Designing Nilamox. Rule one.

Rule 1: You only want what you can’t have. If you have it, you don’t want it.

If you lusted after some trophy for years, only to now have it sitting dusty on a shelf, well, you’re human. The potential was endless – the reality is limited. Maybe it’s sea monkeys, maybe eurorack, maybe it’s a now hated job, perhaps even a relationship you once had.


They’re just brine shrimp!

This leads to the Limited Edition, the Chase, the Now Or Never. It seems an obvious trick but tell people too bad you missed out and watch the boo hoo. Make something easy to get and … crickets. Because easy to get means ‘maybe I’ll get it later’.

(Plenty of boo hoo over Severed Heads right now. ‘Maybe I’ll get it later’. Nup.)

But moving on – let’s develop something positive out of this.

I’ve previously made things that were very limited, not through spite but simply because they were difficult to make. That gave the illusion of success, but really, it’s neurotic marketing – if it’s marketing at all. Nilamox will never be Taylor Swift, but it should hold its little head up high. It deserves to succeed at a reasonable level. On the other hand, how many of us have unsold stock under the bed? C’mon … hands up … I thought so.

Limitation needs to be designed.

Somebody has explained this before better than I can, but this is my take. The audience is a continuum between don’t give a shit and having your babies. For convenience I’m going to divide them into four groups.

  • AT THE DOOR they are looking in and aware that you have something going on. They might stop and look in for the 5 seconds of a Facebook video. Most will move on.
  • INSIDE they see some entertainment value in what you are doing but not invested. Might watch a few videos and steal as much as they can of your work. Hell, might even pay $1 for something.
  • SWIMMING they like what you do and have a few of your things. You are one of many things they like and part of a vibe that they enjoy. If you ask for a big purchase they’ll likely smile and say no thanks.
  • DIVING they’re into it. You come up with some luxury items and they’ll pre-order. Get ready to sign it. You are the best thing that ever happened and need to have an unlisted number in case they track you down for your pelt.

Yeah it sounds like a public swimming pool, I don’t know how that happened.

Sevcom took care of the SWIMMERS and DIVERS. It was not very good at the other groups, possibly because it grew up inside larger record companies who did that part, or it never felt confident about getting people in the door. Sevcom believed the praise the DIVERS gave and made mistakes. Nilamox is supposed to be a fresh approach, with new ways of entertaining people. That won’t work if the refresh is targeted to a small part of the audience – we have to get people through the door to become a new kind of diver.

Every person that encounters Nilamox has to feel like their trophy is somewhere further inside. AT THE DOOR needs to feel like they are diving just that little bit.


“I’m giving this shit 5 seconds. Impress me Nilamox!”

Let’s look at a concrete example. One of the ambitions of Nilamox is a “Teleport” project to broadcast music around the world with accompanying 3D visuals. At the highest level that would need great audience commitment – VR or AR display, high speed connection, financial contributions. The DIVER is there, but AT THE DOOR is not going to make that commitment in 5 seconds. They need to be shown something quickly, for free, but with the potential that the trophy is within their reach. “Teleport” has to scale drastically – but how?

Another project involves a game world, a kind of screwed up Disneyland where you’re going to have a really strange time. That’s being made in Unity, and again it needs people to dive in to be a success. Can we make it an experience for the 5 seconds audience and the people just inside? Can they learn to dive into something that’s not a standard live show?

Here’s Rule 2: People like people more than anything else.

The band may be great, the sound clear, the lights intelligent – but we’re there to be part of the crowd. The other site might be well designed, the tools excellent – but we’re on Facebook because that’s the crowd. You might not even like the people you meet; you might feel worse for having been there, but damn you’ll go back because people.

Being at the show with the crowd while wearing a AAA pass is the best.


A long time ago in the Multiuser Dungeons you would strive to be high status character – a level 10 Wizard or some such, on the Apple Support Community you strive to be the arrogant RTFM Level 10 guy, on Facebook you need 5000 friends. To be with other people and own that lanyard is the best trophy of all.

The sad reality is that gamification is the key to getting our DOORS to DIVERS. The same thing as Fly Buys and Mileage Points is how we’re going to get the people into the pool. The design of this gamification is crucial, difficult, it must reward the guest with real happiness. You can see that none of this can be done simply and quickly. Sometimes I doubt it can be done at all.

