Though present since the beginning of rock, since the advent of MTV visuals have increasingly come to be seen as inseparable from music. “What do you do when there’s nothing to look at?” The NY Times looks at visual artistry and new tools:
- Visual projections that pulse in time with the music are nothing new at clubs or concerts, where they have provided a sort of moving wallpaper since bands like Jefferson Airplane ruled this city. But as hardware like high-end laptops and digital video cameras has grown more powerful and more affordable, video jockeys have become a crucial part of the show.
Where they previously relied on videocassette recorders, V.J.’s can now store clips on gigantic hard drives or hard disk recorders. The dot-com downturn has even worked to their advantage: video projectors that once served up PowerPoint presentations can be bought secondhand for musical duty. V.J.’s can also choose from a growing array of software that allows them to mix videos on the spot and even change their speed, colors or transitions between clips.
On a recent night at Ruby Skye, Ryan Tandy (VJ Liquid.7) was high above the dancing masses in an enclosed balcony, mixing videos while the featured performer, DJ Sasha, and others were spinning music. Like many V.J.’s, Mr. Tandy, 25, combines technical adeptness with design talent. He runs a graphic design studio called Liquid Mercury (www.liquidmercury.com) and started doing serious V.J. work a year and a half ago when club promoters told him they wanted to see his flyer and Web designs in motion.
“I remember when the V.J. and even the D.J. were in a corner, and nobody knew who they were,” he said. “But now things have changed and people come to see a performance and care about the music and video artists. It’s more of a spectacle, and you’re there to show off your cool stuff.”
Mr. Tandy spends hours before shows shooting original video of high-contrast urban landscapes and nature settings and practicing the various artistic effects that will make the visuals pop out for the audience. At the Ruby Skye show, he juggled an array of video loops loaded on his laptop, processing them through a software program and then splashing the result on the huge screen with a video projector.
The canvases of the V.J.’s can be far larger than the walls of a club. On its North American tour this year, the Canadian group Rush is performing with a video jockey, James Ellis, who is contributing custom animations in venues as large as Madison Square Garden.
Mr. Ellis says the content is a fine balance between improvisation and tight adherence to song structure. A team from a software company called Derivative spent two months creating special video loops and animations for 11 of the songs Rush performs on tour. The imagery includes original cartoon characters that bounce and stretch to the music and a time-lapse montage of still photos of the group’s drummer, Neal Peart, on a motorcycle trip. Mr. Ellis then manipulates the video and animations in real time, creating an experience that falls somewhere “between the tight choreography of a film or musical, and the spontaneity of an improvisational jazz musician,” he says.
Geddy Lee, the lead singer and bassist of Rush, says the band almost skipped video on the latest tour. “It’s been very overused by pop acts,” he said. “With the video culture of the last 20 years, there’s too much explaining away of music.” But the software can be used “in an interactive way, pulsing to the music, which was exactly what I had in mind,” he added. “Bands all have the same instrumentation, but they all sound different. With video, you have to look at it the same way — it’s how you employ it.”
While many of the digital tools are new, the marriage of visual effects and rock music is, of course, almost as old as rock itself. Many V.J.’s trace their roots back to the late 1960’s, when psychedelic light shows accompanied live music at halls like the Fillmore West in San Francisco or the Fillmore East in New York….
I used to love to run the lights when I DJ’s clubs – a way to physically get inside the music, but this is a whole new league.