Vincent Morisset

The poetic spontaneity of interactive storytelling

June 18, 2021 / Interview by Alex Westfall | Photography by Wade Montpellier

Director Vincent Morisset is known for many things—for making what is considered to be the first interactive music video for Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, Sigur Rós’ live experience INNI, and the Sundance-acclaimed Way to Go. Under his boutique creative studio AATOAA, Vincent churns out many projects that communicate some of the deepest human experiences through myriad forms that tread on the boundaries of games, public spaces, cinema, and the Internet. Motto, one of these unclassifiable pieces, is a poetic choose-your-own-adventure for which users only need their phone. Zig-zagging through visual contributions by players, each playthrough centers on the dissapearance of a ghost named September.  

In conversation with the Montreal-based artist, we do a deep dive into Motto, explore the liminal space between documentary and fiction, and revel in all things Arcade Fire.

Was there a moment early on in life when you knew that you wanted to do something creative?

I grew up on the south shore of Montreal. I had an amateur radio show with a tape deck—inventing or semi-copying existing sketches and making sound effects. The tape recording thing was the first time I had access to technology and completely controlled it. We had a vinyl connected to a two-tape deck, and I knew how to press play, record, and record stuff with the microphone with the sound effect behind it. It was magic—being able to create a world on a tape. I was inviting friends and asking them to do other funny voices. That was the first time that I understood that through these machines I could do creative things. You rewind then record—it had that linear real-time quality to it. 

At the beginning of my professional career, I defined myself as a programmer. My early professional days when I was doing CD-ROMs for a telecom company were not necessarily that exciting in the early 2000. But also, I was making short films. At one point, I was seeing it as a bridge between cinema and technology. Showing a short film on a computer can allow other features or you can engage with the spectator differently. I was approaching that medium from that perspective and finding myself as a director between mediums. I’ve always continued with this Frankenstein DNA—parallel to the video game world that I know not that much about. 

What did you study and how did that shape your creative practice?

In high school, I discovered theater, narratives, and building sets. Then I decided to go into science. I was, again, interested in understanding how things function. There was some frustration about the creativity, so I shifted in communication and started to learn how to film, to take pictures.

I wanted to go into cinema. That was the end of the ’90s. It was one of the two years where it shifted—we learned how to do audio editing with a razor blade and tape, and the next year we were editing a film on the computer. It was like that year where it was analog, so quick to digital. We were that year where there was this schism between two realities; analog-digital work. When we had to choose our specialization, the school opened up this brand new program called Multimedia, and we were the guinea pigs. This was the age of the CD-ROM HyperCard. 

It was that moment where I learned how to use sound editing, video editing, graphic design. That’s where I started to experiment with interactivity. Parallel to that, I was helping a guy who was doing a project on birds, and he asked me because I’m a birder. He asked me for my ontological insight and through him, they became a mentor for that multimedia world. Birding was also my entry point to that digital interactivity technological world. We were the first generation.

Vincent using Motto on the streets of Montreal.

One of your earliest or earlier projects after graduating were these collaborations with Arcade Fire. So I would love to just hear more about those projects and the landscape for music videos at the time and the interventions that you were hoping to make by making interactive work and then the realm of music videos.

They asked me to help them do a website and they are a product of that cultural shift. The iPod was relatively new—it also challenged the notion of artwork and your engagement with an artwork, a booklet, and a music video. It was also a point where MTV were less and less showing music videos. It was the golden age of Pimp My Ride, Hulk Hogan, all that stuff.

Early on, they wanted to do something that felt different—not that utilitarian, but more creating the world and this visual companion to their music, so that’s how we approached everything we were doing online. It was not about showing the dates of the shows or the lyrics on the early website, but more an excuse to create a mythology around an album. 

Behind-the-scenes from Arcade Fire's "Just a Reflektor."

That’s how we started to do the more ambitious content, and the Neon Bible Interactive video. The band asked me if I was interested in doing a classic music video, and I was like, where will it screen? It won’t screen on TV—so it will be seen online, but it was a time where YouTube was still pixelated. I was a flash coder, so I thought, “Maybe we could do something that reacts to what we do.” I could see they could understand but they trusted me. That was a leap of faith—I tried to explain what I wanted it to feel, but since there was no precedent, it was hard: “Imagine the TV news anchor that turned to you and looked you in the eyes. That’s what it will feel like.” In the video, Win’s hand moves while you’re clicking. 

This project completely changed my path. I define myself as a director; I was not just a programmer. Many people thought it was silly to say that to direct a website, but for me, I was doing the same thing that I would do on a short film. It changed how people see how this medium could be something different than just buttons and content. It could be something I can alter.

From "Way to Go."

When you’re about to start on a project, where do you usually begin? Are you always sketching, or are you taking things from life? 

When I look at my body of work, it’s eclectic and diverse in form and aesthetic. I like to put myself in danger—stimulate myself artistically and intellectually. I like to get out of my comfort zone, but fundamentally at the time, the starting point is often the feeling I want to make people have. Often, there is an alchemy of mediums.

For Neon Bible, I wanted to create a connection between a virtual being and a spectator, and think about what interactivity can bring to a narrative. It was trying to define some non-linear grammar, but from an animation film perspective.

Often it’s this simple premise or intuition that is difficult to explain. Rather than being a director with a clear vision, I have an instinct and then surround myself. The way I work is to create a context that is good for exploration and experimentation, but without losing ourselves and just filtering the gems and then sculpting a project out of this. Each journey is different. 

From Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible."

With Motto, you talk about this distinction, or blurring the boundaries between documentary and fiction. 

In terms of exploring the lines between documentary and fiction, I like that vagueness or openness keeps the whole team afloat. Because they are constantly developing, bringing things to the table and that so often—the visual aspect, the technological aspect, the narrative or the sound all come together. I’ve never worked in a game studio, but there is that interactivity, prototyping, but also having the tech and the story from day one. I work horizontally and also in small teams. I often have two or three years to do a project, which is quite a luxury.

"Sprawl" for Arcade Fire.

You mentioned that your process usually starts with a feeling. For Motto, was there a specific feeling that started the project?

I was interested in serendipity—this idea of juxtaposition of things that create poetry. A project that impacted me a couple of years ago was called These coders scramble YouTube and just push you to videos that have less than 100 views with no names. Just the juxtaposition of random stuff up from around the world, but I thought, “Wow, this is almost one of the best editing I’ve seen of just so unusual and surprising.”

We are in an age where we’re bombarded with moving images; there’s something that is homogenized in it. I was interested in making people engage with their world—but instead of engaging in a virtual world, I make them engage in their apartment, or outside in the streets. Then, they find things that they will capture through their web camera, and put this together with content that other people around the world have collected and create the story that bridges all this. It was also the idea of transcending what social media is. There’s this randomness, but we kept that sensibility and DNA that we’re used to in this relationship. We have with this raw, homemade material. It becomes intimate.

It’s a parallel palette or grammar. With social media, I liked the fragility and the spontaneity of some of the content. I tried to make these people in this context and capture things, but with no fuss. I don’t want players to make their images crazy with filters, but to just capture moments or things that they like.

The project was also to deconstruct online performance. In 2021, we’re more careful about what we post, what we record. It was also, for us, an interesting reflection of how we can establish a level of trust, a safe space. It’s meaningful, it hopefully goes beyond a gimmick. It elevates what you bring with other people, and makes something greater. 

I’m curious about the narrative design process.

We worked on Motto for three years. The first year was the usual at work team, Caroline Robert, Edouardo Lanctot, they would normally do design or visuals. We were trying to define a form. We wanted to record and then use that recording into an edit in real-time and juxtapose user content generated with content that we would have shot. It was the defining of a format, but we didn’t know what would be the story—it was again more about the feeling and what works, what doesn’t.

At this point, it was the beginning of the democratization of AI tools. We were excited about exploring that new palette that conveyed the body like. We explored broadly the potential of AI and machine learning.

At the beginning, we wanted to make it more about the system analyzing each video and creating this machine poetry. It was hit and miss. Sometimes the machine did this funny weird poem, but 70% of the time it was just lame and boring. Then we started to put away this technological approach, but keep that clunkiness or that ranit domness about the association. Motto kept that essence and it can feel like it’s AI-edited.

We needed something much more simple. It feels like AI but we’re using machine learning to cover the face of people, and that was one of the things that we thought was important so that people don’t feel self-conscious about what they shoot, then will people see themselves.

A behind-the-scenes at the narrative design process for Motto.

In the project, everything you post is anonymized, so it was a design choice, but for the rest, we just kept tha association or juxtaposition—that is what the internet is all about. We browse that way, it’s becoming their natural way to distill content. I was interested in how the brain connects the dots and creates meaning. That was one of the things that drove me. 

After a year, we had something of a skeleton of the project, something that you can record and associate. We invited Sean Michaels, a Montreal novelist. We shared with him what we had, and tried to define the story; what we could ask people to record.

One of the things that was important is that it’s universal—it’s on the web; It’s free. I’ve wanted it to work in Cairo, Paris, or New York, I wanted to work if you’re inside or outside. The premise was almost a list—universal things like electric plug or lights or the sky. Sean would say, “What could we tell as a story for anyone, anywhere?”

He had that flash of the friend September as a ghost. Then, the journey in the story builds—that is similar to game design. Since you’re in the project, we wanted people to feel that they are themselves and not others. The relationship with September needed to have that openness. There’s an ambiguity about that relationship. Is it a friendship? Is it love? The gender of September is a flip-a-coin thing. Half the people who will do Motto will have September as a woman and the other half of the people who try Motto will have a man. We kept that ambiguity in the text so that anybody could project themselves in that relationship with the protagonist.

Have any user contributions or responses in Motto surprised you?

The things that touched me the most are the face; seeing the smiles or just seeing the hidden faces. People that engage in the project accept that secret invisible handshake. It’s always awesome. If you do the whole project, maybe a hundred moments that you record and they’re so diverse. If you do a chapter inside, at one point you get asked to draw stuff, as you go out for a walk, you get to pick stuff, do some rituals. The whole project is  snapshots of moments. It’s a project that evolves, like a beast feeding through moments and different parallel realities.

Then we play with that editing effect of juxtaposing the participant shot with other people’s shots and just seeing these diverse proposition or similar things. Still, by accumulating five or six from different contexts, it’s like, “Wow—this communal ritual is simple, but quite satisfying.” Motto was made before the pandemic, but it was released when we were stuck home. We were not allowed to see people. The project resonated  with that reality since it’s an adventure where you can live anywhere and in time, but at the same time you have a sense that you’re connected with other human beings around the world.