Macs at Work Interview – Melissa Ulto

In the past several years, I’ve interviewed teachers, poets, cartoonists, Mac evangelists, software developers, singers/composers, military advisors, reporters and people in various different lines of work. The one thing in common for all of them was their love of their Mac.

Today’s interview is no different. The line of work is something new and different, but again, the love of the Mac is still there. Now I’m familiar with DJ’s but VJ’s… that’s a new one on me. So sit back, relax; put your feet up as I get up close with Melissa Ulto, VJ.

My Mac: Melissa, welcome to My Mac. I guess the best way to start our interview is for you to explain to the readers what exactly a VJ is and what he/she does.

Melissa: There is a genre of visual performers now that perform on their laptops and with additional hardware. We are taking an art form; some call it lumia, and bringing it to the dance clubs, VJ events, galleries, concerts and festivals. What we do is different from projectionist (playing a pre-programmed, pre-edited presentation) or lighting techs (moving colored lights and gobos based on beat feedback and lighting grids). VJs truly jam live to music or ambient sound, using multiple inputs – CDs of source footage, software generated images, live cameras, and switcher effects.

I am doing a documentary on the NY VJ scene and the history of the art form. Included in the documentary will be commentary about the technology catching up to the artist’s intentions and how Apple is a HUGE part of live performance. Seriously, FireWire alone was a revolution for video artists like me!

My Mac: You spoke of “lumia” Can you provide us with the newest definition of lumia? The best definition that I’ve been able to find is Lumia- The Art of Light.

Melissa: Lumia is the art of light and movement. What I do is simply that – move images projected as light and move them or change them to music, mood and intention. I am like a jazz musician with light and movement.

My Mac: You said that FireWire was a revolution for video artists… how?

Melissa: FireWire made digital video easily accessible, reliable, high quality source material. It’s true plug and play, very little fussing required to get your video source in and out. It’s revolutionary because it has, with ease and lower price point, created an equalizer of sorts for those who desire to make high quality moving images.

My Mac: Can you provide an insight into what a VJ does at an event from start to finish?

A VJ works with an event or band or DJ, discusses the theme of the night, and creates animations based on that theme. A VJ also animates the logos of the event or DJ, and of course, their own logo. A VJ usually has a large collection of video from their own archives. Setting up for the event, a VJ hangs projectors, screens, projection materials, runs the video cables, works with the lighting person to make sure the lighting spill doesn’t throw onto the projections, and then sets up the VJ rig. A rig is a laptop, mixers, DVD players, mini-dv decks and/or cameras, VHS decks, etc. The music and/or performance starts and the VJ then mixes live with their banks of footage and animations, much the way a live musician would play. At the end of the night, a VJ breaks down all the equipment and packs up the VJ rig.

My Mac: How do you use your Mac in the business of being a VJ?

Melissa: My G4 17″ PowerBooks is the central brain to what I do as a VJ. On it, I build abstract, logo and text animations. I edit source footage into smaller clips. I compress all the footage into smaller QuickTime files. I create DVDs of my best clips, and archive my files as often as possible. I mix with my laptop using GRID or VDMX, created by VIDVOX.

My Mac: How is OS X working out for you?

Melissa: It’s amazingly fast and speeds up 99% of my applications over OS 9. The OS X processing power is such a help when mixing in Grid, burning a DVD and exporting video for FCP all at the same time.

My Mac: Have you encountered any problems with your PowerBooks?

Melissa: Knock on wood, it’s been very solid. This is considering I brought it to the Nevada desert for a performance at Burning Man last summer, and travel around with it every week, to all the events that I perform at. I travel well with my laptop, sleeved in its Brenthaven backpack case.

My Mac: Do you have a backup to your PowerBook just on the off chance that something goes wrong?

Melissa: I have my G4 tower, DVD-Rs, FW Drives and CD-R’s full of content and backups. Luckily, what I do requires huge amounts of space, so backups are a natural part of my process.

My Mac: How does the other equipment (iSight, software, live cameras, etc.) fit into the art of being a VJ?

Melissa: I use live cameras a lot, along with my Edirol mixer, to capture and broadcast live dancers or interesting people, that I then place effects on and manipulate for an interesting image feedback loop. Crowds LOVE to see themselves on screen, but to see themselves mixed with effects is a real treat. I used my iSight when I want to mix myself into the video, and when I use EVOCAM, to broadcast my mix and environment live.

Whenever anyone asks me what software I use to create my footage, which is all 100% original, I always answer back “what software DON’T I use?” From Final Cut Pro to After Effects, Amorphium Pro to Flash, it’s all incredibly useful. The question for people interested in VJ’ing is not the software, but the intention – what do you want to create? If you know that, you can usually find several software titles to accommodate that vision.

Mixing software is central professional VJ’ing. I use VIDVOX software – GRID and VDMX – because it really fits my needs, it’s super reliable and the programmers at VIDVOX are really amazing artists in their own right. They understand my needs intrinsically and really listen to their users. Several of the programmers perform as the VJ group lmnopf and they do some really amazing stuff. I also use Dervish, created by Josh Goldberg – it’s the application I started with and it is an incredible piece of software.

