We live in the future and I realized this more than ever this Halloween weekend.
Let me tell you a story.
I (Jon Bonk) was lucky enough to be part of a few amazing event this Halloween of 2016, initially I was invited by Robot Heart to do video and tech setup for them. Then it spiraled out from there. As I was going to be in NYC anyways, I decided to head back to my hometown, Boston, where I played at my old residency, Elements. The last part that put the icing on the cake came when Minimal Effort, also contacted me to work with them for their Halloween party too! Optexture was playing 3 parties on both coasts.
What a weekend.
I made a quick video flyer to show what I was doing.
So, Robot Heart setup for most of a week, up to Boston, do a show, back to NYC, do Robot Heart, fly out early to LA and do another show! I was prepared and ready to give it my best. Let me tell you how it all went down.
First, about Robot Heart a bit. They are a large Burning Man group out of NYC that are infamous for having a bus and are very keen to make legendary music come out of it. They’ve had Thugfucker, Bedouin, Dj Tennis, Diplo and Skrillex, the Scumfrog, Art Department, the list goes on and on. I highly suggest checking out their Soundcloud. In the last few years they have even expanded to their own festival, Further Future (which deserves its own post). While they are waiting to get back to the western deserts, they also throw an amazing NYC Halloween party. It’s a high tech throwback to the 90’s raves heyday. This time around they had chosen an old organic fertilizer factory in the Bronx as their warehouse. It sounds a bit dodgy I know, but they sink serious money into their merrymaking, and this time was no different. Weeks before, they had big team come in and power wash the whole place, not to mention a few industrial street sweepers.
So here you have it, we had a warehouse and 2 weeks to make it shine. The visual team was headed up by Levitation Theory, who is renowned at making over the top visual productions happen on time and on a budget. The setup this time was the biggest ever, the space was huge, with a capacity almost to 4000 people. We planned to project map all of it. How do you ask?
With Lots. Of. Projectors.
This is 16 x 8000 Lumen projectors. That is not even counting the additional ones for the heart, the LED panels for the bus, or the 4 moving head projectors(!) in the light rig. Not your usual home theatre models either. These bad boys can make nighttime forget how to dark on a huge scale. So, by having 16 of them linked up together, we could make the entire interior surface of the warehouse our video screen. This meant taking a lot of time putting up projectors, and that is just what we did for days on end.
Okay, we have projectors, but how to make them all play nicely together? Well you need a computer.
You thought you home gaming rig was powerful huh? Do you have to take it upstairs with a forklift? Although I am not going to tout the exact specs of this beast, let’s just say it can do 16 separate outputs and costs upwards of $32 grand. Add in a few more Mac Pros and we have enough computing power to likely figure out why we all think the 80’s were cool.
The setup was long days, and as productions always are, fraught with delays and setbacks. The team was solid though, and we surged forward with the preparation. After a few days I took my leave and headed up to Boston.
The show in Boston was nice. I had been the resident VJ at Elements for 8 years and going back was like returning home. I was surrounded by friends and working with my buddy (and Optexture member) Buzi was a good time. I also got to stop in down the street to Make It New, which has been the Boston hold out for house events for years. All in all a good time.
I got to sleep likely around 3AM, and quickly woke up at 6AM. Why would I do such a thing? I had a ride with Robot Heart’s Carl. Carl is made of LED magic, and in the past worked in a company that revolutionized the high intensity LED market. He had offered the ride and I didn’t want him to go alone (as he had broken both his arms at the burn this year, and although he was on the mend, might need a break driving). We got to the warehouse around 11AM after having to stop for gas and driving through more of the pristine Connecticut countryside then I would care to see again.
Already running off a lack of a sleep, I helped set up the rest of the day until the party actually started, stopping only for an hour to crash. The place looked amazing, and I tip my hat to the multiple teams that worked tirelessly on this event (I was in good company being sleep deprived).
I was pretty tired. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t having fun though.
The next section I will reserve for the truly interested, it mostly will be technical mumbo jumbo, you can pick up after the section break if you don’t care for it
The setup at Robot Heart for the video was like this: 1 person would be performing on the Heart on top of the bus, one person on the LED screen on the bus, and 1 (or more) would be running “the planetarium”, which was the video mapped building. So at all times we had 3 VJs running the building at once.
