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The Chemical Brothers bring Hollywood special effects to dance music

Adam Smith, the filmmaker behind the legendary duo's visuals, raises the bar with motion capture technology.

The Chemical Brothers bring Hollywood special effects to dance music
Mona Lalwani
Mona Lalwani|@monalalwani|November 25, 2015 11:30 AM

I look around at the sea of glowing faces surrounding me in the dark of Randall's Island in New York. There's no fist pumping. Their feet aren't shuffling. Instead, they're looking straight ahead at a large hand-drawn figure on a black screen. The frame, shaped like a human body, is filled with an entangled web of white lines. It appears to stand behind a barricade of light beams that shoot up from the stage. When the rapper Q-Tip's voice booms -- "World, the time has come to galvanize"-- the figure shakes furiously as if trying to break free from its enclosure. With every beat of the iconic Chemical Brothers track, the abstract form pushes back with swift choreographed moves. It struggles for a while before it breaks down the light-built cage and spins freely with the elegance of a trained contemporary dancer.

Interview with Adam Smith It's a performance that, though only a part of The Chemical Brothers' stage show, has become the high point of their ongoing tour. To help construct the visual spectacle, the legendary dance music duo relied on their longtime collaborator Adam Smith, a British filmmaker whose videos and live show concepts have brought their music to life for the last two decades. While Smith conceptualized the duo's eighth studio album, Born in the Echoes, this wasn't his first visual interpretation of Galvanize, a track that won the Brothers a Grammy back in 2006. He created the original music video that captured the krump dance movement and became as haunting as the hook of the song over the years. Now a decade later, he turned to motion capture for the hand-drawn figure performance.

"The visual experience is a big part of electronic music. It's not in a pub anymore. So it has to be huge now and it needs to be visceral on a grand scale."

— Marcus Lyall

Motion capture isn't a new phenomenon in popular culture. From Gollum in The Lord of the Rings to Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit, the technology has been widely used in CG-heavy Hollywood films and gaming for the last couple of decades. But it isn't something you'd expect to see at an electronic dance music show. So far, even the biggest festival productions have gone as far as holograms and a bevy of complex graphics that accompany the basslines. But with the motion capture version of Galvanize, which was on par with the best in Hollywood, The Chemical Brothers raised the bar for audio-visual experiences in dance music.

Smith's expertise as a filmmaker made that possible. He tends to build visual experiences that accentuate the Brothers' music. "We just follow the emotion of the music and where that takes you and we try to take people on that ride," said Smith. "We use everything at our disposal to affect people, to take them somewhere."

To simulate the performance of a person trapped behind light beams, Smith and his co-director Marcus Lyall went to The Imaginarium, a leading motion capture production studio in London founded by Andy Serkis, a British actor known for his performance capture roles in Planet of the Apes, King Kong and The Lord of the Rings (he played Gollum). For the choreography, Smith brought in Akram Khan, an acclaimed British contemporary and classical dancer. Khan, who has been appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen of England for his contribution to the arts, is used to dancing on stage for a packed audience. But for Galvanize, he performed for a room full of cameras at The Imaginarium. He slipped into a wetsuit-like outfit with retroreflective markers on it. As he moved around the room, optical cameras fired infrared light onto the markers that reflected the light back to sensors on the cameras. The spatial information from the markers drove a CG skeleton on the computer. So every time he moved his body, a computer version of him recreated the same moves.

The performance made an impact even in the absence of Khan's physical presence on stage. Motion capture is geared to make that trick as seamless as possible, but the process itself is far from perfect.

"It's a bit clunky," said Jon Tyler, motion capture supervisor at The Imaginarium. "You have to put on a motion capture suit; we have to put markers, HMCs [head-mounted cameras] and batteries on you. [The challenge is] trying to make that as pain free as possible for the talent to allow them to inhabit the creature or character that they're going to be on screen... But if you want to do an intimate scene where you're talking very closely or have a kiss scene – it's very difficult to do it with an HMC stuck to your head."

The technology didn't encumber Khan's one-day shoot in the studio, though. Instead it magnified his performance for an audience that's accustomed to larger-than-life moments at live shows. "The visual experience is a big part of electronic music," said Lyall. "It's not in a pub anymore. So it has to be huge now and it needs to be visceral on a grand scale. There's something very communal about electronic music, about being in this amazing wonderland with lots of other people who are all having this collective experience... It's not just about being at a concert or watching a band, but being in a place where lots of different things are happening at the same time."

"We're not trying to make Pacific Rim, we're trying to make something that has a more vintage feel to it."

— Marcus Lyall

Most electronic shows are carefully designed to achieve a synchronicity of all those different things – the music, the lasers, the visuals – but at The Chemical Brothers show, the same elements were used to create a setting that was unpredictable, and sometimes unsettling. Kaleidoscopic visuals were punctuated with moments of pitch black or bright white. Painted faces angrily stared back at you from a screen, forcing you to engage. An anguished clown made sure he'd have a spot in your nightmares. But at other times, gigantic paintballs floated across the screen for light and airy moments, and Korean freestyle skaters danced effortlessly in metallic suits. Towards the end of the show, a couple of 13-foot tall tin robots that flanked the stage on either side started to move their clunky feet to march on the spot. They looked like rusty relics from a toy museum until their eyes flared up and shot beams of green lasers that cut across the sky.

"One of the reasons I think our visuals work with The Chemical Brothers is that Tom and Ed do similar things with music," said Smith of the interplay between old and new elements at the show. "They're using analog synthesizers, but they're getting something that's got soul. For me, sometimes when the stuff is too slick and all about the technology and not about the feeling, the emotion and the idea...it's just cold. It's technically wonderful, but it leaves me cold."

Like The Chemical Brothers' raw analog approach to electronic music, Smith and Lyall craft visuals with technology that brings together the perfection of the cutting-edge and the glitches of the quaint. "We're constantly trying to add noise, grain and texture and analog stuff to everything," said Lyall. "We're not trying to make Pacific Rim, we're trying to make something that has a more vintage feel to it."

The Chemical Brothers bring Hollywood special effects to dance music