Mirada: 3 Dreams of Black Interview

Motionographer recently posted 3 Dreams of Black, the Chris Milk music video intended for exclusive viewing on a browser. When it’s running, the animation progresses so fluidly
that you forget it’s built entirely in WebGL and rendering on the fly. It’s in the computer… or, perhaps more accurately, in your graphics card (which doesn’t sound quite as dramatic).

I was quite excited when I heard Motion Theory was hooking up with Guillermo del Toro and Guillermo Navarro to create some sort of studio/facility/incubator, and Mirada‘s first big project certainly does not disappoint. The folks over at Mirada worked on the conceptual design, animation and technology development for 3 Dreams of Black, which features a song from the new Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi produced album, and the results are remarkable on both the design and technology fronts.

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Mathew Cullen (Mirada Co-founder), Andy Cochrane (Technical Director), Ram Bhat (Art Director), and John Fragomeni (Head of Visual Effects) about the process of making 3 Dreams of Black, interactivity’s increasing influence in the motion design field, and the future of Mirada.

How did Mirada first get involved in the project?

Mathew Cullen: I have a friendship with Chris [Milk] and had been consulting with him early on, because it was such a technological feat, while he was still working on the treatment. Without the intention of being involved, I was advising and it came to the point where it was obvious that it was necessary that we take a central role in being able to pull it off. At that point I was happy for Mirada to be involved. We had a lot of fun figuring it out together, despite not having too many models, if any, for the project. The most exciting thing for us was to build from the ground up – an opportunity to be able to explore a new platform for storytelling.

What kind of team do you put together for a project like this – were they web developers, traditional animators, a mix?

John Fragomeni: The project, from its inception, was uncharted territory for Chris, for ourselves, even for Google. We reverted to what we know best as a company, which is internally collaborating and bringing all the talents that we have at Mirada to flesh out Chris’s vision and workshop within the group first and create a strategy. In that respect, we put the right team together, the right art directors, designers, cg leads, texturers, matte painters. We worked with North Kingdom as well, they came to the facility in Los Angeles and worked with us on pipeline issues. There’s a great deal of things that we were sorting up front, as in any shoot with good pre-production, there’s always good production.

Andy Cochrane: As far as backgrounds, the team that we assembled was from all over. We had a modelling team, we had people with extensive video game backgrounds, but then we also had people with commercial and feature film experience.

With an online web delivery you’re designing for an audience with a lot of unknowns – bandwidth, computer speed, browser types. How do you maintain the artistic vision of the project while navigating all those limitations?

Andy: We were approaching it from every single angle and the quiet internal mantra was it’s a very, very, very, small box. We had to accept that at the end of the day, our allotment was about 40,000 polygons on screen per frame.

So Ram and his team would come up with amazing, beautiful designs which we would cram into this tiny box and then creatively come up with ways to get back to the beauty of the designs in the face of those limitations. Every animal would start with 600 polygons and then we’d see how far we could push the design.

The design could have started by painting something that was completely unattainable. But since it needed to be so low res that there was no way to hide the polygons, Ram designed animals that heavily accentuated the polygons.

Ram Bhat: The poly restriction was the first big challenge. But we thought, we can use this restriction suppress us, or we can use it positively. It ended up influencing the project in a direction that served it best. At first it was challenging, but as we moved forward it became a lot of fun designing for the world. I’m actually kind of worried that for any new project i’m just going to start drawing polygons now. It’s been a really great process in terms of design influencing the 3D and having the 3D influence us. It’s been a very collective project, and at no point was one blazing past the other, it was constantly us moving together.

Mathew: The key was using limitations as our greatest asset – when you do limit yourself, it frees you in a way because you’re not frustrated with what you can’t do, you’ve freed yourself with what you can do. That was a central part of our collaboration with Chris, with Google, and with North Kingdom in terms of being able to pull off the job.

How do you think interactive technology adds to or changes traditional narrative filmmaking?

Mathew: I think it’s an extension of narrative. It’s not going to replace linear narrative, but it’s a way of adding depth to a narrative experience. There’s something fascinating about the idea of a living narrative – something that people can contribute to, something that changes, something that you can go back and visit and re-experience, something that becomes a collective experience – a living narrative has the ability to evolve in a really compelling way. It’s just a different idea than putting a DVD in our DVD player and watching a movie.

Speaking of living narrative, were the Mega Man and 1-UP mushroom icons in the final landscape placed there by developers or audience members? When I first saw them I thought it was such a strange way to end the experience, but once I saw the drawing tools I realized that it meant that the drawings are a mirror to the type of people who would find this type of experiment first.

Andy: It was the audience! User-generated content was heavily under development, but it was hard to imagine where that was going to go. But as soon as the experience loaded, and I saw the Reddit alien, I realized that Chris Milk got it on a level that even I didn’t totally. He was very adamant about there being user-generated content, and in my head i imagined people making boxes or trees or teapots, but once it was live it was immediately clear that this is something new. It really is a group experience. it wasn’t completely clear how much that would be the case until it launched. It was completely unexpected, but it made sense, like personalizing the dream.

One of the most interesting things about “3 Dreams of Black” is that it’s entirely open source. Not only that but it seems like a lot of energy has been spent presenting the materials in a very inviting way for people to explore. Who pushed for this? Why do you think it’s important that projects like this are open source?

Andy: To answer that is to look at why Google wanted to do this project. When we came onboard, webGL was about a week old. It’s not a brand new paradigm in terms of programming languages – it’s basically javascript that enables 3D, but it is a new paradigm shift in that it is so simple and so powerful, that as more and more browsers come to support it, it’s going to have a huge impact. HTML5 is pretty fantastic, but it’s like the next version of HTML. WebGL really is as big a paradigm shift as Flash was when Flash first came out. It’s a whole new medium that’s going to change the face of the internet and Google is a huge engine behind that. For them, Ro.me is as much an introduction to webGL to the world as it is setting the first high water mark of what’s possible with webGL – just pushing it as hard as it possibly can, which is normally not something you do to a technology right when it comes out, but it’s Google so…

Ram: Google wants to invite the user not only to interact with this project, but also to create something of their own. You’re going to a place where you go everyday to get information, read the news, watch silly videos, and now you can use it to tell a new, artistic story – that’s what Google is trying to endorse and encourage. You can use this technology and create something beautiful.

What sort of projects are you excited to get involved in now? anything on the way?

John: We’re evolving, but the industry is also evolving. Here you have a situation where a traditional hardcore Houdini FX artist is suddenly interacting on a very high design level and touching skills and artistic levels that sometimes get lost. It’s a really interesting paradigm what we’re establishing here and as a we grow, we learn.

Mathew: As a company we’re looking beyond traditional models of business. Guillermo del Toro has been a central part in setting our focus beyond just being a place that serves clients, to being a company that is actively creating our own stories. Projects like ″3 Dreams of Black″ are great examples of doing different things and taking advantage of wonderful opportunities that are presenting themselves in the business of creativity.

Part of our credo as a studio is to be able to take traditional storytelling and infuse it with advancing what is technically possible. In order to be relevant, we have to embrace technology as a means to tell stories – it’s a driving force in the direction we’re going as a company. It’s about tweaking our thinking about technology as something to share our experiences with the people around us.

Interview by Michelle Higa. Thanks to Mathew, John, Ram, and Andy at Mirada for taking the time to talk with us. And a big thanks to Karen Raz, Natasha Wang, and Caroline Gomez for making the interview possible. Full credits and even more production details available from Mirada at their case study.