2013/03/08

Interview with Demoscener – Gargaj (Conspiracy, Ümlaüt Design)



While I was at Tokyo Demo Fest last month, I wrote that some words around demoparty in “Moleman 2” and other articles were constantly coming back (not in Hungarian, though I can probably imitate some words by now). And among others, Gargaj’s voice was quite loud in my mind. So I’m really surprised when he actually dropped by at my blog post and said “welcome (to the world of demoparty)”. ……I’m not gonna let him go just by hearing ‘welcome’, am I? 

So, ladies and gentlemen and the undecided… here comes your demoscene idol, Gargaj from Conspiracy, Ümlaüt Design("Chaos Theory" is one of the known works of Conspiracy. This got 4.5 minutes of very very dense visuals, yet it's only 64KB...)

In this interview, Gargaj explains how it was to create his first demo, some inside stories around organizing demoparties, Conspiracy’s work process, where he gets inspiration for his demo/music and what demoscene means to him (and more!). It’s long, deep and very inspirational.

Welcome to the world of Gargaj.


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Coder, musician, party goer & organizer… You seem to do so many things in demoscene! Could you please tell us who you are?

Photo: gargaj.umlaut.hu
I'm just a tiny sound-emissive code automaton from the brighter side of Eastern Europe who was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time around the right people and thus had amazing opportunities to witness incredible things in the history of underground computer art.

So the computers have been always in your life? How did you find demoscene?

I was born around the same time the first home computers were so I think a lot of our process of growing up was similar, initially not having a particular idea of what we are and where do we go, and then it slowly started crystallizing over time. I think it's that childlike naivety of the toddler encountering the naivety of the initial computer art is what first resonated with me when I first encountered anything on a computer, so it was easy to be naturally curious about what makes things move on the screen.

Then as it progressed I kept running into demos continuously through the DOS era, and luckily the key people of the scene here in Hungary were adamant in doing outreach, so it was easy to learn about what the connection between the demos and scene is by late night radio or magazine articles, and "joining" the scene was of course left up to the individual's willpower, which I slowly built up over time.

When was the first time you saw demo? Did you join demoparty soon after?

I saw my first cracktros in the mid-80s, then saw my first real PC demo in the early 90s, then found out that there's a scene late 90s and my first party was in 2000.

And then you started to create your own demo? What was it like to create your first demo?

My first real demo was relatively late compared to my first party (two years after the first party), but I was determined to live up to whatever the standard was at the time, so we spent about a year building the engine for it. I wagered that since we're not going to be as artistically proficient as the other groups' productions, so I decided that we're gonna make the loudest most abrasive demo we can, which we did.

Making it was an odd experience because much of it I don't remember, I was in such a machine-like state getting all the pieces to fit that the only moment that really stands out as unusual or funny was when I locked Procyon in our room since he was late with the texture mapper code and I wouldn't let him out until he fixed all the bugs in it. Looking back, even then I didn't think of it in terms of "easy" or "complicated"; a quote I recall from Azatoth / Phenomena from the Enigma commentary on Mindcandy 2 was that "It wasn't complicated [to code a certain effect], because it was fun." So I guess as long as people hang the right carrot on the right stick in front of themselves, they can easily outperform themselves.

Backfrom my very first demoparty (Tokyo Demo Fest) lately, I realized that your comments about demoparty in Moleman 2 was so accurate; it IS difficult to explain why it’s great, isn’t it?

It took me several years to realize what the actual flow of the scene was, that there were social gatherings and it was a recurring periodic thing and that it was important; around the age of 7-8 I was lucky enough to see several science / technology trade shows at the local university, so I initially imagined demoparties like that, with exhibitions - I never really thought you could have that large amount of people and still feel like you have something in common; then around the age of 15-16 I went to an RPG gathering which changed my mind about it, and it started to make sense as I read more about it, and finally I had a pretty good image about what I was expecting.

What was the first demoparty you joined?

FLaG 2000.

And the actual party was exactly how you imagined? Were you in shock or sort of thing when you’re back from the party?

What of course diskmag articles couldn't prepare me for was the atmosphere that emerges as the party goes on and things get more and more exciting and the stakes get higher - that's something noone can really explain (and I guess I failed at it too in the film), because it's a personal interpretation to each and every attendee; everyone experiences these moments differently, so it's hard to strip them down into bylines or talking points. So in the end I guess sitting on the train on the way home, it was less of a shock, and more of a process of trying to understand what just happened during the weekend and where to continue, but also perhaps for the first time in life, a feeling of really belonging somewhere, the escapism breaking free.

And you’ve been to many parties since then. Could you share the most memorable thing which happened at demoparty?

