When the San Francisco-based, nonprofit Kronos Quartet was chosen to tour the country performing a multimedia tribute to NASA's years of space exploration, the group wanted to find unique video imagery compelling enough to combine with original musical compositions written to evoke emotions related to the wonders of space.
At various venues around the country, the group periodically performs “Sun Rings,” an evening-long musical piece commissioned by NASA and created by composer Terry Riley in tribute to the launch of NASA's Voyager satellite 25 years ago. The piece combines string quartet music, chorus, actual recordings of sounds from outer space, and video. Riley's compositions incorporate sounds called “whistlers,” which were recorded by NASA satellites over the years — essentially, the sounds of space — played back in synch with recorded electronic sounds and a live string performance by the quartet, backed by original video images.
To match images with those sounds, NASA gave visual designer Willie Williams, working with London's Punk Films, access to rare footage taken by NASA satellites and Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL). Punk's job was to clean, prepare, and edit that footage so it could be clearly displayed on a large screen during the Kronos tour.
“We used Adobe After Effects, relying on a plug-in called Denoiser (from a company called Composite Wizard) and another called FX deinterlacer (from Re:Vision) to remove artifacts and clean up the footage,” says Mark Logue, Punk's director and producer of several pre-packaged video presentations for a variety of big musical acts. His work includes imagery for the Rolling Stones, whose video show was also designed by Williams (see “The Stones' Cool Video ‘Licks,’” page 34). “The problem with satellite footage is it is captured at high speeds to deal with either high- or low-light qualities, and the pitch quality is therefore compromised and the footage becomes banded and jittery. That effect would be magnified if you project the footage onto 60-foot screens. So we used these tools to clean up, reformat, resize, color-correct, time-blend, and stretch the images so that it would work for these performances.”
Punk also filmed additional material and created some original animation to combine with NASA footage for particular portions of the “Sun Rings” performance. The company delivered all the video as QuickTime clips on a LaCie 160GB external hard disk, along with two DVD-ROMs as backup.
During performances, Kronos production director/lighting designer Larry Neff plays the MPEG-2 video back through an Alcorn McBride DVM-2 player to a single Christie X-6 Roadster projector, supplied by Creative Technology, Los Angeles. That video is projected from a front-of-house booth onto existing screens at the various venues — “standard plastic screens, with the size of the images varying at each show, depending on placement of the projector and the nature of masking, usually about 40 to 45 feet wide and about 28 or 30 feet high,” says Neff.
The video is synchronized with the show's recorded sound elements by audio engineer/sound designer Mark Grey. He uses Max/MSP control software (a tool that ties graphic elements to audio elements for simultaneous playback, from manufacturer Cycling '74, San Francisco), running on a Macintosh G4 to trigger the video from the DVM-2 player to the projector, and the recorded audio elements simultaneously. Neff, meanwhile, manually runs the lighting part of the show, which he designed using house boards at the various venues.
“Willie Williams' stage setting is a very clean and simple affair that involves a lot of vertical rods on stage, with small light bulbs on top of each rod, on several circuits that can move around a bit,” says Neff. “I stay very spare with the lighting on purpose, to let it complement the video. The idea is to stay with low intensity lighting, and let video have the lead.”
Send submissions for the Center Stage column to SRO Senior Editor Michael Goldman at email@example.com