The directors of Magic Trip, a documentary opening today that details the legendary 1964 road trip by Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, faced a conundrum familiar to anyone trying to depict hallucinogenic, out-of-your-mind visuals on film: how to create an immersive, credible rendition of the psychedelic experience without, you know, having to actually melt some poor sap's face off.
So the film's co-director Alex Gibney, who helmed previous documentaries on countercultural heroes like Hunter S. Thompson and Jimi Hendrix and who won an Academy Award for his film Taxi to the Dark Side in 2007, decided to hire creative studio and production house Imaginary Forces to create such an immersive experience, and together they decided that using 1960s-style crude visual techniques would be the most organic solution possible. But the point wasn't to arrive at the tie-dyed psychedelia of Wavy Gravy.
"We didn't want all those purple elephants and stuff from the late 1960s," says Karin Fong, of Imaginary Forces. "That's where things went, but the aesthetic didn't start there." Instead, her team focused on art references from the early 1960's, when Kesey was tripping out — a Mad Men era where Stan Brackhage was experimenting with scratching and painting directly onto celluloid and Robert Rauschenberg was creating his seminal collages. An additional reference point were Kesey's later jail journals, which he filled with obsessive, fine-lined doodles. The motion graphics, therefore, aren't computer-generated: They're all hand-drawn, but were composited digitally.Gibney and Karin Fong, Imaginary Forces creative director, discuss how they concocted a "visual language" that could realize the experience of someone, as Fong puts it, "getting high as a kite." [A sampling of the visual effects in the film]
One clip in particular stands out — the one at the top of the post. Gibney uncovered audio tapes of Kesey recounting an acid trip he experienced in 1960 at a Veteran's Hospital in Menlo Park. The Imaginary Forces team then took that audio and gave it visual form, expanded on Kesey's description of the environment—the hospital bed, a glass of water, a wall clock, and a Wollensak tape recorder and microphone—with overlaid expanding and contracting text, Brakhage-styled color blots and film scratches, geometric sketchings, and sequenced spin art. It's a four-minute time warp that gets successively more bizarre as Kesey narrates his hallucinations: a frog-man outside his room, visions of bats and eggs and mummies and strobe lights, and the Wollensak microphone slowly turning into an electric shaver.