Independent Feature - Future Clubbing

Now then, now then, as Jimmy Saville might say, as a journalist you get to witness and sample some pretty amazing stuff, albeit in a short, sharp, surface level, nevertheless I'm beyond grateful for some of weird and wonderful things I've seen, discovered and expanded my horizons with.

After 12 years in the words game, there's not a huge amount that leaves your jaw on the floor, but Animatronics is certainly one of them.

Heading up to the super talented and supremely approachable John Nolan's studios in Dalston to learn more about dancing robots in May had me frothing at the mouth and blubbering like an excited 8 year old to my friends. Unfortunately animatronics is one of those things you just have to see to believe.

Here's a glimpse of what they're about, and a feature I penned exploring how animatronics and 3D are redefining clubland, that ran in The Independent on Friday. Thanks to the rather splendid Celia for hooking up the interviews.

Future clubbing: Twenty-first century party people

Technology is infiltrating night life. Rahul Verma reports on the weird and wonderful animatronics and 3D effects that are turning clubs and festivals into sci-fi wonderlands

The heaving dancefloor sways to the DJ's metronomic patterns as people filter off to chat at the bar. As a thundering bass line kicks in, whoops and squeals of approval erupt, and a sea of hands rises in salutation. One hand stands apart from the crowd: it's shiny and metal, and belongs to a robot moving gracefully in time to the music.

Meanwhile, at a festival in a dome-shaped tent, cider-soaked revellers wearing Blues Brothers-style shades are gawping, dancing to wonky house and pointing, as new rave shapes, cityscapes and iconic film imagery, such as Superman's insignia, tumble towards them.

These aren't visions of clubbing from the future. These are two club nights, Kreatures and 3D Disco that exist in the present, and reflect how rapidly evolving technology is infiltrating and influencing clubbing, festivals and nightlife.

Kreatures, the night that brings dancing robots – or more specifically animatronics – into clubs, is the vision of the bright minds at John Nolan Films. Its Dalston workshop is a hive of focused activity: sparks fly and machinery grinds as five people beaver away to meet a deadline to provide a squirrel head that can enunciate Spanish words for a TV ad.

Welcome to the weird, wonderful and frankly flabbergasting world of animatronics. What are animatronics? "Animatronics is imitating the anatomy of a person or animal, through engineering or mechanics, and copying the movement and making it as fluid as possible," explains Gustav Hoegen.

In other words animatronics are lifelike puppets (the squirrel's fur is rabbit hair) made from robotics and mainly used in films, adverts or theme parks. John Nolan, whose animatronic work has appeared in films including Where The Wild Things Are, Skellig and Hellboy II, specialises in "skins" – faces, stomachs and mouths.

For Hoegen, Nolan and Josh Head, bringing their painstaking work into nightclubs is about showcasing what they do to a wider audience. "It's self-indulgent, as what I do is usually covered in foam latex and silicone skin so you don't get to see what goes into making a piece of metal look organic in the way it moves," says Nolan. Then Hoegen says: "The Kreatures night is an installation. I've always wanted to do something that shows off what goes into robotics and animatronics."

Where did the idea come from? "Gus and I met Josh when we were working on Where The Wild Things Are in Australia. Josh was dabbling in animatronic performances with a bear head he wore on stage. Gus and I built animatronic mouths for a night and used radio controllers to control their expressions. Josh's approach is revolutionary; no one else is doing it. He has put together a control for a robot with 16 or 30 motors which enable expressions rather than just moving an arm up", continues Nolan excitedly.

Head, who performs live as Ankle Pants, explains: "If it's one of John's mouths or faces you can get a smile or frown. As you drop a part of the track it will trigger an instant movement, and if you slow down or speed up the music the movement will mimic that. It's the equivalent of mixing electronic music and expressions."

Alongside a line-up of big-hitting electronic-music DJs including Starkey, Untold and Milanese, the stars of Kreatures are undoubtedly the animatronics: Hoegen's labour of love takes centre stage – cradled in the palm of an over arching robotic arm – and will be flanked by two macabre sculptures by the YBA Tristan Schoonraad. Nolan's animatronic mouth and stomach will unsettle wide-eyed revellers, and the animatronic movements (including a talking navel) will be controlled by Head as he DJs.

It begs the question what will the audience go home talking about– the music or the animatronics? Head says "The first time I saw a lip-synching puppet I was like 'What the hell?' I was totally blown away, they look totally different on screen. Physically seeing them and hearing them move is something else entirely."

Kreatures is reminiscent of a sci-fi film, and the idea that there's beauty in matching music and machinery has been around at least since Fritz Lang's 1927 movie Metropolis. "It's definitely like Metropolis; that's what we're achieving – moving in time to the music. To me animatronics are aesthetic, like modern art," says Hoegen, who reveals that the robot he's made for the night is worth tens of thousands of pounds.

The urge to shine a spotlight on a niche craft is also true of 3D Disco, which will be at Glastonbury for the second year running, and debuts at the Big Chill this summer. 3D Disco does what it says on the tin; it's a disco or rave – depending on your era – where you don 3D glasses and get down to anything from wonky house to rave classics, as visuals fly towards you.

Around five years ago there were three of us VJ-ing and we were moaning about how visuals always took a back seat to the music and was wallpaper in a club. 3D Disco came from those conversations and putting visuals at the forefront of the show and making the night more of a spectacle," explains the DJ and promoter Nik Barrera.

The VJ teams joined forces and formed the Novak Collective, a group of digital artists who hunkered down to create 3D content. Gradually 3D Disco took shape through trialing material in their hometown of Newcastle's Wax On night, and progressed to performing in Trafalgar Square with Calvin Harris.

The breakthrough for both Kreatures and 3D Disco came when the Smirnoff Creative Grants awards, which gives £5,000-bursaries to people with ideas for club nights with the "wow factor", provided the funds to make the pub talk a reality. "After we won the grant we were able to develop a 360-degree show and take 3D Disco in a bespoke direction, namely a dedicated environment in the round," explains Barrera.

Domestic and international bookings have since come thick and fast, and the flexibility of 3D Disco means they can operate in myriad situations: from in the round, to AV shows in clubs or bespoke footage made to order. The rise of 3D in popular culture, with films such as Avatar and Streetdance, has helped the cause. "We were developing what we did before these films were out but it's primed audiences and made it easier to pitch," offers Barrera.

The music policy of 3D Disco reflects this adaptability and is upbeat, and playful, like the experience. "Our music is really varied, we like to surprise and keep it fast-paced so we'll do house classics, UK funky, Baltimore club, kitsch bits and pieces which we've re-edited and snippets from Flash Gordon and Ghostbusters" says Barrera.

Like Kreatures, 3D Disco hope to take their craft to as wide an audience as possible: "We're hoping to develop our shows in planetariums because they're 360-degree spaces. Another aspiration for the dedicated environment is producing content for younger age groups. So you could have 3D Disco at a festival and daytime programming for kids," explains Barrera.

Above all both Kreatures and 3D Disco are about putting wonder and amazement back into nightlife. It's no surprise their emergence has come as the superclub era draws to a close; watching a bloke, superstar or not, playing CDs, or, worse, MP3s, is as much a spectacle as watching someone read their emails. But a robot dancing... well now you're talking.


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