In Residence

Vincent Morisset will convince you that websites are works of art

Thanks to his work with Arcade Fire, Montreal artist Vincent Morisset became a pioneer in interactive filmmaking. His latest project, Way to Go, is a 360-degree film.

The digital pioneer and Arcade Fire collaborator doesn't want to be a "VR guru"

The team behind Way to Go. From left to right: Caroline Robert, Phillippe Lambert, Édouard Lanctôt-Benoit and Vincent Morisset. (NFB)

We know who wrote our favourite books, we follow the careers of our favourite movie directors. But for all the hours we spend all-but-umbilically attached to our phones and computers, how many website creators can you name?

Vincent Morisset might be the only artist on your list. The Montreal filmmaker, who serves as this week's Exhibitionist in Residence, is the mind behind the world's first interactive music video, for Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible." (A long-time friend of co-founder Regine Chassagne, he's collaborated multiple times with the acclaimed rock band, most recently on "Just a Reflektor," an Emmy-winning "virtual projection" now featured at the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial in New York.)

A still from 2007's "Neon Bible." Directed by Montreal's Vincent Morisset, the website is considered the world's first interactive website. (AATOAA)

"Neon Bible" arguably cemented Morisset's status as a pioneer, not just because of the piece itself, but because of one simple line in the credits: "Director."

"For me, it was a really bold move. … I remember people kind of raising their eyebrows saying, 'He directed a website?'" Morisset tells CBC Arts. He was already a filmmaker, one who'd focused on multimedia studies in film school. "My role [on Neon Bible] was really similar to what I was doing, so that's why 'Why not?'"

Nine years later, it's still a bold move to say you "directed" a website, but Morisset is on a mission to change that. Experiencing his work is the best argument for the cause, and on this Sunday's Exhibitionists we'll offer you a few samples.

Way to Go is Morisset's latest interactive film. A recent winner of the FWA's People's Choice Award, this 360-degree experience premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and continues to be shown at a variety of international exhibitions. (It's heading to London next, appearing at Canada House starting March 16 as part of a larger virtual-reality programme.)

"I never really know how to describe them," Morisset says of his genre-defining work. "They have one foot in film grammar, and they have another foot in video games." But one thing is clear, you'll want to experience them online before you see them on TV, because as Morisset says: "the real deal is to be doing it, exploring it — discovering the piece through manipulating your mouse, or your hand, and all the different ways of interacting with it."

We'll share where you can try it for yourself, but first, Morisset talks to CBC Arts about Way to Go, the future of interactive filmmaking — and why he hates the idea of becoming a "VR guru."

Vincent Morisset. Still from Way to Go, 2015. (NFB)

VR Bloopers

Way to Go lets you take a walk, or a jog — or a flight — through the forest. It's up to you, really. If you can't literally stop and smell the flowers, you can at least zoom in and appreciate their beauty, because this journey, filmed in 360-degrees, ultimately encourages you to let go and embrace your surroundings. Viewed in VR, it transports you completely. Arguably, the same could be said for the desktop experience. Because when Morisset and his production company AATOAA were developing Way to Go, they had no intention of using the now trendy technology.

"It was a happy accident," Morisset says. "The intention at the very beginning of the project was I wanted to make people feel ultra-lucid… a little like when you travel and you're really sensitive to everything surrounding you."

"VR was not even on the radar," when he pitched the 360-degree film to the NFB four years ago.

A scene from The Making of Way to Go. (Facebook/Vincent Morisset)

"Then after a year the VR thing emerged. I guess it was something in the collective imagination," Morisset says. Nothing about the project changed as a result — not its aesthetic or form or narrative. VR just suited it perfectly, a technology that, Morisset says, puts people in "a really intuitive, contemplative state."

"What I wanted people to feel [through Way to Go] was so in phase with what VR is good at."

Is VR the Way to Go? (Facebook/Vincent Morisset)

The Medium is Only Part of the Message

Morisset's been working with digital and interactive technologies since the late '90s, "but I've always been allergic to trends and buzzwords," he admits. "There's something with this world that annoys me a bit sometimes. People will get obsessed with one aspect," like VR, for example.

"My experience with VR was incredible," Morisset says of Way to Go. "I think it's a powerful medium, but at the same time, at the moment there's so much going on around it, and so much attention, that it kind of distracts from what the piece is itself."

Director Vincent Morisset on the set of Way to Go. (Facebook/Vincent Morisset)

Technology is inherently an important facet of Morisset's work, but every project starts with a feeling or abstract idea he wants to capture. Everything else evolves organically, and that includes what gadgets or media he may or may not employ.

"I will say [VR] will become part of my palette, but I won't say I'll reinvent myself as a virtual reality guru or whatever."

His Mission

Making music videos helped build Morisset's reputation, but expect to see more independent projects in his future. "My collaboration with Arcade Fire was amazing because they gave it a lot of creative latitude to do different things. But I would say I'm a big advocate of original content," like Way to Go and his earlier film, Bla Bla, for example — websites that exist purely as works of art.

"In a way, I think this medium's suffered from its historical background in a strange way," says Morisset. "Interactive projects have mainly been commercially driven."

Behind the scenes of Bla Bla. (NFB)

"Basically for the last decade or even more, the advertising industry has been associated with this medium, so how we talk about these projects is often related to technology or a third party and it's really rare that we'll talk about the author or the thing that that person wanted to say."

"For me, that's my mission, to legitimize this voice and also try to find ways to support this medium as a cultural expression," says Morisset. Making art is how he'll do it.

"It's baby step after baby step, but it's through my personal projects that I can make you see," he says. "It's original. It's not attached to a brand or a derivative of a TV show. It's its own thing."

Head to the NFB to experience Way to Go and another film, Bla Bla, in their entirety, and for more Vincent Morisset, watch Exhibitionists online or Sunday at 4:30 (5pm NT) on CBC Television.

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