Video Chats: Andrew Thomas Huang on 'Mutual Core' by Björk

Posted by Doug Klinger on November 26, 2012 in Interviews

Staff Post

Andrew Thomas Huang

The experimental film Solipsist by director Andrew Thomas Huang creates a psychedelic world that features colorful characters in a vibrant atmosphere that seem to be physically connected to each other and the world around them. For his music video for Björk’s “Mutual Core,” he explores many of the same visual and thematic elements that are found in Solipsist, while also pulling influence from Björk and the app that was created based on the song. We talked to Andrew about how “Mutual Core” and Solipsist are connected, and how Björk’s influence helped to create the new project.  

Doug: This video shares a lot of the same visual elements as your film Solipsist. Is “Mutual Core” based on it, or are they related at all?

Andrew: I think Solipsist was a brand new direction for me. Previously my work was really dark and was still growing. I was taking a lot of inspiration from Chris Cunningham and David Fincher, but I think I needed to let loose and that’s how the look of Solipsist came about. When Björk reached out to me, I felt like Solipsist was just the beginning of a new focus, and I wanted to expand on this world and thought there was still ripe opportunity to do more with it. Also, Björk reached out to me for a very specific reason. The app that she had for "Mutual Core" had a very similar look, so I felt a little bit of responsibility to continue the look of Solipsist for Björk, but I also didn't want to repeat myself. I took "Mutual Core" as an opportunity to create the same world but expand it a little bit more, into a more explosive and volcanic direction. There are some techniques that I used in Solipsist that I thought I could elaborate on in "Mutual Core,” like the use of really abstract puppetry. So yes, there was an intentional aesthetic similarity, but I also didn't want to do Solipsist 2, I wanted to make sure what I was doing was specific to “Mutual Core.” That it was a part of the same world, but that I brought something new.

Doug: You mentioned that Björk reached out to you. From that point, did she leave a lot of the process behind the video to you, or was it more collaborative?

Andrew: She gave me enough information at the beginning to depart from. When we would email, she'd explain to me the lyrics, and the concept and intent behind the song, and I also took a close look at the app and how it was designed. I just took things and ran with it, creating my own theatrical version of those ideas. She really let me loose and have a lot of creative freedom. If she ever did get specific, it was to remind me of certain important tonal messages that were behind the song. She was very hands-off, and genital, and generous. I really had free reign.

Andrew Thomas Huang

Doug: So in that initial correspondence was there also a treatment submitted?

Andrew: Yeah, I wrote and treatment with a lot of really elaborate sketches to show her what I was thinking. That's typically what I do, but I think for this one it was pretty ambitious. I made sure to really take the time to illustrate what I was thinking. 

Doug: Did the treatment itself include many narrative elements, or was it focused on what you were trying to achieve visually?

Andrew: The more treatments you write, the more you realize that you sell the best when you make sure your images look like they're plucked from the real thing, or that they're crystal clear and legible enough that the artist really understands what it will actually look like in frame, even if it's just a drawing. I also wrote a deep narrative of what was happening. I laid out the scenario as Björk as this sorceress commanding the earth, stirring it into action.

Andrew Thomas Huang

Doug: You mentioned there being a lot of similar elements between "Mutual Core" and Solipsist as far as the puppetry and some of the effects. Did you work with the same production team on each project? 

Andrew: The whole production was split, half in LA and half in Reykjavik. It was my first time going there and I thought it was important to work with an Icelandic DP and to have a whole Icelandic crew to do the main shoot with Björk. My DP from Solipsist did come with the to shoot second cam there. When I came back to LA, there was a lot of stuff I didn't get, so we did a second effects shoot in LA. It was that shoot where I did repeat the same crew that I did with Solipsist. It was interesting to work with a whole new crew in a different country, then coming back to work with the same team again. I naturally felt very comfortable when working with my typical team.

Doug: From conception to completion, how long did “Mutual Core” take you?

Andrew: It took about 4 and half months, it was crazy. I think the longest I've ever been given for a video is six weeks, which includes shooting so more like four weeks for post. I'm not going to lie, it was painful. I was literally in the office until 4 am everyday and it's hard. There is no industry to support this kind of work anymore. If you do it, it's either for a Super Bowl commercial, or you slave away to make it happen. I did a lot of it myself as well, I hired a team that expanded and shrunk over the course of four months. But, I pretty much touched each shot of the video, so it was pretty much insane. I don't think I could do that again without the right funding.

Doug: At what point during that 4 and a half months does that actual shooting take place? Is it still near the front end?

Andrew: Yes, the actual shooting has to happen first. I have to have a locked cut before I can begin doing any of the digital work.

Andrew Thomas Huang

Doug: I imagine there also being a great deal of preproduction and planning that goes into this project, is that right?

