Rock Star Visuals
Creating out-of-this-world HD images for band The Flaming Lips.
By Iain Stasukevich
Anyone who has been to a Flaming Lips concert might describe the experience as “mind-blowing,” “awe-inspiring” or “out of this world.” Indeed, with all of the music, confetti, balloons, go-go dancers and laser lights, the proceedings resemble a 90-minute birthday party on an alien ship orbiting Mars... or something to that effect.
The Flaming Lips are the psychedelic brainchild of lead singer Wayne Coyne, but the perfect weirdness of this scale could only be realized with the help of his fellow artists. A key contributor is art director George Salisbury (below, on left, with Coyne), who oversees the production of the band’s print media — album covers, T-shirts, posters and postcards — as well as their videos and live events.
“I take care of everything that’s visual with the Lips, and I work with Wayne to develop the visuals in the same way that [multi-instrumentalist] Steve Drozd helps him with the music and [manager] Scott Booker helps him with managing the band,” Salisbury explains.
Salisbury started working with the band in the early 1990s, making T-shirts and album covers at a time when they were still just a cult-rock outfit. Around the time of the Zaireeka (1997) album, their lineup changed, their musical approach became more experimental and Salisbury got more involved with video production.
“They needed a video wall to fill some space,” Salisbury recalls. “At first, it was anything goes. We had a bunch of LaserDiscs and VHS tapes, and we were ripping off material left and right, re-editing stuff, mashing it up. We tried to keep the videos simple so people could concentrate on the band.”
Those early video walls included wild juxtapositions, including film footage of Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner next to “Jazzercise” footage from the 1980s. For presentation and playback, Salisbury used a simple standard-definition video projector running off a VCR tucked away on the stage. “You want the player on the stage so it’s easier to control, but we didn’t want to play our footage off a computer because we were worried about the hard drive getting damaged by bass vibrations,” Salisbury remarks. “Although, with the VCR, sometimes the bass would make the image kind of wobble, but hey, that’s a bonus.”
By the early 2000s and The Soft Bulletin, Salisbury started using Adobe After Effects to add motion graphics to the wall. Also, the band began to generate more of its own content, integrating videos into the performances instead of just using them as filler. (One of the early videos featured Drozd on drums, while the real Drozd played the keyboard and guitar live.) A new video wall was also purchased — an enormous, standard-def half circle of Versa TUBE LEDs built by Element Labs (now Barco).
Much of the modern visualizations are composed of motion graphics — simple shapes and designs created in After Effects to mimic the band's album art. If the band is interested in shooting video content for the backing videos, they usually have multiple cameras to choose from: an arsenal ranging the RED One to analog surveillance cameras, the Canon EOS 5D Mk II to the Flip HD.
“I don’t use legacy formats; I’ve really left that all behind,” explains Salisbury. “The live show is still played off a DV tape, but I try to generate new content on solid-state media whenever I can. We create a lot of video and we have to work fast. A camera that still uses tape just slows you down.”
The RED One is the workhorse for the Flaming Lips’ music video work, video wall content and little “odds and ends around town” (the Lips are based out of Oklahoma City, OK), like the cheesy YouTube commercial for a Christmas tree ornament they released in 2009.
“I think the RED is great,” Salisbury says. “We’re going to upgrade to the Mysterium-X sensor, and I can’t wait for that extra sensitivity. Being rated at 320, the RED One needs a lot of light, and our 18-50 zoom lens is a maximum T3. We’ve rented faster lenses, but I don’t have them here at the studio, and a lot of times we’re so punk rock about stuff, it’s like, if you don’t have it, then you don’t need it.”
Salisbury’s other “rock star” camera is the Flip HD. He uses the pocket-sized, 1280 x 720-capable camera to shoot music videos, podcasts, commercial spots and concert coverage. Two years ago he purchased 28 of the cameras and started handing them out to people in the audience at shows, clipping them onto instruments, or having Coyne wear one while surfing the crowd in a giant bubble. The live backing video for “See the Leaves” from Embryonic was shot on the Flip HD behind Coyne’s home.
Salisbury took advantage of the camera's CMOS rolling shutter to give the image an extra-psychedelic vibe. “We were just shaking the camera and it was giving us these crazy effects before we even threw the footage into the computer,” he notes. “I’m always searching for new techniques to get distorted images — images that are saturated as much as possible. I want to get them away from the standard video.”
On stage, the band’s video wall has evolved into a mesmerizing, rainbow-colored mash-up of strange images: abstract swirls and geometric patterns, text and graphics flashing across the screen, the closeup of a mouth during “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” (Coyne’s, recorded to DV with a monochromatic security camera), a naked woman giving birth to the band during “The Fear,” or banging on a hi-hat cymbal in time with the beat for “The Great Gig in the Sky” (shot on the RED and processed as an image sequence in Photoshop to resemble The Soft Bulletin album art).
Fans often approach Salisbury at the Lips’ shows in an attempt to deconstruct the meaning behind these pictures, but “the work we do is never the result of any grand idea,” he insists. “We’re more concerned about what we can do to entertain the audience.”