VJing – WTF is it?

This blog post is adapted from a presentation I gave at Decibel Festival 2014. Links / images / embedded video materials are copyright of respective owners, presented here for educational purposes, no implication of endorsements in either direction. Another recap from the workshop can be found on Geek Wire. Also note that the wikipedia article on VJing is a great resource for further reading on this topic.


Video Jockey – in the 80's and 90's, the term “VJ” was popularly considered the video version of radio “Disc Jockeys,” the person who introduced the next song on television.

In the late 90's and early 2000's, as the world of DJing evolved beyond simple curation of music with specializations like scratching, sampling, remixing and the like, so have VJs expanded their set of tools and techniques for live performance and production.

Today someone who is a VJ might appear to be something more akin to a video instrumentalist or visualistsomeone who creates and manipulates images in ways similar to how a modern musician works with sound.

 
 VJing in the year 1981 (MTV)

VJing in the year 1981 (MTV)

 VJing in the year 3001? (Futurama)

VJing in the year 3001? (Futurama)

 

Personally I think of a pro VJ as a video art ninja and rockstar in one; capable of bridging the worlds of preproduction, live performance and post production. The methodologies involved are evolutions of those used for early film special effects and avant garde video artists from the 60's and 70's, well before the introduction of the MTV VJ era.

 

Genres of Live Visuals

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 include:

  • Show Visuals
  • Media Remixing
  • Live Cinema
  • Set Design
  • Interactive Installations
  • Film and Music Video Production
  • 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.

To get a sense of what each of these fields looks like, let's look at some examples:

 

Show Visuals

Typically part of concert tours, in night clubs, churches and at other live events, show visuals are mainly found backing up or enhancing other elements of a live performance.

Sufjan Stevens / Age of Adz in Prospect Park with visuals by CandyStations.

 

Media Remixer

Covered by Mashable in its “10 Crazy Jobs That Will Exist in the Future” article, the “Media Remixer takes the job of DJ or VJ to another level by remixing various forms of media into one cohesive new project. These remixers will bring together audio, video, images and augmented reality to create projects ranging from marketing campaigns to wedding entertainment to installation art.”

We don't have to wait for the future for this job, with artists like Eclectic Method taking on jobs like remixing 50 years of Doctor Who for the BBC.

 

Live Cinema

The live cinema artist mixes stories that have narrative elements. If there is a musical score, it is usually background to the visual performance and plot.

My first introduction to live cinema, The Light Surgeons, have been performing for nearly two decades.

 

 

Set Design

For many decades, designers have used video elements as backdrops or scenery on stage. While it is by no means a new idea, these virtual elements are increasingly becoming capable of interacting with actors as part of the performance.

New Creatures - Red Bull Murals: "A Heros Journey"

 

Digital Signage and Interactive Installations

Usually seen in storefronts, museums, art galleries, and festivals, interactive installations use similar techniques to show visuals and set design, but run off of input from the audience instead of performers. They can also include elements of narrative structures or data visualizations.

Syfy Upfront event by LEADDOG CREATØRS

 

Film and Music Video Production

The use of the VJ skills on a film set and music video production comes in many different forms.

In one potential use, similar to with set design, visuals are projected or otherwise incorporated into the scenery that is captured by a traditional camera setup.

Death Cab for Cutie, You Are a Tourist, a live shot, scripted, one-take music video shoot. Production by GoodCompany w/ Nicholas Gould.

 

An even more modern technique is using VJ software to capture in studio video performances, then mastering with traditional non-linear editing software to make a music video that mixes shots from real and virtual worlds.

DATA by Wolfshirt, made by recording the output of “shots” in a 3D game world running in sync with music production software.

 

Art Objects

As the technology used for making real-time video becomes smaller, another creative outlet for VJs has been the building of one-off art objects that include integrated displays or projectors.

Compendium by Will Reardon,

“Found deep under the sea, this object carbon-dated to around 12,000BC contains the sum total of past and future human technological knowledge...”

 

A Common Tool and Skill Set

While the final result of each of these examples varies, many of the processes and technologies used by the artists were similar. For a VJ, it's about finding the combinations to create a unique visual style or figuring out an innovative way to get a job done.

 

Hardware – Displays

Ultimately the final place where the visuals appear is one of the most important aspects of a project. At large events, projectorsplasma screens, and LED walls are found. In the case of videos that are uploaded on the web or traditional broadcast, viewers might watch on a computer monitor or television

While typically in the domain of the lighting designer, at times the VJ can control them as part of the video rig.

