Aaron Koblin: Has Lasers, Will Make Art

For digital media artist Aaron Koblin, trains are better when they come outfitted with lasers. As one of the minds behind interactive Radiohead and Arcade Fire videos, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he used the Station to Station travelling music festival as the perfect opportunity to blast lasers across the countryside and record it into the Light Echoes video. Henrietta Tiefenthaler sat down with Koblin to find out the story behind the project and the secret to making interactive music videos.

Milk Made: So, how did you get involved in Doug Aitken’s Station to Station?

Aaron Koblin: Doug reached out to me many months ago and kind of explained what he was up to with Station. He said, “I have this train I’m taking across the country and it seems like an excellent opportunity for us to put something together…. so what would you do with the train?”

I went to LA and met up with him, and we had a series of discussions. I brought in my friend Ben Tricklebank fairly early on in the process. I had a bunch of different ideas…I think we left that day with about eight different projects, but then ended up really focusing on this one idea of turning the train into a gigantic light printer. I’d done a bunch of projects that used lasers and laser scanners and thought it would be really interesting to put a laser on the train and see if we could use it as this device that would be mapping other topologies on top of the landscapes as it moved past. The idea was that we could print these ultra HD resolution images by drawing one line at a time with the laser and then the train itself would be painting the landscape as it moved, so you would use open shutter and high-speed photography and capture these images of images on top of landscapes.

When we were working on the Radiohead project one of the things that was really cool to see was capturing the data as we manipulated the laser scanner, you could see both the artifacts of the movement of the laser, as well as the artifacts of deformation on the landscapes, so it would cast shadows on plants and shrubs and cars and other things that moved by. It would create these really interesting and also significant patterns. If we juxtapose those with these images we can create a really exciting visual. And I think there’s also another layer which I’m hoping to do in phase two which is more of a live visualization thing. So the pie-in-the-sky idea was to use one of the musicians on Doug’s train and do a real-time visualization of them moving through space and actually see the visual history of the music as it played out across the landscape, on the tracks behind. And then, ideally, do that both through a single image as a time-lapse but also through this animated short film. Ideally with the short film you’d be able to hear the music as it was playing across the landscape and see the visual history of it where it was as it moved through the landscape.

MM: And how was that realized?

AK: I bought a really cheap laser on eBay and ended up strapping it on the top of Ben’s car in the canyons in LA. He has a pretty funny story of completely terrifying this old man as he’s driving through the canyon with this red laser, just passing over this guy. I think he was very unsure of what was happening.

We did some tests and just said, what does this laser look like and is it even going to work? What are these images going to be like at all? We did really low-budget scrappy tests and then costed out what would it be to do this properly with a super nice laser and train rental and a variety of different locations. We originally just wanted to put it on Doug’s train but then realized that the permitting for all the different counties and federal government and all this other stuff was going to be a nightmare if we wanted to do it legally. So we continued to do it kind of somewhat “legally” and then in the meantime we rented a laser and did another big, next level test which was, in my mind, the dress rehearsal, which is pretty much where we’ve got to at this point. We went out to Ventura and got a train car that we could have these guys spot weld a giant crane onto, and then suspend this laser off the back of, and roll it through the scene and create images which are a lot closer than what we hoped for the final.

MM: So you’re going to do that in the future?

AK: Yeah, I think we’re still hoping to do the proper full incarnation. If you know anybody who wants to give us a million dollars please let me know. Haha! But in the meantime, we’ve been piecing it together and it’s been pretty exciting to see what we can do even with a simpler smaller version.

MM: You don’t have to answer it but what’s your favorite piece that you’ve done?

AK: I actually think that in terms of the projects I’ve worked on that involve music probably The Johnny Cash Project is still my favorite. Partially because of the music and partially just because of the passion that the fans showed in the creation of the project. So many amazing hand-drawn frames, thousands of them, they’re really quite beautiful.

MM: What was it again?

AK: The Johnny Cash project is basically an animated music video where every single frame is drawn by a different person and it’s constantly evolving where people are painting a new portrait and their interpretation of that frame and then at eight frames a second it gets played back so you get this constantly changing music video.

It’s probably my favorite project. Seeing some of the content, there’s hundreds of thousands of drawings in it now and some of them are just beautiful, amazing. And you can also sort them based on metadata so you can say: I want to see the abstract version which is completely psychedelic, overwhelming; but you still see the continuity of the original content flowing through the hand-drawn drawings.

MM: And how did you get involved in the Radiohead video?

