Written & Interviewed by: Bernadette
These days, concerts aren’t just about musicians performing live. It’s an entire artistic, interactive experience. An experience shared not only with fans that attend in person but also with those at home who look to be entertained and enthralled by the experience remotely. As live events become larger and more intricate, visual production design becomes even more important as the aim now is not just for those occupying the venue to watch the live on-stage performance, but also for those in the outskirts watching from afar. With Strangeloop Studios at the forefront of the future in visual media production design, there’s excitement & intrigue in the utilization of the digital world where technology meets art.
With the demand for interactive & immersive experiences, social media paves the way in content consumption, which includes people recording video at live concerts and events. Strangeloop Studios (aka “SLS”) understands its value emphasizing the significance between online distribution and the physical environment that is being recorded. With the experience as a whole also being accounted for. SLS focuses on art, innovation and the collaboration process with clients having one goal in mind: making every showcase entertainingly worthwhile in support of artists through creating visual experiences using the latest tools across a diverse range of media and venues. SLS’ passion in empowering artists and brands is not only about presenting the best productions but pioneering the next wave of visual media production design and of what’s to come.
Strangeloop Studios has worked with the biggest artists in the world, including BLACKPINK, Pharell, Billie Eilsih, Lil Nas X, Flying Lotus, Lizzo, The Weekend, Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj, Lil Baby and Calvin Harris. In addition, collaborating with some of the biggest events such as Coachella, Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards, Game Awards, and American Music Awards, it’s no surprise that Strangeloop Studios aims to create the best cutting-edge media. The visual content production company is focused on working with creatives to explore new media in addition to audience experiences with a team composed of animators, designers, producers, writers, musicians, and developers.
What’s to come in the foreseeable future of visual media is interesting. Social media has brought forth a new form of popularity and fame, but some celebrities still search for a creative outlet that allows them anonymity. SLS may have the solution. Their solution is not only for well-established musicians but also for artists struggling to get their foot in the door. What makes Strangeloop’s project, better known as Spirit Bomb, fascinating is it helps to build a bridge between artist and mass media by establishing a space where creating virtual characters allow artists a way to attain an audience while also exploring their creativity. With Strangeloop Studios’ passion for music, art, technology, and empowering artists, blurring the lines of reality to welcome in a new world of mixed media art within entertainment is something to look forward to not only for artists but for the evolution of pop culture.
Strangeloop Studios is a visual production company that is doing amazing things. Ian, tell us about how the company began.
IAN SIMON: It started in around 2012 when I met my co-founder David Wexler, who is a super gifted 3-D animator as well as a musician. He and I met in the L.A. music scene around the time that the “beat scene” was bubbling out here, which is this fusion of jazz, electronic, and hip-hop music that started with artists like Flying Lotus, particularly at this L.A. club called Low-End Theory.
Dave was working with a lot of musicians, not just on music but also on visual design for their tours. He was on the road with Skrillex just as he was starting to take over the EDM festival circuit in 2012. Dave was running live visuals for Skrillrex and he came back from one of those tours and he & I had been working together. He then informed me that he had gotten me a gig doing live visuals for a band called Zeds Dead out of Toronto.
Despite the fact that I had never done it before in my life, he assured me that I’d do fine, and he created all the visual content that I took out on the road and played in time with the music. I had a blast and recognized a massive gap in the market where festival culture was erupting, EDM was taking off, and there was a strong need for people to have visuals to support their shows. Over the next few years, we started doing more shows—trying to bring a very cinematic and a very musical vision to people’s live experiences.
In 2013 I started touring with Kendrick Lamar. We worked with The Weekend in 2015 and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd around that time. We started to realize our passion was in the content development side of things and creating really special 3D cinematic content for artists. We officially started Strangeloop Studios in 2015 and over the past eight years, we’ve leaned into all the different applications for visuals for music, including designs not just for concerts but also music videos and other digital assets. We started moving into the emerging world of “music in the metaverse” and virtual concerts, working with companies like WaveXR. It really all started in the concert industry over ten years ago.
Wow, that’s amazing. This thought crossed my mind about how when I go to shows, I’m pretty petite, so watching from far in the back, I never really noticed that I would just be listening to the music, not being able to fully experience the entire show. Now I actually realize how much I appreciate the visual content at live events because the visual production design does create so much of the experience, so I truly appreciate what your company is doing. As you mentioned doing this kind of work for the past 10 years, how do you think things have changed in the live concert space in the past decade? How long do you think visual content has become a part of the whole live music experience?
