Bombay Bicycle Club’s hypnotic visuals for their recent tour made for a sensory-stimulating show, and they stood-out as the new experiential players at major festivals this summer including dreamy Suffolk weekender Latitude and the hedonistic paradise of Glastonbury. We talk to filmmaker Anna Ginsburg and video designer Adam Young about what it took to create the impressive stage aesthetic and why intensifying the audience’s live show tingle is so important.
As part of the tour for Bombay Bicycle Club’s latest, critically acclaimed 2014 album, So Long, See You Tomorrow, Ginsburg and Young, in collaboration with the band and lighting designer Squib Swain, created a series of hand-drawn looping images for 12 tracks.
Conversations began in part with the album cover (see below), which was designed by London studio La Boca, and inspired by the work of nineteenth century photographer and stop-motion pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, and his work using a zoopraxiscope – a device created in 1879 for motion-picture projection. In particular the band were struck by Muybridge’s walking man cycle, which inspired the album artwork (and also features in the video for Alright Now), depicting a male and a female walking in concentric circles under the moon and sun.
“We thought this kind of ties in with the theme of loops there’s a lot of cycles in the lyrics and the lyrical themes. It just worked.” says vocalist Jack Steadman in a video on their website. “We started to base our artwork on animation. The front cover itself can be animated if you spin it around. It was only natural that we were going to try to incorporate that into our live show.”
Ginsburg, who studied traditional animation at Edinburgh College of Art, had previously worked on three music videos for the band, adding hand-drawn elements to live action in Luna and Carry Me, and creating a BAFTA-winning stop-motion video for How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep. And Young studied lighting design at Central School of Speech and Drama, but soon realised he was more interested in video design, working mainly in theatre and opera since, with this project being his first departure into tour visuals.
“We turned up to their studio one day with books and pages and various different things and went through what would and wouldn’t be possible. We had listened to the album, and they had sent a short brief with the type of thing they wanted to get across with the visual side of their tour,” explains Young. “There was definitely the brief that it should look hand-drawn and shouldn’t look like it was easy to produce on a computer. It should feel like a lot of time and effort has gone into making it, and shouldn’t just feel like normal touring graphics. It should have some heart and meaning to it.”
(Work in progress images)
Although it was the first time the duo had worked together, Ginsburg and Young’s skills complimented each other perfectly. “It was a great collaboration, as he’s got this real technical knowhow in terms of understanding how the projections will work, and because I’m so traditional, sometimes my process can be quite crazy impossible in terms of time. So once I’d figured out an animated loop, he’d often find ways of making it last longer in terms of content,” Ginsburg says.
Alongside the duo, a small team of four illustrators helped to produce several thousands of images that made up hundreds of loops. These were drawn directly into Photoshop using Wacom Graphics Tablets, and created using the same Photoshop brush and line weight, with careful attention paid to stylistically match all the drawings so they appeared to be from the same hand, with Ginsburg directing and working on specific loops that required more design such as Feel, which features a snake charmer’s snake, linking in with the old Bollywood song sampled in the track.
Young used Adobe After Effects for the animation process, which was almost plug-in free, and created the animations in seven circular disk templates that could be used for individual animations or as one long screen.
From storyboarding to final results, the project took an intense six weeks, with the team primarily working from studio based under a railway arch in Hoxton. Part of the process was ensuring one unified design direction, and creating bespoke content that fitted the themes and feelings of each track, which spanned from psychedelic morphing animals to dancing figures, to narrative based sections and even the band members’ faces.
“We set ourselves design rules before we even started thinking about the ideas. It’s something that we do quite a lot in theatre, to try to make a show look uniform across three hours, rather than lots of random ideas,” Young explains. “We ended up with a very narrow colour palette, inspired by the album cover. And as much as it’s going to be displayed on a digital form, we tried to pick colours that don’t look too ‘digital’, to fit in with the hand-drawn organic feel.”
Another rule involved the looping matching the music: “It linked nicely into the Muybridge style of 12 frame loop cycles, with everything looping over 12, 16, or 14 frames throughout the show,” says Young.
And another restricted content to people and nature over inanimate objects or patterns: “There’s so many tour graphics that are just swirly patterns – we were trying to make it about something real and trying to get across real emotions,” he says. “You see a lot of shows that have really generic video, with a big LED wall and stock video content that’s vaguely been arranged in time with the music. But I think people are turning their backs on that now, and starting to pay for bespoke content that actually means something relevant to the band and the music, rather than something that can be cheaply purchased off the shelf.”
“I don’t think abstract stuff is completely lost, but I think listening is the key,” says Ginsburg. “If you’re going to do something abstract make it really lyrically or rhythmically synced to the track. If it’s just random, it’s like wallpaper, or a screensaver – there’s no point.”
