Archive for the ‘motion graphics’ Tag

How to VJ #6

Some VJs are machines. Literally machines. Programmes that generate visuals to synchronize with an audio input.

I picked out this film by Low North to show you what I’m talking about (link for more info). Watch to see pixel-per-pixel mapping of an audio track:

I reckon it’s a stunning piece of work. But you may feel differently. We’re desensitized to audiovisual synchronization by the everyday viewing of cartoons, music videos, even 3D fractal screensavers with their precise, ambient motion.

What’s so impressive about this kind of animation, and what are its precedents?

Low North pay homage to Lillian Schwartz. Here’s one of her seminal films – Pixillation (1970):

It’s not quite pixel-per-pixel, is it? But nearly 30 years ago, Pixillation was one of the first digital films to be shown as a work of art.

It was the result of groundbreaking work by Lillian Schwartz as a consultant and researcher in visual and colour perception at Bell Laboratories.

As she says in The Computer Artists’ Handbook:

“A computer can have (be!) an unlimited supply of brushes, colors, textures, shadings, and rules of perspective and three-dimensional geometry. It can be used to design a work of art or to control a kinetic sculpture.”

But Ken Knowlton, her Bell Labs colleague and author of the BEF LIX (Bell Flix) animation programme, spoke of a troubling dichotomy. Whereas artists – human animators – were “intuitive… sensitive and vulnerable”, programmers were “constricted… cold and inscrutable”.

Look just a few years further back to John Whitney. Is that dichotomy so clear?

Like Lillian Schwartz, John Whitney has immense stature in the history of the digital arts. He’s sometimes credited (see the Wiki) as one of the fathers of computer animation. And his vision was simple:

“Above all, I want to demonstrate that electronic music and electronic colour-in-action combine to make an inseparable whole that is much greater than the parts.”

In the 1980s, Whitney was responsible for the invention of an AV “synthesizer for the future”, the Whitney-Reed RDTD. But earlier in his career he worked with Saul Bass on title sequence for Vertigo (1958).

Imagine Whitney’s vision pre-electronic. Pre-computers. When you watch the minutely synchopated animation of Fantasia (1940), for example, you don’t imagine a computer in sight. You might, however, when you watch Oskar Fischinger’s work – because it has that level of detail and timing:

As the date will tell you, this animation involved no computer. Fischinger worked for Disney as an animator on Fantasia. He’d used charcoal-on-paper for his early works. He’d played with coloured liquids and a “Wax Slicing Machine” in between, and invented the Lumigraph (a colour organ) in 1950.

Some of the most visionary animators and filmmakers of the pre-digital era laboured with incredible precision to synchronize visuals with music. There’s a separate strand of film history – one that competed against narrative cinema, the talkie, but appeared to have lost.

You’ll see origins of this battle in the early 1920s, with films by the Dadaists and particularly Hans Richter.

If you want to VJ, in my opinion, you should be aiming for “an inseparable whole that is greater than its parts”. The results can be as revolutionary as you make them.

It doesn’t matter what you use to create. But when you produce audiovisual synchronization, regardless of programmes, software or dialectics, you’re pumping new blood into a rich, historic vein of cinema.

Make it human. Make it how you feel. Because an audience will feel it with you.

Feel like some more? Check out the Center for Visual Music.

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How to VJ #4

I took a hiatus from this series to tighten it up. Then I noticed something crucial was missing – I’d never made any attempt to provide a map, any co-ordinates, for what I’m talking about.

So here it is: a short breakdown of key types of VJing, as it stands.

1. The AV Geek

Obviously most VJs are AV geeks. But when you track back to the early works by people like Coldcut and Hexstatic, you see where it all came from.

The AV geek likes to sample. Loves to sample, in fact. Because they’re hooked on video. The more directly, and literally, the video can relate to the sound – the better.

The results have a strong element of pastiche and pop-post-modern. Two of the best contemporaries in this mould are Eclectic Method and Addictive TV.

The laziest AV geeks loop samples from Fear and Loathing and the Kubrick archive with zero editing and little live manipulation. Watch you don’t fall into that trap.

