Entering DSR Media Lab is like stepping into a scene from Blade Runner, where familiar decaying buildings are integrated with next-level futuristic tech. Tucked into a nondescript street in Manhattan's Lower East Side, this Vaudeville-era theater, which once hosted bygone performers including Charlie Chaplin, has been converted into one of the world's most innovative photo and video studios.
As Revolver is led through the dark, cavernous space, we catch a glimpse of an imposing, circular, capsule-like structure in place of the stage, before descending into the basement where we come face-to-face with a two-foot-tall pyramid containing an unnerving 360-degree hologram of Maynard James Keenan cradling a fluorescent, writhing "octoheart."
We stand transfixed and watch as an elaborate, abstract 58-minute holographic film unfolds — featuring Keenan, Billy Howerdel, and a bunch of creepy crawlers — set to A Perfect Circle's latest record Eat the Elephant. Billed as the "world's first hologram album," this extravagant presentation is bundled — pyramid included (albeit in a smaller two-inch-tall version that works with your smartphone) — inside the limited-edition deluxe box set version of the album.
"It's all a new way of seeing art and music," says Steven Sebring, the renowned photographer, Sundance award-winning filmmaker and producer behind DSR Media Lab, and the architect of the multimedia madness we're witnessing today. "Nobody's ever seen this before."
"It's like Pandora's box, you know?" Sebring continues, of the creative puzzle he unlocked by inventing the proprietary technology that allows him to capture the mesmerizing photos and render them into holographic form. "Do you want to go down that rabbit hole? The rabbit hole is my camera system — where you can see things in dimensions, and yeah, I'm going there hardcore." He laughs.
"It's incredibly refreshing to meet someone as bananas as I am," Keenan tells Revolver. "Steven Sebring is my kind of eccentric. Top notch, Mr. Sebring. Top notch."
True to Keenan's assessment of the free-thinking director, Sebring leads us back upstairs, and insists we jump into the belly of his giant circular camera system for our interview — so we can experience first-hand the technology that birthed that creepy-as-hell digital Maynard.
HOW DID THIS A PERFECT CIRCLE PROJECT ALL START?
STEVEN SEBRING My friend Jason Hradil, who handles marketing at BMG was always looking for the perfect project to use the 3D, 4D camera system; a holographic idea. And then A Perfect Circle came around and Jason said this is the one to do.
WHO CAME UP WITH A STORYLINE AND WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
I did. It's about a 12-year-old girl — [like] "Is it through a child's eyes?" Or something like that. Then you see in the film, she grows up and she's seeing this whole vision of Eat the Elephant through the lens of a hologram of her eyes. And so, that was a collaboration when it came to creating the Contrarian [character], the actual human, and how she interacts with it.
DID THE BAND HAVE ANY INPUT NOTES?
It was a free experience. They were really open and we were working on such a fast timeline — two weeks. So there was not a lot of time to make reviews and stuff like that. They were really stoked about it right off the bat, liked the way it looked and the way it felt.
MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN AND BILLY HOWERDEL MUST HAVE COME HERE, RIGHT? BECAUSE THEY ARE IN THE FILM.
I photographed Maynard and Billy in January, I think. Maynard came in one day to see it and we did some really cool testing. He saw what we were doing and was really, really excited about a new way of seeing things. Then Billy came in next and he saw it and was like, "OK, this is really cool." And those [test shots] actually ended up to be the album covers. Then it just moved into like, "OK, well let's have Steven make a movie, a full-feature type concept on the album." And then over time it just started developing more and more and more.
DID YOU HAVE A CHANCE TO LISTEN TO EAT THE ELEPHANT PRIOR TO FILMING, AND DID THAT INSPIRE YOUR STORYLINE AT ALL?
I know the content works well in all the applications, so I wasn't really thinking about the hologram. I was thinking of it as just making a movie or a music video, you know? We actually listened to the album in here, the cylinder, and we brainstormed. Actually, the character that is fighting the octoheart [designed by Meats Meier] is my editor [Daniel Olshansky], which is kind of amazing. He said, "I really want to get in there and be that character."
