Vincent Morisset bills himself as a “web-friendly” director, which is a fitting distinction. Where most films progress in a linear fashion, Morisset takes things a step further, or maybe sideways.
Through simple interactions like scrolling a mouse across a computer screen, or complicated ones like dancing in front of a webcam, Morisset’s films ask the audience to participate in an unfolding narrative. His approach is tailor-made for web 2.0. Just as Facebook and Twitter are only worthwhile when users get involved, Morisset’s work truly comes alive only with audience input.
Readers may know Morisset’s work through his involvement with the Grammy-winning band Arcade Fire, with whom he has worked since their 2004 breakout album, Funeral. Since then, he’s created music videos, interactive web content, and the 2009 documentary Mirroir Noir alongside the band.
Most recently, he directed the beautifully unsettling video for “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” Arcade Fire’s latest single. The video presents characters whose behaviors mimic that of the viewer. Dance quickly to the music, and the characters will do the same; slow down and they’ll follow suit. If you stop dancing altogether, the characters stop progressing, their movements stuck in an endless loop.
Morisset has also worked with Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros, directing that band’s concert film, Inni, which may be a traditional “non-interactive” film, though the methods of its creation were anything but. He shot and edited the movie in digital HD, then transferred it to black-and-white film by projecting it onto a screen and recording that projection with 16mm cameras.
The 16mm version of the movie was then itself projected, as Morisset and his collaborators improvised manipulations using “prisms and other found objects.” Then they filmed and edited that version using digital HD equipment. The result was uncanny; promotional materials accurately describe it as “spare and near-monochromatic in its tunnel vision…[inviting] both intimacy and claustrophobia.
We recently spoke with Morisset about the ideas behind his work, collaborating with musicians, and his complicated relationship with technology.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Andy Cush, Evolver.fm: I wanted to start by asking you about your background, especially the interactive side of your art. How did you come to work in this particular format?
Vincent Morisset, Director: When I was younger, I wanted to go into cinema, so I went to school in that direction. When I was in university, I was in this communication program. You had to decide whether to go into TV, cinema or radio. The year I had to choose my profile, they opened up this new program called multimedia, and it just fit with my personality. I’m a guy who can touch every aspect of it, and so I jumped in that program.
This was in the late ’90s, so my path kind of changed at that point. For a couple of years, I’d been mainly developing graphic-based websites, because at that time, that was the limitation of the medium. In the beginning of the ’00s, the bandwidth allowed us to play more and more with video, so at that point, my two loves, if I may say, joined back together. I started to do more and more video-based projects. I was part of a team with other people, and I was the guy that was more comfortable with technology.
I don’t consider myself a geek. I don’t love programming, but I learned how to code in Lingo and in ActionScript to make projects happen. So, I have this kind of self-taught programming background, but at the same time I studied cinema. At some point, those two backgrounds collided and I started doing what we now call interactive video.
Evolver.fm: Do you see the technology as worth pursuing on it’s own — making something with the most high-tech tools available? Or is it more of a means to achieve an artistic vision?
Morisset: I’m not a geek. I’m not really excited about the technology [for its own sake]. I think it offers amazing possibilities, but I’m not one of those guys who get excited just because of it. Ideas always drive my projects, and I use the tools that are around me to achieve them. I think it’s important that we understand the possibilities and the limitations of those tools, but for me, it’s important that the projects are driven by ideas so that they don’t become technology demos or whatever.
Evolver.fm: A lot of your work, though technologically impressive, manages to feel very handmade and human — the animations in the interactive film Bla Bla, for instance, or the homespun quality of this newest Arcade Fire video ["Sprawl II"].
Morisset: Thanks. I think there’s a paradox about my relationship with technology. In a way, I love it. One of my mottos is ‘The web is fun.’ I love this platform, I love this medium, but the way we connect with images on our laptop is really different from the way we relate to images on a TV screen.
Since I want to trigger emotions through my projects, I work hard so that we kind of forget that we’re in front of a computer. We forget about the technology and it just feels like a kind of weird, magical thing, reacting to what you do.
Evolver.fm: Would you talk a little bit about the “Sprawl II” video — your processes behind it, and how it came to be?