The resulting visuals are synced to perfection, played live using Timecode, so the music on stage corresponds with what the audience see and hear. It is this audio-visual, multi-sensory live experience that more and more musicians and their collaborative creatives are starting to experiment with, adding in another sensory layer to the performance, in hope of intensifying the live show euphoria felt by the audience.
“I think its going to become expected, the norm, that when you buy a ticket to a tour, you expect a certain level of visual stimulation. You could say it’s a bit of a curse, because you don’t want to be distracted from live musicians. But at the same time, if it’s used well, it can heighten emotional reactions, or stimulate them,” says Ginsburg. “In a climate where we are used to having visual stimulation all the time, via the internet or via YouTube, our attention spans are getting shorter too. And you’re more likely to make money from touring than record sales now, so the prices of tours are going up, and in turn our expectations are going to go up.”
“We are going to see more and more of it. When someone pays to go to a festival or a gig, they are expecting more than the just seeing the band performing – they are expecting a full show,” says Young. “It largely comes down to money, and bands being willing to put money into their shows – to initially produce something that people will want to come and see, and I think it’s going to become increasingly important.”
Ginsburg says this is the biggest budget she has ever had for a project, and recognises a continual shift towards money being spent on live shows rather than music videos. “To be honest I don’t see budgets for music videos increasing ever again – it’s going to be about being ingenious and economic when directing music videos. People will be more willing to pump resources into tour visuals, because its what makes money,” says Ginsburg. “I think there’s always going to be a place for music video. But instead of making one stand-out viral video, artists are now more inclined to want everything they put on YouTube to have visual content, so quality might go down. But I think quality of live shows will increase.”
It’s is often the sense of a ‘visual hyperreality’ that wows the audience – where real and simulated elements merge, and artists push the boundaries of the live experience. “Personally I love Beyoncé, and her absolute commitment to the design idea, and seeing it through to the extreme,” says Young, referencing her performance for 2011 MTV Awards using interactive projection and strict choreography. “It’s artists like that who buy into the idea so whole heartedly that they will shape an entire show around it.”
“I’d love to do the visuals for something super crazy like MIA or Dizzy Rascal or someone who takes risks visually – an artist who doesn’t take themselves too seriously, because you could do some really out-there stuff,” says Ginsburg.
So as budgets and priorities change, so too does the way we consume and share our experiences of music. Long gone is the era of MTV, and the visual emphasis has shifted towards the audience’s experience being a key element for a musician’s success – whether a live encounter or through sharing the spectacle.
“There’s that other layer to the live shows – the more people get out their phones because they think its worthy of filming, the more promotion you get,” says Ginsburg. “On the [non-festival] tour, the visuals come in half way though the set, there a little sleeping man that rises with dandelions either side of him, and as he appears, at that moment, a sea of iPhones appeared. Normally, I just watch my work on a tiny screen – just that so many people are interested, it was a cool moment,” says Ginsburg.
“I think it’s part of it – after the shows it you search Twitter or Instagram, its full of pictures of the band with projection,” says Young. “It’s a nice feeling that people have noticed it and think of it being part of the show and part of the Bombay Bicycle Club experience that they’ve seen that night.”
Favorites for the duo include Home by Now, depicting a female figure dancing, which was one of the animations that had been through several changes from a clubby dancing vibe to Victorian women twirling with parasols and back again (initial sketches and final animation shown above).
“It was one of the tracks that we wanted to do something playful with. We had this Beyoncé thing happening and made it really silly,” says Ginsburg. “Some of the visuals are trying to communicate that euphoric, generally laid-back ambience that’s so characteristic of Bombay Bicycle Club. But this is the only one I’ve heard with a slightly hip-hop beat so we thought it would be funny.”
Carry Me was another favourite, often used as the finale, with dancing figures and faces in black and white, flashing to match the extensive build up of strobing. It is moments like this and other simple techniques like animating stars falling at speed, that intensify the audience’s experience. There was certainly something pretty epic about this as the sun went down at Latitude – the timing was just right, and the skin-tingling energy spread from screen and stage, out across the field.
“There’s something spectacular about festivals,” says Ginsburg. “There was a moment when I saw the show at Glastonbury, and during Home By Now there was a laugh. It was a career highlight for me – hearing people actually react and being able to hear their reaction to your work on that kind of scale was really cool.”
These are the type of visuals that work particularly well in a festival setting. The fact that they ‘mean something’ as the duo describe, seems to encourage a stronger connection between the audience and the band. Maybe it’s the heady atmosphere, the throng of a massive crowd, when eyes are wider and ears more eager – the environment melds perfectly with audio-visual delights on this scale.
Inspiration images: (top row:) Eadweard Muybridge; (second row:) Suehiro Maruo Molg H; Johannes Kepler; (thrid row:) Katie Scott; (bottom row:) From The Japanese Popstars Let Go video; Luke Pearson.
Show photos: Scott Davies (Brighton Dome). Video by LoveLive