AK: It depends how far back we want to go with the Radiohead project. I originally was working at the Center for Embedded Network Sensing at UCLA. I was writing laser scanner software which was basically visualizing these lasers which were meant for scientific applications like scanning erosion on hillsides and rainforest canopy light fall and stuff like that and I realized that the images that were coming back were actually quite beautiful, like thousands of points of data being represented, and I made a little installation for the center there where people could pass through the space and leave these kind of Duchamp-style Nude Descending a Staircase things, collapsing time and space into a single image, and leave traces of their bodies’ motion. It turned out pretty well and I showed it to a director, James Frost, in LA and he said, “Oh we can use this to make a video without video.” I had already worked with him on an Interpol music video, and he said, “If you could work with anybody who would it be?” And I said, “Uh, I’d love to work with Radiohead,” and he said, “Ah, I know somebody who knows somebody,” and the next thing you know, we were pitching it and they loved it and the rest is history.

MM: And how did you get involved with Arcade Fire?

AK: With Arcade Fire, I worked with Chris on The Johnny Cash Project…. Chris Milk, another music video director in LA, who’s a close friend of mine. Chris just basically came to me and said (you know, we were talking about trying to do a music video that was specifically meant for the web), “Arcade Fire has a new album, I think it’s going to be great, you should listen to this.” We flew up to Montreal and met with the band and said we have this idea, and actually used Google Earth at the time to fly through to their home, and asked Win, “What’s your address?” and typed it in and played the song, and they loved the idea so we just put that together.

MM: Who came up with the idea?

AK: The original context was that he and I wanted to make a music video that was meant specifically for the web. We knew we wanted to do something that was personalized. It wasn’t something that was just going to be a static, canned video, so we both brainstormed and we just came up with: we should use multiple windows; we should make it interactive where you can contribute to it; and we should try to tailor it to specific people. Fundamentally we knew we had a unique opportunity to work with Google as well, where we could probably get away with stuff others wouldn’t be able to. We made a list of everything Google has and I think Chris was the one who was originally super excited about Google Earth and I said, “I don’t think Google Earth is going to work because everyone has to download this big application and people might not have it but there’s Google Maps and there’s this other thing called Street View where you can actually see people’s homes in the first person.” So I think it was a meld of those two things, like, “Oh, let’s shift this and make it really about the person’s home and where they grew up.” The band really liked it as well.

MM: Yeah, it definitely had a sentimental value for me.

AK: Yeah, when it works… it’s the only project where I’ve had many people say, “It made me cry.” Like, legitimately made them cry. In a way, we’re kind of cheating a little bit, but when it works, it works pretty effectively.

MM: Having just watched your new Arcade Fire music video, do you think music videos are going to be more interactive from now on?

AK: I don’t know. I think it’s like when TV came out and people said people are going to stop going to movies. But that didn’t really happen. I think there’s new types of media and just because there are awesome interactive experiences, I don’t think people are going to stop liking music videos or traditional forms of linear content, but I hope there’s going to be more interactive stuff. I think there’s a lot of potential to do some really cool things using interactivity and the new technologies that are coming out online.

MM: Me too. It’s so fun!

AK: Definitely.

MM: Who are you going to work with next? Do you have any plans to work with anyone you’ve been dreaming of working with?

AK: There are a few artists that I’ve been watching and communicating with that I think would be great to work with. We’ll see what happens. I was looking forward to connecting with Grimes. I think she’s got some pretty great music, some interesting originality I respect. I’m talking briefly with the Animal Collective folks as well, who I’m a big fan of. Yeah, I don’t know, I’m pretty open. There are a couple of folks on Ghostly too that are great. Shigeto just did the music for the Light Echoes project, here at Station, and he’s fantastic, so I’m working with him, even though our collaboration’s pretty lightweight, he was awesome in letting us use his music and he’s a talented guy. I don’t know, there’s probably a laundry list of other folks.

MM: And where do you see your career going?

AK: I don’t know. I try not to think about it too much because I think that’s paralyzing. It’s kind of not super productive to daydream but better to do the stuff that you’re excited by and watch for opportunities as they pop up.

MM: But you want to stay more in music or move more into…

AK: I do a lot of stuff that’s involved in music and I think it’s some of the more exciting, emotional, passionate stuff but I do an equal amount of stuff that has nothing to do with music. I do a lot of other data-visualization type projects. We have a team at Google called Data Arts Team; we’re working on some other stuff using Google data right now, and some other interactive interface explorations. We’re actually working on two computer games, which are pretty fun. I think I had this childhood fantasy of eventually becoming a game designer so I’m living that out in part.

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