Big Grams is many things. First and foremost, it’s a musical collaboration between former Outkast member Big Boi and Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter of the eclectic indie duo Phantogram. The result is a distinctive cross-genre partnership that Carter describes as “a sort of psyched-out hip-hop.”
While Big Grams blossomed out of Phantogram and Big Boi’s mutual respect for each other’s work, it has evolved beyond a solely musical endeavor and is now bringing together audiences with boundary-pushing live visual experiences.
“We want the viewer, listener, fans that are there in the room to feel like they’re going on a trip,” says Big Boi. “If the music got them there sonically… then visually we’re aiming to put them in a trance.”
Phantogram had already experimented with using Microsoft’s Kinect to generate real-time visuals based on their onstage movements in a 2014 show at Hollywood Cemetery.
“The cemetery show was such a special environment, but we only used the Kinect on a couple songs to complement the scenery,” says Barthel. “With Big Grams we wanted to step it up and bring those elements to the forefront.”
Big Grams partnered with new media and entertainment studio V Squared Labs to develop a new, immersive visual experience triggered by the band’s performance. Utilizing Microsoft Kinect technology, in combination with high-end computer graphics, the reactive video experience was rolled out for the inaugural Okeechobee Music Festival in Florida earlier this year.
Vello Virkhaus, a video artist, founder and the creative director of V Squared Labs, says, “We wanted to get beyond just showing a colorful blob up on a screen and set out to create digital avatars of the band that truly reacted to their movements. We also wanted to generate different looks for different songs.”
The experience was realized on a very tight schedule, and V Squared had to come up with some creative solutions to challenges like getting the Kinect to track Boi Boy and Barthels as they moved around the stage (Carter tends to stay put behind the drum machine), and also to overcome disruptive vibrations from bass, the audience and other interference.
Virkhaus says he enjoyed the experiment of taking Kinect to a professional touring environment. He was impressed with how it enabled advanced sensing, including with its 3D point cloud, skeleton tracking and the time-of-flight (ToF) camera, which measures the range of the camera’s object based on the speed of light.
“It was comforting to know that if someone dropped something and smashed the Kinect, we could always pick up another one on short notice at an electronics store in Okeechobee or wherever,” he noted.
V Squared built a custom framework run in Touch Designer using luminosity real-time fluid and particle simulations among other effects. The band’s movements are captured by the Kinect, and powerful interactive scenes are instantly layered together to the musical flow of the performance.
The result is an immersive backdrop that was made to complement Big Grams’ energetic performance and bring fans into their world.
“These kinds of visuals are increasingly important, because the summer festival circuit is becoming a very competitive marketplace and the newest generation of concert-goers are accustomed to more immersive environments,” says Virkhaus. “A unique look also helps bands differentiate themselves and develop some key branding. We’re seeing this from reggaetón to EDM.”
The Big Grams song “Fell in the Sun” worked particularly well with the Kinect-based visuals. Barthels says, “It looked like you were walking while surrounded by flames.”
“You kinda pop out of thin air into the screen and turn into light energy. And it’s different colors and patterns and vibes, and it brings the whole show really 360, all the way around,” Big Boi says.
“The Microsoft technology was the only thing that would make it happen, and it worked out perfectly. The fans loved it. It looks incredible.”
Virkhaus from V Squared says, “What we created for the Okeechobee Music Festival evolved into a robust, touring and improvisational visual system. Our programming team created a framework that could expand and grow with the artists. This flexibility is what becomes a relationship between artistic mediums and spatial forms.”
Soon the band will be taking their live experience on the road as they play major music festivals across the U.S. this summer, including the Hangout Festival in Alabama, Sasquatch in Washington, Governor’s Ball in New York City, Bunbury in Ohio, Free Press in Texas, Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Twilight in Utah, Lollapalooza in Chicago and Outside Lands in San Francisco.
Carter makes the point that no matter how elaborate the stage show becomes, Big Grams still tries achieve the same objectives. “In the end, we just want the audience to have fun,” he says. “How we go about it is less important than the fact that people leave the show feeling like they’ve forgotten whatever problems they came in with – at least for the past hour or so that they shared with us.”
This is the latest artist collaboration featured as part of the Music x Tech program, an initiative that celebrates forward-thinking artists who are using Microsoft technology to transform the way we create and experience music. With monthly artist collaborations, the program seeks to empower artists with unique opportunities to create one-of-a-kind experiences for their fans. Learn more about Big Grams and Microsoft.