Modern micro projectors and small low power LCD screens have also opened a lot of new possibilities for installations and art objects. Though it is becoming rare, some VJs still make use physical media film and photographic slide projectors at part of their setups.

 

Hardware – Playback

Standard physical media player devices that have video outputs such VCRs, DVD and Blu-Ray Players, media servers and video iPods. These can either be connected directly to displays, routed through other systems or used simply for backup feeds.

 

Hardware – Cameras

Whether shots of the performers, the audience or something else altogether, incorporating live camera feeds is a common task in event production.

In recent years camera technologies have themselves become more specialized for different use cases and visual artists have taken advantage of this. Webcams, night vision security cameras, depth sensing and even high end pro video cameras can all be found being used by VJs at live events. On the preproduction side, the ability to shoot high frame rate video on GoPro and newer mobile phones has made slow motion video capture both affordable and easier to use.

 

Hardware – Physical Controllers, Instruments and Sensors

One of the corner stones of visual performances is using a physical interface that allows for instrumental and gestural control over the output images. Standard protocols like MIDI, OSC and DMX make it possible for all kinds of gear to work together seamlessly together whether you use software or hardware tools.

 

Hardware – Mixers and Routers

When more than a basic connection is needed between a source and display, video mixers and routers are used by video techs to quickly switch or combine multiple images into a single output. These devices often also have features for cropping, resizing and applying other visual effects. Some mixers have been designed in a DJ style, complete with a sideways crossfader, whereas others are laid out for a standard live television production workflow.

 

Hardware – Cables and Converters and Power

The physical connections between each device in a chain are in the form of cables. Though wireless and network based options are becoming more prevalent, the majority of situations still use wired connections which come in two main varieties; analog and digital cables. When needed special converter boxes or adapter cables can usually be found to change from one format to another.

Analog Video Cable Types:

Coaxial (often requires RF converter)

Composite (1x RCA or analog over BNC)

Component (3x RCA or analog over BNC)

S-Video

VGA

 

Digital Video Cable Types:

HDMI

DVI

Display Port / Mini Display Port

SDI / HD-SDI (digital over BNC)

Ethernet / LAN (streaming video)

Along with video signals the modern VJ also typically has to connect hard drives, webcams, sensors, MIDI instruments and other devices to computers or other media players. USB, Firewire and Thunderbolt are fairly common on current systems. Older gear may require the use of serial (rs232) or MIDI cables. When working with lighting control systems individual DMX cables may be needed for each fixture.

For many video performers it is also necessary to integrate with the audio world. Whether you are receiving feeds for analysis and capture, or playing back soundtracks in movie files, it can help to be familiar with the different types of cables that will be encountered when talking with audio engineers: 1/8" (headphone jack), 1/4" (big headphone jack, can be mono or stereo), RCA, XLR and optical are the most common. Though many computers have built in ports for sound you may need to get additional hardware that connects over a digital connection such as USB or Firewire.

Though some things are powered by battery or as part of the connection type (such as USB or Firewire), another important note is to keep track of the proper power cables for each device. Even if the port is the same size be sure to check the amperage and wattage if you aren't sure it is the original adapter. When traveling to another country you may need to use additional special converters to plug into wall sockets to work with different electrical standards.

 

Hardware – Analog Synthesizers and Other Weird Stuff

Long before computers became the tool of choice for live visualists, other amazing tools were used to generate video signals or project images with light.

While much of the technology involved is either considered obsolete or nearly impossible to come by, there are modern day analog video synthesizers such as the LZX Industries synth that carry on the tradition. Additionally there is a continued movement to replicate these styles and techniques digitally with software, though some processes require very powerful computers to accurately emulate.

 

Software – Mac / Windows

VJ Software usually includes a suite of what you get from dedicated playback and mixing hardware, plus image processing FX, control data generators like audio analysis and LFOs, along with basic configuration settings for outputting to displays or recording to disk. Popular options include ArKaos, modul8, Resolume and VDMX. Some music production and DJ software packages are now starting to include their own add ons for video, though usually in a manor focused to the workflow that already exists within the application.

 

Software – iOS / Android

Simple tablet based mixing and FX apps can be fun starting points for new VJs to learn the basic concepts before moving on to professional level desktop software. Video synths and samplers can be used to create sample movies for playback or as live camera inputs for use in larger projects alongside desktop VJ software or hardware.

 

Software – Specialized Inputs and Outputs

Following new protocols like Syphon (Mac) and Spout (Win) for routing video between applications along with standards like MIDI / OSC / DMX for control information has come a new breed of programs that are designed to run alongside existing desktop VJ apps to add new input, output and processing features. One of the most popular use cases is projection mapping where tools like Mad Mapper, VPT, IR Mapio, MWM and Blendy Dome each have unique workflows designed for different kinds of mappings.

