Strangeloop Studios — a multi-person creative studio responsible for the tour visuals for artists like Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, SZA, Flying Lotus, and more — is located in a tiny coach house just off the freeway in Los Angeles. Inside is a traditional set up of PCs, a large 3D television set, and tiny tchotchkes that honor past tours they've been a part of. I get the sense that talking about their work — as opposed to creating it — isn't quite as satisfying for them. However, once they get going they're like magicians waiting to show you their latest and greatest magic trick.
I'm asked to put on a pair of 3D glasses and stare at a screen. After a few key strokes, I'm left to interact with a flaming, 3D projection of myself. Naturally, the first thing I'm inclined to do is lift my arms up as if entering the full body scanner at the airport. When another program runs, the image shifts to a rendering of a brain with different synapses firing when triggered by a nearby synthesizer. Needless to say, I feel like I'm on drugs. When I admit as much, there's a wry smirk on all of their faces like they've heard that many times before.
"I think we're trying to make these experiences so that people don't have to do drugs," says Strangeloop Co-Founder and Co-President, David Wexler.
If there is a consistent narrative to Strangeloop's work, it's that it defies convention. Whereas many concerts feature "locked in" and "time coded" visuals that align strictly to a set list — the team estimates that 75 percent of arena performers use these kinds of visuals — Strangeloop prides itself on being able to riff with the artists in a way that is not unlike the improvisational nature of jazz.
"It allows the artists to do whatever they want on stage and not have to stick to a pre-approved script that you would if you locked in everything beforehand," says Co-Founder and Co-President, Ian Simon. "They can go out on an improvisatory branch and trust that everyone's going to follow along — including the lighting and official production."
Wexler and Simon both credit their musical backgrounds as being key strengths that the studio possesses. Wexler himself took classical piano for nine years and was at one time signed to Flying Lotus' label, Brainfeeder. As a result of this musical pedigree, Strangeloop says that artists can speak using music terminology, which they can subsequently translate into a visual language.
"A lot of the actual expansion of the studio was taking people who had a music background and teaching them software to do the visual stuff because it's almost easier to teach someone how to learn a visual software than it is to give them musical background and train them on musical instincts," Simon says. "It's been a big part of the client process from the beginning — being able to take away one barrier of translation if you want to talk about your music and what's important to you musically — you can speak that language to us and not have to have a translator to the visual side of things."
Strangeloop likens their role in the concert experience to an iceberg. Whereas someone might only see a small piece of an otherwise massive undertaking, there's ample time and energy spent fleshing out a narrative that not only suits an artist's individual project, but also larger themes/aesthetics that he/she/they have cemented. They specifically point to their ongoing relationship with The Weeknd and his Creative Director, La Mar Taylor, as proof of their collaborative and improvisational spirit.
"It's been one of the most fruitful creative relationships we've had," Simon says. "They came to us after seeing the Flying Lotus shows. It was a perfect example of them being stoked on content that we were very excited about. That, and in combination with them, bringing other great collaborators to the table that we love working with. They're very cool about being like, 'Hey, we want to hear what you think would look coolest on this setup,' — which is both flattering and allows us to do our best work."
While the very nature of collaboration is built upon the give and take between different parties, Strangeloop is excited for future opportunities where they have full creative control. This is best represented by their forthcoming short film, "Children of the Void," which feels equal parts like Jamie Hewlett's work for the Gorillaz, mixed with Lord of the Flies. Although the film is a "work in progress," I'm left immersed in a universe mixing 2D and 3D animation centered on a group of kids coming to grips with a post-apocalyptic fallout. It looks and feels like an extension of their live show, but with a much more tightly constructed narrative. Just like how you can instantly identify a Pixar film, Strangeloop is cultivating an aesthetic that is distinctly theirs.