GMUNK (Bradley G. Munkowitz) on the importance of personal design work
The Grit

GMUNK (Bradley G. Munkowitz) on the importance of personal design work

Matous RoskovecMatous Roskovec

Hello Bradley, thanks for taking the time. How would you introduce yourself to a person who is not in design?

My name is Bradley G. Munkowitz, and I am a director, designer, and an artist living in Berkeley, California. I work in a variety of media. I’ve done motion design, graphic design, UI/UX, experiential design, live action direction, photography, psychedelic design, installation work, robotics, projection mapping, LED, and a lot of other stuff. My ethos is always to stay diverse and collaborate with other artists and creatives to create interesting permutations whatever medium I’m dealing with.

I’ve never stayed in one place. It's always been an evolution. I guess I’m most famous for doing all the holograms in Tron Legacy (I actually spent a year and a half designing 12 minutes of holograms for the movie). I also made all the UI work in Oblivion, and the Windows 10 desktop wallpaper. Microsoft said it was the most successful image campaign they’ve ever had - even more than the rolling hills in the Windows XP which is kind of crazy to think about.

Windows 10 Hero Desktop image is one of the most widely recognized images in the world.

I’m just a creative who is curious and always pushing into new worlds. Professionally, I’m trying to great work to push the momentum, and ultimately to make enough money to buy sweet toys and more creative tools like camera gear, computers and printers to express myself even more.

Btw, what’s your primary camera?

I have a 35mm film camera which is my favorite, the Nikon F6 SLR. I have a modified full-spectrum camera in the Sony a7riii – and a medium format digital mirrorless monster the Fujifilm GFX50s – that camera is bionic to the max. I’m a triple brand kind of guy I guess; to me the photographer is much more important than the camera. The only brand loyalty I have is for shoes - I’m an Adidas faithful. Otherwise, I like all brands – the variety is soothing. Especially with furniture and lighting, I love Blue Dot, Modernica, Philippe Starck, Kartell and all the mid-century modern designers. Recently I fell in love with a Spanish furniture company "Treku" – such a fresh style it’s never-ending.

Why don’t we start with your artistic background early in your life? What were some of the first things you remember you created?

When I was really young, my older brother and I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, and we used to make up these elaborate characters and tell stories about their adventures and I used to illustrate books about them as well. And then we got into Star Frontiers and went Sci-Fi with the whole thing. We spent a lot of years with these role-playing games - all analog RPGs, not digital – just your imagination and some dice. During this time. I was always drawing and writing books about our adventures.

In my teenage years, I started with sculpture and ceramics. And then in college, I was a Super-8 and 16-millimeter filmmaker, and I started taking graphic design classes at Humboldt State University while also taking a ton of classes in the Fine Art department.

Then I started using After Effects and Flash to make interactive experiences – merging video, design and audio cues to create something interesting and fresh. I really enjoyed Flash because of its interactivity potential. I really enjoyed the “escape room” style - building levels and having to find your way out of these narratives that was using mixed media like design, animation, video, and interactive sound.

Once I was out of college I worked as a Flash animator / video editor at Vir2L and Heavy. At the time I was really bothered by the slow Internet so I wanted to make stuff for the television. I went into motion design for about 10 years. I worked at studios in L.A. and Australia. I worked under Kyle Cooper who was probably one of the biggest influences on my young career, and also spent a lot of time learning from Danny Yount at Prologue, and Matthew Cullen at Motion Theory. Watching these guys work has taught me a lot about directing and running a studio – and also about having a calm, collected approach to the challenges of production.

From there, I got into commercial directing repped by production companies like Transistor Studios and Tool of North America – I’m now repped by JOJX and the Mill+ while still doing experiential projects with Tool. But on the side I'm doing a ton of photography and always doing the personal work to keep me balanced and sane. For most of my projects, I collaborate with amazing production designers who do incredible work with robotics, all forms of light and material, and lastly set design.

