The Wilderness Downtown, the interactive website that Arcade Fire released last week for their song “We Used To Wait,” is something very different from a typical indie-rock promotional clip. So it’s fitting that the band hired a director, Chris Milk, who despite his impressive résumé in the field — Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” and “Touch the Sky,” U2 & Green Day’s “The Saints Are Coming” — has decidedly mixed feelings about the music video medium. “I spend a lot of time thinking about how music videos could ever achieve the emotional resonance of straight music,” Milk says in an email exchange with the Music Mix. “Honestly, I’m not sure music videos can ever really touch you as deeply as music alone can. Music scores your life. You interact with it. It becomes the soundtrack to that one summer with that one girl. Music videos are very concrete and rigid because they rely on someone else’s vision. Sometimes mine.”
Cutting-edge Web elements help make The Wilderness Downtown a more personal, immersive experience. Viewers enter an address of their choice (preferably their childhood home), calling up images from Google Maps at key moments in the song. As the music goes on, viewers can also enter messages to their younger selves which are then incorporated into the presentation. “By letting the audience participate in the visuals, we allow for more of an emotional connection,” Milk says.
A friend of Arcade Fire singer Win Butler “from a while back,” Milk also works closely with Aaron Koblin of Google Creative Lab at their “micro-agency,” Milk + Koblin. “The concept really came about as a way to bring two ideas together,” Milk says. “Google wanted a creative way to showcase what was possible on the web with HTML5 and the band wanted an innovative visual that could work like a traditional music video.” After beginning discussions with Butler this past January, Milk and Koblin finished The Wilderness Downtown by August. The site’s code-writing phase took “two incredibly fast-paced months,” thanks to production company B-Reel and “coding genius” Mr.doob, who had previously worked with Milk and Koblin on another interactive music site, The Johnny Cash Project.
Google’s technology became a crucial ingredient in The Wilderness Downtown. “Google Maps and streetview provided a really good answer to a big question I had when we began the project,” says Milk. “What could we do, using the tools available, that would emotionally resonate with people, without getting them bogged down in the technology? It’s easy to lose the humanity when you start showcasing tech. Google Maps and streetview embody this contradiction of cold high-tech that can be incredibly emotional when used in the right context.”
With The Wilderness Downtown drawing near universal acclaim, Milk is already looking forward to the next step. “I’m hoping to do my first feature film soon,” he says. “I have two in development right now.”
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