IAN SIMON: I think we got lucky in our timing in some respects. The way that people were doing live music shows was ripe for disruption, especially with the rise of electronic music, where there’s not a ton going on on stage. There wasn’t a ton of interest outside of the performers themselves. I think DJs, in particular, wanted to show more of themselves than just behind the decks.
That was coterminous with the rise of festival properties across the world, a lot of which were in an arms race to have the most elaborate production set-up, which put the focus on the artists to take advantage of all the real estate that they were given with lights, video, and other special effects. For a while, it really was a progression in just doing it bigger and bigger on the festival side and artists struggling to catch up to bring a production that felt authentic to themselves.
In the last five years, we’ve seen artists take a much more personalized approach to how they want to use these elements rather than just trying to turn them all on and try to make the biggest spectacle possible. We take a fundamentally synesthetic approach to the creative process. We’re trying to let the music drive the visual component and try to tell more cinematic stories with the visuals rather than just eye candy.
That definitely makes sense. You recently did this year’s Coachella doing the setups for BLACKPINK, Chromeo, and Kenny Beats. BLACKPINK as headliner, their setup was beautiful and visually stimulating; it brought the viewers in even more, not only with sound but with sight. What are some of your most recent projects? Tell us about this year’s Coachella.
IAN SIMON: This is actually our third year doing a mainstage headline. We did Kendrick (Lamar’s) in 2017 when he debuted his DAMN. album and The Weekend in 2018 in collaboration with Es Devlin, who is one of our favorite designers. If you’ve seen the Coachella mainstage, it is a very video-friendly set in terms of how much the production is dedicated to a massive LED wall, which also presents some challenges on the visual side because it’s a lot of pixels and working in 3-D content, that means that we have to render for all those pixels, but for us, it’s a very exciting canvas to work with.
This was our first time working with BLACKPINK. Watching BLACKPINK from the first rehearsals that André and I were at with some of our team, it became apparent how incredible a spectacle their performances are between the intensity of their music and the fandom around it, the precision of their choreography and the professionalism in how they approach the entire touring apparatus.
It was a really exciting project to be a part of, especially because of the fandom surrounding it and watching how appreciative the fans were of every decision that was made by the BLACKPINK team and all the creative work we were able to put into the show. It’s also just fun as a visual production company to be part of an act that’s so focused on making a high-impact show in every facet of the production.
André, as the Lead Animator, when it comes to world-building, what role does that take on working on concert visuals for artists? What’s the collaboration process, and what’s the starting point for beginning a particular project?
ANDRÉ ZAKHYA: I try not to think about concert visuals as just displaying images or effects in the background for the performer or the artist, but more so as something that becomes an immersive and visually captivating experience that compliments the music, which enhances the audience engagement. World-building in this context is really about creating a cohesive and visually appealing universe that aligns with the artists’ music brand and narrative.
Creating a distinct aesthetic, style, color palette, and/or design elements that are consistent throughout the concert is what makes world-building effective with the performance. Not only does that have the power to evoke emotions when creating a certain atmosphere or mood, but it also sets the mood for the entire performance. Whether it’s a futuristic sci-fi world, a dreamlike fantasy world, or a very gritty landscape, the visuals can transport the audience to a different environment and provoke specific feelings.
Thinking about artists like Marshmello, there are some artists that incorporate narrative elements or conceptual themes into their performances. By creating a detailed world with its own history, characters, and storylines, it can actually intertwine with the music. It always goes back to the music and enhances the audience’s understanding and connections to the artists through the artists’ artistic vision.
So when they come to you once that collaboration begins, are they bringing a setlist to your team? André, I know you have a background in architecture. Do they come with a setlist, and is that somewhat of a blueprint on how to create a visual aesthetic? Do artists come up with an idea or theme already, or is it an entire collaboration with their team and yours?
IAN SIMON: It really runs the gamut and depends on the artist. Some artists have a really clearly defined idea of what they want to do. Sometimes that’s as loose as thematics. Tossing mood boards back and forth. Sometimes it’s as specific as very detailed ideas that they have for their visuals. In general, when artists come to us, it’s with a collaborative outlook because of our past work and our emphasis on world-building.
It’s definitely a process and is part of why having André, coming from his background, puts him in a critically important role in designing these shows because we create this architecture & scaffolding to the shows that need to reflect itself across the project—how we need to be flexible when a setlist changes and have a coherent narrative that we’ve constructed. You can’t be too prescriptive about which part of the story goes with which song or which moment. You need to be able to have a blueprint that flows across the entire set so that you can mix the constituent elements.
