On the afternoon of April 3rd, I received an email from M.I.A.'s manager asking if I'd be interested in working with them on a one-off show on the mainstage at Coachella that would feature live video processing, 2 DJs, a real Lighting Director, and glowing EL-wire wardrobe by Janet Cooke Hansen (www.enlighted.com, Daft Punk, etc.) for Maya and the dancers. It was a crazy proposition - I drop everything, cancel classes, take vacation time from work right before Expo '74, and put together a full performance system in like 10 days based on a proof-of-concept patch I had only recently posted on the Jitter forum. So I said yes, of course!
I would spend the next week or so patching together a solid, if ugly, video system all night long while editing footage of Liberian Civil War scenes and other such uplifting themes. There was a bunch of content that had to be thrown together and formatted for the ultra-wide LED wall (1920x480). Also, I would only have 2 days of full rehearsal to consult with Maya and the other artists and technicians working on the show. There were at least 3 or 4 of us building animations and other content, entirely in isolation. They also had a big stock of live video clips that Obscura Digital had done for the previous tours.
Early Thursday morning, I flew down to Burbank and was driven directly to this gigantic rehearsal studio called Centerstaging. Upon arrival, I was introduced to the folks I would be working with, and urged to set up quickly and get things running. Maya and the dancers arrived a little later, and we jumped right into it. I worked with a really talented Lighting/Video Director named Paul "Arlo" Guthrie and Andrew Plourde, Maya's tech guru. During rehearsals, the LED video wall kept breaking down in mysterious ways, so the tech dude was completely freaked, and none of us were feeling very optimistic about it. During one run-through I had to watch my entire set from my laptop screen. Over the 2 days at Centerstaging, the set list changed at least 3 times, and there was a little bit of indecision about the video content. I had to make a few last minute changes to my patch to accomodate things like mixing in a live camera feed for one song or compositing in flag shots into another song. We unfortunately cut the song "Bucky Done Gun" during the show, for which I had all these great youtube videos of Somali pirates, glue sniffing kids, and rave-a-delic flag animations prepped. Friday evening during our last run-through I was informed of some "minor" changes that would require me redoing all of the automated state-changes I had done, and adding a number of extra midi triggers to an already complicated logical structure. This meant I would be performing with a slightly untested system on Saturday night, and we were still recompressing video in the production trailer at Coachella.
Saturday morning, we had to soundcheck late because the Killers were moving slowly, but our stuff went up easily, and I was able to lobby for a "world" on top of a lighting roadcase far forward on stage right with a pretty good angle of the video wall. My patch started up quickly and everything worked, but I was getting less-than-perfect framerates. During soundcheck I was able to test all of the MIDI triggers with Andrew P. to make sure all of that was working. After soundcheck I wandered around with Mr. Plourde, who also works for Obscura Digital, and he showed me the Heineken rave dome that they had put together for the festival. I didn't catch much music mostly because it was 95 degrees and I had access to air-conditioned dressing rooms. As TV on the Radio was setting up to play, it dawned on me why I wasn't getting good framerates, so I ran back to the stage and sat down to debug my patch while they started their set. I was actually able to get things running well, and stripped out a bunch of functionality that ended up getting cut from the show anyways, which helped the framerate. By the time that set was over, my patch was getting an easy 30fps. The show itself was pretty spectacular. The dancers she found on youtube were dressed in these Electro-luminescent outfits that were really spectacular. My live video work didn't really come in until halfway through the set, so the first little bit was just making sure that things were working and running over my notes. My first song, "$20" went really easy and looked great, but during "Bird Flu" there was a full scale stage invasion by the fans that ended with some dude nearly taking out a laptop and succeeding in yanking the ethernet cable running to Maya's onstage Lemur controller. My rig never suffered for it though, and the rest recovered quickly. The big finale of the show was the song "Paper Planes" where I really rode the faders and I did a live "datamosh" on Maya's live camera feed, which was really well shot and had just enough noise in the signal to really make the colors vibrant. From what I can tell it looked awesome, and I was really proud of it. As soon as that ended, we were rushed offstage by the Killers' crew and I packed up my gear (laptop, ADVC-110, LaCie drive, and Korg NanoKontrol), had a glass of wine, said goodbye to everyone, and got in the van with the DJs and the dancers back to the hotel in Burbank.
A couple of days later, I was back in SF for Expo '74, so I'm only now getting around to looking at my notes and trying to make sense of it. Upon reflecting, I would also like to share a couple of valuable lessons I learned working on this production:
- Always include a "fade to black" functionality in your patch, especially if you are working with an LD
- Be prepared to add another layer of composited footage at any moment.
- Make sure your patch (software) gives you the ability to store and recall snapshots of your settings (pattr).
- How it's controlled really is everything.
- Make sure you can resize and reposition your window on the fly. This will save hours of fiddling with settings on esoteric video hardware.
- Don't turn down an awesome gig just because it's difficult and over-budget, especially if it involves a gigantic LED video wall. Those things are amazing.