The Next Frontier
When you think of the city Stockholm, the last thing you would associate it with is future space exploration. But tucked away in a small studio, Swedish animator Erik Wernquist has managed to conjure up a vision so profound that it has struck a chord with people world-wide. We tracked this man down to find out how he went from creating one of the most ubiquitous animated characters of recent memory, Crazy Frog, to putting together this extremely moving vision of humanity's lust for the unknown, that has even impressed NASA.
So let’s jump right in. Perhaps we can start way back in your career when a certain piece of your work helped you gain a level of notoriety, without even mentioning what it is.
You’re talking about Crazy Frog?
Well, I don’t know what to say really! It was an interesting experience but it was also very strange. I made that character pretty early on, when I was starting out as a character animator – I actually made it as part of an application for a job. I created a 40-second skit of this character trying to imitate a motorbike and that was all there was to it, so I can’t really relate to it in any way. When I eventually put it online people seemed to enjoy it and then I licensed it to be used for TV commercials and ringtones.
I thought it was going to be just a one-off quick thing but it turned out to be even more popular, and unpopular, than that. I do not know really what more to say. It was an interesting experience, with lots of ideas. There was lots of commercial interest but it was never something I could really relate to and I did not know what to do with it. It just kept going for a while, but that was a couple of years ago now.
Has there been any fallout since, has it stayed with you in any shape or form?
No not really. The attention has dropped and I’m not working with Crazy Frog anymore, although my original employers Kaktus Film continued to produce materials with the character even after I quit and started working freelance. I worked on four music videos with that character, but it has not stayed with me in any way. As I said I do not have any real relation to it or what was made from it. It was basically a forty-second animation test that I made.
So are you really worth $500 million?
Not according to my wallet! What do you mean with that question?
The research that I did said that Crazy Frog grossed hundreds of millions of dollars?
I have been reading about the numbers over the years. I mean, I made some money out of it and I assume a lot of other people did too. But it was nothing in that neighbourhood at all. I know there are a lot of rumours around and there has been a lot of speculation but there was never an acquisition, I still own the character. I just licensed it for a while.
“The response to Wanderers has been overwhelming. I don’t have many friends that are into these subjects, so apart from what I read, I feel rather quite alone with these thoughts. ”
Your current work makes for an interesting juxtaposition, especially this incredible movie you have created. Nonetheless Crazy Frog was definitely one of the first real cultural memes out there. Now memes are everywhere. What are your thoughts on memes and their importance in popular culture?
I personally love memes. I love Internet culture and what has transpired of it – I’m a frequent user of Reddit. But I don’t really see the relation between the Crazy Frog and what memes are today. I mean memes are fun and they evolve and they are everyone’s property. Everybody makes his or her own versions of something. Even the original meaning can evolve from a meme, so it’s a very social and democratic process, but nothing like that went on with Crazy Frog, it was just what it was. It was funny how that video I made could spread so much, because this was before YouTube, so people were sending the actual video files to each other.
I put it up on my website initially and people started to download it from there, but it was just a few days before it all crashed and I couldn’t leave it up there. But the file was small enough for people to send it around. The fact that it predates YouTube is what makes it such a phenomenon. I mean maybe with YouTube, Vimeo and other video sharing services it might have become more popular.
Let’s fast forward to the current period. It was good to explore your older work and how you relate to it because, with Wanderers you have created something that is such a contrast, it blew me away. It was so profound and so deep and very philosophical. What inspired you to create such a vision, bringing all these incredible, astronomical elements together?
This might turn out to be a long answer. For as long as I can remember I have always been very interested in astronomy. I read a lot about it and I follow with great interest what’s happening and the developments in astronomical sciences. In particular I am very interested – and I don’t know why – in planetary astronomy and even more in the exploration of our solar system.
When I see those images or read about those places I immediately start to fantasize or think about what it would be like to be there as a person. I think a lot of people who are interested in this field feel the same way and I love it when astronomers and other scientists allow themselves to speculate like that. For example, at times they publish ideas of what it would be like to take a jump from the Verona Rupes cliff on Miranda, which is a part of the film.
I think, at least for a while, there was not very much space imagery around, so sometimes it is hard to imagine that there are actual places that exist, and we can see them by just looking up in the sky. It’s hard to get that connection with the places so I wanted to elaborate and visualize that. I gathered a lot of ideas that I had from reading about astronomy but also I read a lot of science fiction, especially hard science fiction, which stays very true to reality.
So what’s your favorite book on that area?
There are a few, but related to Wanderers it has to be the books of Kim Stanley Robinson. I found the Mars trilogy and, more recently, 2312 very inspiring – the works of Kim Stanley Robinson have always been very inspiring for me on the visual side. A lot of the scenes I show are basically ideas of his that I have visualized.
That’s one part of the inspiration. I often visualize ideas like this and have also been thinking a lot about the literature I read. The solar system is a very under-represented setting in space science fiction films and I think that’s a pity, so I thought there was room for Wanderers.
So why this movie and why now?
There was no strategy behind it, I was doodling around with ideas for stories about our solar system, and a few years ago I just said ‘hey I’m never going to get time or money to do anything of this nature’ so I just decided to make a few shorts with ideas that I was thinking of and I started doing that. There was no other thought to it than that but I’m really happy. It seems like there is a growing interest in space exploration today, even in popular culture films such Interstellar and Gravity – which was a fantastic film.
