Unveiling the Magic- Ultra Music Festival, Miami 2018

Ultra Music Festival is a technology lover’s Disneyland. Every year, the month of March has all eyes on Miami: Artists showcasing fresh sounds and music; Visual artists showcasing fresh content & mad skills; festival organizers showcasing new heights of production design; and fans showcasing new levels of outrageous clothing. The festival has it all.
Photo by Rudgr.com
Photo by Rudgr.com

A close look at the Main Stage over the years tells us one thing: It is a visual artist’s wildest dreams come true. With super complex rigs, a robust mega structure to hold it all and processing power to tickle our nerd parts, it is always a really well-designed canvas where visual artists can come and show off. And man, do they come all guns blazing.

This year’s stage was remarkably symmetric. Not just left to right but also top to bottom. We especially liked the L’ shaped LED mesh columns that were used to create a massive X. Arranged in a way to make full use of the Z axis, with the ‘L’ shape, the designers ensured no gaps in the LED- no matter what angle you view the stage from.
Photo by Rudgr.com
Photo by Rudgr.com

A small almost unnoticeable detail, but this makes all the difference in the world for an LED heavy stage. The countless pixel strips and a massive lighting & laser inventory perfectly added the cherry to the top.
Photo by Rudgr.com
Photo by Rudgr.com

In our Ultra series of blogposts, we take a look into what went down in making the enormous Main stage, this 20th year of Ultra, a reality. To start off with, our go- to person is, of course, Vello Virkhaus – Resident VJ at Ultra Worldwide for over 15 years.
Vello in the mix: Photo by Eric Mintzer
Vello in the mix: Photo by Eric Mintzer

A genius in anything related to pixels and visual production, Vello & V Squared Labs are real pioneers and have been such an integral part of making Ultra reach the technological heights it’s achieved.
Photo by Eric Mintzer
Photo by Eric Mintzer

Thank you for doing this, Vello! Let’s get right into it.

How long have you been on this crazy ride with Ultra?

I have been associated with Ultra as a VJ and visual art talent resource for close to 20 years. Time flies when you are having fun!

Over these past 20 years I have seen so much growth in the visual arts community, having met visual artists from around the world, touring with the Ultra family.

Ultra Japan 2016
Ultra Japan 2016
Ultra Brazil 2016: Photo by Rukes
Ultra Brazil 2016: Photo by Rukes

Talk to us about this growth. What has stuck with you the most?

During the formative years of Ultra, I would VJ from opening till closing, performing 12 hour sets, back to back with very few guest VJ’s. This was an epic journey with wild weather thrown in, to say the least. I used to have management deliver artist visuals on DVDs and VHS tapes. Artists like Armin and Paul Van Dyke used to provide me with visual loop DVD’s, some containing logos on blue backgrounds so I could key them out on my analog switcher to layer over additional elements. Most of my show was standard definition and was still partially mixed off tapes.

Looking back to these early days feels like the dark ages now. This is just an example of the remarkable growth that has occurred. We have come such a long way in our technology and methods of expression. Look at the Armin show now, and see how much the visual art and music scene has exploded globally.

Ultra Music Festival - 059.JPG
Ultra Miami 2012
Ultra Miami 2012

Another visible sign of growth has been the increased scale of the production and audience attendance. There was a time when rave culture was illegal and not commercially acceptable. There was a time when Ultra had only one 16x9 LED screen on stage as a backdrop with two flanking IMAG screens stage right and left. Maybe 100 tiles max. Now the main stage is 1587 LED tiles. WHOA. I still remember protesting for the Right to Dance and VJ’ing the night away at illegal warehouse raves in Chicago. Look at us now.[/i]
Ultra Miami 2016
Ultra Miami 2016

That is an incredible story. Look at us now, indeed.
So Circa 2018, let’s talk about the creative process behind the stage and content.

For content creation, I typically get animated materials from Luis Torres, Ultra's animation lead. The process involves a technical review and then a final delivery. I usually get 10-15 pixel mapped animations which I incorporate into all the change- over looks throughout the day. This process has been established and in effect for many years now.
Luis Torres, Ultra Music Festival
Luis Torres, Ultra Music Festival
Luis Torres, Ultra Music Festival
Luis Torres, Ultra Music Festival
Luis Torres, Ultra Music Festival
Luis Torres, Ultra Music Festival

I also program custom generative effects using the Macro Editor/Panel Effects and Chasers/Tracers systems in Crescent Sun. The combination of pixel mapped content layered with architectural, generative panel based visuals makes for some good looks, and lots of possibilities.
I also curate content from my visuals library, along with integrating artist visuals for every Ultra. My approach has always been to group content into large theme banks, and to make sure I have enough, stylistic variation in the main project to hop across aesthetic choices in a rapid manner.

