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Meet the Filmmaker Who Helped Realize the Immersive, Virtual Reality World of Björk's 'Vulnicura'

Andrew Thomas Huang on the challenges of shooting videos in Iceland, what the future holds for VR technology, and more.

This post ran originally on THUMP Canada.

In 2011, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Andrew Thomas Huang made an experimental short film called Solipsist, described as a "three part psychedelic fantasy about otherworldly beings whose minds and bodies converge into one entity." It caught the attention of Björk, who reached out and asked him to direct a music video for "Mutual Core," off her eighth studio album, Biophilia.

This partnership would lead to Huang being one of the Icelandic artist's primary visual collaborators for her 2015 LP, Vulnicura, taking advantage of virtual reality technology to create an immersive world for fans. These included intimate videos for "Black Lake" (commissioned by New York's Museum of Modern Art for a career-spanning retrospective of her work) and "Stonemilker," the former of which sees the singer performing in a cave before exiting onto ravines and moss plains, and the latter on a windswept beach from multiple angles.

For the Björk Digital exhibition, currently on-display at Montreal's DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art as part of this year's Red Bull Music Academy, the pair debuted the VR experience "Family," (with co-creative direction by Björk and James Merry) which allows viewers to use Vive controllers to embark on a futuristic journey. We recently spoke to Huang—who has also directed videos for Thom Yorke's Atoms For Peace, Sigur Rós, and others—about the challenges of filming in Iceland, the biggest lesson that he ever learned from the musician, and more.

On creating the visual world of Vulnicura:

"The main difference between this collaboration and the first one with her is that she had finished Biophilia, and I was adding to the repertoire of that world she had created. This time I was trying to make visuals while she was still writing, there was a lot more back-and-forth, and a lot more collaboration with her creative director James [Merry]. It was such an emotional journey for a lot of reasons: the material we were dealing with was way more personal, she was going through the separation with Matthew Barney as we were developing all this. The museum [MoMA] was an emotional journey, too, because we're looking at 30 years of work, and at the same time, she's a very forward-looking lady. How do we forge our way forwards while still looking backwards, and how do we make a piece that fulfills everyone's expectations? We had a lot of budgetary issues and, because it's a museum, there's a lot of bureaucracy.

We were talking a lot about how a core practice of her career has been hiking through the Icelandic wilderness, and that would be her personal time when she would be singing and improvising. We read this book called The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, which I think was written in the late 70s or 80s. He went to Australia and documented the Australian Aboriginal practice of singing your way through the wilderness through songlines or dreamings, and that became a huge foundational concept of 'Black Lake.'

Back when I shot the [Vulnicura] album cover, we also ended up shooting this short film that told a story of this woman going from heartbreak to empowerment by like stitching herself together. She used the word 'moving album cover' and I thought she wanted a GIF at first. We set it to the song 'Family' because it had so many movements, and after receiving funding from Red Bull, we kicked into production of the full VR version just two months ago."

On the challenges of shooting in Iceland:

"When we shot 'Stonemilker' it was honestly so guerilla. We decided to shoot it at 10 PM, and our call time was 6 AM the next morning. We had been planning to shoot a video for 'Lionsong,' so we changed the song, changed the location, called the Reykjavík municipal office to get permission to go out to this lighthouse. She records there a lot but there's also a strand where the tide comes in and you're stuck there, we only had two hours to shoot it.

I've done panoramic filming before and I knew that you have to hide because you're in it, so we went out there, and shot this thing really low budget. I think Björk even dyed that extra piece of neon cloth the day before. I'm constantly thinking about three-act structure in any pop song or general short film experience; you have to have a beginning, middle, and end, so the whole time you're thinking, Okay how do I make this rise and fall with what she's doing? I made the commitment to let her do her thing and when we get footage, I'll find precise moments to multiple her, and I just did it in After Effects where I chose the masking points at which she would appear."

On what the future holds for VR technology:

"I think there's going to more live VR applications, Björk's already keen on that, filming entire concerts in VR. I think the big thing that I'm still waiting to become easier and more affordable is videogrammetry, where you're actually spraying a room with points and you're getting video data, video that you can volitionally move around. If you watch a football game nowadays, when they do replays, they'll pause the field and navigate around in real-time as if it was a chessboard. We've already seen music videos done with this kind of stuff, you can use four [Microsoft] Kinects.

360 degree video as a documentary tool is becoming a lot easier now, especially with these handheld cameras, but I don't think the technology is readily available or affordable enough yet to hold a concert and be able to walk around the performer in VR. I also think indie game designers are more primed for this space then filmmakers. I've met so many filmmakers who are like 'This is a new space for storytelling,' but game designers have been doing this forever."

On the artists he sees pushing the boundaries of what's possible with music videos:

"I'm a huge fan of what Sam Rolfes is doing because he's working in a game engine to create his images. I wouldn't say that they're limited to VR exclusively, but Pussykrew have been doing really great things. Encyclopedia Pictura, they're based in LA and have been working on the Kanye video game, I've seen a bit and it looks incredible.

Chris Milk is a perfect example of somebody who has been pioneering new technologies and that's why he's made a name for himself. I know Daniel Askill, who did all the Sia videos recently, he's also pioneering new stuff in his own work. There's someone who doesn't really do music videos but his name's Geoffrey Lillemon, he used to be also known as Champagne Valentine, he's created visuals for Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj. I feel more young musicians like Grimes or [FKA] Twigs or Yoann Lemoine from Woodkid, they're renaissance artists that have the ability to create expansive worlds beyond their music. Granted people like Björk have been doing that for ages, but I think the difference is that some of these artists can do it themselves."

On the biggest lesson that he's learned from Björk:

"She's an artist fearlessly charging towards a new space and I've ended up learning all these new tools through her initiative. I think sometimes artists use these new mediums and it becomes a sort of sensationalist trick, it's like a spectacle. The stuff that she creates is always emotionally driven, there's such specificity and accountability for all the objects and visual choices, and I've learned that it's really important to consider the emotion of a story. I couldn't ask for a better collaborator."

The Björk Digital exhibition in Montreal runs until Nov. 12, more info and tickets here.

Max Mertens is on Twitter.