It takes light and sound to make a live event great. With the introduction of video players, a breed of 'scratch video' creator appeared, now, with digital video technologies and the Internet a new breed of entertainer has gained recognition on the live event scene, the VJ.
So, what is a VJ?
A VJ, or 'video jockey', is the image equivalent of a DJ, except they mix images, not music. This relatively new form of creative expression has gathered force, and today you'll find VJs at a multitude of events – gigs, clubs, theatres, dances and more.
"The art began with simple video tape presentations, but has progressed to using software to mix visuals in real-time," explained Modul8 developers from GarageCube. "Some VJs create their own media, just like DJs would mix tunes, others mix existing movies".
VJing is playful and iconclastic, liberating video artists from being limited by the Timeline, hinting perhaps at some futire iMovie variant that let users 'play' with their clips, recording the results.
Speaking to me, noted proponent VJ Spark speculated: "Imagine if someone bought out a new motion graphics application where you rode an ever-evolving mix, combining simpler elements into complex compositions you could never manually keyframe".
The activity is full of possibility. Some consider VJing to be at a similar place now to the early days of hip-hop, when people realized they could remix the back catalogue while creating whole new sounds with two decks and a mic. Today's digital tools go beyond vinyl, and with the right notebook, the new multimedia hip-hop generation can mix any media. So I wrote this introduction for prospective Vjs – including you.
The importance of visuals
I spoke with VJ software publisher ArKaos engine architect and CEO Marco Hinic.
He said: "If you want to start VJing, try to define your style. It can go from psychedelic trance mixers, who enjoy using lots of coloured effects to minimal sets using a few black and white video loops".
Style matters, he explained: "A good VJ will have their own set of visuals that you'll recognize very quickly when you see them. The visuals are the most important thing," he stressed.
He explained that debate in the VJ community currently favours self-created visuals, "because they are part of your identity".
Spark also stressed the need to build a unique style, advising: "Find what works for you and develop it so your show has a unique look. I find that the way you alter raw materials contributes more to this than the choice of what those raw materials are."
Bearing in mind the need to protect copyright, if you want to use the kind of visuals you won't find on DVD or TV broadcasts, where should you begin the hunt?
Web sites like Archive.Org.
This site offers a host of resources, including open source movies and other visuals a good VJ may like to download and use in their work. Hinic calls it a "real treasure trove, worthy of extensive exploration".
Make your own clips using a digital video camera, an external hard drive and applications like iMovie, Final Cut Express or even Final Cut Pro. Motion-graphics software such as Apple Motion or Adobe After Effects may be useful, though VJing is emerging as a live skill, in which the mix on the night is mightier than pre-prepared parts.
Flash video loops are also used by many VJs, "they can help you to define your style," Hinic says.
Many companies and groups now offer video loops aspiring video mixers can use if they don't have the time to make their own. Prices per clip vary, but FreeStockFootage offers free and inexpensive clips.
It's wise to keep a high-resolution (pre-compressed, original) backup of your video content, as "tomorrow you'll be able to play at a higher resolution than today," Hinic says.
More on visuals
When hunting down those visuals, it’s worth bearing VJ Spark's advice in mind. He believes less is more - lose the unnecessary bits, and remember that raw camera footage needs to be tweaked, "get contrast and colours how you want them," he said.
In a note on VJ Central, he advises: "Motion is the beat: recreating the feeling of a driving beat is through the motion of your mix, so strip out the motion you don't want from your clips so you have a chance of controlling it."
He adds: "A pointer – I find it easier to add motion to photos than to take it away from video."
Hinic's master tip was on video compression. VJs should back-up their video assets at their original resolution and compression (see above).
Calling the preparation of video loops a "black art," he says: "You can decide to use several resolutions, depending on your machine. But if you want to mix several video loops in the same timeline, you may have to opt for lower resolutions to keep the frame rate high".
Video authors may reject Hinic's next nugget of advice: "Compress your video by using 1 key frame every frame. This is not a mistake, as by doing this you can make sure your video will play smoothly backwards as well as forwards." The reaction to this is that files created are much larger.
"QuickTime Player Pro is a nice tool to re-compress your video loops. Cleaner 6 is, of course, the ultimate tool if you need to process a lot of video loops in one click," he added.
