Visual Spectrum

Lifelong raver and studio founder Oisín O'Brien shares his creative process.

Interview October 21, 2020

Rob Nichols - Farside

Hi Oisín, can you tell us about your work?

Oisín O'Brien - Visual Spectrum

I run Visual Spectrum, and then I also run another business called DSNT. At Visual Spectrum, we produce large scale festival productions, predominantly for dance music, and a bunch of visual content creation. I also do experiential focused projects which are more installation based. Everything is centred around the relationship between technology and art.

The other business that I run, DSNT, is a record label focused on rave music and visuals. It’s a creative community in itself, but a very niche one in terms of its target audience.

Visual Spectrum offers a business to business service, and a range of products in the form of lighting and visual content, whereas DSNT is very much about banging techno.

Rob

What tools do you use to create your visuals?

Oisín

Everything I know was pretty much self-taught as far as the technical stuff. My experience is mainly with Cinema 4D and After Effects, but Resolume would be my application of choice for doing live visuals. For quite a few years now, I’ve been making original content using that.

Rob

What’s your background, how did you get into this?

Oisín

I studied art up until age 18, and I was going to quite a lot of festivals at the time. At around 20, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Around then I was at Life Festival (which I subsequently hosted a stage at many years later) and I had the realisation that I wanted to work with festivals and stage shows. I started running a small club night which then subsequently grew.

I was really inspired by the work of Joanie Lemercier, Amon Tobin, and Anti VJ, who were producing amazing projection mapping work. I made an application to Culture Night to do a projection mapping thing, with not a lot of knowledge of how to do it. That then resulted in some more opportunities, and people wanted me to do various installations.

Then, six years ago, I came on board with Sarah, the founder of AVA Festival in Belfast, as their visuals guy / technical producer. When I first came on, it was in this amazing former shipbuilding warehouse that had been taken over by these crazy guys, Liam, Joey, and Gary, who basically gave us a house. We worked out of there to deliver the AVA stuff for Sarah. Me and Sarah have done shows in so many places, from Mumbai to SXSW. It’s been a huge opportunity for me to grow and learn.

I’ve also worked freelance for a couple of other studios. I worked early on with a company called Enter Yes (formerly Black North) doing a couple of more commercial TV projects. They actually worked with me on a project called Land of Legends for the W5 Science Museum. We delivered a 14 projector multi-screen Immersive experience, with 3D surround sound. It was an experience of Irish mythology in a projection context. One of the concept artists from Lord of the Rings was doing the illustrations for it.

Oisín Oisín

Rob

That must’ve been quite a lot to coordinate. Did you have much experience with that level of projection mapping before?

Oisín

Prior to that, I’d actually done a couple of other pieces for a TV series called Krypton, which was a prequel to Super Man. It was 700 unique pieces projection-mapped, with two overhead projectors edge blended and multiple rear projection screens as part of the set. So I had quite a bit of experience delivering that type of project in the past.

I also went out and did the Avolites AI training. Avolites is the industry standard when it comes to entertainment lighting. The lighting desk I own is an Avolites Tiger Touch. It’s what I use for operating lights in a club. Typically at a festival, I’d use the next one up which is the Arena, but they have now moved into the video market and they have what’s called the AI. It’s a media server system. It’s similar to Resolume, but with hardware as well as software. It’s just their way of operating video content.

Rob

Can it handle video faster? Is it better for films and screens?

Oisín

Yes and integrating with the lighting. That project specifically was running on smart triggers and time code. I didn’t handle the technical side of the install, as far as the equipment was concerned. I just handled the creative production side of things. It was a company called Hamilton Robson AV leading on the technical side.

Rob

Is that your preferred way to work or would you prefer to get more stuck into the technical as well?

Oisín

It varies. For that project, I didn’t want to be anywhere near the technical. I had enough to be carrying with the creative. There was maybe 10 minutes’ worth of content and nearly all of it was in 4K. I like to have an understanding of how the technical stuff works, but you need to delegate on a project of that nature, with other people bringing their expertise to the table.

It’s the same for a festival – if I’m doing a creative production role or a technical production role, there’s still going to be eight to ten other techs working on the job, managing the individual stages, helping with the build, and doing specific roles. It varies from project to project, but for me, I want to be pushing more on the creative side things. My heart lies in making art.

Rob

So you’re focused on techno music and heavy tech?

Oisín

Yeah, but with Visual Spectrum, it’s a mix of stuff. At the moment, I’m doing a lot of behind the scenes development of content that is going to be for sale. I’m creating visual packs and developing a course that gives an overview of our creative process. It’ll provide case studies for large scale installations that I’ve built over the years.

It’ll cover the full process, from the early idea generation stage (building a mood board, references, and 3D models) to creating a finished pitch that can be sent to the client. Then from the client approval stage, the actual production management of delivering on that project.

Rob

I think there’s definitely a big lack of content of that type for this field. So I think you’re onto something.

