Visual Bliss

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much more powerful is a visual projection of 24 to 30 pictures per second? Now, add those projections to the
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If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much more powerful is a visual projection of 24 to 30 pictures per second? Now, add those projections to the performance of your favorite DJ or band, and the results can be awe-inspiring. The VJ, or visual artist, is the silent hero who creates these visuals and mixes them on the fly. Done well, the visuals can elevate the meaning and feeling of music.

For now, collaborations between DJs and visual artists are fueled by a do-it-yourself ethic. With few software and hardware applications designed specifically for the VJ, often, the visual artist must create the templates upon which his or her art is shown, using proprietary-software hacking or an intranet hardware setup. But visual performance is an expanding field. Image-creation teams and individuals are joining up more and more with VJs, DJs and artists to formulate what you see on-screen at festivals and shows.

In talking with the musical and visual artists involved, Remix discovers how Sasha, John Digweed, Jimmy Van M, DJ Tiësto, Orbital and DJ Shadow outings have become nights of sensory overload — without drugs!

CONTENT CREATIVITY

The creators of Delta Heavy — Sasha and Digweed, with Jimmy Van M — sought a filmic representation for their first U.S. Delta Heavy tour, which kicked off at WMC 2002 and continued throughout the summer. The story began with the trio deciding to see the movie Seven. “The opening sequence blew us away,” Sasha says. “We decided to contact our agent and ask him to make a phone call. And that phone call opened up so many doors.”

“We wanted to have control over the sound, the lights and the visuals,” Digweed continues. “VJing is a big part of DJing, and oftentimes, when you rely on promoters to deliver the production, you're let down.”

To create Delta Heavy's visuals, Imaginary Forces, a Hollywood visual-effects powerhouse, dedicated 12 designers to the project. The result included 70 DVDs of content. The team was headed up by creative directors Karin Fong and Grant Lau and producer Keith Bryant.

“Within two weeks, they presented us with 15 different ideas of how we could present ourselves,” Sasha says. “They built a cyborg Lego [of Hindu god] Shiva with two heads and eight arms: one head was mine, and one head was John's. They created so many beautiful images, but out of everything they presented to us were these tribal masks.”

“And the masks were different, edgy,” Van M explains. “They represented the untold story of every person and the inner experience of every participant. We wanted content for all of the emotional experiences of a night, and the tribal masks were it.”

Ranging from “warm-up” visuals to “midshow,” “breakdown” and “cool-down” visuals, each VJ's show plan is scripted like a movie long before the performance hits the stage. “We had to design a Delta Heavy visual library kit that could travel with the tour,” Lau says. “The kit contains different categories and themes for when the visuals would be played. The kit was also designed to be nonlinear, so the VJ can express his own moods and play things in different order to be forever evolving and interactive.”

Because the VJ who accompanied Delta Heavy on tour was not the creator of the visuals, the Imaginary Forces team “had to make a really easy-to-use kit that maintained a uniform look,” Fong says.

For inspiration, Imaginary Forces listened to the music of Delta Heavy tour artists Sasha and Digweed over and over again. The team also incorporated some personal loves of the DJ duo. “We had read somewhere that Sasha and John really like the video game Defender,” Fong says. “So, we played Defender, and we played around with the visuals in Defender and ended up creating these tribal guys in Defender-esque landscapes.”

VIDEO TECH-KNOW

To create the filmic element that the Delta Heavy players desired, Imaginary Forces experimented with a tremendous amount of “lo-fi detail,” Sasha says. “They took things, drew them, photocopied them, ripped them up, animated them and rescanned them.”

“We had fun shooting,” Fong remembers. “We got these little African icons and shot them. Then, we projected them back onto statues and shot them in Super 8.” The images were manipulated on Macs with Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects; Apple Final Cut Pro; Avid Media Composer; and Discreet Flame. The final output edits were burned onto DVD with Apple's DVD Studio Pro.

