The superclub is back in the form of London's Drumsheds, and this time, things are a little different. We chat with Ollie Van Gent of Boxcat Studio on how they've been crafting visuals that give 15,000 clubbers those emotional moments they'll treasure forever.
If you haven't been keeping an eye on the club scene lately, this might have escaped your attention. But this November, a 15,000-capacity superclub called Drumsheds opened in Tottenham, London, and it's a pretty big cultural moment.
Lest we forget, superclubs dominated the mid-to-late '90s following a government clampdown on the illegal warehouse parties of the acid house era. In the place of all that anarchic chaos came expensive, commercial temples of rave, where thousands fuelled by alcopops and Ecstasy paid big money to worship superstar DJs en masse.
But youth subcultures don't tend to last long, especially ones that demand a large portion of people's wages, and the 2000s saw a slow decline in both attendance and cultural relevance. The closure of Liverpool venue Cream in 2015 seemed like the death knell for the superclub. Worse still, in the 2020s, the killer combination of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis threatened to kill off the whole clubbing scene in general.
But now, in 2023, the superclub is back, and owners Broadwick have learned from past mistakes. Opened this November, Drumsheds is a multi-room, multi-level venue set across a cavernous 608,000 sq ft of space. But rather than an expensive white elephant, it's more about cost-effective recycling and reuse.
The building used to be an IKEA, and Drumsheds owners Broadwick are only leasing it for a limited time. That keeps their costs down, making tickets affordable. There are also a lot of day parties, saving punters the need for late-night Ubers to get them home. Located in North London's industrial Meridian Water zone, Drumsheds is only four minutes from Tottenham Hale on the Victoria Line, making it easily accessible. So, during a cost-of-living crisis, Drumsheds provides decent value for money.
None of this would work, of course, if the shows weren't worth turning up for. And that's not just about booking the right DJs. In 2023, clubbers expect and demand amazing visuals to bring the beats to life. And Boxcat Studio, which specialises in creating custom visuals for live shows and events, has been delivering just that.
This is not their first rodeo, of course. Since its founding by Alex Wilson and Oliver Van Gent six years ago, Boxcat Studio has worked with the majority of the UK dance scene as well as live artists such as Alicia Keys, Anne Marie and UK rapper Aitch.
Now, at Drumsheds, they've got a canvas of epic proportions to work with: a 48 x 4 m screen that's the equivalent of four double-decker buses wide. In keeping with their minimal aesthetic, they've been harnessing block colours, abstract lines and bold imagery to create attention-grabbing visuals that accentuate the architecture of the building whilst drawing their inspiration from the scale of the surroundings.
I chatted to Boxcat Studios co-founder Oliver Van Gent, aka Ollie, to find out how they've been helping bring the superclub back to life in 2023.
When Broadwick first brought Boxcat in as a creative partner on Drumsheds, they were excited to work on the project, recalls Ollie. But at the same time, they felt a certain amount of pressure. "Although we'd done a lot of dance music – arena shows, stadium shows – we hadn't done a lot of events that are running for eight hours a night," he explains.
"So the main creative challenge was: how do we keep it interesting every week? One week there's the disco, one week it's house, one week it's drum and bass, and there are multiple artists on the bill each time," he continues. "So keeping things interesting for the different crowds that are coming in, making sure everyone's happy, making sure that every week the venue doesn't just look the same, that was the main challenge."
Plus, of course, there was the sheer scale of the venue. "It's massive, and it's welcoming 50,000 people every week," says Ollie. Not to mention that Broadwick's previous venue, Printworks, located in the former Harmsworth Quays printing plant in South London, had become iconic among clubbers. "So there was this expectation from not only Broadwick's team but also fans."
So, how did Boxcat Studio meet the challenge? "The first thing we did was create some visual pillars that we based everything around," Ollie recalls. "So rather than saying, 'We're going to make this, that goes on that screen,' we started looking at different ways of using the screen," Ollie explains. "It's a superwide canvas, so we looked at ways of adding masks and animated masks so we could put textured content throughout them to break things up a little bit."
They also focused on building up visuals over the hours, much like a DJ builds up the music. "We normally start the night by keeping it quite minimal," says Ollie. "When we first introduce content, it's very slow moving; it's maybe not always the full canvas. And as the night goes on, we start to unlock certain parts of the screen."
How that develops depends on the event itself, the pace of the music and which artists play. "But it doesn't mean that the headliner will always have the strongest looks," Ollie emphasises. "We do like to spread it out throughout the night."
As the night progresses, they return to those pillars of content. "We have some set extension-based content, some real 2D, organic textures that are getting pushed through, we have the animated masks," he says. "There's also some cinematic content in there, which is beautiful but only works once or twice in the evening. And what we're trying to do with these pillars is to give everyone that special moment. That's especially important with social media: every artist is looking for those clips that go viral."
Ultimately, it's these emotional, epic moments which make it a night clubbers will remember forever. But getting there begins in a more mundane way. "It starts in the office," explains Ollie. "We have a preview suite set up that we can use to test all of the content. There's a full model and rig of the room, so we get a good idea of how it will look."
Of course, when your screen is 48 metres wide, the real test is inevitably in real life. "There are certain designs we make that don't look so impressive on a phone or a laptop," explains Ollie. "But, when you've got 15,000 people, and the music's at the right tempo, and everything comes together, they're often the looks that really stand out."
And the atmosphere of the night makes a big difference, too. "You start to get a feel for the room, and when people are starting to loosen up," notes Ollie. "When everyone arrives, they're usually a little bit rigid. But a couple of hours in, they start to loosen up against the music while the artists are building the tempo up. And ultimately, that's what's important: everything has to work together: lights, music, visuals. When it does, that's when it can get magical."
As for software, Boxcat Studio relies heavily on Notch at Drumsheds, which they use in real-time. "It helps with the resolutions at the venue and just the ability to change things on site and quickly render out a new clip while the event is happening," explains Ollie. "Anything a little bit more 3D, meanwhile, is either done in Unreal or Cinema. And we've also been using After Effects for certain things we just can't replicate in other software."
I point out the irony that, despite all this work, clubbers aren't often consciously aware of the visuals: it's the DJs and tunes they're more likely to be talking about on the night. "I think you're right: a lot of people aren't aware the visual content is there," says Ollie. "But if you took it away, you'd know something was missing. Again, it's about everything working together.
"Conversely," he adds, "if you came in and it was just a really strong visual show, but the music wasn't great, you're not going to have the best night. But with good music, sound system, video and lights together, you're gonna have an amazing night. I actually received a message from a friend last night, who went for the first time, and he didn't know we worked there. He wrote: 'Do you know that Drumsheds? It was amazing. Everything was perfect.' And I was like, 'Well, yeah, actually, I've been there a lot. It's nice to hear!'"
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