For Ultra Miami 2018, I used Resolume 6 along with Crescent Sun as the primary media server package. I use Resolume to quickly trigger columns of preset mixes, running in 8 layers x 200 columns of content for my primary deck. I capture Resolume into Crescent Sun via a magewell capture card, along with IMAG cameras. The combination of the two different programs (Touch & Resolume) has always been my jam.
When it comes to the all things Stage design, Richard Milstein is the mastermind behind Ultra’s unique stages, of late. I know he currently collaborates closely with Ray Steinman and The Activity/Patrick Deirson for rendering, production and lighting design.
As the House VJ, I really enjoy the canvas I am provided to paint on. [/i]
Main Stage Render by The Activity
Main Stage Render by The Activity

And how much LED went into this colossal canvas?


The video was 50 ft (15 mtr) high by about 150 ft (45 mtr) wide.

Most of the stage was made up of 8 mm tiles. The columns and top fingers was 37mm.

With the Upstage Video Wall, UMF logo, DJ Booth & IMAG there were around 1240 x 8 mm tiles & 350 x 37 mm tiles for the columns and top fingers.

Pixel Map Labels -1.jpg
Wow. That’s close to a 1000 sq mtr (10,000 sq ft) of LED. Massive massive.
You guys seemed to process all of that like child’s play..

For processing AG provided the Barco e2 as the primary screen management tool. It easily handled the complex number of HDMI / DisplayPort inputs and outputs.

The e2 also provided the ability to have multiple preview monitors setup so guest VJ's could view their signals and check pixel maps before they go live. The e2 is very low latency at 1 frame or less for progressive sources.

When our international vendors do not have Barco technology, we also integrate the Analog Way Ascender units.

Running one of the biggest festival stages around the world, you obviously face an onslaught of guest VJs running timecode, live feed and inputs to LED processors- How do you handle the madness?

Overall, we have been trying to consolidate and group 1920 HD outputs into 4k signals to reduce the number of cables needed at FOH, per setup. There are usually 3-4 VJ positions at each Ultra around the world, which have ethernet for TC, audio PGM and HD-SDI for camera feeds as well as inputs to processors.
Ultra Miami 2018- Pixel Map 1
Ultra Miami 2018- Pixel Map 1
Ultra Miami 2018- Pixel Map 2
Ultra Miami 2018- Pixel Map 2

My solution to the FOH craziness was to create an Ultra VJ rider that we can distribute to the various production vendors around the world. This combined with effective artist rider review and solid team communication makes the experience flow smoothly. With the rider and emails our teams know exactly what everyone needs/wants and can provide enough runs to accommodate all artists way ahead of time.

Coordinating it is definitely tough, and could not be done without the help of Ray Steinman and the awesome production team from Ultra.[/i]

When you’re pushing so many outs & running systems continuously in the heat, your equipment must be top notch.
What gear do you recommend?

Photo by Eric Mintzer
Photo by Eric Mintzer

For my hardware, I run a custom-built Windows 10 PC, inside a cooler master case.
I chose this setup as it can accommodate a full-size graphics card, hot swap drive bay, m.2 slot and the ability to support a Corsair high performance liquid CPU cooler. With this configuration, I can run 3 x 4k outputs no problem utilizing the Titan X Pascal card.

This portable setup stays cool in the most demanding circumstances, like Ultra China when it was 100 degrees + outside during opening sets. While my laptop slows down to a crawl, this rig keeps on rocking.

What was your biggest challenge this time round? Any words of advice for our budding VJs out there?

For me the biggest challenge this year was using the experimental VJ software Crescent Sun, along with the new version of Resolume 6. I went a little crazy on clip loading with over 200 columns. Figured.. hey its 64bit and can take it. Then it took 5 minutes to load my show file. Oh Boy!
Photo by Eric Mintzer
Photo by Eric Mintzer

The best way to overcome challenges for me involves as much practice as possible and pushing through it with good old elbow grease ;-)

As for advice, don't ever take things personally, it's a very challenging business.[/i]

True that. Wise words.

Thanks Vello for talking to us. It has been a pleasure. Congratulations on your many accomplishments and on being such a boss-man. Here is to creating a lot more magic and pixel pushing together :)
Vello’s (gorgeous) studio
Vello’s (gorgeous) studio
Vello’s (gorgeous) studio
Vello’s (gorgeous) studio

See you guys in the next blogpost. Until then, go grab that elbow grease.


Ultra Creative Director & Production Designer: Richard Milstein
Ultra Animation Lead: Luis Torres
Ultra Production Director: Ray Steinman
2018 Main Stage LED & Tech: AG Lighting & Sound
2018 Main Stage Video Engineer: James Watral
Lighting Designer / LD: Patrick Deirson and The Activity
Main stage MC : Voice of Dance Music, Damian Pinto
Imaginex VJ assist / system programmer: Eric Mintzer
Photos: Eric Mintzer, Rudgr.com & Vello Virkhaus

Posted by shipra on Friday May 25, 2018 at 10:41 Tags: e2 * ultra * v-squared * vello virkhaus
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