It all starts with an email, right? Something like: “Hey Norm, I want to whip up a little dance performance out here in the alleyway and I thought you might like to do some sort of live video projection”. This is precisely what my maker friend Laurence said, and he was right. Laurence builds bikes and websites, and in recent months had become (re)involved in an old passion: ecstatic dance. Laurence loves to dance, has this kind of radical honesty thing going on, and seems to go with the flow, following the natural course of an adventure to its inevitable destination.
Enter Remanu. Remanu is a musician, poet, rapper, dancer and an amazing event promoter. He’s a Renaissance Man in the old-school sense, seemingly talented at everything, and possesses a nearly unlimited source of energy. He and Laurence had intersected through the local world of dance.
As for me? Aw, you know, I like to make stuff and then show it to somebody. A song, a sculpture, a robotic device, a video; the important thing is to dream and then manifest that dream before your very eyes, like effortless magic.
So the three of us formed the Dream Team of this era and the event quickly escalated into a full-fledged 12-hour-long dance marathon, a fundraiser for the Generator in fact, complete with featured “competitive” dancers, a handful of DJs, food trucks, wares for sale, live visual artists… and, indeed, a video projection. (Read more about the event itself on Facebook!)
Remanu and Laurence took on most of the organizational duties while I continued to focus upon the video projection idea. We knew that we wanted to break out of the “rectangular movie projected onto a screen” restriction and actually map a projection upon some sort of object, preferably one located already on the site of the event, in the environs of Press Bay Alley in downtown Ithaca. During a “trial run” in early September, we tried projecting onto the ground, over top of the Leslie Puryear Stage, and most interestingly, onto nearby trees.
Then it hit me: The Ithaca Generator logo, painted largely and prominently right on the back side of Pressbay Alley! This logo features a robot head with “blank” eye sockets and mouth, perfect for bringing to life!
To pull this off, we would require “VJ’ing”-type software, capable of dynamically triggering various pre-designed videos and also of being mapped onto a pre-existing surface. The app-0f-choice became VDMX. Though not especially intuitive at first glance, it is amazingly powerful and modular and does everything we need it to do for this event, and more. (Did you know that you can qualify for a “starving artist’s” discount on the software by blogging about your upcoming event?)
Much of the actual design revolves around isolating different elements of the logo; the eyes, mouth, text, and background. Then animated strokes are created; rotating dotted lines, pulsating widths, etc. These are all transformed into “masks”, simply black and white images/videos; any black part of the mask is opaque, but any white part of the mask becomes transparent, allowing the background layer behind it to “shine through”.
Once the masks are designed, virtually anything can be used as a background, but it helps if it is colorful, moving frenetically, and changing constantly. I was able to source almost all of the background elements from the Prelinger Archives on Archive.org. This is an amazing and quirky collection of public domain films spanning most of the early to mid 20th century. I focused specifically on locating science and technology-themed films, for reasons I think will be obvious.
Some of my favorites: “The Incredible Machine”, “A Is For Atom”, “How the Eye Functions”, and “The Wonderful World of Tupperware”. (Use these in your own projects, they’re free!!) Many of these films featured incredible textures; flames shooting from an Apollo rocket, computer graphics from the 1960’s, strange swirls of pastel Tupperware colors. Many of the scenes were so compelling on their own, like factory assembly lines or just 1950’s people being their ridiculous selves, that I created a number of floating “footage bubbles” that pop out the sides of the logo and bob around.
It’s an incredible thing to watch a project begin in a larval way and then slowly unfold to reach its potential. This is in fact the underlying aesthetic of the Ithaca Generator and the people who work there. A challenge is issued, a journey begins, and while each of us could probably get there, eventually, on our own, it’s so much more interesting and efficient to work with each other along the way. Not to mention FUN. At any rate, many makers might just tell you that the end state of the product isn’t the point; it’s the PROCESS.