The Man in Black and White: The Johnny Cash Project

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How do you make a posthumous music video? Director Chris Milk came up with a solution: crowdsource it. Milk, whose body of work includes videos for Kanye West and Modest Mouse, collaborated with Rick Rubin to assemble the video for Johnny Cash’s “Ain’t No Grave” from the contributed drawings of Cash’s fans around the world. The result is an interactive, fan-powered artwork — a far more sophisticated online version of the classic flip-book. Milk dubbed it the Johnny Cash Project.

The video is comprised of 1,300 frames, selected from the 5,500 drawings that have been submitted so far. Anyone with the time, inclination, and Microsoft paint chops can add to the video: a section on the website randomly chooses three frames that you can draw using an online sketchpad. You can even stop the video at any point to examine the frame and play back the drawing session. It’s both an impressive display of the collective creativity of an audience and a fascinating way to look at Cash. It seems fitting that, like the man himself, the video is ever-changing. Read our conversation with Milk, check out a selection of his favorite drawings, and watch the entire fan-made “Ain’t No Grave” video after the jump.

Drawing by Rahzzan of Reading, Pennsylvania

How did the project start?

Last May, I presented some of my music video work at a technology and art conference in Portugal called Offf. A developer named Aaron Koblin was also presenting there, showing some of his web-based crowdsourcing projects. They were really fascinating. We got to talking about how to incorporate his crowdsourcing techniques into a music video.

Because we were going to give up so much control over to the end user, we really needed an artist that is universally beloved. It’s a tall order, not to mention that whoever that artist was, he or she needed to be releasing a new album. A month later I ran into Rick Rubin, with whom I had worked previously on a U2/Green Day video. As fate would have it, he was just finishing Ain’t No Grave, the final Johnny Cash album.

How did you come up with the narrative progression of the video? The editor Akiko Iwakawa and I spent a month going through every Johnny Cash source we could get our hands on. We had everything — TV shows, ’80s coffee commercials, home movies. It was pretty daunting and took a while to figure out what the narrative should be. The first thought was that we would cut footage to make it look like he was performing this song. That didn’t play right. As soon as you saw anyone else around him the piece fell apart.

Then, we realized there was a narrative already contained within the song: the beat is footsteps on wood with a chain attached. It’s the sound of a ghost walking through your house. It was Johnny’s spirit walking the Earth. We ended up using a lot of documentary footage from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Johnny looked his best; he was really at ease and gave the camera a lot more access then. The shots we chose were just Johnny by himself, pensive and sort of roaming. We lined up his footsteps in many places to match the ones in the song.

What restrictions did you put on the drawing tools (like using black and white instead of color, for example)? The idea behind the drawing tool was to give people as much space as possible to be creative, but just enough restrictions so that it all fit together. We provided a wide array of brushes so participants could draw in any style — from a pencil sketch to an oil painting. The only real restriction was making it black and white. A lot of the original archival clips I chose were black and white already, so it was just a matter of pulling the color out where there was any. I didn’t want it to end up being some sort of Johnny Cash Technicolor Dream Coat. He’s the Man in Black after all. Of course the piece should be in black and white.

You can set the video to a number of filters — realistic, sketchy, etc. — based on the style of the frames. What was the most popular style? What’s interesting is one person’s “realistic” is another person’s “abstract.” So it’s really not that clear cut, quantitatively speaking, as far as the self-labeled style tags go. Most seem to be an attempt at “realistic,” though, with some ultimately more successful than others. The really great abstract ones are usually my favorites.

As the project progresses, will you add other versions of the video to the site or continue to have one master video? I’d like to add some more versions – would love to do some based on country, but we’ll need more submissions first. It would be great to have a version with only frames from Japan, for instance. Eventually I’ll do a “Curated Cut,” where I’ll select all of the 1300 frames. Need to clear a weekend for that exercise first, though.

Click through the gallery below to see some of Milk’s favorite frames and watch the finished (at least for now) video »

Oriol Hernandez's vision of the train a-comin' round the bend

Luke McMullen of Galway, Ireland added this Chuck Close-ian homage

Jessica Hurst of San Diego, California contributed this pensive sketch

This one comes from jk of Seoul, Korea

One of Chris Milk's favorites, drawn by kai from Koyota, Japan

Lee Smith of Manchester, UK added this pastel-looking vision of Cash

Comic book-ish Cash by Furth from New York, NY

A photorealist take from Jessica Hurst of San Diego, California

Cash as aborigine by Rahhzah from Reading, Pennsylvania

The Johnny Cash Project video, “Ain’t No Grave”