Art

How Gryffin's Stage Design Tells the Story of the Universe

Coachella 2019 had its fair share of viral moments — from #Chapchella to Ariana Grande's big *NSYNC collab moment — but the unsung heroes of the festival will always be the artists' set designers. The large scale coordination that goes into every set change, every graphic, and every spectacle that occurs onstage is nothing short of miraculous. Designers and directors are often given tight deadlines to adapt already existing stage shows, and sometimes even bring together brand new shows to the massive desert platform in Southern California.

One of the undisputed great show designs to come out of the festival this year was the set for electronic DJ and producer Gryffin. The show, titled "Gravity," is based on the producer's debut album of the same name, and was creative directed by Jordan Miles Rosenheck. As Gryffin's creative director, Rosenheck worked with Gryffin and the team to prepare a 2.0 show design that was bigger and more inspiring than ever, especially since they are soon to take the "Gravity II" show to many other major festivals and on a major tour across the nation.

Gryffin's music has a hyper-specific pull within the vast pool of modern EDM. Despite also capitalizing on collaborations as a way to draw in pop listeners, a la electronic royalty Zedd and David Guetta, his tracks are much more spacious without leaning towards an ambient sound. Masterful pop melodies delivered by the likes of rising artists Elley Duhé and Katie Pearlman fit perfectly in between Gryffin's bright keys and shifting drops. There's an entire universe to explore within every Gryffin song: a universe of galactic proportions.

Unsurprisingly, the theme of the stage show is just as fitting to the motifs within the songs' compositions. Gryffin and Rosenheck set out to design a show that would tell the story of the universe and gravity, winding through the discography and pulling festival goers into the narrative, all under the humongous Sahara Tent. "Gravity" is divided into sections, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with an examination of human connection in present day.

PAPER caught up with Jordan Miles Rosenheck to hear more about the process that went into creating the show, building the Gryffin and "Gravity" brand, and the insider challenges that designers face when presented with such a task like Coachella.

Let's start with the idea of "Gravity." Why did you build the show out from that concept?

We actually didn't come up with "Gravity" until we had built out some of the track artwork and we moved forward with a portal theme. ]We had a long list of names, and we actually didn't come up with "Gravity" in that initial list. We liked a few names, but none felt quite right on that initial list. I had actually scrolled past the movie Interstellar and rewatched it. It circulates around gravity and how gravity is the thing that connects everything in the universe in a different dimension.

I called up Dan, aka Gryffin, and he mentioned it was one of he and his wife's favorite movies. We started to get really comfortable with the idea of calling it "Gravity," for many reasons. One, it had really good creative utility because it's the same length as "Gryffin," as well as the same first two letters. Visually, it looked great. We liked that it was concise and a big word with a big idea. Above all else, we're dealing with portals and gateways, and when you really take a step back, gravity really is the universal force that connects everything. It's invisible and elusive and mysterious in that way. It makes sense with the portals, because if we were able to jump into a different dimension or go to another place in the universe, you would likely do that by leveraging gravity. It seemed to encompass everything we wanted really well and also have a big feeling to it, and Gryffin's music is big.

It makes sense, the part about traveling through the universe and having gravity be a central force. It somehow also has a really cool metaphor for DJing, too, with transitioning through tracks and building out songs on a really grand scale.

Totally. The idea of music and the idea of it being a universal language — it connects the universe, it grounds us to our Earth, and it's so inexplicable and unexplainable. Gravity is our connection to the universe.

"Gravity is our connection to the universe."

What music did you grow up with?

Music in my life has always been around and important. My dad was more so into the jazz and classical stuff, my mom more so some of the pop stuff, a lot of bossa nova, theater, and world music, which are now a part of me. I honestly think that's the future, as the world becomes more globalized and cultures start overlapping more. I've had music like that in my life.

How has your experience navigating the music industry been?

In college, one of the best experiences you could have in music was in Santa Barbara, where I went to school, and was working for the West Beach Music Festival. It was primarily reggae stuff, and it was right on the beach. That was my first gig in college, and then after coming back to LA, I started working at CAA in the music department. I was an assistant there and pretty early on I realized I didn't want to be a booking agent. I pitched the head of the department on creating somewhat of an art director role for the department that wasn't there. That was mainly creating pitch decks at the time. It evolved into more, but I was in that position for a couple of years.