My point of view in assembling the thematic structure is having people look at our team as more than just technical hands, but rather technical artists like André, who can bring their own vision to the project. I think that’s been part of our success when working with musical artists because we approach projects in a very collaborative form.
That’s a great answer, and so André, how do you feel your background in architecture influences your work at Strangeloop Studios?
ANDRÉ ZAKHYA: I think architecture offers a really unique perspective and skills that contribute to the visual aspect of all the projects we do, whether it’s music videos or concert visuals. I know it might not seem like it relates directly to music production, but really architects are fundamentally trained to have a deep understanding of spatial relationships with things like proportion & scale. These are elements that can be really valuable when creating visual engagement.
For example, when I compose animations, whether it’s when I’m designing sets or stage setups for example. I also think the sensibility architects develop of the different spaces and how they can affect our emotions is a main factor. Thinking about color palettes, amount of light, proportions, and height of the ceiling, are all elements that affect our state of being.. it can create an atmosphere through the animations we’re looking at.
Also, I think that architecture involving structures is not only visually appealing but functional & stable. This is really translated in a way where it can be applied in animating. Whether it’s characters, props, or stages, architecture helps to ensure that they’re sound so that you can move realistically in a detailed manner so that people can relate to the environment. Especially because architects are known to have this meticulous attention to detail when it comes to drawings, plans, and specifications.
Of course, there’s also this collaborative approach to which Ian was just talking about where architects are always used to working with clients, engineers, other architects, and different professionals, so we (as architects) are accustomed to working with teams and on different projects from conception to completion.
In a strange way, it is building a home for the attendees to live in with the artists at that particular moment. It makes the most sense as you want it to be comfortable as we’re quote-on-quote “living in this specific moment for x-amount of time.”
IAN SIMON: There’s the component André brought up about any client work involving working with an artist who has an opinion. André is still part of the institution SCI-Arc, where he graduated from. We went back there to talk to some of the current students that he’s teaching about the process of working creatively with clients, who, at the end of the day, are funding the project, and said that yes, it’s a creative collaboration. I remember looking at those students and saying, “Just prepare yourself that possibly your favorite thing will get cut and you still need to be able to make it work.” You need to really work whole cloth and think about the total project that you’re delivering.f you get too attached to the exact way that it’s going to be realized, in both visual design and its architecture, you struggle to make the whole thing work when you have to budge on certain details.
In regards to the projects, for each of you, is there a project you’re most proud of or one that stands out most?
IAN SIMON: I’ve got a recent example, one from the BLACKPINK show. In the context of that show, where their fandom and global renown are such that it really is a very bombastic, high-energy, high-octane performance for most of their show, one of my favorite moments was from one of the members, Rosé. They each had their own solo section and the vision she had for her song included this very poignant and powerful moment with a comet she had used in some of her previous music videos.
She started off her solo section with a very minimalist moment of her sitting on a stage out in the crowd, with just a single spotlight on her, and wanted to have this very intimate moment where this comet appeared and was kind of floating suspended on that massive Coachella LED wall, coming at her. She would have this moment during this plaintive love song looking directly at the comet and having this moment where she & the comet were having this communion. The show took on this more solemn and reverential tone, just for that moment.
The production gods were on our side because there was confetti lightly raining down from the last song that had ended ninety seconds before, and the wind quieted & the haze really filled up the environment. In the midst of such an intense performance—and the entire team working with André and the rest of the animators day & night to deliver these high-intensity visuals for the rest of the show—this was one, much more introspective, quiet, and profound moment that we were able to pull off on such a big stage which was a recent highlight for sure. André, curious too in your recent tenure at Strangeloop your recent highlights.
ANDRÉ ZAKHYA: Yeah, definitely BLACKPINK highlights because we tend to work remotely, so it was a nice moment to be sitting with other animators and seeing what they’re doing on screen and to talk about stuff in person. That really was a cool experience for sure and it was the first Coachella for me, so it was really impressive to see. Everything we’ve been doing on these small screens being projected on these huge monitors at a massive scale, in front of a huge amount of people, that was really a great experience.
Wow, that’s amazing. I love that. That’s art right there. The collaboration and there are so many different things that are happening. That’s a perfect example right there about the immersive experience and that it’s not just about the artists on stage but the visual content, and on top of that is this story that’s happening at the same time. That’s a great choice for a project. Can you tell us a little about the virtual artist initiative Spirit Bomb? Also, where do you see the virtual space heading?
IAN SIMON: This has been, in the overall lifetime of Strangeloop, a relatively more recent part of the work that we’ve been doing. Around 2018 or so, my co-founder Dave (Wexler) and I became very enamored of some projects that were taking advantage of something that I call ‘digital flattening’ where on media platforms like Instagram, we’re all given the same square to present ourselves, our lives and our identity.
