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The Art and Science of Joseph Kosinski

COW Blogs : Is this thing on? Oh it's on. : The Art and Science of Joseph Kosinski
I noted in my entry on the Tron sequel that a speedy look at Joseph Kosinski’s IMDb profile reveals virtually nothing -- not even his birthday. I’m amazed that nobody has gotten around to it yet, but he doesn’t even have an entry at Wikipedia.

(I wonder if it's related to the absence of an entry on the Tron sequel. Probably. The only power in the universe I can think of that's more powerful than the masses converging on Wikipedia is Disney.)

And so we ask,

who is this man, and why is he directing the sequel to Tron?

I first discovered him a year before any mention of him helming the Tron sequel, the same way that millions of other folks did: I saw this AMAZING commercial for the Xbox 360 videogame, “Gears of War.” On top of footage of horrific battles and a massive, terrifying monster, he lays a haunted, heartbreaking version of “Mad World.” It makes for an unsettling mix of violence, sorrow, humility, fear, and overwhelming mortality.

Hit the HQ button. Set it to full screen. Turn it up.

Here’s Kosinski talking about his work on the spot, which, remarkably enough, started with the song.

That version of “Mad World” is by Gary Jules, and was first heard by most of us in the remarkable “Donnie Darko.”

"Donnie Darko" was enough to propel the song to #3 in the UK in 2003, but its presence in the Gears of War commercial drove it to #1 at iTunes in 2006.

If you like that, you should also check out the full-length version. It lacks the blunt-force trauma of the shorter version, but it gives you a stronger sense of Kosinki’s cinematic vision. Again, click the HQ button. Watch full screen. Turn it up.

What I did IMMEDIATELY after seeing that first clip was to find out as much as I could about it. I quickly found the director’s website, It turns out that he’s directed quite a few very, very high-impact spots over the years – even if, to be honest, I still haven’t seen most of them outside his website.

The website is in Flash, so links beyond that one are a no-go. The site is also a little old, I think – the clips are small-ish, and dog slow. It’s still worth poking around – lots of great info about the spots, including credits...but watch the spots here before you visit.

One of his commercials is among my recent favorites: “Lincoln Effect,” and it includes the great tagline, “Starships Don’t Need Keys.”

Since we’re talking about directing “Tron 2.0,” I want to draw your attention to “Apple, iSPEC,” a short film that, according to the credits, “postulates the evolution of the personal media device and experience, placing the viewer within a digital recreation of the Colorado Lounge from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining.’”

Sound freaky? Well, it is. It also evokes a postulatory (I guess) evolution of the world of Tron, from one oriented around the dark, to one oriented around light. Regardless, the camera moves through the opening scenes, including a very interesting new software UI, exactly as you might imagine it moving through a Tron sequel.

That one was all CG, and frankly looks it. Not in a bad way, but for all that it offers a strongly personal camera perspective, there are clearly no people in this environment. It’s truly gorgeous, though, and I’m not shocked that it won the Autodesk iDesign Award.

I learned that from a brief bio formerly posted at the site for his (former?) company KDLAB. The site’s just a landing page now, pointing you elsewhere, but I found the bio floating around, apparently untethered.

Also jumping out at me from his bio: graduating from “Stanford University with a BS in Mechanical Engineering in 1996 and from Columbia University with a Masters of Architecture in 1999. Since then, he has taught Advanced Digital Design at Columbia and serves on the beta board for Discreet in the development of their next-generation design software.”

Let’s add this up: engineering, plus advanced design, plus next-gen software development, equals TRON, baby!

To really, really see this pay off, check out “Nike, LesJumelles.” That’s French for “The Twins.” Watch it first, and then we’ll talk.

A profile at Autodesk’s website talks with Kosinski about using an alpha version of 3D Studio Max and some other Autodesk tools to put it together.

He offers a slightly more artistic take at Archinect, where he discusses the "twin" motif. Here’s the money quote:

“I did some investigation into the relationship between speed and energy and rediscovered Einstein's concept of “Time Dilation” - something which had always seemed fascinating to me. Basically, it states that as you approach the speed of light, time seems to slow down for you, and speed up for everything else that isn't moving.”

Man, oh, man, I cannot WAIT for this movie! After reading that, and seeing those, even if I’d never heard Tron, I’d want to see a full-length version of whatever this cat is up to.

That first Gears of War I saw came soon after “LesJumelles,” when Kosinski had moved to Venice, CA’s "Anonymous Content"...after being recruited by one David Leo Fincher, who is credited as “Creative Consultant” on "Gears of War, Mad World.”

A last note about college degrees in mechanical engineering and architecture, and work in the world of software design: it’s not all that many steps from building devices, to building buildings, to building a world. Because whatever else is true about the world inside the game of Tron, it reflects the strong mechanical and engineering design of a software/hardware mind. It’s not enough for the world inside Tron to be beautiful. It has to visually make SENSE.

