Smoke, Mirrors, Lasers and Love

From Pink Floyd to Flying Lotus, examining the past, present and future of live music visuals


“Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.”

— Socrates from Plato’s Republic — Allegory of the Cave


Many cite the 2006 Coachella appearance of Daft Punk atop an LED powered pyramid as the moment when electronic music became Pop music in the USA. Today, nearly a decade later, providing a breathtaking visual element is expected from any major act — basic backdrop screen projections no longer suffice. Musicians and DJs tour with massive stage environments, created by an unheralded army of visual artists who create otherworldly experiences for the audience. The best music inherently conjures its own visual imagery through the sound. The greatest of live music visuals attempt to break through the fourth wall, creating a live experience that expands upon the inherent visual element of the source material music.

Before the two French robots came alive at Coachella, any discussion of the melding of visuals and music must have included at least a mention of Leonard’s Lodgers, or as they came to be known: Pink Floyd.

Mike Leonard, a British architect with a fondness for crafting new machines, helped The Floyd by producing what he referred to as “liquid light displays”to accompany their performances. Leonard’s inventions produced the psychedelic light patterns at early Floyd shows.

Pink Floyd perform amidst a psychedelic light show at the Architectural Association in 1966

Around the same time as Mike Leonard and The Floyd were experimenting in London, Andy Warhol and liquid light show pioneer Danny Williams were taking an avant-garde approach to visuals in New York. Warhol and Williams created a new type of organic, interactive theatre in the form of their Exploding Plastic Inevitable show. This oddly named circus was an amalgamation of Warhol’s films, Williams’ aesthetics, dancers and stage performers, all backed by the sounds of The Velvet Underground, occasionally accompanied by performances from John Cale.

The Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) was strange, multimedia art that predicted both punk rock with its visceral energy, and raves with the trippy visuals augmenting the music. With EPI, Warhol and company created a spectacle that was somehow simultaneously counter-culture and highbrow. The influence of Warhol’s experiments in live music visuals lasted longer than 15 minutes, although it’s unclear if one could handle any more than 15 minutes in person.

During the 70s and 80s we had rock operas, Genesis, laser light shows, leather jackets, Talking Heads, the fall of The Wall and big hair. Punk tore it all down, as the swirling crowd at the center of the pit became the spectacle. But music videos, new sounds, new artists and new technology brought that spectacle back.

Off To See The Wizards

The following are excerpts from my interviews with some of the best in the field of live music visuals: Vello Virkhaus, Heather Shaw, David “Strangeloop” Wexler and John “Timeboy” Smith. They are visual artists at the top of their game, if not the top of the billing. Almost every week they are producing visuals for artist tours and at festivals from Ultra to Coachella, and everywhere in-between.

Overall, the professionals' sentiment is that the days of the DJ playing hit tunes being enough to whip the crowd into a frenzy are gone. “Watching a DJ mix records and pump his fist is boring, making what we do with the visual element that much more important,” says Vello Virkhaus, who along with his team at V-Squared Labs, creates some of the world’s most impressive visual experiences for a wide array of artists and corporate clients.

The ISAM stage show, designed by Amon Tobin, Vello Virkhaus and Heather Shaw, coupled Tobin’s live performance with groundbreaking visual elements

Vello Virkhaus // V Squared Labs

In the two weeks while I was trying to track down Vello for our interview, he traveled from Japan to Chile to oversee the visuals for the Ultra festivals in both places, then back to his home base in Los Angeles for a VJ (Video Jockey) gig using his proprietary EPIC software to run the visuals on a stage his team designed for Steve Aoki’s performance on Jimmy Kimmel live. (Due to my deep respect for cake and Bloc Party I didn’t ask him any snarky questions related to Aoki.) When we finally got a chance to talk on the phone, Vello was on his way to attend a physical therapy session to address the stresses that so many hours spent behind a computer can have on the human body. Through his physical pain, Vello’s passion for his craft was evident from the first moment we spoke, “What really gets me excited is collaborating with the artist to create unique visuals that really add something to the music. Our work with Infected Mushroom and especially Amon Tobin was a real collaboration. It’s great when the artists are committed to making the live show a unique work of art.”