When I was photographing the young girl and I showed her the octoheart in a hologram, I said, "We found that the Pacific. It's real. Have you ever seen anything like that?" She was totally into it, but then she was like, "No, you didn't!" And it is obviously a render, doesn't exist. But it's fun to make people think that's a real sort of creature.
IT REALLY DOES LOOK LIKE A LIVE CREATURE!
It's actually the first time that I've taken my work and put something of CGI into it. We shot Maynard and Billy with their hands open and then we placed it in as a post effect. And again, we turned it around in two weeks, which when you think about it is really unheard of. Other than that, everything that you see in the movie, when you see motion blur and all that kind of stuff, that's all in-camera. There's no special effects. It's all happening in pure photography.
WHAT DID YOU THINK WHEN YOU SAW THE FINAL PRODUCT?
I was actually intrigued myself, which was exciting for me because I was like, "Wow. It really, really feels like a whole new thing." It's all a new way of seeing art and music. How can you see a film differently, you know? I'm not tech at all, but I own a tech company. I know enough about technology, but I know how to mess it up, make good art out of it. I always say, "Don't let technology rule your art, let art rule technology." I was really, really stoked that they had custom holograms made for the whole box set. I was really excited that they trusted me to say, "Steven, you do your thing." And it's such a great album and they have really cool spirits about them. It turned into something special, something new, unique.
People will be able to experience the 2D versions of these. And the amount of photographic stills that we pulled from these things are extraordinary. And it's also really cool, too, because if there's a new application that comes out 10, 20 years from now, I have these really high resolution photographs to apply it to. So, Eat the Elephant, a holographic movie, could end up being another whole thing. So that's the beauty of this camera system. If I wanted to put this film in a virtual world, I have the capabilities of doing that as well, where you are now walking around the scene instead of looking outward, you're walking around the scene. …That was a lot, I know. I've been doing this for so long that it's like so second nature to me.
IT'S GREAT! I'M JUST TRYING TO WRAP MY HEAD AROUND THIS TECHNOLOGY. SO DID YOU SHOOT IT IN THIS CYLINDER? IT'S MASSIVE. HOW BIG IS THIS?
Everything was shot here. It's 30 feet in diameter and it's 18 foot walls. It has 120 cameras. The actual technology here is all proprietary technology. I call it my studio camera. This for me, is the new studio. Like I would never see myself going to a traditional photo studio — it's a box. It doesn't do enough for me, you know? Yeah, I can get my 2D content, but I can do that here. But I also can get my 3D, 4D, everything here which is why I believe that this is the new photo studio. And a lot of fashion photographers want to start here because if you don't, you're just missing out in the future because the future is about 3D and immersive. And you're not leaving the 2D realm because you could pull stills. A Perfect Circle getting involved in this technology now is really exciting because it was a platform to be incredibly creative with really cool folks and a really great album. I still hum the songs in my head. So it's had an effect on me.
HOW MANY CAMERAS ARE IN THE SMALLER ONE?
The product system has 36 cameras and allows us to do a virtual. And when you see the bugs and all that weird stuff [in the film] that was all shot on my product system as well because you can shoot live animals. And we ended up making it all wacky, distorted and maybe more psychotic looking instead of just a perfect revolution of a bug.
WHAT ABOUT THE SMALL SYSTEM WITH THE CHAIR?
The portrait. I did shoot Maynard and Billy on the portrait system as well.
SO TO WATCH EAT THE ELEPHANT, I PUT THIS PRISM ON MY SMARTPHONE ...
Yes — it is fun to sit there and watch the whole thing and it becomes like this little gem. And I think it's lovely and incredibly sophisticated. This is a different version of it. And you know, the reason why we did it on the phone is because it's part of the box set and everybody has a phone. So you can get it looking like a diamond or you can sit it on top of your phones or you can get the pyramid types.
THAT'S WHAT I SAW DOWNSTAIRS.
Yes. You can make these as big as you want. With this technology, with this camera system and because we're shooting 360 — it's another whole world how it works in this thing because now you can actually see it all around. Like, you could see actors working in this holographic situation and then what we do is we just play it in four different quadrants and offset it. Then all of a sudden it looks like augmented reality. So that's what's so interesting about how we're applying this hologram, [because] holograms have been around since the 1910 or whatever — it's not like this new technology. What's new is the technologies, the camera and how we created these assets. I can make one of those life size so you'd be able to see them in their size. One of the things that we're doing here is we're actually using the cylinder to project. So imagine you see this big thing in the center, now you can walk around.
