Interview with Takeshi MurataDecember 3, 2013
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It’s more like technology is this monster: a fast-moving, crazy thing that seems alien in a lot of ways
Bad at Sports contributors Brian Andrews and Patricia Maloney sat down with artist Takeshi Murata and sound designer Robert Beatty on November 9, 2013, at Ratio 3 in San Francisco, to discuss Murata’s most recent digitally animated video, OM Rider (2013). OM Rider follows two animated creatures—a wizened old man that Andrews describes as “half the Curious George Man in the Yellow Suit, half like the butler from Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and a hipster wolf, which rides a moped through a barren landscape and performs other aimless tasks. The video begins with the creature playing a synthesizer that gives the video its title. OM Rider contains Murata’s characteristic absurd humor and aesthetic, which mixes highly attuned lighting and composition with more retro modeling and minimalist, almost antiseptic spaces. The conversation begins with a question about the creation of the video.
Takeshi Murata: When Chris [Perez] moved [Ratio 3] into its current space, I was blown away by the end wall and thought, “Man, I would love to do a projection there.” I’ve always loved horror movies, so I thought that this space could be really cinematic and tried to transform the gallery by blacking it out. It was a perfect opportunity to go in this direction.
Brian Andrews: Historically, your work is more about still life and doesn’t involve narrative, with the exception of the I, Popeye video. This is the first video I’ve seen in which a narrative unfolds. Why that shift?
TM: Even in a completely visually abstract time-based piece, I will gravitate towards a narrative arc, which creates a foundation for building an atmosphere of space or texture. To me, the narrative itself actually isn’t all that important; it is just this anchor to build upon.
BA: So what is your pipeline? What do you actually work with to create these videos?
TM: In the initial stages, I use two pieces of software, which are ZBrush and Cinema 4D. ZBrush is a great sculpting program. I made the characters, the heads—all that stuff—in that program and then put it in the animation program and rig it to get it ready to be animated.
BA: And you do it all yourself, which is an extensive amount of work.
TM: It is, yeah. There are parts like rigging up characters, which is one of the most tedious, annoying things to do, that I would love to hire someone to pass off to. But I’ll often have a vague picture of what I want to do, so it’s perfect to be hands-on with the tools to understand what they’re capable of doing and how far I can push them. I think within the limits of what I can do and where I can go with the technology.
I do bring in these render farms, which are amazing. There are five guys based in Poland, and all of their computers are in South Korea. I would send them the files, and within a day they would send back the fully rendered thing. On their computers it will just take an hour to do what would take days on mine. They made it possible.
BA: Does that disconnect you from the images in a way? I imagine it might, because so much of your stuff is intensively about composition with light, and that’s the one thing you really can’t preview in the same way.
TM: That part is a challenge. In a way, you can anticipate what it will look like. But I also can’t wait for the next stage, when you can see things more immediately, and you don’t necessarily need to work with wireframes or very simply shaded objects.
BA: The video is essentially bookended by musical performances, on the keyboard in the beginning and the trumpet at the end, with this impressive soundscape throughout. I’d love to hear about how you brought sound design into this project, and how the collaboration with Robert worked?
You have to create a sound because a room is never totally silent, there’s always something there.
Robert Beatty: I’ve done several soundtracks for Takeshi in the past, and they were always based in abstract sound. Takeshi sent me some of the early stuff for this one, and I realized that I was going to design the sound, something that I had never really done before. And so I just went off the deep end, trying to figure out what these characters and the space they were in would sound like. This animation is all done on the computer; there’s no sound already there. It’s totally silent. You have to start from the ground up, making even the background noise for each space.
TM:I love that Robert did this mix of what I would consider to be modern foleying, which is just synthesized, crazy sounds like white noise.
RB: So much of it is electronic; the footsteps sound is just filtered white noise. Somehow I was able to sculpt it so it sounds like realistic footsteps walking up stairs. A guy named Devin Flynn created the music that the wolf is playing at the beginning, C. Spencer Yeh did the wolf's voice, and the trumpet was sourced from YouTube. But much of everything else in there was created from scratch Some of it is weird, jerry-rigged techniques, in which I’m recording bubble wrap or pouring water into a glass for the vomit sound.
Patricia Maloney: To what extent did the sounds that Robert was proposing impact the characterization and the development of the visuals?
TM: We’ve worked together for so many years now. I think it’s been ten years, right?
RB: Almost ten years. Takeshi has been in New York or Los Angeles the whole time we’ve been working together, and I’m in Kentucky, so it’s not like we’re going over to each other’s houses with what we’re working on. I would critique things Takeshi sent me, and he would adjust them. So it’s almost as if I’m getting dailies. It’s an organic process; we let things grow off of each other.
TM: It’s a great way of collaborating, especially with this other sensory process. It can really influence what I’m thinking about and what I’m doing. It’s got this nice disconnect in a way that really helps for the visuals to work.
