Always & Forever celebrates its first birthday this month. The last year has been the most challenging and fulfilling year of my life. After leaving my job at Google with little to no plan, I directed a music video called Dennis, then designed interactive experiences for Kickstarter’s Film Festival, Paramount’s Zoolander 2, and sound-toys for Chrome Music Lab.
Most recently, I created Playthings, a virtual reality experience that lets you play music with junk food, and it’s already been shown at NY Fashion Week and TriBeCa Film Festival. There’s also a huge update to aaf.nyc.
It took five years to work up the courage to leave my job at Google. Saying goodbye to all of my incredibly gifted coworkers who taught me so much, leaving the security of one of the best jobs I could imagine — that was the most terrifying choice I’ve ever made.
Like any office, working at Creative Lab came with its ups and downs, but for me it was characterized by the ups. My first job was, by all accounts, a dream. Looking back, I can’t believe how all these brilliant people took the time to endure / nurture a baby-idiot like me.
For as much as I loved working there, I was carrying this internal doubt as to whether or not I was fulfilling my potential. I spent two weeks time in-between finishing undergrad and starting my first full-time job. That aimless fuck-around / self-discovery phase you’re supposed to start upon entering the “real world” was relegated to nights and weekends.
All the while, I constantly found myself asking: what does it look like when I use 100% of myself on me? On my own ideas? So many half-finished projects piled up in that time. Upon leaving, I had few other plans but to finish them and see where they led. I pictured a life where I spent half my time on client work and half my time on self-directed projects. And for a little while, that was generally what happened.
Time to exercise my newfound freedom: I had a big personal project to get off my chest. In June of 2015, I launched dennis.video, a music video for popcorn_10. I saw Dennis as the spiritual successor to George & Jonathan III, a deeper exploration of what it means to use musical data to control animation — to let people “see” music.
Every movement responds to the song’s finest details. Each frame is created in real time with code in WebGL — nothing is pre-rendered. An interactive camera allows you to explore the scenes, which are created *~with math~* every time you press play.
I had the pleasure of working with some really cool clients, promoting people and brands I’m excited about. The Kickstarter Film Festival map lets you see all the brick and mortar Kickstarter-backed projects in the entire country. Chrome Music Lab is a collection of interactive toys that teach kids about music and the science of sound. And most importantly, Blue Steel Studio lets you morph your face into Derek Zoolander’s.
Originally I was anxious about my ability to “get work” / maintain client relationships / all that professional sh — ahem … jazz. I never considered myself to be much of a networker. To my relief, I found out that I was actually doing it ambiently during those 5 years at Google. Doing a good job and not being a total asshole turns out to be networking enough.
I felt like I was growing too. Inspired by my closest friend and eternal colleague, Jon Baken, and his work on Cool 3D World, I’m learning new 3D modelling software (of which I’ve historically been terrified.) Knowing VR was around the corner, I set out to learn Unity as well.
Which brings me to October of 2015. I was creatively switched on, entirely free, and unburdened. The self-doubt was gone. I felt like a unified person, my “day-job” and my “nights” — my whole self working towards one thing. It became so much easier just to “be me,” to meet new people, to explain myself. It was as if all these asterisks were scrubbed from my identity.
But I’ll get real: for 7 months, I had spent nearly all of my waking hours in a 6x6 foot room in my apartment … by myself … typing. My commute consisted of the 4 steps in between my bedroom and my office. And to get really real: I had just returned from my first trip to Japan (only my third time out of the US) to a gut-wrenching breakup. High time for a change of scenery.
I can’t claim that this idea to “do my own thing” was self-inspired. That past year I’d seen so many of my friends take that same plunge, in some cases, changing industries entirely. Take for example interactive installation art. I knew that Gabe, his collaborator Dave Rife, (daveandgabe.care) and their friend Beau Burrows were sharing a giant studio space in Bushwick. So I was like, “dudes can I come hang out?” And that’s where I’ve been ever since. Honestly, I’ve never been happier, and I don’t know what I’d be doing right now if it weren’t for these guys and this space.
The Active Space
Working among other creative people has been huge. In spite of my general “leave me alone and let me work” disposition, I found I really missed having “coworkers” after leaving Google. Now I’ve learned that I simply need other people to stir my brain / “till the soil” / have fresh thoughts. A steady influx of new people to react to my work is indispensable, as is having someplace to get up and go. That said, I’ve probably taken it a bit too far (current tally of days off in 2016 stands at 5).
This guy, the HTC Vive, turned up in the studio a few days prior to my arrival, and I’ve been fixated ever since. At the time, the hardware was only available to select developers (among whom I could not count myself). I was really lucky to get my hands on one of these (for this, I must thank Gabe Liberti’s unrivaled talent for schmoozing).
Those who know me know that interactive music is the ~*air I breathe~* … so it was really clear that I should be making virtual instruments. I silenced my phone on my birthday. I worked through New Year’s. I even made up a shitty excuse to not visit my family for Christmas. I’m still here 7 days a week and I’ve become increasingly pale.
All of a sudden my tools resemble a game designer’s instead of a web developer’s. While separated from the Vive on a family trip to Miami Florida, I put my new 3D skills to work making assets. I spend my time animating, modeling, programming, designing sounds, textures, graphics, and composing music. This type of work calls for a confluence of literally everything I love to do. I don’t harbor any doubt as to whether or not I’m using myself to my full potential.
Playthings & Virtual Reality
I remember saying I wanted to be the first one of my friends to become a drooling VR-addicted pool of flesh. Turns out VR is totally capable of the opposite. From the moment Beau put the controllers in my hand, my arms starting swinging like a toddler’s, my mind started teeming with ideas and it really hasn’t stopped since.
You never really “do VR” alone. Seeing people engage with my work in real life, as opposed to uploading files to a web server and then staring at Twitter, has been refreshing to say the least.
I learn what to change so much faster. I’ve spent so many years trying to make things that are satisfying on a visceral level, but the only avenues of communication I’ve had between myself and a “user” have been mouse and keyboard. Now I have ability to read a user’s whole body.
This level of immersion comes with the power to functionally create matter: impossible objects you can actually touch, but don’t look or move or behave or sound like anything you could find in the real world.
It feels really exciting to be on the frontier of this new medium where there’s still so much to figure out. I’m feeling really encouraged by the recognition the project has gotten so far. After showing at Fashion Week and TriBeCa Film Festival, I want Playthings to bring me to more places like these — kind of like … use it as a personal jet.
When I formed my LLC (through LegalZoom) one year ago, I saw it as little more than a tax necessity / excuse to make logos. I’m just “one guy” after all. Being a “company” is weird — but I’ve stopped trying to correct the emails addressed to “George and team.”
Historically, when asked where I saw myself in five years, my eyes rolled. But I’m starting to get excited about the future of Always & Forever. And as time goes on, I can’t really claim to be “one guy” anymore.
Playthings is getting bigger, and I find myself needing help. I’m lucky to have so many friends with whom I’ve already cultivated beautiful collaborative relationships. In the time since Fashion Week, Baken composed an original soundtrack for the game and designed tons of new food-instruments. Neil is learning Unity to help me bring Playthings to launch, and he’s already contributed so many awesome new ideas.
Turns out we’re serious: My closest friends have become my colleagues. We spend all day in a studio ~*making art~* … so this is me gloating: the dream is real.
George Michael Brower
Founder, CEO, COO, CTO, CIC
Always & Forever Computer Entertainment