She Blinded Me With Video Production

Imagine my surprise when I received a call out of the blue from Thomas Dolby (http://thomasdolby.com). “The Thomas Dolby?” I asked. “Yes,” responded the soft-spoken British voice. I felt a bit giddy inside, but managed to maintain my composure.

When Dolby was blowing up on MTV with his hit song “She Blinded Me With Science,” I was in that perfect demographic to be heavily influenced. The year was 1982, and I was a mere 12 years old. Twenty-something years later, why on earth would my teeny-bopper hero be calling me?!

I have a reputation as an innovator in the VJ world, and Dolby had heard my name through the grapevine. After a long hiatus from making music, during which Dolby spent years pioneering new music technology in the Silicon Valley, the time had come to return to concert touring. He had always incorporated video into his shows since the beginning; in fact, he directed all those videos that played on MTV. He knew video should be a strong component of his new act, especially because it is a one-man show.

The Thomas Dolby challenge was to create a video show that would be highly interactive with the music and would blow the audience away, of course. However, it had to be done on a shoestring budget. His long absence meant there was no label support for his return tour, so he would be funding the whole endeavor out of his own pocket. It also meant that venues would vary from small clubs to mid-sized theatres, so we needed a rig that would gracefully adapt to many different situations.

New Ways Of Thinking About Video

Before I proceed with the details of this do-it-yourself (DIY) approach, I want to talk a bit about paradigm shifts in live video production. All too often we see elaborate video shows, but the content comes from stock-footage libraries, played off of a media server as sequential lighting cues, which, in essence, functions as a kind of wallpaper for the performers. At the other extreme, large-scale productions often employ video merely as an amplifier of the stage action with live cameras. This is an important feature for big stadiums and arenas, but it lacks creative impact.

Video has the power to do much more than be just wallpaper or amplify the stage. It can tell stories, provide elaborate branding, and even provide virtual theatrical sets for the production design. The number-one problem with most video productions is bad content design. All the money in the world thrown at gear cannot compensate for a lack of good content. Along with good content, we need to think much more about integrating video into the overall set design, as opposed to throwing up a few screens in space, as display technology has certainly made strides in this area. Finally, it's important to think about using talented operators who can be dedicated to the task of handling the video show.

Enter the VJ, a new breed of video specialists usually coming from a visual art or electronic media background and with formal training in video. Well-organized VJs may even provide the video equipment at a substantial savings as compared to a production company. VJ tools can differ from broadcast video gear, using computer-based systems with a whole new class of VJ hardware that's been released from companies such as Edirol, Korg, Pioneer, and Numark. A good VJ will collaborate closely with the lighting designer to ensure the video design integrates well with the lighting. In the case of Dolby, the video was the primary light show, taking precedence over lighting, and thus we relied on whatever lighting each venue had in-house.

Content Is King

Once we negotiated the parameters for working together, the next step was to design all of the content. We collaborated with a talented video designer, Brian Ziffer (http://naoism.com/) for three months to create several hundred video clips and loops, categorized for each song. We used custom software written with Cycling 74's Max/MSP/Jitter, Quartz Composer, and Apple's Final Cut Studio. For some songs, we returned to Dolby's video archives, digitizing footage from laser disk and cutting them up into individual clips. This allowed us to “remix” the old footage live. We also did several video shoots, mostly abstract textural footage, or, for example, Ziffer shot a series of windmills from Indio, CA, for the song “Windpower.” Some clips were acquired by mining old 16mm film archives.

In addition to acquisition of clips, a technique we employed was to process much of the footage in the studio. The idea was to make otherwise pristine footage appear as though it were broadcast in 1950 or, perhaps, an alien transmission from space. In one case, we bought a vintage tube camera from eBay for $20 and “rescanned” the footage through the camera lens, adding a whole new quality we could only achieve through this method. In my opinion, spending quality time and budget on content design is the most important step for achieving a knockout video production.

