For as long as memory serves, if you are at an electronic music event, your entire body is positioned so you are facing the DJ, or as the case may be, the artist. This individual is doing absolutely nothing worth looking at. It’s true whether you’re looking at someone throw their arms in the air and jump around a bit, or someone that rarely looks up, or even uncurls from a back problem-inducing crunched position for the entirety of their set. Yet the spectators’ eyes do not unglue from the stage. It’s as if the EDM event will not fully be experienced if they avert their attention for even a few minutes.
The club-goers’ rapt attention has been rewarded. Forward thinking artists such as Paul Oakenfold and Amon Tobin, standard-setting venues such as Las Vegas’ Marquee, music festivals like Ultra, all provide something for you to look at.
Enter Vello Virkhaus and V Squared Labs.
[quote]“In electronic music there’s more room for freeform.”[/quote]Based out of Los Angeles, Virkhaus’ V Squared Labs has been providing cutting-edge visuals to accompany electronic music since 2000. Operated by designers, multimedia artists, programmers, producers, as well as office staff, in addition to being an artist, Virkhaus has also taken on a director role. The studio is wholly digital-based focusing on developing their product around the program TouchDesigner from the Canadian company Derivative.
The Labs’ high quality and high tech presentations are as distinct as they are varied. From the heightened 3D experience of Tobin to the outer space one tailored to Oakenfold and the multiple worlds created for the Marquee, the Labs provide a multi-sensory encounter for the audience.
A large part of why V Squared Labs’ presentations work as well as they do is the airtight relationship the visuals have with the clients. It is the client who makes the initial approach so there is an understanding of what can be expected from the Labs.
Virkhaus likens the Labs’ proposal process to that of an advertising agency. Once the potential client has approached the Labs, they put together a series of looks that set a mood. Anywhere from 15 to 20 images per page, a layout is developed towards putting together a collection. This is sent to the client with an estimate. From this point there might be negotiations and revisions. Hopefully after this, the job is awarded to the Labs.
Once the job is locked in, the storyboarding starts. This maps out the production as well as the responsibilities for each team member. Within a couple of weeks a series of stills that define the look of the show are produced for the client’s approval. Sometimes there is time and money for a second look, other times it is either not necessary or not affordable.
“I’m producing a show for Datsik right now,” Virkhaus says. “He had a pencil sketch that kind of looked like a speaker cone with this stick figure standing in the middle of it, which was supposed to be him. We went on to build that in 3D and came up with a series of 10 pages of different design ideas to try and hone in on what he likes. One page of radar, high-tech interface screens, one page of dark biomechanical, Transformer looking creatures, one page of evil, dubstep looking, electrical, blue-ish, robotic series, trying to set a mood.”
[quote]“Our most successful shows have been from start to finish with us. The shows where we’ve been in charge of all of the creative, all of the content and visual works, the performance system itself…”[/quote]
After another few weeks the client will see how the animation is developing and get an overall feel for the visuals. For any given project, most of the team is involved. In some cases, outside experts might be brought in for specific parts of the project.
“It’s definitely about making smart assignments to what people’s aesthetics are,” says Virkhaus. “On the Tobin work we’re doing, I put one person per theme. If I need 3D modeling, like building extra details into a model, or help source photography, I’ll bring in more muscle. It’s about collaborating with other directors and production designers.”
For corporate events, just a hard drive is delivered, for festivals it’s a one-off thing that doesn’t need revisiting. For DJ tours, the Labs have developed their own media server, which they send out on the road. This requires another set of production that happens towards the end where the system is being customized to the show. At this point things get very nuts-and-bolts-y with concerns about number of outputs, number of displays, tailoring code, and programming to the design. Basically, customizing a touring solution or adapting of the Labs’ own racks or cases. After loading the entire concept, a dress rehearsal is gone through to work out any kinks. Then it goes out to meet the world.
“Our most successful shows have been from start to finish with us,” says Virkhaus. “The shows where we’ve been in charge of all of the creative, all of the content and visual works, the performance system itself, the development of that and the final implementation of it. I see that as the tightest quality control the whole way through.”
It is not just the electronic world that is benefiting from the progress of visuals beyond a Pink Floyd laser show. High profile musicians such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Drake, Miley Cyrus, Black Eyed Peas are pushing the performance envelope by employing V Squared Labs to create customized visuals for their tours. Additionally, corporate entities such as Heineken are enhancing their brand by having the Labs sharpen up their image with an engrossing visual experience. Festival attendees felt the impact for themselves in Heineken’s double dome at Coachella.
