Ever since the dawn of computer animation three decades ago, there’s existed the promise of live-action animation, a theatrical performance of sorts whereby ever-morphing visuals evolve before our eyes to match a storyline, musical score, or even an audience’s mood. But something always stood in the way, be it slow technology, overwhelming cost, or lack of artistic passion.
Today that promise is fulfilled in the form of animator J-Walt, who brings his real-time virtual reality show Spontaneous Fantasia — which has been the hit of the Glendale Planetarium for years not to mention beloved in Amsterdam, Warsaw, and beyond — to Santa Barbara this weekend. In crafting an immersive, vividly colorful, and — let’s face it — built-for-psychedelics performance by operating specially made joysticks, buttons, nobs, and software on stage, this is far from those graphics programs you can download to your iPad, and the musical score ranges from the heavy beats of electronic to the melodic rhythms of classical.
J-Walt spoke to The Independent last week about the show, and what follows is an edited version of that interview.
How’d you develop this show?
I’d been doing computer animation for a long time, since the mid-‘80s, and then I was really drawn to doing things in real time. Real time is where the excitement and discovery happens. Unfortunately, working in movies and video games, they don’t have a call for this kind of exploratory real time creation, so I had to take it into a performing arts milieu and really share with an audience the fun of the discovery and the play and the improvisation that usually takes place in the studio.
Since it’s live, do you make mistakes?
Sometimes, and there’s always the real strong possibility of doing something that will crash the system—that just goes hand-in-hand with doing something live. But without taking those risks, I won’t be able to reach further and push myself into the improvisatory technique, out of the realm of just borrowing from music and dance and other kinds of theatrical presentations, and really combine aspects of all these different art disciplines into something that’s new and also using technology to do more as a single artist than I think has ever been possible before.
Are you pursuing a commercial application that would let the rest of us do this?
I’m not really working on that. It was early on that I saw a way to really create something deep with it, beyond this casual interaction. There is tons of that….You can find demos that do very surface level interactive kind of stuff, but what I am doing it taking it deeper with a more complex kind of interface that, at the very least, shows an example of where one can really take this if one spends the time. It’s like the difference between playing a little Casio drumbox or toy where you can put together beats in no time, and playing the piano or violin and really pushing the level of expression. There’s no music built into a violin. There’s four strings and you have to put into it just about everything.
Do you see your technology as being influential on the future?
I think it has the possibility to influence future art. That’s what I am focused on, the artistry of it. That’s what I would like to remind not just artists but everyone: Art doesn’t take a second set to anything. Art is one of the great pursuits of humanity and it doesn’t rely on scientific or technological paradigms to propel it forward. I use technology, but it’s in the pursuit of artistic visions.
How much do your shows change from performance to performance?
There would be some percentage different. There is structure to improvisation. It’s like hearing the same jazz musician play the same piece of music. Depending on the jazz musician, you might not see too big a change between Friday and Saturday. But month to month, I keep adding things or changing the way I do things. The piece I do have evolved.
What’s your typical audience?
I can’t really figure out if there is a narrower demographic. I have people of all ages, from little kids to seniors, to everyone in between, couples and groups. And as a general rule, they all seem to enjoy it. There’s something for everybody.
Check out J-Walt’s Spontaneous Fantasia this Friday, July 8, 8 and 10 p.m., Saturday, July 9, 2 and 5 p.m., and Sunday, July 10, 2 and 5 p.m., at Center Stage Theater. See spontaneousfantasia.com.