Beginner VJ tips
I’m often approached at gigs when doing visuals by people with questions. These range from asking what software I’m using and where I find video footage, to “Is that you doing the pictures?” Or “Are you doing the sound?”
I have been mixing video live at clubs and gigs for long enough, that I know what works for me, and I thought I might answer some of those questions here, so this is a rundown of my personal approach to ‘VJing’…
Video Killed the Radio Star
By it’s definition, Video Jockeying requires moving image of some sort. The early club visuals of the 1960’s were a mix of Liquid light shows, as pioneered by the likes of The Joshua Light Show, Mike Leonard and The Brotherhood of Light using overhead projectors with coloured oils, alhocol and inks along aside film and slide projectors, as made famous by Andy Warhol’s Exploding Platic Inevitable and the Velvet Underground. These days, while a more hands-on ‘multimedia’ approach can still be found, most visuals are digital.
When I began VJing, I cut my teeth with a ‘scratch’ VJ style. Originating in the 1980’s when hip hop, sample culture and the VCR were on the fringe of club nights, the scratch VJ produced an often cynical visual commentary on culture, society with juxtaposition and contrasting imagery taken from film, archival footage and TV. My first taste of this was watching the U2 Zoo TV tour in the early 1990’s and it strongly influenced my style when starting out.
You can find Archive footage that is the archetypal look from various sources. Online, have a rummage through the Internet Archive a treasure trove of public domain film, information broadcasts and advertisements from the 1930’s onwards. The BBC motion gallery is another exhaustive archive as you’d expect. Most of the footage is Roalty free for a fee, but there’s some amazing things in there. I would tend to be cautious when pilfering places such as the archive.org though, as I can guarantee all other VJ’s that have come before you have also started here 😉
There is loads of stock video online, and many companies offer freebies – The Vimeo stock footage groups are worth looking at, and with a little browser-plugin know how, you can essentially download anything you want from YouTube. However, please be responsible and respect copyright and intellectual property where applicable, after all if you do play out at public events, you need to be confident you’re not breaking any laws.
Most of the footage I use these days with bands is video I’ve shot myself, either on Super-8 or my favourite toy digital camera I love called a ‘Digital Harinezumi’, which I picked up in Japan. Many VJ’s use motion graphic software like After Effects, or create stop motion animation and films using whatever is to hand. Have some fun and experiment until you find your look.
While there’s a part of me that wants to manipulate my images with nothing more than an Overhead Projector and Carousel slide projector, a laptop is far more practical. Most modern laptops with at least 2GB of ram and a multiple core processor should be capable of serving you well. Ideally, you’ll want something with a dedicated graphics card, rather than ‘integrated graphics on a chip’ and of course, if you can squeeze in more RAM, max it out! (you can never have enough RAM). Operating Systems are a personal decision, but some of the software you want to run might be platform dependent. (Module8 is osX only, and until a few years ago Resolume was Windows for instance). Personally I use a Macbook Pro that although is pushing 4 and half years, has never let me down. They are robust, and dependable machines, but you do pay a premium for that. Also, don’t forget you can always run more than one Operating System on an Apple computer if you need to. If you’re on a budget though – a decent modern laptop of any flavour should be a good workhorse.
Midi controllers are another thing you’ll want to think about – they allow you to control your visuals using physical knobs, keys and faders, basically allowing you to be more hands on and using the software as an instrument. you don’t want to be fiddling turning a virtual knob with your mouse in a nightclub trust me. Which controller to get? Anything that can produce a midi signal is game, and there are some beautiful dedicated controllers out there, but ebay is a good place to have a sniff about. Have a think if you’d prefer to twiddle knobs or slide faders, maybe a matrix monome style pad like the Novation Launchpad is up your street, or you could even use an iPad or Android tablet. In the past I’ve used basic midi keyboards, a Behringer BCR2000, and an Akai MPD24, but these days for it’s portability and simplicity I mainly use a Korg NanoKontrol 2.
Get with the Program
I’ll assume you have a laptop handy to run your visuals from , or at the least a computer of some sort that you can bundle into a taxi. Now you’ll need software to let you play your video clips in demand, and be able to mix them in realtime. There’s a fair few applications out there, such as VDMX, Module8, Resolume and Arkaos . The more adventurous and programmer minded visualiser might want to have a look at VVVV, Isadora or possibly Processing for a truly ‘generative’ approach. however these last few really come into their own in an installation setting rather than improvising along to a club night.
Personally, I started off using an early version of Arkaos. It’s very much a ‘clip trigger’ software, and talks nicely to midi keyboards, so it’s perfect to get a tactile feel for ‘playing video’ in real time. These days I use Resolume, along with a Korg NanoKontrol, as I’m no longer churning out banks of clips one after another over a 3 hour club set, When working with bands, my set is more focused and based around fixed pieces with the bands I work with, and Resolume gives me more fine control over what’s going on, but at the same time is a relatively simple program to use ‘out of the box’ as opposed to something more bespoke and object oriented like Isadora.
Most offer a free trial so you can get the feel of what each program can do before buying, and some of the more professional modular tools like VVVV are open source for non commercial use.
Beam me up
For many many years, I was fortunate to play at venues that had a projector set up and ready to roll, so much so that I pretty much took it for granted that I’d ever need to purchase my own. That was until I turned up to a venue who’s projector was broken, and I was up a creek with no paddle. Fortunately I made a call and borrowed one that evening but you can’t always rely on that kind of luck. Since purchasing my own ‘Beamer’ (as they’re called on the continent) I can rock up anywhere with my rucksack holding a projector, laptop, cables and midi controller and be ready to plug in and play self sufficiently.
Projectors are no longer the prohibitively expensive investment they once were, and for around £300 you can bag yourself something half decent, but you do get what you pay for. You may not be ready for all situations though, as depending on your ‘throw’ you may not be able to get a large enough image in small spaces, or you may have too much for a bright image in larger ones. If you know the space you’re most likely to be playing in, a throw calculator will help you make a more informaed decision. Make sure you get the brightest (measured in Lumens) model you can afford, generally 2000lm and up. Ideally, you’ll want to have HDMI input as well as VGA and video phono to cover as many bases as possible. while projectors are very forgiving with video resolution (some of my clips are only 640×480), it’s recommended to get the highest resolution projector you can. After all, you’ll probably want to use it to watch HD movies or play Mario Kart on your living room walls on your night’s off right?
What have you forgotten?
There’s nothing more galling or embarrassing than getting to your gig, unpacking your kit and realising you’ve packed the wrong sized USB lead, or left your Display Port to VGA connector plugged into your TV at home. So, a last minute check before you leave the house for your VGA, Kettle, USB / and or midi, Laptop power and any other connectors or convertors you might need before heading out is essential.
So this is a brief round up of things to think about when thinking about ‘Video Jockeying’. it’s an exciting thing to do, and if you can latch onto music that you love while doing it, all the better. There’s no wrong or right way to go about it, but do make sure you get out and see what other people have done and are doing with their visuals: from generative, 3D camera visualisation, interesting lighting set ups, video mixing to overhead projectors, it’s all up for grabs, so use your imagination and give it a go.