It randomly occurred to me one day that the process I use to develop the images for the Electric Grandmother live show isn’t one we talk about very much. I mentioned this to Pete one day and threw out some examples of songs in which the process was specifically memorable for one reason or another and he encouraged me to write a blog about it. So here we are!
In the very beginning, we were using an actual broken slide projector we bought on eBay for like ten bucks. You had to advance the slides by manually moving the carousel while holding the button down. It said “PLEASE RETURN TO GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY” on it. I wasn’t previously aware that there was such a place. Because it’s expensive to produce slides, we had 3-4 images per song. Back then we also had a bubble machine and flashing lights and such as well. At the time it was easy enough to entertain people by just throwing a picture of Bob Saget on the screen for 30 seconds because these were the mid-2000s and the hilarity that ensues just remembering stuff you forgot about five years ago was self-evident.
I don’t remember many of the images I selected for songs during this era. It seems like another lifetime. Most of them, as I said, were just still frames from whatever TV show the song was about. I was limited to what I could find online, watermarks and low resolution be damned. I think that was part of its charm but I’m not sure. I do recall two songs in particular because they weren’t expressly about sitcoms. Even Columbus fans from way back probably don’t remember the first love song we ever performed, which was called “Light Glows.” It’s a really nice one on the Dickalis album. I found a bunch of cute polar bears hanging out together. The other one that stands out in my mind was the smash hit “Tom’s Girl,” which is a song about a girl that Pete’s cousin met at a fair in Virginia whom he never saw again. I remember it because it was an inspired idea and was at the same time a little cheap. The song to me evoked the same kinds of feelings the Wonder Years did for people who grew up in the 60s, of innocence and nostalgia. So I used pictures of Danica McKellar from the show during the first half of the song and then pics of her from a spread she did for Stuff magazine in her underwears, which was still pretty recent at the time. Lots of good feedback from people on that one.
This process actually got expensive because each individual slide cost money and we’d been squirreling away the cash we got from playing shows in Columbus and just a few years hence, we got ourselves a digital projector! As you’d imagine, this opened up a ton of possibilities for us. When we first got the projector I was still relying exclusively on whatever I came up with on the internet. Then I learned how to make screenshots. Then I began to use found-gifs and finally for the songs we did on Cancelled, I made my own gifs.
The process I used for analyzing a song is not all that different now than it was when we first got the projector, despite innovations since then. I first come up with a general idea. Most songs are made up of images and gifs from one or more movies or one or more TV shows. “Purple Shit” has images from several Pauly Shore movies, for example, but “Three Men and a Baby” all comes from the same source. The images I got for our cover of “Hybrid Moments” comes from episodes of a bunch of different TV shows, but all of them feature a guest appearance from another show (e.g., Gary Coleman on Silver Spoons, Jay Sherman on the Simpsons, etc.). To contrast, the images for “Fuller House” come from a bunch of different episodes of Full House (among other things). This is all decided at the outset, but I have been known to walk away from the guidelines I initially put forth if it’s not fun or interesting enough. It depends on where I feel like I can get the most relatable/interesting material.
Next, I listen to the song several times and break it down by beat or half measure or measure or sometimes several measures if I’m using animation. I map all of this out first. I used to hand-write it on paper, but now I use a spreadsheet. I probably should have switched to a spreadsheet way before I did, but I’m slow to change in this process.
Then I begin watching whatever source material I decided to draw from. Sometimes this can be really painful because it takes much longer to watch said movie or TV show when you’re pausing, rewinding, screenshotting, and especially creating gifs. They updated VLC in the last several years so that you can rewind and fast-forward with more granularity than you used to which has slowed down the process even more. I do this with near-gay abandon, without thinking very much about the structure I laid out for myself. I am watching for cool motion and things that look funny when you pause and look at a still frame. I don’t worry about filling the holes yet. I usually take hundreds of screenshots. I don’t have my computer in front of me but I would say it’s usually be tween 180-300 depending on what the source material is. If it’s a movie, I can obviously get much more out of it than if it’s one episode of one TV show.
Then I start filling in the structure that I set in step 2. These days, I have the parts of the song broken down in a spreadsheet and tick off selected images and animations as I place them. I rename the image and animation files according to their order. So if I’m going to use four files for the intro to a song, I’ll name the files 01 Intro, 02 Intro, 03 Intro, 04 Intro. If I don’t end up having enough to fill all the slots with interesting shots, I’ll go back to the source material to places I’d regretted not taking more from and get more screenshots and animations.
Once I have everything slotted, I listen to the song again, reviewing what I’d selected. If I’m satisfied, I drop them (one by one) into a Powerpoint file. Then I go through the song one or two more times to make sure the images work right and flows nicely. Finally I show them to Pete, I guess for “approval,” but he always cracks up at whatever I do. I don’t know whether it’s because he’s so supportive or whether it’s because he really thinks they’re that funny, but I guess that’s info I don’t really need.
All in all, I’ve gotten the process done quicker than this in a pinch, but I usually need about 8 hours for every song. In the past Pete has tried to tell me to take shortcuts when necessary but I’m rarely happy when I slap something together. I almost never go back to change things, but when I do, it’s because I rushed it in the first place.
Most of the time I’ve spent composing the visuals is blurry in my head but several specific times stand out to me. Here are my most memorable experiences putting together visuals for the EG show:
Here Comes the Urkel - Very long-time Columbus fans MIGHT remember our performing this one. It’s not at all remarkable except it’s the very first one I did where I used Photoshop to actually create an image (based of course on images I jacked during internet searches). If you’re familiar with the song, the last 20 seconds or so end with a “STEVE! STEVE! STEVE! STEVE!” chant. To visualize this I got a pic of Carl Winslow looking angry and pasted the same picture of Steve Urkel looking stupid in the background. They were all nicely lined up which captured the mania of the outro I was looking for. During the presentation the first “STEVE!” was accompanied by this image shrunk way down and gradually the pic started getting bigger with each “STEVE!” I still use this method sometimes, most recently in “Praise the Sun” when the Wicker Man shot on fire is slowly revealed.
