A Tale of Digital Storytelling: The Visuals Behind Big Wild

Photos courtesy of Holler Films

When it comes to euphoria-inducing electronica, Big Wild is one of the first musicians to come to mind. There’s just something about the passion and dedication to the craft that is present in his unique sound, and recently-debut album “Superdream” is a direct illustration of this beauty. With the tour for the season well underway, it’s the perfect time to check out Big Wild and his production team in a city near you!

We, at Festival Squad, were lucky enough to catch their set at M3F earlier this month, a dreamy showcase that took the crowd on a journey of both sight and sound. Deep in the production booth during this set, we ran into Dan Sanford – the Creative Director of Big Wild. Word on the street is that Dan and the team have some serious magic brewing in terms of the live element of the performances. We sat down with him to talk set designs, life on the road, and about the world of production in general. So without further adieu, -Dan Sanford!

Festival Squad [Andrea]: Thanks for sitting down with us, Dan! We can’t wait to experience the new live setup firsthand in the near future! Could you tell us a little about how you got into Visual Arts and how you ended up working on the team as Creative Director of Big Wild?

Dan Sanford: Of course, thanks for the opportunity to speak with you guys about this! I mainly got into visual arts by having a passion for music while also having a big passion for creating films. For a long time, I thought I would have to decide which one I want to focus on singularly and also didn’t know how to be able to afford any gear for it. Then, I was taking a year off after my first semester of college (it didn’t go as well as I thought) and I learned about live visuals for the first time.

I didn’t want to waste my time with being out of school and all my friends were in college, so I worked hard to try to intern or at least help at our local music venue, Pink Garter Theatre in Jackson Hole. It took months of persistence but finally I was able to start helping there. During that time, I met people including my bosses Noah and Dom who introduced me the first time to VJ software and visuals.

Fast forward a year later I was able to keep learning and became the house lighting person. We had minimal lighting equipment, but I worked hard to keep learning about the tools that existed and to get creative with them. A band that I was interested in at the time was on one of their first tours and Jackson (Big Wild) was on that tour. I really connected with everyone involved, and that was when I became friends with Jackson. Later on that year, my band Head to Head opened up for Jackson at that same theatre for a Big Wild headline show. We were doing our own visuals at the time and I offered to help with Jackson’s set. After that, I told Jackson that if he ever needed help in the future for visuals to let me know. I didn’t think much of it – pretty much thinking the opportunity passed – but a few months later Jackson’s management reached out to me and asked if I wanted to VJ for his first headline tour. I was so surprised and excited. I said yes, and then after that I stuck with it. There was a ton of learning and a lot of experiences that helped direct me to where I am now with the project. It took many shows and lots of practice.

Festival Squad: You have mentioned that you are working on a new visual set for the live performances, and along with this comes a new storyline associated with so. What are you hoping to convey to the audiences with the new live set?

Dan: The new live set direction is surrounding Jackson’s latest debut LP “Superdream”. Jackson and I, for over a year now, have been coming up with the idea around this album and my main goal was to come up with visually how this album would look. We are creating this aesthetic for art directions (album art, media, promo, music videos, etc.) as well as the live show. With this new live show, my goal was to convey what “The Superdream” looks like. My biggest step artistically with this was zooming out. After thinking about creating a specific story or particular dream sequence, I decided it would be best to take a more conceptual approach to dreams and experiences. A great example of this would be Big Wild’s song “Maker”, which on the first listen for me I thought was about meeting someone or meeting a challenge. Jackson then told me that he originally wrote the song based on a near death experience. This really inspired me to maintain this conceptual nature to the visuals, allowing for multiple interpretations. Most of the scenes in the Superdream visuals are art pieces.

“That’s how I treat the video wall, treating it more like a canvas for art and less like a movie theatre screen.”

I wanted to support the new sound of Jackson’s set and create an experience that the performers are inside of. The use of rooms, lighting effects, and canvases within the visuals makes the entire performance the Superdream. We divided the set into 7 sections or “movements”, each representing new places that you visit in the dream. The biggest thing we want people to take away from this set is to gain a fresh perspective, whether it’s about life, or about music and the show they experienced.

