Reflections on Live Cinema


Long-time live cinema enthusiast, (Toby) *spark from the UK, released a video about it this week, a decent attempt at exploring some of live cinema’s essence. What is live cinema? Who makes it? Why? How? The video features interviews with some live video luminaries, as well as a glimpse at what an ideal live cinema software interface might look like.

New kinds of cinema will inevitably continue to form and mutate. Video can now be chopped, shuffled and processed nearly as easily as audio, projectors continue to cheapen and shrink, and audiences practically expect moving images to appear in ever new screen and surface arrangements. Live cinema is just one of those possibilities, and within the video Toby explains part of why it appeals:

“Compared to Hollywood, it’s more like live jazz, a storytellers version.. telling different stories everytime – it’s not because there’s a definitive story, but because it’s more interesting that they have a sea of memories, every story they navigate through the sea making different associations, drawing different things in in different contexts. We can do the same with digital media as performers.”

Fellow Londoner, Mike from D-FUSE is less drawn to the narrative aspects, but still strongly attracted to what is possible with live cinema:

“It’s about the feel of it, as opposed to the other side of the tv, telling you a story… it’s about the texture, and the sound, like going back to a surrealist painting… ”

Toby welcomes feedback on the video, so have a watch and zap him a line. Myself, I think the Live Cinema aspect depends on a lot on context – where is the cinema and who are the audience? In that respect, his video would benefit from showing that better, rather than just clips detached from their screening context and audience. The live clips of the Light Surgeons used work best for that reason, but even then the wider context of the audience, or even audience reactions is still invisible.

And why does Live Cinema Suck?
It’s really, really, hard to produce a compelling feature film or create a compelling hour of music. Trying to do something in between both, and without a team of supporting cinematographers, actors, musicians, recording engineers, producers, and without any funds, means it’s a significant project for any solo laptopper to attempt, and yet it is often one or two people who are generally making ‘live cinema’. Playing with video in a more poetic way, and exploring with loops and rhythm, can reduce some of the burden, but it’s still a major challenge. Beyond merely producing a live cinema show though, what are the characteristics of a good live cinema show? And what are the cliches and easy pitfalls for producers? What makes a bad live cinema show? Why is there often a sense that they are fun for the creators but not the audiences? ( The same can be said about drunken bongo playing around a campfire ) Maybe this is a bit like the earliest scratch DJs a few decades ago trying to talk about what a good DJ mix is – from their limited perspective, the evolved styles, technologies and diversities of today’s DJing would’ve been unimaginable. But addressing some of these problems means identifying what works and also what doesn’t in a live context.

Elsewhere VJ Solu has articulated nicely some of the ways Live Cinema can distinguish itself :

“The traditional parameters of narrative cinema are expanded by a much broader conception of cinematographic space, the focus of which is no longer the photographic construction of reality as seen by the camera’s eye, or linear forms of narration. The term “Cinema” is now to be understood as embracing all forms of configuring moving images, beginning with the animation of painted or synthetic images…… Even though performance is a vital element in the live context, creating new narratives for visual culture should be equally important.”

Elsewhere she closes in on an important difference between cinema and live cinema, while showing how one can inform the other:

“Lost Highway (1997) directed by David Lynch.. is remembered for its long shot of a dark highway. I believe these kind of shots are the basic material for live cinema performances: the transitions, the movements, the pure visual beauty and intrigue, the atmosphere.”

Or as VJ Iko from Portugal put to me back in the day:

“Live video is as much about lighting and colour control as it is about creating interesting content. See the people watching the screen? See how the colour of their faces changes with what’s happening on screen? The light bouncing off their faces, that’s what you have to try and control.”

In the end, despite the ongoing quest for software and hardware holy grails, there’s already today immense capacity for provocative and beautiful live cinema to reward both audiences and performers alike. Technologies aside, zooming in on exactly what makes live cinema unique and interesting, will hopefully help evolve the form for everyone. Shout outs to Toby for putting his take on it out there.

Other People Thinking Lots About Live Cinema
Brazilian Live Cinema: And as well as ideas, they also build festivals and hardware live cinema interfaces. “Live Cinema is cinema that unfolds live. It´s an audiovisual perfomance where the director, creator, performer or artist presents his work in person, before the audience. Imagine an artist being able to change his film’s ending, simulate new sounds and images, new sequences, and above all, create different narratives based on the audience’s reactions to the work.”

VJ Falk : Long time Berliner Live cinema prototyper : + : Well curated group discussions about the possibilities for ‘performers, performance, interactors, audiences and participators’. : A range of mostly VJ talks ( surprise! ) but touching on some relevant live cinema areas.

Timothy Jaeger : Had a good book online a while ago called Live Cinema Unravelled. Missing in action.

VJ Solu : Especially of interest, her thesis which “reviews the influences and explores the characteristics and elements of live cinema, a recently coined term for realtime audiovisual performances. The thesis discusses the possible language of live cinema, and proposes “vocabulary and grammar”.”

Autobot Roulette:


  1. toby*spark says:

    nice one.

    yes – the short answer is its early days, producing things of worth is hard and takes more time than we largely have, but there’s something there.

    i have the jaeger pdf if anybody wants it, its good, although it is really a broad investigation into everything vjing could be rather than something focussed on what the words live cinema could come to be.

  2. lucy says:

    still laughing at all my years work being reduced to drunken bongo playing around a campfire… haha. weep. 😉

  3. _blank says:

    I’ve have never been really agree with the term ‘live cinema’ because I think that is a term used mostly by VJs that are trying to make a somewhat artistic statement like: “I don’t work at nightclubs, I’m an artist”. In fact, I think that is curious that VJ includes the word ‘video’ and ‘live cinema’ the word ‘cinema’, instead of video, when both are working with the same media (or mostly, there is also people who work with cinema projectors, but they hardly ever talk about their work as ‘live cinema’). I guess that cinema sounds more serious, artistic and magnificent…

  4. lucy says:

    well i think if it was possible to do what they do with actual film and film projectors, many of these artists would choose to – but it is simply impractical and unaffordable.
    and many ‘films’ these days are made with video anyway.. so…
    but i get your point – if vj nose-twitch decides to refer to his fractal patterns as ‘live cinema’ i would probably have a problem with that. If someone like solu wants to describe her work in that way, i think she has the right to make that distinction. i guess the problem is that there is not yet a widely known and easily understandable vocabulary to use for live A/V performances taking place outside of a cub environment. and until there is ‘live cinema’ probably makes the most sense to the most people.

  5. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jean_poole: Reflections on Live Cinema, – inspired by @tobyspark ‘s recent video about what it can be….

  6. Matt Leaf says:

    Where are we in 2017/2018?

    Do people still care about Live AV at all? At a certain level almost all large scale productions have become visualised.

    Lately, I’ve felt that visuals, however abstract or representative, come to replace dance and performative stage work. When a performer becomes a typist behind a laptop, then the visuals become the real performer.

    It begs the question specifically of a performer what it means to be devorced form bodily movement while ‘performing’. But in that sense Live Cinema may serve as a much better term than Audio Visual Performance, where the artist becomes the architect of digital cinematic machinery, rather than performing anything at all. Furthermore its less precriptuve than ‘video’ because cinema can mean anything from and shadow, to puppetry, film, animation, CG, etc…

    That said, there are obviously physical and dance based forms of live AV out there.

    Its hard not to feel that Live Cinema has been forgotten about, maybe not so in Europe and Canada where it appears there are still a lot of institutions and organisations that support this kind of work. I agree it is a lot of work, and needs to be supported as much as possible. I still think there’s room today for the kinds of magic that can be witnessed through Live Cinema.

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