Playing VJ

Last weekend I had a special experience, one of my favorite musical artists came to my house and performed a living room concert.  Helios is the name of the artist, the music can generally be described as electronic and ambient.  If you’ve ever seen electronic music performed you will know that visuals are commonly performed alongside the music, and since I had been curious about the VJ experience I decided I would provide visuals for this show.

Overall the show went very well. We had 50 guests attend the show, and we tied in a Haitian charity donation opportunity for our guests and we raised $415.

In this post I’ll talk about some of the logistics I had to tackle in order to bring the visual aspect to the show.

Several friends at the show asked what software I was using for playback of the visuals.  I tried a few different VJ applications and the one I settled on was Resolume Avenue.  Applications such as this are intended for live performance, with the ability to mix different source movies, even different sources such as live cameras, plus application of effects to the video streams in real time.  These apps typically accept MIDI input for the triggering and adjustment of clips and effects, so I got an inexpensive Korg nanoKONTROL device to give me some knobs to twirl and sliders to push along with buttons to press.

With the software and the hardware interface I set off to learn how I could be a “VJ”.  I’ve been making video for more than twenty years so it was fun to learn a way to deliver the results.  But it became clear to me pretty quickly that if I was going to combine multiple visual elements in real time it was going to a) be a lot of work, b) require a lot of concentration and as a result probably c) reduce my enjoyment of the show.  So I decided that I would instead largely pre-build my performance and use the VJ software to play back my videos in sequence.

I shot most of the elements I ended up using and I also sourced some stock footage elements, plus I had a friend send me some video he shot on his sailboat, I thought it might come in handy.

Production of elements was fun.  I used Final Cut Pro to arranged clips in time then treated everything in After Effects.  I loaded on and experimented with the effects and kept myself entertained late into the night.  Overall I spent about a month working on my clips, and before long the 2TB of drive space I set aside for this project became almost nothing and I had to add another disk.

The next major consideration was how I was going to project my show.  I knew where the “stage” was going to be in our house, but there wasn’t going to be room to put a screen behind the performer and have the projector somewhere in the room.

Since we were going to have Helios play in front of the large windows in our living room I thought it might be cool to project the video from the rear, meaning the projector would be outside shining into the house.  This way the audience would see the imagery behind the musician and it would all be very natural.

I built some screens using PVC pipe as a frame and spandex material from a local fabric shop stretched across, affixed with Velcro.  They were very lightweight and it was easy to hang them on the outside of the house with hooks and eye bolts.

I felt very makey-makey as I was building the screens.  I used two different kinds of velcro, one with adhesive backing and the other kind meant for fabric that ironed on.  So one night I cut PVC sections, attached velcro to the assembled frames and ironed the other side of the velco to the spandex fabric.  Only once did I leave the iron in one place for too long and I slightly burned/melted the fabric, but it was minor and didn’t have any real affect.

My next problem was where to put the projector outside so that it could cast its light onto, and through, my fancy screens.  The windows are on the second story as viewed from the back yard so I decided to build a platform for the projector to sit on.

I’m not much of a carpenter, and maybe because of that I managed to build something that was later described as a lifeguard tower, a trebuchet, even a guillotine. I was proud of it, though, especially the top platform that was able to tilt so that I would be able to adjust the up and down throw of the projector.

Finally I had to consider protecting the projector from the elements.  I knew that the chances of rain or other wetness on a February evening in the Pacific Northwest was pretty high so I needed a weatherproof box, and that box needed to be ventilated because projectors make a lot of heat.

I considered building a box from scratch but recognizing my limitations knew I was unlikely to build something waterproof and useful.  So I chose instead to use a Rubbermaid storage container as the basis for my projector housing and I modified it to become a projector protector.  I cut a window on one side, covered it with clear plexiglass then duct taped the heck out of it, adding some caulking for extra good measure.

I cut a hole in the bottom for cool air to enter the box (through a matching hole in the stand’s platform) and cut holes in the sides for air to be exhausted.  I mounted two 120v fans from Radio Shack against these holes and then for extra credit I attached vent covers on the outside of the box to protect the fans and projector from overly enthusiastic rain drops.

The entire thing was way over-thought but in the end it all worked very well.  The visuals shined through the windows behind Helios as he played and it felt incredibly natural.  And thankfully I was able to enjoy the show even as I had to pay attention just enough to the software to trigger a clip and to fade out at the end of a song.

It was a very fun experience and I look forward to hosting another show in the future.

I have posted the individual movies of my visuals over at wesplate.com.

Since the show I’ve found this writeup on the evening from The Stranger. The writer was so complimentary about the event I won’t make a big deal of his 20-person underestimation of the number of guests in attendance. 🙂

UPDATE: This performance is now available on DVD through the Unseen Music shop… http://www.unseen-music.com/live_snohomish.html

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