Designing Live Performance Content

A few years ago I started designing graphics for a medium that I never had any experience with: live events. All my experience was with straight up broadcast design, so it was a new discipline to learn and now I feel like I can understand it enough to write a little bit about it. I now approach these designs completely different than my standard broadcast work, and I particularly enjoy seeing how my animation comes out when presented across a big stage for a large audience.

Most of this experience I have gained relates to content for musical performances at award shows. It presents all sorts of new challenges when you are designing for complex stages with screens scattered throughout big venues. My content is usually just a small piece of the whole puzzle, and the folks at home really have no idea how much prep goes into these shows that they check out while channel surfing. Television may seem saturated with an alphabet soup of awards shows that are constantly coming out giving kudos to the same artists over and over again, but I’m always checking them out just to see what the show amounts to. My behind the scenes experience gives me a better perspective and appreciation for the end result. The number of people involved with preparing the music, dances, costumes, the set design, securing the props, finding a way to ship and transport huge pieces of the set around the country, preparing the venue for broadcast, etc. is simply staggering. I’ve seen some of it first hand and when everyone works together you can put on a great event, and the viewer at home has no chance of realizing how much work goes into it all and how many people are involved with every little detail.

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The main difference you experience when designing a live stage performance is that your animation work is no longer the main focus of the broadcast. You have to think of it as content within content. Usually I would just design a TV commercial or some sort of animation that takes up the entire TV screen and is solely what the viewer absorbs and focuses on. With a live performance the viewer is mostly focusing on the performer, and absorbing your content kind of in their periphery. So I try to find a way to come up with ideas that are new and fresh but end up being pretty simple.

Simplicity is the key, your content can’t be too complex for a number of reasons:

  1. It will clash with everything else

  2. Sometimes a live performance can have everything going on stage, featuring an artist (or artists), a band, dancers, props, pyro, cryo, lasers, lights, smoke, etc. You can create some really sophisticated animation and have it get totally lost on stage. It could end up being totally obscured very easily. I’ve had this happen to me before.

  3. You have no control over how people will see it

  4. The performance is being filmed through cameras at every angle, and the director of the show is going to be switching around constantly. Some nice wide shots will show off your animation, but closeups on the artist will make you feel fortunate if you can see a handful of pixels. Also the pace in which the cameras switch may be pretty fast, so you’ll be lucky if you can a nice clean glimpse of the work for more than a couple seconds.

  5. It’s not a music video

  6. This was hard for me to fully grasp at first, but now I get it. You are not creating a music video. You’re not making something the sole focus as to why people are watching the artist perform. They want to see the artist sing (or at least pretend as if they are singing) and enjoy the show, but there not watching your work with a critical eye like they would with a straight up music video.

  7. Time constraints

  8. Most times for the music awards shows I’ve done, I’ve juggled multiple acts for a couple weeks. Sometimes the artists are not confirmed until the last minute, they can’t decided what song to do, or they kick around a bunch of different concepts for what the performance should be like. On top of formatting your content to fit a custom stage, rendering, transferring files in time for rehearsals in the days before the show, you tend to have a very small window to work with. Sometimes simple animation is by design, but it can be out of necessity just so you can meet your deadline.

    I think it’s harder to showcase these kinds of animation examples because without any context it may not seem overly impressive. So I’ll be trying to post my examples periodically and explain the process behind the production.I use a boatload of plugins for Cinema 4D and After effects, like MoGraph, X Particles, the Trapcode Suite and more. ALl of my live performance content will be chronicled under this location on my site.

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