LCD Soundsystem’s new video, Dance Tonite, is designed to be experienced in different ways, depending on how you’re accessing it.
If you’re the lucky owner of a full-on, room-scale VR kit such as Oculus Rift, you can participate in the video using motion capture. If you’re using a basic VR set though, such as Google Cardboard, you can’t join in, but can watch the dancers, which appear as geometric shapes, dancing around you, as if you are on stage with them. And if you’re watching it on a lowly old web browser or your phone, there is still fun to be had, by watching the dancers as if in the audience and changing the POV with clicks.
One of the criticisms that is often levelled at VR projects is a lack of accessibility: first off, you need the kit and then you usually have to download a big old app to access the content. So when Jonathan Puckey and Roel Wouters were approached by Google’s Data Arts Team to do a project using WebVR, a new web standard which makes it possible to experience VR in your browser, they wanted to make it as inclusive as possible.
“It should be as interesting an experience on a normal screen as it would be inside VR,” explains Puckey. “This led us quite quickly to the idea of having the VR experience become a tool for creation. People with a VR headset could create something which could then be viewed by people without.
“One of the biggest attractions of working with the web is the ability to involve people from all over the world in our work creatively,” he continues. “To make a project on the web and not open it up to users feels like a lost opportunity. Dance Tonite fits perfectly within a series of participative interactive music videos which we have directed together over the years.”
These include One Frame of Fame for C-Mon & Kypski’s track More is Less, where users were invited to use their webcams to recreate the frames of a video, which then became part of a new version of it, updated each hour. Then there was Do Not Touch, a music video for Light Light’s Kilo, which features swarms of ever-changing cursor arrows generated by those watching the promo.
Puckey and Wouters came up with a prototype of the VR idea and then pitched it to LCD Soundsystem. James Murphy backed the idea and suggested a number of possible tracks that could be used, from which they picked Dance Tonite.
“It isn’t necessarily easy to create a project like this that combines user contributions,” says Puckey. “They should add up together to create an interesting whole. People should have enough freedom to be able to make interesting improvisations without feeling stifled by too many options.
“This is why we enjoy taking a piece of music like Dance Tonite as a starting point. It can act as the perfect scaffold to create something within. Tonite was an interesting track because it has quite a repetitive measure with changing vocals on top. We found that when we split up the track into its individual measures, we were able to turn each one of them into a loop. This led us to the loop pedal, a tool used by musicians to create looping layered music as they play. Instead of doing this for music, we had the idea to create a loop pedal for movement.
“We split up the track into individual measures and turned each measure into a room in which you can make a recording of yourself dancing,” he continues. “We put you in a room with a hole in the front and back walls. As the selected measure starts playing, a yellow orb flies into the room in sync with the music and we ask you to dance. When the orb leaves the room and the music loops, we also loop the movements you just made. Now you are standing in the same space together with the dance you just made. This way, you can create layered, synchronized recordings of yourself dancing with … yourself.”
In playback mode, you can then view your dance moves from a fly-on-the-wall perspective and also interact with other participants.
Of the video’s aesthetics, Puckey explains that they were inspired by the coloured rooms and geometric costumes in this recording of Margarete Hastings’s 1970 restaging of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet.
“Because this project is all about human movement, we decided to pull everything else back. The simple stark visuals put the focus square on the individual performances,” he says.
“Whereas Schlemmer’s reason for choosing abstract geometric costumes was to limit the movements of his dancers to that of puppets & marionettes, we had the opposite goal for Dance Tonite. We ended up basing our choice of shapes on how much information they conveyed by rotation. An orb looks the same no matter how it is rotated, but a cone really points in the direction that it is looking and looks different from the front than the back.”
According to Puckey, James Murphy was hugely supportive of the video throughout. In the making-of film, shown above, however, Murphy speaks for many when he talks about his hesitations with VR, before coming up with an excellent analogy for why it’s maybe good to dive in anyway.
“I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I didn’t expect to enjoy it, I thought ‘this is not for me’…. Virtual reality, I don’t get it in the big picture. But it’s sort of like going to the beach. If somebody says about going to the beach, I’m like ‘I don’t want to go to the beach’. But then you go to the beach and you swim around and you hang out and have a day off and it feels kind of great. It’s more like that to me.”