How Indie Band Manchester Orchestra Brought Its Latest Album to Life by Blending Music and Immersive VR Art
The band just kicked off a world tour and will be performing new music from 'The Valley of Vision' for the first time.
Moments before my scheduled phone interview with Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull about the use of VR and 3D game engines to create videos to accompany the band’s latest album, I started to panic, realizing that I knew next to nothing about these platforms.
Hull started laughing and immediately reassured me: “Well, I’m probably going to be able to give you the most first-grade explanations I can, and the other two artists you’ll talk to will have far smarter things to say than me.”
Of course, that was not true, and the talented singer and songwriter proceeded to tell me how the creation of the two captivating videos for the latest album came about. The Valley of Vision (2023), the Atlantan band’s new project, is a mesmerizing and cathartic dive into themes surrounding grief and loss, and marks some of their most ambitious material to date.
And pushing boundaries is not exactly new for the band. It was just over a decade ago that they hired directing duo the Daniels for the groundbreaking video that accompanied their song “Simple Math.” The Daniels, the duo made up of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, most recently rocketed to worldwide fame with their Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once.
“I guess I knew as much as anyone else did,” about VR, said Hull. “I’ve been to a couple of studios where they had the headsets in the lounge area and you could, like, shoot aliens, and try not to get dizzy, while being immersed in this experience. The real main idea I had in connecting it to music was actually during the pandemic, to try to find a way that people could escape and focus in on something.”
At the time, Hull was at work on Manchester Orchestra’s 2021 album, The Million Masks of God.
“I thought it would be cool to have a visualizer that people could immerse themselves in while they’re listening. And I love film and movies,” he said. However, the idea was eventually shelved, with the group deciding, “let’s just put that back in the fridge for a minute and see if it comes up again.”
And it did come up again, especially after working with filmmaker Isaac Deitz, who created the well-received video to accompany the song “Telepath” from Million Masks. Hull said he admired the way Deitz “can take a small idea and really evolve it. He worked extremely hard on it, and created this heartbreaking two-and-a-half-minute video. It’s one of my favorite things we’ve ever done.”
Early on in the making of the current album, Hull told Deitz of his ongoing interest in having a film to accompany the music. “We were both fans of the Anima movie that Thom Yorke and Paul Thomas Anderson made together, and we thought it would be cool to storyboard something out. Just kind of like a big dream—who knows? Put it out and see if something happens.”
“I had an abstract film I had made with a heart in a block of ice,” Deitz told Artnet News in a phone interview. When he and Hull muted the film’s sound and played it alongside the first track on the album, “Capital Karma,” with a time lapse of the ice melting, it immediately clicked. “We both knew we were on to something,” said Deitz.
Hull said he kept coming back to the VR idea but that Deitz was skeptical since he typically adheres to classic filmmaking parameters and was something of a purist. Hull jokes that Deitz asked whether Oculus was paying or sponsoring Hull’s idea.
For his part, Deitz shared that he had already had a lot ideas in “2D” and worried the VR was something more akin to a “sponsorship or kind of gimmicky.”
But he relented and began to research, especially after Hull assured him it was not intended as a VR ad. Specifically, Deitz started learning more about VR180, an emerging video format that provides a higher quality, but less immersive alternative to 360-degree video.
As Hull and the band continued working on the album, Deitz embarked on his own physical journeys as well, venturing out to film a series of exotic, sometimes desolate and abandoned landscapes and incorporating them into the film.
“We didn’t really talk on the creative level too much,” says Deitz. “He just said ‘VR and abstract.’ As I was listening to the album over and over again, I just started feeling all these different themes and started exploring the idea of life and death.” Deitz was also experiencing his own loss at the time after the the death of a close friend and said the music helped with the process.
Said Hull: “It was all trial-and-error, just getting this footage back all and going, ‘oh man, not only does it work both ways but it’s also one of the more interesting looking things I’ve seen in 2D ever.’”
One of the big wins about the format of the film is that viewers don’t necessarily need VR headsets to experience the film, though Deitz notes that may change when the technology, namely VR headsets, eventually becomes cheaper.
He recounted the opportunity to watch the film with other viewers using the headsets and how it evoked strong emotions. In one segment, a bright red balloon inflates inside a wooden cage until the material is bulging far beyond the bars but somehow doesn’t burst—sparking comments from viewers about experiencing loss, or codependency, or holding back and being unable to express emotions. Often, by the end, he said, the headset was “soaking with tears.”
As a further extension of using technology to enhance the album, the band also enlisted director Campbell Logan to create a separate video for the track “The Way,” a song inspired by the battle that one of the band’s close family members lost to cancer. In the video, a hyper-realistic 3D character created in the Unreal Engine dances and swirls against a series of surreal backdrops.
“When I work on a music video, I like get a copy of the song to meditate on it, develop my own interpretation, check in with the musicians about my interpretation and then we spitball ideas,” Logan told Artnet News. “For ‘The Way,’ I listened to the song several times and a sentiment kept coming to mind: feeling grateful for grief. After figuring that out, I spoke to Andy about it and we agreed on following that idea as a driving force for the video.”
Logan said their first project was to create an animated teaser for the record announcement, and that the 3D character is based on model Stephanie Kim who is featured on the album cover.
“After it turned out looking as pretty as it did, we decided to make a music video based around the character. I took the imagery in my head and created an emotional jigsaw puzzle for me to put together. I took emotional cues and created an arc that conveyed the sentiment I derived from the song. I made virtual environment paintings and ran the character through them on a cathartic journey.”
“The collaboration was pretty fluid! I was inspired, shared that inspiration with Andy, we figured out what we could achieve with the time and budget, and I built it. It was cool for me to experiment with this medium for a genre of music that doesn’t often have videos that look like this,” they said. “I think the song and record are gorgeous and I aimed to mesh our styles into something novel. The whole thing was such a pleasure to work on.”
And the reactions from fans so far?
“It worked,” said Hull. “We didn’t want the film to take away from the music and we didn’t want the music to take away from the film. We didn’t want either to step on the other; they sort of do this dance that’s seemingly really keeping people engaged. I think its just a lesson every time… you can’t rush certain things.”
Manchester Orchestra is touring with Jimmy Eat World through the summer and performing music from The Valley of Vision live for the first time. Details on summer dates and tickets can be found here.
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