Much of Arcade Fire’s fervently devoted fan base would jump at the opportunity to share a dance with the band’s cofounder, Régine Chassagne. Thanks to director Vincent Morisset, though, all they’ll have to do is point and click.
Not content simply being known for producing Grammy award-winning albums and emotionally climactic live shows, Arcade Fire also has a history of making music videos poised on the bleeding edge of interactive storytelling (see: The Wilderness Downtown). True to form, the band’s latest, "Sprawl II," is a mesmerizing interactive video that uses motion detection to allow users control over the dance movements of its robotic proxies. This video is only the latest example of how the band and frequent collaborator Morisset are pushing the medium forward while going beyond mere novelty.
"I think it’s important that what propels any project with the band are the ideas and the stories we want to tell, and that the videos are not just technology demos," Morisset says. His concern is evident: The video for "Sprawl II" is available in both an interactive and a regular format, for those without webcams. Both versions are entertaining and affecting.
The non-interactive video starts off with static shots of houses in an anonymous suburban abyss (only natural for a clip from an album titled The Suburbs). Singer Régine Chassagne soon emerges from one such house and guides viewers around the neighborhood, which is populated by creepy faceless entities, some of whom occasionally dance mechanically on an empty field of grass. The joylessness of their windsock-like movement seems designed to stay with viewers much longer than the five-minute run time.
In the interactive version, users can influence the drones in the video, either by clicking on them to affect their dance patterns, or by dancing along via webcam. The motion detection allows the user’s dancing pace to dictate the speed at which the characters jerk and undulate—like 21st century digital marionettes. Any fun to be had in controlling the dancers, though, will likely end up subsumed by the dark tone that Morisset and the band worked to establish.
The director is also responsible for one of the earliest interactive videos: Arcade Fire’s award-winning clip for "Neon Bible". Morisset was a creative associate of the band before they saw any success, but they didn't begin a working relationship until the 2004 breakthrough album, Funeral. Since then, Morisset's creative vision has extended to many different levels of the band’s output, including its website, album artwork, and a tour video documenting their creative process. He is less a contract worker than a peer and collaborator.
"We’ve been working together for so long, and I know them so well, I understand their sensibilities," the director says. "At the same time, I want their input so that the work relates to who they are." When Morisset and Arcade Fire work on a project, they tend to bounce ideas back and forth. Sometimes members of the band will have something specific in mind—the spark of an idea that the director is then charged with bringing to life. On other projects, he will shape the concept himself, with the band trusting his vision.
For "Sprawl II," Morisset wanted to create an interactive video experience that was primitive and fun, but wouldn’t require using any clicks or buttons. At the same time, the band wanted to produce something that would be accessible without ancillary tech. The resulting hybrid project uses a linear film and a motion detection-based interactive video, which the director had to combine into a single visual aesthetic.
The high-tech aspect of "Sprawl II" is not the whole point of the video, though, and this distinction is important to the band and their go-to director. "The grammar of the medium demands using technology created for it specifically," Morisset says. "But what we’re doing goes beyond the desire to be the first to do something and just focuses on creating an entertaining experience."
Since they've racked up a lot of entertaining experiences that also happen to be highly inventive, one might be tempted to peg Arcade Fire as a band intent on being associated with the cutting edge. "I don’t think they can be pigeonholed as the band known for interactivity," Morisset is quick to point out, though. "They’re just really creative people using interactive content to adapt to the platform people are using to hear their music."