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June 2008

The Journey of “Wanderlust”

A chat with the genius behind Björk’s latest masterpiece

A music video for Björk isn’t a promo intended to sell records; it’s a major event that galvanizes the art world and captures the attention of her global audience. Past collaborations with visionary directors like Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham and Spike Jonze have resulted in some of the greatest videos ever made. But her newest clip, “Wanderlust,” may be her most impressive yet: an intimate epic that renders its gorgeous imagery in breathtaking 3D (go to for details on getting the glasses). We spoke to Isaiah Saxon of Encyclopedia Pictura, the San Francisco-based duo who directed the video, about how they did it and what’s next for them:

PiQ: Why did you choose to make “Wanderlust” in 3D, and how is filming in 3D technically and conceptually different than filming in 2D? How does one actually film something in 3D?

Isaiah Saxon: “Wanderlust” was our first real opening for what we've wanted to do for a while, which is work in 3D. Our observation is that the stereoscopic effect is one step closer toward the sensations of direct experience and can therefore communicate visual ideas with more potency and amazement.

Conceptually, our approach to blocking out the shot design was to create 3D nests. If you look at a nest, your eye swirls all around from all of the patterning of the twigs and branches that have been woven by a bird. Then right in the center there is an egg, or a center of attention that is very easily beheld because it’s right in the middle and everything else swirls around it and leads your eye to it. With 3D, the eye tends to be most comfortable and intrigued when there is an egg, right there at a medium depth, right in the middle. It's just easy to wrap your eyes around the depth of the object and you somehow receive it more fully.

The basic concept behind filming in 3D is that you use two cameras and playback two images, so that the viewer sees two perspectives, which is how we normally see. Filming in 3D with our budget required us to build our own camera and display rigs, which Sean [Hellfritsch, Saxon’s partner in Encyclopedia Pictura] designed in the computer. He had aluminum parts made for the camera rig and some plywood, two LCD screens, and a mirror for the polarized playback box, which we call The Vizard. Beyond the challenge of building this stuff, we had to shoot and plan our post workflow with a lot of new considerations too lengthy to outline here.

PiQ: What’s working with Björk like? Did she come up with the concept and you guys worked to help her realize it, or was it a complete collaboration?

IS: Working with Björk was a great experience. She was very generous and supportive and protective of us as we boldly attempted to make a video over a period of nine months, which is not what record labels are really looking for. We met with her originally with just a simple sketch of the idea and we pantomimed for her what some of the scenes would be like. Then we wrote the concept and I painted the characters. We showed them to her and she was very excited. Once we got that trust, she said, "too many cooks spoil the broth," so we just did our thing. But all of our work is a response to her song, which demands a visual world that is huge and heavy.

PiQ: You used puppetry, models, CGI… pretty much every creative process under the sun to create a single, stunningly unique vision. How did you decide which process to use for each specific element?

IS: Our decisions for which illusions to employ were partly based on our limitations, but mostly they were informed by what would bring out the art direction. The approach to the art direction was that the materials, forms and surfaces would have some kind of fractal logic. By this I mean we used materials that are self-similar across scale, like moss which scales as grass, rotted wood which scales as giant fractured rocks, hair simulations which scale as the flowing pathways of a river. Our intent was to augment, remix and amplify a set of patterns that were observable to us in nature as a way of making nature speak to the eye. For the creatures, we made them all live action puppets or performers, which is both a warmer, more hand-driven process than using the computer, but also a necessity at our budget level.

PiQ: Could you tell us a little about the history and evolution of Encyclopedia Pictura? Is it a company now or is it still Isaiah Saxon and Sean Hellfritsch with outside assistance as necessary?

IS: Right now, Encyclopedia Pictura is a collaboration of Isaiah Saxon and Sean Hellfritsch making videos, and often in further collaboration with Daren Rabinovitch of the art group Mangello Tipperary), Vanessa Waring, and others. For the Björk project we worked with about 50 key artists. It won't ever really be a company, but it will become more of a collective studio and less of a directing handle for Sean and I. We are now starting to develop augmented reality projects and feature film projects, so hopefully it will eventually just be a place were practical magic is created.

PiQ: Who are your biggest influences? Does it vary from project to project or do you have a few artists you keep coming back to for inspiration?

IS: Our influences are always changing and usually our own experiences are what spark us. In filmmaking we have been inspired by a few things really heavily; we always come back to David Attenborough, Hayao Miyazaki and Stanley Kubrick. For this project I would count our influences as being 1930s Walt Disney, The American Museum of Natural History, Terence McKenna, Hayao Miyazaki and Eckhart Tolle. Our creation of the Rivergod was our attempt at creating a live action 1930's Disney cartoon of Terence McKenna's notion of a transcendental attractor at the end of time. The Pain-Body Backpack is a character that conveys Eckhart Tolle's notion of a personal pain-body, or a residue of experiences that operates like a second self underneath the reach of conscious control. Miyazaki provided an example of how to have every form and texture overflow with organic life and personality.

PiQ: What’s coming up in the future from you guys? Would you ever consider making a feature-length film?

IS: We want to start doing this communications project which will be an augmented reality application. For now we will just call it "The Visual Language". This project is probably five years off. We have to do some scientific studies and hire a slew of computer programmers and get some institutional support. Right now it’s being launched just by support from the art world. Likely to come out before that will be a 3D feature film which we are starting to commit to now. Our only promise is that it will be outrageously entertaining and will have something to do with the themes of natural history, wonder, interpersonal communication and the limitless potential of people.


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