View The Summoning of the Skylark, 2015, in the K21 gallery here →
Cool. 3D. World. It’s all in the name.
Musicians Jon Baken and Brian Tessler got together in late 2014 to do something new by bringing visuals to their scores. Initially conceived as music videos, their works immediately became something else: a synesthetic merger of hypnotic sound design and disturbing 3D design. The Summoning of the Skylark was their first short film.
Baken and Tessler didn’t set out to capture mass attention — in fact, they were trying to avoid it — but the nature of their process tapped into something archetypal, and social media multiplied it. People noticed. Many of them. Soon, millions.
Melodic and grotesque, comedic and macabre, their narratives are driven by bizarre characters in extreme situations. Gross, weird, squishy — “shiny-sweaty rather than shiny-slick,” as they say in the interview below — their disquieting aesthetic is by design. Tessler and Baken delight in détourning expectations, choosing marginal human forms and twisting them further into absurdity, treating the uncanny valley as a canvas. The result is a sort of Fantasia for the twenty-first century.
They don’t storyboard. They don’t script. Their visual creations are constructed like musique concrète: pieced together from sample libraries and then painstakingly crafted down to minute detail. Along the way, they get lost in them, and in their collaboration. The work takes on a life of its own, allowing the characters — whether figures or environments — the agency to determine what happens next, often as a surprise to the authors themselves.
J. R. R. Tolkien described this as “sub-creation.” It’s the way he created his modern myths, dropping into Middle Earth as a chronicler and participant rather than sketching it from scratch as an omnipotent creator. Sub-creation is more animist than modernist. It shares authorship with agents that can’t be reduced to one world or the other, ours or theirs. As Tolkien put it, “The Primary World, Reality, of elves and men is the same, if differently valued and perceived.”
So maybe Cool 3D World is more a place than a duo. Maybe it’s coolest in the McLuhanesque sense of low-resolution media — think mystery novel or obscure poem — the kind that requires active participation on behalf of the consumer to complete the story. Maybe Baken and Tessler are able to tune into it precisely because they aren’t expert 3D modelers or studied occultists, but musicians who are just as skilled at composing as they are at listening. Maybe ritual emerged as a theme in their work because the way they work is a new type of ritual. Maybe summoning is less what they name their films than how they make them.
We discussed this and more in our interview with Cool 3D World below.
How did Cool 3D World come about?
Brian Tessler: Both of us are musicians. We don’t have any background in 3D animation, we just came to it through experiment. We thought it would be a fun and interesting way to create visuals and get out of our routines. I started messing around with some really crude 3D software around 2013 to figure out a visual aesthetic for my music. I built a following on Tumblr, making short gifs and music videos for my own electronic music. Jon saw my work through a mutual friend. We decided to make a track together and then do a video, and that was The Summoning of the Skylark. That’s how we started figuring out our visual language.
Do you consider your work as music videos or something else?
Jon Baken: We think of them as short films. We first started calling them music videos but that confused people. Whenever we would tell someone we were working on a music video, the first question we got was, “For who?” And we were like, “For us.” It is a weird distinction because most 3D artists don’t do their own music.
How do you create them?
BT: Now we create the visuals first, but it’s still a very musical process. We’re not storyboarding in the traditional sense: we don’t know everything that’s going to happen. We approach it as if we’re writing a piece of music, often with a theme — a character or a space — and then we expand on it like we would a melody or harmony, piecing it together.
JB: It’s very similar to creating electronic music by choosing sounds you like from a sample library. We do the same with 3D assets, characters, and spaces, selecting them first and then defining them with the music. The result generates a lot of comments on social media. We often hear, “The work doesn’t make any sense to me but it’s very satisfying.” I think this is because of how we define the characters with the music. For instance, we’ll transpose and change the score to match a scene change, playing the same theme in a different key or switching from major to minor. We play with a lot of musical themes and tools to contextualize our visuals.
How do you determine your narratives?
