In the 1970’s through the 1980’s, as the world of DJing evolved beyond simple curation of music with specializations like turntablism, beat-matching scratching, sampling, remixing and the like, so have visual artists expanded their set of tools and techniques for live performance and production to include many similar concepts alongside traditional cinematic language. Moving through the 1990’s and early 2000’s these ideas began to translate from the worlds of analog to digital that continued to open doors to new possibilities.
Today someone who is a VJ might appear to be something more akin to a video instrumentalist or visualist, someone who creates and manipulates images in ways similar to how a modern musician works with sound.
Like the world of professional music, modern live video art has developed several distinct sub-genres of VJing. Some of the most commonly encountered today including, show design, media remixing, live cinema, interactive installations, film and music video production, and the creation of digital art objects.
While these are very different fields, there is often a large overlap in the skill sets involved. Many VJs eventually find themselves specializing in one or more of these areas, or at least assisting on projects that fall outside of the scope of traditional production techniques. Likewise, many people who start in these fields may find VJing to be something they want to learn more about.
About This Course
This set of coursework is designed for educators and students to learn about the techniques being used to create live visual performances and investigate how these same skills can be applied to innovate on traditional forms of video production.
The lesson plans provided are broken up into separate modules that can be followed in order or put together in sub-collections that best fit with the focus for your class.
Creating Your Own Version Of These Pages
These course materials are totally free to re-use for educational purposes. We fully encourage teachers and educators to use these resources as-is, or to remix / reinvent / reuse any parts that they find useful.
The related files can be found and branched on GitHub.
In the historical context of live performance, VJ’ing stems from the field of “Projection Design,” a term chosen by scenic artists to refer to designers who worked with film and video projectors in theater. The term now generally refers to putting an image on the stage that is ephemeral.
The origin of the field is debatable. It is often referred to as the new fad in live performance, and there are pioneering projection designers who stake a claim on its emergence. However, history shows evidence of mutable images complementing music and storytelling long before the 1980’s.
Moving panoramas from the eighteenth century were contiguous views of passing scenery as if seen from a boat or a train window. Installed on immense spools, they were scrolled past the audience behind a cutout drop-scene or proscenium which hid the mechanism from public view. The moving panorama usually had a narrator, styled as its “Delineator” or “Professor,” who described the scenes as they passed and added to the drama of the events depicted.
In Balinese shadow puppetry, or Wayang, silhouettes of flat puppets dance behind translucent rice paper screen, backlit by flickering candles or a coconut husk oil lamp. Narrated by a priest, these stories communicate Bali’s history, religious and spiritual teachings, poetry, and philosophy.
Projection design as a field is still relatively new in the comparative history of music performance and theater, with origins dating back to Ancient Greece — roughly 2,500 years ago.
A major inflection point in the theatrical arts happened in 1895 with the introduction of the cinema. Louis Lumiere and his brother were the first to present projected, moving, photographic, pictures to a paying audience of more than one person.
As the motion picture gained popularity, the theater struggled to compete, even though early cinema modeled itself on theater. As Philip Auslander states in his book, Liveness, “The narrative structures and visual devices of cinema, including the close-up and the fade-in/fade-out, and parallel editing, had all been fully developed on the stage before becoming the foundations of the new medium’s language.”
One of the first examples of projections in theater is from the 1920’s. German Director Erwin Piscator frequently used movie projectors to enhance his productions with the Berliner Ensemble. Set designer Josef Svoboda’s multimedia installations Laterna Magika and Polyekran introduced the combination of live dancers and filmed projections.
In 1951 the first video tape recorder captured live images from television cameras by converting the camera’s electrical impulses and saving the information onto magnetic video tape. One of the founders of the video art movement, Nam June Paik, used early video recorders and started to hack the electron tubes on televisions in the early 60’s. Around the same time other artists like Lillian Schwartz, Steina and Woody Vasulka and Dave Jones worked out of places like Bell Labs and the Experimental Television Center to do things with video signals and early computers outside of the mainstream.