Miami is Nice - You may or may not be shocked to learn that for the most part, I put together the visual part of the EG show 100% sober with some notable exceptions. “Miami is Nice” is probably the most notable. I don’t remember why but the night I put these together, Pete went out to a show and I stayed home, probably just to complete this task. It was the first time I’d ever done images drunk before and I for one can really see the difference (more on this later). I was drinking and gaining more momentum the drunker I got. I found the idea of the “wardrobe malfunction” indicating “grab your breasts” SO FUNNY at the time. I think it’s officially become un-funny in the last couple of years which I’m ok with but I won’t change the images because Janet’s boob needs to be in it. Alcohol really helped launch these images off the rails and kind of indelibly changed my approach to creating them as well. Like, not just to shock, but to try and include the element of a mild shock. I remember the first time we performed “Miami is Nice” at the Treebar (then Andyman’s Treehouse of course), which I think was the album release for the Stenographer. I remember like it was yesterday Tonya Jones coming up to me and telling me that “Miami is Nice” was her new favorite song. And the rest his history.
Mac Tonight - This son of a bitch took forEVER. It was a rare time when I felt I was beholden strictly to the internet for my source material, even AFTER I started using VLC for screenshots mostly. This was after I found out that it is apparently a fairly common practice to have YOUR WEDDING IN MCDONALDS. Fine. I think (hope) in part because I spent so much time on it, I started to become legitimately moved by both the song (which I think was never meant to be a legitimate love song) and looking at all of these happy people sharing fries in McDonald’s, all dressed up. They were so happy and cute! I can’t really explain it any further except that even after all this time, I still sometimes feel a little sentimental when we perform it. And I never get tired of that one either.
Peter’s Problem - This was memorable mostly because of circumstances. We were on a deadline to perform this one at a Christmas show. During the week leading up, I’d flown to DC to interview for a position with Head Start for DCPS. I recall so clearly sitting in BWI with my laptop watching Home Alone and Home Alone 2. I even remember what I was wearing after I’d changed out of my suit after the interview. I also remember that I had lunch in the airport with Pete’s aunt who was nice enough to taxi me around before and after my interview. I didn’t get the job and the guy who interviewed me was a total fucking asshole about it, even though I flew in to interview on my own dime. All’s well that ends well, I guess.
Guyliner - I did “Guyliner” during a furlough day back when I worked at the Ohio Department of Health when Governor Kasich in his wisdom gave us a bunch of forced vacation days in lieu of a pay raise (or was it minus pay? I don’t remember). That’s all I got. I really enjoyed doing this one because I got the images from the movie Splash, which I love dearly
Bill and Hillary Clinton Making Out in a Hot Tub Filled with Poop and Pee - This one is significant because it’s the first one where I made my own gifs. I’d been using found-gifs judiciously and Derek Stewart helped me make the gifs for “Michael Jordan” but I was so tired of being confined to whatever was out there and simultaneously felt like the direction I was taking for this one needed more jazz than just still photos, that I sat down and figured it all out. As it turned out, it wasn’t that hard because I started by finding YouTube videos and feeding them through an online generator. It wasn’t until Fred Yi turned me on to recording my screen using QuickTime while playing DVDs in VLC that the door really broke open. But I’ll always remember this guy as the first. I had the idea to use the James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub clip first and the rest fell into place after that. Including a bit I grabbed from a promo video for the Pocono Palace, which is another story altogether.
We Made It/Hats and Canes - If you weren’t aware, last September was a ridiculous crunch time, where we were struggling to get ready to play an entire new album live. Earlier in this piece I mentioned that it takes roughly 8 hours for me to put together one song and I don’t often cut corners. As such, although I did most of the work at home, parts of “We Made It” and “Hats and Canes” from Cancelled were done in my office at work during lunch and other odd times.
TV/Cancelled - I mentioned earlier that I never drink while making the images but if a notable exception is “Miami is Nice,” I guess “TV” and “Cancelled” is a somewhat less notable exception. Over Labor Day weekend in 2017, I felt like I was starting to get sick. The release show was scheduled for something like the Wednesday after Labor Day and I could NOT succumb to illness despite the stress and being overworked and dead exhausted. Facebook, as it always is, was quick to offer home remedies, one of which was offered by Mike Markowski and sounded slightly more fun than the others: tea with honey, lemon, and bourbon. I don’t usually drink bourbon, but burnt out and terrified of illness as I was just then, I jumped at the opportunity to live a little. I didn’t guzzle it, but two or three cups of the stuff was enough to make me quietly buzz and rendered the process FUCKING EASY. Both are the best work I did for that album and I think I’m more proud of the “Cancelled” visuals than I was for anything else I’ve ever done creatively. In life. It’s the best. It’s a shame (or maybe it’s not) that it isn’t a song we do in a regular set. On the one hand, we don’t perform it as much as we like. On the other hand, it’s a rare, beautiful treat when we do. Just like tea with honey, lemon, and bourbon.
I’m prompted to recall back when we first started when a then-frienemy (now friend) quipped, regarding my role in the project “Oh yeah. She pushes the button.” My role has functionally expanded since the early days, but it was never really just pushing the button. I both love and hate creating the images because it’s so tiring and so much work and I feel like such a slave to it, but I guess that’s how I approach just about everything I do with a purpose. Even when it was just 3-4 images per song, I agonized over how to express the music in a visual manner, looking for just the right tone and just the right complement to the music. That’s pretty much my story. Come see us July 21 at the Pinch!