PM: I’m curious to hear from both of you about the points at which the image or sound had to have fidelity to what is real versus when it could be completely fabricated.
TM: I’ve always made a conscious effort within anything that I was working on to bring in an organic feeling or bring in natural things while working in this space that is totally fabricated. In my photography, there’s so much information there, but I love to make [the still lives] so that they’re limited and very focused on just what’s there. It’s the same with the animation. I love taking all of the detail out and focusing on what I’m interested in—in this case, the main actions or characters.
RB: It’s like starting from zero. You have to create a sound because a room is never totally silent, there’s always something there. Initially when we started working on this piece, we talked about the sound being less narrative than the video, and the sound going in and out of sync with what was visually happening. But the more we worked, the more I tried to get that vomit sound perfect. I got obsessed with trying to figure out what these things would actually sound like. I wasn’t concerned with it being realistic but it being believable. And then there are a lot of parts of the video that are very minimal, as far as its movement, sound, and composition are concerned. It’s pretty strident in many ways.
TM: It’s exciting to hear things that sound like they could be footsteps but in a space you’ve never heard before. They’re created in this space that doesn’t bring to mind like things at all.
BA: There’s a powerful part of our brain that puts meaning or puts the nature of being back into such things. As long as that sound happens when we expect to see the foot falling, we’re just going to interpret it as a footfall. Even though it’s clearly an abstracted form, we create that meaning with it, which is fantastic.
The still lives have always felt like you are re-creating the world that’s around you, but just enough. It’s not a Hollywood approach, which is hyperreal. You seem to offer a stripped-down, minimal amount of information to make what that claim might be, in which all of the sudden I get what that’s supposed to be. It is a much more fascinating use of what that technology could potentially do than be used to shock and awe.
PM: Your images never quite cohere around any kind of logic that explains why these things are together. I like the destabilizing impact that has: “How do I make sense of this?” There’s a suggestion that some kind of coding—and I use that word purposefully— is in operation, and I wonder if I am going to be able to decipher it.
TM: I tend to not analyze that coding too strongly. In the progress of making the work, I collected collections of things, and then whichever ones felt like they had some strange connection to each other become the work. I love humor and think it’s a very basic way to bring a viewer in. It’s a way of keeping things more approachable, maybe thinking about things or space that might not necessarily foster that kind of feeling.
PM: I use the term coding because there is this incredible anxiety in the Bay Area at this moment about the resurgence of tech and all of the economic impacts that it’s having culturally. It overtly manifests and is situated around things such as rampant real-estate development, displacement, and gentrification. But there is also deep anxiety emanating from the lack of recognition. The languages of the tech sector are so unfamiliar to me and the inverse is true as well. The language that we use to describe visual culture is really specific. Both sectors are speaking to the production of knowledge, but there’s no translation between those languages, even around the same object. And I feel that there’s something in your work that is trying to unpack that.
TM: It’s more like technology is this monster: a fast-moving, crazy thing that seems alien in a lot of ways, and culture is trailing it. I want culture—the things that are produced with the technology—to move as fast and as quickly. And maybe another anxiety is when technology gets that far out control, out there, where it’s not really addressed within the arts.
It’s a generational thing too. It’s accepted that art is important, that it needs to be supported. These kids are young—I feel like art is competing with a new Ferrari. I would love to make art that actually is so meaningful to them that they might think, “Instead of that Ferrari, maybe I’ll buy that weird video.” But it’s a serious challenge.
RB: It’s strange because Takeshi is using this technology that is really new, and I’m using things that have been around for years; parts of the soundtrack were field recordings done on a cassette tape. The video technology is always getting better while I’m using things that are tried and true.
BA: There is something in your work that is more approachable to an audience because it is so stripped down. You can see simple lighting and rudimentary animation; there are none of the seductive, otherworldly qualities of what these technologies are used for, right? It’s not Harry Potter; it’s not Gravity. It is none of that stuff. We can recognize the technology that you’re using even if we don’t know how to do it ourselves.
TM: With the still lives, I am also trying to exploit that veneer of that technology. Ninety-nine percent of its usage is to sell products to people, to make a perfume bottle shine. So I love putting that level of detail into a thrown-away McDonald’s cup or a sagging trumpet.
BA: Nice. So where are you going with this stuff?
TM: I’m pretty content with the way I’m working and being able to explore things with gallery shows dotted throughout that process. I hope to have that freedom for as long as I can.
Takeshi Murata was born in 1974 in Chicago. In 1997, he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied film, video, and animation. He currently lives and works in Saugerties, New York. Murata has exhibited at the New Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy; Sikemma Jenkins & Co., New York; Gladstone Gallery, New York; and Salon 94, New York. Murata’s work is featured in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens; and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.