“The visual experience and trying to create a jaw-dropping environment for electronic music is a natural accompaniment to DJ artistry,” says Virkhaus. “With a band like Chili Peppers or the Police, there’s actual song structure. Those songs have so much meaning, both psychological and emotional, and you can read so much into the lyrics. There’s such a strong physical performance going on. You’re really creating a theme or piece per song.
He continues, “In electronic music there’s more room for freeform. You can create 30 different looks or loops that could complement each other that the VJ could recombine where they see fit. We’ve also produced completely synced shows where it’s like the rock ‘n’ roll approach. A narrative show where things are locked up directly to the music and concurrently had real-time interactive things that you could perform on top. That is more complicated than a rock show. You have things changing and effects being added by the DJ or orders changing or improvising that requires pre-produced content and real-time capabilities. It’s mixing those two elements together that makes it more interesting for the viewer.”
[quote]“The show experience is important to the audience…There’s no going back to the early ‘90s where you could go to a dark room with a couple of red lights on the DJ anymore.”[/quote]
It is the free nature of electronic music that drew Virkhaus in to begin with. At the Art Institute Of Chicago where he was working on his Bachelor Of Fine Arts, was where Virkhaus was first exposed to the style through his DJ roommate. His college’s conventional art exhibits didn’t appeal to Virkhaus who wanted to present a visual performance with loud electronic music and loads of attendees—pretty much what V Squared Labs does now. Inspired by Emergency Broadcast Network, Psychic TV, Terrence McKenna, and all manner of electronic sounds and technology-based visuals, in 1992 he put together a visual artist collective, OVT Visuals. He realized his vision for an exhibition throwing underground raves in high school gyms and roller rinks.
“We would bring gigantic bed sheets sewn together and set up 20 different 16mm film projectors and layer imagery together with film loops,” Virkhaus remembers. “Video wasn’t even around. We had a giant projector that was 500 Lumens, as bright as a tiny Pico projector now. Desktop computing shifted things over where you didn’t have to have a silicone graphics machine anymore. You didn’t have to have a computer the size of a refrigerator to composite visual effects. Technology development has enabled me to be empowered as an artist.”
Fast forward to 2008 in Las Vegas. Oakenfold’s three-year residency at Rain in the Palms was a trailblazing themed show designed by V Squared Labs. In addition to the DJ and the VJ, the extravagant audio/visual arcing narrative included dancers, choreography, and props for a fully immersive experience that extended to even the flyers for the night. Taking cues from that presentation, the Marquee enlisted the Labs to create eight themed visual residencies for each of their DJs. From the brightness and pop colors of Kaskade to the ‘80s inspired workout world of LMFAO, the show’s reach includes a spectacular LED wall, costumes, characters, and dance routines, all defining a visual identity for the DJ and the night.
Corporate clients are taking advantage of this type of definition using V Squared Labs to sculpt an environment for their brand. The aforementioned Coachella Heineken Dome, for example. There the Labs created their own 360º visual software to do visual performance in a dome. The brand is incorporated into the visual show throughout the day in creative ways. At the moment, the Labs are working on an installation for Google.
“We’ve created a 3D sculpture that represents the five different targets of Google’s brand with five different pillars,” says Virkhaus. “We’ll come up with ways to represent the aesthetics of a brand like in an immersive environment or inside a sculpture. Immerse people into the nature of the brand without bashing them over the head with logos, do some really cool art and be able to have it relate throughout the course of a day to the brand.“
Ideas aren’t repeated at V Squared Labs, but there is an aesthetic that comes from the creators’ own artistic leanings. For Virkhaus this is modernist composition. For the Labs, there a real-time 3D mapping effect for projection mapping whose language of style has been adapted to many of their projects. Examples of this within 3D geometry are highlighting the edges, making the line move around the object, in-depth scanning, breaking apart and shattering, and X-Ray effects.
Virkhaus himself keeps his ideas fresh by checking out other visual shows, gallery-hopping, constant surfing of Vimeo and Facebook—particularly people’s “like” collections, watching movies, flicking through print magazines, and watching television awards shows. His next step is to make a 3D experiential concert film around the Amon Tobin show.
“Technology and interest in electronic music together created the rise of the new visualists,” he says. “The show experience is important to the audience. They love the music, but they’re all about the show. There’s no going back to the early ‘90s where you could go to a dark room with a couple of red lights on the DJ anymore.”