Interview with David Lawrence
We couldn’t be more excited than to receive and debut the world premiere of The Resident’s new VR tryptich, just before their 50th anniversary! Enjoy this exclusive interview with director David Lawrence
FIVARS: What lead to the creation of this piece?
The project started as a casual idea suggested by our Legendary Executive Producer (and longtime Residents associate) Starr Sutherland at breakfast with Co-producer Gary Yost and me. The Residents – the completely anonymous, iconic, Bay Area-based avant-garde band/art collective were planning a small performance for the upcoming Litquake festival.
Starr thought it would be fun to set up Gary’s one-of-a-kind ZCAM V1 stereo 360 camera in front of the band and see if we could get anything interesting. We had no expectations and weren’t even sure the camera could handle the low light of the performance venue. Little did we know the footage we captured that night would take us on an 18-month adventure with an intentional team of artists to create this unique, immersive performance.
FIVARS: What was the production process for you and your team? What did you learn?
The shoot itself was loosely planned. We had free reign to position the camera anywhere in front of the stage, but we didn’t have a setlist and chose positions on the fly. Our friend Steve Cooper brought his Go. Dingo 360 rover which made it easy to remotely move the camera between songs. We recorded all 7-songs in total.
I got the camera files and started with DIE! DIE! DIE!. The performance was intense and the camera just happened to be positioned front, center, and close to the band. When the stitch, rig removal, and cleanup were done, I sent the final 6K master to Gary who immediately called because he was so excited. He later sent an email to everyone saying “YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS. It’s the best-looking footage I’ve ever seen from my camera, and pretty much the best stereo 360 footage I’ve seen…ever.” So Starr, myself, and Homer Flynn – president of the Cryptic Corporation and the band’s representative – headed over to Gary’s to see for ourselves.
The footage was amazing. One of the unique features of the V1 camera is its very small form factor with ten closely spaced, high-quality lenses. This allows the camera to be placed much closer to a subject than any other 360 stereo camera on the market and still produce comfortable stereo footage. By sheer luck, the camera placement for DIE! DIE! DIE!, was ideal, putting the band way up close, positioned directly in front of the viewer.
We quickly realized that while the band was amazing, the opposite side of the video was just a dark room filled with people. What to do? Simple – we’d replace the venue and audience with a VR world based on the song. We picked two more songs from the set and the project officially began. First order of business – finding three artists who could create three unique VR worlds for the songs.
First onboard was Nick DenBoer from Toronto, Canada for DIE! DIE! DIE!. Nick’s a brilliant 3D animator with a surreal comedic style who’s directed music videos for musicians like Deadmau5 and Flying Lotus. He was a fan of the band, eager to do a VR project, and as it turned out, the perfect artist to bring The Residents’ vision of the song to life as a fully rendered 3D world.
Bill Domonkos from Detroit joined the team next for The Residents cover of Teddybear. Bill is a director, animated gif-maker, and master stereographer who’s collaborated with The Residents over many years. The band gave Bill license to do whatever he wanted. Going in a completely different direction, Bill decided to keep the audience and venue and create a surreal mash-up of the real show with his imaginary 3D creations.
Finally, Monkey Man – the piece I directed in collaboration with French artist Stéphane Blanquet. Blanquet is also a long-time collaborator with The Residents and works in all mediums, ranging from illustration and painting to sculpture and tapestry, and even animation and film. Everything he does is pure genius, both deeply disturbing and beautifully sublime in a wide variety of styles. I was thrilled when his gallerist emailed saying he was interested.
On many levels, this collaboration was the most challenging. First, we had to work across time zones and with a language barrier. Antoine Frémon, Blanquet’s gallerist and rep was key to facilitating communication. Months went by and we finally got a proposal – Blanquet suggested we use his “Pantin” – intricate puppet sculptures reminiscent of Balinese Wayang Kulit figures – in front of a camera dancing to the song. Of the many possible directions we could go with Blanquet’s work, this seemed the most feasible and promising. We would shoot the puppets to the song in front of a green screen and composite them into the stereo 360 space. This would essentially let us animate by performing in real-time. After many weeks, a large box from France arrived at my studio containing 32 of Blanquet’s pantin – 12 to 14″ black-painted figures, laser-cut from 1/8″ fiberboard in mind-blowing, exquisite detail. I laid out the puppets on two large tables and we began planning the shoot.
We brought in Christine Marie, a master shadow puppeteer from Los Angeles who’s taken the art of Wayang Kulit beyond tradition with her own unique invention of anaglyphic 3D shadows. Christine performed the puppets to the song, providing a set of choreographed movements I later turned into animated loops and gestures.
The colorful, animated dot world is based on a very rough sketch Blanquet sent as his direction. Let’s just say it left lots of room for interpretation. I took inspiration from his series of stylized paintings that feature shadowy pantin-like figures and sampled his colors to give the puppets’ world the same palettes. The final breakthrough was learning to use Cinema 4D to project animated dot patterns in a 3D sphere and render them out as equirectangular backgrounds for further manipulation. Once I had everything gathered, I used the story in the song lyrics as a guide to putting the final piece together, basically making things up as I went along.
Looking back now, with all the possible obstacles, it’s amazing this project even exists. Everyone involved was generous with their time, gave their creative best, and was willing to push beyond comfort zones to make it happen. But of course, this is what happens when you work with The Residents, a group that’s been pushing boundaries, making strange new music and art, and inspiring countless followers like us for over fifty years.
FIVARS: How did you become an immersive media content creator and why?
Everyone on the team has deep roots in new media. I got my start in the 1980s as a producer at Lucasfilm and was part of the team that invented the first timeline-based non-linear video ending system.
Around that time, Gary was inventing 3D graphics on his personal computer as the author of 3D Studio and Studio Max.
Starr has been at the forefront of bleeding-edge media and art since the late 70’s working with pioneering groups such as Ant Farm and Optic Nerve.
And of course, The Residents have always pushed the boundaries of media technology in their work. We’ve been collectively thinking about the future of media for decades, so it’s natural we’d be drawn to VR and immersive media which is where the edge is today.
FIVARS: What is the VR/AR industry like in your region?
The Bay Area is is the epicenter for the technology companies that build both the hardware and software that drive this industry. There are lots of opportunities here for people looking for work in the field.
That said, content creation (which is key to the success of this medium) is an entirely different matter. It’s just as difficult to get VR content funded here as it is anywhere else. I’d love to see the big tech companies invest in more and smaller content creators as a way to drive experimentation, innovation, and build an audience.
FIVARS: What do you have planned for the future?
I’m currently the editor on The Residents first feature film, “Triple Trouble”, coming in 2022, and working with video artist John Sanborn on a VR interpretation of his video art installation “The Friend”, featuring John Cameron Mitchell, also for 2022. Stay tuned!
FIVARS: Do you think VR festivals like FIVARS are important?
Festivals like FIVARS are a valuable platform for highlighting great work that might be easily overlooked and a great way to meet fellow creators and build community. We really appreciate being selected for the festival this year!
FIVARS in FALL Runs October 15th to 17th in West Hollywood, and October 22nd to November 2nd Online.
Find tickets: https://bit.ly/FIVARSfallTix