Melissa doing a demo at the NYC Apple Store, 1/20/04.
Ulto, © 2004.

My Mac: How did you get started as a VJ?

Melissa: I have been an experimental filmmaker since the early 90’s and came across VJ’ing while working at Columbia University as a Digital Video Specialist. I created short documentaries and graphic presentations for online learning. Part of my job was researching new video technologies and I came across MAX. MAX is the application that is the backbone for 80% of VJ software now, and it’s incredibly complicated. I then found NATO and a few other apps.

And I was introduced to Josh Goldberg, the programmer of Dervish. He was very enthusiastic about VJ’ing and gave me a copy of his application on our first meeting. His enthusiasm and openness about the medium really inspired me. So I started mixing at small venues and VJ jam events, like SHARE and EYEWASH. From there, I graduated to larger gigs and more complex applications of multiple source video. Purchasing my rig in bits and pieces over a year’s time helped incredibly. My Edirol mixer was a key purchase, as was the purchase of my G4 laptop!

My Mac: What does a VJ bring to the table that a DJ or projectionist doesn’t?

Melissa: A DJ is the sound, the heartbeat of an event. A VJ jams to what a DJ mixes, and visualizes what the crowd, the music and the room creates – the visual mood. It’s ambient art, through the interpretation of one person.

A projectionist plays a canned presentation.

My Mac: Who makes the ultimate decision on what music gets played?

Melissa: The DJ or the band performing.

My Mac: How do you make the selection of what goes on-screen? Do you gauge it by the audience that you’re “playing” to?

Melissa: I select the images by the theme, the music, the crowd and my Moods/subconscious mix mastering.

My Mac: What difference do you see a Mac making to the VJ scene as compared to a VJ using a Windows machine?

Melissa: Macs dominate the scene, but there are a few VJs who use PCs. Usually they are hard-core programmers and have written their own apps, or use some of the very cool software coming out of Japan. Macs, however, are less prone to crashes and more intuitive when it comes to mixing. I started on a Hitachi laptop and moved as fast as I could to a Mac laptop.

My Mac: How did you get started with Macs? What was your first Mac?

Melissa: The first Mac I owned was a Performa 575. It was a fantastic all-in-one unit, with great color display, pretty fast too, at the time. I had first been exposed to Macs in high school and college – Mac Classic and Classic II. Adored them – knew intuitively I could be more creative on them than on a PC.

My Mac: Is there any difference between the NYC VJ scene and the work of VJ’s elsewhere?

Melissa: I would say the VJ scene in NYC is burgeoning, really growing. I am not sure about elsewhere, but I hear the buzz that VJ’ing is getting all over and it warms my heart.

My Mac: How busy have you been as a VJ?

Melissa: I’ll be working on Broadway this summer with the International Dance Festival at the Duke Theater in July and August. In the past few months, I’ve worked with Michelle Branch and Rooney for the YM Concert, Psychedelic Furs/The Alarm/The Pleased Concert, Dirty Vegas New Years Eve Party, Mahanuala Event hosted by Christy Turlington, Smooth Magazine/Hpnotiq Event hosted by Vivica A. Fox, Chefs Without Hats Event, GenArts Party, GenAsia Fashion Show and Party, iGroup Weblaunch Party, SVM Models Party and DJs Boris, Roger Sanchez, Junior Vasquez, Oscar G, Low End Specialist, Anthony Pappa, Astro and Glyde, Clark Kent & Klutch, Kofman, Mayfield, Walden, Direct Drive’s World of Drum and Bass DJs and MCs.

My Mac: How long does it take for you to prepare for a gig?

Melissa: That depends – does the client need custom animations, footage shot, etc. Also, how much equipment do I need to bring? All that figures into the prep time.

My Mac: What makes a really great VJ?

Melissa: A really great VJ is like a jazz musician – they feel the music, the mood, the crowd, the other players and really riff off of it all. A great VJ knows how to pop the graphics, when to go to black, when to add some moody imagery, and how to beat match, rhythm sync and scratch it.

My Mac: What would you like to see Apple develop that would of great use to you?

Melissa: I would love to see a holographic editing system – really puts the whole movement of body into the editing/mixing process. I would love to see a completely wireless solution to capturing footage and for power. Or a laptop that can connect entirely wireless to everything it needs – printers, iPods, cameras, etc…god, do I hate the mess that cables create.

My Mac: What would be the “ultimate” gig for you?

Melissa: Projecting images on the Guggenheim Bilbao. Projection images on any Guggenheim museum or Frank Gehry building…

Creating a full room installation at any museum or performance space.

Performing an experimental theater piece my friend and I are writing, that uses video mixing as part of the performance.

My Mac: Melissa, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. We wish you continued success and a great career!

Check out Melissa’s site at

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