Lymbyc Systym – “Prairie School”

“Prairie School” by Lymbyc Systym from Western Vinyl on Vimeo.

An awesome contact at Terrorbird asked if I was interested in coming up with a music video for one of Lymbyc Systym‘s songs on their new album Symbolyst (on Western Vinyl).

Kyle McDonald and I had been wanting to work together on a music video for a long time and I knew he was a big fan of the band as well so I asked him to join forces with me to come up with something for “Prairie School”, the first track on the new album.

I had been playing a little bit with a lens I pulled off a PS3eye camera and found that it fit perfectly over the lens on my iPhone camera and gave me ridiculous magnification. When the option to pitch on the video came around I really wanted to put this microscopic world to good use, and Prairie School was a perfect option for that. The song had a rapid energy, a brightness but also a sense of smallness without bounds (if that makes any sense). We got a really strong kind of retro-futuristic science video vibe from the song at first and offered up something that would be a mix of filming and software to provide a sort of abstract journey from big to small, as a sort of homage to the amazing 1977 Eames short film “Powers of 10”


We also worked through a way of breaking up the song into some kind of narrative that would match the variations in the song. The song had some very clear sections that we wanted to hit with big changes in visual mood. When working on videos I like to make a chart of the song that helps me understand and visualize the entire structure and the spacing between big moments. Here is the diagram that Kyle and I worked off of when coming up with the structure for the video (click  the image for big version).


The majority of the time spent making the video was just a lot of exploration. I shot a ton of stuff up close and it was never really easy to tell if something was going to be boring or gorgeous underneath the tiny lens. In all I shot about 40gb of footage and about 300 individual clips for the video. In all, i would say i shot about 80% of the video on my iPhone, about 15% on my DSLR and 5% on a 500x USB microscope. In all the time spent exploring this microscopic world we realized that staying small made more sense and offered some compelling options on it’s own. Some of our original ideas for expanding to larger worlds ended up being a little time-prohibitive, even though they seemed like they might work out at first. We were initially going to zoom out of grass in a park which would then somehow expand to some high resolution 3D maps of NYC. Here is a demo version from Kyle of what that would have looked like:

Also to cover up what might have been some odd production value in the expansion, we played around with the idea of making the video something like what an 8th grader of 2082 might make as a video for his futuristic science class. Things would have had different graphical or textual overlays attached to them, giving bogus explanations and distance scales for what you were seeing in this abstract microscopic world. This idea got pulled in favor of a more organic direction. Here are some mockups of what we were thinking the eventually scrapped overlays might look like.

The footage also didn’t have the necessary internal movement to really match the energy of the song, so we experimented with overlaying different content on top of the footage I was getting. I had a lot of old stuff I had been recording for a couple years, but I had some footage I got in 2011 at an optical illusion museum in Edinburgh. They had some awesome stuff there, but I got a ton of nice 60fps footage of the electrical arcs of a tesla ball.

We also really liked the look of screen pixels when they were blown up to be really big. They were great punctuation marks for the drum heavy parts of the song. Kyle wrote a couple Processing sketches that gave me some great RGB line microscopic motion to film off my own screen. Here are links to the source code for the sketches I filmed for the video:

As I worked with the footage, I realized I was getting sucked into the visuals of this familiar but alien world. Also all of this material exploration had given me a really personal connection with all of the footage which I feel shaped the story a little bit. Each time I filmed was this new experience with a previously familiar object, but I was experiencing it all through a screen even though it was right in front of me. The same screen I use to experience or learn about many other things I’ve never actually physically been present for, but it was still here as a barrier or a gateway. The experience of rubbing dirt in your fingers versus seeing blown up footage of the dirt getting into your nails and skin folds, just witnessing the same action on a different scales.


When working with such abstract footage it can be a challenge to shape it into something that flows together, especially when you’re not sure where you’re going (not always necessary). I didn’t want it to just be a bunch of gorgeous footage clumped together, I wanted it to have some kind of thrust or direction to it. A continuous progression like in “Powers of 10” started to not make as much sense because the middle section of the song really held a different world than the bookending sections.

If I had to give a description about the video’s story, it would be something like “a loose narrative about an experience learning about real physical things versus learning about them on a screen.” The video starts with this really unfamiliar but engaging materials (literally just shots of my laptop and touching the speaker grill on the laptop), and these flashes of light give an extra burst of energy to the drums and other sections. This first area still has energy, but it doesn’t have a lot of color to it. In the middle section of the song, you see a lot more interaction with the recognizable natural world and there is more color and texture there. The flashes of light are still there in full force. In the end section, the de-saturated and more organic worlds start to mix with more shots of pixellated things on a screen, and finally you see the hand from earlier touching things on a screen instead of real life. In the end I wanted there to be just a little bit of ambiguity about where the world of the video just occurred, real life or on a screen. I don’t know if I really pulled that message off the right way, but it was hard to dance around it without getting too heavy handed.

The editing process for the video was really intense. This was one of those videos where I started to figure out that I have an editing “style” by now, but now I’ll have to see if I can change that around for whatever my next video is. I’ve been a fan of doing meticulous editing with music ever since I started with Final Cut (now in Premiere), and I can get into a pretty good groove with the material. It’s still a very different feeling than working with the material live, but it can be really nice to get in there and bring out certain parts of the song you really want to highlight.

Below is a super large image of my entire Premiere timeline for the video (click for full readable size to get an idea of the types of materials I was actually filming. Image size: 400px x 26000px).

I ended up shooting, dropping things in and seeing what worked and then going back and shooting more. I probably had 6-8 different established shooting periods where I collected the majority of the footage, and sometimes I just had my lens on me and would shoot stuff if it looked like it might be really unusual looking close up. It was a very different process than having to set up established shooting schedules…just being able to shoot on the fly for the video was an unusual experience. It definitely made the editing process a little more arduous. The whole video probably went through about 2 or 3 different versions before it settled into its final form. All in all, a really fun and tiring process, but I’m really happy with the result.