Making Images Dance To A Rock Beat

By Mark Glaser, New York Times, September 19, 2002

At Ruby Skye, an 1890 theater transformed into one of the city's most fashionable music clubs, the artistry is not limited to the turntable and the dance floor. A 24-foot-wide screen provides a canvas for the video jockey, a visual artist with the hardware and software tools to manipulate complex 3-D animations on the fly - and to the music's beat.

Visual projections that pulse in time with the music are nothing new at clubs or concerts, where they have provided a sort of moving wallpaper since bands like Jefferson Airplane ruled this city. But as hardware like high-end laptops and digital video cameras has grown more powerful and more affordable, video jockeys have become a crucial part of the show.

Where they previously relied on videocassette recorders, V.J.'s can now store clips on gigantic hard drives or hard disk recorders. The dot-com downturn has even worked to their advantage: video projectors that once served up PowerPoint presentations can be bought secondhand for musical duty. V.J.'s can also choose from a growing array of software that allows them to mix videos on the spot and even change their speed, colors or transitions between clips.

On a recent night at Ruby Skye, Ryan Tandy (VJ Liquid.7) was high above the dancing masses in an enclosed balcony, mixing videos while the featured performer, DJ Sasha, and others were spinning music. Like many V.J.'s, Mr. Tandy, 25, combines technical adeptness with design talent. He runs a graphic design studio called Liquid Mercury ( and started doing serious V.J. work a year and a half ago when club promoters told him they wanted to see his flyer and Web designs in motion.

"I remember when the V.J. and even the D.J. were in a corner, and nobody knew who they were," he said. "But now things have changed and people come to see a performance and care about the music and video artists. It's more of a spectacle, and you're there to show off your cool stuff."

Mr. Tandy spends hours before shows shooting original video of high-contrast urban landscapes and nature settings and practicing the various artistic effects that will make the visuals pop out for the audience. At the Ruby Skye show, he juggled an array of video loops loaded on his laptop, processing them through a software program and then splashing the result on the huge screen with a video projector.

The canvases of the V.J.'s can be far larger than the walls of a club. On its North American tour this year, the Canadian group Rush is performing with a video jockey, James Ellis, who is contributing custom animations in venues as large as Madison Square Garden.

Mr. Ellis says the content is a fine balance between improvisation and tight adherence to song structure. A team from a software company called Derivative spent two months creating special video loops and animations for 11 of the songs Rush performs on tour. The imagery includes original cartoon characters that bounce and stretch to the music and a time-lapse montage of still photos of the group's drummer, Neal Peart, on a motorcycle trip. Mr. Ellis then manipulates the video and animations in real time, creating an experience that falls somewhere "between the tight choreography of a film or musical, and the spontaneity of an improvisational jazz musician," he says.

Geddy Lee, the lead singer and bassist of Rush, says the band almost skipped video on the latest tour. "It's been very overused by pop acts," he said. "With the video culture of the last 20 years, there's too much explaining away of music." But the software can be used "in an interactive way, pulsing to the music, which was exactly what I had in mind," he added. "Bands all have the same instrumentation, but they all sound different. With video, you have to look at it the same way - it's how you employ it."

While many of the digital tools are new, the marriage of visual effects and rock music is, of course, almost as old as rock itself. Many V.J.'s trace their roots back to the late 1960's, when psychedelic light shows accompanied live music at halls like the Fillmore West in San Francisco or the Fillmore East in New York.

"The Newport Jazz Festival in '69 was a totally mind-blowing experience for me, with the Joshua Light Show projected behind the music of Sun Ra," said Greg Hermanovic, a longtime V.J. who created 3-D special-effects software called Houdini that has been used in dozens of feature films. Recently, he started Derivative Software and created Touch, a version of Houdini that lets visual artists manipulate 3-D animation as it is shown.

The lineage of technology for visuals includes "liquid projections" (colored oils on overhead projectors) as well as slide and film projectors in the 1960's and 70's; the Fairlight CVI (computer video instrument) in the 80's; and the high-powered Silicon Graphics workstations of the early 90's. As the technology has matured and become more accessible, the art of the video jockey has gone global. The rise of rave culture and electronic music has produced fertile ground for V.J.'s in Britain, and Japanese V.J.'s are promoted on billboards and regarded as artists on a par with disc jockeys.

