Creativity and Moving Images
An encounter with Marcus Lyall
VBAT recently hosted London based moving image director Marcus Lyall for a truly inspiring and energetic C-Word Talk.
Marcus has an astounding knowledge and experience of creating moving image and live performance projects. He has worked closely with The Chemical Brothers since the beginning to produce many of the visuals for their live shows alongside a number of their videos and films. An expert at designing for live performance and installations his work is well known for it’s intelligent interactivity.
Before focusing on the many amazing projects Marcus has been involved with, we wanted to find out more about the man himself…
What was the path that led you to be doing what you’re doing now?
“I used to DJ and put on club nights as a teenager. We’d project slides on the walls as the décor. When I got to art college, I started making these film and video experiments and projecting them at various club nights. That took off and I continued all the way through college, doing projection shows throughout the early nineties. From there I went into the early days of ‘multimedia’ production, and then into visual effects and editing. But I kept getting involved in live music visuals projects. Which is where I met you, Graham! — Making sequences for a Japanese band called Mr. Children. So my career has basically been, do a visuals job, do something else, do a visuals project, do something else. Still is.”
Tell us about your first paid commission involving a connection with the audience?
“Being given an old roll of 16mm cine film by a guy from the Mutoid Waste Company, a group of proto-cyberpunks. Borrowing a clockwork cine camera and filming my friend Adam’s face in a bathtub and some wire sculptures with gel-coloured desklamps. Buying some Super 8 films of hang gliding. Borrowing my dad’s slide collection. Projecting it all onto sheets at a Mutoid party in a derelict garage from on top of a caravan, while Beamish-drinking crusties, dogs, Irish punk bands, screechy techno acts and confused undercover police mingled below. I think we were mostly paid in cider.”
Your projects are often quite surreal or abstract. Where do you get your inspiration from?
“Popular culture, fine art and new technology. Experimental film-makers of the past. There’s an incredible, overlooked history of non-narrative film that stretches back to the first days of cinema. I also read constantly. Quite a lot of stuff relating to psychology, symbolism and myth at the moment.”
One of your most recent projects, a laser installation called ‘On your Wavelength’, can supposedly be controlled by the mind of the viewer. How is this technically possible? How can we control an installation with our mind?
“You wear an EEG sensor that picks up your brain’s electrical activity. It can sense when you are concentrating. I didn’t quite believe it, but it works. And so you can connect this signal to anything. I had the idea of using it control this huge installation. Taking something small and interior, and making it massive and physical.”
How did people react to experiencing it?
“Really strong reactions. Watch the video!”
“It was a much more mystical experience for people than I expected it to be. The original idea was that I could use it to collect brainwaves from people. A comment on companies collecting your intimate personal data in return for entertaining you. But the physical experience ended up being really powerful, and people seemed to respond emotionally.”
Earlier last year you launched your latest collaboration with The Chemical Brothers. Before talking about the project specifically, we’re curious: How did you get to work with them in the first place?
“Adam Smith (the bloke in the bathtub) has worked with them since they first started performing. We have worked together, on and off, for over twenty years. They were playing the same circuit that we were doing. I think Adam met them through Andy Weatherall’s Sabresonic club.”
From giant tin robots and laser shows to motion capture footage filmed at Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium, The Chemical Brothers’ latest live show ‘Born in the Echoes’ features some spectacular visuals, created by you and Adam Smith. Tell us about the project, your inspiration, and how you brought this from first concepts to the final show?
“The concepts are fairly instinctive. Mostly it’s about listening to the music and just scribbling feelings and images down. Making concert visuals is really different from making a film. People aren’t there to watch a story on a screen. It’s all about big, iconic images which act as triggers for the audience. We treat the show like a piece of theatre, inventing a loose internal narrative, which gives it a shape and rhythm. The unique thing about Tom and Ed (The Chemical Brothers) is that they let us use the visuals like a lead singer, which means the visuals can be characters in their own right, rather than acting as backdrops for performers.
For the psychedelic track ‘I’ll See You There’, we started looking at the origin of ‘trip sequences’ in cinema, and went back to Kenneth Anger’s underground films from the fifties.
The rollerbladers for ‘Go’ came from seeing these incredible Korean guys, and just feeling that their movements just matched the music really well.
The theme for the current tour was to take the visuals and make them more physical. Bring them to life. Build clear relationships between the visuals and the lighting and physical props. When we first suggested the giant walking robots to the production manager, we expected him to say it was totally impractical. The first thing he said was ‘So they’ve obviously got to have lasers coming out of their eyes, right?’
Remember that doing a festival show that can travel the world is hugely complicated. You have to be able to fit everything through the cargo door of a plane. You might be taking it down at midnight in one city and putting it back up, during the next day in another city, while other bands are on stage. Luckily we have an amazing team who love to push the boundaries.”
Were there any major hiccups along the way and, if so, how did you overcome them?
