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You may not know the name Bradley G Munkowitz, but if you’ve seen the movies TRON: Legacy (2010) or Oblivion (2013), then you know his work. Munkowitz, also known as GMUNK, worked on many of TRON: Legacy‘s concepts and designs, including its opening title. He also created interface graphics for the movie Oblivion.
In this HOWdesign.com interview, Munkowitz discusses technology, art, design, and creativity, as well as BOX, a project that he calls “something really special.”
What lead you to design BOX, and whom did you partner with?
GMUNK BOX was meant to be a technology demo for Bot&Dolly, showcasing the technologies of projection mapping onto moving objects while being captured with a motion-controlled camera system. However, after about 6 months of dedicated development, we decided to refine it into a more of a design and performance piece as well. We simply thought the technology was too impressive to not push the aesthetic, choreography and music—the essentials of a great film—and as a result turned it into something really special.
BOX has won Vimeo’s Top 10 Videos of 2013, The Creators Project’s Best of 2013, SIGGRAPH’S Best in Show 2014, and a Silver Lion for Innovation at Cannes. Years later, it’s still going strong. What’s your response to the accolades and attention it’s received?
GMUNK The best part about this film was that we had no expectations on how it was going to be received—we didn’t expect it to be as influential as it has become, which feels great when the amazingly positive feedback is so unexpected.
What have you and your team learned from working on BOX that you’ve been able to apply to other projects?
GMUNK For me personally it was an introduction into design and animation for the physical space and practical, in-camera effects. Collaborating with the roboticists, architects, cinematographers and mighty wizards at Bot&Dolly taught me to get my face out from in front of the screen and to start thinking about motion graphics in an entirely different way. Fast forward a few years and designing and directing for the experiential space has become a heavy influence in my work, and also a huge passion.
When you get new commissions and work, if clients have seen BOX or your other design and directorial work, do they want that same visual sensation—a similar aesthetic they’ve seen in your other work—infused into their work?
GMUNK Yes, they sure do! It’s challenging sometimes to break free of the typecast you (or others) create for yourself, as right now I’m the Projection and Lighting Guy—I have been for a few years because of BOX (and Audi A3 Sportback) and other Light-Based projects.
So to break free, I’ve been doing other types of work with Drones (Car vs Drones), Car Commercials with heavy CG (Audi A5), Cymatics and High-Speed Macro Photography (Orbis Integra) and interactive Driving Simulations (Acura Mood Roads). In sum, I’m just trying to stay diverse so I have a body of work that potential clients will see and realize there’s more to the Munkowitz than just projection mapping and lighting. I think as a Director in general, in such a competitive field, you always have to stay busy, making and learning, evolving styles and approaches so you can keep up with such a demanding and saturated scene.
Have you begun working with optical illusions when designing for augmented reality (AR) and/or virtual reality (VR)?
GMUNK Everything in my creative repertoire is always influenced by optical illusions—be it in design, animation, lighting, camera techniques etc. I’ve always been inspired by the psychedelic palette and it’s a huge influence in my work. Regarding AR and VR, I’ve just started collaborating with amazing Unreal and Unity teams to realize some of my more insane ideas in the space. What excites me about the space is the immersion, the detachment from reality as it can take over all your senses and feel very immediate in its feedback—which plays well with my more subversive palettes and aesthetic.
Cars vs Drones
Your work is future-forward, pushing the boundaries of design, technology, and illusory space. Naturally, people who look at your portfolio get inspired to make their own future-forward designs. You mentioned psychedelic palettes earlier, which is a throwback to the 1960s. What else inspires you, be it art, music, or design from the past?
GMUNK My inspirations are always evolving, to be honest. The crush lately is shooting with the Technocrane—I shot a Target commercial using one and I’m hooked—I’ve been dreaming of new ideas with them. That’s how it works with me, there’s a repository of ideas and techniques that I want to do, and in the end hopefully a majority of them get explored (but I secretly know that less than half actually will). Other crushes include learning studio photography with medium format cameras, more Infrared Madness in Iceland and Hawaii, Drone arrays in nature as Light sources, Robotics combined with cameras and light sources in unison with long sweeping motion control moves. Vibe-wise, I’m keen on long, drawn out shots with cinematic, almost opera music punctuating a mood—taking my time in edits, really feeling moments. Ha, I don’t know anymore.
Alaska’s Tracy Arm Fjord
In addition to art, design, and directing, you do a lot of photography, such as the landscape images you captured in Alaska’s Tracy Arm Fjord last summer using your modified Fujifilm X-T1 IR full-spectrum camera. The resulting infrared images look as if they came from someplace off-world. How important is experimenting with technology, and how do you apply what you’ve learned on your next commissioned project?
GMUNK Experimenting with technology (toys) is everything to me—I’m always trying to learn new things, collaborating with new people and just pushing myself into being a much more diverse creative. If you keep executing the same techniques and aesthetics, you’ll get bored real quick, especially for people like us who are always pushing to stay relevant and in demand. For creative output and overall conceptual knowledge, it really helps to learn as many technologies as possible, and document these findings so when the next commissioned project rolls through you and your people have a ton of knowledge to call upon to continue to push the envelope. I will say, the most important people in this learning phase are my collaborators—in this industry to do big things, you must have a crew of people whom you rely on to create, without those special people I’m not sure where I’d be right now.
When it comes to technology today and where it’s headed next, what gets you excited? Is there something, some tool, medium, or media, that will help you go above and beyond what you did with BOX?
GMUNK I think real-time movement is exciting—making experiential project scope really compelling. I’m not 100% sold on the VR headsets, but am super keen on large-scale real-time experiences, stuff that Daito Manabe (rhizomatiks) is doing with their real-time tracking and LED sources. Also super inspired by Sila Sveta and Nonotak, how they’re using real-time tracking, immersive lighting, architecture and reactive audio in their projects. Also super into the Bi-Neural technologies in the VR space—makes for incredibly immersive experiences. I gotta say, it’s a really exciting time right now—so much is evolving, and there’s soo many talented studios and individuals putting out incredible work that is more accessible now than ever before.
edited from a series of interviews conducted via email
Learn more about Munkowitz’s BOX—a visual phenomenon difficult to explain but rewarding to watch and re-watch—in “Designing Wonder” from HOW’s summer 2017 issue. The article also features other artists and designers who use optical illusions in their work.