One of my most challenging yet rewarding visual show was at a small Psytrance festival called Existdance in San Jose, Costa Rica in 2014. I provided the stage design, live video mapping and VJing for a an audience of about 200 people. It was one of the smaller shows I have done. Although it was challenging to pull off, but in the end it was one of the most rewarding experience ever!
In my career as a VJ and stage designer, I have done numerous shows in America and Asia from massive EDM festivals to small venue underground parties. If you ask anyone who had worked in the live events industry, they will tell you that no two shows are ever the same. Every time you are faced with challenges of new location, vendors, crew, audience and don’t forget the weather.
I’ve never visited Costa Rica and will be working with the festival organizer (Alex) for the first time. This is nothing new as most of my shows involve new clients. A week before the festival, I didn’t have a stage design before traveling to my destination. Mainly because I had no idea what was available for me in terms of resources. What kind of materials for build the stage, what kind of lighting equipment… this were all important information before I can start designing for a stage. I did know there were a couple of 4k lumen projectors available, god knows how old they are.
Costa Rica is very much a ‘third world’ country
Upon arrival, I quickly realized that Costa Rica is very much a ‘third world’ country. The capital of Costa Rica, one thing that stuck in my mind is, there’s hardly any street signs anywhere. I mean how do you ever find anything? I asked the locals, they tell me you have to remember where to turn by memory, like in the old days, before they invented telephones. The city roads are poorly maintained and full of potholes, people drove in zigzag to avoid obstacles like playing Mario Cart.
With Alex (organizer) we visited the venue, a farm up in the hills outside of the city of San Jose. In November it is still very warm and rainy in San Jose being in Central America, a stark contrast to the cold and grey Berlin where I call home now. Everywhere you look is full of green with thick trees and bushes. The festival location is beautiful.
Next we went to visit the lighting company, actually it was just at the home of the company owner. In the house we saw couple of round lighting truss, and some LED Strips and Spot lights in boxes with Chinese written on the side. Now I know what’s available for me in terms of lighting equipment, nothing fancy but will do the job of lighting up a small outdoor stage.
My design was a ‘lotus flower’
After visiting the location and knowing what’s available in terms of resources, I started to do some brain storming for stage design ideas. My design was a ‘lotus flower’, where the flower pedals will repeat and create a frame for the DJ booth. It will be constructed with wood and then stretched over with fabric. This will creating a translucent look perfect for video projection. Plus I can do some back lighting with LED lights in the back to give it color. Stage lighting and projection often do not mix very well because for video projection to work well you need as little ambient light as possible, think movie theater. However if you use stage lighting as a backlight, then it can accent the video projection where the two can work in conjunction. With the second circular truss, I wanted to have a rear projection behind the DJ. (See 3D rendering)
Alex the festival organizer is always being positive with his replies. Whenever I propose a question or a challenge regarding the production he always says ‘Yes Fader, no problem’. Most often I found out at the end that this is not always the case, and compromises have to be made.
We could not do the setup the day before the festival because of rain. It was raining season in Costa Rica and it can get pretty wet. Now I have to arrive some hours before sundown and finish the setup, do the video mapping onto the lotus stage, and hot everything will go well. As we drove up to the hills, the roads were in terrible shape from the rain with holes everywhere. Our car got a bit lost and the van eventually got stuck in the bud. We had to grab the equipment and walk rest of the way. It was already getting dark and time is running out.
Nothing was finished setting up
Upon arrival at the festival I found out nothing was finished setting up. I saw the flower pedals weren’t fully installed, the projectors are not setup, and the workers were still hanging the lights. Sun has already set and it is pitch dark in the farm, setting up in the night of the show is not fun. You are stressed on time, hoping to get everything right before the opening.
I don’t speak Spanish, this makes it more challenging to tell the crew to run the video cables, rig the projectors, hang the lights, turn on the power… Imagine trying to build a house in a foreign country in the dark, at least that how I felt at the time. My favorite is always how the projector is rigged, from that you can tell the level of the production. In our case, we put it on a mini-crane, in a plastic basket, covered with trash bag in case of rain, and roped to a wood poll to stabilize it. See photo below.
Stage lighting was no walk in the park, normally it is because I’m so used to professional lighting companies with huge lighting desk to setup and run big shows. I discovered that the lighting controller had water damage (spilled drinks) from the previous event. So had to settle with the spare lighting controller that did not have any programs. Meaning everything had to be controlled manually by someone all night, no sequences or chases. All manual, great, will have to roll with the punches on this one.
It looked magical!
We finally got the projectors setup and running, so I can start video mapping onto the Lotus flower. The first DJ had already begin playing so I’m doing all this during the show. One by one, each pedal is matched with a video shape, now the real visual show can begin. I had setup some video layer with delay effect from the center circle outwards, creating a sort of pulse effect. The rear projection created a nice backdrop for the DJs, and with the additional backlighting from the stage lights, it looked magical!
The stage area was pitch dark as we are in the woods. From a distance, you see a glowing, animating and evolving Lotus Flower ever growing as you walked closer. Visuals and lighting are synchronized to Psychedelic Trance music through live operation. This surreal audio visual experience can be felt in the audience as everyone looking with amazement. See video below.
Despite the various challenges, as a team we really pulled off a great looking stage with limited resources. The audience kept coming up and commenting on how it was the most mazing thing they had seen at a music festival. Now unlike bigger than life corporate style EDM festivals and parties where there are thousands of people in the audience, people usually take it for granted of all the work that had put into the production by the crew and artists. At a small festival like this, I really felt that people appreciated my video mapping and VJing from the bottom of their heart. Together we created an amazing experience.