Where are we?

  • Designing the realms. Of course, the sound and vision have to be priority. Why do this at all if it going to be dull? What is the beauty? What is the threat?
  • Scaffolding the realms. If you know what the DIVE looks like, then can you make a DOOR? If you have a DOOR, then what could be the DIVE?
  • Society how? Are we a crowd, or CB radio or a MUD or Instagram?
  • The technology. HTML5, Unity, lions and tigers oh my.
  • How will we eat? You can’t box an experience can you? It’s not an LP or a cassette. Do we have to sell books like Dungeons and Dragons? Have you been in a shop that sells glossy magazines recently? It’s wonderful.
  • Every day the fear and the impulse to just give up and fall backwards like the rest of the aging, shrinking scene.

Problems with realism (part 1): The Lion King and DMT

The King is Dead

I was recently taken to see the remake of The Lion King in which the characters are played by realistic 3D animals. Because I’d never actually seen the 1994 cartoon version (yes, I know), we watched the original first, so I’d have some idea what the remake was about.

And it was very odd.

In the original you notice all the flourishes that animation involves – the squash and stretch, the exaggerated facial features and distortions – and my primary interest – the ‘pink elephants’ section, where west-coast Disney abstract colour-music style comes into play (the ‘I Can’t Wait to be King’ song). How the hell are you going to do that with hairy puppets?

Try this with realistic whales.

Try this with realistic whales. Fantasia includes many similar moments which don’t fit reality.

And they didn’t. There was no abstraction, no traditional distortions. When an animal couldn’t do something, it didn’t happen. Their faces were expressionless. It was all based on REALITY. But you know – it’s not reality. This leads to confusion like adding strong female characters to a plot where the male hero wins back his harem of acquiescent females – back to screwing his aunts, mother and bride – who is of course his step sister. Because you know lions aren’t REAL people.

Nothing wrong with the film, worth seeing, and good job on the income it’s making. But the original cartoon is actually more real for the storyline. And this leads to some thoughts about our artistic pursuit of reality and where it has taken us.


The same year as the original Lion King, iD’s DOOM2 ushered in the age of the first-person shooter (or FPS). It pretended to work in 3D but really used “2.5D”, where flat surfaces are scaled and overlayed by depth, back to front, presenting a pseudo 3D effect. DOOM was obviously a cartoon, with cartoon logic, as were first-person shooters over the following decade. But constant battle between FPS authors reached greater realism both in image and physics – and by 2004 games such as Half Life 2 were more photographic than comic. We can now make games that look ‘real enough’ or ‘movie quality’. Which I think, like The Lion King, is a dead end. Because we’re losing hold of the unreal.


Half Life 2 aspired to be cinematic

An example of unreal I’d like to pick out is Action Half Life, around 1999, a FPS game which allowed ‘modders’ to create their own maps for multiplayer combat. Specifically, I look at modifications created by ‘Hondo’, a reclusive author of what seem to be standard play maps which conceal vast and surreal hidden areas for players to discover. The vast majority of players would never know that a push at a certain wall, or a gunshot that touched a certain window, would open a portal to apparent madness. The message is that most people do not care to know, or need to know, that there is something beyond the mainstream. It was a topic much on people’s mind at the time – but already an old topic by 1927 when Hesse wrote about the “Magic Theatre, Not For Everyone.”

Hondo 5AM

Hondo 5AM – inside a giant clock where each hour is a psychedelic puzzle.

When you look at Hondo’s levels now, they seem chunky, simplistic – cartoony. It takes a strong imagination to be enthralled by that you might think. Same goes for many other weird old games from the old days. But I think the limitation in plausible reality of the game engine enabled Hondo to create worlds beyond reality. To put that another way – it is becoming more difficult to conceive abnormality as computer worlds become more realistic. Which is perhaps why 2D games came back into fashion around the same time as the 3D game touched upon reality.

Two dimensions greater than three.

When attempting my first computer game/album I was inspired by many things. One was the game Dream Diary by Kikiyama which has a wonderful disregard for reality.


