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James Frost's Landscapes

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"I studied landscape photography," says acclaimed music video director James Frost describing his background, and suddenly, all of his disparate work seems to hang together. Frost, who visited my Digital Studies Symposium course at USC last Tuesday night to present some of his recent videos to students, directed the award-winning Coldplay video for "Yellow," in which lead vocalist Chris Martin simply walks toward the camera in a single-shot performance photographed at the beach on a windy, rainy late afternoon.
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Frost admits that the video was the result of a disastrous day spent waiting - along with 40 impatient extras and his nearly mutinous crew - for the weather to clear. But it didn't. Finally, at 4:00 p.m., Frost sent the extras home, and took the crew down to the beach. "Kudos to Chris and his charismatic performance," says Frost in response to comments about how well the video turned out, but a key additional element is the way the horizon line shifts behind the singer, illustrating a sense of emotions in motion, and the way the landscape's palette gradually morphs from dark blue to pale yellow.
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The landscape is also present in the Norah Jones video "Come Away With Me," as the singer drives through a bright desert, and it reappears again, radically transformed, in the video for Radiohead's "House of Cards" as the data captured in the unique process used to make the video creates an ephemeral image of streets and powerlines. The landscape becomes a gridded infoscape, a geospatial terrain traversed by information. This idea is then taken a step further in Frost's recent video for IBM titled "Data Anthem," as the entire world becomes an information space through which the camera somersaults. Moving sequentially through the projects, from 2005 to the present, Frost's landscapes shift from beaches and deserts to data spaces, and from stable horizon lines that ground one's perspective to three-dimensional spaces lacking simple points of orientation.

Frost's videos share many other attributes, and he would probably not himself offer such a narrow analysis of his own work. Indeed, in describing how he plans for a project, he admits, "I'm very lazy! If I over-think something, I can't use it - I have to throw it away." He also has his own way of characterizing his body of work, at least with regard to how he prefers to approach a project: "I tend to look for real situations and twist them in some way." That said, a simple tracing of several of his videos over the last five years helps illustrate dramatic shifts in how we understand ourselves within a world of information. As we grow increasingly accustomed to location-based services available on our computers and mobile devices, the ways that we understand the very idea of landscape changes, and Frost's work nicely captures this idea.

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Perhaps this profusion of geographic information and the ability to personalize our experience of it helps explain the effusive response to Chris Milk's terrific new Chrome project titled The Wilderness Downtown. Made as a multi-screen music video experience for a track by Arcade Fire and released last week, the project invites users to input their street address from their childhood home. The main figure in the video then seems to stand in front of that house, spinning around to reveal the neighborhood in a nicely haunting evocation of the past. The project beautifully reimagines the music video and the potentials of personalizing different kinds of media experiences. And it captures a new vision of landscape and geography.

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