You wouldn't expect sonic provocateur Björk to make a music video that looks like anything else out there, would you? After a uniquely personal premiere on a dozen virtual-reality headsets in NY and London, Andrew Thomas Huang's ‘Stonemilker’ visual has been rendered for screens everywhere. It's a sensory overload aimed at taking you into Björk's world, and you can watch it above in 360° – either pull on the screen using your mouse or click on the arrows in the top left corner, and click show more to read the story behind the shoot.
Ensconced in a tiny room at the back of the Rough Trade shop in east London three months ago, I was suddenly faced with the diminutive but otherworldly image of Björk, resplendent in a billowing bright yellow dress. At various points she leans in so close you can almost see the goose bumps from the chilly air. At others she skips away, suddenly morphing herself until there are a handful of Björks. Physically, I may have been stuck in Shoreditch, and Björk somewhere in New York, but for six minutes my mind is lost on a sprawling, barren beach called Grótta, somewhere just outside Reykjavik, with Björk as my emotional tour guide. As I turn my head to try and find her and the various different Björks that appear throughout, I'm suddenly very aware that I have no idea who else is in the room with me, or where I'm facing or what I'm doing with my body. I half expect to take the headset off and find Björk standing in front of me giggling. It somehow feels like the only way a song like ‘Stonemilker’ could be showcased; intimate, raw, all encompassing, constantly unveiling previously hidden elements, deeply personal but also incredibly giving. When I take the headset off I find myself facing a wall, strangely unaware of my surroundings. It is, like all the best Björk videos, a bit of a mind fuck.
Created using a 360° camera, and filmed on location at the very spot the song was written, the whole task of getting the video – which itself wasn't planned out – from Iceland to an edit suite to a fully rendered 3D video housed within an app to a shop in east London to its present state as a Youtube video was typically Björk-ian; futuristic but functional, using new technology to create an intimate way of absorbing a deeply personal song; experimental but with a punk ethos. The entire team behind it were UK-based small companies as opposed to silicon valley tech giants: the experience was produced by Chris Milk’s newly established VR company Vrse.works, shot on their Vrse.tools 360 camera rig and fx work was managed by a small team at Digital Domain. The team behind Bjork’s yet to be released VR App is a UK-based small company Rewind FX. Creative director Greg Furber, said said “You're interacting with a piece of music in a way people don't do anymore,” Furber continues. “It's breathtaking. It's a private, personal and emotional reaction and you can have a different experience to everyone else.”
Back in March, outside the record shop, I chatted to Björk fan and freelance video director Theo Kitching. “Other artists could try and make a video like that but I don't think they'd be able to pull it off as well,” he says. “What really gets me with Björk is that she's so personal. The subject of the music, the intimacy in which it's given, the songs themselves. I've always considered Björk to be a walking advert for life; everything is totally opened up and nothing's taboo.” You get the feeling that technology is finally catching up with her, and, to celebrate this moment, we caught up with the director Andrew Thomas Huang:
How did you approach the shoot?
Andrew Thomas Huang: Intimacy was the goal of this project, giving Björk the open, unrestricted stage on which to perform, and giving audiences a one-on-one experience with her through VR. The shoot was spontaneous, decided in a late-night conversation between me and Björk while we had VR gear with us in Iceland – the cyclical format of the 360° was perfect for the circular fugue structure of ‘Stonemilker’. We spent the early morning moving our crew and equipment onto the island where she wrote the song, being mindful of the tide, which only left us a two hour window to shoot the film.
What were you expecting Björk to do when you left her with the camera?
Andrew Thomas Huang: I instructed Björk to take full advantage of the 360° format by using her distance to camera as visual accompaniment to the dynamics of the song – to be close to camera during the chorus, to be far away during the interstitial verses, and to encircle the camera as she performed, etc. The rest was up to her really - we couldn't look at her while she performing or else we'd be in the shot. It was liberating – I knew we were in for amazing surprises when we finally got to see the footage.
Can you tell us something about why the 360° video appeals to you?
Andrew Thomas Huang: It's such a new format, we're all still wrapping our heads about how to tell stories this way and how to craft experiences. The best is yet to come really. I'm mostly looking forward to when we can navigate through space instead of just a pivot-point experience, and also interested in using videogrammetry.
Are there any other new possibilities of 360° or VR video that you would like to explore?
Andrew Thomas Huang: I've always loved tapestries and scrolls – images that don't have an end. I'd like to do a 360 mural of sorts, something like Hieronymus Bosch's ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ or Dante's Inferno – something sprawling and hellish like that.
Technical note – Youtube's 360 function is only available in Chrome browsers at present