There’s not really one thing, there’s not really five things – it’s kind of everything because I have partners in every medium. I can’t do any of that stuff myself – so it’s all thanks to these really talented people that let me do way more than I could do on my own. Around 50% of the work I do is either unpaid because it’s passion work or personal briefs. I do commercial projects to get the funds for my personal projects – I don't want to get roped into doing just client work because the artist in my will go crazy – it’s the personal work that makes me happy.

Recently I was talking at big design conferences (FITC in Toronto and OFFF in Barcelona) and my whole speech was about personal work – I literally talked for 70 minutes about personal work, there’s a lot to talk about.

As I get older - I'm 43 now - I think about what I can do that's interesting? I love 3D because it allows me to build a system and then you can watch that system grow and evolve before your eyes. I love photography because it forces me to get outside and to go on adventures. Some of the landscape stuff I do is a bit uncomfortable because I have to go out there in gnarly conditions and let the adrenaline creation drive me – also remembering where you were, remembering what you were thinking and then getting the picture back and reliving that moment. One of the best parts of the process of photography is then making the picture look exactly how you want it in the color grade – it’s just so meditational to grade your photos after a long adventure – it’s the closure. Actually, I could probably be a professional colorist at this point as I do a lot of color grading in Lightroom and have become a total ninja.

I think you always have to look at what you can and can’t do at your age – or at where your abilities are at and what you enjoy and not enjoy doing. There are so many people that I talk to that are all about the money and all about paid projects and won't work unless it’s paid. I am exactly the opposite. I work for passion. I work unpaid all the time, either for myself or just to do a solid for friends that leads to other wonderful things.

When I look at Twitter and there debates about "know your worth" and "business, business, business", that’s when I remind myself of the times when I learned Photoshop, Flash and After Effects on my own and I was just making stuff for myself and the passion as long as I remember. I probably made a thousand images before I got paid for any of them.

Do you remember your first big paid job and how you got it?

I used to do stuff in college for some of the departments - little flash animations and posters for the help desk in the computer lab. Then during the dot com boom in the early 2000’s people would hire me to make edgy little flash videos for their businesses to make them look cool. And I had a very Chris-Cunningham-kind-of-like-glitchy-fast-paced-cutty style that people liked because it was aggressive. So I did a lot of that style over and over under I wanted to tell more narratives and slowed things down a lot.

Your work is defined as a “hybrid of science fiction themes informed by a psychedelic visual palette”. Where does your passion for sci-fi and psychedelics come from? How do you define your signature and navigate between all the fields you’re in?

That's a good question. I think I'm a dreamer. I like the metaphysical. I like the abstract, I like dreaming about non-reality, the imaginary worlds and I think that stems from my childhood, to be honest. Everything was a fantasy. I just love wrapping the mundane into something interesting. That lends itself to science fiction, because science fiction, even though it's grounded in reality, is dreaming about the future. It’s all about technology and how humanity is going to evolve in these wonderful ways.

I am much more a Protopian person than a Dystopian person. Even though we all know we’re fucked and at some point it’s not going to end well, I would still prefer to be locked into a dream state imagining how we're going to survive and flourish. I wish that plastic was never created or that it was biodegradable fifty years ago. We would not have a lot of the problems we have today. All of these problems stem from business and commerce being focused on profits and greed rather than sustainability, especially in the US where I was raised.

In terms of psychedelics, I love confronting the subconscious. I love seeing a new reality in the frequencies of your vision and existence. I was very much into psilocybin and LSD in college. Then I took a break and got into party drugs for a while during my late 20s early 30s – and then heavily got back into the more powerful psychedelics around 2008. What I was seeing and feeling has formed a whole new vocabulary aesthetically – and I continue to study my inner being and what that means for my creative self.

Protopian worlds and psychedelics is kind of where I want to be. Right now I’m doing a big big big big passion project that will be out in April of next year (2020) - and it’s as GMUNK as it can be. It’s a beautiful hybrid of Psychedelic and Science Fiction mixed with ancient ritual and spiritual awakenings – uncovering the grand vision within. It’s going to be really interesting work – heavily based on narrative and deep emotional tropes.

