A Mind-Bending Remix of 1960s Americana by the Internet's Favorite Animator

Cyriak Harris, known for his twisted visual symphonies of cats, cows, and other creatures, takes on a classic film from the Prelinger Archive.

"I actually didn't know Cyriak beforehand -- he just downloaded this film and ran with it," Rick Prelinger says, describing the animator's latest music video for Bonobo, woven together from archival film scraps. "It starts out looking like a typical loopy remix and very quickly drops all inhibitions and shoots into hyperspace. Very cool."

Since 1983, the Prelinger Archive has collected and digitized over 60,000 "ephemeral films" and made them available online for free at Archive.org, including American Thrift, a 1962 celebration of consumerism and "tribtue to the American woman" from Chevrolet. Sliced and diced in Cyriak Harris's remix, innocuous suburban scenes -- women shopping, kids playing -- become a mesmerizing, nightmarish alternate universe. In past viral hits, Harris has transformed cats and cows and human body parts into pulsing, multi-legged monsters, running up over 90 million views on his YouTube channel. We just had to ask him how he does it, and he shares a little about his creative process in an interview below. 

 

American Thrift, Part I, via the Prelinger Archive

The Atlantic: How did you find American Thrift and decide to give it the Cyriak treatment?

Cyriak Harris: I regularly use the archive.org website to look for interesting stock footage and inspiration. In this case the whole film had such a classic dated look to it and an almost sinister consumerist ideology, I thought it would be great to use the whole thing and turn it into some kind of abstract machinery and see what kind of weird landscape it would produce.

Can you give us a sense of what the production process was like?

The first stage was going through the footage to isolate bits that would be interesting to use, and then bring them into After Effects to work them into repeating cycles, cutting elements out from the background and experimenting with collage. The whole video took about a month to make, but a lot of that time was spent just trying things out -- piecing things together to see what worked and what didn't, it's a very organic process and has very little in the way of forward planning.

Does dissecting archival footage like this require a different approach than, say, cats?

The main problem with any kind of footage is separating elements from the background, and with old footage like this it can be difficult with the low resolution and grainy film. Often the footage is shaky and needs to be stabilized, or the camera is moving. And of course you have to contend with whatever editing and framing the original filmmakers decided to use.

How insane are your After Effects comps? Are you the world's most organized animator? 

You have to be fairly well organized with this much complexity. These days I try not to have hundreds of layers when I can group them into pre-compositions, or even pre-rendered sequences, just to help control the massive amount of stuff going on. I once made a composite image of all the After Effects layers in a single scene from one of my older videos, you can see it here, though be prepared for a lot of scrolling.

Your videos, with their escalating, dizzying complexity, feel like a reflection (or culmination) of the Internet and digital culture in general. Boing Boing's Rob Beschizza said "Sometimes, I suspect that he is the Internet, trying to communicate with us in a language it thinks we understand." Are you the Internet? What are you trying to tell us?

The Internet is a strange place, and I've long given up trying to predict what the collective human consciousness will find popular. Somehow these images that I dredge up from my subconscious or grow in the test tubes of my animation laboratory seem to resonate with people -- I think the heart of it is that both me and the Internet get bored very quickly and always want to see things beyond our experience or imagination, which is what I try and do with my videos.

What's next for you?

I'm not entirely sure, but then I never think beyond what I'm having for dinner tonight -- when you spend a month making a few minutes of animation it helps your sanity to take things one day at a time.

For more work by Cyriak Harris, visit http://cyriak.co.uk/.

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

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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