Oisín

I think that there is content available, but I don’t think that anyone’s one packaged it in a way that’s tasteful and nice. I’ve spent a lot of time watching tutorials, and I want to show how to build large scale lighting installations in a way that’s more accessible and tailored for someone coming from a creative background, not a solely technical one. I’m quite lucky that I live on the intersection and I’ve been able to learn both sides. I’ve learned more from my mentors and real-world experience than any videos that I’ve found online.

With any project, I’m interested in doubling my efforts so I get the maximum return for the time that I invest in something. I’ll make the visual content, but then that’s going to be broken apart into its own visual loop pack. There’s no point in doing something twice, especially when you’re doing quite heavy renders on your computer like a fluid simulation.

At the moment I have a computer that was built by Chill Blast. It’s 32 gig Ram, and it’s got a Nividia 1080 TI card. Most of the rendering that I do will be on octane render, which is a plugin for Cinema 4D, but it uses your graphics card as opposed to your computer’s processor.

Rob

Yeah, the hardest thing is just that the time it takes to render, it’s so frustrating. But I guess as we go forward, that’s all going to get a lot quicker, isn’t it?

Oisín

I’d say so, but with the announcement of the new NVIDIA RTX 30 SERIES it looks like there will be significant speed increases. A lot of people are using Notch for particle simulation and it’s in real-time. There’s a studio in Dublin called Algorithm that does quite a lot of Notch stuff. Hamilton Robson have a Notch rack installed as part of their server system. It’s just quite a big financial investment.

Rob

That’s quite a big barrier to entry at the moment, isn’t it? The cost of the software.

Oisín

It’s gotten a lot better though. When I first started off, you could only either buy a license for Photoshop or somehow find it on someone’s hard drive. Only in the past year have Maxon released a subscription model for Cinema 4D, which is a really good move on their part to do a licensing model that can be paid monthly. A lot of people want to buy software legitimately (especially small freelancers that aren’t comfortable with pirated software) but they’re not in a place where they can afford £3000 on one investment. £80 a month is a lot more manageable. Z brush have also introduced a licensing model. Houdini, which is probably the hardest to learn, is only £200 or something a year.

Rob

If an artist or a record label comes to you and says okay, we want to put a show together, how do you approach the concept?

Oisín

It depends on whether or not it’s an artist or a promoter. If it’s a promoter, typically they will have a lineup booked, and some of that lineup will have their own assets – DJ logos, etc. I prefer to work with the promoter from the start. At AVA, I would work with Sarah not just on the lighting design, but the whole layout of the festival. I would be given scale drawings of the site that it’s going to be on. I’d translate the site to 3D renders with full breakdowns of the stage sites, the health and safety stations, the security, the ops, everything.

I’ll make a little spreadsheet of all of the kit that I’ve got and then find the weight loadings of the stage, and what the building can take it in terms of weight. You can make the best design in the world, but unless it’s safe, it’s not going to fly. You have to consider other ways you can put lights in the air, or whether any screens must be broken apart for example.

From then on, I’ll bring it into 3D. I’ll build a drawing of the stage, the rigging points, all the lights, and where the screen is going to go. Then I’ll propose that to the client.

Rob

So this is prior to doing any visual concepts in terms of the stuff going on the screens?

Oisín

Yeah. You have to figure out where everything is going to go. All of that will inform the feasibility of a project. It’s the difference between having one full screen or splitting it up.

Rob

So what would drive that decision to split those screens opposed to having a solid screen?

Oisín

When I think about a lighting system in general, with the distance from the audience, light is going to travel in a physical manner. I always try to create something that looks as big as possible that has the most impact it can, and is going to create that wall effect with the audience.

Some of the motivation for breaking a screen apart, for example, would be because you only have 40 panels and you want to make the stage look big. You can then break it up with towers of lights between the screens. If we’re delivering on a production, there’ll be a dialogue between whoever’s operating the visuals and whoever’s operating the lights, to ensure that the show feels cohesive, and things are happening at the right time.

Rob

Presumably, if it’s a prerecorded set, then you can plan for that. But if it’s a live set, and you’re not sure what they’re going to play, that must be hard?

Oisín

It’s pretty easy to tap the tempo. Dance music in general is very organized as far as the way that the music breaks down and builds up. It’s broken into 8, 16, and 32 bar sections. You’re going to be able to tell when a breakdown is coming.

What I like to have is a range of different types of light. Typically I’ll have some wash light, which will be just a standard single-color, ideally with a strobe function. I’ll have my moving head beams (a moving headlight with a sharp controllable beam) and they’ll be what I’ll spend the most time programming to get nice positions. It’s about creating nice geometry and symmetry. It’s one of the reasons why it kills me not having a front of house.

Rob

What exactly is a front of house?

Oisín

Front of House is like a little tent, maybe 60 to a hundred feet away from the stage. That’s where typically you would have your sound engineer if you were doing a live gig, and your visuals guy. The motivation for not having one is so you don’t have to run cable. Sometimes if they’re doing an LED screen, the video doesn’t travel a lot well over distance. But to be quite frank, in the time we’re in now, you should always have a front of house. I feel like that is the basic standard for doing a good show.

