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Make Yourself Uncomfortable: The Joy of Always Outdoing Yourself

Make Yourself Uncomfortable: The Joy of Always Outdoing Yourself
Published November 17, 2014 by Dave Benton
It has been a slow and steady climb for Bradley G. Munkowitz (Gmunk), from the early days and his creation of internet cult favorite Mandingo Immortal to the motion graphics he directed for the box office smash Tron:Legacy

Most recently, Gmunk has disrupted the internet with projects such as Box, a short film that uses new technology to change the perception of projection mapping, and See, a music video for the band Tycho which leverages both full-spectrum and infrared photography to stay at the forefront of digital techniques.

Constantly pushing to get out of his comfort zone, Gmunk’s passion for production pushes him to create high concept personal projects and high profile client work. It would seem that Bradley never stops working because he rarely does. His work spans many genres and his creative mind seems to be in perpetual forward motion until he hits what he describes as a mental “delete and reboot.” We managed to get him to hit pause long enough to share his lessons from the past and plans for the future.

How did you get started into the world of motion graphics?

I graduated college and I was mostly a Flash animator—taking film classes and digitizing what I would shoot and putting it into flash to tell stories. When I graduated college I went to work in web design but was more like the staff editor of the company and learnt its editing program. Then we all got laid off in the dot com boom and that was when I moved in to motion graphics and really got in to 3D and started to work at Imaginary Forces with Kyle Cooper as my boss. That was my first real job in motion graphics. Working for Kyle was really influential in the work that I would do for a long time.

Do you feel like your career was a blast off or that it stayed on a pretty even rise?

In the early 2000’s there was definitely such a thing as a web celebrity, and I happened to be one of the handful of designers doing really weird shit with Flash when it was the new thing…That’s how Gmunk came about—it was more timing and luck than anything. I happened to graduate college right when the boom in design and animation on the web was taking place and everyone was kind of floored by it. 

And then that tapered off a little bit and I went in to this weird three or four year stint where I was only doing work for hire and not really doing my own thing. I kind of went off the radar for a while which was definitely the darkest period in my career because my priorities were all out of whack. I was more into just freelancing and partying and being in the L.A. scene. I didn’t really have my priorities figured out, but I caught a break when I moved to work on a commercial with Joe Kosinski and that led to Tron, that was definitely the biggest break of my career.

We really ripped that out and worked hard on that and capitalized on it and that really reinvigorated me. From there I used that momentum to do more work with Joe and really focused on making sure I did work for myself and putting all my energy into really building the Gmunk brand rather than just working for other people, as that keeps me the most inspired. It’s not a self-indulgent thing… It just inspires me the most to work for a brand that I’ve been building for over a decade. 

Do you see yourself as a specialist or a generalist?

Neither. I’m just a very diverse graphic designer, someone who is in to experimentation and challenging myself to make myself very uncomfortable. I look at a generalist as someone who doesn’t really direct whereas I look at myself as an inspiring director but I’m not too keen on that label and I don’t need it. Graphic design is what I am all about and it transcends everything I do and that’s where my heart is, but I do challenge myself to evolve, trying not to do the same thing twice so I can continue to grow.

Do you have a favorite type of work right now?

I go through phases and I’m actually really missing the techy shit right now. I’m missing the 3D holograms that we did on Tron and I’m kind of missing interface work in some strange way but I guess each project is different and it’s a different set of challenges. I always find that whatever I am currently working on I push to be the best work I have done, so in a way that becomes my favorite because I want to do the best job that I can, otherwise what is the point? You need to keep outdoing yourself—you don’t want your best work to be from years ago.

 You don’t want your best work to be from years ago.

How do you feel when a project is actually completed?

It feels good! I love the feeling of putting it on my website once it’s done. Once it’s done it’s done–it’s old news and I don’t like to really talk about it anymore. I learned a really important lesson on the Tycho music video because when it came out I had all these expectations on how it would be received but my priorities were wrong. My priorities were all about what the reaction would be to the work rather than just what kind of effort I put in to it. I was too caught up in the reaction of others to my work and that’s not how you should work.

