PRINT March 2009

Michel Gondry

THE PAST. It’s true that video killed the radio star. Unfortunately, I am guilty. I tried to use the medium in the best possible way, to extend the creativity of the artists. I remember the little theater running in my head while listening to the vinyl. The cover of the album was the poster for the film, and my imagination was working on the rest. Now the album covers have shrunk, and moving images have smothered most of the music.

When I play a track, I scan all sorts of ideas through my brain. The one I toss the fastest into the reject bin is usually the one I fish back out. The most ridiculous idea is inherently the one that requires the most effort to bring about. But the stretch it takes and the results of the experiment are what keep me going. My friend (and director of photography) Jean-Louis Bompoint once caught me rushing to see how my animation worked on the big screen and told me that this urge would fade with age. It never did. Assembling a succession of slightly different images and witnessing their new dimension and their movement when they are animated delivers the same level of anxiety and excitement to this day. The same enthusiasm might come from all sorts of ideas: What would happen, for example, if I played backward some footage of my aunt walking backward in the snow? She would erase her footprints as she walked into them. I want to try it and see the result. What would happen if I shot a still image of the glass window in her kitchen door—which is divided into hundreds of squares, each one reproducing the full image of the room—then separated each square and animated one after another? I would move into a weird dimension. I have to see it. This sort of desire is what makes me want to get up early in the morning. And I am not lacking in ideas I want to test out. In fact, even if my brain were suddenly caught short I would still have all my old notebooks full of ideas nobody would support.

THE PRESENT. Between large-format or high-definition systems and the myriad ridiculously small images that bombard our brains through our computers and other invasive orifices, it seems that the landscape of moving images has stretched nearly to infinity. The texture of this landscape cannot hold the surface it is supposed to cover, and more and more holes and cracks have opened. New systems are constantly aborted through natural selection. I once heard that there were clocks in the thirteenth century that ran anticlockwise, but ultimately more clocks were built to run clockwise; the public got used to it, so no more backward clocks were ever built. This explains the principle of evolution and natural selection. The next example is the late-1970s and early-’80s battle between Betamax and VHS. Betamax was in fact the better system, but for some reason, maybe the sound quality, the public preferred VHS, pushing Betamax into oblivion. And some systems or organizations remain even though they are obsolete. For instance, the qwerty keyboard was conceived to avoid jamming mechanical typewriters by separating the keys most likely to be used in quick succession in the English language. It’s interesting to see that this has become useful again a hundred years later as people use their thumbs to type on the microscopic keys of their BlackBerries.

In the same way, directors such as Spike Jonze and myself felt overwhelmed by the incredible precision and grandeur of the big video directors of the early ’90s. At the time, new digital formats and screens were giving their style a natural advantage. Now, the way to see videos is on YouTube or elsewhere on the Net. Our videos have the advantage, because they don’t rely on high-definition images. But this will change again and again.

THE FUTURE. The survival of music is guaranteed. We need it, in addition to alcohol or other mind-altering products, to overcome our embarrassment and breed. The future of the moving image is less certain. Its necessity is not so clear and its fabrication is much more complicated and expensive.

Michel Gondry is a New York–based film and video director.