The Wilderness Downtown’s Creator Talks About What Motivated Him, What’s Next

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You’ve probably seen Chris Milk’s web only masterpiece The Wilderness Downtown. The music video took the user back to their childhood on an interactive journey set to the backdrop of We Used to Wait by the Arcade Fire. It also probably prompted most people to make the move to Google Chrome, since the project was made in HTML 5 and works best with the browser. The Wilderness Downtown opened our eyes to the interactive possibilities of the Internet, showing us that chatting and emailing aren’t the only way we can share experiences online. Chris Milk spoke to Techland about what inspired him and what’s coming up next, both for him and for the medium.

Michelle Castillo: What was your big inspiration for The Wilderness Downtown?

Chris Milk: I hadn’t heard the song when we first started talking about this project. The idea really came about as a way to bring two ideas together. Aaron Koblin and I were discussing Google’s interest in coming up with some way to showcase what was possible on the web with HTML 5. Aaron works at Google Creative Lab.  I was friends with Win in the band and knew they’d be looking for something visually interesting for the upcoming album. After a few conversations it became clear that it was a perfect fit.

The process of actually coming up with the visuals you see on the screen is about as boring, unsexy, and far from a “big inspiration” moment as you can get. It involves me sitting around my house and listening to the song 6 or 7 thousand times while jotting down ideas in a notebook.  The majority of the time I am not wearing pants. That’s about the extent of it.

MC: How long did the project take from inception to release?

CM: The whole thing was a really long process.  I started talking to Win about it in January.  At the time they didn’t have any songs finished yet.  I listened to an early unfinished version of the track in March, went to see the band in Montreal in April, wrote the concept in May, started physical production and web development in June, shot the film portion in July, finished everything by the end of August.

The editorial process was really interesting. A cut/edit has a certain weight to it. You use that weight as a tool. But a whole new browser window popping up with a new film element in it– that has its own percussion and tone. We had to edit differently than we normally would. It’s a different canvas than a television or cinema screen. It’s more comparable to plasma scenes popping up all over your wall– needless to say, it’s an effect you need to be a little careful with.

MC: Why did you choose to go with Google Chrome?

CM: The site was built with HTML5 in mind, which the Chrome browser runs really well. Some browsers are not HTML5-compliant yet, and of the ones that are, some don’t render canvas elements fast enough or don’t support a JavaScript feature which we’ve used throughout the site.  They will soon though.  The site will play on everything I would imagine by next year.  Currently  it works really well on Safari and Chrome on Mac, and I think on Windows it’s best with Chrome.  The new Chrome 6 just came out 4 days after we launched and the piece runs particularly well on that.

MC: What was the best part of making the project for you?

CM: I love technology.  I love trying to tell stories in new ways using technology.  My biggest concern though was finding something that would emotionally resonate with people, without getting them bogged down in that technology.  It’s easy to lose the humanity when you start showcasing tech.   Google maps and streetview embody that contradiction though.  It’s cold high-tech that can be incredibly emotional when used in the right context.  The whole piece is full of contradictions.   It’s essentially human nostalgia produced by the most advanced technology available today.

My real motivation came from my quest for music videos to have the equally soul-touching emotional resonance that straight music does. Honestly, I’m not sure they ever can. Music scores your life. You interact with it. You listen to it in the car.  It becomes the soundtrack to that one summer with that one girl. Music videos are very concrete and rigid. They don’t allow for that emotional interaction. My first attempt was for Johnny Cash, where viewers could draw their own portraits of Johnny in a drawing tool built into the site. Those handmade portraits then became the individual frames of the video.

It is a super cool project and it has meant a lot to the many Johnny Cash fans who have been able to participate on that deep level. They have personally built Johnny’s last music video. All of their work combined makes for a beautiful tribute. But it required a large time investment for the individual on the front end, with their portrait only showing up for 1/8 of a second. With this Arcade Fire project I wanted to try to flip that equation: to require minimal time investment up front with maximum “you” in the film. The only way to do that is to deliver a different film to every viewer.

MC: What interactive features with online video are going to be crucial to the development of the medium?

CM: Interactive tech features will continue to advance at a breakneck speed.  What we need though are compelling human stories that blossom inside the technology.

That’s the future.  Computers telling stories about computers is not something you’d want to sit through.

MC: Do you think that this kind of user activity will ever be able cross over into the real world experience?

CM: It will.  Keep an eye out for “The Wilderness Machine” on tour with the band.

MC: What ‘s next for you?

CM: I’m hoping to do my first feature film soon.  I have two projects I’m developing right now.