In January I had a chance to catch up with Deborah Johnson, who was touring Australia at the time with Sufjan Stevens. The morning after their show in Brisbane, Australia we recorded an hour-long discussion of the show, and seeming to cover the whole gamut of visual creativity and performance. I’ve finally managed to transcribe this epic from audio to text.
Deborah: I would really like to see our show from the audience’ perspective.
Jaymis: I would have loved to have shot some video. There are some really beautiful moments. Did you notice that there was quite a bit of the crowd cheering visuals?
Jaymis: I noticed that there was a couple times when you did something, nothing else was happening, and people around me were “yeaah!”, and not just the people I’ve conditioned to do that, either.
Jaymis: You’ve obviously got a good aesthetic happening. I’ve seen on your website as well you have that kind of drawn aesthetic. Do you do the illustration yourself?
Deborah: On the website?
Jaymis: In the set, you have images that come up: Stars, growing vine objects…
Deborah: Those are all based on drawings, they’re all drawing programs that are written in Director. I work with a programmer, and we’ll be like “this is what I want to have happen”, and he writes an algorithm to make that happen.
Jaymis: That was my next question: How do you do your particle effects with the stars which are drawn on, stay and then fall. So that’s Director?
Jaymis: Peter would be very excited that someone’s still using Director… So that’s then rendered out to video clips?
Deborah: I mean, the dream is to be able to make them instruments that I can play live, but…
Jaymis: Director’s getting a bit old for that kind of thing. You might have to go with Processing or Quartz Composer or one of those fun things.
Deborah: I really would like to learn Processing. Recently I feel like I’ve become more of a curator, art director.
Jaymis: As video gets bigger that’s what you have to become; you can’t do it all anymore.
Deborah: For this, I knew what I wanted to happen, but I knew that I would need some help. So I started working with a programmer named Siebren Versteeg, who’s an awesome artist in New York. It was great because in Sufjan’s music there’s just so many layers of stuff that happens. My skills were limited to be able to create something that’s just totally generative and so massive, there’s no way that I could author that stuff. So how do you just get a source concept and send it out over an animation.
One thing that I worry about is that it becomes too… Say with Processing or that kind of work, people associate it with screensavers?
Jaymis: Very true. Well I guess that growing vines is one of those things which is quite ubiquitous with that sort of thing. Obviously you’ve got a particularly cool little spin on it and it works really well in the context of what’s happening on stage, but “something growing” is a very standard…
Jaymis: I think the other thing is that if you become too focussed on one particular tool, then that influences your output as well.
Deborah: Well my favorite parts are the ones where video and animation are mixed. Like “snowbird” the flying bird is actually a video of a bird, it’s just been cut out. So I can just take something in footage, make it all, and drop it into the algorithm.
Jaymis: Something I really enjoyed were the video moments that were very personal with the band all dressed up in costumes with that grainy look.
Deborah: The little boy for “predatory wasp” is Sufjan’s nephew, so it’s fun to have his hyper-personal, home movies and bring this in to computer programming and, you know, layers. Those are the moments where I feel the most relieved. I get a little nervous about the ones, like with the lines drawing on the screen. I feel that for the song it’s fine and it’s appropriate, but it feels very predictable to me.
Jaymis: Possibly. Something that I’ve discussed with people is that sometimes you do need to give the audience what they expect. Like some of the really cheesy stuff. In my set with Bobby we do a song called Under the Milky Way, by The Church…
Deborah: It’s got stars.
Jaymis: It’s got stars! You know, every time you do that you die a little bit, but the crowd just goes… “and there’s stars! and they’re sprinkling, and it’s amazing!”
Deborah: I think that’s good. Why be the asshole that denies the audience. When I was working for Wilco there was a song called “hummingbird”, and you can bet your ass there was a hummingbird in it. Why fight it. I think there’s such beauty in that hamfistedness.
Jaymis: Pandering hamfistedness.
Deborah: Yes. Some of it. I’m a populist.
Jaymis: I forget the track… It’s funny, when I do my tours and see video and photography of those shows. I find it exciting because I can identify the song that was being played by what was happening on the screen. So now I’ve forgotten which tracks were played last night, but there was one with a kind of kaleidoscope effect in the background, and then I think there was something flying over the top?
Deborah: The planes and the stars flying over the top? Blackhawk War. Yeah, I wanted it to look like a kind of 1920s poster or something.
