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'Dashboard': Charting the High Seas With Motion Theory and Modest Mouse

Steven J. Gottlieb provides an exclusive look at Motion Theory's vfx work for Modest Mouse's brand-new music video, Dashboard.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in you can view a clip from Motion Theory's work on Modest Mouse's Dashboard.


Motion Theory created a nautical world for Modest Mouse's new video for Dashboard. The studio's work stays dedicated to the narrative instead of relying on showy effects. All images © Sony BMG/Epic Records. Courtesy of Motion Theory.

Every old seafarer has a fish story. It's usually a heroic tale about an encounter with a great fish or mythical sea creature that's hard to believe, yet impossible to disprove. Examples abound, from literature's famous archetype of the murderous whale in Moby Dick, to the absolutely real, yet rarely documented leviathan Architeuthis (aka the Giant Squid). Oftentimes, the sole evidence to back up the tall tale is a missing limb. Imagine meeting a pirate with a peg leg in a bar. Ask him what happened and, chances are, you're in for a fish story.

Singer/guitarist Isaac Brock of the hit alternative rock band Modest Mouse has always leaned heavily on the imagery of the sea -- most obviously seen in the title of the band's new album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank -- especially as it relates to those old timers who trolled the oceans in search of and/or escape from Lord knows what. So, it's no surprise that the brief for the album's first video, Dashboard, called for the inclusion of a fishing boat and a nautical theme. It's also no surprise that the brain trust at Motion Theory decided to take that simple request and concoct a full-blown fish story to serve as the video's narrative. What might surprise you, however, is that Motion Theory -- a studio best known for mind blowing vfx work -- never flex their technical might in a way that overshadows the narrative. In a way, you could call this video a fish story in and of itself, because that's how rare it is to find a video this technologically advanced that stays dedicated to the narrative instead of just relying on showy effects to captivate the audience.

Setting Sail

Many music videos that incorporate visual effects can be accurately described with the name of an animal, but it ain't a fish. It's ponies, as in the one trick variety. Effects are often the highlight of a music video, forcing everything else -- the narrative and the performance -- to play subservient roles. That's the inverse to how Motion Theory works. In a recent interview at the company's LA headquarters, Motion Theory principal Mathew Cullen -- who co-directed Dashboard with fellow company director Grady Hall -- broke down their philosophy as it relates to both Dashboard and videos in general. He says, "I like to think this particular place is all about making sure the technology and effects support the concept. Everything that we did in this particular video was about supporting the overall vision and making sure that what we do is mostly invisible."

The video begins with the introduction of Brock in character as a salty old seaman at a decrepit bar, sharing a tale about a run-in with a musical sea creature in the Sargasso Sea that either ruined or defined his life. The main piece of physical evidence he has is a missing hand, replaced not with a hook, but a microphone. So, it's mostly up to Brock's colorful descriptions to convince his doubting audience of even older sea dogs that his story isn't, well, fishy. That simple framework allows Motion Theory to juxtapose Brock's feverish pantomimes with wild, CG renditions of the tale he's telling. "This video was about the contrast from him telling the story in a simple fisherman's pub -- where there are no visual effects, really -- to this amazing fish story in his mind," adds Cullen. "We're getting this view into his imagination and I loved that we could go back and forth from between the two. We see him telling the story through simple charades and then the effects show how big an imagination can be."


Catching the Big Fish

The literal fish that appears in this video is an entirely animated creature that, according to visual effects supervisor Nick Losq, was their most involved effect. As Brock's primary adversary, the Motion Theory team wanted to make sure it seemed real. "It was really complex developing a rig that mimicked the natural movement of a fish," suggests Losq. "One of the technical hurdles of the fish was creating the interaction with the CG water. We used RealFlow for that particle simulation."

More important than that fish, however, is the metaphorical one that swims throughout this entire project. Every artist or genius has an obsession. Ahab had the whale. Motion Theory has an attention to detail and, as you may have guessed, the leader of Modest Mouse is absolutely consumed by music. The big fish that haunts Brock in this tale is literally a fish, but it's really a symbol for music. The fish has silver speaker cones in place of scales. When Brock gets pulled into the water, he winds up in a world of discarded, analog audio equipment where massive piles of horns, and flowers made of rolled-up piano keys are just some of the elements. Music is literally part of everything in this world, and the creation of the speakerfish is an idea Cullen credits to the influence of his friend, David Ellis, an artist known for mixing antiquated analog equipment in his work -- much like Brock does. This video isn't about a musician who likes to fish, after all. It's about facing the fear of obsolescence and the danger of falling prey to your obsessions.

Motion Theory's obsession is to detail, but they are quite deft at never letting that overtake them fully. While the effects are all impressive, they always serve the story -- a fact that is borne out by watching the rough cut of the video, which holds its own without any of the fancy bells and whistles. Also, the effects are a mix of high-and low-tech, with the simplest seeming ones often being the most complex. The broken musical appliance world is comprised of actual wires and instruments, all of which were photographed, scanned and manipulated to form that ragged terrain. The insanely detailed temples that dot the landscape took three weeks to create. Digital cobwebs that criss-cross through the air seem minor, except Motion Theory couldn't get them to look exactly as they liked. So, they started from scratch. Cullen says, "We programmed them with our own proprietary technology in order to get the dynamic movement we wanted, where it would react to the movement. It's the kind of thing we couldn't do with traditional programs." And on the low-tech side, some of the effects were done using some of the most old-fashioned, practical tricks in the book. The clouds in the sky, for example, are nothing more than food coloring, dust particles and other objects floating in a tank of water.

The Tackle Box

Cullen calls Motion Theory a micro studio. Besides the directors like Cullen and Hall, there's also the effects people, the 3D animators, the Flame department etc. All of these related divisions work together and in subservience to the overall idea of the piece. Cullen says, "The company has two distinctive parts, really. Number one is concept development. The other is the visual effects, animation and technology side. Staying up to date and making sure we're ahead of the curve is important, but in this, if not all cases, it's concept first." In other words, the technologies and effects don't decide the work they create. Rather, the work they intend to create decides which effects they'll use. And as a micro studio, where nearly every aspect of production is under one roof, Motion Theory is able to deliver videos such as Dashboard, which are truly on another level in terms of execution and ambition over what is most commonly considered to be a music video. "Because we have so many disciplines here and so many great people, we're able to pull off this stuff," adds Cullen. "The creative process isn't about just one person, it's about the team."

Steven J Gottlieb is the founder and main editor of, the leading music video news resource. He was formerly the senior editor of the well-respected music video trade magazine, CVC Report.

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