Over the past three years, Google Data Arts creative director Aaron Koblin and director Chris Milk have produced some of the most powerful music videos of all time, by allowing passive viewers to participate in the creative process. Their video for The Arcade Fire’s We Used To Wait dredged up strong emotions in many of us—it shows a child running through each viewer’s childhood neighborhood, thanks to Google Street View (and some awesome programming).
In 2010, the duo devised a website called The Johnny Cash Project, which let thousands of fans collaborate on an animated video for the late singer’s posthumous album. The video caught the eye of Jane Burton, a curator of public programming at the Tate Modern, who approached the team about designing a platform that would build on the success of their crowd-sourced model.
"We thought it would be amazing to give them even more control," Koblin tells Co.Design over email. "We wondered what would happen if we allowed people to guide the story itself, and enabled them to collaborate by branching off of each others work (not so differently from how programmers fork computer code)."
This Exquisite Forest[/url] is an online platform that invites users to collaborate on animations. It’s named for The Exquisite Corpse, a turn-of-the-century drawing game in which each person draws part of a human body, then passes their drawing on to the next player, producing funny, often grotesque drawings. Koblin and Milk’s digital version of the game premiered at the Tate Modern on July 23rd, as originally reported by Co.Create.
It’s tough to explain everything the site does in one sentence—probably because there’s very little else like it on the web. It is a creative tool: a built-from-scratch drawing interface lets amateurs animate videos alongside pros. It is also a fairly amazing score composition tool. The drawing and sound tools support the broader function of the platform, which is to encourage users to collaborate, adding to "seed" animations to create longer works. Each video is visualized as a tree, sprouting from a single video clip, growing branches and leaves as animators add to it. You can explore how the final product was created by following each "leaf" backwards through the branch, down to the "trunk."
To build This Exquisite Forest, Koblin and Milk enlisted the help of interactive designer Ben Tricklebank for art direction, while Koblin’s Data Arts team at Google built the interface using HTML5, CSS3, and a handful of new features from Chrome and Google’s App Engine. The custom music engine was built by Swedish sound designers Dinahmoe.
To launch the platform, the Tate commissioned eight artists to create seed animations and instructions for collaborators using the app, from Rabiq Shaw to Dryden Goodwin. Olafur Eliasson’s directions are visual (Use yellow often, but not always), while Mirosław Bałka’s are story-driven (Who/what would you like to meet in the darkness?). At the Tate, visitors can animate in person, using on-site tools installed in the museum’s galleries for the next six months. But online, anyone can create a video, and anyone can add to existing videos. Koblin says some of his favorite branches are the ones created by anonymous users—like the surreal Wine After Coffee, or Fire, which asks participants to "show the role of fire" throughout history.
Koblin and Milk are a talented creative force. But they’re equally deft marketers, using their work to promote Chrome and associated Google products—and why not, if the end product benefits audience and patron in equal parts?