I could easily spend a book's worth of stories that I will never forget, ranging from awkward through hilarious to epic and heartbreaking, and I'm pretty sure it's not going to end any time soon as long as I'm able to visit more parties. I try to treat all the events I go to as memorable as any other, because they're all special occasions, and there's still always that moment of exponentially increasing adrenaline rush when you're closing in to the party location that soon you're gonna see all your friends again after all this time. Without citing random examples (because these stories really are the best when told in person), most of my favorite experiences are very passive, just watching people interact in unexpected but amazing ways.

Not just going to parties but now you’re also organizing demoparty such as “Function” (Hungary). Why did you decide to host demoparty?

When I first decided to join the scene, I told my friends who I dragged along for the ride that I can do coding, music, graphics, whatever they wanted me to do, but I'll never ever ever be a party-organizer, because I lack the obvious social and human relation skills to manage other groups of people, be it other organizers, visitors, sponsors, or anything.

Smash-cut to about 5 years later, where I make the feeble decision to take over Function organizing from the people who didn't want to do it any longer and boom, I'm in the situation I always wanted to avoid - so to answer the original question, it's not because I wanted to but because I had to. I guess I felt an importance for Function, and how it was growing every year, so I was worried there would be a large vacuum left and the local scene would suffer from the loss. With the party slowly growing year by year, I feel it was a good (if exhausting) decision.

So, thanks to current and past organizers, Function celebrated its 10th anniversary. Through joining and hosting this party, do you see any difference in Hungarian demoscene?

It's less Function alone and more the contrast I see while organizing Function and helping out with the Norwegian parties; the attitude differences are remarkable. Anywhere you go, people try to arrive to a demoparty as early as they can, whereas here in Hungary the visitor count is very low until Saturday afternoon where it suddenly surges and the hall fills for the compos, and then almost immediately empties out as well, which makes the judging of the party mood really complicated.

Oh… ok, then how about the changes in demoscene overall?

There have been a few statements and statistics about how demos are made less nowadays or how the focus is shifting between certain platforms, smarter people than me can probably extrapolate some ideas from there. 

What I do know is that it's never been easier to get started in making a demo with all the indie-developer-friendly educational material and demo code floating around, and with the advent of budget travel, within continent almost any party is easily reachable; and while the attendance of the parties continues to grow, the demos don't seem to get more numerous, which perhaps is an indication of the more consumption-based attitude of society nowadays, and I hope eventually the scene starts correcting course and focusing more on the making than the watching.

You just explained to me about special aspect of Hungarian demoparty. And addition to Hungarian and Norwegian parties you are helping out, you and your friends had organized demoparty for NVIDIA in US in 2008. Different country, different party atomosphere? Or it has fairly universal mood or goals?

Last year at Function we were a bit worried because a lot of the things about the party came together fairly late, but I'll never forget the moment when we finally got the A/V setup running, the screen was rotating the slides, the PA was playing one of the Demovibes mixes, and we looked at each other and just said "Yup, the party is on now." I think while the cultural diversity of the world obviously takes certain traditions of the scene into certain unexpected directions, there's a convergence toward a common methodology for demoparties that they all aspire to reach; in other words I think the nature of the scene shapes the initial idea of a party, and the local customs and traditions are what make it interesting and memorable.

As far as NVScene / NVISION goes, the tricky bit was that it was by and large a "sterile" computer tradeshow, whereas we sceners are used to the grubbiness of sleeping under the table and having drinks and yelling obnoxious things. Merging the two paradigms took a considerable effort from the NVIDIA side of organizing, but I couldn't be prouder of what they achieved as far as catering to a fairly fickle audience as we sceners are, and the party went down as a demoparty really should.

Ok, let's go back to demo making subject. In Moleman 2, BoyC explained that you guys formed Conspiracy to beat the Kings of 64K at that time. Will you explain a little bit more how you formed Conspiracy?

Every time I think back to how Conspiracy came to be, I can't help but think about how lucky I was at the time to be around those amazing people who thought we could take what we do to the next level. It really just happened as a decision out of thin air: one day we decided that we're going to make a group to make something really spectacular, and we didn't stop until we did. Looking back, yeah, it does smell like your average underdog story, and I probably wouldn't believe if it wouldn't have happened right in front of me.


Conspiracy’s debut work “Project Genesis” (2013)

How do you work with other members? Do you get together to make demo? Do you create music first? When do you decide the title?

Our method of working was always fairly run-of-the-mill: we usually start with some sort of single-sentence core idea ("techy 64k", "dark stuff", or usually just "demo about planets"), and we flesh out some ideas that give a general direction to the product, often with some concept art. Then we go off and start working on the music, build/improve an engine, and then Zoom dematerializes for a few weeks and comes back with the finished product. 

