Go For the Music, Stay For the Holograms

How electronic dance music shows are becoming immersive experiences through computer-aided magic

In the dark, cold belly of Madison Square Garden, Liam Tomaszewski hunched over his computer screen. The 26-year-old lead animator and live VJ for Eric Prydz shows shuffled anxiously between the main stage and the tech booth where he meticulously tested the holograms he designed for the night.

In just a few hours, the arena would be filled with throngs of electronic music fans gathered for EPIC 3.0, the third edition in a series of shows created by Prydz (the title doing double-duty as an acronym for “Eric Prydz in Concert”), in which he brings ground-breaking technology into the live music performance space. A renowned Swedish producer, Prydz is a force behind dance music — house and techno in particular. He has twice been nominated for a Grammy for “Best Remixed Recording,” and boasts some of the fastest-selling singles in the category. This year, for the first time, EPIC would be staged exclusively at Madison Square Garden, and among the high-tech plans for the set, Prydz and his team planned to unveil the largest hologram ever displayed in an indoor arena.

At 9 p.m. on the day of the show, the crowd went wild as Prydz appeared on the stage, dressed in his trademark black t-shirt with a Yankees baseball cap worn backwards. He stationed himself at the DJ console. A mesh screen stretched out like a thin veil in front of him, and behind him an LED screen covered the breadth of the stage. The lights went out. Then, as Prydz launched into his set, the upstage screen came alive, revealing a massive hologram — a celestial object flanked by two spinning cogs of a machine that picked up pace with the escalating music. It loomed over the fans standing closest to the stage before disintegrating like magic dust.

The spectacle was controlled by a coterie of technicians—mostly from London—in a barricaded booth across the stage. Tomaszewski, the team’s hoodie-clad leader, sat almost motionless in front of his computer throughout the show. But his eyes darted between the stage and his screen. A column on the right displayed a list of tracks, each of which was linked to animation and a multitude of effects designed to suit the mood. The center of his screen, split into small blocks in a grid, controlled the animations. As the show unfolded, Tomaszewski manipulated the speed, color, and intesity of the visuals by tinkering with the little blocks on his screen. “Being able to respond in real-time like that to the music and the crowd makes the whole experience feel so much more real for the audience,” he says.

To his left, Jazz Bhullar, director of lighting, kept his eyes peeled on the clusters of lights suspended close to the ceiling of the arena. At his fingertips was an Avolites Sapphire Touch — a dual-screen control panel used to program and operate stage lighting. Its presence gave the booth a flight-deck atmosphere, and generating the show’s illusions from the array of buttons and sliders seemed no less painstaking than flying a plane.

Over the past five years, dance music festivals and DJ-concerts have multiplied aggressively, and the multi-sensory experience crafted by a team of specialists seems to amplify correspondingly. In addition to the pounding beats and thumping bass, the crowd at dance music events is exposed to — and has come to expect — elaborate stage designs accentuated by bursts of coordinated flames and blinding lights.

It used to be that pop music offered this kind of live experience, while dance music existed mostly underground in dark clubs and grimy warehouses. Now DJ shows are, as the Prydz brand name promises, just as epic as their pop brethren. “It’s become an entertainment industry,” says Mark Calvert, managing director of Realtime Environment Systems, and the producer of EPIC 3.0. “Ten or fifteen years ago, we would’ve never said that a DJ would play at Madison Square Garden. Now it’s become much more mainstream and monetized. Given that situation, production values have increased drastically to give more credibility to the show.”

The Garden has long been a coveted pit stop for some of the biggest names in the popular music industry. But in the last four years, it became fair game for DJs who can draw in a throng of about 20,000 fans to fill the stands. Prydz set sights on the venue this year and took on a massive financial risk in putting together what he likes to call his “passion project.” EPIC has solidified Prydz capabilities as a DJ, but at least as importantly, it has proven out the role of computer-generated simulations at a dance music event.

The concept of a simulated image is not new. It has been around since the 19th century with the invention of Pepper’s ghost, an illusory effect created when an image is projected on a reflective surface (like a mirror) on the floor, which in turn bounces the projection onto a screen stretched at a 45-degree angle. With the source and reflection concealed, the final image appears to be real. The technique has been refined over the years with the use of lighting tactics that produce the illusion of depth, and transparent foil screens that make the reflection more life-like. The resurrection of Tupac at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2012 for instance, put a new spin on the Pepper’s ghost effect with computer-generated imagery and visual effects on a foil screen called Musion Eyeliner. Previous versions of EPIC followed the foil format. Realistic as the projections may have been, there is a downside: “It shakes under vibrations,” Calvert pointed out. At dance music shows, vibrations are inevitable.

Earlier this year, Prydz’s tech team was scheduled to unveil HOLO, the largest hologram at a dance music festival, during his set at Ultra Music Festival in Miami. But the night before its debut, the screen that would be used to project the hologram shattered when exposed to adverse weather. “It turned the show into a DJ-VJ show,” says Calvert with some defeat, “But we put so much effort into the content that we still managed.”