Amon Tobin’s ISAM stage show — designed by Amon Tobin, Vello Virkhaus, Heather Shaw and brought to life by a team of others — coupled Amon Tobin’s live performance with visual elements as groundbreaking as the sonic landscapes his music produced through the speakers. Here was the most cerebral electronic music made into a theatre of technology, the 3D surface mapping of thoughtfully crafted visuals representing the highest achievement in the synthesis of music and visuals thus far. Amon Tobin, Vello, and the team of artists working on the project delivered electronic music fans a gift that continues to set the bar for what is possible in a live electronic music performance.


Strangeloop and Timeboy

“There is always going to be a next generation coming through who these standard light show experiences are new for. For me, my goal with art has always been to create some sort of mystical experience,” says John “Timeboy” King, of the Brainfeeder visual team. “We aren’t really designing visuals for them, we are trying to make something that gets us excited,” adds David “Strangeloop” Wexler.

Strangeloop echoes Timeboy’s desire to gain a deeper understanding of how human brains respond to visual and audio stimuli in creating these ocular escapades, “Before I was even making visuals I researched how to create a mystical experience scientifically. The stargate sequence (from Kubrick’s 2001) is such a huge cultural force that affected so much beyond sci-fi films because people have a mystical experience with it. It made me ask, ‘Why?’”

Strangeloop and Timeboy, key members of the Brainfeeder and Teaching Machine collectives, sat down with me for a coffee before their performance with Flying Lotus that evening. Timeboy credits an encounter in 2009 with Strangeloop at an early Brainfeeder session at the Downtown Independent in LA for setting him on his path to producing visuals for live music, “I went on a whim with my friend because the flyer (that Strangeloop designed) looked cool. I walked into this barrage of Breakcore, IDM, with stroboscopic anime visuals, and saw this skinny kid leaning over his computer like a madman shaking violently. It was David (Strangeloop). After the performance the first thing I said to him was: ‘How are you controlling the visuals and the music with one computer?’, and the first thing he said to me was: ‘With my mind’.”

Strangeloop adds in, “I wasn’t trying to be a cocky, but in a way it’s true, all of the things that we create start in our minds.” Five years later the visual work they create together for the Flying Lotus live show is some of the best in the world. Their stage concept which they call Layer or Layer³— depending on which version they are running—is a combination of standard backdrop projection and rear projection onto scrim upstage of FlyLo, or projection mapped onto a cube with FlyLo in the middle of it all.

New Year’s Eve 2014, Flying Lotus performs at Sea Of Dreams in San Francisco with an intense visual accompaniment

While the concept may be simple, the realized effect combining amazing 3D and 2D animations, with deft VJ work achieves a depth and cinematic experience beyond what most artists live shows offer. Strangeloop and Timeboy both acknowledge the influence the work of Peter Sistrom, Vello Virkhaus and the V-Squared Labs team with the Amon Tobin ISAM show had on their own work and still hold it as the gold standard in their field.

Our discussion about how the technology for VJing evolved so much in the last few years excites Strangeloop, “Things came together was when I discovered Resolume. Their software makes everything we do possible. When I started doing visual shows, you had to have all of this video mixing gear, now you can do so much running off a laptop.” Empowered by technology Strangeloop reflects on the changing in perception of his craft, “I wanted to play a visual instrument, create a performance that wasn’t pre-programmed. Now there is a realization that we are artists, that it is not a purely technical job.”


Heather Shaw

“It’s still really important to keep the values of the unexpected adventure from when the music was underground. It’s a challenge, but we are constantly working to keep offering people an experience that they haven’t had before,” says Heather Shaw, a frequent collaborator with Vello and a member of the Southern California music event production collective The Do Lab.

Shaw moved from her work as a concept designer for Audi to creating breathtaking visual environments through her own design firm Vita Motus. Heather talks about her creative process as something uniquely tailored to each project, “We want to create an environment, something all-encompassing…something unexpected. The main software I use is Alias, it’s an automotive design software, it’s not very good for architectural design applications, but it’s amazing for creating new shapes. We use different software for different aspects of our productions, but I sketch, paint and create canvases in Alias and then extract what we need to AutoCAD, Cinema 4D and other programs.”

