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Reality Dub Squad and the Virtual Panda

We made a virtual reality video, but it’s not what you think. Or at least it’s not what I would have thought when I was a kid in the 90’s being told about the future. We were gonna be wearing full body suits and living in the internet having virtual sex and stuff.

Here we are though. Living in the future.

Mei came to the backstage of The Haunt. Her pitch was simple.

“We want to make you a virtual reality video. I have a sample here. Would you guys like to try?”

It was a more sober, realistic reality than we had imagined this kind of moment to be. It felt super normal as she explained to us exactly what virtual reality was in 2016 for the everyday pleb.

She pulled out a phone with an elastic headband and some headphones. There were a few buttons that could help select from menus.

And there we were in the back of The Haunt…

STARING AT A GRIZZLY BEAR THAT WAS COMING RIGHT FOR US!

One limitation of virtual reality in its most accessible form is that you can’t move. You can look around 360 degrees, but you can’t take a step.

Being assaulted by a bear was not my cup of VR, but that’s because it felt real and I couldn’t even react. It was wild. Even more amazing to me, was the primal recognition of looking off into the woods, catching that glimmer of sunlight pass through leafless branches and spiderweb outlines, to downed damp mossed-over trees with dead foliage covering the ground. That’s a feeling I’m very familiar with and VR totally tricked me. I was there. It was a second beyond uncanny valley.

I watched my Panda brothers all take turns and was equally tripped out to recognize that same familiarity cross over their faces. I want to think it’s a moment I’ll always remember. Monumental. As our lives become more advanced with augmented and virtual reality, maybe that will be the story I tell my grandkids.

I was out of the country once talking to someone about my band and they immediately searched it on Youtube. The first thing that came up was some old concert footage that I hated. I was speechless that we didn’t have a music video and that I hadn’t ever even thought about it. So much of our history as a band has been focused on playing live. We always got sucked into the road and didn’t find the energy for a long time to be able to focus on anything besides driving to the next gig.

Certainly tons of artists make their own videos, and now it’s easier to do than ever. We wanted to step it up with our album Make It Better. We’ve experimented with some very different video formats that were inspired and came our way, so we got to cover a lot of ground with just a few songs. Some videos we made close to home with buddies and others we completely handed over to other artists.

As my Turkish friend was showing me some groups that she really loved on Youtube, I noticed that pretty much the staple reggae video for a band (and this concept certainly exceeds the genre) was the band on the beach, vibes, in the water, shades, nature, living life and cooling out. Homies and families around.

We kinda had discussed how we needed that kind of video for Panda, but all Northeast style. Sort of ironic but also real from our outdoor hanging out experiences. Cliff jumping, bonfires, jamming, swimming in the lakes with all the kids and the family, but in the Finger Lakes. We had proposed doing it in Ithaca, NY sometime around the GrassRoots Festival.

But life goes quick and it’s tough to plan even the really fun things. GrassRoots came and went, along with the summer. It never happened. That was before we met Mei.

Many months after that, we met at 7am in Stewart Park. The fog was lifting over Cayuga Lake.  A team of artists assembled that had never worked together before.

We had no idea what to expect. Getting in the car at 5:30 am to shoot a music video with someone you met in the green room a year ago could go bad real quick.

We showed up and Mei was for real. She had an entire team assembled. A director from DC, a VR camera, and two dancers, per her vision of the video, that had driven up from NYC to do the shoot.

We had never seen dancers like this. It’s not what you think. It’s kind of a just stare with your jaw dropped situation. Erico Jimbo and Manelich Minniefee are shape shifters of the highest order. They are veterans of the Pilobolus Dance Theater, one of the highest achieving and successful companies ever to exist in modern dance. We didn’t know what they were gonna be doing but we were collectively mesmerized for the rest of the day with their talents. The grace of humans graciously defying gravity in the mystical latitudes of Ithaca, NY was certainly the highlight of the day. Keeping our cool as we watched Jimbo walk up Manelich’s body and stand on his shoulders on the wall of a rock face at the top of Ithaca falls was hard. For the sake of our own nerves (clearly not theirs) we managed to stay calm in order for them to get it in one take.