Some projects were taking advantage of that to use recent advancements in 3-D technology that could approach photorealism, which made it hard to distinguish from reality, to launch virtual beings. They weren’t characters like in a 3-D movie or TV show. They entered the zeitgeist in social media in the same way that any of us would. When you’re scrolling through Instagram, sometimes it’s not immediately apparent that what you’re looking at is a real human or a product of a fictive project from a team of creatives.
It started as a hypothetical, just messing around with the idea that we could create virtual musicians. André mentioned Marshmello… The first time working with someone who performs in a mask, and ostensibly can be anyone under there, it was really more of a character than the conventional idea of an artist. Between that and being inspired by acts like the Gorillaz since we were younger, we became really enamored with the idea of creating 3-D characters in the same software where we’d create visuals for other artists we love.
We received interesting feedback from artists that were attracted to the idea of working with a fictitious 3-D character. Either it was because they had ideas they wanted to experiment with and didn’t want to put out under their main character or under their main brand name, and/or they were just interested in building their own narrative world around a character that could have a life of its own.
We spent the last couple of years developing a pipeline to create everything anyone would need to bring a virtual character to life, particularly in the music space. Being able to create content for social media for that character, being able to do performances virtually via Twitch or Youtube, or bringing virtual characters into the live world. We launched some of our own characters and also worked with other people to bring their visions to life.
In the past year especially, there’s been a real explosion in the amount of people who, instead of streaming on Twitch or YouTube as themselves, are entering the streaming eco-system instead with a little image of themselves represented as a character. Usually, it’s an anime coded or a 3-D character that they stream and talk to their fans as rather than as their human corporeal identity. I think it’s fascinating and exciting creatively. It’s a really creative and genuinely inventive way to use digital media to reconstruct your identity and tell narrative stories. It’s why having people like André on our team who have a background not just in visual design but also in narrative construction, being able to think about visual design as a component. Building narratives is so important because it took us working in a realm with existing artists who had their own visions on how they wanted their music to appear, to actually working across the entire spectrum, to what it takes to create an artist and bringing new creative entities into the world which is super exciting for us.
That is super exciting because I was thinking avatars in a way, but in some sense, it can be more so like an alter-ego or possibly, being what some artists/musicians and even rappers have, like a hype-man or a hype-woman. It can even really be utilized as a “hype-virtual character” for an artist. It’s a really inventive concept and a new form of media that will definitely catch on in the same ways that social media has become a part of our daily lives and the norm. Like Andy Warhol had said that everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame, but it’s not even just that. It seems that what your studio is doing is allowing people in a way to be storytellers to create their own characters so that it’s not just someone being themselves in the human physical persona on the digital world like on social media, especially like Facebook, but characters that are outside of who they are as artists or even just allowing for musical characters to be created outside of any actual artists that exists. Correct me if I’m wrong.
IAN SIMON: I think especially working in the wake with WaveXR. Some people wrapped their heads around it really quickly and for some people, it took a couple tries to explain. It’s not just about translating something physical into the virtual world, but actually being able to start from scratch and see what’s possible in the virtual world, then using that to create a canvas for which to create these virtual characters.
That’s interesting because people used to say that there are two worlds: the real world and the virtual world but in my opinion, the physical world and virtual world are both real worlds. We consume both almost equally, with perhaps, at times, the virtual world even more so in some ways. Though I most times hope for vice-versa. [laughs]. I really am excited about Spirit Bomb and to see where it all goes. Can you discuss what you’re working on or will be working on in regard to your creator tools?
IAN SIMON: Yes, absolutely, and partially to answer your question about where we see the virtual space heading in general, I think a lot of how we approach the space, inspired by a project like Gorillaz, was to use our resources in the animation and music space to create virtual characters internally then launch them to fans. That’s one of the exciting ways in which virtual characters will be entering the space, but the more we’ve seen it develop over the past few years, the more excited we’ve become.
Rather than people with a lot of resources in terms of capital in music or access to a network, in lieu of that, a lot of creators are just starting their own virtual artist projects, and it’s happening en masse. One of the biggest hurdles they face right now is the technical barriers to entry, where people take years learning how to get as good as André and it might feel unreal on your own. I have a thesis that there are a lot more people who’d be exciting, successful virtual characters out there than they are able to currently do to get their work into the world because of those technical hurdles.