Jaymis: That was very crowd-pleasing when the band was going crazy, and the image is inverting. It was really great to have a nice big projector for that, so when the screen inverted to white it was lighting up the crowd’s faces.
Deborah: Aah, nice. I feel like during the show I’m just like, just glued to my screen and it’s so rare that I look up and try to figure out.. That’s one thing I wish I was better at is being able to look on stage and look at it as like a composition.
Jaymis: I notice that you’re very cut-down: Laptop, mouse.. Have you thought of a midi controller to kind of… Because to me that’s what allows me to look up. Not having to touch the mouse is what gives me to the crowd, I suppose. Obviously it’s very hard with the flying in planes…
Deborah: I used a Doepfer pocket controller, with the faders. I was using it in this setup, but I was starting to feel like it was really clunky and kind of unnecessary. So I stopped. It was hard for me to just be like “you know what, I’m just going to straight-up use a mouse”, and get rid of everything. When I first started working and with networking and MIDI and everything.. It’s hot, you know, and it’s really fun. I felt like, especially when I was using faders and stuff, I’d really get in to the performance. Something really fast would happen and you’d – I mean it’s silly but – you’re jacking the faders and you feel like you’re… playing, you know? And this it’s way more like, with the amount of layers that I’m working with, and all that stuff. It becomes way more about…
Jaymis: You’re going to have to hit the mouse at some stage anyway?
Deborah: It feels a little less performative, and more… the performative element is definitely diminished, which is kind of a bummer.
Jaymis: I guess that’s to you, but to the crowd it’s a very big part. Especially the people that are less than 6 foot 2, because that’s all they’re seeing, and especially with an artist who is sitting down a lot of the time at the piano or something. They’re not really seeing. At the venue last night we were lucky because there’s a crappy little security camera and two side screens we can actually see what’s happening.
Deborah: I get worried that… I’m very conscious of how distracting visuals can be. I try to wage that war as best I can. It feels like it’s a lot of responsibility.
Jaymis: It is, you’re the biggest person on stage.
Deborah: And I don’t like the spotlight, so there’s that weird thing. You really want to be behind the curtain yet you’re projecting huge images… I guess it averages out or something. But every once in a while I feel very self-conscious, that people are looking at the screen. Ideally you want, like, if someone’s only able to see the screen it’s a bummer, because they have those outfits on. When I make the visuals I try to think of them wearing those clothes, and how it’s all going to look together. If was just one element then it wouldn’t work as well…
Jaymis: But it’s in the same way though, I go to see a band that doesn’t have visuals and it looks really sad, you know?
Deborah: It does look weird.
Jaymis: We’ve had some shows where we supported an artist, we had visuals, and the headliner didn’t. It was a super-established band, the music was amazing, but I went out in the crowd and watched, and it just looked really sad. The lighting guy had his little 4 channel lighting desk, and he’s flashing the lights up and down and it looks like: “Awww, that’s so cute, it’s like they’re putting on a little concert!”. So can you imagine if there wasn’t visuals for your show, then the short people would have been staring at the back curtain for the whole night. So I never feel like I don’t belong. It’s always a struggle – especially with rock music – that you don’t want to take much attention, and it is a big responsibility, but I’ve never felt that I didn’t belong there. Because visually, despite having people with instruments and jumping around on stage or whatever. They’re still just little people moving around there.
Deborah: Right, it needs something.
Jaymis: Well it’s not that they even need it. It’s great that you had some pieces that were very minimal and there were some that didn’t have anything at all really, and that’s important too.
Deborah: I think so, you just need a break you know. With his set there’s just so many songs where visually and the audio is just so overwhelming. It’s like you just ate too much icecream, and then you need that like ~sigh~ a minute to rest your eyes, and rest your ears.
One thing he and I talked about last night is trying to arrange the set so there are more transitions. I feel like I do too many blackouts.
Jaymis: I actually went through that with my last tour. Obviously at some points you do need a blackout, that’s where everything has been building toward, is a blackout at the end. But sometimes it’s really lovely to have, and I noticed that you had some subtle ones that were still moving slightly as the set’s changing. Especially when there’s someone tuning the banjo or something, it’s nice to have…
Jaymis: I was actually thinking, it’s time to take center-stage while that’s happening. Rather than kind of…
Deborah: Hanging out.