Although it’s thematically based on a familiar idea of dreams and dream logic, it goes beyond The Wizard of Oz et al. which simply swap a different politics for our own – that one needs to overcome a new social hierarchy. The dreamspace is more flexible than the usual workings of the of the mind – the author has worked in the larger palette of 2 dimensions. When I stupidly tried to use similar devices in 3D I was confined. In 2D, distance is not fixed, everything can squash and stretch. Colour is texture but also topology, mood, meaning. Objects are implied, and do not take on more detail as you get near. There’s more – but let’s just sum it up by saying there are stories that cannot be properly told in a certain space.*


An often-used narrative is the inside. The hero is in a world – the plot reveals to them that their world is inside what we know to be the real world. It’s satisfying to be in the know and anticipate the drama they will find in our familiar place. Sometimes the story starts by concealing the inside – a story such as The Truman Show is obvious, but quite a few detective stories like Blue Velvet share this mechanism – the reveal of the real.

Much more difficult is creating the outside. Because the outside should really be outside. Which means the writer really needs to be outside as well. (It’s been said that Phillip K. Dick was such a writer, but perhaps it was his insides that were so unique.) I am not sure that an outside can be written by a normally functioning human mind.

For me, if there is any interest in portraying 3D ‘real’ worlds, it’s in their outside – that which falls outside the walls that contain the player and the specifications of the maker. Again, for me, a game such as Red Dead Redemption is merely a cowboy simulator, which becomes far more exciting once you find a crack in the wall and the true unknown behind.

Look at the many examples of outsides that have come about in game design. Most are discarded scenery and are interesting the way urbex in abandoned buildings is interesting. But some of the outside is the gibberish of incomplete or overlapping code. Sometimes ‘gibberish’ is only a problem in seeing what is really there. The ‘real world’ – as perceived by the mind – has an ‘outside’ in that we are confounded by ‘gibberish’ such as quantum entanglement. I’m far too stupid to go into this – I’ll let a grown up try to explain:

Anything that disrupts the sense-making of the brain, that disables the definition of correct/incorrect seems to take you outside. LSD is well known. I’m particularly fond of the described effects of DMT – I am not a user of psychedelics.

DMT is probably disabling some censorship of experience. You are always making things up, but you’re making up something different to usual. That’s important.


So long as I keep working inside, I’m going to see inadequate results. That’s OK for the most part – if Disney are happy to trade art for success then I’m in good company. But there’s a feeling like I am wasting time on trivial things. I know there’s an outside, I know it stays outside, and even though you can damage your head with drugs and see stars, that’s not the same.

I would rather damage the media, the way Hondo damaged it. If you rip the canvas you can get results that you would not otherwise reach. But I don’t know what the canvas is or how it can be ripped. I guess the programmers of Red Dead Redemption know the holes they are leaving in their maps – calculated mistakes. I’m not as clever as they are in that and perhaps it comes down the old principle of knowing your art.

An old argument I used have with Paul Mac. He’d say you have to know how to play the piano to know how not to play the piano. I’d say you can just hit the piano with an axe. But I think he’s right. Then I’m right. Know how to play the piano. Then hit it with an axe.

* Since writing, two 3D versions of the game have shown up with which to test my argument. One is a fan tribute by Eddy using a period game engine (for Duke Nukem 3D). This keeps the old cartoon effect and seems favorably received by players. The other is an ‘official version’ by the makers of the game engine used for the original 2D game. It earned quite a bucketing here – I am sorry, lots of adverts.

I’ve had a go at the Eddy version. It’s reminiscent of the original and so I think I am having my memory feelers tickled. But while it’s kept the strangeness definitely not adding anything and arguably exploring the space seems much less exotic. I didn’t look at the other – it sounds badly written.

The End of the World is Coming!

  • What’s happening? Severed Heads will disband after performing in Chicago on September 21st 2019. The 2019 USA shows are the last in this band format.
  • What comes next? Stewart will continue to work in his own band Klaus. Tom will be starting a new label/group called Nilamox*.
  • What about the other band members? There are no other band members, the Internet falsely shows people that have long departed.
  • Why is this happening? It’s the 40th anniversary of the band’s foundation and time to close the loop. We’ve always sought new ideas and practice and have spent enough time (nearly a decade) paying respect to the past.
  • Will the old material still be available? Yes. Deep catalogue will be managed much as it is now – it is not abandoned. Sevcom will be structured as a museum.
  • Is this temporary? We have both professional and personal reasons why we cannot continue in our current format. This is a response to reality. Reality would have to change significantly (for example Hell freeze over).
USA Tour show dates

Last time to see!

