Sound And Vision
The new videola music and video format is taking music video into the next decade. T-Cut K talks to one of the genre's most technology-conscious acts about the medium and the message.
The worlds of music and visuals are closing fast - the equipment and techniques overlap, and each medium often needs the other to survive in a commercial world. Nowhere is the gap narrower than with the latest AV art form, videola.
FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO MISSED MT'S REVIEWS and competition, let me re-introduce Videola - a new form of video entertainment where sound and vision are created simultaneously to be part of the same piece of work. What videola is not is another form of video to promote music, or music as a background to images.
To date, artists that have contributed work to the cause are many and varied, and include Godley and Creme, Bomb the Bass' Tim Simenon, Polish composer Zbig Rybczynski, Renegade Soundwave, Holger Hiller and Stakker. And their work has been as varied as their backgrounds would seem to suggest.
Videola represents new ground - not only for the the likes of you and me but for The Videolabel, the company putting their cash on the line to promote this "new art form". At present, the target audience seems to be a little ill defined, but then could you really call it a new art form if you could confidently predict its future?
One of the foremost artists of the new video age is Stakker. Their initial videola release is entitled Euro Techno, a piece of work probably best described as acid trip on video: computer-generated images constantly evolve and devolve in an on-screen assault on the eyes, while strains of the new Detroit techno sound counterpoint the visual mayhem. Eurotechno could be dismissed as nightclub entertainment if it wasn't for the fact that the soundtrack won't let you dance to it - frequent pauses, changes of tempo and injections of arhythmic electronic noise.
The original Stakker team included Mark Maclean, but he has been replaced by Marek Pytel who teamed up with the other half of the Stakker team, Colin Scott, a little over a year ago. I met up with Scott and Pytel to find out more about what goes into such a hi-tech extravaganza as Eurotechno. It seems the duo started out as video artists, but soon found out that they could not gain access to the medium through which they sought to realise their ambitions. As Pytel puts it: "There seemed to be no opportunities for the broadcasting of other people's art. Then the moment you try to broadcast your own art you find that the departments don't really exist."
In effect The Videolabel has come along to fill this gap in the market. Even so, the £56,000 needed to produce Eurotechno sounds like a lot of cash for the company to put up. Stakker feel that it's cheap for a 30-minute video. "It's more of a case of 'Give us some money and we'll show you what we can do'", comments Scott. Pytel agrees, "It's not the traditional means of raising finance... Here's an idea and it's going to go something like this!".
Stakker felt that MTV were sold on the idea of their project, but didn't really know if what they were likely to end up with would suit their needs. So the pair put together a portfolio and were able to present it asking for more money to develop the idea further.
They approached The Videolabel with a 30-minute video and with the budget the company provided, Stakker re-edited the whole thing. And stunning it is too. But what is actually going on that makes these images appear and disappear seemingly at random on the screen? This is no scratch video, where you're chasing the same sources as everyone else and running into all the same copyright problems. Instead, all the material was shot or designed specifically for the project and then transferred to computer where the movement trajectories could be programmed. All the colourisation was done on the Fairlight CVI (Computer Video Instrument) - the video successor to the infamous CMI - that processes in 2D and costs around £5,000. This they had access to early on in the project and with it they built up vast banks of material. They then went into various production houses where they were able to transform the image configuration - for example into 3D. The real-time processing equipment to do this can cost up to £600 per hour to hire, or about £800,000 (according to Scott) to buy - and that's not including interest rates.
What I couldn't understand was how, with objects moving about so fast and randomly, they were coloured so accurately. Was it done frame by frame? Scott straightened me out, explaining, "The computer takes the colour information - the red, green and blue - from the video signal and it's saying well, that's red I'm going to change it to something else', so wherever that colour appears it is transformed, and by how much is controlled by faders."
In order to change the shapes from two dimensions into three, the Quantel Mirage is used. And for moving three-dimensional images in a three-dimensional space, the Quantel Encore comes into its own. Pytel feels that the Encore has become the standard broadcast transition device. Formats which Stakker took the video through ranged from low-band U-matic on to high-band broadcast.
For the shapes which had been created in the facility houses (the main one being Complete Studios), they used one-inch digital recording. The digital Abacus A64 recorder enabled them to bump a lot of material across tracks without losing quality.
SO WHERE IS THE MARKET FOR SUCH A COMPLEX art form? Stakker feel their job is to create the product, not market it, but say that until now the audio and visual markets have each been used to promote the other - as ably demonstrated in the cliched world of pop videos.
"The Videolabel are trying to create a market for fully integrated music and visuals", explains Pytel, "so it's a retail item in itself as opposed to a promotional tool for another format. It advertises nothing with total intensity."
But where are the artists for this new genre to come from? Are visual artists expected to be competent on the music side or will musicians readily branch out into visuals? Scott says he asked some DJs to submit mixes so Stakker could edit visuals and sync them together, but found the general response disappointing because DJs tend to concentrate on the mood on the dance floor and feel that pre-prepared mixes might not be in sync with the night's atmosphere. Pytel believes DJs tend to concentrate on 12" singles for mixing and are loath to use other sources, such as analogue or video tape. . . 'especially VHS, because they don't want to compromise on sound quality'. And because of general club economics, investment isn't made in these type of facilities. Clearly, there's potential here for new artists to appear and make the medium their own.
Returning to the working methods adopted by the Stakker team, which comes first, the visuals or the music? Scott claims the visuals pre-date the sounds, though not in their final edited form. Instead, the visuals were edited onto the soundtrack, which in turn is completely re-edited on request from The Videolabel. Sounds a bit chicken and egg to me.
How was the sound fitted to the music? The short answer is with SMPTE, but as it doesn't relate directly to tempo, C-lab's Unitor is used to lock onto the timecode transmitted via the audio channel on the VHS tape. For the music Scott received some help from house DJ Simon Monday, using an Emulator II as the master keyboard, a Yamaha RX5 drum machine and an Akai S1000 sampler. This was sequenced using C-Lab's Creator and sent through a Yamaha DMP7 mixer onto a Fostex D20 stereo tape deck. They had no access to a multitrack so editing was done using another Fostex.
Scott and Pytel claim to have similar skills and agree with what the other was doing to their joint creation - an economical arrangement, especially as they have to pay out a fortune to hire equipment. It also enables them to work their tools 24 hours a day.
There seems to be no readily recognisable structure to Eurotechno. There are points where both music and video make synchronised changes, but the images and music develop unpredictably. If there is an audio-visual avant-garde, this is it. Scott says there is a fairly random editing structure, while Pytel argues it to be a formalist work - which I suppose like pop art and advertising makes it very disposable.
You don't have to spend a fortune to make audiovisual art though, and one of the cheapest formats is Super 8 cine film. It's been used by amateurs for everything from home movies to animation, and it has been exploited by record and production companies as an alternative to video and larger film formats. So much so, according to Pytel, that it's "brought down the price of promos ridiculously - by about 50%". The result is that those same record and production companies are now caught in the trap where the price of a video has stabilised, yet the techniques have been all but exhausted. Now they have to come up with new ideas or formats yet still remain in the same sort of price bracket. I guess the moral of this story is 'if you want effects like those found in Eurotechno, you have to pay the price'. But until the production companies decide on their strategy, these stunning visuals are going to remain the province of artists like Stakker. They also offer videola an important opportunity for development. Let's hope it's not ignored.