Every piece that I do is never complete. You just know it's part of a larger story that has many chapters. I don't know where it all ends and what the conclusion is. But every piece has a goal to inspire another exploration. I don't do a lot of work that I love to be honest. I love doing the work but when I look at the final piece and step away for a few months – I'm usually kind of meh on it all and quickly list the 20 things I would have done differently, and that inspires me to keep learning and growing.

I think someday I will make something where I'm like "Okay, that's it - this couldn’t be better". But that's never happened – ever. Maybe it’s impossible.

How does your typical or favorite project look nowadays?

My favorite project would probably be a heavily-funded short film where I can take on any scale of production and have the resources to do so. Or an epic music video – properly funded and a killer track by some Warp Records artist. Or anything with a huge budget. Budgets are always the hindrance, right? Budgets are always the thing that you're fighting with to get your vision across. Sometimes you’ll get something with wide open creative but it will probably have a very low budget. And sometimes you'll get something that has a crazy big budget but you have to listen to the agency and is so micromanaged that it’s difficult to be creative sometimes. The industry is always changing and budgets are always changing. Sometimes I think I should start my own small studio like the awesome and get some larger contracts and reap the profits to build upon something amazing – to watch it grow. But then I would be dealing with the stress of running a studio and feeding all my employees and it’s too much weight on my shoulders – I just want to be creative and light – a free radical.

What I like about my setup right now is that I'm just a solo mission and my overhead is absolutely zero – and I have production support around me through my various reps in Europe and North America. If they come to me and say: we have a project for Audi, we’ll build a team around you, then I don't have to think about anything but the creative and directing the team - which is ideal. The team is always pretty solid because it’s always constructed from my inner circle – you always stick with your loved ones. For now, this ultimate freedom really works for me and I can work from anywhere. I don't have to manage anybody.

To check more infrared photography by Gmunk, go to Instagram and search for #inframunk.

Commercial work is difficult and its competitive as hell. To tackle that I’m trying to be involved in as many mediums as possible. Now there are five or six different industries that I'm pitching in - not just one. Of course, you can say that on the contrary maybe you're spreading yourself too thin and you're not focusing on one thing to become a master. But I think that it's better to have multiple executions, multiple industries to play in because it gives you a better chance of winning more work. I am growing all of these repertoires in parallel and it’s working out pretty well – plus I’m much more inspired by the variety.

I don't think there's any secret recipe. The only secret that I know is being Stefan Sagmeister, run a bazillion dollar studio in New York and find a person like Jessica Walsh to run it with you. Then you can just travel around the world first class and speak at length about ‘beauty’ and get paid bank. Or be a Spike Jonze where you're at such a level where you can just do anything you want and everyone will listen and honor every single idea you have. I guess my goal is to get to that level.

It’s very humbling once you start comparing yourself to the best because you realize how high the ceiling is. I think the basic goal for people is to make a living being a creative professional. But once you’ve done that - now what? Then you want to be good as those top tier killers. Realizing that I’ll never be as good as Spike Jonze, Christopher Nolan or Alex Garland keeps me humble – and I have an eternal unattainable goal that I will never reach - but it keeps me swimming fast and furious.

What is it like for you personally to work with big productions and what is it like to direct other creative people? What qualities do you have to have to direct?

Let me answer the second question first. I think in order to direct you need to understand empathy. You cannot have a big ego and be closed-off – you want your people to enjoy working with you – and for you. That requires a certain vibe. You've got to create a culture where people are excited by your message, direction, and input. You have to establish that vibe on set.

And then it’s about collaboration. It can't just be a one-man show. Collaboration is always a merging of talents – a fusion of sensibilities – it’s a beautiful thing.

One of the directors that I've worked with the most on big productions is Joseph Kosinski who directed Tron Legacy and Oblivion and I just worked with him on his new film Top Gun: Maverick. The best part of those experiences was just watching how methodical, intelligent, visionary, and well-prepared he was. How he had such a chill vibe - there were never any spikes in his attitude. He taught me a lot about preparation and delivery. When you talk to clients you talk slow, you are prepared, you have notes, you take your time. As a creative, it’s easy to get excited about things you’re passionate about, but you really have to slow it down and communicate clearly.