Jaymis: … the band’s tuning so you’re just waiting for them to finish. I was thinking of doing a “how to take photos at a gig” tutorial for the crowd to watch while the guitar tuning is going on, like: “Here’s how to take good concert photos. Turn the flash off on your camera. If you don’t know how, it’s a little button with a picture of a lightning bolt on it. Press that a bunch of times until there’s an icon like this, and here’s what happens: Before, you get a picture of the head of the guy in front of you. After you’ve turned the flash off, you get a picture of the band! Isn’t that exciting! And it doesn’t annoy people!” To sort of give them information.
Deborah: To take it back into the real world. Yeah… It’s been a long since I’ve used the screen for comic relief. To be like, “ok, we’re at a show but let’s take a minute and, be goofy or…”
Jaymis: There’s plenty of goofiness happening on stage already.
Deborah: So it’s one of those things with him I feel like, you all just go with this band and you kind of hang out there… and it was good last night, it was fun. For our first show it was really fun. Then tomorrow we do… Sydney.
Jaymis: You’ve got two in a row in Sydney?
Deborah: Three, at the State Theatre. Those venues really make me nervous, and I don’t like three shows in a row because inevitably the middle show will suck, or one of the shows will suck.
Jaymis: Really? I like the middle show, because the middle show, you’ve had a big sleep-in, you didn’t have to travel anywhere, you didn’t have to set up so you’re super rested, and you know you can get blind afterwards, because you don’t have to pack up.
Deborah: It’s true, that’s all true.
Jaymis: That’s the ultimate show. Middle show is like the Freedom Show!
Deborah: I always feel like it’s the Sophomore Slump. Or maybe because we’ve had a first show… but inevitably it’s always happened like that. 3 shows in a row, and the middle one everybody just seems to be… gaaah.
Jaymis: The other thing is, with a theatre like that it’s really easy to get your depths and things right. But with setup people are really funny about projectors and they don’t understand that, there’s a certain focal length and outside of that it doesn’t fill the screen anymore, and it has to be pointing directly at the screen or it’s not going to work. Something I’ve had people ask with amazement is – when using two projectors – “is it ok to cross the beams of the projectors, is that going to work?”
Deborah: What did they think was going to happen?
Jaymis: I don’t know, maybe like Ghostbusters, maybe it was going to feed back.
Deborah: That would be rad.
Jaymis: I guess, with sound if you’re crossing speakers they can reinforce each other. So maybe they’re looking from that perspective. Because light is a wave as well? Yeah, it’s really fun to go “I’m a professional, I know how to get the wavelengths right so they don’t feed back. It’ll be fine”
Deborah: “Just let me do what I’m doing”
Jaymis: “You should never try this, but I know enough that I can make it work”
Deborah: “Back off, I’m a scientist.” That’s hilarious.
Jaymis: There is a lot of – not necessarily mystique – but people don’t understand what we’re doing, and it’s nice that people are getting a bit more understanding, and it’s not something completely outlandish now. But there’s a lot of education to go before people really get what’s happening.
Deborah: I’m always amazed that technology is still so mystified, and it’s only because on some level it’s just- I don’t know if it’s intimidating anymore, but it seems really magical, because it’s moving too quickly. So it just seems like “how are they doing this”, so you start forgetting what’s actually possible. Siebren had a friend ask him if there was such a thing as an animated lightbox, and he was like, “you mean like a TV?”
Deborah: You know? So there’s HDTV and lightboxes and this and this and this, and people start forgetting what’s what.
Jaymis: Actually, on technology. I’d love to get an idea for people to know what you’re using, so you’re using a Macbook Pro, Modul8…
Jaymis: What resolution and how many layers are you sending out at once?
Deborah: All the animation is exported as photoJPEG, 15 frames per second, or sometimes I use the “animation” codec if I’m feeling ballsy, to get the alpha channels and stuff.
Jaymis: So you’re using alpha channels rather than keying on your frames?
Deborah: Sometimes I’ll just have to bite the bullet and use an alpha channel and hope my computer doesn’t hate me. So everything is 640×480, output through VGA.
I think that Modul8’s an incredibly smart program, when I started making stuff that was all pre-composed. I love that it’s all-in-one and everything, but it makes me feel very uncomfortable to rely on computer and a VGA out for my whole thing. Because, you know ~crash~.
