Even though the art form of live video-mixing performances has evolved by leaps and bounds over the past decade, most people in the United States probably still associate the term “VJ” with MTV personalities such as Carson Daly or Martha Quinn. (Remember when the “M” stood for music and the ubiquitous cable channel used to actually play music videos?) And since this media-based performance art is constantly evolving, the current definition of “VJ” may be outdated by the time America catches up with it.
Today's most successful VJs are expanding into new disciplines just as fast as they can borrow the newest digital technologies from other industries. “I know many VJs who use wireless security cameras running into computers in crazy ways, and they've got all these signals going — ridiculous ways of patching together video equipment that an industry professional would reel at,” says Robb Pope, half of the Los Angeles-based VJ duo Dijjital Ambiance. “There's no set way of doing things. It's extremely unstructured.”
Every VJ has his or her own style. The diversity of approaches and concepts presented in VJ performances are as wide-ranging as the backgrounds of its practitioners. Whether they are computer programmers, tech-heads, filmmakers, stage designers, fashion designers, architects, or video engineers, the one thing they all have in common is a mean streak of constant experimentation. The freedom to pilfer ideas and techniques from other artistic areas has also been at least partially enabled by the rapid availability of tools that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“The software I'm using is called [GarageCube] Modul8, and it's amazing because the show industry has these media servers designed specifically for video, and they cost 80 grand a piece,” says Pope, who has toured as a video designer with The Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake. “But all of a sudden, you can do the same kinds of things with an off-the-shelf Mac that you can do with these -thousand-dollar video machines. It's allowing the artists, the VJs — this closet industry — to have access to the same capabilities that you have on concert tours.”
While technical capabilities are converging rapidly, mindsets are merging more slowly. The room for video improvisation on a multi-million-dollar Timberlake tour is admittedly small to nil, but the show-production industry is starting to take notice of VJs and their DIY aesthetic.
“At show-production conferences, they actually take VJing seriously because VJs are being creative in ways that are inspiring designers in the show-production industry,” Pope says. “I think that in the future, you're going to see a lot of these more successful VJs transition more naturally into that field. That's the direction I'm moving in my own career — trying to take my experience as a VJ and bring that over into the production-design industry and merge those two worlds.”
The idea that a VJ can take an audience through emotional peaks and valleys is beginning to move outside of its first, and most obvious, application: the giant rave party. For Grant Davis, a Los Angeles-based VJ who goes by the name VJ Culture, raising the awareness of VJing as an art form that is supported by a thriving global movement has always been priority number one.
“I do installation stuff as well,” Davis says. “I love branching out, and I don't really just see myself as a VJ. I think of myself as a media artist, and I'll work with all forms of media and kinetic art to make that kind of stuff happen.”
By using the existing architecture of a space, a VJ can create any number of temporary environments. Inspiration comes from different places for every artist, but many times, the location itself will affect its own abstraction. This past July, Davis created an art installation for Santa Monica, Calif.'s dusk-till-dawn Glow festival, which is named after the grunion fish that mate on the beach and cast an iridescent glow. Using Cycling '74's interactive graphical-programming software Max/MSP/Jitter, he produced a unique environment in a nearby storefront.
“My installation was focused on two goldfish — they became the VJs. They were projected in the windows of a sushi restaurant. As they swam around, there were cameras tracking them and if they swam past a certain quadrant of the video screen, it would create a kaleidoscopic effect [or] break the fish up into pieces,” Davis says. “So they were triggering the visuals, and I didn't have to do anything. I could just sit back and enjoy the party.”
Davis and Pope both agree that big things are on the horizon for a concept that ensures a more enveloping sensory experience. An artificial environment can be created in any space by the projection of multiple video sources onto already-existing and newly designed and built 3D structures. Video mapping can create a kind of temporary architecture that moves beyond the constraints of 4:3 or 16:9 screens to become an immersive environment. By day, the area could be a normal city block. The night of the installation, however, a space can become a detailed, pulsating environment where only certain features of a building are highlighted while the ones that don't conform to the artist's vision are blacked out. A sense of immediacy arises from the fact that this new atmosphere has seemingly sprung up out of nowhere.
Pope refers to the liberation of video from flatscreens as “sculptural projection.” At the Transformus festival in Asheville, N.C., Dijjital Ambiance built some odd-shaped custom projection screens: two 8ft.-tall quartz-crystal structures and a trio of globes. To mask and warp the video so that it fit onto the screens, Pope used GarageCube Modul8 software on an eight-core Mac tower fitted with multiple video cards. This way, each screen is independent of one another. After modeling the screens in computer-aided design (CAD), he was able to render images from the point of view of the projectors. These renders were imported into Adobe Illustrator, where he was able to tweak the shape of the silhouette to match the crystal screens. On the screens, an inverse spherize effect within Modul8 was used in conjunction with circular masks to ensure that the video appeared undistorted.
Each video presentation should be tailor-made to fit the event, says Pope, who enjoys the challenge of creating temporary environments in the outdoors. “I do a lot of parties outside, and you don't see squares in nature. You don't see a rectangle in the desert or the woods. When you see a VJ putting a video on a TV screen [out there], it doesn't fit, but if you take that video and you put it on a globe, it makes sense in that environment,” he says. “The next wave in VJing is not in making the video brighter or flashing faster, it's about making the video fit the vibe so that [it] makes sense in the environment.”
