February 24, 2014

Tu Uthaisri @ SCA

By Tian Zhou

Standing in front of a room full of students in the new Interactive Media Building on February 12 at SCA, designer, filmmaker and artist Tu Uthaisri traced his unconventional path towards what has been a category-defying career - from graphic artist to filmmaker to Designer, Editor and Filmmaker-in-Residence at the Google Creative Lab in New York City.


Tu Uthaisri in the capacity crowd

Growing up in Bangkok, Thailand, Uthaisri was artistically inclined from a young age. “When I was four years old, while I was learning to write, I kinda started drawing as well,” Uthaisri said. “I’d draw from robots to superheroes.” After graduation, he worked as an art director at an animation studio, before branching out on his own and forming a design team with a few friends. “It was called Bored, because we were bored of doing commercial stuff.” At Bored, Uthaisri worked on motion graphics for concerts, music videos and commercials. “We didn’t make a lot of money…but we loved what we do, we keep pushing the boundary.”

“After a few years in Bangkok I realized this is what I really want to do, something really experimental. That’s why I moved to New York City.” In New York, Uthaisri studied at Parsons The New School for Design, continuing his experimentation by exploring new methods of audio-visual storytelling. For “Surface”, a project Uthaisri created at Parsons, he was inspired by looking up through a subway grate. Through the shrewd use of footprints and contact images through a largely opaque surface, “Surface” manages to tell a vibrant, sprawling story of life in the city.

About a year after graduating from Parsons, Uthaisri joined Google, initially as a freelance editor. At Google, Uthaisri’s love of experimentation fit right in. “It’s about making,” he explained. “A sign that we have at the lab is ‘Make Epic Shit.’” Uthaisri got a chance to put that motto into practice when he got a call from Google X, a secret facility within Google dedicated to making major technological advancements, to create a video for a product that was still in early prototypes at the time. That product turned out to be Google Glass.

“At the early stage it was still the prototype and all we had was the rendering, but we said let’s try,” remembered Uthaisri. They came up with a short POV video, filmed with no budget on a GoPro that Uthaisri wore around Downtown NY. It was the first video of Google Glass released to the public. With nothing to go on, “we had to imagine the UI, the features, what we think is going to be cool,” Uthaisri said. In an interesting instance of a filmmaker affecting the design of a product in development, “Sergei [Brin] saw the video and said, ‘Hey, this is cool. Why don’t the product team make the UI like in the video?’”

Recently, Uthaisri pushed boundaries yet again with a short stop-motion animation film – the first ever filmed entirely using Google Glass. “It took two to three months to get it in a good place,” said Uthaisri of the difficult project. The shoot itself took two minutes per frame over the course of four days, with no retakes. The hard work paid off, however, with a unique and memorable final product.

In a way, Uthaisri has come full circle in his role at Google. “Before, I was dreaming about superheroes and making things and making stories about superpowers, and somehow it’s coming back together and becoming reality. You can be a storyteller but also be a dreamer, also be an inventor…shaping the world with pictures.”