I’m going to end this post where it began, with the original version of “Gears of War, Mad World.” This clip opens with that, followed by “making of” footage from Digital Domain, with block renderings and motion capture footage intercut with the final version. Like many of the best magic tricks, it becomes even more impressive once you see how it’s done. You’ll see the technology, but you’ll also see how Kosinski and his team turn it into art.

Kosinski is our boy, all right.

Bonus clips:

It turns out that our boy is quite at home with sequels. I showed his sequel to Gears of War, above. Here’s the third sequel. You know the drill: HQ. Full screen. Turn it up.

And here’s his sequel to “Les Jumelles.”

Here's a 2005 montage of his work. Most of my favorite bits are in the “Les Jumelles” and “iSPEC” pieces, but check the intro: very, VERY Tron.

And a special bonus digression on commercial directors who, like Fincher, transitioned to features. Here are a few off the top of my head:

Errol Morris (The Fog of War), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Tony Scott (Top Gun, and more others than you remember), Mark Romanek (24 Hour Photo), Tony Kaye (American History X), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and Ridley Scott (take your pick).

(Who am I leaving out? Let me know in the comments.)

I should also note that some of these guys have done some of the best music videos of all time. Romanek: “Constant Craving,” "Are You Gonna Go My Way," “Closer,” and one of the all-time greats, Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt." (I wrote about it here.)

Fincher’s videos are so off the hook that, as with Kosinski, I looked him up the first time he caught my, with Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” another on my short list for best ever.

Check it full screen, and loud. Some obvious nods to “Metropolis,” only with crotch grabbing. “Rated M, for Mature” – no kidding -- but a real joy to watch again. Throw in “Vogue,” “Forever Your Girl,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” "End of the Innocence," and “Cradle of Love" off the top of my head.

Anyway, I like commercials. I like music videos. I like movies. Storytelling is storytelling.

Which brings us back to Kosinski and the Tron sequel. I have no idea if the guy liked the first Tron, or even if he saw it at the time. (I'm guessing he was around 8 when it came out.) But as I look at his work again, I can’t imagine anybody better equipped to direct the second one.


Re: The Art and Science of Joseph Kosinski
by Olesja Selivanova
Very good post! I have to absolutely agree with you, nobody could have been better equipped to direct the movie. I am 2 years late with my comment here, but I just read your post, after seeing the movie and googling some information about Joseph Kosinski. It is so great that a movie director has background in architecture and such appretiation for design, thus, so much attention was given to creation of Tron world in this movie. I was particularly impressed with the interion design of Kevin Flynn's apartment and interior in Les Jumelles.
An earlier observation from Slashfilm
by Tim Wilson
Someone brought to my attention that /film offered a 2007 post about Kosinski when he was announced as the director for Logan's Run, entitled "Who is Joseph Kosinski?" As valuable as the information I found there for my entry on the Tron sequel, I hadn't thought of looking at /film for information about Kosinski's work, because I'd already been following him for a year at that point, including watching all of the videos posted at, finding the long version of the Mad World promo for Xbox, etc. before Kosinki had been linked to either picture.

The title of /film's post was "Who is Joseph Kosinski," a question I pose in my own post. After reading my entry, I think you can see that the question is still valid three years later, without having seen /film on the subject. It took me a long, long time to find what I did over the years, and it's still not much.

I was intrigued by the different commercials that the post's author, Peter Sciretta, made to illustrate Kosinkski's visual skills in the context of Logan's Run. This one in particular really jumped out at me.

It reminds me a little of the more lyrical passages at the beginning of "The Island," the 2005 futuristic action thriller directed by Michael Bay, starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johannson. It's relatively subdued for Bay -- the trailer skews the mix far away from the "inside the dome," Logan's-esque aspect of the picture that I think of as the main part, and ramps up the action, fair enough, but actually *underplays* how cool the action sequences are:

In any case, definitely check out Peter's blog entry at /film, for a very nice selection of Joseph Kosinski's commercials that's quite different from mine, and which underscore my belief that there's nobody today working with a more compelling mix of CG and live action. As I have since 2006, I'm keeping an eye on everything he does. I think you should too.

And of course a mention again that /film is an outstanding site for those who love movies and enjoy watching their evolution from idea to execution. For example, check yesterday's piece on a Who Framed Roger Rabbit sequel!! Easy to see why Time Magazine named /film one of the 2009's best blogs by anyone, in among some of the biggest publishers on the web.

A speedy program note about the assistant director of Roger Rabbit: the COW's own David McGiffert. He wrote wrote an article for us a while back, about his work going back to the 70s, for some of the great directors of our time, including Roger Rabbit's Robert Zemeckis, for whom David also worked all three Back to the Future pics, Sydney Pollack on a couple of pictures including Tootsie, and Barry Levinson on Rain Man, where David also served as associate producer. (Actually, David was hired by Pollack when Pollack was set to direct Rain Man....but that's another story.) You'll find David regularly posting in The COW's FCP forum, as he's now producing his own indie features.

Ah, to have an attention span...


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