Morisset: I’ve been working with the band forever, back since Funeral, so we have this ongoing creative collaboration going on. When they were recording The Suburbs, I was working as artistic director on the whole visual aspect of the artwork, juggling different ideas for various projects.
For a while, I wanted to develop an interactive video project that would be free of any interface — just this thing that’s really spontaneous and primitive. I showed this really basic little demo to Regine [Chassagne, Arcade Fire's singer/multi-instrumentalist], where you just waved your hand at the webcam and it triggered sounds and flickered the screen. She said she thought they’d have a song that was a little more pop, the kind of song you could dance to, and that she’d play it for me when it was done.
At the end, it ended up being “The Sprawl II”. It was kind of disco-ish, and for me, it fit perfectly with the concept. So time passed, I worked on other projects, and at the end of the album cycle, I was like, ‘Hey, we should really do this.’
The band was totally into doing a dance-activated video but they wanted to make sure people without a webcam or a good computer would still be able to have a sense of the world we were creating, so we decided to do a kind of hybrid project. We would have a traditional film that could be seen on YouTube or on TV, and parallel to that would be this interactive video. That was kind of a challenge, because out of the same shoot, I had to do two parallel projects for two totally different mediums.
Evolver.fm: Thematically, the album seems conflicted about the state of modern life as we know it, and your video dovetails nicely with that. You created these images that, at times, almost feel like home video, and presented them in a new, confusing context.
Morisset: We wanted to have something that would be really simple and straightforward, but not boring. So we asked ourselves what we like about music videos, and decided to make something that felt spontaneous and fun, with a bit of strangeness added.
It’s always funny when I first show the project to different kinds of people. When they start to understand the cause and effect of their gestures, and the echo in the choreography, there’s this moment when they’re like, ‘Whoa.’ They get a bit freaked out. And then when you pass this moment, you kind of assimilate it and make the video your own.
It’s funny how different people interact with it depending on their personality or their cultural background. Some people are more analytical about it, some people just let loose. It’s funny to see how people connect with a piece like that.
Evolver.fm: The interactivity makes it just as much about whatever baggage you’re bringing to the table as a spectator, as it is about what the artist put into it.
Morisset: It also connects to what the song is about. There’s this character, alienated by her environment, who wants to get loose and escape from that alienating environment. The fact that you dance in front of your computer is also a bit liberating and kind of weird, because you’re not in a context where you normally dance. You’re at your work computer, or in your living room, and there’s this moment where you cross a tiny boundary.
Evolver.fm: One of the criticisms you often hear about internet culture is that it causes people to have short attention spans about the media they consume. Because your interactive work is mostly experienced online, by its nature, there’s a good chance some people won’t give it their full attention and others will perceive it as frivolous. Does that bother you at all?
Morisset: No, not at all. I like this gray area about music video culture. There’s something really exciting about that niche because you’re juggling between two worlds. You connect to a broad audience but you’re able to propose things that are unusual and sometimes a bit challenging.
It’s okay if people see it one way or another. It’s part of the process, part of the game. I quite like the fact that we are able to reach all kinds of people and present it in different contexts. At some point, you don’t have control over what contexts the piece will be re-presented in, so you don’t know how people will look at it. And I think that’s kind of cool.
Evolver.fm: Yeah, that must be pretty exciting. Just releasing it into the wild.
Morisset: You need to embrace that. It’s part of what the web is.
Evolver.fm: There seems to be a connection with music in a lot of your work, even the stuff that isn’t commissioned by a band. When you began your career as an artist, did you know that you’d have this close relationship with music? Or is that something that evolved on its own?
Morisset: Your life is about accidents, happy accidents. The fact that I started to work with Arcade Fire, something like eight years ago — it led me to doing projects that bounced into other projects, and other projects, and other people asking me to work with them. In the last years, I’ve just been lucky enough to work with amazing artists. I would say it’s been this kind of theory of encounters.
I didn’t look to do just music-related projects, it just kind of happened like that. And I must say, I decided that in the next year I’d like to explore other things. But I love music, and I think there’s a strong connection between music and image, especially for interactive stuff. When you’re playing with non-linear editing, the music gives the thing a kind of emotional spine. It gives it a structure. Even if you’re playing with something that’s really reactive, at least you have this backbone to keep the tension and dramatic crescendos of a piece.