We decide on the title fairly early because as Zoom said before, a good title gives a very good perspective or feel of the final thing. With Conspiracy we already have our well-defined little areas that took shape over time, and while we allow each other to suggest things that are not our responsibility, we usually keep to our own little areas because that's the most effective way to deliver.

Regardless of which group you’re work with, do you set your own rule or goal? Is there anything you really care about when you make demo?

It depends on the situation. If I'm working with someone who I feel has a very distinct and solid idea of what they want to do then I try my best to work between the confines of that idea and attempt to deliver something that I hope lives up to their standards of production. Although I do like to throw curveballs at ideas and take things into territories that weren't in the original concept, I usually just adhere to whatever they expect from my work and whatever is in the "briefing". Doing music, however, is often so early in the process that sometimes I just take tracks I made for no other reason and circulate it to people to see if they bite.

When I'm behind the wheel, however, then I just really try to do what I feel like. This varies wildly depending on the time of day and on what was for breakfast, which is why I find it hard to find myself people to cooperate with, especially now that I've taken a liking towards grand scale demos (which I think the scene desperately needs more of). I don't really focus as such, but I would say that if there's a part in a demo that I wanna get right, is the "essence" of it, to make the audience feel like it was worth their time and don't make them feel cheated. Everything else comes on demand: if the idea I have is tech-heavy, I work on the tech, but otherwise I won't try to shoehorn effects (in the traditional sense) in just to be able to say that I had effects in there.

"in the traditional sense", you mean like a early to mid 90s effects after effect demo?

Yeah, in a sense, but that's not entirely an unknown concept today either; you can still see "coder"-demos nowadays.

How does your workspace look like? Could we peek?

I don't think my workspace is particularly exciting, it's a desk with a computer on it :)

...I was just curious if you use one of those odd shaped keyboard :)

Nah, my keyboard is entirely plain and very code-centric (it's really hard to find an English keyboard layout here in Hungary), although lately I've been growing fond of the play/pause/volume buttons on my keyboard at work. Generally I like the "barebones" aesthetic in keyboards/mice, so I rarely spend a lot of time picking them, I just take the cheapest one that fits the minimum criteria I have, although I admit I tend to make the most of features when they have them (like additional buttons), but at the same time it's never a dealbreaker when they don't.

Do you sometimes write code in a cafe or outside?

I fairly rarely make music or code remotely because I don't really have high-end portable hardware (I have a netbook for traveling, but that's it), although there was a time when we'd come together often with others to make things. I'm not a big fan of coding on laptops either way, because I really enjoy having a larger screen and a larger keyboard, although again, if that's the only thing available, I try to make the most of it.

Do you listen to music while you're working? Or dead silence is required?

Music is fairly ubiquitous in my work environment, I find it that I work better when I can align my brain to the drive of the music itself, although I often prefer instrumental because lyrics I find sometimes distracting. On occasion I do work in silence, but it really depends on the moment itself.

(Unfortunately I won’t be able to understand.. but here’s one for readers who makes demo…) What program do you use to make demo? Do you create your  own tool?

Again it depends on the situation; over the years I pretty much learned what tools are best for what purposes, but as a common thread I do like to do things with very little turnaround time and I like to use existing software as much as I can, because I think one can waste a lot of time reinventing the wheel and reproducing boilerplate code instead of doing actual creative work that is specific to that piece of art. For effects themselves, I often find myself going to prototyping tools so I can throw an idea down into code as fast as I can, and then later work it out in the engine itself when the principal effect itself is working.

I am a big fan of creating demotools to ease the process, but it took me several tries over the years to understand what I want from a tool and what I don't: I think a demotool that provides content generation (unless it's for size-related reasons) is an overkill because you can't outdo commercial tools in their own field. Things like editing and compositing however are best done in a hands-on WYSIWYG fashion; it reduces your turnaround time between trying something out and seeing the end result, allows for a better range of finetuning. 
I have great respect for fans of "handcoding" who can just write code blindly and get everything right on the first try, but I'm just not one of those people, and I suspect a considerable portion of the scene aren't either.



How to make "Chaos Theory" bassline tutorial by Gargaj

Where do you get your inspiration for demo?

Initially I was obviously influenced by other demos, but I've gradually acquired a taste for other fields of computer art and modern filmmaking, so I try to incorporate a lot of the thought processes I hear about into the work I do for a demo. I'm always fascinated by film directors or cinematographers, or even VFX artists who can provide detailed explanations on why they did certain things the way they ended up doing, especially if they explain a particularly important or well-known scene or shot for a film, because it allows me to reach a better understanding on how to take thoughts and translate them into pictures.

Simply out of curiosity, do you enjoy watching movie with Director's audio commentary?

Yes and no. Audio commentary has the inherent and unfortunate problem of limiting the person talking, because even though they would like to talk more about a certain scene, it already went on and now there's something else to talk about; often they just end up making witty remarks about a person's expression or something like that.

