MIA-live glitch test from andrew benson on Vimeo.

Our friend Andrew Benson got the attention of MIA here on Create Digital Motion with his real-time glitch creations in Max/MSP/Jitter. Andrew shares some stories from the road with a detailed gig report from Coachella, which reveals a bit of what goes on backstage at these shows. I also really enjoy this clips, because lots of techniques that were once typically pre-rendered or assembled as static motion graphics clips are increasingly applicable in real-time. That makes for an extended palette for visualists – and very good times ahead.

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Here’s Andrew – a rough and uncut diary, but with lots of juicy details as a result. The big revelation: we need to get out there and evangelize doing things live, with artists major and obscure alike.

Early Thursday morning, I flew down to Burbank and was driven directly to this gigantic rehearsal studio called Centerstaging.  GnR was also there preparing for their tour this coming summer (what a luxurious amount of prep-time).  Upon arrival, I was introduced to the folks I would be working with, and urged to set up quickly and get things running.  Maya and the dancers arrived a little later, and we jumped right into it.  I worked with a really talented Lighting/Video Director named Arlo and the techs that ran the rented LED video wall.  During rehearsals, the wall kept breaking down in mysterious ways, so the tech dude was completely freaked, and none of us were feeling very optimistic about that.  During one run-through I had to watch my entire set on my laptop screen.

MIA twenty-dollar test stretched from andrew benson on Vimeo.

BTW, the concept of doing a bunch of live-processing of video using a laptop is completely amazing to these big-scale production people.  Pretty much everyone in the industry just triggers clips from a MBox media server except maybe Nine Inch Nails, so they kept looking over my shoulder in bewilderment.  Over the 2 days at Centerstaging, the set list changed at least 3 times, and there was a little bit of indecision about the video content.  I had to make a few last minute changes to my patch to accommodate things like mixing in a live camera feed for one song or compositing in flag shots into another song.  We unfortunately cut the song "Bucky Done Gun" during the show, for which I had all these great YouTube videos of Somali pirates, glue sniffing kids, and rave-a-delic flag animations prepped.  Friday evening during our last run-through I was informed of some "minor" changes that would require me redoing all of the automated state-changes I had done, and adding a number of extra midi triggers to an already complicated logical structure.  This meant I would be performing with a slightly untested system on Saturday night, and we were still recompressing video in the production trailer at Coachella.

I should mention that M.I.A. and all the people that work with her are awesome, totally warm, welcoming and there is this nice informal professionalism that permeates the whole show.  I was able to easily voice my concerns and had creative input into the overall look of what I was doing.  I kept hearing the whole week how amazing my work was, and how much Kanye is going to love it. More on that in a minute.

I drove out to Coachella with Arlo and Andrew Plourde (the guy who runs all the tracks that the DJ doesn’t do and handles a lot of the technology for M.I.A.). We missed the exit and ended up driving another 35 miles before we saw another one.  We were put up in a really swanky resort for the night that I got to enjoy for an entire 6 hours before getting up and doing soundcheck.

Saturday morning, we had to sound check late because the Killers were moving extra-slow, but our stuff went up easily, and I was able to lobby for a "world" on top of a Killers road case far forward on stage right with a pretty good angle of the video wall.  My patch started up quickly and everything worked, but I was getting less-than-perfect framerates.  During sound check I was able to test all of the MIDI triggers with Andrew P. to make sure all of that was working.  After sound check I wandered around with Mr. Plourde, who also works for Obscura Digital, and he showed me the Heineken rave dome that they had put together for the festival.  I didn’t catch much music mostly because it was 95 degrees and I had access to air-conditioned dressing rooms.  As TV on the Radio was setting up to play, it dawned on me why I wasn’t getting good framerates, so I ran back to the stage and sat down to debug my patch while they started their awesome set.  I was actually able to get things running well, and stripped out a bunch of functionality that ended up getting cut from the show, which helped the framerate.  By the time that set was over, my patch was getting an easy 30fps. I also had access to the live camera feed so I recorded a couple minutes of TVOTR going through my processing system.

