Behind CeeLo's Google-spoofing interactive video

Singer CeeLo Green's first new music video in two years needed to stand out. With an interactive video riffing on Google's search engine, taking a risk ended up hitting the right notes.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
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Joan E. Solsman
3 min read

Singer CeeLo Green Youssef Boudlal/Reuters/Corbis

Curious what it would look like if Google sang you a tune?

Turns out, it's a mess of shopping results, image collages and Wikipedia pages -- and that's just what singer CeeLo Green wanted.

Green is best known for his "Forget You" hit song and as a judge for four seasons on the television singing competition "The Voice." He needed something captivating for his first music video in two years.

So Green turned to director Vania Heymann and the interactive video company Interlude. They created a clip for his new song "Robin Williams" -- a eulogy for several comedians who helped people "laugh the pain away" -- that focuses attention on his lyrics and the comics' digital record that survives them.

Through all the online noise of video, music, tweets and photographs, artists are looking for new ways to make an impression. Interactive videos, with features that involve viewers in how a story is told, not only grab attention but also hold it. Because the new format helps both performers and advertisers reach people growing to expect control over their media with a touch of their fingertips, videos like these may be a glimpse at more of your entertainment to come.

It will "make linear videos look like black-and-white television does to us now," said Brian Harris Frank, an executive at Interlude.

Green's video shows his lyrics being typed into a Google search field as he sings them. Viewers can toggle between four tabs -- one for Web results, one for images, one for shopping and another for video -- to watch how Google responds to the words of the song.

Some of the results are surreal. The lyric that begins "not being able..." brings up Google autocomplete suggestions of "...to poop? ...to urinate?" Others are poignant. When Green sings Robin Williams' name in the chorus, the comic's grinning face lingers on the screen.

The eye-catching "how'd they do that?" element is on the video results tab. There, the lyrics bring up thumbnails of YouTube clips that skip rapid-fire with each new word typed into the search field. The result is a flipbook effect showing Green lip-syncing the lyrics along with the song.

Creating that effect was deceptively simple, said the video's director, Heymann. Green wore a white shirt while standing in front of a green screen. He lip-synced the song three times, throwing on different shirts, jackets and hats throughout.

"It took 15 minutes," Heymann said.

It's a far cry from the first interactive music video Heymann shot with Interlude, a widely seen revival of Bob Dylan's classic "Like a Rolling Stone." That video -- which allows viewers to flip among 16 channels of different actors and reality-TV stars lip-syncing Dylan's lyrics while going about their normal routines -- meant creating more than an hour and a half of polished footage. Heymann spent two months shooting.

The heavy lifting for Green's video came after filming wrapped. They had to grab stills from his three takes, turn them into YouTube thumbnails showing different backgrounds, and then create a composite that looks as if Green is singing the lyrics. That took two to three weeks.

The result had viewers hooked. Common to many of Interlude's videos, people watched "Robin Williams" all the way through and then stuck with it, either replaying the video, watching an interactive interview with Green or viewing a reimagining of his previous hit song "Forget You" that turns into a memory quiz.

"That's very powerful," said Frank, the Interlude executive. "In a world where everything is moving so quickly and everyone is moving on to the next thing, it gives a song and an artist a chance to get into people's brains."