City lights sparkle as lightning flashes in a dark, foreboding sky. Flames appear, and cars begin floating up from their parking spots on the streets, slowly moving through the canyons between the tall buildings. Suddenly, a part of the city breaks away from the scene and, defying gravity, it lifts high into the night sky and rises to the stars.
These are just a few of the scenes from the concert visuals motion designer Barton Damer created for American hip hop artist Lecrae’s 30-city tour promoting his Grammy-nominated album, Gravity. Damer had just three weeks to create the 20 minutes of video footage that served as a visual backdrop to the show, and his primarily tools included Cinema 4D, Adobe After Effects, and Greyscale Gorilla’s City Kit. See footage Damer shot at Lecraie’s Dallas tour stop:
Damer, an award-winning designer and digital artist who dubbed his own studio Already Been Chewed (ABC), is known for going after projects he wants to work on, and this one was no exception. In this case, he sent an email to Lecrae and Ben Washer, co-owners of Reach Records, apprising them of his latest work and client list. As luck would have it, the two men happened to be in a meeting going over possible visual elements for Lecrae’s upcoming tour when Damer’s email arrived.
Days later, Lecrae met with Damer to talk over ideas. Damer, who had studied the Gravity album and its lyrics, showed Lecrae several sketches he had made, including ideas based on outer space and floating object such as cars. “The images didn’t match the lyrics of the songs,” says Damer. “But they matched the overall theme of the power of gravity.” Lecrae loved what he saw and Damer got the job. (See more of Damer’s work here.)
Supporting the Vibe
Lecrae asked Damer to create visuals to accompany the second half of his 40-minute set, and provided him with the songs he planned to do. Damer modeled the first four songs to the beat of Lecrae’s music. The remaining visuals matched the theme of the album, but not the beat. To broaden the usage of the visuals for his client, Damer also designed video that could be played with other Lecrae songs beyond the Gravity tour.
Knowing that Lecrae would be supported on stage by rerecorded tracks, a live DJ, a drummer and a guitarist, Damer’s goal was to have visuals serve as an extra instrument. “I want the visuals to always support the vibe of what’s happening in the song,” he explains. “I just want to support the music and try to bring it to life visually.”
The visual storyline is consistent with the album’s art, logo and lyrics. So the audience sees a city in the midst of turbulence and disarray. Tension builds until part of the city breaks free and floats away before returning during the song “Tell the World” with a message about what happened in outer space.
Using only a 12-core Mac Pro, Damer designed by day and rendered all night. “Most people in this industry won’t believe that,” he says, noting that three or four years ago this kind of rendering and performance wasn’t possible. “But because of Cinema, I was able to render it all so quickly, which speaks to its performance.”
Beyond the Sky
A skateboarding aficionado who is always challenging himself to try new moves, Damer starts every project by asking himself, “What’s already been done?” This constant personal challenge is a reminder to always keep things fresh. “The tendency for some creative people is to repeat what they’ve done in the past, but I like to make sure I’m always learning,” he says, adding that he always tries to design with purpose, particularly when it comes to concert visuals. “It can be very easy to make some something that simply looks cool, but I always feel better and more strategic if I have a reason for why I did what I did.”
Using a template provided by Reach Records, Damer was able to place content across one large LED screen and four smaller ones behind Lecrae and the band to create one continuous effect. Content was created in HD and masked to fit the five screens. As long as he stayed inside the template, Damer was free to decide what appeared on each screen at any given time.
Wanting to foreshadow the tension of the climactic scenes, Damer opens with a dark, apocalyptic sky looming over the city. To light the sky, Damer created what he calls a “crude form of matte painting.” First, he placed a stock photo of a sky in C4D as a background and used it as a large plane. Next, he used Photoshop to create clouds and the dramatic sky. Flashes of lighting were created frame by frame in After Effects using stock photographs of lightning. This approach allowed him to time the lightning flashes to the beat of the music.
A City In Turmoil
The deadline was too short to model a city from scratch, so Damer used Greyscale Gorilla’s City Kit to create a cityscape that he could customize as needed. Rough placement of the buildings in the shape of the Gravity logo was achieved using a cloner object. From there, Damer customized the final placement of each building by hand before lighting everything in C4D. One of the biggest challenges, he says, was developing camera moves for the “ginormous” city. But using a series of Nulls keyframed by hand, Damer was able to create a variety of smooth moves.
To get a look that popped off the screen, Damer based textures and lighting of the buildings on photographs and films of Tokyo. Each building was lit using very specific silver, purple and blue hues at strategic locations throughout the city. “I wanted to make the city bright and really shiny,” recalls Damer. “With these kind of concert visuals, you want things to be a little more bold than you might normally so things will look good from a distance.”
The floating cars began as 3D models Damer bought online. Using C4D, he animated each car’s position with manual keyframes so they would cross the camera at certain times and on beat. “Everything was done by hand so, depending on what the song was doing, the car’s position would enhance whatever was happening,” says Damer.
Because Lecrae’s tour included a stop in Damer’s hometown of Dallas, Texas, he was able to be in the audience and experience his own work firsthand. To capture the event, Damer arranged to have a film crew record the concert before thousands of enthusiastic fans. “It was definitely a thrill to see all the visuals supporting Lecrae’s performance in front of 8,000 people,” he says.
Going forward, Damer hopes to create more concert visuals for other pop icons, such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and Jay-Z. “Concert visuals are a huge inspiration to me and my work,” he says. “My goal is simply to do a lot of fun projects with cool people.”
Scott Strohmaier is a writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and son.