Like Imaginary Forces, Mike Patrick, a Los Angeles-based visual artist, gets inspiration by listening to the artists' music “until something clicks,” he says. However, Patrick often has no direct contact with the artist. Instead, he creates his content as he sees fit. Recently, he finished a gig for DJ Tiësto. “I never even spoke with Tiësto,” Patrick says. “All the communication came through his management.”

Patrick strictly adheres to a computer-driven approach for content, creating and manipulating his imagery in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and Macromedia FreeHand. Patrick then tweaks the imagery with Adobe After Effects on a Mac and renders everything on a PC running Alias|Wavefront's Maya. “Unfortunately, changes are very time-consuming,” Patrick says. “Every time the client changes his mind, it takes another 22 to 24 hours to render those changes.” As a DJ, himself, Patrick understands music. “I want to make sure that the images are graphically intertwined with what the music feels like,” he says. Patrick has no preset templates for his imagery. “I trust the VJ to make his own decisions, kind of like a DJ. After all, a DJ doesn't get a record with a label on it that says, ‘This is only for the peak hour. If you're not playing this record between 2 and 4 a.m., then you're not getting it.’”

A MULTISCREEN APPROACH

Like Patrick, Ben Stokes — the visual brains behind DJ Shadow's stunning performances — comes from an animation and film background. Stokes is a commercial and music-video director who has shot more than 100 videos — including The Orb's “DJ Asylum,” Public Enemy's “Nighttrain” and De La Soul's “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” — in the past 10 years. A few years back, Stokes began working with Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto. Through Dangers, Stokes met Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow.

“I don't know if I approve of the term VJ,” Shadow says. “Visuals are so much more than that. They are that next-level concept. Done right, they can add such a wealth of texture and color to the performance. They work well for me because I was never that comfortable being the center of attention onstage.”

To create that visual fit, Stokes — in collaboration with Shadow's on-site VJ, C.O.D. — “sweated blood and created a lot of images from scratch,” Stokes says. More than 60 percent of the footage in Shadow's show was shot specifically for him and projected on multiple screens with images, at times, moving from one screen to the next or occupying all three screens simultaneously.

Shadow contributed some of the footage, which he shot with a Sony DCR-PC1000 miniDV and a Nikon Coolpix digital camera. A very small bit was purchased stock footage, which complements what Shadow does sonically. “He creates images with pieces of other music and stamps it with his footprint,” Stokes says. “We wanted to reference that visually.”

For variety, Stokes used San Francisco scenery for inspiration, such as nuns playing basketball in full uniform. “They were so cute and charming,” he says with a smile. “I just thought it was a neat image.” Meanwhile, the Marin County headlands open-road sequence for “You Can't Go Home Again” was filmed with three video cameras strapped onto the bumper of a car. Each camera corresponded to a different screen onstage.

A contrast to the multicamera approach is the visual representation of a singular character moving across all three screens, such as the chain-saw man who appears during the performance of “Walkie Talkie” from Shadow's The Private Press (MCA, 2002). The first time Stokes heard this track, he remembers Shadow saying, “That part doesn't have to be tame; it can be scary.” Stokes says that Shadow actually mentioned a chain saw off-the-cuff, so he decided to go with it, creating the chain-saw character.

To achieve the chain-saw-guy effect, Stokes shot one single movie and then chopped it — using a Media 100 video-editing system, Final Cut Pro and After Effects — into three separate movies. “To play it back, we used a custom piece of software designed by C.O.D., which is going by the name Xovox,” Stokes says. “It links video edits and/or loops to keys on a MIDI keyboard, which is then run out to three Titanium G4 laptops, each laptop corresponding to a screen onstage.” Shadow also triggers visuals via an Akai MPC60 sampler, which is connected to the three laptops.

VIDEO SOUP AND SHOCK TACTICS

Too much video is dangerous: An abundance of images layered on top of one another can result in a “video soup,” meaning that each layer is reduced in opacity to 50 percent and appears less vivid. Often, the images and the emotions are then impossible to discern. “You have to be very careful which images you show with which sounds,” Stokes explains, “because the end result can be very distracting if not done properly.”