MIA-amazon-demo from andrew benson on Vimeo.

MIA didn’t go onstage until 8:55pm, so I retreated to the compound for a nap.   The  posse arrived at around 7:30 so I went and grabbed some food at the catering tent before I had to go on.  When I got back from dinner, Kanye West and John Legend were hanging around (they share a tour manager) in the compound.  I didn’t really notice so I sat down on the couch and tried to close my eyes for a couple of minutes.  By that point I had pixel-brains.  I heard Nancy talking about me so I look up and there’s Mr. West with a big old grin on his face. Ha. I had no idea he was actually gonna be there.

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The show itself was pretty spectacular.  The dancers she hired were these hilarious kids from Baltimore she discovered on youtube and were ridiculously talented but had no formal training. They were dressed in these Electro-luminescent outfits designed by Janet from who also did the Daft Punk suits.  That part looked really awesome.  My live video work didn’t really come in until halfway through the set, so the first little bit was just making sure that things were working and running over my notes.  My first song, "$20" went really easy and looked great, but during "Bird Flu" there was a full scale stage invasion by the fans that ended with some dude nearly taking out Andrew P’s laptop and succeeding in yanking the ethernet cable running to the onstage Lemur controller.  My rig never suffered for it though, and he recovered quickly.  We were running over time, so we clipped Bucky.  "Galang" was easy, since I just had to switch on the automated "computer failure" process during the ya-ya-heys and make sure the prebaked parts got triggered at the right moment.  The big finale of the show was the song "Paper Planes" where I really rode the faders and I did a live "datamosh" on Maya’s live camera feed, which was really well shot and had just enough noise in the signal to really make the colors vibrant.  From what I can tell it looked awesome, and I was really proud of it.   As soon as that ended, we were rushed offstage by the Killers’ crew and I packed up my gear (laptop, ADVC-110, LaCie drive, and korg nanokontrol), had a glass of wine, said goodbye to everyone, and got in the van with the DJs and the dancers back to the hotel in Burbank.

Now I’m back in SF, re-immersing myself in normal life and trying to catch up from 2 weeks of distraction.  It was a crazy amount of work and super long days, but I would do it again in a minute.
Here’s a terrible documentation video shot from sidestage:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYtK6CagwYc
and there are a couple of test-clips on my vimeo page.  Hopefully more soon.

  • http://www.yuv.me yuv

    very, very nice work! Awesome to get to work with pro crew and big-ass rigs now and then, yup :)

  • Andrew Benson

    I would also like to point out that there was also some really high-quality work contributed to this show by Daniel Swan and Obscura Digital (who produced a lot of her touring video content), in addition to the work that I did.

  • Louis

    I may have an unpopular point of view, but I really appreciate rendered visual and montage. I understand how exiting it is for you to render all that live but it's really doesn't make any difference for the public. I understand the interest of interactive visual but what I've seen so far didn't blew my mind. What I'm saying is just that we should stop doing things "that are all live" and start doing things "that couldn't be done if it wasn't live". Must of the thing I see today are technologically impressive and I can appreciate that. But I also really liked those non-datamoshed montage we use to have ;)
    *I beg pardon for my terrible English*

  • joshua goldberg

    don't listen to the haters, andrew. it's always best if it's live. :) and yes, you're awesome.

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    If it's pre-rendered, it better be, like, IMAX. That is all. ;)

  • Andrew Benson

    @Louis, I think there's room on the bus for all of us. I do a lot of pre-rendered montage too, and I really don't think it's going away any time soon.

