The astro is the most pervasive meme in NFT art today. No matter which platform you visit, you’ll find rendered images of astronauts. Vaporwave astros, liquid astros, falling astros, swimming astros, time traveling astros, astros at the supermarket, even da Vinci astros: some skillfully manipulated, others the products of beginners. All seem to have some allure.
The astro found its ideal home in crypto as the artistic avatar for an industry that endlessly recycles moon memes and correlates market sentiment with @elonmusk’s rocket launches. Despite their abundance, collectors keep buying them. To date, they’ve spent millions. The astro has launched a cottage industry.
Raoul Marks sculpted the original astronaut for use in a video title sequence he created in 2015. Then he open sourced it, a gift to other creatives tinkering in the then-new world of GPU rendering software. It quickly touched a nerve amongst 3D artists who have since downloaded it over 40,000 times, making it a de facto demo file for popular applications. Whether simply because of Marks’ craft, or because it was a self-portrait of whoever chose to work with it the Astro spoke to the anonymous creative exploring new territory through a screen. Astros first flooded Instagram, then, with the uptake of NFTs around the start of 2021, they poured into that market as well.
Marks stayed on the sidelines. As he exclaims below, “I work too much!” Indeed. Marks is the maestro of some of the most iconic and memorable title sequences in recent years.
Through Antibody, his collaboration with director Patrick Clair, the first was True Detective (2014), a haunting montage of ritual and vice that blurs human and landscape, flesh and machine, the collective and the individual, all to the twang of T Bone Burnett. Later that same year, Marks and Clair made the titles for Halt and Catch Fire, bringing a cyberpunk edge with an accelerationist anthem to the simplest idea about ideas themselves: turning on a lightbulb. The first won an Emmy, the second a nomination.
Their title sequences for The Man in the High Castle and The Terror similarly layer events and landscapes with the human form, a microcosmic tease of the show to come rendered in dramatic high contrast and a staccato pace of cuts between vastly different viewpoints. For the lengthy and hypnotic titles to Westworld, a show set on the precipice of the singularity, androids take the place of humans. Marks rendered out a symphony of robots playing god to other robots, stringing them together to the cadence of a player piano, an ancestor whose rough mechanism shows just how far and how quickly we’ve come.
A master at rendering futures on the horizon, Marks is one of the reasons they feel so close, so imminent. An engineer of the subconscious, he both constructs and plays with the images that circulate below awareness.
For his first NFT, VOID, minted for the K21 collection, Marks has selected a segment of the original 2015 title sequence, creating a looping video with sound he produced himself. It captures an astronaut in a slow motion tumble through space, musing on the isolation and solitude of the artist’s practice. This is the original astro.
We discuss all of the above and more in the interview with Raoul Marks below.
How did you get to where you are?
I grew up in remote Western Australia, in the relative paradise of nature, brown bread, and lots of drawing on large sheets of brown butcher’s paper. My family was quite anti-technology–we didn’t have a TV until I was just a teenager–so anything technological was fascinating to me. We did get a computer in the 90s and I loved doodling on early software like Aldus Photostyler, only a slight improvement on MS Paint. I loved the idea that you could draw something a million times and never run out of resources, that you could iterate endlessly. I was drawn to CG programs in university and ended up working as a graphic designer in London in my twenties before moving to Sydney and getting into motion design, a then-burgeoning scene thanks to advances in desktop computing. Spring, my short film about the Arab Spring, got noticed by director Patrick Clair. We began working together quickly thereafter, beginning with the title sequence for True Detective. We’ve gone on to direct numerous titles for television and film as part of our studio Antibody.tv.
Do you think of yourself as an artist?
Yes but I don’t call myself one in my commercial capacity because it doesn’t make sense to people. There’s specific titles for what I do. I’m typically a lead creative, and animator on most projects. I’ve lived and worked around a lot of people who are well within the more established boundaries of the art world and they can tend to be territorial about using the word ‘artist’, but I think we’re entering a new moment. For K21, I’m using the term for myself.
What’s the allure of creating title sequences?
I’m interested in the overlap of politics and design, not necessarily to comment on ideology but due to the imagery it causes us to absorb. Images from my childhood, such as those from the first Gulf War–like oil fields burning in the desert–have stuck with me for a long time and even influenced a really early piece of mine called Spring. Even those from everyday life are so full of meaning that you can hijack them to elicit an emotional response or make a connection to something in the depths of our psyches. Title sequences require us to play with the subconscious, to use symbols that resonate. Like a fourth wall, they need to occupy both spaces, being aware of the world we live in while slowly dragging you into the fiction of the show. It’s a way of making fiction seem relevant beyond its own bounds, that it has something to say about the world. Great directors understand this.
How did the astronaut come about?
A lovely guy named Murray Bell invited me to do a title sequence for the 2015 Semi Permanent design festival in Sydney. I had just come back to Australia from a few months in Tokyo and had recently declined an offer to move to LA to be closer to the action, so I was happy to spend a month or so working on something that left me free to explore what was on my mind. Commercial artists always have a lot of ideas that you just don’t get to use in your everyday work and I had a few things that were bubbling. Octane had also just been released, some of the first 3D software to exploit GPUs–the powerful rendering hardware used to play video games. It meant that if you could imagine something, you could make it, and make it realistic and beautiful. It let me independently explore the central idea behind the astronaut: isolation, trying to find some new territory, new creative ground, and doing it totally on your own. It’s a weird experience, one I’m now very familiar with. You can get a little lost in your own brain. We’ve now all had a crash course in isolation post-COVID.