Most VJs I spoke with favour a fast Mac notebook, but stress the need for double monitor support, so a VJ can cast the image to the video projector and keep an eye on what they are doing on-screen. iBooks don't support this, but PowerBooks do.
Memory also matters – whatever PowerBook you opt for must have lots of fast memory installed. The speed of the memory is also a key factor when you must decompress a lot of video frames.
If buying a new PowerBook, some VJs I spoke to advised investing in the 128MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 with 128MB RAM that Apple offers as a build-to-order option. Ultimately it depends on how many video layers you want to mix during a VJ 'set'.
Many VJs may need to invest in a digital video projector, prices for which are dropping. Macworld's advice here is that you should avoid home-cinema video projectors, as these sacrifice brightness for quietness – and you need brightness to create images at longer ranges.
Macworld editor David Fanning explained: "Resolution is less important when you are throwing moving, abstract images; you don't necessarily need the highest resolutions. XGA (extended graphics array) resolution should be fine".
Lamp life matters. Most projectors offer 2,000 lumens brightness for about 2,000 hours of life in lamp-saver mode (which tends to be about 70 per cent as bright as full mode). If you plan to run the projector for extended periods, it may be worthwhile getting hold of a DLP (Digital Light Processor) projector, as these are more robust and the projector does not fade. When left on for long periods, LCD projectors can see fading around the frame.
Fanning also advises: "Don't bother spending extra money on smaller projectors, unless you really need to. Larger ones still only weigh about 2kg, are a little more robust and don't get as hot". Estimated price new for a video projector is between £1,000-2,000.
Control is essential to getting the visual mix just right; while it's possible to control VJ software with a computer keyboard, a MIDI keyboard is the real deal. Mac OS X implements much better MIDI integration than before, meaning more-precise clip control.
VJ software developer Hinic told his story: "I started in 1992 because I needed a tool to display static pictures synchronized to my music. I was using a sequencer and had already developed freeware to dump patches from a DX7 synthesizer, so I had an application to send and receive MIDI data. It was easy to build a prototype to display pictures linked to specific notes on the MIDI keyboard.
"Very quickly we met people from the techno scene and realized we were on to something, though at that time projectors were very expensive."
When working with video from multiple sources, and for the best possible control (along with a selection of built-in excellent transitions), many VJs eventually migrate to using a video mixer as part of their kit. One VJ-recommended sub-£1,000, portable four-channel video mixer is Edirol's V-4.
There's more to VJing than Final Cut or After Effects, there's also a host of specific Mac applications built by or for VJs. These offer built-in effects processing, keyboard and MIDI mapping, layering and additional ways to 'mash-it-up' with video. Key VJ applications for Mac OS X include:
Arkaos - Arkaos VJ
GarageCube - Modul8
Motion Dive - Motion Dive
Robot Funk - Flowmotion
VidVox - VDMX4 and GRID2.
Basic product details follow.
One of the most well-used Mac VJ software titles and newly-updated to version 3.0.2, Arkaos VJ lets its users edit and manipulate a visual performance while it's running. It lets video mixers work with their own images and movie files, and offers a stunning collection of different effects and sequences to help keep your eye candy stirred.
The effects are customizable, the software supports drag-&-drop, and a selection of different mask and copy modes also feature in this easy-to-learn application. Text (using Flash) is also supported. The software also supports USB, FireWire, Web and video cams, video acquisition boards and more
This product costs 279 Euros (Internet version), or 299 Euros (full boxed version, ships with a double CD of visuals to use in a mix.
Modul8 has now reached version 1.0.2 and is available for OS X. This software is designed for real-time video mixing and compositing, and offers a selection of controls for your image assets. You can move and scale images on the fly and output a mix in PAL, NTSC, SVGA, XGA and higher, with full rendering of images done on your Mac's graphics card.
The software can manage up to ten layers, each with their own settings and media, with alpha channels and luma-key functions built-in, to help manage transparency of those layers for better mixes. Modul8 supports direct keyboard and full MIDI connectivity, and can be sound-activated too. This software costs 295 Euros.
