How Arcade Fire’s Reflektor web experience was created

Reflektor, the highly-anticipated first track from Arcade Fire’s new album has launched online this evening with the band releasing a new interactive web experience, created in collaboration with Aaron Koblin at Google and director Vincent Morisset. We talked to Morisset about how the piece was created…

Reflektor, the highly-anticipated first track from Arcade Fire’s new album has launched online this evening with the band releasing a new interactive web experience, created in collaboration with Aaron Koblin at Google and director Vincent Morisset. We talked to Morisset about how the piece was created…

The new digital experience, which can be found online at justareflektor.com, has been created to promote the title song from the album, which is released on October 29. It invites users to interact with an online film via their mobile phones, using the phone to create an effect on the screen that is “a bit like beaming something from your hand”, as Morisset puts it.

Stills from the justareflektor.com

The work joins a back catalogue of impressive digital experiments by Arcade Fire, stretching back to 2007 when the band collaborated with Morisset to create what is widely acknowledged as the first web video, for the song Neon Bible. This was followed by some interesting digital artwork for 2010 album The Suburbs, and a second site for the band by Morisset, for the track Sprawl II, plus of course The Wilderness Downtown, an ambitious piece that became an instant success.

The Wilderness Downtown, created with Koblin and director Chris Milk, began life as a project for Google Chrome rather than Arcade Fire, and it was Milk’s connection with the band that brought them on board. This new project began in a similar fashion, with Morisset and Koblin initially coming together to create something for Google. The duo first met at the OFFF Barcelona in 2011 and immediately connected. “There was this kind of mutual respect, we promised each other that we would work together one day,” says Morisset. “Last year was good timing. We looked at ideas, they were really broad, we went in a lot of directions. We were excited about the potential of connecting devices together, we talked a lot about that. We had the idea of putting a tracker on a mobile device.”

The duo played around with gyroscope data and found this a successful way of letting the mobile create a detailed effect on screen. “We were able to create something much more complex, you have orientation, speed and also positioning.” At this stage, they began talking to Arcade Fire and found that the first single from the album was a perfect fit for their experiments. “The concept of you and something on the other side of the wall echoed the song,” continues Morisset.

The finished web experience was created by both Morisset and Koblin, with Morisset’s regular team of collaborators, which include Édouard Lanctôt-Benoit, Caroline Robert and Brandon Blommaert, also playing a key role in its creation.

It is designed to be viewed on a Google Chrome browser and is split into two halves. Across both is a film written and directed by Morisset and shot in Jacmel in Haiti with the help of a local film school, Cine Institute. It stars Axelle ‘Ebony’ Munezero, a Montreal-based dancer and choreographer. She features particularly in the first half, where the audience is invited to interact with her movements on screen using their phones. By sweeping your phone, visual and light effects appear on screen. And in a particularly clever touch, you can still make the sweeping motions appear even when the image is paused.

Halfway thorough, Munezero is shown breaking a mirror. The camera zooms in and suddenly the viewer sees their phone reflected in the glass on-screen, with their own image at the centre. The words ‘Break Free’ appear on screen, and users are encouraged to reject playing around with the interactive experience and watch the rest of the film in a more traditional fashion. To reflect this change, the content here becomes more “emotionally driven”, says Morisset.

“When she breaks the mirror, there was this idea of getting back to something more real and grounded,” he says. “We approached that part of the shoot more in a documentary style.” It happened to be Flag Day in the town so the team were blessed with some stunning footage. Morisset describes the project as “the best of both worlds”, allowing him the opportunity to experiment with the looser approach of documentary filmmaking and then combining this with truly cutting edge technology.

The team shooting in Haiti

As with all web-based experiences, a major part of the challenge for the team was to anticipate all the environments in which the piece would be encountered, and adjust the technology accordingly. “You never know the context in which people will use it,” explains Morisset. “If it’s dark, if it’s bright, what kind of computer, what kind of phone.

“We’re not just dealing with technology, we’re dealing with unique environments,” he continues. “A big part of the data is our engagement and gesture. We developed a HTML5 video player where we control real-time WebGL shader effects. We pair camera vision with the gyroscope and accelerometer data from the mobile device that we send to the computer through WebSockets. It’s by far the most complex thing I’ve ever worked on.”

Despite this advanced tech, the team were determined for the piece not to just become a technology show; instead they intend it to be first and foremost an emotional experience. “There’s been a lot of trial and error to create something that felt magical but still had a sense of something real,” says Morisset. “It could really easily go into a Photoshop filter thing, so that the demonstration of technology becomes the subject.

“For me it’s always been an obsession to combine these things, to make something rich and nuanced, so you forget the technology.”

To play with Reflektor, visit justareflektor.com. The making-of film below gives more info on how it was put together. You can play around with the technology behind the experience here.

Credits:
Written, directed and produced by Vincent Morisset
Creative Direction by Vincent Morisset and Aaron Koblin
Produced by AATOAA, Unit9, Google Creative Lab, Antler Films
Lead creative developer:  Édouard Lanctôt-Benoit
Artistic direction: Caroline Robert
Visual effects: Brandon Blommaert
Google Creative Lab creative director: Aaron Koblin
Technologists: Doug Fritz, Jono Bandel, Aleksandar Rodic, Mr.doob
Producers: Sabah Kosoy, Valdean Klump
Marketing managers: Jenny Ramaswamy, Clem Wright
Unit9 Interactive producer: Amelia Roberts
Lead developer: Maciej Zasada
Developer: Fábio Azevedo
Antler Films producer: Sach Baylin-Stern
Director: Vincent Morisset
DOP: Mathieu Laverdière
Costume designer: Renata Morales
Choreography: Axelle ‘Ebony’ Munezero
Editor: Nicolas Roy
Haiti Line Production: Cine-Institute Jacmel

In addition to the Reflektor experience, Arcade Fire has also released a conventional music video, directed by Anton Corbijn. See it below:

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