The immense moving astronaut sculpture certain to become the central visual touchstone of CoachellaLA Weekly
As a member of the Poetic Kinetics team, I was involved in the creation a 50′ tall animated astronaut for the Coachella music and arts festival — in particular, the Astronaut’s live video art system. This massive sculpture included full articulated arms and hands and was able to move from stage to stage and all around the vast festival environment. During the day, the astronaut’s helmet visor was covered with a reflective gold cover (as we’ve seen in photos of NASA astronauts) – but at night, the cover could be removed, revealing a curved rear-projection surface. Working with our friends at Pearl Media Productions, we designed and installed a multiple-projector system that could fill the astronaut’s visor with images. This gave us a large-scale canvas we could work with for visual effects. In addition, LED panels were installed on the astronaut’s chest to form a dynamic name badge, as well as a camera system to be mounted on the helmet for a “POV view” that could be channeled through the on-board media servers along with the other video content.
We had a variety of content – some thematic material, some simply psychedelic. But we also wanted to add an element of interactivity to the piece – we wanted to involve the audience, to give members of the audience a chance to identify with, or – better yet – to become the astronaut.
To bring the audience into the experience, I designed and implemented a capture and playback system that also provided a single point of control for the media servers.
The portable camera rig included a custom mattebox with integrated lighting and a tablet app for video capture and remote contol of the playback component and media servers. Captured video was sent to a file server, then cued by the remote control and played back by a custom playback app to the media server (which handled warping and blending for the visor surface). Another app handled rendering the names as text for the name badge, sending a video feed to a second media server driving the LED panels.
We used this rig to capture video clips of attendees, as well as of several of the artists performing at the festival. For attendees, we’d sequence the playback in such a way as to allow individuals time to capture images of themelves as the astronaut. In the case of performing artists, we’d often position the astronaut near the stage during the set so the artists could look out over and see themselves looming over their audience.
The on-site production demanded constant interaction with the social media team as well as artists’ representatives – as we’d not just be capturing content on site but also pulling images from socal media channels. When these assets (“selfies on the grandest of scales”) were displayed on the astronaut we’d often need to coordinate getting photographs to send back out to the social media world. The intent was to create an experience not just for the audience at the event, but for fans around the world.
This was originally posted at peterjohnson.net: The Face of the Coachella Astronaut
Years ago, I was active in the Boston experimental video performance scene. Below is a montage of footage from the set that my collaborators and I prepared for the Boston Cyberarts Festival and Boston Independent Film Festival.
In those “analog days” we worked with visual sources shot on 16mm film as well as video, and we used analog (NTSC) gear for mixing (including old-school techniques like video feedback). On the music side, a variety of synths and other instruments were run through an analog mixer and effects.
A very early prototype version of the VSx video synthesizer (called “VS3” then) was also an important tool for creating live, real time motion graphics and 3D environments. Like today, it used a touchscreen interface.
This is a discussion of some of the theoretical underpinnings of the Lightspace Modulator project, referencing some art movements of the early 20th century. Two key concepts are “assemblage” (as pioneered by visual artists such as Picasso and Schwitters and filmmakers such as Vertov) and “dynamism” in three-dimensional work (as demonstrated by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Nicolas Schöffer).
A century later, these ideas are still quite relevant and the theories can be applied to approaches to intermedia creation with new (and evolving) digital tools.
Tools for AV Performance: Visual Instruments
In the following presentation I review a bit of art history as well as personal history in the development of instruments for audiovisual performance:
The VSx touchscreen interface shown in screen in this presentation has evolved quite a bit in the couple of years since (as well a great deal of the engine “under the hood”).
For me, developing the processes and tools is at least as important as creating work that can be experienced by an audience (indeed, when working in a performance context, the “product” is transient, so the processes and tools are the only things that actually last). This is not a new idea: artists such as Munari were already thinking along these lines early in the last century.
For a bit more about the VSx system and the way I use it, see this article.
At the core of the Lightspace Modulator process is a custom-designed visual instrument called VSx; a bespoke performance interface and graphics machine, built on game engine technology. Combined with Ableton Live (and seamlessly integrated through a proprietary bi-directional real time protocol) it’s a complete live visual and audio performance solution.
The tool is designed to be controlled with a touchscreen interface as well as MIDI instruments such as keyboards and drum triggers. It can also control electronic instruments — meaning that in any given performance musical cues might be driving visuals, or visual cues might be driving musical instruments, or both, simultaneously. As the system is geared towards live performance, gestures and triggers by the performer are always an essential component of the mix.
The main VSx interface allows the performer to assemble dynamic three-dimensional compositions of any level of complexity in a real time, improvisatory manner.
A suite of custom plugins for Ableton Live provide the link between the audio and visual engines (while VSx is also capable of audio output, for live music performance and production Ableton is a more robust instrument).
While first and foremost a live performance instrument, VSx can also be used for linear presentations and storytelling, following a pre-programmed timeline (of course real time adjustments to the narrative are always an option in such scenarios).
The video discussion in Assemblage and Dynamism provides a bit more background on the theory behind this system and process.
While I’m focused on live performance intermedia projects these days, over the years I’ve created a number of music videos (using “traditional” production and post approaches) for bands in Europe and the US.
These pieces were created in Los Angeles using low-budget (or no-budget) guerilla-style approaches (not to mention some old-school NTSC and CRT video). Fortunately being based in an industrial DTLA environment means there’s a lot at hand to work with, and nearby are locations used in countless feature films that are there for the taking (if you can move fast).