Jaymis: I guess we’re fortunate that we’re at the point with really mature tools like Modul8 that it’s not going to… So it’s not really a matter of, you need a mixer for safety or it’s all going to fall over, but it is nice to have a backup.
Deborah: It’s kind of comforting to have an extra piece.
Jaymis: I think another really promising thing is, things like these microprojectors, and the VMS thing. To me we’re in a bit of a renaissance of tech. Things have been building a bit, and we’ve got these tools that are really stable. But we’re now starting to get to the point that there’s enough VJs and enough going on that there’s space quite a few companies. People like Vixid are coming in, when there’s been like 2 companies doing video mixers for the last 20 years. “Do you want the Panasonic, or the V4?” That’s all you had, and now there’s… Numark’s mixer is quite good – the AVM02, that’s what I used on tour – the Vixid is just mindblowing. To me it’s like the DJ market in the 70s where, there wasn’t the crossfader. Someone had to make that up, and make the piece of hardware, and now there’s particular mixers and particular turntables suited to particular styles of DJ. So I think we’re hopefully getting to that point so there’s enough room for: “You’re a VJ that does certain things, so there’s a tool that’s designed for you”.
Deborah: I think that’s where I want to go next, with these animations and creating a rig in which these are instruments, kind of breaking out and creating a really custom setup. Right now it works and everything looks like it’s live, but it would be nice to do it for real again. I just need to play more, I think that I don’t play enough.
Jaymis: It’s hard to do. I guess you’re lucky in that you’re not touring so much. Because to me the dream was that I’d be out on tour and I’d be taking footage and making stuff, and playing with different things and…
Jaymis: I climbed ladders and carried stuff, did my set, put it away, woke up the next morning and drove somewhere else.
Deborah: Exactly… I’d like to get a teammate.
Jaymis: I’ve noticed that as well, there’s quite a few visual crews out there. I’ve never been doing that, I’m always the one visual guy with a band.
Deborah: Yeah, me too. It would be nice to eventually take someone around with me, to have a teammate, it becomes a little more collaborative that way. To have someone else looking and getting at it with another set of eyes and another set of hands. That would just be really fun. Because I that, I think VJ teams are really cool. There’s something about that’s really romantic. Very cute. I love all those VJ dudes that are like… VJ couple.
Jaymis: What are you excited about? Is there anything that you’re really looking forward to or.. You’ve mentioned things that you’re working towards – collaborating more – is there anything you’re watching at the moment and you’re really keen on? Shooting HD or digital mixers or…
Deborah: I’m getting really more about the content, and trying to just push that. Have you seen that band The Knife?
Jaymis: I haven’t seen their show.
Deborah: You should go on youtube and watch it. I keep forgetting his name but his visuals are just crazy! So warped and weird and strange and wrong and gorgeous. I feel like I’ve gotten to a place that’s really fun and really cool to make stuff that’s very appropriate and very pretty and it fits really well… This guy is just: Freak!
Jaymis: So, artistically pushing it and trying to get yourself out of…
Deborah: I’m trying to figure out how I can do this work but make it a little more present, less background. I feel like I’m able to do that a little bit with Sufjan, but it’s still his show. So I’m really hoping that I can have a one to one collaboration with someone with that kind of stuff you can explore.
Jaymis: Electronic musicians are good for that.
Deborah: It’s so funny I completely missed the boat on electronic and stuff. I just work in the singer-songwriter circuit. Wilco, Lambchop, Sufjan…
Jaymis: I got into VJing because of just discovering electronic music. I went to university and there’s this group of, the Electronic Artists Society, and it was all about DJs and music, and I was a visual creator, so I was like “We need something visual with this”, and that’s what started me, started getting gigs with electronic, and that was the same time as I was getting introduced to electronic music by those people, so I kind of discovered both at the same time. So my collaborators up until last year have been electronic musicians. Which is really good because you do have that freedom to do whatever you feel like. Because they’re twiddling their knobs and they’ll be doing so whether you’ve got craziness or subtlety on screen.
Deborah: I think that that’s important, and I need to start doing that, I need to start playing local gigs in New York.
Jaymis: You’ve got a good scene there…
Deborah: I know. I’m so shy, you know, and the point is I need to start playing. I need to do that. I’ve gotten very, everything has to be perfect and orchestrated and pre-composed.