So it’s something really useful for me as an artist working with interactive material, but I don’t way to be pigeonholed to do music stuff. Like I said before, I like to touch all kinds of things.
Evolver.fm: Something that attracted me to Inni was the hands-on, analog manipulation of the film that you guys were doing. You’re taking something that was originally filmed digitally in HD and working with it, like you would with clay or paint — as a physical artistic object. Could you explain that process?
Morisset: I see that as a traditional film. It’s linear and about an hour long, but I took a lot of the expertise that I developed with web projects into that process.
I’m always trying to destroy the slick, perfect, a bit soulless look of computer-ish imagery. In Bla Bla it was the same. I did some old school stop motion with a puppet, then rotoscoped the face in 3D so that I could map the mouth and the eyes in real time. So again I was working with something that was really fragile and imperfect, but using sophisticated technology along with it.
With Inni it’s kind of the other way around. We took advantage of these really light-sensitive cameras and were able to edit the film in a straightforward, efficient way. But there was this too-crisp feel to it — it was almost like watching the news on TV. It kind of killed all the magic and the aura of what Sigur Ros is.
So I thought we’d try a more spontaneous approach with the post-production. When I pitched the idea to Sigur Ros, I was comparing it to when Neil Young did the Dead Man soundtrack. He sat in front of the Jim Jarmusch film with his guitar, looking at it for the first time, and just jammed over it. There’s this really volatile, imperfect thing about it that makes it so alive and beautiful.
Again, computers can do amazing things, but there’s something about organic, handmade stuff. You can’t fake it. You just need to put your hands in the dirt and do it.
Morisset: Well, I think there’s a lot of potential in this really straightforward way of presenting digital content synchronized with the song. It struck me that more people haven’t embraced this path. I was like ‘damn!’ I thought it was such a cool idea. Why aren’t other people doing it? It’s kind of a no-brainer. It makes no sense that in 2012 we’re still stuck with a JPEG for the whole album.
It’s bizarre. It’s been blocked by Apple in a way. It couldn’t be sold in their store, because it’s not standard MP3s, but it’s not exactly an app either.
Evolver.fm: It reminds me a little bit of Björk’s Biophilia suite of apps. Obviously they’re very different, but they seem of a piece, in a way, because both are looking at the album format and asking, ‘what could we be doing differently in 2012?’
Morisset: With the Björk thing, you need to get into the app to listen to the song. You’re kind of forced to be involved in it. For me, listening to music is something that can go both ways. I can remember sitting on the couch when I was younger, and opening the vinyl sleeve and reading the lyrics. But when I’m on the bus, I don’t want to have to hold the record sleeve. I want to put it on sleep, put it in my pocket, and still be able to listen to it. I still want to put it on random with other songs; I still want to be able to put those tracks in a playlist.
The Björk thing is cool in itself, but I would love it if it could be embedded in your listening environment. If you’re in that, you can’t do anything else. If you listen to the app album, you’re in that, so you have your virtual booklet open at all times.
Evolver.fm: Have you seen any interactive work for bands that other people are doing that inspires you?
Evolver.fm: Is there anything happening in the world of more mainstream narrative film that’s got you excited? Is that a world that you would ever consider trying to work in?
Morisset: I’m embracing traditional linear films. I’ve done two films, so it’s not a world I’m totally unfamiliar with. One thing I think is exciting is how those films get around now. I think we’re on the verge of changing distribution and how we consume films, so films that are a bit more niche are able to reach an audience more easily.
I think Mirroir Noir, the Arcade Fire documentary, was one of the first feature films to be originally distributed online. When it first came out, the only way you could see it was to buy it online and download the HD video. It was a bit peculiar — no film festivals, no theater screenings. At the end, I think it was successful because we were able to reach, in a single day, the whole fan community. And people just wanted to see that film. I think if we had gone down the traditional path, people would have found a torrent of it — not because they wanted to pirate, they just wanted to see it so badly.
So in a way, we short-circuited the threat, and in a way, that was good. After that, the film got screened at some theaters and some film events. So, the film’s life was inverted, but in a good way.