Heather Shaw’s realized design for the Do Lab stage at Coachella 2014

Heather often works with Josh Flemming of The Do Lab creating 360 degree environments for Coachella and other major festivals. “We analyze the present, and design for the future,” in addition to her work designing stages and interactive multimedia environments at some of the biggest festivals in the world, Heather works for a variety of corporate clients like Absolut and Red Bull to develop brand experiences. Heather Shaw still maintains a strong connection to the underground community that she first found electronic music through, “I like certain projects we work on because of the technology we are pushing. Some are amazing because of the scale and others are amazing because of the people. One of my favourite projects is the BOOM festival in Portugal. We live on site for a few weeks and create some really amazing environments from the ground up, in the middle of nowhere.”


The Audience as Art(ist)

Thinking on the next steps for visualization, the experts agree that interesting things are in the works, but the technology and infrastructure still has a long way to go to facilitate their visions of the future. Reactive visuals and audience interactive content represent the next steps in live visual experiences. “There are a lot of people like PixMob working on crowd activations, making the audience more involved as part of the performance in a seamless way,” says Vello, invigorated by the challenge of manipulating new technology to bring about a more interactive live experience for the audience.

Vello’s tone turns to one of frustration as he mentions the bandwidth bottlenecks common at festivals. “Everyone is trying to use their phones at the same time and nothing gets through. The cell towers can’t handle it. There is this desire to get the audience more involved with the performance, but until the cell carriers can handle the bandwidth and (artists and promoters) are more willing to promote the technology, the applications are limited.”

As technology evolves, costs and barriers will fall. A time will come when the limitations of our current cell networks seem as antiquated as the manual operator relay of the early telephone system sounds today. Envision a future where cell phones and even wearable tech are passé. A time where we are all plugged in a la Ray Kurzweil’s vision of The Singularity and you start to see what the future of art, music, and visuals could look like.

Heather Shaw is a fan of the potential of The Singularity, “I would love to be able to have augmented reality through our own visual experience, but until we are all computer-chipped in, I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s more of a holographic experience or becoming half-computer. Bringing the entire community together as a whole, there are still some barriers to that. Wearing a headset is more of a solo experience and that’s not why people go out.”

The future of live performances could incorporate augmented reality or virtual reality devices like Facebook’s Oculus Rift

Strangeloop talks about the experience he designed using virtual reality with Facebook’s Oculus Rift hardware at a recent Flying Lotus album release party as an “interesting experiment,” but not something for the live music performance just yet. Timeboy’s thoughts on getting the audience more involved through technology: “If people are going to be holding up their phones for the entire time anyway, shouldn't there be some sort of augmented reality we can add to make it part of the show?”

Strangeloop sees his work as a venue for innovation lacking in mainstream film productions. “Future cinema is evolving through a lot of the visual work that we see for artists and at festivals. We talk a lot about ‘The Spectacle’. If something is pure spectacle it can attract attention, but it’s attention in a black hole; it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a fine line between something that is a gimmick, and something that really has context within a narrative for the show.”

The idea that perspective changes one’s understanding of reality is something that Plato discusses at length in The Republic with his allegory of The Cave, and is at least part of the reason why Dan Sandin named his groundbreaking work in virtual reality environments after it. In a world where hologram Tupac, live-cartoon Gorillaz performances, and completely virtual performers like Hatsune Miku hold headlines for less than a day, the performers of tomorrow must deliver a spectacle to really be noteworthy, offer something bordering on magic to achieve viral status. Vello says he is waiting for something that can produce the depth of field and resolution of a real 3D hologram—not just another application of the centuries-old theatre special effect known as Pepper’s Ghost—before he is really excited about the virtualization of performers.

Now more than ever before, the audience wants to be a part of the show. In this age of supposed hyper-transparency, the popular musician’s visual appeal must appear to be both a natural extension of their public self and a refined manifestation of their music. All of these complex production components must come together seamlessly to facilitate the illusion, and that requires a lot of hard work from a dedicated team of artists, not just the one whose name is on the marquee.

Next time you are watching your favourite artist perform, think about all of the other artists working behind the scenes making the show possible. Break away from your social media chains to take in the totality of the experience. If you can muster the courage, have the heart, take a peek behind the curtain and ask the wizards how it works. When you see the men and women pushing the buttons that actually do change the way you see the world, give thanks to the artists making the experience so much more than smoke and mirrors.


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Revisions: Made a few grammatical edits to the first and last paragraphs 4/13/15