Liquid light shows surfaced in the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s, with groups such as The Joshua Light Show, accompanying performances of rock and psychedelic music.
In film, both the dialogue and the image are needed to perceive what is taking place. This makes communication more efficient. Film is denotative as a photographic, natural representation of places and characters and events.
Three-point editing is easily accepted as an accurate way of experiencing time and events. One theory for why we accept this odd, non-linear way of storytelling is that even though we experience time linearly, we remember and dream in an edited way. We keep what is important, and discard what is less so. If you try to recall a day in your life, it’s likely you experience it in selected scenes, rather than a seamless playback.
Projection design as a whole builds its theory from a combination of film and theater and music. In this visual field, one assumes that film is everyone’s first language. The perpetual challenge of live performance seems to be how to incorporate prevailing mediums into a live performance setting. If projection design is the aesthetic frontier in live performance, how we think about projection is changing audience perception?
Why do visuals matter?
So, is this field of visual design — generally speaking — always beneficial? Why crystallize a series of images for an audience, who left to their own devices might develop their own visual relationship with the music or text, unaided by a designer’s visual interpretation?
Visuals have a powerful and integral relationship with narrative. Lighting offers variability and temporality, but no textual reality. Lights can define shape, space, time and rhythm, but are typically less representational. Scenery and costumes imply images and can set places and times, but with less temporal flexibility and variation.
Because the nature of the medium contrasts the fleshy, human-based presence onstage with the ephemeral, it can extrapolate on the subtexts within the story and music, highlighting events that are otherwise impossible to achieve onstage with practical sets and costumes.
Why live visuals?
Projection design can also amplify “liveness,” perhaps the most debated quality in performance design. Elements of interactivity or real-time events, with the possible exception of live cameras, are typically avoided in “big” theatrical projection design. Exceptions are “downtown theater” groups that specialize in integrating live media into their productions, such as The Wooster Group, The Builders Association, Early Morning Opera, et al. The Light Surgeons are a unique group of musicians and visualists who work with cinematic narrative.
In his book Liveness, Philip Auslander relates that the personnel involved in Madonna’s tour freely admit the goal of their productions, like that of many rock and pop concerts, is to reproduce the artist’s music videos as closely as possible in a live setting on the assumption that the audience comes to the show expecting to see what it has already seen on the television. One could say that because the music video sets the standard for what is “real” in this realm, only a recreation of its imagery can count as “realistic.” Reciprocally, the fact that the images from Madonna’s videos can be recreated in a live setting enhances the realism of the original videos.
Beyond that, it is the opinion of several theater designers that when an operator’s hand is present, influencing the arc and progression of the imagery onstage, there is a sudden lack of craft detected; a level of chaos or indecision in an otherwise scripted, practiced performance.
Therefore, if the overall form of a performance aspires to a cohesive, unbroken experience — why allow any real-time, “live” visual elements? Why not favor consistency, offered by cue driven playback systems where all imagery is pre-rendered, with far less room for error or the slip of the operator’s hand (or state of mind)?
One argument is that for live performance, particularly for live music, the element of improvisation matches the energy and ephemeral quality of the performance in a way that pre-rendered and cued/time coded imagery cannot. In addition, the imagery and its delivery systems (playback software, MIDI controllers, analog mixers, and so on) can be refined and tweaked over time, similar to way music may evolve during rehearsals on a tour—fusing a symbiotic relationship between the musicians and the visualist.
The presence of real-time effects and audio-responsive imagery increases the synaesthetic relationship between image and sound, thereby creating a more “live” experience for the audience.
Live performance is made of a series moments that happen sequentially, all of which will not be remembered by the audience. Every person will remember those moments differently — like a montage, as one remembers their day or dreams.
As a live visual designer, you can control how best those moments will be delivered and perceived.