When she began crafting her 2015 album Vulnicura, Björk envisioned it as an immersive audiovisual record. Since its release, the Icelandic artist has released a bevy of album-related VR experiences, including the Björk Digital exhibition, and teased an even more ambitious project—a real-time VR music video for the single "NotGet." Björk Digital debuts in the United States at the Day for Night Festival in Houston with eight VR experiences that insert you into the singer's personal volcanic rock landscape and place you at her feet as she bellows from her core.
Longtime Björk collaborators and photographers Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones directed NotGet VR, which puts viewers inside the world of Vulnicura, a spellbinding musical galaxy. Within the experience, Björk’s VR avatar disassembles and mutates within a dark, towering, and surreal landscape. To create the real-time, morphing environment, du Preez and Jones brought in Matt Chandler and Arvid Niklasson, from London-based VFX studio Analog.
Earlier this year, Analog got their hands on an HTC Vive and began dabbling with the medium, but NotGet VR is their first foray into immersive VR. Chandler and Niklasson had previously worked with Du Preez and Jones on Aleph, an atmospheric CGI piece for the 2015 Creative Review Annual, which explored nature, birth, death, and rebirth. Since "NotGet" features similar themes, Du Preez and Jones wanted to inject a similar aesthetic into the project.
After the directors shared artwork, sketches, references, costume designs, and distinctive masks created by James Merry, Chandler and Niklasson got to work crafting the visuals. Chandler explains that the track “NotGet” chronicles very personal events in Björk's life, including surviving the disintegration of a relationship and coming out stronger on the other side.
“Bone-like structures were grown inside of the body volume to create an intricate and delicate looking anatomy representing decay, death, and vulnerability,” Chandler explains. “We wanted the surfaces to alter materials, emit light and look interesting throughout the entire piece as it was driven by the underlying motion-capture performance. The dark, ominous atmosphere is dissolved as she literally grows into a light-charged entity surrounded by hypnotic fluid motions.”
To create these visual effects, Analog used many of their usual tools like Houdini, Maya, 3ds Max, vray, and Zbrush. They also used Unity to create the real-time morphing of Björk’s avatar. As Chandler recalls, he and Niklasson experimented with different model concepts, weird surfaces, and artistic interpretations of the themes. To match Björk's movements, Imaginarium provided them with a motion-capture performance by the artist.
“We were also able to review the performance live on the day through the Vive to start getting a feel for what we could do with the data,” Chandler says. “The environment and outer suit was procedurally grown with Houdini, allowing us to quickly generate many versions. These structures were then processed with Zbrush to add more organic details before textures and lighting were baked in with vray.”
Niklasson says that once they had assets from the 3D team, Analog assembled them in Unity, writing all of the code and shaders to make it feel like part of the same world. While they worked on some of the assets inside Unity, Analog made most of the animation with either dynamics or shaders, with the lighting done outside of Unity.
“One of the main challenges, besides the timeframe, was that this is a six-minute experience where Björk is in constant transformation,” Niklasson says. “Making sure that the transformation is interesting and looks good for that amount of time was interesting, especially since we programmed it so that every viewing is unique and there are enough random factors to keep it interesting.”
“We had an idea early on that if we made the piece different enough every time, the conversation between viewers afterward would be quite interesting and make people want to see it again,” he adds. “The thing I’m most happy with about NotGet VR is that we managed to make a pretty cinematic experience that, hopefully, looks less like a computer game and feels more like film.”
“The aim was to make something that would hopefully still hold up into the future, and now that VR is finally becoming more accessible and available to a wider audience we are looking forward to hearing what people think of the experience,” says Chandler. “Instead of looking through a window into this environment, VR is a portal that enables the viewer to stand inside this video and have a more emotional response to the visuals and music.”