GMUNK on experiments with light and creating mesmerising visuals in camera

Speaking at creative conference Offset on Saturday, visual designer and director GMUNK (Bradley Munkowitz) spoke about projection mapping, experiments with light, using social media to catalogue his inspirations and his fascination with OpArt…

Munkowitz’s work spans installation, film, music video, UI and motion graphics. He has created holographs and interfaces for sci-fi blockbusters, made mesmerising concert visuals for Beck using industrial magnets and last year, designed a giant gesture-controlled light sculpture in California. While his output is incredibly diverse, there are some recurring themes – he is fascinated with OpArt, geometry, lasers and lighting.

Munkowitz studied graphic design and filmmaking at Humboldt State University, where he taught himself to use Flash and was inspired by the likes of Chris Cunningham and The Designers Republic. His first job was as an interactive designer at London studio Vir2L. He slept on the floor of the office each night for a year-and-a-half and would begin working at five each morning after being woken by the cleaners.

“It was insane, but I was so inspired, I was just enjoying the medium,” he told Offset. (He also said that you have to be prepared to work “very, very, very hard” to be successful in the creative industries, which perhaps explains his over-zealous approach to his first role).

After a stint working as a designer at Los Angeles creative studio Imaginary Forces – and later at Engine Design, Transistor Studios and Buck – Munkowitz met director Joseph Kosinsky, who invited him to create visuals for Disney film Tron after seeing his self-initiated interactive web project Mandingo Immortal. (Munkowitz is almost always working on personal projects, whether art prints or technical experiments).

Working with VFX house Digital Domain, he spent around a year creating 12 minutes of footage for the film, from complex interfaces displayed on vast screens in boardrooms to grand firework displays and holographic sequences. He went on to create interfaces for Kosinsky’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi film Oblivion, but said he grew tired of making “dots and lines” and began to find UI work ‘a little empty’. “After doing [Oblivion] for about six months, I decided I was bored of it,” he added.

Munkowitz later moved to San Francisco where he worked for production company and robotics house Bot & Dolly. It was here that he created the projection mapping performance piece Box – an impressive feat of visual trickery which, amazingly, was created in camera using robots, lights, a powerful projector and a mix of traditional animation software (you can see a detailed breakdown of the project and how it was made on Munkowitz’s website). The film started out as a product demo before evolving into a mesmerising five-minute artwork, which has had over four million views on YouTube.

In August last year, he collaborated with production designer Michael Fullman and a team of designers, animators and technicians to create a gesture controlled installation for Santa Monica Pier. Installed during the pier’s Twilight Concert Series, it featured a vast sculpture coated in security mirrors and fitted with 60,000 LEDs, which would light up in response to visitors’ movements. The sculpture could also analyse the mood of text messages and photos uploaded by passers-by and display that sentiment in light and colour, as well as visualising audio from the concerts. The shape of the sculpture itself is inspired by the design of church organs.

“The fun thing about doing experiential work is watching people’s reactions … it was quite fun to put this thing out there and watch people interacting with it, enjoying it and taking selfies in front of it,” said Munkowitz. Creating an interactive sculpture for such a busy area was a daunting task, he said, adding: “it was challenging because we didn’t have control over the 30,000 people who were going to congregate around the sculpture.” He also said the project taught him the value of collaboration – adding, “you can do so much more than you could on your own.”

While he has worked on big budget feature films and vast public artworks, Munkowitz said he still enjoys taking on smaller projects and working with limited resources. In 2014, he collaborated with designers at San Francisco company Autofuss to create titles for Offf Festival in Cincinatti, which featured speaker’s names made out of materials related to their practice. The Digital Kitchen’s name was rendered in laser cut acrylic which was then illuminated, while artist James White’s appeared on a 3D printed pyramid lit from the inside with LEDs. The whole project cost around £7000 and was shot over eight days (one day for each sequence) but the end result features some impressive visuals:

For the past 18 months, he has focused on working in-camera, creating dazzling effects with light, shadow, lasers and filters. His desktop image for Windows 10 was created by cutting the Windows logo into sheets of cardboard and perspex and projecting light through the holes, with colours manipulated using filters in a two-day shoot. A film promoting Samsung’s S6 Edge smartphone, created with DOP Joseph Picard, used robotic turntables, lasers, LEDs and acrylic lettering to showcase the phone’s sleek design.

If you do something for real it never dates, that’s why I chose to do it this way all of last year,” he said. “Everything was done in camera, I didn’t really do any post, just to see how much practical stuff we could do,” he added.

He regularly experiments with new techniques and technologies – a film created with Airbag and The Creators Project for car brand Holden, which launched last month, used drones to visualise speed and agility. (Drones were equipped with LEDs and made to race a car in circles, with the resulting light patterns captured in long exposure).

Munkowitz said he is obsessed with studying light patterns, textures, optical illusions, refractions and reflections and learning new theories. He describes Victor Vasarely as “kind of my deity” and recalls being fascinated with light and shadow as a child. “My dad used to have a vase with marbles in and I used to shine a torch through them and watch the light,” he said. Earlier this year, he studied the principles of subdivision to create a series of digital landscapes which feature thousands of cubes in repeat patterns, which he has also turned into art prints.

“I always strive to reinvent myself,” he said. “I look at my body of work often and I say, ‘how do I make myself uncomfortable?’ If I wanted to be comfortable, I’d just have been making UI and holograms for the last 6 years but I want to do all sorts of things that make me learn and collaborate and that’s what makes me grow as a creative.”

Munkowitz uses social media to find new ideas and document things that have inspired him: his Pinterest account features a collection of mood boards which he uses for reference when working on pitches, and he uses Instagram to collect photographs he has taken of things that have inspired him, from architecture to surfaces and patterns.

“I go around and photograph anything that speaks to me – polka dots, striped shirts, light sculptures, light sculptures … I’m constantly taking photos of all these things I love. Its just a collection of things that makes my heart sing,” he adds. He also said he’d be “a mess” without iCal, which he uses to manage his time and set himself strict goals each day. “I’m a bit all over the place but this is what brings me structure and discipline … I think creatives need structure,” he added.

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Munkowitz’ Instagram account @gmunk

GMUNK was speaking at creative conference Offset. For details, see iloveoffset.com. You can see more of Munkowitz’s work on his website, gmunk.com

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