CREATIVE AND FABRICATION
In December of 2017, Kyle and I attended the Day for Night festival in Houston, TX. In my 25 years of attending, creating and performing in music and art events, this is the one that affected me the most. The art, music and venue fulfilled all of my needs. I left that weekend buzzing with inspiration. Installations by Playmodes, VT Pro, Cocolab and others evoked an emotional experience I’d never felt before. I wanted to create work that would provide that similar feeling to others.
Our 4th project together, Kyle and I dove in shortly after the beginning of the new year. We’d played with LEDs a few times using Processing and Arduino. This is the first time we’d worked with TouchDesigner though. There were a few things to wrap our heads around between the software, hardware and fabrication. I do better on the creative side. Kyle is a genius in making things work.
“Cluster” by Playmodes was a huge inspiration for this piece. Without copying their genius, I wanted to provide a similar experience by surrounding viewers with light synced to a thematic soundtrack. That required tightly moving LEDs to individual sounds of music. It needed to be done on a granular note based level. Reactive visuals were not what I was after. Each lit up LED require a purpose and intention.
After working with video projections on rectangular screens in my days as a VJ, I welcomed the creative limitation of a 1-dimensional visual output. LED strips were fairly easy to work with but a challenge to make interesting. After a few nights of experimentation, I quickly realized I needed 3 dimensions. A structure to map the strips to. After a weekend of prototyping and a few trips to the craft store I landed on the tetrahedron. I’ve always been fascinated with sacred geometry. It’s in my DNA.
The tetrahedron provided a lot of creative opportunity when it came to building animations specific to that shape. Each segment, triangle and the entire structure as a whole could be considered when coming up with movement. I really wanted to use the entire structure and consider all angles when designing animations. Mapping it from one angle just wasn’t that interesting. Light the traveled along and moved from segment to segment was what I envisioned.
Up until now, most of the animation I’d done was timelined based. I’d also done some generative work in Processing and OpenFrameworks. Composing a visual story in TouchDesigner was a new experience. While I was having fun making cool looping animations, there didn’t seem to be an easy way to create a sequence of movements that would sync to individual sounds and notes. I got pretty frustrated early on.
I recalled seeing some images on Playmodes overview of Cluster that showed some of how the visual synthesis was done. I made some assumptions on how they had tackled the light programming. They didn’t go into too much detail on the specifics but I had a jumping off point to work from and approach I thought might get me closer to timeline based animation.
LED strips are 1 dimensional. If you pass a 2 dimensional image across the length of the strip, it works similar to how a player piano or music box works except we’re doing it with images instead of sound. Each animation sequence is built out of a static 2 dimensional image. The image is made up of 6 columns, one for each segment of the TET and 8 rows that apply to two measures of music. The image is scrolled vertically from the bottom up and the pixels in each horizontal line are sampled and sent to the LED strips.
Up until that point we’d be doing all of our prototyping on a 3 foot TET. That’s great and all but we needed to scale it up. After a short call with my fabrication buddy Bernard and some education on material, we had a plan. It was called, Home Depot. LED lights weigh little to nothing. We didn’t need much to hold them up. The only challenge was in making sure each segment didn’t sag at 13 feet long. 1” metal wiring conduit seemed to work well. The other challenge here was joining them at the corners. There are no tetrahedron connectors at Home Depot. After a couple days of googling, we figured out how to do it easily with connector fittings. The entire structure cost less then $100.
During the prototyping phase I’d be animating to random DJ tracks. We needed original music for the installation and hoped to collaborate with a local producer. I literally searched “San Diego music producer” and somehow found exactly what I was looking for. Ill Poetic (Tim XXX) is a hip hop producer, designer and filmmaker. What appealed to me about his work was a collection of music videos, trailers and short films shown on his website. Finding someone who had experience with sound design and film scoring was important to the project.
I emailed Tim and he hit me back right away expressing interest in the project. He connected me with long time friend and co-producer Danny Rogers. Danny and I had quick chat over the phone and hit it off right away. It was almost like talking to an old friend. I sent Danny this convoluted musical story I had written up hoping he didn’t think I was some crazy man. He hit the studio that weekend and started composing. A few weeks later Danny delivered a 13 minute composition of deep and complex music that somehow mostly represented my madman write-up I sent previously. The ball was passed to Tim to add his layers of inspiration. I eagerly awaited the final print. What I received brought me chills and emotion I’ve rarely experienced with music. Tim and Danny nailed.
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Beth Guerrette, my wife, best friend and the mother and of my 2 crazy boys is a modern dancer and presented the idea of movement inside the TET. The human figure brought another element to lights and music I hadn’t considered. She connected me with Bella Lux dancer Ashlee Cinco who began choreographing for the show. The entire vision of this piece was to tell a story. The TET would perform on it’s own for the first part introducing Ashlee about half way in who would then move throughout the remainder of the piece.
Event day. Tech problems, software challenges, last minute details, the usual. 7:00 pm, doors open. Turnout is beyond anything we anticipated. Showtime! Music plays, LEDs light and Ashlee moves. Our small crowd is captured for 13 minutes. At 12 minutes and 43 seconds in as Ashlee is resting on the floor after 6 minutes of dance, the final bell tolls and reverberates through to the end of the performance, and then to silence. The crowd paused for a moment. It seemed as though they needed a moment to contemplate what they just experienced. At least that’s what I like to think. An eruption of applause followed. We did it. We created a moment and moved people.