Now for the details.

At the end of the 20th Century the band was ahead of the wave. Online with Fidonet since 1992, the web since 94, first with MP3s, downloads, CD-ROMs and all that. But by 98, our mainstream support went with the collapse of music labels. Despite DIY, the band was dead in the water by 2008. Our remnant audience was small and, in some ways, antagonistic to our future development. I had the opportunity to get a real paying academic position. This blog starts in that era, so you can read about it if you like. Severed Heads closed shop.

Soon after we were encouraged to perform the old songs for the Sydney Festival, and have since that time taken our ‘deep catalogue’ all around Australia, Europe and North America multiple times. We’ve enjoyed playing these shows. The music is good, the videos are good, the audience is a lovely audience (unlike the Beatles we don’t want to take you home). But on the occasion of our 40th birthday (the Ear Bitten album was recorded in late 1979) we would like to wrap it up.

You have every right to be sceptical – haven’t we been here before? Severed Heads has been dead for quite a long time now – even when resurrected for live shows and the occasional artefact. With a few exceptions the live shows have been old music – reheated in various clever ways, but still from the previous century. Stewart has his own band to work on. I’m really interested in music that wouldn’t do well on stage but might work as part of an installation or video piece. I’d like to keep making music and performing, but maybe not Dead Eyes Opened for the umpteenth time.

Our goal in these zombie years was to cross over to major festivals, galleries, high-end creative events. There’s been some excellent occasions – for example the performance and acetate cutting of Beautiful Arabic Surface, releasing the HH computer game on the ABC website for the Adelaide Festival – but not consistent enough to prove that objective will be met.  We may assemble the band temporarily only when a high-level or artistically significant event is available. That is, we’ll save it for cool gigs.

Aligned with that – we are getting older and can’t be lugging heavy cases up and down the planet much longer. We either get a bunch of roadies or downplay the travels.

And aligned with this – it’s the most stupid band name ever.

Comparing 2020 to the 1900’s I can’t see a place for our small technological group to advance. Community is Facebook. Music is Spotify. Video is YouTube. All these are lowest common denominator, infested by celebrity influencers and blowhards. Something For Everybody was never our place, and maybe it needs us to step outside and be nobody again.

Thank you!


In defence of Luna, and the Dark Park.

In which I demand the reinstatement of all Luna Parks in Theme Park Theory and Design.

I‘m very grateful again to my missus for digging up an essential research source, being the program for an exhibition Luna Park and the Art of Mass Delirium. Held at The Museum of Modern Art at Heide in 1998, it catalogues responses to Luna Park St Kilda by mid 20th century painters Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester et al. alongside current visual artists. The art itself is not that appealing to me, but the included essays show how ignorant I am of the entire history – as are the people that claim to teach theme park design.


Jennifer Phipps, a curator at the NGV, takes up the history of the Melbourne artists and park and makes many points, a few of which I can summarise here. In the wartime 1940’s, St Kilda housed American soldiers, about which the general consensus was they were ‘over paid, over sexed, and over here’. The park, ‘browned out’ as a war precaution, was filled with soldiers attended by young girls looking for a thrill, perhaps getting more thrill than the one they expected. Like all of Coney Island in New York, Luna Park was at the time considered a seedy place – both in Melbourne and Sydney. (When I asked my old dad about Sydney Luna, he would just say it was filled with ‘yanks and whores’).

Given the facts of the ‘Brown Out Murders’, it was a valid point of view, if unfortunate.


The painters had a mixture of admiration and horror for the park, which they saw in the context of the war. Nolan, generally in favour of the vitality of the park, conflated the lines of the roller coaster with the tracer lines of ack-ack guns and produced designs for the ballet Icarus where the boy falling from the sky equaled the coaster in descent. But Hester painted a darker image of woman prone on the ground, the victim of a leering Luna face.


In my own vocabulary, these painters were working with the light/dark modern/mannerist Orphic principle of the parks – the ‘mass delirium’ identified by the exhibition. There’s more context for why Disney, an artist, held such a revulsion to American parks as they were in the 1940’s and attempted Jekyll and Hyde surgery for his own land.

