The Art of Analog: An Interview with Lars Larsen & the LZX Visionary
— By Adri Wong | December 16, 2010
Last week, psych/synth-pop band Neon Indian premiered the music video for their song “Mind Drips” on IFC. It is officially the first music video to be shot with the aid of the LZX Visionary – an analog video synthesizer styled in the way of video art tools from the 1970s. The video’s crawling arrays of psychedelic color and light were recorded using the Visionary’s real-time pattern synthesis and compositing techniques, and they convert a simple Alice-in-Wonderland-esque storyboard into a “florescent cotton candy of a video,” a “sensuously extended dream sequence that makes you feel like you’ve woken up trapped in the 70s – and not in that fun, safe, ABBA kind of way either.”
The video was directed by Lars Larsen, an electronics designer and multimedia artist (http://www.lzxindustries.net/). Larsen also engineered the technology behind the video, along with technical partner Edward Leckie. Hydra sat down with Larsen to discuss the LZX Visionary, his collaborations with Neon Indian, and the prospects for an analog audio-visual revival.
Hydra: Where did you get the idea for the Visionary?
Lars Larsen: Well, I’ve been working on this project for the last two or three years. I went to film school at the University of North Texas, and I got into electronics shortly after film school, started building synthesizers and became really obsessed with a lot of the 70s and early 80s devices, most of them DIY, unique projects. There weren’t really any that were made commercially viable; it was out of most artists’ budgets at the time. So mainly this project started out of a frustration for the lack of this kind of tool to make video art, something I wanted to do. That’s where the desire for the whole project came about: needing the tool and the tool not existing.
H: So do you identify as an artist or as an engineer more?
LL: As both, really. The technology itself is art in a way. Being able to design a tool – it’s like designing a paintbrush but it’s also a piece of art in itself, especially for me personally. The aesthetic ideals and workflow structure of this are mainly designed with how I want to use it in mind.
H: Why the fascination with analog, or with that specific time period?
LL: It’s more the analog technology than the time period. The time period was kind of truncated. There was a very vibrant period of video art from the mid-70s to the 80s, but as soon as computer graphics came in, people became very excited about the fast evolution of all that and they sort of lost interest in the analog tools for manipulating a video image. Same with analog audio too – audio synthesizers. And that’s why we’re experiencing a revival of analog synthesizers in music right now. Because there was a period that was too short – things happened really really fast – and now it’s slowly coming back.
H: It seems like people are even doing that with early computer technology. Because it evolved so quickly, artists are going back to experimenting with elementary computers.
LL: Yeah, and most people have conceptions of computers in terms of software now – it’s less linked into the hardware that it’s actually on. The earlier you go back, the more transparent the reliance on the hardware.
H: How did you start working with Neon Indian?
LL: Alan [Palomo] started school in Denton where I was living at the time. He was a close friend, a really nice guy – there was a house where one of my bandmates was his roommate, along with a couple other guys, and they all had their own things going on … Then he started the Ghosthustler project that started getting him some popularity. I remember the two of us sitting in this living room working on stuff on our laptops together …
H: We were lucky enough to catch a recent show here in Austin where you did the visuals. Do you go on tour with Neon Indian or just collaborate on some shows?
LL: I did some shows in New York with them last December, and I try to do them whenever they’re in town. I don’t go on tour with them all the time, but I like doing [the live shows] as much as I can. They play a DVD I made for them when I can’t. I should be doing video at the Dallas show they have coming up in February.
H: How does the video-recording, film work that you do with the Visionary relate to your live performance work?
LL: It’s interesting … It’s a common misconception that this [gesturing towards machine] is just pre-set effects – you know, with video you have this notion of a “video effect” – whereas this is more the building blocks to achieve certain effects or to create certain kinds of signals.