The Projection Rig

For maximum flexibility, carrying two sizes of Da-Lite Fast-Fold Deluxe screens made the most sense. We brought a small 6'×8' and a larger 10'×4', both of which could be freestanding or hanging, and both with Dual-Vision surfaces for front or rear projection. Most often, we positioned the screen low to the ground and stage-left, with Dolby to the side of the screen, making the screen more of a player on the stage; at times during the show, he would interact with the screen.

The primary projector was a Panasonic PT-5500U (XGA, 5,000-lumen DLP) with three easily swappable lenses (a short f1.3-1.8, mid f1.8-2.5, and long f5.7-8.). The Panasonic has optical lens shift on the horizontal and vertical, which allows the projector to be placed up to 30° off-axis in any direction for maximum flexibility. This was the perfect projector for our needs and was rock-solid, never failing once.

I also carried an inexpensive and lightweight NEC VT35 (XGA 2,000-lumen DLP) used for “video lighting effects.” Many of the small clubs in which we played had only very basic lighting, sometimes nothing more than a few PARs. The idea was to project an independent video channel directly onto the music rig and his body as a special effect. Using a custom-fabricated mic stand projector mount, I placed it directly on stage in close proximity to Dolby. An interesting aspect of this was using an off-the-shelf Apple iPod as the media server for this projector, which actually worked very well.

The VJ Rig

The rig was designed to be a small footprint (one rack) but pack a lot of punch. It comprised an Apple Mac dual 2.5GHz G5, an Edirol V-4 video mixer, an M-Audio Axiom MIDI controller, an auxiliary MacBook Pro, and three cameras.

I write my own software, which includes movie playback, mixing, and, more importantly, custom realtime effects. This gives each of my clients unique looks and is very hard or impossible to get with stock systems. “DolbyMX,” as we called it, was written in Max/MSP/Jitter and featured up to four layers of video at once, using Photoshop-style composite modes rather than just simple crossfades. The software's special sauce was the vintage TV effect. All of the video was “warped” onto a 3D model of a 1950s-era television screen. The effect was subtle, and from the audience it appeared that our Fast-Fold was not flat and rectangular, but rather curved and bulging in the center.

Using the M-Audio controller, I could literally play video clips as if they were notes on a piano. Taking this musical approach can be much more engaging than playing a string of sequential cues, and it matched up perfectly with Dolby's virtuoso style. The software could also analyze the audio input — taken from the stage mix — and use it as control data. For example, this would be used for beat-synchronized mixing or actually driving the movie's playback head with the vocals.

We used three live VIOTAC cameras for the set, mounted at different angles on the rig, the same cams used by SWAT teams around the country. An important element of the show was that the audiences have an enhanced view of the action on stage, revealing Dolby's performance process. To this end, we mounted one of the cams on his head, providing a POV shot throughout the show.

I carried a MacBook Pro running custom software written in Quartz Composer and also VIDVOX VDMX. This machine was used as a dedicated effects processor. For example, during the song “May the Cube Be With You,” I would map the live camera onto a spinning 3D cube in space.

The live cameras and the computers were all tied together through the Edirol V-4 mixer. This provided additional mixing and effects and allowed me to route cam feeds into the computers for live processing. Although the computers and software are fully capable of pushing HD signals, I chose to run the show at SD resolution from end to end. This kept the cost down as HD hardware mixing is an expensive proposition.

The total cost of this DIY video production, including content development, was less than $25K. Spread out over a year and 70+ shows, the cost per show was approximately $350. The rig itself was very simple, but the audience was consistently impressed with the results. Dolby made a triumphant return to music, even turning a profit, which exceeded his expectations. Ultimately, it is my hope that designers and producers incorporate video much more in the future. From small acts to arena shows and everything in between, investing some time and finding the right people can dazzle your audience, and it need not break the bank in the process.


Johnny DeKam is a video director and VJ based in no particular city. He is currently working on Dream Theater's Systematic Chaos World Tour. Visit his Website at http://node.net/.