The shot locations had been scouted by the Mei. As we went from place to place, the psychedelia of relevancy and coincidence began to set in. Each spot was truly significant in my life. They were places I had dreamed about just having the time to revisit and hang out. Places where Matt O’Brian and I had slept in a van and washed up while recording vocals on Slow Down. Places where I had listened to Jerry Garcia with Howard Whalen and the first Bob Marley recordings for the first time. Places I had written tunes that are super meaningful to me. The place where I ran into Nate Richardson and asked him by chance if he could record all the keyboard parts on our first album. The street where I celebrity sighted Elliot Martin jogging. It was 4D. I could see the time. I think that only happens in places that you return to after long periods of absence where little has changed with the landscape. You can see the memories build on each other and play out.

So this quite surreal, better-than-imagined manifestation of a music video concept seemed to be coming together all on its own. We got to chill all day in these beautiful, nostalgia-inducing locations in Ithaca and make memories while representing what we do up in the Northeast: which is and is not limited to – vibing in the sunshine on the bridges, lakeshores, and rock cliffs while pontificating about the nature of time in song. That’s real.

Technology is in an interesting place. Me for example, I don’t have VR goggles or a phone that would do a great job with this whole thing. The default is YouTube 360, which allows you to toggle or move around 360 degrees in the video. If you are using a phone you have to use the YouTube app directly instead of the embedded video in the article. It’s all pretty phenomenal and entertaining. We felt lucky to be a part of it.

While creating it, we joked about how being able to focus on the beauty of 360 degrees of Ithaca, NY will surely hide any lameness of watching us five guys stand around and jam (which we know people do anyways), but truly, these shots focus on the beauty of natural landscape. It is an ancient art that we are proud to be a part of presenting in this futuristic form. To be able to explore such a landscape in a first person point of view turned out to be a really sweet way to experience natural beauty.

This was a special day that came together for us. We are grateful to Mei and her partners and the crew.

How fascinating it is to make something out of nothing. And now it’s forever. We hope you enjoy the sights, and this look into a budding technology that will certainly do nothing but change in time.

The video was produced by Condition One, which is Mei’s brother Danfung Dennis’ VR production company. You can download the Condition One app for Oculus for a better idea of what they’re about – the “Gone” video is on there as well.

Danfung made a documentary about Afghanistan called Hell and Back Again (it’s on Netflix) which got nominated for an Oscar. His concept was a documentary with no narration that just lets the viewer enter the experience. After making Hell and Back Again he started Condition One based on the same concept.

Many of Condition One’s videos are kinda gritty and depressing to watch – he’s a vegan activist and does a lot of factory farm torture/species going extinct/climate change is destroying the planet stuff.

He was making a bunch of demo videos a few years ago and Mei suggested he make something more upbeat that simply showed what the technology was capable of. She suggested a music video. He liked the idea and said he would love to make it if she found outstanding dancers and music that meshed with Condition One’s core message of caring for people and the planet. She picked us.

She had just seen Kiesza’s Hideaway video, and she contacted the choreographer, Ephrat Asherie, and she was very into making a VR 360 dance video. We suggested “Gone” and Mei felt like that song was perfect for Condition One and it clicked. Ephrat found two dancers to do a love song style duet, Erico Jimbo and Manelich Minniefee.

Production Company: Condition One
Choreography Producer: Ephrat Asherie
Dancers: Erico Jimbo and Manelich Minniefee
Director/Producer: MeiMei Dennis
Videographer: Katie Schüler

Music: Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad

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Bass player and songwriter for Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, James feels, plays and lives the music. Lucky for us he also has the knack for remembering what happened and writing it down in his own voice.