Using cues, timelines and VJ software for performances

These days as a part of the Obscura crew I am ofting doing visual shows that have more in common with theatre productions than traditional VJing. Often there is some sort of script for a show or a piece of music that is rehearsed. For these types of jobs I have found good use for the application called QLab which is great for triggering a pre planned sequence of events.

Actually the whole point of QLab is to line up a sequence of audio, video files or other types of events and being able to trigger them with a simple ‘Go’ button at the exact right time during the show.
QLab was originally developed with audio in mind and has later been extended with video features so it does not have many features as VJ applications when it comes to live manipulations of images and video. But for those of us who sometimes wish for a timeline in our favorite VJ application, QLab may be an option if you set it up to run alongside your VJ app.
For our shows we typically use Modul8 and I found two ways to achieve this.

1. Capturing the video output of QLab and using it as input in Modul8. This is done with two computers – one with a video capture card such as the Blackmagic Intensity hardware or the Matrox MXO2 mini and the other computer running QLab. With this method you run some images or videos using QLab and you are then able to manipulate them live in Modul8 as you would do with any other source.

2. Setting up QLab to send midi and mapping the buttons in Modul8 so that they respond to the midi commands. This can be done using one computer running both apps or using two computers and a midi connection between them. In this scenario QLab is merely the ‘conductor’ telling Modul8 what to do. Modul8 holds all the images or videos used.

qlab setup

The advantage of these two methods is that you have some way of combining improvised VJing with a sequence of planned cues. For instance – as we did recently you can use the first method to trigger a series of slides containing the lyrics of a song and then use Modul8 to distort and manipulate them. Furthermore as this setup involves two computers two people are able to share this task – one person triggering the lyrics at the right time and one person adding effects. This could be done using any VJ application that is compatible with the video capture card not just Modul8.

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Concrete forest

Concrete Forest – an art project that turned into a party from Obscura on Vimeo.

The video shows the result of a fun little project we did in collaboration with artist Louise Bech Pedersen. We cut out these animal figures of a special acrylic rear projection material and used them for mapping using Modul8 and MadMapper.
Doing the mapping was trivial using these tools – it was the acrylic material itself that proved to be a bit of a challenge. The light projection properties of the material were terrific, a clear and bright image from all angles. For people like us who are used to projecting onto fabric or walls it was a joy to see the brightness of this professional screen material.
However the material was a quite brittle and cracks appeared a few places even when using a saw made for use with acrylics. And the deer lost the tip of the antlers when one of the party goers tried to bring it down with an empty vodka bottle!

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Using Unity3D for mapping

video installation “Another place” from Obscura on Vimeo.

The above video documents a recent project Obscura did. Actually I was mostly on another project at the time but I followed with great interest the work that my colleagues Frederik and Kasper did here. For all of us this installation was a learning experience in using Unity 3D for mapping onto a spherical object. It took a bit of trial and error but Frederik and Kasper decided to make a workshop out of it instead of worrying too much about the finished result.
They ended up with these little creatures created in Open Frameworks which were piped into Unity 3D via Syphon. They then made a Unity app for mapping onto the sphere. A regular 3D mapped rendering would not do here, as the small boids react to the presence of people in the room via a motion tracking camera.
Using Unity went resonably well – it has a bit of a learning curve, but it definitely has potential for installations that combine live interactivity with mapping, although they ran into some issues that stem from the fact that this is created as a game engine and not a mapping tool.
We feel that we have only just scratched the surface here. In tandem with Syphon you could use Unity to map all sorts of live input onto complex shapes.

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Two months of work and 75 minutes later

For the past two months my work day has been dedicated to a project that I am very proud of. Our visuals group Obscura was asked by Danish band TV-2 to create a visual backdrop for their new tour. TV-2 is a household name here in Denmark, they have been in the studio and on the roads for 30 years now. But whereas the music and lyrics are distinct and catchy they never had a very clear visual universe.
Luckily for us the band were very open for ideas and while brainstorming together we came upon this idea: One long video (75 minutes) through the whole show, without using any cuts but instead letting each element slowly appear on the screen in one continuous movement. The idea of the video was to start at the invention of moving images around the 1880s and move forward in time through a collage of clips from the history of film and images.

Here you’ll see a short edit of some of the scenes (with another musical score). I recommend going full screen.

Showtime from Obscura on Vimeo.

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Here’s a preview of the new set of visuals I am currently working on.

Udart – Deep space moves from Udart (Vibeke Bertelsen) on Vimeo.

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‘Two Way MIDI’ module for Modul8

Screen shot 2010-11-25 at 21.20.07

What does ‘Two Way MIDI’ do?

Two Way MIDI is a module that enables Modul8 to send a midi signal back to your midi device. Two Way MIDI will keep your midi device updated with the values from Modul8 so that you avoid annoying ‘jumps’ when the current setting of your device doesn’t match the values of Modul8. Two Way MIDI is downloaded from the ‘Online Library’ menu item within the Modul8 application.