Jaymis: Well you’ve got a very orchestrated thing you’re working with, it’s a very created experience. It looks like it’s been rehearsed – obviously it has to be, there’s an orchestra and all that sort of stuff.
Deborah: Exactly, so that’s the kind of stuff I’m passionate about. I need to talk to Peter more, try to do stuff like that. I’m really excited about lighting design. So I’d like to start working more collaboratively with LDs. I have an LD that I love working with in New York. When the visuals and the band and the lights and it’s… Just really freak people out. So I think it’s just more, I’m really excited about aesthetics and taking risks. I haven’t really thought about gear…
Jaymis: That’s the kind of position you want to be in, I think. That’s something that happens for any creator as they get success. You get to a point where it doesn’t matter what you’re doing it with, because if there’s something you can’t do with what you’ve got, well you find someone who can. So it’s good when you go beyond the tools that you’re working with. So, that’s probably a good question to ask: How long have you been doing it?
Deborah: I started, probably.. 2003?
Jaymis: And this now is your work? Do you have a day job which keeps it going?
Deborah: No. I mean, I do other kinds of things, but it’s getting pretty video-based, which is nice. But again it’s becoming much more like a composer, editor, whatever so. Oh, and I’m really into set design. Screens and mirrors and scrims. I think that in the areas that I need to explore I’d like to get a little more architectural. Break out of the four by three. When I was doing the balloons for two months I swore that I’d never go back to the flat screen, but, it works.
Jaymis: It’s easy if it’s there.
Deborah: Right. I think, try to make stuff that’s more venue appropriate, just be more considered. But playable. All that.
Jaymis: Well I think you’re on the right track.
Deborah: Thanks! I hope so. I mean, it’s fun! You know.
Jaymis: Absolutely! Peter and I went to Perth and there was a day called Plug N Play and it was, 20 VJs turned up and set up and just did stuff, there was a bunch of mixers and everyone faded in when it was their turn. A huge crowd of people came to talk and to see and check everything out.
Deborah: There was music going on?
Jaymis: There was music but it was just some random DJ as a bit of a background for people showing what they do and how they work and, no-one had the same setup. So it was people from the public just getting in to find out what it’s like. We get quite a few people saying “where do I start, how do I VJ?” and it’s, just impossible.
Jaymis: When you learn to DJ it’s pretty standard… Get your 1200s, get some 4 on the floor house, learn to beatmatch, and you’re on your way. Whereas in this you’re like, I think there’s probably a standard where people will get a piece of software and they’ll download clips from the internet and they’ll star to learn…
Deborah: I think that’s what I’m more interested in is, where people are getting their source material from and what are they using, and why… I guess I’m becoming image obsessed.
Jaymis: That’s what you should be. That’s what makes you good at what we do.
Deborah: That’s always what’s amazing to me, when you get a gig, where do you go, where do people find their stuff. Do they shoot it themselves or, I’m a big fan of archive.org. I kind of feel like I want to make a, like those guys who do footage packs. Some people have asked if I could make some little stock packs of it. Of all this stuff.
Jaymis: That’s something that I think is really important for people who are established, and something that I personally haven’t done that I really should do is releasing, letting people use stuff. I think archive.org is a great place for that, but there’s still no central repository for that. I guess that’s something that we’re working on, is getting a collection of information on how to do these things, what program, the kind of “101” stuff that exists for DJs, but doesn’t really… A lot of people have written stuff, but there’s no real central place to find the whole breadth of what’s going on from footage to tools to…
Deborah: You’re right.
Jaymis: That’s something that will continue to develop, it’s getting better and better.
Deborah: It’s so young. It’s cool.
Jaymis: You feel pretty cool about being an explorer. Even if people don’t understand what you’re doing.
Deborah: I think that one of the biggest compliment I can get is that, somebody just thought I put in a tape and pressed play… Or maybe I used to thing that was the best compliment. Maybe not, now I don’t think so.
Jaymis: I had someone leave a little note on my gear one night, it said “I really enjoyed your lighting track”. That’s cool, they’ve gone out of their way, they didn’t quite know what was going on, but they realised that when I moved my hands, things on the screen change…
Deborah: Someone was doing it.
You can see more of Deborah’s work at candystations.com, on her vimeo or youtube channels. If any of you gigging visualists are touring near Brisbane or New York, get in touch so we can have a chat, too!