Where did the visual inspiration come from?
I spend a lot of time looking at imagery. Something I’m very interested in is single light source imagery, chiaroscuro, classic Caravaggio type stuff. I came across these old grainy, black and white, high contrast photos by the scientists Thomas Kane in a 1968 copy of LIFE magazine. They captured a man in a fake astronaut suit jumping on a trampoline trying to twist and turn like a cat to figure out how an astronaut might be able to move in space. A rather utilitarian experiment, but I found them beautiful: an anonymous astronaut in the void. I was really drawn to that image. It’s easy to fall into post-rationalizing, seeing it as the journey of a creative–they are born, coming out of a womb of sorts with an umbilical cord they need to detach, they pass the family home, the hand representing creativity, the eye criticality–but that seems too neat, too prosaic. Parts of the sequence feel a bit hackneyed because there’s so much artwork like that now, but it didn’t feel that way to me at the time. Essentially, I’m just harvesting as many bits of imagery as I can to create an emotional response. Language alone just doesn’t do it. I want to evoke mood, feeling.
How much did you think of Kubrick?
A lot. One scene is a direct homage to him. Particularly the shots from 2001 of floating in blackness, in silence. There’s a particular shot of bay doors opening like a womb that’s a direct steal. It’s amazing how much the films post-2001 steal from it, like Ridley Scott’s Alien and others subsequent. Scott said something along the lines of, “After 2001, science fiction is dead.” Kubrick set up the whole aesthetic. One of the endless examples is when you see figures or numbers projected onto a helmet or onto a face and they read clearly. That’s not the way lights work. A light isn’t a projector. A readout of some kind of figure would just produce a glow, but the same effect is used in numerous films. Kubrick has all the mood and feeling that you could possibly want, so there’s going to be emulation. Thievery.
When is your astronaut from?
It’s loosely based on the Apollo era astronauts, but it’s not literally the suit of that particular period. I’m not an exact artist. More important is that the astro is an anonymous figure. Anyone can inhabit it. It should be intriguing. You’re not sure who is inside or when they are from.
Is there a morbid component to your work?
Take an image of the moon. If it’s brightly lit, you can see all the details. It’s slightly less interesting because your brain doesn’t have to do any work. But if you put it in high contrast with a rim light that falls off into dark shadow along a ridge with a certain undulation where the light falls into the penumbra, your brain instantly does all this work subconsciously to fill in that detail that’s not actually there. That little bit of subconscious hook the imagery does to keep you there is something I’m always drawn to. I don’t want to serve everything up on a platter so simply. One thing we’re always doing with timing from a motion perspective is you want someone to have just read the image by the time you swap to the next shot, say if it’s coming out of darkness or into focus. It’s not necessarily morbid, but it can often come across as dark and a bit moody, and if it makes people feel slightly unsettled, that’s good perhaps.
Why do you think your astro became so popular?
Technology at the time was just tipping into a new world where motion graphics didn’t need to be made by big amorphous production studios. The barrier to entry had changed dramatically. I think the reason my title sequence had such an influence is because it had a reasonably high production value for the time and I did it on my own, meaning anyone who saw it realised they could do similar things on their own. Perhaps it inspired them.
Why did you make it freely downloadable?
The thing with CG, what’s behind the Instagram phenomenon, is that it’s a little bit like playing God: you have a sandbox where you can create anything you want. So can painters, but the three-dimensionality is really limitless. It’s a direct extension of that feeling as a kid using paint programs to iterate endlessly. You always wonder how creatives make the things they make in these environments. You can read interviews, but it’s always vague. I want to get in there and tinker, so I gave mine away. It just seemed like a nice thing to do, to give people just getting into this stuff and getting excited about its potential something to play with. I had no idea how it would turn out. It’s an odd, strange turn of events, that six years later it’s become a meme in the subculture.
It’s a meme that’s minted many others a great deal of money in the form of NFTs. How do you feel about that?
I had no idea. Sometimes with creative commons, people will require users to credit them. When they do, I can’t use their work on commercial projects. So I didn’t want to put any restrictions on this. As a result, people aren’t actively tagging me in their work–I’m not always sure I’d want them to anyways–and I don’t have the time to scour Instagram to see every which way it’s being applied. So I had no idea how much it was being used or how.
It was surprising that you stayed on the sidelines while so many others were minting NFTs with your astro…
I work too much! I really hadn’t realized that people had been using that astro to mint NFTs and make money off of it. I’m glad they did. I’m sure it subsidised them doing other things. Good on them.
I want to explore the idea of utopian disaster. We’re actually not that far from one. If we figure out how to have an endless energy source and AI is able to make labor obsolete, then what do we do? Even royals are born into some kind of contract, some expectation on their time. What happens when that’s removed for all of us? Do populations dwindle? Do we become ascetic monks? Do we wither away? Is struggle necessary for the human mind to make sense of life? When you solve all the material problems, you’re left sort of alone with bigger ones to ponder. I guess it’s another project about isolation.
Raoul Marks’ original astronaut file can still be downloaded here.