JB: You could describe our process as a real-time storyboard: we try stuff out — different cameras, different animations — to see what sticks and what looks right. Sometimes we’ll design a character and start building a story around them. Other times we’ll make a space and throw a random character into and try to tell a story that way. The process informs the narrative. More often than not we’ll have an ah-ha moment eighty percent of the way through production that completely changes the narrative and gives it a good twist for the ending. The endings always come at the eleventh hour, once we can see the whole picture.
Are there sources of inspiration for the characters, or are they pure invention?
BT: They are somewhat rooted in reality. The main software we use for character creation is Daz 3D, which has a massive library of human figures with endless ways to morph and change them. When we started, we really wanted to mess these people up, to make them look completely ridiculous. We created absurd-looking characters and gave them a ton of importance so we could develop complex and strange stories around them. This was a deliberate departure from other 3D artists who go for the perfect, sexy mannequins. We love taking the grossest ones and dialing them up to make them even more bizarre looking: shiny-sweaty rather than shiny-slick. We use 3D tropes but make them our own by using them the wrong way.
JB: We spent a lot of time in the early days on Renderosity, which is a less-polished third-party asset store. We found a character there named Mildred from a creator named tempesta, who would write paragraphs-long bios describing their characters. We loved how bizarre it was to put a character out on a fringe site with all this context, not knowing who would pick them up and use them. This was the source for the characters in Summoning the Skylark.
And the many animals?
JB: It’s fun to give a character a soul by giving them a connection to an animal, showing their companionship. It comes naturally, it’s not a checkbox for us.
BT: Giving our digital creatures a connection to nature just feels right. Even the rituals, like summoning, are never planned in advance, it just ends up feeling like these characters should be doing them. We aren’t determining it consciously. A lot of themes in our work emerge from us working together.
Why do you think your work has been so popular?
BT: There’s some sort of magic in our collaboration. I can’t pinpoint it, but it’s somewhere in the marriage of the sound design and distinctive visuals. People like weird things on the Internet, but it still feels like it should be really niche. And yet, it has become very popular.
JB: There’s tons of motion graphics set to music, but ASMR-type sounds are a big part of what we do. That was another striking component that people weren’t ready for when we began. Our detailed squishy sounds are unappealing but addictive: people say they’re grossed out, but they keep listening to it. I’m hearing these a lot more now, but there wasn’t much of it in 2015. We were able to capture this phenomenon and incorporate it into our work from the start.
How much do you think about your audience in creating your work?
BT: The analytics are interesting to look at, but we’re not creating work for a specific demographic. We weren’t trying to be anything or fit into any mold or do anything for anyone specific. It has just been our pure expression through this medium and fortunately it resonated with people. We also have a lot of fun working together.
JB: We both made pretty niche music before getting into 3D. We specifically didn’t want to make music that would blow up on SoundCloud or lead to playing Coachella. We preferred making things for the sake of making them and that felt true to our own point of view. Even if we didn’t have such a huge following or weren’t benefitting from it financially, we would still be creating our films because it’s something very personal.
Are the mystical underpinnings of Summoning the Skylark intentional?
BT: The music was really different from anything either of us had ever made. The whole-tone harmonic world that I brought to the collaboration felt very mysterious and mystical, dissonant.
JB: The music we created was very dark in tone. With Mildred, we had a natural leader. I remember feeling that the other characters should be doing something for her. They started by praying, and then we kept asking ourselves what should happen next. It just fell into place. Her persona led us to that theme, and we’ve since gravitated to ritual themes in a lot of our work.
Are the rituals in your films based on any existing mythology?
JB: Movies like Hereditary or Rosemary’s Baby, where you see a secret thing happening, are super interesting to me. A lot of what we make is like a hidden camera into a world that happens behind closed doors, but we don’t know much about the occult or ancient cultures. We’re certainly interested, yet I worry that trying to learn too much might make our work less interesting. I liken it to my experience as a music student in college. I feel like I lost some of the magic in my process because I studied so much. I think there’s some beauty to not knowing. I think that’s where we are at with our ritualistic references.
BT: There are things we are inspired by, but it’s the creative process that produces these results.