Kyle Cooper, one of my earliest mentors in motion design and title design, he was very dark in his aesthetic – his editorial was aggressive and tormented and that's why he did a ton of scary movies. And yet he’s very calm in his attitude and approach – a total gentleman and a bit of a genius to be honest. Watching how his really chill exterior feeds into this tumultuous output was also very interesting. I’m just trying to learn from these mentors and take the qualities I can that informs my approach.

Especially at the beginning of the project, you have to believe in your team and in the concept itself. At the early stage everything looks rough and brutal and your job is to believe in it. You have to now that it takes plenty of time and patience. That’s one of the things you need when directing teams – patience and resolve.

When we were working on Tron, watching how the VFX pipeline at Digital Domain worked was incredibly inspiring. I came from motion design and getting into VFX pipeline and learning how everything had to be photographic and look like it’s shot through a camera really influenced my motion design work. That experience was probably the most influential up until we made Box at Bot & Dolly. Box was a huge inspiration because it took things out off the flat screen and brought them into the physical space – we created illusions that people could touch in the physical realm, an immersive experience that had all the design at its foundation.

The Windows 10 project was a big learning as well. We asked ourselves how do we make this timeless logo that is going to stand the test of time and never date? The answer was - you do it in camera - you make it for real. If it’s real, it will never date. That’s why so many people are shooting practical and analog again. I’ve been shooting on 35mm color film and I’m loving its look and feel. It feels way more real than shooting on my medium format camera which has a giant sensor with 51 megapixels. It’s like a bionic camera that captures so much detail that it feels like a hyper-detailed study or something you’d see in Blade Runner. Whereas when I take a photo with an analog camera the photo has a soul – a texture and patina that just feels warm.

I read you enjoy learning very much. How do you keep your work ethic so strong?

Learning is literally everything to me. Learning is the spark, learning is the animus. For example, in terms of animation software, I don’t work with Houdini but I work with Maya. I learned it about 15 years ago when I was super passionate about animation. I think 3D programs are more accessible than ever because of YouTube and training programs like, Learn Squared, Greyscale Gorilla, Video Copilot etc. When I was learning all of this, it was just books. I learned Photoshop by reading the Peachpit Press Adobe Photoshop book cover to cover. Same with Flash and After Effects. Now you can just watch videos - so that’s how I’m learning the new stuff – hours of youtube. I've learned so much about photography and lighting and studio strobes and cinematography and filmmaking from my various channels and subscriptions – it’s an inspiring time to learn because everything is so accessible.

We all think that projection and displays are going to be volumetric very soon, so I think people understanding how information can exist in a 3D space is really helpful to understand augmented reality for instance (which is information in a 3D space). UI is soon going to be in a 3D space through projection, maybe there will be products in the future that project out a mist layer – and that mist becomes a canvas for projected 3D volumes that is picked up by a specific wavelength of light. All this stuff is all coming. I live in San Francisco which is the hub of the new tech and you go to any of these trade shows and people are doing crazy shit like having a pendant lamp on the ceiling with a small projector built inside, and it bounces this projected light off a mirror and travels across the room to your tabletop and all of a sudden you have a map on your kitchen table. It's fun times.

If you want to get into UI and UX work you have to master the graphic design component (typography, grid work, layout, hierarchy, contrast). All of these principles are vital but then how does that exist in the 3D space? Because UI isn’t only intended for the screen anymore. A good example of that is from Science Fiction films like Minority Report or Ender's Game – where you're dealing with information in a space, or Her by Spike Jonze which is a great example of what our video games are going to become.

This is why I love science fiction because it makes us excited about the future and our interaction models. It's almost the same feeling as learning, because this dreaming about new models is essentially understanding how technology can improve our lives – and that’s a good feeling.

You have done some pretty impressive stuff with robots and machinery. How did you learn to work with such tech?