Gilles Thacker, the brains behind Orbital's otherworldly visual presence, agrees. Thacker has created visual content for Orbital, as well as VJ'd the brothers' shows for the past 10 years. “You don't want to drown out the music with the visuals,” he says. “The music must still be audible amongst the images presented.”

Thacker manipulates images using After Effects, Avid and Final Cut Pro. Once Thacker is satisfied, he outputs onto DVD using DVD Studio Pro. During each performance, Thacker works with three DVD players, a box of DV tapes and a Snell & Wilcox Magic DaVE mixer, which sells for well over $20,000. “Video is still not on par with audio, in terms of instant accessibility of it,” Thacker says. “You can do real-time audio effects with cheap equipment, but you can't do the same with cheap video equipment.” Add that to the fact that Orbital plays “very live,” he emphasizes. “I've got to keep guessing where they're going, and I have to make all of my sequences with one to two minutes to spare, just in case they decide to keep playing.”

Because Orbital incorporates such a wide spectrum of sounds and atmospheres, production for Orbital's sets can take as long as three months. Phil and Paul Hartnoll understand the need for time to create quality visuals and always allow Thacker plenty of time to formulate content. Frequently, Thacker is inspired by a museumlike experience, one that engages the audience via different media that unfold the visual tale with the music. To create this symbiosis of audio and video, Thacker designed nine motorized screens that accompany Orbital onstage. Some of the screens rotate, and others move in a linear fashion. “With ‘Halcyon and On and On’ [from Brown Album/Untitled II (Internal/FFRR, 1993)], it's one screen, on which we project a blue pulsating ball,” Thacker says. “By the time ‘Satan’ comes on, we're bombarding the audience with all of the images of what we feel is wrong with the world. That track is an all-out assault on the audience. There are no apologies. It's the only time we let loose all the tricks of shock editing.”

EVERYONE IS A PARTICIPANT

San Francisco-based visual-arts entrepreneur Grant Davis is also motivated by creating highly engaging content. With his companies, Dimension 7 and Lumens, and his Pioneer, M-Audio, Datavideo and ArKaos sponsorships, Davis is on a mission to expose the hardware and software of VJ culture through giant installations, which often operate on an interactive, Burning Man — type ethic. “We have demo stations set up where people play with Midiman Oxygen8 keyboards that trigger video signals, which are sent directly back to our main controller,” Davis says. The controller interprets the presentation of these images using Datavideo's new FireWire SE-800 mixer, which provides “clean, supernice video,” Davis says. “Ninety-nine percent of other switchers aren't designed for live performance, whereas Datavideo's are specifically designed for live, interactive performance.”

Davis also gets the audiences involved by letting them choose the video from a bank of clips that he and his crew load onto a computer. For on-site performance, Davis usually brings with him six to 10 hours of video on either DVDs or a 60GB hard drive. Davis shoots most of his own video and edits on Final Cut Pro and After Effects. He also uses Discreet 3D Studio MAX for its ability to analyze sound to trigger aspects of the visual picture. “A bass line can control the camera angle or the lighting,” Davis explains.

Davis sees huge potential in visual arts performance. “Ten years ago,” he says, “Technics probably never dreamt that DJing would explode in the way that it has. Nobody thought that it would be in people's bedrooms. And that's what these [video] hardware manufacturers are starting to sense: that this has a huge potential to blow up.”

FILM VERSUS VIDEO

Visuals are projected in either film or video and defined by the number of frames per second (fps). Film is shot and projected at 24 fps, a rate determined by early filmmakers as the minimum rate of projection that could create the illusion of motion. Meanwhile, video is shot at a higher frame rate of 30 interlaced fps. Although video more accurately reflects true motion than film, the human eye tends to regard the slightly jagged rate of film as dramatic and, therefore, a “higher-quality” visual. The stark representation of video — associated commonly with sports broadcasts and evening news — tends to carry a “lower-quality” association. (For more information about interlaced and noninterlaced video, visit the Adobe Website at www.adobe.com/support/techguides/premiere/prmr_interlace/main.html.)