Since Davis began to explore media artistry 11 years ago, a lot has changed. Back then, his equipment consisted of four VCRs, a crate full of VHS tapes, and a Panasonic WJ-MX50 digital video mixer — the staple of any early VJ's performance setup. These days, the Roland Edirol V-4 video mixer is the most common piece of hardware in any VJ's arsenal. In addition to that, Davis uses two MacBook Pros loaded with Adobe After Effects, Apple Final Cut Pro, Wondertouch particleIllusion, Modul8, and ArKaos VJ.
In the past couple of years, however, a whole new genre of AV performers have been making waves using a different set of tools. Generative coding — an automatic processing of data — is being used to create original visual content. Visual programming languages such as Apple Quartz Composer have the ability to construct interactive video compositions that react to certain signals. Someone without any design sense can cut and paste code to create tightly synchronized visuals, but often these pieces are conceived from a programmer's perspective and not an aesthetic one.
“All these new applications can help generate content immediately, and it's driven either by different kinds of data coming into it — it could be audio data that's being analyzed, it could be Internet traffic. It's so many different things. But it's generating content, and it's live and responsive, and there's festivals being organized around it,” Davis says.
Since VJing is an ever-evolving enterprise with no rules or set guidelines, the field is wide open for content creators of all types. The amount of original filmed content that will be used in any given piece depends entirely on the presentation. Davis tries to use original content whenever possible, but he also uses repurposed content, especially when he runs out of time. Everything is re-edited and motion layer graphics are applied, usually via After Effects.
Unlike most filmmakers and digital content creators, who will be lucky to screen their film with an audience once, VJs get to experience audience feedback every time they perform. “This is very immediate gratification for what you're doing,” Davis says. “As a visual artist who is also a content creator, my work [has] been seen as much as most guys who've gone to film school, but it's more frequently and in smaller numbers.”
Being a VJ also satisfies both sides of Davis' evenly tempered brain. “The right brain is that creative content developer, and the left side is more the installation, technical hardware install of it all,” he says. “So I'm not the best content designer and not the best rigger/installer, but I have a pretty good grasp of all of it together.
“If I'm stuck at my computer for a month designing something, I don't think I'm happy. But if I was just out at a show developing that whole thing the whole time, or on tour, I wouldn't be happy either. I really like having that mixed sensation of being able to design a whole stage environment, create the content for it, and then actually install it.”
Every VJ has a different setup for each project he or she works on, but we asked Grant Davis and Robb Pope to give us insight into their most common VJ workflow, and this is what they said.
Pope: The first step is to gather footage either online or with a videocamera. If I'm looking online, a great resource is vjforums.com, where VJs from across the world go to chat it up and talk about VJ-related issues. Quite a bit of content gets posted there, so it pays to keep up with the threads. Depending on what I'm looking for, I might try vjloops.tv, which is a source for high-quality loops for sale.
If I decide to source content the old-fashioned way, I'll break out my Sony HVR-V1U HD camera and shoot some. Usually, I go for abstract, texture-rich shots and edit them down into manageable chunks (usually 30 seconds to 1 minute) in Apple Final Cut Studio. I'll take these pieces and bring them into Adobe After Effects, where I'll add color, effects, and any odds and ends needed to make the clip shine. I'll create a loop using a method where the first half of the clip is moved to the end and faded into the last half. This ensures the clips will loop seamlessly.
If I'm making a DVD, then I will usually take 50 to 100 of these loops and bring them back into Final Cut, where I edit them together to form 5-minute tracks, then burn them using Roxio Toast. DVDs are great to use in conjunction with my Pioneer DVJ DVD turntables. If I'm mixing short clips, I use GarageCube Modul8, which allows a single Macintosh computer with four dual-head video cards to address a total of eight screens. This means that content can be spread across seven video screens with a preview to see what you're doing. It also allows a user to warp the video to fit on non-flat surfaces.
If I'm VJing on the road with a DJ on tour, for example, then I typically keep it light and travel with a MacBook Pro running Modul8 and a couple of cheapie DVD players. I mix these sources along with any cameras that are onstage using the [Roland] Edirol V-8 video mixer. It's a VJ's best friend and allows eight sources to be mixed together along with video effects and transitions. Sometimes if there are lots of VJs jamming together and there are more than eight video sources, I bring along a Kramer 16×16 matrix router and use that to route signals to the mixers and screens.
I record my sets directly to DVD using the super-portable Sony VRD-MC1. It's cheap, small, and durable.
Davis: My creative process begins with shooting live footage and editing it in Final Cut Pro. I'll create vector files in Illustrator and import both the vector files and live footage into After Effects. From there, I'll create new composition and effects with the vector files layered over the live action.
I'll make multiple clips in similar styles and export the clips as QuickTime movies. Then I bring them into the VJ software, which is ArKaos VJ and Modul8. Those two applications are running on two laptops for my live performance. ArKaos is used more as a trigger-based application, and Modul8 I use for blending layers. Both the laptops and other playback devices are streamed into the Edirol V-4 mixer and output to the projectors.
At some shows, I'll use a single 17in. MacBook Pro running Modul8 and a Matrox TripleHead2Go card that splits the image into one long, three-screen-wide image. I'll use masking techniques and vector motion graphics to seamlessly stitch the three screens together.