I learned most of it on the spot through collaboration with a company Bot & Dolly and then VT Pro Design. It would appear from my portfolio that I'm super technical, but I’m really not so much. I just collaborate with friends who are like ultra encyclopedia - they know just know every little nook and cranny of every bit of tech and SO many parameters of robotics. I'm more on the creative side of life - asking what can we do with these machines to tell a story, to evoke a feeling, to create a spectacle. Telestron was a good example - a sculptural piece using volumetric light and geometry and Gobos, which is essentially breaking up the light sources to create interesting shadows and volumetric projections.

The crossover for me is always film - how do we take these amazing machines and the resulting sculpture and put it into a film format for people to consume. And then when you see it in real life it's 20 times more impressive because you feel the scale and geometric impact much more than when it's a film format. You need to have all the other principles of filmmaking (like humanity, character, narrative, and music) to create that feeling, but if you're actually there it becomes real rather than a simulation on a screen and it kicks you in the face.

What do you think our future will look like? What are you afraid of and what do you wish for? How can you impact the future as a designer?

I'm a little concerned about the future. To be honest I think there are too many people. There's too much waste. The Earth is responding to that in negative ways. There's gonna have to be some seismic shifts in order for us to survive. I think our grandchildren and even our children are going to have to deal with some serious shit.

From a creative standpoint, I think communication is going to change a lot. Right now, you're in Prague, I'm in Berkeley and we're chatting, we're seeing each other, we're able to understand our reactions and our feelings. That wasn’t really possible 10,15 years ago. Now fast forward 50 years from now, I think it won’t matter where you are because all of a sudden there will be volumetric projections.

Once you start getting things off the flat rectangular screen into space, everything changes. Everything. Just look at how doctors are going into VR and performing surgeries. We also might have machines in our bodies - like Ray Kurzweil style, although I probably wouldn’t do that. I think technology is going to be more tightly integrated into our daily lives, and people love that already. Just look at what Apple released at the last WWDC - the new Mac Pro is like the top of the line and costs around forty thousand dollars. In 10, 15 years from now this is going to be our entry level computer. A twenty eight core one terabyte of RAM machine that's gonna be like a cheap, entry level plastic computer. And more advanced computers will allow us to run crazy advanced simulations and calculations.

Artificial intelligence is improving fast. I just saw some of the deep fake stuff with Mark Zuckerberg. This thing is going to change the truth - what we believe is true. Imagine all of a sudden, our president would be on a video saying something he didn’t say, and yet it would look 100% perfect. It’s crazy, and it’s super-coming.

Another thing is hacking - people are gonna hack our computers and all of a sudden there's going to be videos of us agreeing to a thing that we didn't agree to it. That is all driven by money and greed. The more there's this disparity of wealth going forward the more crime is going to be committed the more theft the more you know people are gonna try to hack and manipulate and cheat the system.

We're lucky we're in this field and we can keep up at least a little bit. I'm 43 but I feel like I have the knowledge of an 18-year-old because I do this every day and I'm watching trends. I'm collaborating with people that are much younger and much more into certain industries. Luckily, I'm not going to be one of those gram grandpas that's like behind it doesn't understand how to use an iPhone. We're all gonna be kind of you know at that cutting edge. But then what does a 10-year-old know that we don't? It's a really interesting time to be alive.

All that matters for me is just finding a practice that makes me happy. If you try your best to be a good person, you can at least influence all the stuff I talked about in a positive way. By influence, I don’t necessarily mean in the "Instagram-sense". The only thing you can do is love your friends, love your family, love your significant other, and find the things that make you happy. For me, that's learning, being diverse, trying new things, and expressing what I really care about which is science fiction that psychedelics world.

The psychedelic world is hyper-interesting to me because it’s a reality full of tenderness and humor and beauty and vibration. People say it's not real… but what if it was real? What if it's just a different frequency? What if it's just a different frequency that you can't see unless your mind is tuned into it?

How do you draw the line between personal and commercial work?

Client work is just not yours, and you don't necessarily have the final say on it. That can be heartbreaking. You just have to understand that at the end of the day, it’s not yours. You have to know that you just have to collaborate and make sure that your client is happy. It's their project. They're paying for it.

