Powering New Visual Experiences At Coachella

<p>Sure, the stage looks amazing. But how does it work?</p>

Stage design for the Coachella main stage, by United Visual Artists.

Mesmerizing visuals have become part and parcel of any major concert experience. It's no longer enough for bands who have outgrown basement shows and the neighborhood nightclub to deliver a killer performance—now that we've been spoiled by the likes of Daft Punk's Pyramid and deadmau5's Cube, today's audiences come to shows expecting to be dazzled, and the now-hackneyed strobe display simply won't do. Yet while bands and their lighting designers strive to dream up ever more innovative visual experiences to appease the jaded masses, most of us don't have a clue about what it actually takes to make those LEDs flash just so.

United Visual Artists (UVA) are seasoned veterans at the art of performance visuals, having cut their teeth out on tour with the likes of Massive Attack, U2, UNKLE, and The Chemical Brothers. The UK-based design collective are specialists in the manipulation of light and sound, and when these guys take on your tour, they don’t mess around. They’ve created their own proprietary software called d3, a 3D stage visualizer that lets them build and control their show—including video, lighting, and screen moves—as it’s happening in real-time, morphing visuals on the spot to coincide with the changing rhythms, tempos, and mood of the music.

As designers of the main stage at Coachella this year, UVA created a structure that’s one part performance platform and one part light and sound sculpture (featuring experimental music from Mira Calix). And when bands catch a glimpse of the light show UVA has conjured up, they’re eager to get in on the action.

“We've come out here with a show, a five minute show that we've programmed, but we're also getting so many bands who are like, ‘Hey, can we use your installation for our set?’ And I don't even know what we're getting ourselves into with it,” says Ben Kreukniet of UVA. “So we're going to be doing a lot of stuff live, in real-time, and that's what the software is written for.”

“Real-time” has become the buzzword of a generation for whom immediacy and instant gratification are the norm, the status quo. Drunk on a sense of entitlement, we want everything to be better, faster, stronger, and most of all, right now. But generating reactive visuals in real-time before a crowd of hundreds of thousands can be risky business. Miss a beat and your whole set up could fall apart."

“You don't need the latest technology to render out an AfterEffects movie, but if you want to do things while there's a crowd in front of the stage and you hit go and it actually goes there, you better have the right tools,” says Kreukniet. “We rely on really fast processors and really good graphics cards, and we write software that specifically takes advantage of that chip.”

Equipped with Intel’s latest Core i7 processors, motherboards and a soon-to-be released graphics cards, The Creators Project artists working on reinventing the festival experience at Coachella are up to the challenge. Aside from the visual identities UVA will be programming for the main stage, Muti Randolph and his team will be creating audio-reactive visuals for the Sahara dance tent, using audio components like volume, frequency, and beats per minute (bpm) as data to inform the abstract designs appearing on an LED sculpture suspended just inches above the dancing crowds. The idea is to create an immersive environment where the music and the visuals act as one, surrounding the audience from all sides and enveloping them in a constantly evolving, physical manifestation of the music.

“It's just a few computers, fast ones, and the [custom-built] software does a lot of work,” explains Randolph’s tech producer, Filipe Forattini. “The audio comes as an input and goes out as video effects. It has to be fast because you can't have a delay—it will kill the installation—so the processor is super fast.”

Designs for Muti Randolph’s Mirage installation for the Sahara Tent at Coachella.

Interpol, who are working with David Lynch, Andi Watson, HPX, and Weiden + Kennedy, are taking the real-time experience one step further by integrating live footage of the crowds into their performance visuals. The collaborative artwork, entitled Under Surveillance, has the team from HPX using standard surveillance cameras to capture footage of the audience, which will then be mixed into the video stream and projected back to crowds, making concert goers part of the performance itself.

As technology continues to advance at lightning speed, who knows what kind of audiovisual experiences we can expect in the future? But one thing’s for certain, it’s likely to be bigger, better, faster and probably brighter.