailed Win and they were down for the project. It all came together pretty organically.

“There was no creative brief,” he continues. “Google wanted something cool in html5, Arcade Fire just wanted something cool. That was really the extent of it. I locked myself in my house for a few weeks and just wrote the whole thing out. Then I drew out every frame with a storyboard artist and cut it into a detailed animatic with my editor. It was the only way to really explain it to anyone.”

Wilderness Downtown

As with The Johnny Cash Project, Wilderness Downtown wowed audiences, and proved that Milk’s interactive skills were no one-off. Both websites (alongside other interactive online projects like Vincent Morisset’s site for Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible from 2007) offer a creative turning point for the whole music video industry, which has long been in the doldrums with shrinking budgets and panic over the loss of TV as a reliable channel to reach audiences. Suddenly the possibilities that digital technology can offer as an alternative to traditional film are no longer simply talk, but actually happening. And the fact that Google was an instigator in the projects, rather than a record company, suggests that a paradigm shift in terms of the commissioning of music video projects may also be on the way.

Milk’s background in traditional filmmaking has undoubtedly informed his work online, where he places a concise narrative structure and emotional impact at the forefront, rather than technology. His route into making ads was somewhat blessed from the beginning: “I went to art school in San Francisco and did a spec ad for Sprite,” he says. “That spot ended up winning a Clio. Complete fluke. But out of that I got hired to write and direct a spot for a tank video game. That was a parody of this series of spots for an American fabric softener featuring a cuddly bear. Then I got sued by the cuddly bear, which actually got me some press and, out of that, I signed at [production company]”

He directed ads through before turning to music videos about six years ago. Again, luck played a part in the transition. “The first video I ever did was for the Chemical Brothers,” he remembers. Kanye [West] saw that and was determined that I would do his first video, for a single called All Falls Down. I got super lucky with those first two. I had been writing treatments for pretty much anyone who would let me for a year and a half before that, but no one would give me a chance because I only had commercials on my reel. The Chems and Carole Fairbrother at Virgin gave me my first break and then Kanye basically put me in the game. I’m still very grateful to all of those people for giving me a shot, because they really didn’t have much to go on.”

Always start with the music

Further videos for Kanye followed, as well as eye-catching promos for Gnarls Barkley. But Milk acknowledges that it is the Arcade Fire piece that has had the “most impact” on his career so far. Since this launched last year, he has been working on another multi-format piece, Rome, with the musician Danger Mouse, the first segment of which launched earlier this year. A musical project by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, featuring Jack White and Norah Jones, Rome was launched by the website 3 Dreams of Black, which contains an interactive film by Milk that gives the viewer the opportunity to explore a 360-degree animated environment. Again, the project is a collaboration with Koblin and Google Creative Lab and is one of a number of ‘Chrome Experiments’ created for the brand. Further components to the project are to come, including a potential live tour element, and perhaps a feature film. “The album is really a concept soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist yet,” says Milk, “so I’m really excited to see that come to life.” These projects may utilise developing technologies, though Milk is carefully not to let these lead the work. “I always start with the music,” he says. “The stories and characters grow out of that. I know the capabilities of the technology and that of course informs the narrative as I’m writing. But writing for a specific tech can get a little tricky.

“With Wilderness that was what we were essentially doing,” he acknowledges. “So my primary concern became finding something that would emotionally resonate with people, without bogging them down in the technology. The problem is it’s easy to lose the humanity when you start
showcasing tech. But if you find the right combination of humanity and technology, it can be magical. Google Maps and Street View embodied that contradiction perfectly. It’s cold and it’s hi-tech, but it can be incredibly emotional when it taps into our own personal experience. The whole piece is
full of this contradiction. It’s human nostalgia produced by some of the most advanced technology available today.”

Inevitably, using digital technology throws up a different set of problems to shooting film. “Working with an internet browser as your main broadcast medium presents a whole new set of problems you never have with film or TV,” explains Milk. “Everything you do ultimately needs to be programmed into the code that your browser receives – and hopefully understands – which it then translates into the actual piece on your computer. There is no graphical user interface with code. It’s all just lines of words, tens of thousands of them.

“In film, if you change something in post in one of your shots, you might make it a little better or a little worse. In code, if you change one thing in one shot, suddenly your whole film doesn’t play smoothly on Macs anymore, and it takes three guys a day to figure out where the code got messed up. That can get a bit frustrating.”

Creating these interactive works has also led Milk to accept that he must occasionally relinquish full creative control of the project, and open it up to an unknown set of collaborators. “You sort of just have to embrace it,” he says of his experiences with crowdsourcing. “There is poetry in the collective consciousness if it can be channelled in the right direction. I mostly find it liberating. So far, it’s always been sort of what I envisioned, and also somehow more. In The Johnny Cash Project, I get to see things that I imagined and hoped for, at least theoretically, but that I never expected. The way some people have interpreted their drawings, the creativity contained within them, it can be really breathtaking,” he says.

Milk acknowledges he has a love for technology, and that this motivates him to keep up with new developments in the field. Tellingly though, it wasn’t this interest that led him into making interactive works in the first place, but rather artistic ambition and a curiosity of what emotional possibilities may lie in the medium. “Personally, for me the motivation behind the added interactivity has come from a quest to make videos that approach the soul-touching, emotional depth and resonance that just straight music has,” he explains. “Honestly, I’m not sure they really ever can though. Music scores your life. You interact with it. You sing along to it in the car. It becomes the soundtrack to the most moving moments of your life…. Music videos, for the most part, don’t have the same emotional resonance. They’re very concrete and rigid, and they don’t allow for the emotional interaction that you get with the music itself. It’s basically a forced perspective of what a song should look like.

“So this has always been a bit of a conundrum for me, because I love music videos as an art form but I’m uncomfortable pushing my own perspective on a song as its definitive visual expression. The interactive videos are experiments that try to find a way to make the form less rigid, and allow it to be imbued with the viewer’s own sensibilities and experiences. I’m not saying, ‘this is the way’. I’m just trying to figure out if there even is another way.”

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