The Man Behind Beck’s 360-Degree ‘Sound and Vision’

Do you like neat things that are from the future? Stop whatever else you’re doing and check out the immersive music collaboration between Beck and director Chris Milk. The flat version of this went viral earlier this month, but this version, released on Tuesday, lets you look around the venue as Beck and his cohorts play, simply by moving your face around (it uses your webcam, obviously).

As you look around, your sound changes, because Milk and his cohorts recorded the whole thing using dummy heads with binaural microphones in them. It’s sort of glorious. Is this the future?

To find out more, we shot over some questions to Chris Milk, who directed not only this wonder, but also a steerable HTML5 video for Dangermouse and that thing with the Arcade Fire, among other bleeding-edge experiments in sound and vision. He took time out of his busy schedule to expound at length on what this is and where it is going.

Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: Where did this idea come from, and how did it germinate?
Chris Milk, director, “Sound and Vision”: I was approached by @radical.media, who produced the project for HudsonRouge and Lincoln. The initial brief I was given was to find a way to reinvent an audience’s experience of live music, both at the event and when it’s broadcast online. Beck was already involved – though the song wasn’t locked down yet – and he was interested in working with a wide array of different musicians.

When you stand in a traditional audience you have a wall of amplified sound coming at you from one direction. Everyone’s familiar with that. I’ve played in bands myself, and sat on the floor photographing some of the greatest bands in the world while they rehearse: what’s always struck me is how different the sensory, especially auditory, experience is when you’re in the middle of the music with the musicians playing off each other around you. I wanted to find a way to unlock the intensity of that, to recreate that unique perspective, first for the hundreds of people who attended the concert, and eventually for a much larger online audience. It gives them access to a phonic experience that’s usually reserved only for musicians.

Given the unique set up of the live event I was proposing, I wanted to give the user the closest possible perspective to being there – not just visually, but becoming immersed in the music from an auditory standpoint. In some respects, the goal was to create something even better than being at the concert, because we give the user even greater freedom – you can stand on stage with Beck, or walk around the outside of his stage, or walk through the musicians.  All behaviors that would have been severely frowned upon at the actual event.

This project for me was really a big experiment in sensory immersion. How can you create a surround sound and vision environment that can be distributed on a global scale to people using the digital tools and web technology as they exist today? Full virtual reality storytelling though, where you live inside the narrative, is closer than we think. I took this opportunity that Lincoln provided me to test some of the audio-visual immersion theories I’ve been kicking around lately.

What was the hardest part about pulling this off?
There are a lot of contenders for most difficult part of the project. From the largest working turntable rotating hundreds of people, to the prototype cameras that have never been used in a major production before, to the 360 binaural recording heads that had to be invented and built from scratch, to a webcam facial tracking system, and then a completely unavoidable large download time for the HD version that means many people think the site is down. It would be hard to find an element of this project that wasn’t a technical challenge. I give large props to my line producer Samantha Storr for holding the many unraveling threads together.

You make amazing stuff. Why do you think more people aren’t able to produce successful interactive music projects? Do you see these things becoming mainstream (in the positive sense of more people getting to enjoy them), and what would it take for that to happen?
I think there are some great interactive music experiments out there. Some of them are just hard to find. Check out Vincent Morisset’s work if you want to be amazed. The interactive video Stopp LA, who I built the Beck site with, did for Robyn is incredible also.

Yes, I do see these sort of interactive experiments becoming more mainstream in the future. And it will happen naturally as the interactive mediums evolve technologically, and converge from a platform standpoint. Personally, my primary goal is always to tell the most compelling version of the story that will hopefully resonate with people on an emotional level. But what fascinates me, and what I’ve been experimenting with a lot lately, is figuring out how can we use modern developing technology to tell stories that resonate on an even deeper emotion and human level, than was possible before that technology existed.

We don’t know what the established models of interactive storytelling will be in 100 years, just like the pioneers of cinema didn’t envision a 90-minute feature film with a three-act structure. We can only experiment, keep creating new canvases, keep painting new things on them. The best part about this new rapidly evolving interactive canvas is that the viewer or listener or user isn’t a passive receiver anym ore: they’re participating in the narrative, they’re co-creating the art. Look at web-based interactive films, video games, or virtual reality environments – all of them have resonance because they’re as much about what the piece says to the participant, as what the participant says to the piece.

This story originally appeared on Evolver.fm