2. The Mo-Graphic Designer

No less important in the history and development of VJing. On a bad day, this is the kind of performer you’d describe as a Screensaver VJ because their style is more closely aligned with computer than film.

At the one extreme, you’ll see the High Concept Electrician – tinkerers so deep in the machine they can produce sets through the visualisation of feedback/ distortion/ channels from old analogue equipment.

At the other, you’ll see beautiful, bespoke 3-D motion graphic design and a high-level of MIDI synchronisation. Dispensing with film allows a much more accurate and minimalist representation of sound. See below.

3. The Animator

I haven’t seen this too often in clubs and it tends to be less live. The first example that came to mind was Mr Scruff. As he illustrates his albums with line drawings, it makes perfect sense to animate them for performance.

If anyone’s got a better or more developed example, please share. VJing could be a rich terrain for the old-fashioned animator but it tends not to be how it’s done. Perhaps the live editing is too challenging.

4. The Director

I’ve picked out Ben Strebel here because he’s a huge talent and a good friend.

This kind of VJ is a director first and foremost – VJing provides an opportunity to test out their original material in front of a large audience. It’s like live showreeling, to an extent.

Ben does a lot more than that, and his performances involve motion graphics and animation too. But his work in music video and short film directs and characterises what he does live on a night.

Here’s one of his latest music videos for the Stereo MCs.

5. The Light Artist

Artists like Simian Mobile Disco and many other big name headliners perform with LED shows. They strip back to light and light alone.

The very best in this field, however, work more along the lines of installation. They aren’t shackled by a single screen. Their projections are multiple and the results are breathtaking.

Massive Attack have moved into this area in the last few years, but my favourites remain The Light Surgeons for their constant boundary-pushing and absolute focus on creating 3D-lit moving habitats wrapped right around their audience.

It’ll be back to business with How to VJ #5. But if anyone wants to challenge these loose categories – add, amend or expand – go for it. Post a comment.

Previously: #3 Keep it in time; Up next: #5 Layers upon layers.

How to VJ #3

After How to VJ # 2, you’re now in the deep groove of pre-production.

Your footage is moving alright. But you’ve got to cut it correct in the edit, or you won’t be able to make it behave on the night.

You look ahead to that future in loops or lines.

Stop for a second. Listen to music you like – the kind of music you want to perform to. You have to understand that music.

Parts of it will be looping in regular and complete patterns. Parts of it won’t feel complete. They’ll be coming in at intervals and fading out, unfinished. They’ll be stabbing in, hard, jagged, irregular.

Your footage should use both if you want your live performance to be subtle and impressive. You’ll rely on loops to create layers and depth. You’ll need lines to give it surprise and character through manual control.

I’ll end this with Zan Lyons. I was lucky enough to work alongside him for London Poetry Systems this week. His layers, loops and lines reverberated through sound and image together and they explain this core thought much better than I can in words. Truly stunning.

Just watch closely what he’s doing, and turn your speakers up…

Bonus thought: Still not sure what’s meant by loops and lines? Look at the next Flash landing page you hit online. Is the load animation linear (like a load bar with a defined end point) or looping (like a circle going round continually until the page loads up)?

Recommended reading: Gilles Deleuze – Cinema 2: The Time-Image.

Previously: #1 What can you do?; #2 How can it dance?

Up next: #4 You know the type?

Movimiento Porteño

Last year in Buenos Aires I was hungry-eyed on the streets. There was protest, performance, politicking and an implacable air of tango. Under the stern skies, always life and movement.

Now, after a winter of work by Blu, the walls have started moving (thanks Kaara for the link).

So what the hell’s happening out there?

You can keep a watchful eye on What’s Up Buenos Aires.

And if you need a motion refill, last month Buenos Aires hosted Punto y Raya (snippet below). Not the same ai ai ai! factor as Blu’s animation, but a bucketload of technique.

Back to basics: dots, lines, movement.

All core for VJs. But with HD and new(ish) sites like Vimeo – not to mention BBC’s iPlayer – everyone needs to stay sharp to movimiento.

It’s a language the whole world’s speaking in. You gotta catch its finer inflections.

Update: Blu, the artist who created the first video, is from Bologna. You can read his blog here. More info about the production here. And a well-gathered overview at Drawn!