At Madison Square Garden, they projected the holograms on Holo-Gauze, a see-through, metallic gauze that serves as a projection screen for both 3D and 2D images. Invented by Stuart Warren-Hill in the U.K., the new surface, which resembles a mesh stocking, eliminates the use of mirrors and other reflective surfaces traditionally embedded in the floor. Holo-Gauze displays images directly from 3D projection systems. The patent-pending technology could prove to be a scalable and sturdy replacement for Pepper’s ghost, which can be unwieldy in a live setting and often requires high budgets. The gauze was carried over from London in a suitcase.

With every hologram that popped up mid-air between Prydz and his audience, the historic Manhattan concert venue turned into Hogwarts. “Immersive environments have become integral to the dance music scene,” says Calvert, “DJs in themselves—there are a few exceptions—haven’t got a lot of physical presence on stage. There’s only one person, and they’re controlling CDJs [music players commonly used by DJs to load and control tracks], which are predominantly quite boring to look at. It’s quite a static situation and that’s where production comes in. There needs to be something else for audience.”

EPIC 3.0 was action-packed on purpose. Fifteen minutes into the show, a hologram emerged from the dark and mouthed the words: “If every day goes like this, how do we survive?” The crowd erupted. They recognized the rendition of “Every Day,” a popular Prydz track released in 2012. The singing hologram—a massive face illuminated in shades of blue—was reminiscent of a character from a sci-fi blockbuster.

It took about a week for Tomaszewski to create the awe-inspiring face. He made multiple versions of it. “We have no idea at what point in the set, if at all, Eric will play the track, so for all bases to be covered we need to create holograms at different tempos,” he says. Using a metronome, he placed markers within the design software to match the beats against the hologram’s movement. Once a base tempo was established, he was able to lock down the first animation. He then repeated the process for a different tempo—each layer, keyframe and simulation was re-matched to a new rhythm.

Creating the multi-layered hologram for a live setting was only half the battle. It had to be triggered live with immaculate precision. “Eric could play the track at any speed and the lip sync would still match,” says Tomaszewski. “One second out of time and the holograms wouldn’t hit like they were intended.”

This sense of urgency pervaded the booth. Unlike the preprogrammed sets that have reduced the art of DJing to button-pushing and fist-thumping gimmicks, at the Prydz show there was little physical movement on stage and no trace of a script. The team was privy to every beat and every nuance of the show, but still sometimes they were as surprised as the crowd with the grab bag of samples and mixes that Prydz had woven into the show. They supported his spontaneity with preparation and vigilance. “Doing EPIC 3.0 live meant insane amount of over compensation,” says Tomaszewski. “Only around half of the holograms we made were actually used on the night. If Eric had played a different set, the holograms would have been completely different.” Some track names on his screen were never selected, making their visual counterparts disposable for the night.

Tomaszewski and a team of animators spent the past year designing the content. “I visualize what the music would look like if it was in a movie,” he says. Visuals for the ultra high definition 4K holograms and LED were made with the same software — 3D Studio Max, Maya and Nuke — but the technique was distinctly different. “With LED you can kind of do what you want,” he says. “But a hologram is a different art form in itself. There are a lot of limitations.” Experience with previous shows taught him to steer clear of fast movements and objects that might touch the edges. “It gives away the illusion,” he says. “But objects made of particles, and rotating movements work really well.”

If there is a metric for the effectiveness of a show, it might be boiled down to the number of phones that are raised to capture what’s happening. At EPIC 3.0, phones were constantly reached for and raised high. But smartphones proved inadequate. 60-foot-wide holograms and laser-lit landscapes defy tiny screens and camera lenses; the impact is lost when recorded. The magic of this experience was especially for those who were physically present in the arena.

Like most dance music events, the show was a kaleidoscope of changing colors: from bright green to moody purple and warm red. But the hues were often punctuated by moments of pitch black to build anticipation and offer respite from the sensory inundation. “We prefer to have the show off as much as we like it on,” says Calvert. “It’s a chance for the audience to enjoy themselves when they’re there. If you’re just bombarded—with lights, video, CO2 and holograms—you don’t really get to enjoy the music anymore. You’ve either got your phone in use or you’re talking to your mates about how good it looks. You’re certainly not dancing.”

EPIC 3.0 was designed to keep the crowd on their feet. “The music comes first and foremost,” says Tomaszewski. “We do things that complement Eric’s music with the tools that we have at our disposal. It allows us to represent his music visually.” The narrative of the show moved from molecules resembling DNA, glimpses of fetuses and particles floating through space, to sweeping views of celestial bodies. “We chose an anatomical theme, beginning with the building blocks of life. A primordial soup, if you will,” he says. “Leading ultimately to a cosmic overview as we felt it visually reflected a progression — a way to represent what Eric constantly achieves with his sets.”

Through the three-hour journey, no two moments were alike, both in sound and sight. The crowd, for the most part, was split—those who intended to stomp the ground uninhibitedly and those who needed coercion to look away from their phones. For the latter, deep into the show, a mechanical voice boomed over the beats: “Hit me with those laser beams.” Simultaneously, 32 laser beams cut across the arena in swift, sharp movements. The Garden sprang to life. The crowd bounced in celebration of the spectacle and in that moment, phones went out of sight.

All photos courtesy of Vic Blue