VJ article from New York Times
( article from NYTimes.com )
Making Images Dance to a Rock Beat
September 19, 2002
By MARK GLASER
SAN FRANCISCO -- AT Ruby Skye, an 1890 theater transformed
into one of the city's most fashionable music clubs, the
artistry is not limited to the turntable and the dance
floor. A 24-foot-wide screen provides a canvas for the
video jockey, a visual artist with the hardware and
software tools to manipulate complex 3-D animations on the
fly - and to the music's beat.
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
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
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
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.
"The Newport Jazz Festival in '69 was a totally
mind-blowing experience for me, with the Joshua Light Show
projected behind the music of Sun Ra," said Greg
Hermanovic, a longtime V.J. who created 3-D special-effects
software called Houdini that has been used in dozens of
feature films. Recently, he started Derivative Software and
created Touch, a version of Houdini that lets visual
artists manipulate 3-D animation as it is shown.
The lineage of technology for visuals includes "liquid
projections" (colored oils on overhead projectors) as well
as slide and film projectors in the 1960's and 70's; the
Fairlight CVI (computer video instrument) in the 80's; and
the high-powered Silicon Graphics workstations of the early
90's. As the technology has matured and become more
accessible, the art of the video jockey has gone global.
The rise of rave culture and electronic music has produced
fertile ground for V.J.'s in Britain, and Japanese V.J.'s
are promoted on billboards and regarded as artists on a par
with disc jockeys.
A British musical duo called Coldcut has been working for
more than a decade with audio and video sampling, that is,
appropriating and remixing bits of other people's material.
They eventually released their own software, VJamm, which
helps V.J.'s mix videos on their computers to the beat of
the music, also known as video jamming.
Matt Black, the more visually oriented half of Coldcut, was
influenced by a pioneering V.J. crew called Emergency
Broadcast Network, which toured with U2 on the ZooTV tour
in 1992. Mr. Black helped invent a device called the
Dextractor, a second stylus arm on the turntable that
converts the movement of the record into special effects in
whatever video is being projected. The duo recently helped
create remixes of the audio and video versions of Herbie
Hancock's classic tune "Rockit."
That some of the technology has become more affordable
eases the way. "The dot-com bust actually flooded the
market with cheap video projectors used at failed start-up
companies," said Grant Davis of the San Francisco
video-jockey collective known as Dimension 7.
Like many other V.J.'s in the Bay Area, Mr. Davis took his
video equipment out to Burning Man, the weeklong summer
arts festival in the Nevada desert, where monstrous lasers
and video projections have provided the background to
countless raves. Mr. Davis, 34, is known for using unusual
projection surfaces, like rows of bicycle rims or a
rotating cube of screens. He is planning an audiovisual
tour next year called Lumens, which will showcase the work
of video jockeys from around the country.
The task of creating original video art, while greatly
enhanced by the latest technology, can still be
labor-intensive. Bec Stupak, one of the three V.J.'s in the
Brooklyn-based Honeygun Labs, says her group has put in
countless hours building a multipurpose video library for
shows, including stylized dancers and animations of
skateboarders. For the bigger shows, she says, they might
spend several weeks preparing relevant video.
"We can now play for over 12 hours without repeating any of
our footage," she said. "We've also been able to create
more of our own material, using less and less found
The strategy has paid off: Honeygun Labs is now represented
by Grey Multimedia, a talent agency that represents
performers like Run-DMC and DJ Spooky.
But most V.J.'s in the United States continue to hold down
day jobs, and many use their live performances as a way to
promote their design or video-editing work. They toil
mainly in the shadow of D.J.'s or other musical artists and
rarely make enough money to pay for expensive equipment.
But that situation could change in the near future, as
video artists like Honeygun Labs look for top billing and
video technology becomes cheaper.
Michael O'Rourke, who helped found the Dimension 7
collective, sees an uptick in interest for video jockeying
at the monthly salons that group holds at its warehouse
space in downtown San Francisco. "Right now, we're at the
place where D.J.'ing was 15 years ago," he said. "We're
seeing the early stages of an explosion."
Ms. Stupak of Honeygun Labs concurs that V.J.'s are about
to experience a worldwide boom. "The exciting part is that
I think it's just a beginning," she said. "Video is
becoming a larger part of the world - you can see it in
supermarkets, meeting rooms, stores, and even built into
the sides of buildings." Video art, she said, "no longer is
something reserved for theaters and galleries."