The response to Wanderers has been overwhelming. I don’t have many friends that are into these subjects, so apart from what I read, I feel rather alone with these thoughts. The response that has come from other people seeing Wanderers has really changed all of that, which has made me very happy. Obviously there are many people who not only think and fantasize about what places are out there in the solar system, but also share an optimistic view of humanity and our future, which I also think is underrepresented in popular culture, especially in science fiction films.
Science fiction films about the future almost always see it as something scary or ominous, there is always a disaster about to happen, and I think that makes people think about the future in that way. I wonder why should it be so bad and I personally don’t think we, as a species, are on our way to extinction or disaster.
“People at NASA loved the film. They had a few ideas of their own that were sort of in line with what I had done so we started talking about the possibility of a future project together but I cannot go into that yet. ”
That was my next question for you; are you hopeful for the world?
Yes, I am very hopeful for the world. I think there are many problems and many disasters but in general we are slowly making it a better place for us all. At least I hope that is the case. I have an optimistic view of humanity. There has been some misunderstanding from people seeing the film – they believe that, as I show nothing from earth in the short, it means we have destroyed earth, our home world, and have had to move out.
I didn’t think that at all. I thought that it almost looked like Red Bull had sponsored the movie.
Yes! I have heard that. I sort of had those kind of extreme sport things in my mind when making it, so when I show what the people are doing it’s generally having fun or doing something for leisure.
But there is a deep profoundness that you have tapped into. It has struck a chord with people – one of deep mysticism and curiosity. I’m interested to know if anyone has reached out to you? What has been the response?
Very much so! I have had quite a lot of responses from the space community, which has been very rewarding. I expected this film to appeal to other space nerds such as myself but I also sort of expected it to be criticized by the space community, as it’s such a speculative vision. Although I did a lot of research and I wanted to do everything as close to reality as possible, I did take a few artistic liberties, and I expected there to be a lot of nitpicking from the space community, but to my great enjoyment there hasn’t been! On the contrary, I’ve received quite a lot of praise from the space community and I have been talking to people at NASA, JPL and other institutions.
What did NASA say?
People at NASA loved the film. They had a few ideas of their own that were sort of in-line with what I had done so we started talking about the possibility of a future project together, but I cannot go into that yet. There have also been similar discussions with other space institutions I hope to be working with. It is also showing in exhibitions at a few museums around the world.
What is your life philosophy? It seems like your relationship with this movie is quite unemotional.
Yes, in the sense that you said you are a science geek, and when I bring up terms like ‘profound’ and ‘illuminating’ and the way this film struck a chord with people you seem a little bit surprised?
I would say this project is very emotional for me so maybe I gave you the wrong impression. There is nothing contradictory between scientific interest and emotion. I’m very inspired by Carl Sagan, who we haven’t talked about yet. He mixes the profound and emotional with the science and has been a great inspiration to me for many years, not only for this film. He has deepened my interest in science and critical thinking and skepticism, but also he has been one of the main reasons, at least in my adult years, for my interest and understanding of astronomy.
“Yes, I am very hopeful for the world. I think there are many problems and many disasters but in general we are slowly making it a better place for us all.”
What do you think he would have thought of the film?
I hope he would have enjoyed it. I don’t know, but I guess he would – it’s hard to say. I mean I don’t make any statements with it and that’s important. I didn’t want to make it political. I only wanted to make it inspirational and, in some ways, educational. If I succeeded with that I hope he would have enjoyed it for that reason.
So speaking of Carl Sagan, do you believe there are other life forms out there?
Well yes, it’s a good question. The theme doesn’t make an appearance in the movie. My philosophy is basically that the universe is extremely, unfathomably huge. So the probability of other life existing somewhere is pretty high. But we know nothing of it yet and have no evidence other than probability. I think the probability is high that other life forms exist but I think we may never reach each other. It might be that the universe is full of simple forms of life but intelligent and self-aware life is much more rare.
Carl Sagan was very much involved with the search for extraterrestrial life but he had a very skeptical view of it, although he was very interested. If the search is done in a scientific way then it is great to think about it, otherwise I am not interested in speculating about alien life.
Was it Carl Sagan who was involved in sending out a package of earthly accessories just in case other potential life forms should ever come into contact with it?
Yes, you’re talking about the Golden Record for the Voyager spacecraft? Yes, he left a sound of a kiss and so forth. There was a hello in different languages and there was a simple but detailed map of the Milky Way including where we are located and a description of what we knew at the time.
Thanks for your time and I just want to say congratulations on a brilliant piece of work.
Reading List: http://www.erikwernquist.com/
A scientist and author who has been a great inspiration to me for most of my adult life. I still find him unsurpassed in his ability to communicate scientific concepts and ideas – not only in a comprehensive and accessible manner – but with contagious inspiration and passion.
One of very few musical artist I have had – and still have – the pleasure of following through an entire career. Constantly re-inventing his craft, but with unwavering integrity. An inspiration and a brilliant musical genius.
One of my favorite science fiction authors, and a huge inspiration to many of the visions presented in my short film “Wanderers”. With the meticulous research upon which he builds his work, he represents what I think is the most important ingredient in any good science fiction; deep interest and understanding of science itself.