  • Louis

    I guess what I wanted to say is that it's not automatically better if it's live. But don't get me wrong, you're stuff is great and I got a serious crush for lo-fi. (a bitcrush that is)

  • kingluma

    I'm very sympathetic to Louis's point – and what Joshua says is wrong – it's not at all "always better if it's live" unless you mean it's more interesting for the performers – there certainly can be a benefit to live that can be perceived by the audience, but a lot of live performers think their experience of it is more closely shared by the audience than it really is

    that said, I'm very interested in live motion graphics

  • http://www.digitalmediajockey.com Kevin Hackett

    I love it all, live or rendered. Good job to all involved. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Right, but if artists are generally unaware of the *possibilities* or potential advantages of doing something live, that is something that needs people to evangelize a bit. I'm not saying live is *always* better – I think that depends on your goals. But I do think live performance has a unique value that's not the same as running something pre-rendered, and the fact is that not only audiences but many musical artists aren't educated about what those possibilities are.

    Now, whether audiences appreciate this is another matter. But, let's be frank here – audiences often aren't appreciative, period. That's not a criticism; part of the nature of musical performance in all kinds of cultures has always been that your audience is there for various reasons. They might be there at a club, or a wedding, or a funeral. They might just want to eat dinner or talk to friends. And that's fine – even us as specialists have been in that role ourselves. But I think if you focus only on what the audience understands and appreciates, you miss the depth of the possibility of art. That doesn't have to be an "elitist" argument – it can be a spiritual one. Many cultures have a notion of some unseen "essential" audience in the spirit world. Whatever you want to call it, a lot of us have deeper reasons for performing live.

  • Louis

    So as I understand, lives performances make you closer to god?

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Louis: Hell, yeah! It's a G*****n rush, I tell you. ;)

  • http://www.ilovebrain.se martin

    Amazing, thanks for sharing!

  • Adam

    <blockquote cite="Peter">Many cultures have a notion of some unseen “essential” audience in the spirit world.<cite>

    Out of curiosity which cultures are you refering to?

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Adam: it's pretty common in southeast Asian cultures, something that gets talked about in Indonesian music in particular (just having spoken to those musicians). But I think it translates to Western devotional music, too. Now, of course, maybe someone isn't performing in what they consider some sort of worship context. But I think doing something live may be all about being in that moment, which is something someone who's an atheist might also appreciate.

  • grigori

    Very nice! Live or Pre-Rendered,- as long as its fresh, suitable to the moment and gets some sort of message across beating along to the music… – Awesome all around!

  • http://pixlpa.com Andrew Benson

    Thanks to everyone for the kind words!

  • kingluma

    Peter wrote ; "Right, but if artists are generally unaware of the *possibilities* or potential advantages of doing something live, that is something that needs people to evangelize a bit"

    I agree – I went to the recent Cambridge MA Motion Graphics Fest performance at the Brattle theater (where Peter and others performed), and as someone who has done a lot creating motion graphics "art" movies using various non-realtime software tools (and someone who probably hasn't seen too much live interactive graphics used this way), I went with a somewhat skeptical attitude about it – but I think the show made me more of a believer for sure. My day job currently involves spending some time building comps in Quartz Composer which are eventually used as plugins for Apple Final Cut Studio, but thinking more about the possibilities of doing live stuff obviously makes it (Quartz Composer etc.) more interesting

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @kingluma – well, that's certainly a relief! I'm much happier personally when the audience enjoys themselves. Actually, part of why I enjoyed that evening so much was that we did have a really receptive audience and a nice venue; I very much appreciated that.

    I certainly don't view this as any sort of either/or proposition. I think people do understand the benefits of rendered material, and it can be very effective. I'm always trying to expand my own personal range of what I can appreciate, and believe it's important to do that for other folks, too.

  • http://momothemonster.com momo the monster

    Thanks for the write-up, Andrew! It's mighty interesting to read about the differences between a VJ working directly with an artist at Coachella vs. our experience being a few steps removed (most of our artistic discussions happen a few minutes before go-time).

    Great work! Happy to see real live visuals for a big-name act.

  • http://youtube.com/trudeau11 trudeau

    Person in black suit dancing against white wall: one of several reasons why I enjoyed every bit of this report.

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