Interview with Matt Checkowski – Media Content Designer

Matt Checkowski, filming the memory download sequences in Waltham, MA

Matt Checkowski is a busy guy. A graphic designer by training, he moved into film by “sneaking in the back door” at a design company in LA called Imaginary Forces, where he spent his time working on various experience design pieces that eventually led him to spend a year creating the dream sequences in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. After working with Spielberg, Matt directed his own feature film, Lies and Alibis, and created his own design studio, The Department of the Fourth Dimension, which works to transform ideas into engaging experiences and interactions. As the studio’s Creative Director, he’s busy working on an online series of short-form videos, touching on all topics from espresso to steak tartare, and now works with Death and the Powers as the Media Content Designer. He’s so busy, in fact, that I was only able to grab a few minutes of his time with this brief interview.

Jess Kim: You’re a graphic designer by training and a filmmaker by profession, but I believe – and correct me if I’m wrong here – this is your first time ever working on an opera. How has the process differed from your previous work, especially in knowing your audience will be experiencing a live performance?

Matt Checkowski: Yes, first time working on an opera AND first time working with live theater. The rehearsal process was so energizing that we can’t wait to see the show evolve in front of a live audience. The working process for an opera is so significantly different than what we’re used to when watching through a camera’s viewfinder where everything is designed around that frame and for the duration of a few takes. It’s always amazing to watch the audience watch your work, but now the show will respond to the audience. Frightening!

JK: How did you get connected to Death and the Powers? Were you given a jumping-off point for the way Simon’s emotions and personality should be expressed through the System, or were you pretty much just told to develop everything from scratch?

MC: We got a call from Alex over the holidays as we had worked together on Minority Report where we created all of the dream sequences in the film. It seemed like this project presented some of the same challenges: visualize what’s inside someone’s mind, their thoughts and emotions, and translate a series of complex ideas and technologies into something compelling and dramatic for an audience.

We dove in with Alex, Tod and Peter and the team and it became clear pretty quickly that we needed to develop the rhyme and reason of Simon’s digital presence. I thought of it as a “dramatic branding” project: what are the core values of Simon? And how do we engage with him through those values? Once we believed in that, we tossed it all out and let emotion and humanity take over. It was a human performance by Jim, first and foremost. Our job was to get out of the way.

JK: What goes into creating a big experience design project like this one? Have there been any major challenges in the design or execution?

MC: There are always so many moving parts but that’s something we’re used to. One of the things the team got a kick out of was the screen resolution of the VersaTube walls. The fifteen foot walls were only 64 pixels tall. That’s almost 32 times smaller than a movie. Smaller than your iPhone screen. It took some adjusting, stepping back from the monitor and seeing the walls in person to really understand our canvas.

At the end of the day it’s all about the team. There really wasn’t an immediate reference or game plan for an “Interactive Opera Of The Future.” Our core group put so much time and effort into the thinking and the making of the hundreds of parts. A quick shout-out to the guys: Troy Miller produced the project, Will Arendain and Leander Rappmann designed, animated and edited, and Ron Cicero made sure we didn’t forget about the bigger picture. A really small group of big talents.

JK: What kinds of conversations have you had with Tod Machover, the composer, about incorporating the feel of the music into the visual design? How has the score influenced your work?

MC: The core group of people on this project are truly geniuses in their fields. I’ve worked with Alex in the past on Minority Report, but it’s a given that Tod and Diane are built of the same DNA. There’s nothing easy about their work: they’re a brilliant balance of thought and artistry. This project is such an amazing nexus of expertise and ideas. We’re excited to be a part of it.

Watch Matt in action filming the memory download sequences (previously posted):

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Memory Download Sequence Shoot

Last weekend the cast and crew ventured out to Tod’s farm in Waltham, MA to film scenes from the memory download sequence. Directed by Matt Checkowski of The Department of The 4th Dimension, the shoot began in the early morning at the Media Lab and ended up out in Waltham at around 7 PM, at which point we were all ravenous and headed back to Boston to devour some Friendly Toast.

I could try to describe the picturesque farm, the care and precision put in by Matt and his team, or the goofiness of the singers, but it’d probably be much more effective to just show you:

Things have been advancing so quickly over the past few weeks – the singers have come and gone for the first rehearsal period, the walls of the set have come in, and robots are running around going crazy all over Castle Powers. So look out for lots more exciting updates soon!