That's why I do personal work, which is mine, and it’s pure sensibility. I do collaborate on personal work with other people but it's never polluted, it’s just influenced by your sensibilities and whomever you decide to collaborate with.

The trick with personal work is that it has to be within the scope where it's not so big otherwise it's a challenge of resources and funding. And so with my personal work it kind of goes in a variety of directions – it's either print design which doesn't really require too much resources outside of myself, photography which requires a camera and some plane tickets but not huge productions like live-action shoots. A lot of my personal work these days are small productions unless someone is funding it, then it becomes fine art. Fine Art is funded personal work and it’s funded because art collectors and buyers are buying it. You take that money to fund more of that kind of work or new exploration. To get into that world is the dream, but it’s very hard - there's only so much art that people will buy and there's only so much money in the world that people are willing to spend on art. It's a huge stroke of luck and fortitude if you can find buyers for your fine art – a total blessing and #winning the game.

I also enjoy music videos because they’re art films entirely based around the music. Usually, you’re working with another artist, with a low budget, and in a very competitive pitch pool. It's very challenging, so I only pick songs that I really like and artists that I respect. I've only done three or four music videos so far and they're basically just all my favorite artists like Tycho and Eric Prydz. I also made a video for CamelPhat – who was a new artist to me that I'd never heard of, but I really liked the track so we had fun with it.

You have to do work that is purely you and make the subject matter that is purely your vibe. People will look at a piece of my work and they'll say that's so GMUNK. And that goes all the way back to my Flash video work, where people would instantly recognize the particular energy to it, that was uninfluenced by anybody else. My work is recognizable not necessarily the aesthetic style or the look, or the execution, it’s more the energy behind it.

If I could be completely funded and just do personal projects I would make fine art - full time. I would make whatever the hell I want and have exhibitions and shows and that work would be mixed media. Me and my fiancée have a constant debate about if we were billionaires would it be good or bad for us. And I'm always saying it would be very very good for us. She's all: No, we would change, it’s good to feed into the struggle and hustle. I think if we were billionaires, we would give most of it away and we would just fund personal projects for the rest of our life and never get bored and have incredible furniture. So that's what I would do - fund art projects and do a lot of charitable work as well to help the charities that I love.

You’ve been in this business since 1998. What have you learned about work-life balance?

That's a great question. I went to a school in northern California, in the Redwood forest called Humboldt State University - it’s about five-six hours north of San Francisco. I had seven or eight vegan roommates who beat the importance of veganism into me. So I became a vegan and been a vegan for almost 20 years. When you're a vegan, eating is not a privilege anymore. It's more of like optimization or a fuel thing. You study all these different energy sources and you keep your system very clean.

In addition to that, I got into exercise. Exercise is something that really affects my happiness and well-being. I've been very resolute about exercising like running, lifting weights, yoga, pilates, or stretching - and I’m very disciplined about it – only when I’m traveling I can get a bit out of sync. It’s all about developing a healthy lifestyle. If you’re sitting down, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and staring at a light box for 10, 11 hours a day and repeating that over and over, it will not end well. You have to fight against that.

I would advise all kids at school to develop healthy habits - fueling your body is actually fueling your creativity. Creativity is an energy - the more energy you have the more you’re going to do. It’s so important! I can't understate that because without that energy source you won't be successful and you will not have the stamina to really succeed in the creative field.

And one last question. What is #inframunk?

#inframunk is infrared GMUNK. #psymunk is psychedelic GMUNK. #skymunk is GMUNK in the sky. #filmmunk is GMUNK on film. I love the hashtags on Instagram, I love to be able to sort through these different practices and luckily these hashtags are unique. It also keeps me focused on ‘seasons’ of diversity – for example, #psymunk is going to get a lot of love the second half of this year. I’m going to be using new techniques in Maya and make ultra-detailed, sculptural pieces using projection mapping and 3D printing. It’s going to be a completely new wave of work and I can’t wait to dig in.

The Munky King - Made in August 2017

Want to stay in touch with GMUNK? Check his website (there are all of his projects to date in the WORK section) and follow him on Behance and Instagram.

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