After CAA, I went to a startup called Boomrat, where I was the creative director. Soon after joining Boomrat, we were acquired by Live Nation, and Live Nation had recently acquired Insomniac. I stayed on with Insomniac as an art director, and helped art direct a few of their electronic festivals like EDC and the many others that they have. I left Insomniac about a year and a half in to join the founder of the previous startup, Boomrat. We started a new company separate from music, but had a lot of music people on the platform. We created an app for co-working spaces, specifically for a co-working space called NeueHouse, which was like a mini LinkedIn that connects people within a co-working space. During that time I was doing some contract work with a few different DJs and artists, as well as Red Bull Music quite a bit. About a year and a half ago, I decided to start my own creative studio to focus on my art and other creative pursuits, like designing shows.

How did you meet Gryffin?

Serendipitously, I was at Interscope Records for a meeting with the marketing department and Gryffin's manager walked by the meeting. We ended up meeting and about a month later he hit me up telling me that they were looking for a creative director for Gryffin.

It's amazing how all of the experiences connect that you never think really would. You know they're all related, but it all comes together when you have the right amount of talent and the right opportunity.

It really is. I wasn't at Interscope Records to meet Justin, Gryffin's manager. I was there for a completely different reason. It ended up, through gravity, our paths crossed and we ended up working together. It's been the most creatively fulfilling and challenging thing I've ever worked on and I'm super grateful for it.

"A dream for me would be that we'd create a show that could live in a Sahara Tent or a Broadway theater."

Now that you've had the ability to lend your artistic voice to Gryffin's project, especially in the Sahara Tent at Coachella, what do you see in other concert visuals that you want to expand upon?

I would always go to Coachella and watch shows and have these grand ideas in my head about how I would design a show for that artist. There are bits and pieces that I've collected from shows that I liked that exist in our show, but in a different way. I've also collected a lot of inspiration from science and nature documentaries, and have used it as research for storyboarding the show. Every time I saw these visuals in these shows, I was like, "What if concepts like the story of our universe were presented in a much more engaging and beautiful way by incredible animators and studios?" A dream for me would be to one day create a show that could live in a Sahara Tent or a Broadway theater. one that's a bit more of a visual experience with a narrative, and dancing and choreography, whatever it may be. Kind of a la Cirque du Soleil, but with more of a narrative and maybe less obscure, where maybe in the future of the festival you can see an act and experience a narrative and be told a story.

Jordan & Gryffin

That comes through, too, especially the storyboarding part when watching the nature docs. I think that's something people neglect to do, especially with set design: research, but research for yourself, not just on a topic. There's a certain amount of looking inward to cultivate a shared voice while cultivating a specific image.

Exactly. I also feel like, something I've learned from building the show is that you can only do so much storytelling in a concert design or a show when working with an artist. There are so many variables. You don't want to overshadow the music, clearly, you want it to be subtle enough and nuanced enough that people aren't watching the visual so intensely and trying to find out the story. You want to have more easter eggs, a subtle narrative, and visual continuity all the way through. It's not an easy task, but I'm insanely proud of what we've done with the "Gravity" show.

Did you experience any real roadblocks when building it out, besides just storyboarding?

I'd say the biggest challenge would be time. Before going into our Palladium show, which was the first show that we presented the "Gravity" show with, we didn't have a ton of time. It was like, a month and a half. It's a lot of visual content in our show, and it was an hour-and-twenty-minute show. Fortunately, out of the pressure, we happened upon a couple of really awesome animators and studios, and an awesome editor who worked really hard with us to get to the finish line. I was really impressed with what we were able to build before the Palladium. I feel like time and budget are always pressures in any project, it's all relative. For our show, some of the products and learnings that came out of pressures like these were really special.

Like with anything, and any music project, time seems like it's never enough. A month is crazy, though, but it's a testament to the team and the network you guys built with this show.

I think I come from a bit of a different type of background than a lot of electronic show directors or designers where I haven't been in that space for a long time and have a bit of a different creative background. I think a lot of electronic artists pick from a similar pool of studios that do this kind of content. Our timing actually restricted us from working with some of the more traditional studios that electronic artists work with. In conjunction with that, I really wanted to reach out to some non-traditional visual studios and animators that I have found and followed over the years on platforms like Behance. There are so many talented studios across the world that don't connect to opportunities like this. It forced us to reach out to even more of these studios, and in that process we happened upon a few incredibly talented ones, like Tolm Studio, all the way out in Estonia. They had recently posted this project for a library client, and I could tell that it was a very passion-driven project to show their versatility and animation skill. It blew my mind, as well as Gryffin's. They ended up working with me on the moon section of the show. They are some of the more elegant visuals that I've seen. I feel super grateful that the universe brought us together. It's like gravity, baby!

Gryffin is on tour this summer with "Gravity." Check out a complete list of tour dates here.

Photos via Spencer Miller

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