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Deborah "CandyStations" Johnson

Visual and concert designer

in designer, mac, video

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am Deborah Johnson, aka 'CandyStations'. I do live visuals and show design for concerts --- the stuff you see on stage that isn't the musicians. This includes imagery, the look of the stage, sets, screens, lighting, and so on.

I established CandyStations in 2003 as a way to merge my love of art, design and live music. It all started in Chicago, Illinois, where I was so inspired by the vibrant and hard working music community. I moved there fresh out of art school and wanted to explore the possibilities of video outside of what I was accustom. I'd done some installation and outdoor projection, but it wasn't until I started going to shows like Kid Koala, Amon Tobin and DJ Shadow where I started to see the real and awesome impact of visuals with music.

I started making video vignettes with some local musicians and was soon introduced to a real-time graphics software called Nato.0+55+3d. Around this time I was told that the band Wilco was considering incorporating live visuals into their shows. They'd been experimenting with a multi-media software called Max, for which Nato was built. After a lot of demo sessions and back and forth, throwing spaghetti at the screens, they hired me to be their touring visualist.

The first year on the road was met with many humbling moments. The learning curve was high, the gear was sprawling and in hindsight I don't know what I was thinking. My hubris and audacity to go on the road with some vague idea that this was all going to kickass is now mind-boggling. But, after two years, clocking as many successes as failures, I finally became comfortable as a visual performer.

After my time with Wilco, I moved to New York and have had the awesome pleasure to work with musicians including Sufjan Stevens, Ray LaMontagne, M83, Lucius, eighthblackbird, Com Truise, St. Vincent and M. Ward. I've performed at Coachella, Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Museum of Modern Art, MASS MoCA, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, The Fillmore, The Ryman, and Wiener Konzerthaus. I also continue to create site-specific visual installations for events like SXSW, 92Y Tribeca and Brooklyn Academy of Music.

What hardware do you use?

Anything needed to design and / or perform a show. Primarily two MacBook Pros and a Livid Instruments MIDI controller, a MIDI splitter and an audio converter to get the best feeds from the band.

In addition to live performance, I often record shows and send them out with a touring operator. In this case we use media servers such as Ai, Catalyst and WATCHOUT, which are designed to work with lighting boards. This allows the lighting designer to trigger the visual content with the light cues. It's less improvisational on the video end, but you can program a lot of intricate details with the benefit of consistency.

And what software?

I perform using Vidvox's VDMX, which allows me to combine pre-edited pieces with live, interactive elements. For example, I can use a direct audio feed from the band to influence how the video plays and trigger real-time effects. Interactive animations are typically generated using Apple's Quartz Composer.

To make the 'stable', pre-edited compositions, I use Adobe After Effects, Premiere, Photoshop and Illustrator. I also draw, paint, scan, play with oils, lights and my big box of ColorAid for source material. I'm big into analog + digital hybrids and try to merge the two as much as possible. Ever so often I use Macromedia Director on my ancient, gasping OS 9 computer to create impossible-looking animations using hand-drawn elements.

What would be your dream setup?

I'd like to know more about more practical effects and construction. A big space that could house lights, mirrors, oils, projectors, smoke machines, LEDs --- the ability to experiment with physical materials just as much as the digital.