A Japanese VJ software package, Motion Dive (US$349) offers wide image and video format support (QuickTime, JPEGS, TIFF, Photoshop and Flash among them) with drag-&-drop facilities. Users can mix two images into one visual, adding effects and texts as needed. Motion Dive's cross-fader is integral to the system, and allows users to manually or automatically cross-fade between the channels. You can set fades simply by tapping a button to denote the interval, or by matching visuals to music using the BPM button.
Motion Dive also has its own plug-in architecture, called Tune. Six plug-ins ship in the box: Colour EQ, Layer Mode, Text, BPM, Macro and Music Player. Two free downloadable Tunes are also available, Action (a fade in/out tool) and 3D Wipe (which lets you switch patterns between the visuals).
Colour EQ lets users create various colours from the visual on each channel; Layer Mode offers 18 visual effects patterns that can be mixed; Text lets you type instant motion graphics; Macro memorizes and replays visuals, and Music Player plays back numerous digital music formats.
Flowmotion (99 Euros) lets users mix video assets in every channel, and also offers MIDI support. It supports a plethora of video and still image formats, and live video capture sources, as well as Flash and Director movies. It's audio-responsive as well, with its own built-in audio analyzer that can be set-up to make the application react to incoming audio levels at different frequencies.
The software has five channels, each of which can be blended with the others using Bland, Mask Layers, Gradient Wipes or "any transfer mode you know from Adobe Photoshop". Each layer has directional and time controls and channels can be colourized.
This product also supports FreeFrame, an open-source cross-platform video-effects plug-in system. There are over 60 effects available now, but these don't yet support OS X. Robot Funk promises registered users a free update when OS X support happens.
Channel controllers include a clip-loop module, a rhythmic cut-up module, a sequencer that can alternate up to 16 clips or other sources, a MIDI-map that can trigger clips from a MIDI keyboard, and a Link controller that re-processes the output of the previous channel. You can preload video clips into memory for fast playbacks, clips can be matched to tempo.
VDMX4 and GRID2
VidVox chief software architect David Lublin explained what his company is trying to do: "We're really trying to do more than make VJ applications, we're looking to change the way people interact with video."
GRID2 is designed to allow mixers to see the assets they are working with; it does this by displaying up to 128 thumbnails dynamically, and lets users navigate to the clip they want to use with a keyboard or MIDI controller - including MIDI turntables, such as Ms. Pinky.
Additional features include Fade to black, pitch stabilisation, aspect ratio controls and set-saving. It costs $75.
VDMX4 is VidVox' other product. This is a real-time modular video studio with G4/G5 AltiVec acceleration and OpenGL-based hardware acceleration.
The product's available modules are in one of four classes: Sources, Processors, Outputs and Controllers. VDMX ships with 25 modules, and 25 effects plug-ins. It also includes several pre-built studio sets, which you can modify or use at will. Essentially, a VJ can build a mix using the modules they want to use in this application, and save it. Because DVDMX supports MIDI, they can then perform these mixes as required using a MIDI controller, or create mixes they like and exercise them as required using GRID. It costs $250.
The VJ Community
There is a global network of VJs, and everyone I spoke with on this project seemed eager to help, because while the scene is growing it remains underground, and people are willing to help one another.
One key resource for any aspiring VJ is VJCentral. This site describes itself as: "A community site for VJs by VJs intended for newbies who want to learn how to create live visuals as well as for experienced VJs looking for inspiration, advanced tips and fellow VJs." The site aims to connect VJs globally.
Those visiting VJCentral will find software and hardware reviews, articles, hints, tips and advice. There's also a community of experienced practitioners there to help you, some of which have been VJing since the early 1980s.
AVIT UK is the UK face of an international VJ community. Sponsored by arts groups across Europe and the US, participants here aim to create VJ events and an annual festival. This, "will provide upcoming, developing and experienced artists with the opportunity to engage with their peers, participate collaboratively and promote themselves at an international level," the organizers said.
AudioVisualizers is another excellent resource for aspiring VJs, though it appears a little more commercially-focused. Here you'll find news, advice, support forums and articles to help you overcome any problems you may find engaging in the VJ art.
Also recommended is Scratch Video, which offers the experience and insights of a group of Canadian VJs, one of which did his Masters degree on scratch video and VJing. Here you will find cultural reference points, notes on design, theory and more.