“Intrigue” was an attempt to create an alternate-reality Los Angeles loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle (it’s worth noting that this was before the book was adapted to an episodic): circa 1948, after the United States was defeated in World War II, with the local resistance waging an information war against the authoritarian government and secret police.
A number of downtown LA locations are used in this one (some subtly modified to seem plausible for a mid-century context).
“Remember the Truth” once again uses Los Angeles as a backdrop, this time as a media-saturated dystopia (the influence of Blade Runner aesthetics are pretty obvious; indeed some actual BR locations (e.g., the 2nd Street tunnel and the Bradbury Building) make appearances. An alternate version of the Eastern Building serves as the abode of the singer (Pierre Ordinaire) as a clockwork automaton alchemist. The live footage was shot in local clubs and the band’s downtown rehearsal warehouse space.
Oh yeah, I’m also fronting the band in this one.
“Without a Friend” by labXIV is a song about being used, like a tool. So a local machine shop seemed like an appropriate place to shoot it.
The new video for the Synapscape track “Dirty Deal” was produced entirely with the VSx video synthesizer system, with “traditional” post-production tools (Adobe Premiere and After Effects) used only for the final edit and some (minimal) compositing.
The creative direction was left wide open (the only stipulations from the band were no porn, no fascism and no violence), and as anyone familiar with Synapscape’s brand of phonetic poetry, there’s not much to reference directly from the lyrics. So direction had to some from the title, as well as the overall feel of track.
Beginning with the two words of the title:
DIRTY — soiled with dirt; foul; unclean; spreading or imparting dirt; vile; mean; sordid; contemptible
DIRT — any foul or filthy substance; something vile, mean or worthless
DEAL — a business transaction; a bargain or arrangement [verb] to occupy oneself, to take action, to distribute (also noted: “deal” is apparently derived from the German tielen, play)
When one thinks of dirty deals, what comes to mind? One could imagine drugs or sex, but that seems a bit too gratuitous (and porn was verboten). There is of course also the world of business and finance, and while researching some ideas I ran across a Village Voice article from 1979 about construction deals in New York in the ’70s, in particular those involving one (young) Donald Trump (arguably the master of the Art of the Dirty Deal). From here some themes developed: businessmen (especially those who mechanically fall in line to support their relationships), and also construction.
Words, words, words are always part of deal-making. I wanted to work with dynamic typography as design elements on multiple levels — including a highly dynamic, distorted type treatment that would visually represent the vocal of the track. To make the “vocal” stand out, it would be the single chromatic element. Aggressive, power-tie (or blood) red seemed a good choice for this.
Visually I imagined a gritty, distorted aesthetic, monochrome (thinking of old newspaper) — a halftone treatment. Also lots of dutch angles, generally avoiding 90-degree compositions where possible: “there is nothing ‘regular’ or ‘right’ in the world of the dirty deal!”
In the back of my head I had early 20th-century art references in mind, such as Constructivism, Russian Avant-Garde poster art, Futurism.
Beat driven, mechanical music suggests a synchronized tempo-locked treatment of edits and animation: as if the entire composition is one big integrated machine. And business is a machine, so this all seems to work.
Businessmen, focused on profit, often march in line (like soldiers) towards a goal without awareness or concern for what’s around them. And while not going the full-on porn route, I still wanted to reference the idea that those in business deals (especially those of a shady nature) are often “getting fucked,” “jerking each other off,” and so on. I imagined a few simple, abstract animated elements (including a tie-wearing business automaton) to reference these themes without getting too explicit.
As these things usually begin, I started making notes and sketches in my notebook. This is where some architectural and automaton/robot themes and dynamic type treatment approaches developed.
(“Bendover machine” and “pistonhead” didn’t make the final cut; “jerkoff machines,” “big guns” and the tie-wearing automaton did, along with some pounding pistons and other mechanical forms).
This wasn’t (consciously) intentional, but in retrospect, the automaton head that I decided to go with (deciding to go with “blockhead” instead of “pistonhead”) does seem rather reminiscent of Oskar Schlemmer’s Seal of the Weimar State Bauhaus from 1922 (an image now associated more with the band than the institution).
(I think “blockhead” in its final version does actually suggest Trump’s face and hair in an abstract sort of way — I just should have made the body fatter and the tie longer).
The VSx system is ideally suited to creating beat-driven imagery, with animations locked to various musical elements. I started by bringing the audio track into the sequencer (Ableton) and mapping out each section. Envelopes were added to track specific parts (e.g., the vocals).
Envelopes on multiple tracks as well as overall (tempo) synchronization are mapped through the VSx plug-in interfaces.
Individual elements in the graphics engine are controlled through the Channel Control interface, which allows linking of envelopes on multiple tracks to specific to engine parameters. This allows animation keyframes or envelopes to be linked to specific entities within the 3D graphics world. The system also syncs the graphics engine to the music tempo, allowing a variety of animation cues to follow the beat precisely. This level of synchronization would be far more difficult to achieve with conventional video production techniques.
In the VSx world, everything happens in 3D space. Many animated elements in this video are the result of movement through a 3D scene, in and around multiple animated compositions — with each move locked to the beat.
Everything also happens in real time, so every bit of footage in the video was a live mix in the studio, with the controls on the VSx interface allowing improvisation and tweaking until a treatment has the right look and movement.