Kyle Vegter is a composer, sound designer, and producer based in Chicago. He co-founded Manual Cinema, a shadow theater/multi-media performance company. He is also a staff member of the two time GRAMMY-award winning new music ensemble eighth blackbird. Manual Cinema and eighth blackbird recently collaborated on a music video that is drawing rave reviews. The video, entitled “Meanwhile (incidental music for imaginary puppet plays),” features the members of eighth blackbird as live action characters in a shadow puppet stage, with music by Stephen Hartke, the title cut from their latest CD. Kyle graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the project.
Tell us about Manual Cinema, the nature of the company, your artistic mission, and your role there.
Manual Cinema is a group of five artists (Julia Miller, Drew Dir, Ben Kauffman, Sarah Fornace, and me) whose backgrounds are as disparate and all-encompassing as you can imagine. Among us are literary theorists, graphic designers, a video artist, a digital media genius, composers/songwriters, theater artists, and choreographers.
We came together two years ago to create a shadow puppet show for the Rough House Experimental Puppetry Fest. We didn’t initially have aspirations of forming a company. But our show was so positively received, and we had such a good time making it, that it just felt natural to keep working together. Our first feature length show was ADA/ AVA, and we haven’t looked back since. Our focus is on creating immersive, live performed cinematic experiences using shadow puppets. We’ve been pushing the limits of our medium, playing with perspective and video elements. For our recent work, FJORDS, we converted an LCD unit to project shadow puppets and video simultaneously.
I am a composer/sound designer with Manual Cinema, but titles don’t mean much. We share an intense interest in storytelling. My primary responsibility is to create detailed sound worlds for our projects (both diegetic sound and music), and I also work on storyboarding, video editing, and general production.
Video as your artistic product is new for Manual Cinema. How did the idea for the Meanwhile video with eighth blackbird germinate? What was the process you went through to make it happen?
This is our first production of a video as our actual artistic end-product. We’ve used video in some of our theatrical works, and created promotional videos for almost all of our projects, but we had to approach this as a brand new process. eighth blackbird had some priorities and overarching objectives for the video. The design of the story-world had to reference the album’s cover art. They wanted the video to highlight the birds as individuals, to say something about who each of them are as living, breathing people. And we all wanted to create a real intimacy between the viewer and the actors, who in this case are the birds themselves.
We began the process like any other show with storyboarding, in which we used story exercises to talk through the look and feel of the narrative. We agreed on a few core points, then worked individually to each create our own version. Then we came back together to discuss each other’s ideas. Through several iterations we chose the elements we felt would make the most convincing and evocative film.
That part of the process was familiar. But then we realized the video medium presented a whole host of new problems: where can we find a 20×20 foot screen that is the right material for rear projection? Where can we set it up? What’s a shot list? Do we green screen this shot? Wait, do we have a green screen? MTS file type to MPEG file type conversion? Digital color correction? There were more than a few moments of panic. But we’ve been planning to make films, so this project was the perfect way for us to cut our teeth in the medium.
You’ve told us you used the video production facilities at the new Logan Center for the Arts at University of Chicago for making the Meanwhile video. Both eighth blackbird and Manual Cinema are in residence there now. How do you see the importance of Logan Center to the Chicago arts scene?
We have worked in the space during various stages of construction, preparing for our residency with the Theater and Performance Studies Program, workshopping our newest piece, Lula del Ray, and now teaching there this fall. I am certain that Logan Center is going to change the face and importance of the arts at the University of Chicago. Almost overnight, all the creative departments of the university have state-of-the art facilities, and the building simply feels incredible to work in. It’s a place that I want to pull all-nighters in. It truly stimulates creativity, and I have a lot of respect for the University in making its creation a priority.
Logan Center has already hosted some of Chicago’s best artists. Blair Thomas & Company (puppet theater), House Theater, Looking Glass Theater, Spektral Quartet, eighth blackbird and many more have worked there, and its only been officially open for a month. They’re truly making this a center for world class art and that’s going to have lasting benefits for the University and the city’s south side as a whole. I’m very very proud to be a part of it.
The Meanwhile video was produced in conjunction with the release of the eighth blackbird CD of the same title. Tell us about your work with eighth blackbird and how collaborating on this project affected your sense of the “birds” as artists.
I’ve been in the eighth blackbird family for about 2 years, starting as part-time bookkeeper and now as full-time Office Manager. Everyone pitches in to make sure everything gets done. I am focused on all kinds of back-end administrative tasks: payroll, finance, budgeting, fundraising. And I also do some event production and media management.
I’ve worked with the birds through many many hours of rehearsal and seen them through all manner of setbacks and triumphs. What I keep finding absolutely incredible is their ability to work together, in a musical and an organizational sense. They’ve created a culture of understanding and cohesion that is dizzying to be part of. On this video project though, I saw each of them tackle a brand new medium on their own terms. Our shoots were mostly individual and I got to see each of them approach video creation, in which they had absolutely no background, with a creative tenacity that was nothing less than inspiring. It revealed even further what passionate artists they are.
Manual Cinema and eighth blackbird have created something quite magical in the Meanwhile video. How do you envision the future of “music video” in contemporary music?
Contemporary art music is a late-comer to the music video scene. We completely missed the music video’s heyday, the early 90’s and MTV (maybe for the best? but come on, those Busta Rhymes/Missy Elliot videos were incredible). We are just now understanding how effective music videos can be, both as a promotional tool and a viable artistic medium. Groups like New Amsterdam have led the way in producing professional videos that highlight and expand on the music’s attributes. As a composer, and now video creator, I’m excited about what’s on the horizon for art music videos. I expect to see an explosion of projects with interdisciplinary groups working together to bring art music to life in an immediate and viscerally engaging way. I hope the Meanwhile video is considered a part of that phenomenon, maybe even as a jumping-off point of sorts.
Manual Cinema will premier Lula del Ray, their most technically nuanced show to date, Thursday, November 29th through Sunday, December 16th, 2012, at the Den Theater in Wicker Park, Chicago. Kyle Vegter also plays and tours regularly in the indie band THIN HYMNS and is a resident artist at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago as part of the SOUND ROOM project.