From Spear Hunting to Space Travel: A Music Video About Evolution

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Scott Benson's animated music video for Rendezvous's head-bobbing track "The Murf" packs the entire evolution of our little species into three and a half minutes. From our first attempts at crushing each other with rocks to future intergalactic exploration, it's a gorgeous meditation on who we are and where we're going.

After the band came to him with the song, Benson worked solo for six weeks to create the video. He talks about his inspiration and creative process in an interview below, where you can also see some of his initial sketches side by side with the final images. Each frame is so rich with detail that one misses watching the fast-paced video, it's worth browsing through the stills at a slower pace. 

The Atlantic: How did choose the evolution of human civilization as a theme for a music video?

Scott Benson: The Murf was initially going to be about time, contrasting the ascent of relatively short-lived humans with celestial bodies that appear to be unchanging to the casual observer. But it wasn't until I began working on it in earnest that it began to take on a life of its own. Over the preceding couple of years I had gone through some rather large shifts in my lifelong belief system. This video ended up being partly about me recalibrating my view of mankind and the universe. I think I needed to work out what I thought of our history and possible future, and also try to make some sort of positive statement about it. By the time I was deep into the video, I realized that it had become something different than I had intended, but at the same time something that I very much needed to make.

Are there pros and cons to working on a project like this independently, with so much creative freedom? What was your creative process like?

The creative freedom was, for the briefest of moments, exciting. Then it almost immediately became terrifying. I do a great many self-initiated projects, so I'm no stranger to making things without direction. But this was going to be for a client with a very intimate connection with the project. It was their music, and what I made was going to represent and interpret it for possibly millions of people. I didn't want to let them down and at the same time wanted to make such an opportunity count. After a couple of weeks, once I had the concepts and style nailed down and had knocked out a few seconds of animation, it stopped being scary and started being exhilarating. Having so much freedom to try new things and develop was a priceless experience. I'm a far more confident artist than I was when I began (though I still secretly panic a little at the beginning of any project).

My process, in short: I jot down ideas until I get some visuals in my head. After that I do a full-color mockup of the look I'm going for. I do some very quick storyboards and then just go for it. I usually try to pick a sequence I think will be emblematic of the look and feel of the piece and complete it first. Once that is done I have a great deal of the DNA of the whole project, and I can go from there. For this video there were two such sequences that I did first – the wheel-rolling scene from early on and the computer guys scene from later.

Your images are intricate and layered, and saturated with color, but your original story boards are very basic. How does the process of turning the latter into the former work? 

The sketches are so simple and sketchy because they're just shorthand for something more complex in my head. On a project like this, which didn't have a client that needed detailed boards, I can get away with that. I mainly need to see if the composition works, if all of the main shapes work together. Sometimes it's just a visual idea I find interesting and don't want to forget. Then I'll go and create the actual shot in the software. I generally have the final product in my head already and can just bang it out, with some messing around with details. I tend to go into projects with a pretty locked color palette and that makes the final shots much easier to complete. The boards help me work out the basic shapes, the positive and negative space and so forth. From there it's just a question of getting it out of my head and onto the screen.

In an age when people often fear how technology is changing society, your message is essentially optimistic: technology will save us. What convinced you? 

One of the points I was trying to make in this video is that technology is a naturally occurring result of intelligent life, which is a naturally occurring aspect of our planet, which in turn is a naturally occurring part of our universe. Visually I might have done it by making all of the technology look organic, but I decided to go the other route and make the whole universe a place of sharp angles and too-perfect curves, with square highlights and the hint of pixels. I'll be the first to condemn usage of technology that is unwise or unethical. There are some awful ideas out there and some equally awful implements of destruction and control that we would be wise to reconsider. But this out and out fear of technology you see is in large part, I think, symptomatic of a greater pessimism that many people have regarding humanity combined with a rather patronizing view of the natural world.

I received emails when this video was released from people who didn't like that it showed humanity working together to survive an apocalypse that we didn't bring about. The idea that we can survive, that we can progress is almost offensive to some people. I can think of many reasons why people are down on our species, but I can't for the life of me understand not rooting for us to become better, wiser, and more capable of working and living together. That doesn't work if people just sit there, throw up their hands and declare that we are some sort of malevolent virus, all the while picturing the rest of the natural world operating something like the opening of The Lion King. The harmony of the natural world isn't just beautiful sunsets and dolphins. It's also parasites, diseases, and animals constantly living under great duress, running for their lives only to be devoured by something bigger. It's a comet wiping out species that took millions of years to evolve against unfathomable odds. It's not just my affectionate cat. It's my cat playing with a terrified mouse that wandered into our kitchen because it was desperate for food. It just is what it is, and we can find great wonder, joy and wisdom in it without insisting it's an Eden from which we deserve to be cast.

I don't know that technology will “save us” exactly, but I do think that any chance we have of surviving is based on our ability to learn, to reason and to work together. Technology is just a visible part of that. Rest assured, if a comet was heading this way it would be scientists leading the way in dealing with it, and they would deal with it using technology. That gives me a little swell of pride and hope. Of course we will always have massive problems, many of which we cause ourselves. But our history is one of slowly becoming more empathetic, gradually recognizing the rights of more and more members of our species, along with an equally gradual recognition of our responsibility to the other organisms on our planet. At the same time, we are always inventing new ways to accomplish those things. That is reason to be optimistic, and to pick up your tools and start helping.

If we knew a comet would hit the earth tomorrow, how would you spend today?

I don't think I'd be able to come up with a satisfactory way to spend that last day. Realistically, I'd spend most of the day trying to figure out what to do. No matter what I chose, I'd be thinking about all of the other places and people to see before it's all over. Ideally, I would probably travel out to someplace lovely and elevated with my wife, my cat and whatever friends would want to come along. There we would listen to and play music, eat and drink, and enjoy each other’s company. Maybe we'd read snippets of favorite writings, sing favorite songs, and recount the things we have loved about living in the world. We'd watch the comet enter the atmosphere and hopefully meet the end of our species with some degree of equanimity.

What’s next for you? 

I'm working on a new animated short called Potential. It will be out sometime in the coming months. I'm also working with some other artists and animators on a secret independent project further exploring ideas about progress and optimism. Beyond that, I'm a freelancer and am always on the lookout for new projects, so people should feel free to contact me. People can follow what I'm up to from the links at my site, Bombsfall.com. I also plan to carve a pumpkin in the next week or so. Off the top of my head, I think that's all I'm up to at the moment.

For more videos by Scott Benson, visit http://bombsfall.com/.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg's work in media spans documentary television, advertising, and print. As a producer in the Viewer Created Content division of Al Gore's Current TV, she acquired and produced short documentaries by independent filmmakers around the world. Post-Current, she worked as a producer and strategist at Urgent Content, developing consumer-created and branded nonfiction campaigns for clients including Cisco, Ford, and GOOD Magazine. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University, where she was co-creator and editor in chief of H BOMB Magazine.

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