“As always, yes. You have to embrace the hiccups with live shows. Because of the cost of the equipment, you have to pre-visualise a lot and then you just get a few days of rehearsals. And often, ideas that look great on a computer screen just don’t work in real life. But then a light beam accidentally hits something…and suddenly you have some magic. You get better at working it out, but if you’re trying something new, there’s always going to be some failure.”
Is there some making-of footage of the show, which you can share with us?
“Yes, right here!”
What other projects have you been involved with for The Chemical Brothers?
“Besides the tours, an ‘audiovisual album’ called ‘Further’ where we made visuals for every track on the album. And the feature film ‘Don’t Think’, where we filmed the show at Fuji Rock and turned it into a ‘magical realist’ documentary.”
Over the course of your career you’ve created live show visuals for some of the biggest names in the music industry (Metallica, The Chemical Brothers, U2, Oasis, The Rolling Stones). How do you find dealing with rock stars? Can you tell us more about what you created for them?
“They tend to be very direct about what they want. You have this great idea for them, but they have to stand in front of it and perform to a massive crowd. They generally have an instinctive idea of whether it will work or not. Does it feel right to them? Does it feel right for their fans? There isn’t a big committee deciding. It’s music and emotion, so it’s about gut reaction.
My approach is that if it doesn’t have an emotional effect on the audience, it’s not worth doing. It just ends up being wallpaper. But sometimes you overstep the mark. To quote Spinal Tap “…there’s a fine line between stupid and clever.”
With rock bands, my approach is to research the lyrics and find the story behind them. And then come up with something big, simple and impactful that helps tell the story. So for Metallica, we’ve done people waking up inside coffins and trying to escape. For Bon Jovi, we’ve done crowd-sourced video of thousands of people singing ‘Living On A Prayer’. We did a Manga Porn character riding the Rolling Stones tongue for ‘HonkyTonk Women’. Subtlety sometimes takes a back seat.”
On tour with live shows do you have your own rider, and if so, what’s on it?
“I don’t really tour as such. I do the rehearsals and the first couple of shows. You don’t really get a rider unless you’re in the band. But you are always well-looked after. Ideal rider would be exclusive use of festival golf buggy during the day and bottle of quality red wine after the show.”
You have collaborated to great effect for many years with British Director Adam Smith. How did you get to know each other?
“A bunch of us knocked around together in North London as teenagers, and then at art college. Me, Adam and Joe Wright were the three people up on that caravan roof in South London.”
After spending your formative years in London, making a name for yourself, you moved to Australia, where you established yourself as an artist. Tell us about this change in career direction and why you eventually moved back to London again.
“At the time I moved, in 2000, I felt like I’d become very jaded. Caught up in ridiculous work hours and partying. I just wasn’t appreciating it anymore. My parents are from Melbourne and I had a passport sitting there… so I just went. I gave away most of what I owned and got on a plane.
I ended up making TV commercials over there, and doing various visual experiments in my spare time. One piece got into some major art exhibitions and suddenly I found myself giving artists talks.
I’m not really interested in the distinctions between fine art, popular art and design, so I found it a little strange.
Australia was great, but work was drying up. What I do is quite specialized, and there’s not quite the call for it over there. The commercials game was getting squeezed so I was mostly doing work in America for bands. Back in London, it was just as busy as always. I still miss Australia, but feeling very settled here right now.”
For the ‘Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark’ concept for the Deadmau5 / Nokia Lumia launch, you illuminated a whole square in London. How did you go about realising this? From the footage we’ve seen it seems like everybody living on the square must have been involved. That must have been a massive logistical challenge?
“It was literally the first location I looked at in Southwark. The planets came into alignment. A big open space for people to stand, a view of The Shard and lots of lovely urban details to use.
We had an amazing production team and a great client, who seemed able to talk people into anything. It took three months of planning. Sitting in council meetings, liaising with police, riggers, engineers, projectionists, software developers, set designers, lighting technicians. In fact everyone living and working in the square was involved in some way.”
Does your work always require huge budgets or can you also think in creative solutions around financial restrictions?
“Most of my projects seem to require both. Ideas tend to expand to fill the available budget, and then keep growing.”
Do you have a favourite idea which has never been realised?
“It’s hard to pick a favourite. There are quite a few.”
If you could pick any client or artist in the world for a new collaboration, who would it be?
“I’ve always wanted to invent a light organ for Herbie Hancock, the jazz pianist.”
Are there new technologies which you are currently exploring in your work?
“VR and AR, for sure. Obviously bio-data.”
Which projects are you currently working on?
“Right now, more Chemical Brothers, a light installation, a music video, some ad agency creative briefs and trying to get some art proposals finished. Mostly under NDA, so can’t discuss.”
What advice can you give to young talent wanting to follow in your footsteps?
“Make things that make people really feel something. There’s enough abstract graphic stuff out there already.
The only time you should work for free is making your own art.
‘A prototype is worth a thousand meetings.’ (Quote from Joi Ito)”
And finally: Shoreditch, Soho or Hollywood?
“Whitechapel with occasional forays into all of the above.”
If you enjoyed reading this, please click “Recommend” below.
This will help to share the story with others.