Ultra Music Festival is a spectacle bar none. With more stages, more weekends and more guests than ever, thousands of people in front of and behind the scenes create a unique and memorable experience.Yet when you are at a mega event like Ultra Music Festival or Electric Daisy Carnival – do you ever wonder who creates the spectacular visuals that accompany the best DJ’s on the planet? We did, so we caught up with Vello Virkhaus, founder and CEO of V Squared Labs, between the two Ultra Music Festival weekends at Finnegan’s River on a quiet Tuesday far away from the madness of Miami Music Week.
From Chicago to L.A.
V-Squared delivers video visuals during most of the UMF experience and other major EDM festivals. Predictably, Vello did not start out making visuals for more than 330,000 people in Bayfront Park, Miami.
“I started VJing in the early 90s with a group of artists in Chicago, doing a lot of raves, and it evolved from there” says Vello. “We did a big tour for Ministry—that was our big project -working with crazy Al Jorgensen creating this psychedelic liquid light show. My beginning was in film projection, film loops, slide projectors and psychedelic oils”
After finishing at the School of Art Institute in Chicago, his friends and associates slowly left Chicago for New York or Los Angeles, Vello relocated west to be closer to the energy of L.A and got into the rock and roll side of things working with acts like Korn.
“About 80% of my class went to work for Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, IOM, Digital Domain, VFX type stuff” says Vello. “Couple guys are still doing fine art, and then I went into this weird entertainment slash visual art type thing” he grins.
10 Years and Counting
Vello Virkhaus’ company, V Squared Labs (see what they did there?), has been the visual production company for UMF the last 10 years – even through major changes in other partners, the long standing relationship has held strong. Their work with other vendors – or as we should say visual artists – will run the lights and the lasers to create the immersive, breathtaking experience that is a EDM festival these days. Every year Vello and his team produces and runs visuals with their custom equipment – they ship more than a metric ton of gear out from their L.A. base of operations – to work their magic.
For UMF 2013 V-Squared did custom visuals for Datsik, Hardwell, Flux Pavillion, Doctor P, Tommie Sunshine, Laidback Luke and others. The process of designing the what goes on the screens, start more than a month before when they receive the layout of the Ultra stages. The team then works to create visuals that work well with the stage design and test them out virtually before the event takes place. For artists that do not have pre-designed visuals, they will use logos and other collateral to tailor the backdrop to the artist.
The Ultra Megastructure stage is a good example of how custom visuals help create an amazing experience for event goers. Pete Sistrom, V-Squared’s lead programmer, explains “The Megastructure uses honeycomb hexagons that we can geometrically map for a very special effect. It’s above your head, so we trying to do things that really sweep through the space. We also adapt content for performers to make it work for the stage and make sure it has a cohesive feel.”
The visuals are run using industry software such as Touch Designer but with a lot of custom elements. Max Chang, one of Vellos key people responsible for a lot of the programming and behind the scenes magic, adds that they frequently get their hands dirty to create an experience that off-the-shelf software would not be able to deliver.
On a typical Ultra Day, Vello and his team will run all the visuals during the day on the mega LED screens, using specialized software and a mix of custom and general video sequences until sometime after sunset.
“We’re pretty much VJ’ing from opening to 7 or 8 on the mainstage every day and then we’re often assisting, like for Above and Beyond who had a show that was showing on 70% of the screens, jamming out with them, while we also are running the Red Bull Flight Deck screens”, says Vello.
If that is not enough, V-Squared is also running or helping with the visuals for the Megastructure, Mid-park, Live and Bayfront stages. For an operation as massive as Ultra they bring in a lot of extra talent to work with them – letting everyone plug into their systems and be instantly pixel-mapped on the customized screens for each stage.
Outside the festivals
Festivals may be the high profile gigs, but V-Squared have a longstanding a relationship with many artists outside the mega events, working with such acts as Don Diablo and Amon Tobin to create the visual feel for their tours. Latest, V-Squared finished a project with Infected Mushroom to create a unique visual presence for their current tour.
“We had a meeting and they were really blown away by the Amon Tobin Show and wanted to do something new. We set up a meeting, we get together, had some initial brainstorming sessions, and put together an inspiration book. Maybe 20-30 pages of just imagery we collect and group aesthetically to try and hone in on a high level art direction. Whats the feel? Whats the mood? What kind of ideas can we do? Whats the story about?”, says Vello.
Pete adds that the music enters quickly and plays a key role. In the case of Infected Mushroom the process even went one step as the music was tweaked later to match the visuals and the story.
The pride is obvious as Vello says “Infected Mushroom really put so much extra into that show, – really involved and they were super cool guys to work with. We really like the interaction and had a lot of fun in the studio together looking at all the animation and seeing how things were coming together. “
Artist or a vendors?
As we talk more about the creative elements of creating visuals for events, it becomes clear that maybe the visual artists do not always get the recognition they deserve. V-Squared is now, through their longstanding relationship with Ultra Music Festival, billed on the promotional material but that is not how it has always been. We ask Vello if VJ’s get the recognition they deserve?
“Absolutely not” sounds the immediate and passionate response. “I think Ultra is one of the only festivals in North America that had us in the artist list and we got all the VJs affiliated with V-Squared Labs listed with facebook links, so at least people can some information”.
He continues “The music business doesn’t have a vehicle for that market, so they don’t know how to promote it, since lighting, video and pyrotechnics are kind of coming together in this entertainment space, it becomes a necessity to figure it out. Even on just the basic level say “Hey we’ve got this amazing VJ” which is just like promoting any other artist – everyone will be better off. Very few people are taking that chance — the visuals are tied to the artist.”
This sentiment is reminiscent of what Armin van Buuren said recently when talking about naming a track on the forthcoming “Intense” album. When praising his visual director, the response he received was “Well no one leaves humming the lights”. Its a slow movement to support and acknowledge these visual artists in the music industry despite their vital part in a DJ’s show performance.
Best Seat in the House
Even if the recognition can be lacking, there are perks that just cant be beat. As the entire team say – “We have the best seat in the house” – and with that we were extended an invitation to view the crew in action.
We caught up with V-Squared first at the Megastructure and then later on the Mainstage Platform just as Calvin Harris was starting his set..
What greeted us was a controlled chaos of controllers, racks, computers, focus and light dancing on the spot as the team juggled clips in realtime on the massive LED screens of the biggest stage. Working with the light and laser teams, they closely follow the buildups, hit the drops and give the hundreds of thousands of dancing fans the backdrop for the music they love.
After the lights go out, the last fireworks are shot off and Swedish House Mafia saved the world for the last time – everything is packed up and shipped back or on to the next event. V-squared is in high demand doing not just Ultra and all the international Ultra Music events, but also Insomniac events such as Electric Daisy Carnival and setups for corporate gigs like the Hyundai Grammy afterparty.
Maybe one day the visual artists will be featured just as prominently as the DJ’s and producers.
They certainly deserve it.
Inspired by what V-Squared is doing? Vello leaves us with some tips for would-be visual artists:
“To anyone wanting to get into this scene – there are more VJs than ever showing up with their laptop ready to plug in. There’s more room to do it now, not just because you love it, but because people actually need you and DJs want to have their own show. VJ’s becoming a necessary part of EDM life. Make a reel, knock on doors, get technically savvy—people really need touring VJs, and those are also the gigs that pay.
I would only say really do it only if you love it because the entertainment business is a tough business especially when you’re not a music artist. Dig what you’re doing and just keep doing it.
No matter what anybody says to you, just be persistent!”
Written by Mikael Vinding
Photography by Pelle Bournonville
This post originally appeared on Electronic Nightlife, now a part of beatcue.