Behind the Scenes of Google Creative Lab’s The Wilderness Downtown
I recently had a chance to catch-up with Thomas Gayno of Google’s Creative Lab about his most recent project, the now famous Chrome Experiment The Wilderness Downtown. As marketing manager, Gayno has worked on projects such as YouTube Play with the Guggenheim, the Search On campaign and the launch of Google TV. With contributors from San Francisco, New York, and London, he works with a globally collaborative team and helps their creative ideas come to life.
David-Michel Davies: Calling Wilderness Downtown a music video seems off the mark!
Thomas Gayno: We’re calling it an HTML5 film.
What was your inspiration for the project?
It all came from a discussion we had with Chris Milk, a fantastic and tech-savvy writer/director. He first talked to Aaron Koblin, our tech lead here at Google Creative Lab about how we could use HTML5 and the other modern technologies to make an awesome music video. From there, our role was to see how this could become a reality and how it could be used to move the web forward and to push the browser to its limits.
Wilderness Downtown is a very personal experience because the mapping technology used allows people to view their childhood home. Can you talk about why you decided to do this?
We wanted to try and break out of the traditional 4x3, 16x9 video box as much as possible, because that is really a pre-packaged experience. Everybody sees the same thing. Our dream was to create an experience that is perfectly tailored to every person. We all know how awesome it is to actually type your own address or an old address of yours in Google Maps and watch it from above, and we wanted to use that specific feeling, close to nostalgia, which is very genuine and common to everybody. We all have addresses. We have all known places that we haven’t checked for a while. After working quite a long time on Google Earth and Google Maps, I know that when you ask people to type an address to visualize from above, they usually go for the place where they currently live, or a sightseeing place that they have never seen before, like the Great Wall of China, the White House or the Eiffel Tower. Sometimes also, they look up personal memories, like the place where they had their first kiss or where they proposed to their significant other. That’s why we used Google Maps’ Satellite View and Street View imagery. And thanks to the power of the cloud and HTML5 technology, like canvas, we could customize and tailor the experience to each person.
Was it a concern that there would be some addresses where the imagery was not available, that it wouldn’t work for everybody?
We’ve heard great feedback in regards to the imagery, even if we don’t have the entire planet covered. We are always looking for new imagery and new partners to work on this because we really want people to know what the ultimate experience is. For now, if you are entering an address that is not covered by Street View, you receive a message that suggests you try another address that works. But you can also ignore this and still run the experience with the Satellite View and all the other functionalities.
Can you talk a little bit about the other technologies you used?
Do you think people pay attention to what browser they use?
We think that more and more people are becoming aware of what a browser can do. Chrome Experiments help people understand the benefits of modern browsers by actually showing them. We feel that people are becoming more and more aware of what browsers can do with technologies such as HTML5, Canvas, WebGL, or what the power of the cloud can do.
Who worked on the project? Was Arcade Fire involved at all?
The band was super involved from the beginning, and that’s one of the reasons why we were so eager to work with them. They are very tech-savvy, very curious about what the web technologies are, and it’s something that you can definitely see in their past work. They’ve been involved from the beginning – from the brief to the final reviews. I was really impressed by the quality of their comments. On top of Chris Milk, the writer/director, we worked with B-Reel, which produced the entire site, and Mr. Doob, a fantastic HTML5 programmer.
Compared to a traditional music video, which at the end of the day is just a film and a very linear kind of thing, Wilderness Downtown has so many dynamic, interactive elements. Was the creative process for this project different?
No, I don’t think it was. I remember when I read Chris Milk’s creative treatment for the first time, I couldn’t make any sense of his ideas. It sounded amazing but impossible. He just said, “Trust me. It’s going to work.” Chris is tech-savvy, but he’s not a developer. But three months later, I realized that it was exactly what we ended up doing. No matter the technical challenges, at the end of the day, it’s still his vision. He’s the director and writer.
What would you say is the main goal for the Creative Lab in supporting and working on a project like Wilderness Downtown?
The Wilderness Downtown is part of ChromeExperiments.com, which is one of the first projects that my team created. The main goal here was to show what the browser can really do today. I remember a friend of mine who told me the other day that he found his daughter on his computer playing with one of Mr. Doob’s Chrome Experiments, an amazing drawing tool, and she was basically going crazy making unexpected things with it. That six-year-old girl was just having a lot of creative fun through the browser, without noticing or realizing what kind of technology was beyond that. It’s quite amazing to see that now, through the browser, you can let children make things and express their creativity – having a lot of fun playing with drawing tools. Real interactions are now possible.
Can you tell us more about Chrome Experiments?
ChromeExperiments.com collects experiments showing how the web can be moved forward. Developers from all around the world are allowed to index their latest works so that other people can just go there and play with them. We learned from what they were able to do. When we saw some of these works, when Chris Milk saw them, we thought of pitching the idea of a new experiment to Arcade Fire, to show the world what is possible now. This is the beauty of the web: people are actually learning from each other, sharing ideas and technologies, and much of that being open-source, indexed, collected on different platforms, such as ChromeExperiments.com. We’re always super excited to see any kind of innovation coming from friends all around the world.
It’s interesting that some of these developers are pushing further into the world of artistry. In a way, coding has always been an art, but it’s a very sort of mathematical art.
Yeah, it’s fascinating that we start seeing some of these works in contemporary art museums, such as Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns. Aaron modeled all the flights across the US to show you how the US air traffic was actually making a lot of sense. It is a beautiful, such simple and clean animation. Things like this are now paving the way for a new generation of people who could be called data artists. I’m curious to see how universities, art schools and museums will adapt themselves to that and create new programs that combine arts with computer science.
We’ve been hearing a lot recently about this idea that the web is dead, that everything is based around apps, but I think what is really interesting about Wilderness Downtown is that it shows that you can do something beautiful and new within an actual browser.
There are interesting points in that article, but we don’t believe the web is dead. This project is proof. We’re showing here how the web is reinventing itself and allowing people to have an amazing, never-before-seen experience through the browser. We really believe that HTML5 is opening new doors. It’s opening a new dimension.
Why did you decide to use this song?
Chris picked this song, I think because it’s one of the best ones in an amazing album. And, we were really excited to be working with a song called “We Used to Wait” to showcase the power of the browser. There’s a very interesting tension here. As a matter of fact, the song tells the beauty of old means of communication, the beauty of waiting for a letter, the beauty of the uncertainty of getting information. And it was kind of nice to showcase amazing technology to show the beauty of old communication. We tried, by adding sepia filters on our Street View and Satellite imagery, to express that nostalgia. We really tried to use this tension between past and present as a creative direction. .
Arcade Fire is a really interesting band because they clearly struggle with how mediated their audience is, and it’s obvious that they really want to connect with people. How did you like working with them?
I really loved working with them. It was just great, just a perfect match. I remember that from the beginning they wanted to create some kind of an online-offline cross-over by showing on stage some of the drawings that people posted on the site. They are also printing some of them as postcards using the Wilderness Downtown machine that Chris Milk created.
And Chris Milk had this amazing idea of adding a seed into the postcard so that if you plant your postcard, it would actually grow a tree, which closes the loop with the online experiment, in a very neat way.