This pipeline that we’ve been building to create virtual characters is parts that we can externalize to other people and allow them to play around with. We’ve focused on taking some of what we do and codifying it, and productizing it to bring it to creators. There are acts like Teflon Sega and Yame who happened to be really gifted animators on top of being gifted musicians that are able to and are some of our favorite virtual artists making music right now. Though I think there may be some successful projects that come out of the more top-down approach, I think that the bulk of the creative output is going to come from creators from people who are just spending every waking hour working on this stuff.
If we could solve some of those technical hurdles for them to make it easier for them to launch characters and get it out into the world, then we’re doing our part in both evangelizing the space and sharing with the world what we’ve done in the past several years.
Well we appreciate what you’re doing. So talking about the team, who’s part of the core team at Strangeloop?
IAN SIMON: Co-founder David Wexler, who, in addition to being our Chief Creative Officer, is a super gifted 3-D animator, and the majority of our team is artists who work on the visual end of things. We also have our label manager, Latiff, who handles most of our music relations. We’ve recently partnered with two individuals who are more deeply involved in the XR immersive experience space as well as YouTubing to help us increase our bandwidth for offerings of more than just concert visuals but also anything in the digital space that people are doing that involves music & visuals. By and large, there are twelve of us and the majority of the team are animators or technical personnel.
Steve Teeple, our Character Designer, has worked on Marvel films and DC films in addition to high-profile gaming & fashion projects. Vince McKelvie, whose our lead Technical Artist, was a creative director at Adult Swim and has worked across narrative media, but also is just a wild app builder on his own who brings an artistic & very unique approach although being ostensibly in a more technical role. If there’s anything that coheres with the team, in terms of culture, it’s that it’s really about art first and trying to figure out how to deliver the best creative product.
For both of you, where do you think A.I. is headed and how will Spirit Bomb’s characters be utilizing A.I., if at all?
ANDRÉ ZAKHYA: Definitely, as an animator, there’s something very exciting about AI, but at the same time, something kind of scary. It’s exciting to see all of Midjourney and all of the 2-D conceptual art, which is stuff that we’re already using in our pipeline and integrating into all of the pre-production phases. In terms of pre-visualizing and storyboarding for the animation with camera angles and transitions, I think it’s a really powerful tool for us to use for certain compositions we haven’t thought of and it’s way faster in assisting to pre-visualize everything to translate that into 3-D. That would be the most exciting part for us in using this type of tool in our pipeline.
IAN SIMON: Agree. I think the only thing I’d add is the excitement for us that aligns with the democratization of the tools that have, for a long period, been restricted to people just because of the high technical barrier to entry. The idea of people that have given up on their ideas due to the tools being too steep a learning curve to be able to execute on. The idea that it could bring more creative output into the world is very exciting.
I think we all share the concern that right now, the intelligence of AI is predicated on the work of humans. It’s not really making up anything that is not fundamentally generated by a training set comprised of human work. On the one hand, you can say that’s also how humans create. s I think we are in the midst of an inexorable time around AI. It’s going to allow us to achieve a lot of our goals, but we are also too close to the art world not to be cognizant that we make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to ethically compensate people whose work is going into the strength of these tools. The reality is technical development is going to keep progressing and we want to be able to use the fruits of that labor to empower creators but we’re also too close to the art not to care about how this artificial super-intelligence is being generated.
I definitely agree and share your thoughts on the subject. We can say that we have these theories on where it’s going to be or where it’s going, but again, we don’t have all the facts & information provided. Then when it comes to algorithms and such, what is it interpreting and absorbing from us as humans in a cognitive sense? It is exciting, but one thing that I’ve been telling friends during the writer’s strike is that if we can ensure a way that it’s utilized where, as you mentioned, creators are able to access further economical opportunities as technology becomes more available & accessible for artists of all levels and corroborate with the human artist to work with AI rather than be replaced by it. In some ways, it’s the idea of artists collaborating with the ever-evolving thing we call technology. I think with Spirit Bomb, it’s exciting to see how it will support creators and artists. It seems like you have an amazing team.
IAN SIMON: It’s interesting when you put it that way. This is kind of a hot take, but maybe the answer is we need the technology to create more opportunities than opportunities being taken away by the processes of AI. It might be the case that this thing is on the track that tech has built for us in the past 25 years. It’s going to be plowing away and the best that we can do is to put it into things that will provide more value to creation and the extraction of what’s happening at the base level.
Thank you both so much. Please share your social media handles and let us know if there are any other projects from Strangeloop Studios that we should be keeping an eye on.
IAN SIMON: You can follow us on Instagram @strangeloopstudios and I’m @_blount
ANDRÉ ZAKHYA: I’m @andrezakhya