SO I CAN BE MORE FREAKED OUT BY THE OCTOHEART.
Yeah, yeah, exactly [laughs]. I mean, you're not using goggles [like VR], you're just like walking in an immersive thing.
WHAT'S THE PRISM MATERIAL MADE OUT OF?
Some sort of plastic reflective material. They're sort of kitsch and there's something cool about it. For me, you know, it could be gimmicky, but what we did was not a gimmick. My whole approach to whatever we do here is on a sophisticated level. People say, "Oh, you're shooting 360." No, I'm really not. I'm shooting revolutions that we can apply to all these different applications. There's nothing gimmicky about it at all and they're super high-resolution photographs. They can become studies for education or arts. I actually built a camera system for the arts.
RIGHT — YOU COULD APPLY THIS TO ART AND BEYOND.
The portrait systems that I created can be applied to plastic surgeons and medical to security companies to makeup companies ...
WATCHING YOUR TEAM WORK, IT LOOKED LIKE EVERYONE WAS HAVING A LOT OF FUN.
Yeah. People are really wanting to experience something new, especially in the fashion industry. Yeah, music, of course. I mean, that's the no-brainer. But I want to look at sports studies. Not just your traditional, single frame, 360 capture. It's about seeing the motion. So it's like art.
EVEN THE BATTER SWINGING THE BAT, THE MOVEMENT, IS ART.
I mean, you can do it traditionally — clean and you can see every little move. But why not do it in a way too where you're studying the motion of it and you can see the motion in a new dimension? Now all of a sudden you're in the moment. But I think that it would be great to continue exploring with especially musicians because they obviously go into creating an album as if it was a film or a vision, right? So if I can help create that vision, but in a new way, but as far as people can immerse themselves in it? That's what it's about for me.
WHAT'S THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
I think the most challenging thing for me always has to do with the technology because it doesn't go fast enough. You have to have your developers to create the software and code and it takes time. We're already ahead of the curve with all these different industrial sectors, and I'm already thinking another five years ahead as far as what I can do with this stuff — like having the ability to shoot live stuff ... which is just moving data quickly, which is never a problem anymore from what I understand.
Right now there's tons of buttons I can hit — shutter speeds and all this kind of stuff. But now I want it to do more and more and more. Technically that's also why I designed this — this big, big camera system which I call a studio. It's more of an installation. I don't want people to come in and feel like they're now involved in a techy thing. The way I designed this camera is based on a photographer and a cinematographer. So my approach is from us…
OUR CREATIVE BRAINS…
Right. Not a tech brain. For me, that rules over it all. If the camera systems are flawed sometimes that's the most beautiful things you see because it immediately becomes more humanistic. I'm a true believer in just pure photography.
IN THE END, WHAT WERE MAYNARD AND BILLY'S REACTION?
When they saw the final product, I wasn't there with them, but I heard it was really thumbs up. Hopefully I get to hang out with them one of these days.
WERE YOU AN A PERFECT CIRCLE FAN?
Tool, very much so. A Perfect Circle, I wasn't really aware of them and they were gone for 14 years. Now when I hear their music it brings back memories. Yeah, I'm a fan. I'm from Arizona. And I remember somebody told me a few years ago that they're making wine in Jerome, Arizona. It's an old copper mining ghost town and I used to go there all the time and I'm like, "I wonder who's making this wine in Arizona!?" And then I find out it's Maynard.
WELL, HE'S KNOWN FOR HIS IDEAS ON SELF-SUFFICIENCY AND CREATIVITY, WHICH IS SORT OF WHAT YOU'RE DOING TOO. IN A WAY, YOU TWO ARE KIND OF PARALLEL.
There's obviously a reason why we met. I'm really happy that we got to do something like this for them.
In addition, we've teamed up with A Perfect Circle and BMG to give away this special, collectible deluxe box set. Enter here for your chance to win the box set, as well as an autographed Eat the Elephant lithograph and a one-year subscription to Revolver magazine.