Observatory: The importance of content creation

A company born out of a passion for VJing, Observatory specialises in bringing visual experiences to life. TPi sits down with Founder, Ben Sheppee and Director of Production, Simon Harris to get their take on content creation for the live entertainment industry.

The use of video within the live events space has arguably seen some of the biggest leaps when it comes to technological innovation in the past decade. With more artists and set designers opting to utilise LED screens in shows, the increase in the sophistication of media servers, processors and the LED surfaces themselves has been remarkable. Even throughout lockdown, the speed at which software such as Unreal Engine progressed was nothing short of jaw dropping. Not only that, but with the rapid progression of techniques such as xR, video technology now takes the lead when it comes to the entertainment sphere. 

Of course, it’s worth remembering that no matter how outstanding the technological innovation, content is what drives this technology. It’s for this reason that TPi was keen to chat to Observatory about this very topic and learn from the content creators, how they approach a live tour and some of the changes they’d like to see in the industry. 

While the company has featured in the pages of TPi several times in the past year due to its work with Andy C and Enter Shikari at the cutting edge of content creation, Founder, Ben Sheppee, explained that the roots of the business date back to the glory days of VJing for nightclubs. 

“I remember back in early 2000s when I used to borrow slide projectors from college and use them to decorate DJ backdrops in nightclubs on Tottenham Court Road,” he reminisced. Over two decades later, at the company’s London HQ, he still keeps a few of the heavy projectors behind his desk on a shelf. While looking around the office, particularly the massive render farm that is busy processing content for several projects, it’s clear to see how far this side of the industry has come. Observatory was founded in 2018, building from the foundation of Sheppee’s previous company, Lightrhythm Visuals, established in San Francisco in 2003. 

“Lightrhythm was born out of VJing and we published VJ artwork.” Essentially, the company sold DVDs with VJ content that would then be sent to event spaces. However, as the DVD market began to fade away, Sheppee opted to pivot. “The ability to roll with the changing technology has become an integral part of Observatory’s attitude.”

As content creators, although working on a range of projects for big brands such as the BBC, Sky and Adidas, a clear passion for the Observatory team is music. “Creating a visual response to music is somewhat a unique set of skill,” said Sheppee. “I used to play piano; my colleague Simon and I were in a band together in the ‘90s and having an understanding of music and song structures definitely helps. When creators don’t have that background it takes a little while to rewire their approach and get them to think about BPMs and how content can loop to work with the stems in the music.” 

In fact, it exists as such a ‘dark art’ that Sheppee stated that very few educational faculties even teach it. “You often find your Unreal Engine kids come from courses on videogame design, whereas film courses teach students how to shoot with a camera. Graphic design courses sometimes produce motion graphics artists, but they often end up working in broadcast. We find what we do often sits in the boundary of art, film and music.”

Sheppee at one stage even co-developed a course to teach aspiring content creators. “We received funding for the course and during the syllabus we went into the history of visual arts, going back as far as the 17th Century all the way up to the use of modern technology such as Resolume and Green Hippo.”

Sadly, the project only lasted four years and had to be halted due to lack of funding, but it seems that such a course would be very useful at this point as the industry collectively clamours for new talent. 

“Due to the acceleration of the industry in the past few months, everyone is looking for new staff,” commented Director of Production, Simon Harris. “No one has time to onboard them – and we are in exactly the same boat.” 

Currently, there are six people who work at Observatory – a number that Sheppee would like to see expand to at least 10 in the future.  

“I had this vision for the business for a while, in that there would be a separate side of the company working on R&D,” stated Sheppee. “Unless you have something feeding the constant flow of content, it’s challenging to keep creating new ideas. Up until COVID-19, we were slammed all the time and maybe we even lost our direction, so the forced lockdown help us refocus.” The vision of the R&D department in Sheppee’s mind is rather out there, exploring ideas such as using motion capture suits to create visuals. 

With the future in mind, TPi asked how the duo feel about the current landscape of live touring and some of the changes they would like to see. 

“Shows are getting more complex – even the smaller ones,” stated Harris. “This is why shows require more manpower. Not only that, ‘real-time’ rendering has created some real misconceptions as to how quick changes can be made to content on a show. Even using that type of technology, it still takes time to fix.” 

Harris and Sheppee also wish to be involved early in conversations when it comes to show design. “The sad thing is, when it comes to the pecking order of where the budget is allocated on a tour, we find productions are willing to fork out for a giant LED screen but not necessarily the pixels that will bring it to life.” 

That said, there’s a chance that this mindset will hopefully change as Sheppee discussed requests from more artists for content that could not only be used live, but also in promotional content – the natural assumption being that content creators are able to designing flexibly across mediums and can supply the same animations for stage, social media and other marketing channels. “Younger audiences have higher expectations from shows,” stated Harris. “This means more time and thought should be spent on content.” 

It’s a challenge that Observatory is excited to take on, looking to provide advice to clients on what will add more to the show. “With some projects, we have to talk people out of ideas and encourage them to think of fresh looks,” closed Sheppee. “Having a deep knowledge of art and history. You can create something truly incredible through digitation of old art and movement. We are not here to just regurgitate media trends, but to add something unique.”

This article originally appeared in issue #269 of TPi, which you can read here.