I enjoy documentaries and featurettes a lot more, when there are more key people involved, they have their own pace of talking, and you can see additional footage of some of the technical background of a stunt or some other setup.

Ok, how about music? Where do you get your inspiration?

As far as music goes I'm very much all over the spectrum, from psychedelic minimal ambient through progressive metal to speedcore, and curiously I always seem to enjoy music that's sort of "middle-ground" in multiple senses: I enjoy genres that blend between other genres (like industrial metal or crossbreed hardcore), and I usually end up listening to artists who are semi-popular and have a reasonable fanbase but not popular enough to consider their popularity as a factor in their creative process, so that their work remains motivated by themselves only. The same goes for the aggression /melodicity

Do you listen to demoscene music as well?

Controversially I don't actually listen to a lot of demoscene music because I feel in a lot of cases demoscene musicians don't listen to music outside their own scene so their music sometimes feels somewhat inbred and outdated, or they only skim off the top of what the current popular trend is and then somehow infuse that into what they're making, but without understanding what made that trend popular or what is substantial in it. I think especially as someone who makes music, my job is to listen outside the scene and hear new things I can bring in, so most of my musical focus remains outside the scene.

What do you listen to these days?

I've been one of the early adopters of djent; it's become a bit cookie-cutter nowadays, but a good portion of the early material that came out is still quite amazing. I listen to a good chunk of raw hardstyle and I'm really looking forward to hear where the current crossbreed artists will bring the genre. Progressive breakbeat is always going to be a favorite, and I've recently decided to go back to some early hard rock as well.

Alright, it's time for the classic question. your favorite demo, memorable demo, demo that changed your life… anything… tell us one demo which is special to you?

It really depends on what day it is, really; I have a bunch of demos that I really appreciate at any time, but as the scene goes on I continue seeing things that inspire me, so my list of favorites is continuously expanding. As far as memorable demos go, I've been incredibly fortunate to witness many legendary demos play in compos, and that's always a fantastic feeling, coming away from a party knowing that I've seen history happen. I would really have a hard time picking one and just one out because most of the demos I'd pick have an equally important one next to them in my mind.

Why do you make demo? What demo/demoscene means to you?

That's a really massive question and I'm not sure how to answer it without ending up in cliche-territory. 
For a certain part of the population, creating things is their only way of dealing with whatever things they encounter in life. I was fortunate enough to be born in a time where technology provided us with almost infinite possibilities on doing that, so I think part of my duty is to make the most of what I've got. 

The demoscene is a wonderfully challenging way of escapism for people who are sometimes "too artsy to be nerdy, too nerdy to be artsy", and the scene has given me not only knowledge and possibilities, but more than that, it gave me friends, so like many others I feel indebted to it, which I think explains why sometimes we get extremely vocal and defensive of it. It's our outer protective shell towards reality.

Is there any goal or dream that you want to achieve in demoscene? What do you expect the future demoscene to be?

I still think I'm about at most 50% of what I wanted to do or can do in the scene; I still wanna make things with lasting appeal, things that are more than just random playlist items. I want to make music, demos, etc. that mean something to people, and that's the hardest possible task I think an artist can aspire to.

As far as the grand picture goes, I really have no idea, but I don't really think ahead that far anyway. I just focus on the next demo I make, the next party I go to, the next music I write.

Finally, your message for demosceners and demo fans out there please.

I know this sounds really insipid, but the scene really is what people individually make of it, and they themselves can be capable of changing things for the better if they want to do it. And that's the big "if" the future of the scene is balanced on.

Thank you Gargaj. Obviously I’m a big fan of your work.

Don't be a fan; become someone who has fans ;)

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At first, I asked him if I can send *some* questions… but it turned out to be… voilà. (And kindly Gargaj has answered all my questions.) Thank you very much for this, Gargaj!


On Gargaj’s website, you can check all of his works and track what party he attended. His “Retrospective on MAIN 09” can be read on ZINE. (ZINE offers fantastic articles written by sceners, in case you haven’t read it!)


Thanks for reading!

[Feb 14. 2014] Videos added.


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- Interview with Japanese demoscener q from nonoil/gorakubu is here.

- Interview with Szilárd Matusik, the director of "Moleman 2" is here. (You can see Gargaj and many other demosceners commenting in this documentary.)

- Notes about how I discovered demoscene is here

4 comments:

  1. Good interview and very interested interlocutor, good work! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Biter, you're too kind :)

      And you, do you use odd-shaped keyboard...?

      Delete
    2. No, I use classic english keyboard (with low keys as in a laptop) :)

      Delete
    3. whaat, so the funny looking keyboard is programmer's myths? :D

      (but you also use English keyboard.. hmm, interesting...)

      Delete

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