Festival Squad: Visual Arts are familiar to some, but to our surprise a complete mystery to even some veterans in the music scene. Could you tell us a little bit about the process behind the creation of these works of art? Are there any particular upcoming projects you are most excited about?

Dan: I won’t be the first visual artist to say this, but the process for this type of art is immense. I use a plethora of techniques and programs which is something I enjoy about it. Just like with all visual arts, even traditional styles like painting, an artist can use all sorts of different mediums to create a piece. Live visuals work the same to me. There are many programs, plugins, and techniques both on and off the computer to create visuals. For this current show specifically, I created visuals with various computer software, licensed some stock footage, and even filmed practical effects for some of the content.

Process-wise, I usually start with at least a basic idea or framework of what I want to create. For example, will this be an illustration look based off of the sun or a more simple/broad idea like trying to create unique outlines for the screens using lights and different textures? This being said, many of my favorite visuals were created from experiments and accidents. I tend to take a basic idea and just keep messing around with it, making lots of versions quickly. This is a good way for me to start creating a more solid idea.

From there, it really depends on the tools and techniques I use to create these pieces. For one part of the set, I actually filmed a sparker up close in order to capture the ember and sporadic lighting effects that I use in the song “Aftergold.” For another song, I used a 3D animation design software called Cinema4d. I created an infinite shape loop using the new logo and also used virtual lighting in the software to create unique projections of lighting onto the looping shapes.

Once I have created these building blocks, I like to call them or the animations/clips. I then usually edit and fine tune certain clips to the songs using Adobe Premiere and After Effects. I then export in sections like chorus, verse, intro, etc.

Lastly is building the showfile to use live. I use a program called Resolume to sequence all of these clips and also layer effects. I often use Resolume as a tool to create content as well.

Here’s a list of the main programs and tools I use:

  • Resolume
  • Cinema 4d
  • Premiere Pro
  • After Effects
  • Procreate
  • Illustrator
  • Plotagraph

I think that I am most excited right now to start customizing and better fine tuning the Superdream show for festivals and upcoming shows. We have some opportunities to do the visuals on a larger scale, and one of my favorite parts about it all is making the best use of what the festival has to offer for you.

Festival Squad: We know how hectic it can get working events and festivals – what do you like to do when you have free time to unwind?

Dan: I love to explore with my free time. I spend a lot of time on the computer creating the shows as well as art, so I definitely enjoy time unplugged a bit. It helps me reset. I enjoy outside time and getting out in nature. I love adventuring with friends in the mountains, hiking, skiing, climbing. When I have time off from the visual sides of shows, you can find me making my own music as well, working on my music project “Head to Head.” I also really enjoy making comedy videos as a way for me to get creative in a less serious way.

Festival Squad: As the name entails, our focus here at Festival Squad since inception has been to be the go-to place for all things festival related – ranging from fashion to general logistics, to music and MORE! As a professional in the industry, what has been your personal favorite festival experience to this day and why?

Dan: This is tough, I have actually had a lot of great festival experiences for a variety of different reasons. To name one that I think was one of the best, I would have to say Electric Forest personally. We have been there a few times and to me it’s really well done. It’s definitely in a gorgeous place, but I just thought it was so well run. It seemed both artists and attendees were getting taken care of very well and for a festival that size I was impressed with how smooth things were.

Festival Squad: Digital media and visual arts are considered, by many, part of a highly competitive industry. Do you have any advice for someone who may be looking to get started in your line of work?

Dan: I think having a lot of love and passion for it is the most important thing. It is competitive and it is risky, but I think that doing it for the love and the passion of the art is why you do it. Also, take opportunities and leap into them. A lot of peers who I see with success in this industry all have unique stories about the things that shifted in their life and the risks that they took in order to be full-on pursuing an opportunity creating. I think that this is truly what will really set you apart from many others who may be looking to be in this line of work.

Festival Squad: That’s all for now. Thanks for chatting with us, Dan! Our team is looking forward to experiencing the new live show brewing for Big Wild soon!

~Keep up with Dan & Big Wild~

Big Wild

Dan Sanford

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