Monday, March 25, 2013

Oops, I made an art.

For the Fluid Movement "Great Books" themed spring show I did a shadow puppet piece about John Glenn's flight as told by Tom Wolfe in "The Right Stuff". I am really pleased in how it turned out. The process had lots of setbacks, but when it worked things came together how I imagined they would.

I built my setup from scratch with very little research other than google image searches. I considered just regular lights and using a foot switch, but regular lights with out a lens is very diffuse and doesn't cast a very sharp shadow. The string of GE35 lights I have from the holiday wreath can cast a fairly good sharp beam of light if you take the bulb off. They also have the advantage of being able to dial a wide range of color and be programed to the music. My other big inovation was using magnetic kitchen knife holders to position the puppets. I took the metal shiv out of some file folders and taped them onto the sticks. I could take a puppet and position the stick in any direction or height and it would just stay there until I moved it again. Some puppets had lots of parts so I stuck them on a nice strong harddrive magnet and moved them around as an assembly. After the performance I asked my friend who does puppetry and most of the time they are just done on pegs that are kind of hard to work with. She thought my solution was brilliant. Science! Miracles! (ICP reference)

I used to do a lot of stenciling in art class so the paper cuts came out pretty well. I freehand cut all but one which I took a print out and used that as a template. I haven't done much visual art in a while so it was good to stretch that part of the brain. 

With some tape, conduit and bungie cord I turned a rolling clothes rack into a little shadow puppet stage, I put the LED lights in a box and put that on a kitchen rolling cart so my act could just roll into place and be pushed back when done. 

I early on decided that I wanted to use God Speed You! Black Emperor for the backing track because they do sweet, melancholy, bombastic, tense and the whole range of expression all in one song. Amy had a track in mind immediately. Not until the last rehearsal did I put together the obviousness of the famous mission control quote: "Godspeed John Glenn" with "God Speed You! Black Emperor". 

Then things fell apart, often. Every time I went to show my progress something would just not work. I lost a rough edit and lighting program because I didn't understand the opensource DAW I was working with. I moved to a demo of Abelton Live, which I then had to learn to use with my implementation of MIDI for the lights. The interface I was using didn't work so I had to find another one. I had things in the wrong mode. I was just continually behind and finding it hard to lock my self in a blackout curtained  attic in the cold and dark of February, which is one of the worst times of year for me.  The cats did not distinguish a feather stick from a shadow puppet making many runs ending with the first American astronaut being batted out of orbit by a giant cat. The other feline critique was them tearing down the screen. 

In my conception I wanted to just have the strength of the music and visuals carry the story. It came across as a series of events with nothing to relate to. I added in clips from mission control and suddenly it came alive. Lift off felt louder and more intense. The fireflies John Glenn saw was suddenly magical (I jiggled a light at some glitter dot fabric to cast a disco ball effect. I was inspired by a tribal belly dance bra and how they cast light when turning). The telling that the heat shield might be loose and to leave the retropack on for re-entry had mission control sounding not sure of them self and with the music very tense and building up and up and up. I had a hard time finding a point where GY!BE resolves a chord for a song ending, they like to roll back like a wave that just hit the beach and then come back again. I ended up taking a middle of a song and changing the order of the notes so it had a satisfying progression to what felt like the end. I really enjoyed editing for theme and not having to worry about beat count and phasing for editing belly dance tracks. 

Somewhere in programing, soldering, reading MIDI specs, looking at lenses, cutting paper, sewing curtains and the screen, sourcing mission control tapes,  learning a new workstation workflow, editing music, trying to remember color theory for light and not paint, and playing with magnets and flashlights in the dark, somewhere in all that I made art. I'm used to being on stage and checking the crowd and feeding back from them. Back behind the curtan in the dark trying to find my props and hit my marks it felt very disconnected until I noticed that it was dead silent. Not the polite silent you get when people know that they should be polite. There were little laughs of delight not prompted by a setup. At the last show when the capsule floats into frame on the parachute someone went "Awwww!".  Talking to people afterwords it was compared to early cinema and talk of remembering as a kid a sense of awe in things great and small. I found this rewarding in a way that is really different then playing with a band, directing synchronized swimming or showing off some bit of tech/knowledge I cobbled together. Those things I coast on having an eye for a wide variety of things and being good at some skills. This was something beyond my efforts.

I had a good moment durring the performance where a light didn't turn on. In complete calmness, I reached over for my emergency flashlight and started using that planning in my head what to do if the next cue didn't come. The next cue came on as planned and I went about finishing the piece. No panic at all.

So now I have 6 minutes of produced shadow puppetry. I want to make a second 6 minutes companion piece and shop it around. 

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