How Cathedrals’ New Video Makes Light Dance To The Music

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This is the video for the Cathedrals’ song “Unbound”. It’s lovely! And the way the light cubes in the background pair up with the music is no accident — there’s some really cool tech behind it.

I spoke with Alex Green, the guy who created the dancing light cubes, originally a project for Burning Man a few years ago. He built, designed and programmed them in about four or five weeks — a feat everyone thought was impossible until he actually did it.

The cubes themselves are wired with adhesive LED strips. There are two ways they sync up with music. The first is an implementation of a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithm within the cubes custom software that lets whoever is operating the cubes use the varying frequencies within the music to drive the animations. The second is midi input, what music producers, bands, and DJ’s around the world use to control live and recorded music, Green told me via email.

In this case, you have light that both reacts to the music on its own, and responds to how it’s been programmed. Sam Pressman, who directed “Unbound” explained that how they were used in this particular video is only one way of many.

“The LED strips within the cubes are in complete communication with the system, so they can program specific lighting actions for one part of the structure, really control how the light’s moving, which I know they’re doing a lot of interesting adaptions of that,” Pressman explained.

“[The light] can interact with your heartbeat or the music you’re playing or the movement you’re making. So it’s really next-level technology beyond how the lights are built, from the colour of the light to the frequency of it. They have complete control. There are really amazing things directors could do — beyond even what we did.”

There was a huge amount of work that went into actually making the dang things — the software used to control them is completely customised, and Green didn’t even know how to code when he began building it. Working with two programmers, Dan Kamisky and Mark Slee, he learned as he went. Pretty incredible!

The light cubes are a nice marriage of several disciplines: art, music, design, science, Green explained, as he told me why he chose the cube shape in particular:

“I was inspired by some of the audiovisual art that I had seen recently, and was dreaming up a piece that would be expressive both sculpturally and programmatically. Specifically, Amon Tobin’s ISAM installation and my good friend Mark Slee’s artwork come to mind as inspirations for the piece… I like building complex systems out of simple rules; this is what has always fascinated me about physics, maths, chemistry — the universe really. The cubes are a sort of physical manifestation of a voxel (a portmanteau of “volume pixel”), so they can be used as a kind of crude 3-D screen, and many different structures can be built with cubes. Despite being such a simple polygon, there is a ton to be done with cubes.”

And K’Nex-like units ahve taken on a life of their own. First Burning Man, then the “Unbound” video, and since then, Cathedrals has been taking them along for live performances. In fact, they appeared on stage earlier this week in Brooklyn during one of Cathedrals’ CMJ performances.

They are really beautiful creations. But it’s even better when you can appreciate how deep the tech goes to power them. Art + technology. Perfect!