So, to answer your question, its applications are really just as broad as other tools – the same way that you might use a keyboard synthesizer either in the recording studio or live. Since it’s a modular system, you can pick the modules that suit whatever you want. If you want to generate a lot of crazy patterns, you can pick a lot of oscillator modules. Or there will be other systems that are more focused on processing different video streams – from different cameras, or so on – and making them interact in different ways.
Analog video is different than digital – because unlike digital, where the video is a series of images going by, and that’s how it’s stored on the computer – it’s a continuous signal, just like how you hear audio. So you can perform really exact manipulations on [analog] video as it happens.
H: So do you ever feel like you’re “jamming?”
LL: Yeah. That’s why it’s important to have knobs and switches and patch cables, because unexpected things happen. On the computer you can’t make unexpected things happen as much.
H: Can you walk us through the steps of shooting the “Mind Drips” video?
LL: There are two main things going on:
The first half is some computer compositing … The background pattern that’s keyed out behind the grayscale footage – that’s generated from video oscillators. They’re modulating each other, and then they’re controlled with a sequencer, and the sequencer is locked to the tempo of the song. And I use other different modulation sources.
In a digital workflow you have to deal a lot with data types and what can affect what is defined by the software environment you’re using. In an analog system it’s kind of open. All you’re dealing with is voltages. The same voltage that makes the amount of red in the video can also affect the number of lines in the pattern, or whatever. It’s all arbitrary and that’s where a lot of the power comes in – with the keying and relationships between the different video layers.
The second half – the effect I really set out to do – is a video feedback, keying technique. So the shots were edited together, and that was rendered out as black and white video and burned onto a DVD. That was used as the source for the video synthesizer.
The way the colorization and color effects worked was – from the use of an old feedback camera. So there were two video sources running into the video synthesizer. One was the footage from the video, and the other was this feedback camera – and the camera was pointed at a video monitor that was showing the output of the whole thing. So it feeds back on itself. The camera is looking back at its own image of itself in the monitor. The way I got color and motion out of that was by manipulating exactly how the camera was positioned relative to the monitor and the focus controls and, most importantly, through the patch that I had which took different regions of the source video and applied colorized patterns of the feedback to it.
The basic idea is the two images are blended together and manipulated in different ways. The parts where you see the oscillating patterns going up her [the woman in the Mind Drips video] arms is all from the keying patch. The keying patch splits up the grayscale image into different amplitude regions – like, 50% gray, 60% gray, replace that with specific colors. It’s kind of like writing a computer program, but you’re doing it with patch cables and knobs.
H: Do you feel like you are already part of a community of “analog people?”
LL: Yeah. I’ve met and am good friends with a lot of artists through creating this thing. There are six system owners right now – and they’re in New York, Japan, Australia. There are a lot of people who have been waiting around for this kind of technology to be made available. But it’s definitely a niche thing. I don’t expect every post-production house to have one in the back, or for it to be useful for all applications.
As for other video artists – there are some great visualists here in town [in Austin], several groups. The group that helped me shoot the Neon Indian video is called Blackmagic Rollercoaster (blackmagicrollercoaster.com) — they’re local filmmakers. My friend Chad Allen does work with video mixers and video feedback. There’s a local public access show called “Everything in Heaven is TV” – a lot of my friends do that.
H: Do you have any more projects planned?
My ultimate goal is more narrative-type applications, a symbiotic relationship between the effects technology and the scene that’s being recorded as it happens. Like: cutting between cameras based on the character’s microphone amplitudes, things like that.
H: How much – if at all – does media theory, cultural theory inform your interest in this work?
LL: It has a lot to do with it. This existing has a lot to do with the relationship between the tool and the artist, functional and creative applications. Making a tool that is creatively inspiring creates its own art, in a way.
You know, I think that there is a point at which computer graphics get boring, so now we go back to: “How can we achieve an interesting effect?” rather than “How do we achieve a super photorealistic render?” I think we are going to see – or at least, I am hoping that we see – a resurgence in use of analog technology with video. Things like this [video synthesizer] existing is a first step, really.