These protocols also make it possible for less mainstream software features to integrate easily into larger projects, such as interfacing with depth sensing Kinect cameras and other high end video capture devices, or playback of esoteric file formats.


Software – Pre and Post Production

In addition to real-time software, VJs also use the same tools as motion graphics designers and movie editors such as After Effects, Motion, C4D, iMovie and Final Cut Pro when creating video loops and polished demo reels for the web.


Software – Programming Environments and Creative Coding

For many people, using VJ software is a gateway drug of sorts into writing their own software tools. In some cases this can be in the form of plugins that load into existing software or connect using established protocols as described above, and for others it may mean the creation of a completely new application that runs independently. Quartz Composer, GLSL / WebGL, Processing, Max/MSP/Jitter, OpenFrameworks, Cinder, Unity, Touch Designer, vvvv and PD, are all excellent examples of established languages and frameworks being used by creative coding communities. This is where you'll be happy you paid a little attention in high school geometry and algebra classes.


Pioneers of VJing – from Ancient Greece to the 1990's

Though the technologies used have changed greatly over the years, the visual language of light, film and video has been a constantly growing part of human society. To become an expert VJ, it helps to have knowledge of the history and learned theories of the past, not just mastery of the modern technical aspects.

The use of light and images as part of live performances and pre/post production have been around for at two thousands of years with Aristotle's noted use of the infamous camera obscura technique to focus light through a small hole to create light images on walls in darkened rooms. Zoetropes, magic lanterns and pepper's ghost holograms are further examples of pre-cinema forms of live visual technologies that are still found being used today.

Though it would be some time before the idea of video instrumentalism would come around, the advent of film in the later 1800's is what set off the revolution that would eventually turn into VJing. The practices of cinematic language and montage editing developed by early experimental film artists like Sergei Eisenstein are as relevant in the clubs as they are in the art house movie theater. Color theory, the study of how colors mix and play together, has also been evolving for hundreds of years, and something that many visual artists will want to take into account when creating their works.

Film was the precursor to the technology that VJs get their name from: Video.

Though there were early experiments with video in the earlier part of the 20th century, it was first really introduced to society starting in the 1950's. Almost immediately artists began to find ways to include video beyond standard commercial use. The founder of the video art movement is often considered to be Nam June Paik who started to hack the electron tubes on televisions in the early 60's. Lillian Schwartz, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Dave Jones and countless other artists 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.

Around the side time period, other non-video light projection techniques were being implemented by The Joshua Light Show to create a new form of psychedelic live concert visuals. These shows introduced some of the foundations of instrumental visual performance.

Another pre-VJ pioneer that paved the way was Laurie Anderson who along with being a prominent musician and visual artist spent a lot of time inventing fantastic new interfaces for interacting with these mediums:

On a technical level, early cinematic special effects and mixing was in some ways closer to the real-time methods used by VJs. As there was no concept of a non-realtime renderer, everything went straight to output. Even as it became possible to create rudimentary digital graphics on a computer, the use of “rescanning” material was a powerful way for production studios to get visual effects that would otherwise not be possible.

While much of this seems primitive by current standards, studios and VJs alike still take advantage of these techniques. Perhaps one of the most well known systems of the time was the Scanimate which was used to make a lot of the now classic commercials and animations seen on television in the 70's and early 80's. The styles of other esoteric video processors and synthesizers like the Rutt Etra from the time period are still replicated today.

As they became more powerful, computers of course came and once again changed what was possible when it came to manipulating images. However it wouldn't be until the late 1990's that they would be fast enough for anything beyond basic real-time video processing, leaving VJing to slightly lag behind advances in graphics used in television and movie production where most things could be rendered in advance. When it did become possible early VJs who had come from a musical background like EBN, Hexstatic and Coldcut were quick to make the connection between the performative and sequencing capabilities of MIDI instruments for creating groundbreaking new A/V pieces.

By the early 2000's modern VJing as we know it began to mature into the fields described above.


Getting Started With VJing

If something on this page inspires you to want to make some artwork of your own, my first suggestion is to find the easiest path to dive right in and figure it out as you go. Start by downloading sample loops and shoot footage of your friends to play with when trying out different software and hardware for remixing. Watch technical tutorial videos while reading about film editing and music theory. Find people in your local and online communities who are already in these fields and learn from them.

And most importantly, keep looking at how all of the pieces available can work together to make something amazing that comes from your own creativity. Plug everything into everything else and see what happens, even if it is just for fun.