The planetarium was set up through the giant production computer, which was running TouchDesigner into 4 native outs, each running a Datapath (gives you 4 outs for each output, much better than a Matrox Triplehead2Go for 2 reasons. 1: one more out, and 2: much more stable! Too bad the cost 3x as much though) which gave us the outputs we needed. These ran into SDI cables that were flown across the the space above all the partiers’ heads. We used SDI cable for most of the wire runs, this place was huge and we needed the length only a SDI cord could provide. The SDI was paired with Blackmagic SDI-HDMI and HDMI-SDI on the ends when we didn’t have an SDI in (around half of the planetarium projectors didn’t).
The bus LED screen (which was an amazing HD panel system, best I have ever seen, 1mm) and the heart screen (projection mapped with another 8K projector) were playing separately through individual Mac Pros running Resolume Arena 5.
We used Panasonic PT DZ870UK 8500 lumen projectors for the walls, and the LED screen was 3 mm and was 2432 pixels wide. It looked great.
All the systems had capture cards so each new VJ could just plug and play, no messing with their pixel maps at all. For the planetarium, we even had a Roland V-1HD mixer, so we could quickly mix between inputs as well.
On top of the hardware we also had a dream team of visual artists as well, each one having put their time into countless projects in the past. Levitation Theory, Theresa Silver, Keisuke Shingu, Liquid Light Lab, and James Barnes to name a few. This was a truly special night, as when we have that much gear and setup, we create something magical, not only on the screens, but also as a community. VJs as a whole tend to be solemn artists, we are professionals. But that does not mean we don’t love to have fun!
It was a very collaborative atmosphere, and each artist brought out a new way to interact with the system. It was like a giant science show where we were making true magic rise up from all that silicon. Check out this short clip from right before the madness:
I was lucky enough to play the planetarium, which was named so after the Hayden Planetarium’s master astrovisualizator Carter Emmart. Throughout the night we were playing his exquisite visual design of the the solar system, a fitting display for an event named “jupiter probe”. It was quite a feeling to see all those revelers and being to change the world around them. It took some getting used to, the video was so big and movement went very quickly. The best looking video was high contrast, slow moving content. Check out some parts of my set:
Enough about Robot Heart, it was running into 5AM and I had to run to the airport. Stupidly I realized I booked a flight at Newark, which was 2 hours away by train or a surge priced $150 uber ride, ug. I got a ride into Manhattan with another artist and got dropped off near the train station. Even there Uber was $100, so I had to run through the train system, out to Times Square, on the Newark express, to get there on time. When I said I ran, I RAN, and there are a lot of tunnels, traverses, and stairs I had to run with a heavy VJ bag and carry on. With almost no time to spare I got through the endless security line and on my plane back to Los Angeles.
I seemed to instantly be there, and I was still tired. I got home and after a short nap I went out to downtown for Minimal Effort. These guys are creating something special in LA, they had superb location mostly outside with 3 stages and heavy hitting talent like Pete Tong, Tiga and Thugfucker. The screen I worked with (along with my other West Coast teammate, Tekt), was impressive. Check it out:
We played most of the night and did some really special things. First off, the video switcher connected to the LED panels only could take 1 input, so each time we switched we had to put the LEDs to black, unplug the first computer and plug in the second, not the best during a pounding techno show. So we improvised and set up an adhoc network (since the network there was trash) and I TCPSyphoned my video out to Tekt’s laptop. It worked! With the data quality down a bit and set on JPEG, we got around 30 fps. Not bad.
Here is the best part, remember how I said I was at Robot Heart the night before? Well Theresa Silver mentioned a way to connect the two parties, and we did just that! Using Syphon, a program called Iglasses, Skype, and my phone’s hotspot, we were able to send video back and forth from LA to NYC! A first in my book (although I had done this before, but never during 2 major parties).
We got got to collaborate in new ways and make 2 vivacious parties connect across the country. I consider that a win. Minimal Effort went until 2AM. both Pete Tong and Tiga were excellent, I even got to talk with Thugfucker (as they are friends with Robot Heart, it was novel to tell them about the show).
All in all it was one hell of a weekend, and I will admit one of the more ludicrous I have done, at least when I was paid too. There were moments though, surrounded by friends close and far, making the building bend to my will, that I had the thought “it was all worth it”.
The sheer amount of effort by talented artists created something new in the world, only to manifest for a few precious hours, never to be seen again. Nothing is achieved without sacrifice and hard work, and sometimes, if you can pull it off, you can make the world that much more beautiful.