Breaking bits in pretty ways: The visualists of Blip Fest

Last weekend I sunk into the depths of chiptune music at Blip Festival. I quickly noticed that a lot of the bands had the same visualists managing the projected artwork behind the stage. It turns out that there's a substantial shortage of visualists for chiptune shows, so the best ones are highly sought after and hard to find. I grabbed three of the most interesting ones from the festival and asked them to tell me how they're making their images.

Batsly Adams

Batsly writes his own ROMs for the portable Sega Genesis Nomad. He's previously worked with the Nintendo, but the Nomad allows him to bring two around easily so he can fade between the two systems with a video mixer. He's spent a lot of time– sometimes working over a month for one set –developing different effects based around exploits in the way the Nomad draws the video out on the screen. Fortunately, these effects can be reused with different graphics for other artists. Batsly took some time to demonstrate how he performs on the Nomad to me:

Batsly mentions two specific techniques he uses to create his effects here: horizontal blank interrupt, inserting code between the scan lines of the display's drawing process and color cycling, changing the color palette of a fixed-shape graphic to create the impression of an animation. Color cycling is how a lot of the early animations of water were done within the limitations of the game consoles.

Jean Y. Kim

Jean uses images and video clips she appropriates from different sources or tapes herself, then processes them by converting them through several formats and taking advantage of lossy conversions and glitches in the different file formats. She pulls video clips through VLC exporting wizard and then into Photoshop where she can break the file into frames and work on them individually.

The real secret sauce, though, is a program called Monglot programmed by Johan Larsby in collaboration with visual artist Rosa Menkman. Monglot allows Jean to access glitches specific to file formats more easily, experimenting with breaking them in different ways. Jean then pulls these images back into Photoshop, applies filters to bring out textures from other pixelating and coloring processes, and merge the frames back into a video clip. When performing live, Jean loads up video clips and cycles through them as the band plays.

Jake Beadenkopf AKA Chromacle

I interviewed Jake last, and I expected him to share at least a few techniques with Jean since their visuals are somewhat similar. Surprisingly, his methods are very different. Jake uses a Mac program called Quartz Composer to manipulate image sprites and 3D models he makes in Blender. Quartz Composer allows you to change visuals on the fly based on different inputs rather than as static video clips, so Jake actually takes the incoming audio from the live band and uses that as an input to change the visuals.

One of the ways he uses that audio input is to exploit a 3D animating glitch called z-fighting. By placing two 3D objects in the same plane in space and slightly changing their angles or rotation, they "fight" each other to be drawn first on the screen, merging and slicing each other apart. The rotation and angles can be connected to audio input to control the z-fighting effect. Jake's shared an example of this with us if you want to try this out in Quartz Composer yourself.

The audio input is also handy for rotating and transforming 3D models Jake imports from Blender. Quartz Composer has a limited capability for working with 3D models, so he uses plugins written by Vade and bangnoise to extend its functionality. Although Quartz Composer can't move the model's joints on its own, Jake sometimes splits animations into frames and re-animates them using his own loop.

All three visualists were very gracious in sharing their secrets with me in no small part because there are so few people doing this for band performances. Apart from bands that provided their own visuals, Blip Festival only had five visualists among around twenty sets that needed them. If you're interested, you should give it a shot. I know I've got some experimenting to do. Thanks Batsly Adams, Jean Y. Kim and Chromacle!

Check out my videos from Blip Fest to see more of these and other visualists in action.