Whenever you touch a control in Modul8 or switch to another layer Two way MIDI will update your MIDI device with the current values.

Who can use this module?

This module is only relevant if you have a midi device that is designed to receive MIDI as well as send MIDI. Typically these devices will have motorized faders or 360 degree (endless) knobs with LED displays. Examples of such are Novation MIDI controllers and Behringer BCF2000.

Read More »

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My reading list

Thought I’d share this with you. I have a list of blogs related to live visuals and VJing that I follow. Here is a feed that collects the posts from all these blogs. Enjoy…

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Orchidelia – miniature mapping

Here’s a short segment I did with a video projector and an orchid – not an image of an orchid but a real live house plant. I projected images made with eMotion and the Quartz Composer Soundflower patch onto the petals of the flower.

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Realtime visuals – open up the cage with Syphon

Some beutiful old syphon or siphon bottles

Some beutiful old syphon bottles

I had a hard time finding a headline for this post. The thing is that something is happening in the VJ/visuals world that is getting me very excited. That thing is a new technology on the Mac called Syphon. At this point I think only a small circle of programmers and techies are aware of Syphon as it hasn’t yet been released. I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact on the way realtime visual apps (think VDMX, Modul8, Resolume) and visual programming environments are going to work in the future. Let me try to explain.

Update: As of today November 3rd, there is a public beta for download for Quartz, FreeFrame, Unity 3D and Jitter.

Today each visual app or VJ app is like a closed cage. You create your graphics and it is then sent to your monitor, your video projector or whereever. The output of the app is locked. It cannot be altered after it leaves the app.
Imagine you had two apps each producing a live image. Up until now there has been no good way to combine the outputs of those two apps into one image in real time. Like if you created a background in Resolume and a nice particle effect in Modul8. You would have to save one of them as a file and then import the movie into the other app. Or you would have to use a screen grabber to catch the image from Resolume and put it into Modul8 in real time, but that uses a lot of the ressources of your computer and tends to slow down the other apps if you are not careful.

So in reality most people working with real time visuals just get used to preproducing clips and importing them into their favourite VJ app. And in general you just have one visual app open when you perform live. But why should it be like this? Why can’t you e.g. have one specialized app for producing a nice 3D background and bring that into your favourite VJ app to play with? Or why can’t you bring the output from your VJ app into another specialized app that puts some final touches onto the image before sending it to the screen?

Syphon seems to bring the answer for this. It is a sort of bridging technology – Mac only – that allows applications to ‘talk to each other’ and exchange graphics in real time without any delay or loss of image quality. It only works internally in one machine at this point (I think – Syphon people correct me if I’m wrong) but it still brings a lot of potential for those who perform with visuals live.

One example of this is the MadMapper software. This is currently also in development and has not been released yet. This software allows you to use the output of any Syphon capable app as material for a mapping installation. The MadMapper allows you to split up the image into areas that can be projected onto an object. In this way you can produce your images live in another app of your choice and then let MadMapper handle the final alignment of the image onto the object.

I hope you can share my excitement here. This is just one example of why we should ‘open up the cage’ and set the visuals free. If Syphon catches on I think everybody is gong to benefit from this ability to exchange visuals between applications. My bet is that we will see more specialized applications for live visuals instead of giant VJ apps that try to include every possible feature. This is a good thing in my opinion as I think the overall quality and the number of options available will benefit from this.

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A happy turn of events

Thought I would briefly let you all know that I have now become a full time visualist. Until recently I had a part time job as a web developer to support my crazy addiction to visuals, but a happy turn of events have allowed me to dedicate myself fully to visual projects from now on.

This has become possible because I have joined the Copenhagen based group Obscura. Obscura now consists of 4 people Frederik Hilmer, Thea Collett, Kasper Rasmussen and myself. Obscura does large scale visual installations for events be it concerts, award shows, parties of different kinds and hopefully there will also in the future be room for a few self financed experimental projects.

Here’s two of our recent jobs

Mapping at Carlsberg, Kulturnatten 2010

Giant visuals at The Royal Library

Actually although Obscura has lead a quiet existence when it comes to exposure on the web, Frederik has been working under this name solo for quite a few years dating right back to 1998 when he started out making installations using slide projectors. Today he’s still the anchor person of Obscura with his attention to detail and dedication to inventive solutions involving many pieces of specialized gear.

Obscura doesn’t have an active blog at the moment so until further notice I’ll continue to post here on Udart. Also there’s an Obscura Facebook page (in Danish).

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    Vibeke Bertelsen is a visual artist based in Copenhagen who specializes in motion graphics and video projections for live music and other events. Per 2010 I am a part of the group called Obscura working full time doing large scale visuals and video installations. Contact me on

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