Andrew: Yeah, when I went to Iceland, they had been prepping for like four days before the shoot. We spent a lot of time building all the rocks and creating and building the volcano. We had an art department in Iceland before we shot. This was something I care a lot about, and with Björk I had some pretty big shoes to fill with her past videos. I made sure the planning was thorough. Normally, I create a storyboard that’s detailed enough to give people the idea, but this time I storyboarded out the whole thing. I made extensive sketches for the Icelandic crew to build the right rigs. We had to build a rig to bury Bjork, and she was on a risen platform. We also had a way to rise these rocks out of the sand. It's really not easy to lift something out of sand. Even the very opening shot, we just had to set up a lot of rigs to get the sand to do what we wanted. But, I knew post-production was going to be terrifying, so we created a whole grid using Google Docs, this long, huge gird with all these different red squares. For every shot you see, first we had to lock the edit because we shot everything individually. We would have to shoot Björk, then shoot each individual rock, and pick the right movements in the long periods of plates that we had. Then once we did the layout, we’d go back and track each rock, which was insane and took forever. Then we had to put the CG extensions on each rock, and composite each rock, then add all the yarn that connects each rock, then erase the rods that were holding each rock. There were about 10 steps for every shot that needed to be completed. There was just so much to keep track of.

Doug: And all of these techniques that you guys are using, you're pretty much inventing the process, right? Are there precursors or references points to work from, other than your own?

Andrew: I did a test by myself in my apartment before I left. There is footage of me holding up a rock on a stick and I just added these strata coming out of it. So, I did test once, but repeating that over 250 shots is a whole other monster. The most difficult thing was to get was the boulders rising in and out of the ground. Once you pull something out of sand, you can't shove it back in. I don't know why I thought I could do that, but I was hoping that those bolders that were rotating around her could be done practically, but it was totally imposable. When we were shooting it and realized we couldn’t do it I freaked out. I knew it had to be a CG solution, and it’s common knowledge that sand is one of the most difficult and expensive things you can do in visual effects. I ended up hiring this effects guy who specializes in particles and we build GC rocks that rolled around Björk in the perimeter. He had to figure out a way to capture those millions of particles floating off the rocks, it was kind of a nightmare. He solved it, but it was expensive and the money wasn't there. I pretty much invested my own money to make it happen, but we made it happen. That was something that no one had done before. He's this programmer guy who's friends with all these other heady programmer dudes who work in effects, and he would go in forums and ask, "hey, does anyone know how to calculate blah blah blah sand particles in Maya?" And everyone would say, "it's not possible, don't even bother." So, you just tell people to fuck off because you need to find a way. A lot of times we'd just composite it. We built a canvas and lined it with a one-inch layer of sand and we'd have someone underneath punching the canvas to create these sand bursts. A lot of the sand bursts were composited in conjunction with the CG sand to make it seem like the rocks were really pounding the ground.

Doug: You mentioned before that "Mutual Core" and Solipsist represent a shift in your direction as an artist, so I'm wondering what the next step is. Will you continue to make music videos?

Andrew: Honestly, it's really hard now. There are so many directors out there, and so much technology that's accessible to everyone, that even if you do get momentum it's hard to sustain that. There are all these directors that have popped up in the past 10 years that we know and love, some that are my peers, and some have not been able to make the cross over into the commercial world. Some don't want to. Then you look at all the directors that are legendary like Gondry, and Spike Jonze, and Chris Cunningham, they all came from another time when there was an industry to support this. Both Solipsist and "Mutual Core" wiped me out so hard that I'm kind of worried about my longevity right now. There is a part of me that wants to live in a geo-dome in the desert and just make whatever the hell I want, but then there is a realistic part of me that realizes that the stuff I make is expensive and I also have to make a living. I want to do fashion film, I want to do features, I want to continue my art, I want to continue this world I've built, but I also need to branch outside of it. I know I can because I have in the past. I there is a logical way that I can expand from it and figure out a way to become more accessible to people. I feel like the plan for my future work is muti-pronged. I have different trajectories that I want to hit. I want to continue with personal work, but I also want to make sure I can move in a narrative direction that will allow me to do more commercials and features because I think that's a key to survival in the long term. Creatively, I'm ready to go darker again. I want to try something black and white. I want to minimize my color palate more because the psychedelic thing was fun but I want to move on from that. But, some of the techniques and themes will reappear. I want to try to do more abstract puppetry because I think it's really cool when you can feel something human. Our brains are wired to detect human movement, but when you don't know what it is, it's this really cool feeling. I love directors who play with physical props and animatronics but combine it with digital stuff. I want to become more versatile than just the colorful rocks and sand guy. 

andrew thomas huang, bjork, mutual core, video chats

Doug Klinger is the co-founder/content director of IMVDb and watches more music videos than anyone on earth. You can find him on twitter at @doug_klinger.

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