A British musical duo called Coldcut has been working for more than a decade with audio and video sampling, that is, appropriating and remixing bits of other people's material. They eventually released their own software, VJamm, which helps V.J.'s mix videos on their computers to the beat of the music, also known as video jamming.

Matt Black, the more visually oriented half of Coldcut, was influenced by a pioneering V.J. crew called Emergency Broadcast Network, which toured with U2 on the ZooTV tour in 1992. Mr. Black helped invent a device called the Dextractor, a second stylus arm on the turntable that converts the movement of the record into special effects in whatever video is being projected. The duo recently helped create remixes of the audio and video versions of Herbie Hancock's classic tune "Rockit."

That some of the technology has become more affordable eases the way. "The dot-com bust actually flooded the market with cheap video projectors used at failed start-up companies," said Grant Davis of the San Francisco video-jockey collective known as Dimension 7.

Like many other V.J.'s in the Bay Area, Mr. Davis took his video equipment out to Burning Man, the weeklong summer arts festival in the Nevada desert, where monstrous lasers and video projections have provided the background to countless raves. Mr. Davis, 34, is known for using unusual projection surfaces, like rows of bicycle rims or a rotating cube of screens. He is planning an audiovisual tour next year called Lumens, which will showcase the work of video jockeys from around the country.

The task of creating original video art, while greatly enhanced by the latest technology, can still be labor-intensive. Bec Stupak, one of the three V.J.'s in the Brooklyn-based Honeygun Labs, says her group has put in countless hours building a multipurpose video library for shows, including stylized dancers and animations of skateboarders. For the bigger shows, she says, they might spend several weeks preparing relevant video.

"We can now play for over 12 hours without repeating any of our footage," she said. "We've also been able to create more of our own material, using less and less found footage."

The strategy has paid off: Honeygun Labs is now represented by Grey Multimedia, a talent agency that represents performers like Run-DMC and DJ Spooky.

But most V.J.'s in the United States continue to hold down day jobs, and many use their live performances as a way to promote their design or video-editing work. They toil mainly in the shadow of D.J.'s or other musical artists and rarely make enough money to pay for expensive equipment. But that situation could change in the near future, as video artists like Honeygun Labs look for top billing and video technology becomes cheaper.

Michael O'Rourke, who helped found the Dimension 7 collective, sees an uptick in interest for video jockeying at the monthly salons that group holds at its warehouse space in downtown San Francisco. "Right now, we're at the place where D.J.'ing was 15 years ago," he said. "We're seeing the early stages of an explosion."

Ms. Stupak of Honeygun Labs concurs that V.J.'s are about to experience a worldwide boom. "The exciting part is that I think it's just a beginning," she said. "Video is becoming a larger part of the world - you can see it in supermarkets, meeting rooms, stores, and even built into the sides of buildings." Video art, she said, "no longer is something reserved for theaters and galleries."

Light Work

Tips and Tools For Aspiring V.J.'s

Although the days of lugging around huge video projectors and computer work stations are over, the skills required of video jockeys remain daunting.

Most V.J.'s have a background in film, graphic design, video editing, photography or fine arts. Before jumping into video mixing, many become proficient with software like Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro. They might add effects in Adobe Photoshop or After Effects, and do 3-D modeling in Alias Wavefront's Maya or Discreet's 3ds Max.

In the last few years software designed for V.J.'s has proliferated: they can manipulate multiple clips on a computer with U&I Software's Videodelic, arKaos VJ, VJamm and Onadime Composer, for example. While such programs can cost hundreds of dollars, arKaos, based in Belgium, has a free visualizer that it says has been downloaded 200,000 times (

V.J.'s use a variety of hardware, too. Though many are moving to fully digital video on the hard drives of powerful new Apple PowerBooks or PC laptops with high-end video cards, others, like Honeygun Labs, continue to rely on mini-DV players, portable DVD players and Roland V-5 video mixers. Most V.J.'s who rely on laptops keep a tape player handy in case of computer crashes. Many bring digital video cameras so they can mix in live shots of the crowd or the stage.

For the V.J. just starting out, there are a few good resources online. includes a "tool shack" with reviews of the latest software, as well as online forums. The Eyecandy e-mail discussion group ( has more than 600 participants from around the world trading information on V.J. tools and techniques.

But there is more to being a V.J. than high-tech gadgets. Michael Heap, a British V.J. who promotes the art form at, says that "at the moment, everybody with a Titanium G4 is calling themselves a V.J." In reality, he says, "it takes more than a few ideas."