If you’re anything like me, you might have spent a good chunk of peer-to-peer filesharing’s heyday gaping at Winamp visualizations. There were a lot of good ones. My personal favorite was a red stick-figure devil that played a flying V guitar. I might have even went and found that one somewhere on the Internet myself. It was awesome. But that was before YouTube. There’s no need to settle for visualizations when you’ve likely got dozens of LOLCat compilations (or whatever) set to each of your favorite tunes at your fingertips. As well you should! Nostalgic though I may be, I’m not about to go ahead and honor the visualization with a dramatic eulogy. It was a neat novelty. And really, that’s all I have to say about that.
Or so I thought, until I watched Animusic’s Pipe Dream. Pipe Dream starts simply enough: the viewer is presented with some sort of contraption that looks like it may have been constructed from PVC pipe and taut jump ropes. A ball is shot from one of the pipes and bounces from one of the jump ropes to another, then into a pipe. Then another ball, and another. Each of these bounces produces a musical note from what sounds like a bass. Soon, the balls are coming at grueling pace, Oregon Trail-style, and the viewer has a full-blown song on their hands. This contraption is just the first of many; a cog in a ball-powered orchestra-machine that produces a complete song. It’s a chintzy song, but a song, no less. The full effect is damn near breathtaking.
Pipe Dream has been called a masterpiece, and rightfully so1. The Rube-Goldberg-as-composer concept is brilliant. The animation is impressive -- like Pixar’s Luxo Jr., the objects in this film seem to take on personalities of their own. It’s probably the best thing Animusic has ever done, and it very well may be the best thing they ever do2. In fact, Intel itself was so moved by Pipe Dream that they constructed a functional, real live version of the music machine back in 2011. It’s incredible -- I highly recommend looking it up. But Pipe Dream is not the only thing Animusic has done. In fact, here we have each song from the first of their two “video albums.”
Animusic is the brainchild of one Wayne Lytle. While studying (classical piano before a switch to computer science) at Cornell, Lytle became infatuated with what the Animusic website calls “music-driven computer animation,3” or the concept of creating animations that are dependent upon (as opposed to responsive to) musical notes. That was in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1989 that Lytle actually got the opportunity to experiment with computer animation. Lytle’s first notable foray into the field was 1990’s More Bells and Whistles, which he created for the Cornell Theory Center. True to its title, the film contains many of the bells and whistles that would go on to be prominent in the Animusic videos (including lasers! Which makes sense -- Lytle grew up playing in prog rock bands.) While the film looks primitive compared to its modern-day brethren, it was way ahead of its time and made major waves. The film has shown up on computer demos, TVs at Sears, and even children’s television.
While he may not have known it at the time, Lytle had produced the first piece in what would become a significant body of work. What better way to combine a love of composing with a love of programming? After the success of Bells and Whistles, Lytle continued to hone his newfound craft. The best description of his process I could find was from SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics: “both music and animation were designed as a single score, which served as a synchronizing controller for both MIDI-driven music synthesizers and animated synthetic actors,4” which is to say the MIDI drives the motion as well as the sound. In 1995, he enlisted the help of computer artist David Crognale to produce a stereoscopic (3D) film for a client. The result would become known as Beyond the Walls. Over the next few years, Lytle and Crognale changed the name of their project from “Visual Music” to Animusic and set to work on the group of videos that would be released on a DVD of that title in 2001. A second, arguably more impressive group was released four years later as, simply, Animusic 2. And I happen to know there’s an Animusic 3 on the way, thanks to Kickstarter.
Not too many people would argue that the music itself is the best thing about Animusic. It’s MIDI music composed by a progressive rock fan, and can often get just as bad as that description makes it sound. But, hey, all things considered, the man’s got chops! There’s a little something here for everyone, whether you’re a fan of power metal, funk, or even harp. I appreciate that. While Animusic is not breaking any new musical ground, the music is beside the point. Lytle himself admits that “90% of [their] production time is spent building this crazy instrument. At the end, we have very little time to write music.5” It’s fun, serviceable, and, most importantly, it’s a fine showcase for the impossibly elaborate e-instruments.
Animagic is a novelty, but it’s a rich one. At the very least, it’s more captivating than most of those Winamp visualizations were -- more entertaining, even, than your average viral video. Wayne Lytle’s clearly brilliant. He’s got a muse, and he’s chasing it. More power to him! That’s what it’s all about. Take it from him: “We thought we were making it for guys like us in their thirties and forties that liked music and animation and whatnot, and then we started hearing from people who, you know, their kids watch it, they think they're cool, they watch it, you know, five times a day...6” He goes on to explain that he’s heard from everyone from grandmas to “kids 50 years old with the hundred thousand dollar home theaters playing it to show off their gear.” There is something to these technically stunning, endearingly goofy videos. They’re inherently joyous; universally likeable. Does the world need more Animusic? Look at the staggering leap in graphical sophistication that occurred in the four years between Animusic 1 and Animusic 2. Imagine what Lytle might be able to come up with now, nine long years later. It could be tremendous. At the very least, he’s got a successful future in children’s programming, if he wants it.
2 Although, for what it’s worth (a lot, if you ask me), the man behind Animusic also assisted with the visual effects in Starship Troopers!
4 Takala, Tapio, and James Hahn. "Sound rendering." ACM SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics. Vol. 26. No. 2. ACM, 1992.