I have always fantasized into get into this line of work; merging music, live performance, audience and digital art. Formative is an interactive design company that does it all and I had the pleasure of getting to know more about what they do.
Q: Can you walk us through the process of a typical project from ideation to final product? What kind of technology do you use? Any specific tools?
There are many elements to one of our projects that we need to consider including stage design, lighting design, video design and then content design. I will base this walkthrough on a typical large scale music project as the process varies due to what type of project we are working on.
We always start the process by conceptualising the stage design as everything else is then considered around this. This process gets started the old fashioned way using pencil and paper. Once the basic idea is born this will then get very quickly translated into 3D in its simplest form using either Sketchup or 3D Max to see if it actually works visually. Once we are happy with the basic concept in 3D we will start to think about the finishes, materials and technology that will need to be incorporated into the design such as video projection or LED display, any special lights we would like to use, etc. This needs to be considered at this stage as these elements generally have fixed dimensions we need to work around.
Now that the staging concept is complete, with the correct technology specified, the design will be redrawn accurately in 3D Max so we can create photorealistic renders to present to client.
When we get the thumbs up from the client, the design will then move into another 3D programme called Vectorworks which is specifically designed for the entertainment staging world. This is where the stage gets placed within the real world venue and all of the technology gets placed accurately into the venue including the lighting, the audio, the video screens, etc. This drawing package will then be sent onto our technical suppliers who then know what specs to build and install from. As this is taking place we move onto the next stage we manage the set build process with our suppliers from start to finish.
Now that the stage is complete we can move onto performance content design. We generate a content template based on the resolutions and shapes of the video display devices and whether they are projection or LED. All content gets made pixel perfect to fit this template which is then played back from our d3 servers.
d3 is the world’s first and most advanced integrated video production suite, based around a real-time 3D stage simulator, it is the single solution we need to design, present, communicate, sequence and playback our shows. d3 lets us work with props, venues, LED screens, projection, lighting and moving stage elements, while being completely integrated into a single intuitive software solution that runs on our own dedicated super powerful d3 hardware. This allows us to pre-programme, synchronise the video and lighting and control the entire show. We can actually watch each performance in our studio before we have even built the stage.
“In our line of business there are no second chances. Everything is live and under immediate scrutiny. What we produce needs to be as near to perfect as we can get it and as soon as we press play.”
To get the best out of a performance we try and run the tracks via timecode so everything can be synchronised to perfection. So we get the guide tracks form the musical director of the show and add a timecode layer. Skye, our motion graphics lead, will then build the content using a combination of after effects and an element of 3D and a bit of Cinema 4D thrown in. Once the content is complete we load this into the d3 servers and start to lay out the show on a timeline within d3. We sometimes have to use a combination playback software that are all synchronised depending on the requirements but the main driving force is d3.
We try and get as much loaded and programmed into d3 prior to moving onto site to start the production. It’s never complete until show time though as we are constantly tweaking the content and timings until the show goes live. When we move to site we pack up and take all of our d3 server equipment and control desks with us as this is the equipment that ultimately drives the show. We also always have a motion graphics designer onsite during rehearsals so we can make changes as we go along. It always looks different when you see the stage and display devices actually built; when you see the scale. There may always be the need to make corrections to the content, for example, when you view content on your computer screen the speed of the content may look correct to the tempo of the music but when you put this content onto a screen that is 20 meters wide the speed may be too fast and distracting so having a team onsite to be able to correct this is invaluable.
Our ultimate goal is to have the majority of the show run form timecode, this means that each performance is triggered by one single button push: that’s all tracks, video and lighting by the flick of a switch or button. So far we have got this pretty waxed. Last October we produced the Cassper Nyovest #FillUpTheDome concert which basically ran itself from start to finish as we had time to pre-programme all the triggers.
What form of training do you need to be in this line of work? What are some of the skills you acquired to do your work successfully?
I think most people in this industry have never actually had any formal training other than a few small two day training courses. This is something you learn as you do it. I personally started in this industry straight out of school 20 years ago, and have learnt everything I know on the job and being thrown in the deep end. I am aware now that in the US and Europe there are backstage training academies that you can actually get a degree in entertainment technologies from. Some of them even use d3 as part of the course.
“Our concepts orchestrate scenic, lighting, video and motion graphics into a singular vision. We produce all the visual elements together with the audio and lighting effects. “
What does collaboration between you and the performing artists look like? (give an example) Do they come with specific concepts or ideas or do you have full artistic creative direction?
Usually we have full creative control over our own projects but we also work with other creative directors on a collaborative basis. We work together to produce the show for the artist. Generally speaking though, in my experience the artists do not provide us with any direction or ideas; they simply let us get on with it. The only request we have ever had for a special moment came from Cassper Nyovest. He wanted one moment when he was elevated above the audience, the rest of the show we could do whatever we wanted. So we gave him his moment which I think will be the iconic image people will remember.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? What other artists influence your line of work?
My inspiration comes from many avenues. Architecture is a huge source of inspiration for our stage designs and naturally work done by other international production designers and companies. When it comes to performance there is a huge amount of amazing work that comes out of Europe and the US, by some truly amazing designers. I’m always amazed at the creativity behind some of the world’s artists. I think from a pure performance point of view though Kanye West and his team consistently produce amazing work. He consistently produces pure and stripped performances; right back but is always impactful. Less is more and I try to follow that rule. And for consistently pushing boundaries and creating amazing work with technology it would have to be Moment Factory.
What kind of technology that has been recently developed gets you really excited, makes you geek out?
Well the first would be d3, and we have it, and the second would be Blacktrax which is a motion tracking system currently being used in large productions. It allows you to easily track moving objects or artists with either video projection or lights and it works seamlessly with d3. We are just waiting for that one lucky client to come along so we can deploy this system.