Rob

Well, it’s crucial as well for the artist to be able to see it and respond to the music.

Oisín

Yeah, you want to see it from the audience’s perspective. Sometimes the promoter just says you just have to stay at the side of the stage. In that case, I’ll come the night before and do all my programming from a central position.

If you’re programming from anywhere other than the centre, your symmetry is going to be wrong. Even when you’re operating, you’re guessing what the audience is seeing.

Rob

So you’ve defined the bare bones of what you’re working with, you’ve decided where the screens are going to go. What’s the next step in terms of taking the visual concept and making that come alive?

Oisín

It really comes down to the nature of the client, and how much they want to spend on custom content versus using content I’ve already made. In the latter case, they basically hire me as a visuals operator. I’ll make artists slides with the fonts of the festival and their sponsors. I’ll use what’s called a Luma Map. I’ll make a lot of that content in black and white – the white allows my premade content to show through. It’s an easy way to get a projection map show with a smaller client budget.

If it was a tour for an artist, and supposed to invoke a certain feeling, it’s a much more comprehensive process when it comes to the creation of content. I’d start off with a mood board, listening to the full setlist. We did Alan Fitzpatrick’s We Are The Brave tour a couple of years ago, and he had a very specific brief. He wanted it to be “tough guy content” – riots, fire, people fighting, and dogs barking. It was a case of finding and sourcing a lot of stock content and editing it to fit with the BPM that his set was going to be at.

The process will involve figuring out where the content needs to be made, be it Cinema 4D, Photoshop or Illustrator, and making style frames. I’ll build still frame renders and try to get stuff close to where it needs to be. I’ll then organise it all into a project folder.

Rob

When you’re organising your footage, do you do so in terms of how heavy or relaxed the music is?

Oisín

Things will be made in a certain tone. I’ll know what they are, based on their project name. From each of those projects types, I’ll make 10 different versions for each of those files. Within Cinema 4D there’s a function that saves incrementally. If you’re working in a procedural way, you can change one set, and then the computer will do a lot of the work once you’ve set up your system, creating a lot of variations.

Once I’ve done the look development, I’ll make things in batches and render overnight. Each night I get everything ready so that I’m not putting my computer out of action throughout the day.

Rob

What’s been your favourite performance that you’ve done?

Oisín

There’s a couple that stand out to me as career-defining. In 2014, I did a show for Headless Horseman at Kraftwerk, as part of the Berlin Atonal festival on the main stage. It came with a lot of opportunities. Also, the Lumen shows still stood out as some of my proudest productions. Those were in Belfast.

Stage design and installation wise, AVA has given me a playground to explore and express myself. I felt like my installation for the Red Bull stage this year was one of the most ambitious things I’ve ever done. It was around 43 cubic meters, so technically it was a big challenge – there was a lot of weight flying over people’s heads. Also, working with iridescent film was a new experience – depending on the perspective that you looked at the film, it changed colour, giving it a unique and beautiful effect. The natural light that you’d perceive as white would show all of the colour that’s hidden within it, showing the full, visual spectrum. That’s what inspired my name.

AVADAYONE-369


AVA Festival

Rob

It’s a bit more of a physical installation rather than just doing it purely off screens.

Oisín

Yeah. I’ve always wanted to create that “holy f**k” moment. It’s a brief experience of freedom, an opportunity to lose yourself. I want to create an emotional experience for the audience.

Rob

What’s the most fulfilling part of the process? Is it the production of the content or the actual live performance?

Oisín

For me, it’s the immediate rawness of noise. It’s a visual cue for the audience to lose themselves and to experience the night to their fullest. When you’re emotionally connected with an artist’s music it allows for a more natural performance – where you’re literally able to predict the next four beats.

Rob

So what’s next for you guys?

Oisín

We’ve got a couple of releases coming up. We’ve got one with Dimi, and then we’ve got a Myler one. I’m his manager, so the next goal will be touring with Myler during his album tour and hopefully build him up as an artist and build DSNT up as a label. We were doing quite well until COVID hit, touring quite a bit.

Long term, I want to do less client work. I want to move more into selling assets, selling courses, selling digital products. I want to spend my time creating work that I’m genuinely passionate about, and only doing lights for guys where I love their music.

Rob

Why techno?

Oisín

I love the scum of it. In my mind, there should be an adrenaline hit when you enter the dancefloor – the rawness, the intensity. When I say this, I would never compromise on safety at all, but from a customer’s perspective, they should feel like they have the freedom to express themselves fully, and not feel like they’re attending a corporate event. They’re attending somewhere where they can be the true version of themselves that they maybe hide from wider society.

Rob

And the visuals help facilitate that?

Oisín

I feel like lights and visuals create personal space on the dance floor. It means that you’re not focused on the giant crowd around you. You’re focused on your personal experience of the event, which does create that sense of freedom.

A lot of the time you’ll be immersed in smoke, so you’re not going to see two feet in front of you. You’re going to be surrounded by light, which allows you to disassociate from your normal version of reality.

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