The official music video wasn’t as well received as I was expecting, and maybe my expectations were too high, but then I released this performance cut of the same music video (below) – infrared band footage of the same music video that we shot – and had no expectations for that and it’s actually doing much better than the original music video and it’s so much more satisfying as I didn’t have expectations and that feels better, more true and genuine.

Where do you find inspiration?

Every artist has a different methodology but I consume reference material like crazy. This new film project that I’m doing, the whole story was based on references that I found and put in front of me and then I saw a thread that worked through all these references. That’s kind of how I work in a lot of ways: Consume a ton of reference and then find a thread. Figuring out aesthetics is the easy part, it’s more the techniques and the narratives for filmmaking that I find challenging. Those inspirations might come from dreams or walks in nature, still images or whatever. But my greatest assets are reference and imagination.

I live life a bit extreme where I will work incredibly hard and then party incredibly hard. I definitely delete a lot, reboot my brain a lot. Conferences help me do that as I get away and travel. Burning Man and dance parties really help. It’s kind of a wild cycle and I have no dependents so I can do it. It’s been a very inspiring couple of years and I think my output from these last couple of years has been pretty high.

What is your message when you speak at conferences?

I kind of “Share what drives me and how I feel about myself.” I’m definitely a guy that doesn’t want to take myself too seriously. I appreciate the lighter side of presenting myself and not being too self-involved – I don’t think the work I am doing is saving the world in any way! I like to be creative and express myself and that is really it…I guess my message is to be incredibly humble, be incredibly focused on the moment, just put everything you can in to each project and promote yourself well. You’ve got to put your work out there for things to happen, just like you’ve got to ask girls out to get laid. 

You’ve got to put your work out there for things to happen, just like you’ve got to ask girls out to get laid. 

Graphics from the movie "Oblivion" by Gmunk
Graphics from the movie "Oblivion" by Gmunk

You’ve talked about failures more openly than a lot of people. Why do you put that out there?

It’s like getting beat up in the school-yard: You learn the most from when you fail. For some reason I’ve always just been about learning and growing and the failures are what inspire you the most. I will never do a project where I’m like, “That’s perfect.” There are a couple of pieces that I have done where I feel like that’s as good as it’s going to get, like the dancing Mandingo which I made in 2003 was pretty great… The bigger things have a ton of failure but you just do the best you can do and you learn and you grow and the experience is invaluable. That’s all it is. Just throw yourself to the sharks and make shit happen. Failure is something that you can grow from. 

You do a ton of personal projects. What’s your reason for that?

More than anything I do it for the freedom of doing what is in my heart. I’ve done a ton of client work but the personal work is the most fulfilling as it is unhindered and that is really healthy for people to maximize their vision and talents. It’s unbridled in a lot of ways.

What life lessons would you pass on to young people coming in to design?

I think that you need to stay healthy and take care of your physical being. I actually encourage the usage of psychedelics as I think it expands your mind quite a bit and makes you a stronger creative, helping you think outside the realms of reality. But the physical being is very important. Then consume! Study and learn from the masters, break down their work, see how they work, critique the hell out of shit, stay organized and apply design to your lifestyle. Make sure that your spaces are clean and organized and that they feel good. Those small things really add up.

I actually encourage the usage of psychedelics as I think it expands your mind quite a bit

Another thing is that you have to find a balance between work and lifestyle. Really put the time you are not working in to cultivating proper relationships with other people. That will bring a lot of warmth into your design and it won’t feel so insular. A lot of people who become fathers will talk about a new sense of drive to provide for your family, a new sense of purpose. Anything that gives you purpose and lights a flame is good!

Ultimately, really understand who you are and what kind of things speak to you. Find that thing that really burns inside and then follow your dreams that way. This isn’t an easy industry at all—it’s f***ing hard—so if you are going to jump in and try to make it you’ve got be chasing something you really believe in and love.

More about Dave Benton

With a life mission to create exceptional experience Dave founded interactive design firm metajive in 1999. Focused on collaborating with his clients and team Dave is always looking for new opportunities to disrupt. When Dave isn’t working he’s trying to catch a few waves.

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