Ian McDougall, adjunct professor of architecture at RMIT, provides a masterful history of theme park architecture which should be mandatory reading for any study of park design. He describes what is very likely the prototype of the theme park in the circa 1550 Gardens at Bomarzo. Here are dragons and monsters, and the inscription that it’s sol per sfogare il Core … a bit like Just For Fun. He describes the 1968 study Learning From Las Vegas by Brown & Venturi, a significant work in which the pop art of the Strip was documented and became valid and worthy of inclusion in academic built environment design.

Bomarzo_parco_mostri_drago_con_leoni copy

I was most taken with his account of the 1978 book Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas that sets out the history of Coney Island, the 1939 World’s Fair, and NYC itself as an ongoing battle between light and dark. At one point the struggle is written as directly waged between Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier – both armed with Dali’s Paranoid Critical Technique. It’s not hard to find a naughty copy of the book online, and you have to read it before you can really understand the history and mentality of Luna Parks wherever they came to be.

Screen Shot 2019-01-21 at 1.19.13 pm

For me the message is good – there is a body of theoretical work, unfortunately unknown or denied by the practice where ‘imagineering’ has been set up as the whole reason. There is no justification for editing history to start in 1955 – that simply marks a reaction to what was there before. The reaction requires explanation, and that can be found as far back as 1550.

It all needs to be given some long trousers, and perhaps it’s something that I can do.


An Orphic view of the fun fair.

In which Disney’s desire to expunge Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll’s fun fair is argued to be flimflam.

I’m grateful to my missus for David Younger’s Theme Park Design book, which turns out to be a long and deadly serious text. Seeing as you can have physics textbooks with colour pictures and multiple fonts, it feels as if theme parks are being presented here as no laughing matter.

From it I find that my ideas on narrative have been embarrassingly naïve. Just pretend I didn’t write any of it thank you. The discussion of theme park storytelling is long and embattled, with the Europeans somewhat skeptical and the Americans doubling down. It also depends on the era you’re talking about.

Younger has a nomenclature for design eras, very Disney-centric like everything in the book. But to my way of thinking, it starts too late in the history

‘Traditional’ is the design category for the original Disneyland, immersive and thematic. As Disney became more involved in edutainment the real world became more important, and a ‘presentational’ style downplayed theming in favour of clean and simple lines that kept out of the way. In this scheme Fantasyland is traditional, while EPCOT is presentational. When the luster of big science wore off in the 70’s, the ‘postmodern’ style began to tease and mock the earnestness of these formats – as in the early Disney California Adventure.


Trylon and Perisphere, with the helicline walkway. 1939.

But I think both presentational Tomorrowland and traditional Fantasyland have lived side by side from the very beginning. The two styles also represent something much older – the ‘ying and yang’ of the world fairs which had a light (inspirational, educational) side matched with a dark (exotic, disturbing) side. It seems fair to say the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York fair are ‘presentational’, as is the Eiffel Tower. Disney would never had allowed Salvador Dali’s Dream of Venus on site (although they did collaborate on a film) but the dark rides of Fantasyland are informed by those of the Amusement Zone.


How much was Disney inspired by Elektro the Moto-man to create an improved robot of President Lincoln for the 1965 fair? Did he take notes at Frank Buck’s Jungleland? To what extent did the 1939 model ‘city of tomorrow’ presume the model ‘community of tomorrow’ 30 years later? Did the idea for a main street leading to a central hub already exist?

But was Disney involved at the ’39 fair at all?


Mickey cartoon for the Nabisco Pavilion 1939 World Fair

Yes, deeply at many levels. And when Disneyland was in financial trouble he first wrote to the companies who had been at the fair for the same kind of sponsorship. They turned him down, but responded when a financial man made serious deals – and Monsanto et al. were on-site, plugging their wares.

Disneyland is in many aspects a small copy of a world fair, mixed with copies of European pleasure parks. It did not spring solely from his imagination.

You can argue that Theme Parks have to start somewhere if you’re trying to keep a document under a page count, or that world fairs are not strictly theme parks. But I can’t base my understanding of the design without tracing the ancestry.


What was Disney’s point of difference?

The main change he brought about was his desire that the dark, unpleasant aspects of the traditional fun fair be expunged so that children could be safe at his park from dirt of all kinds. Pinocchio illustrates his feelings on the matter.

Pleasure Island YANG

Pleasure Island, where unbridled libido is rampant.

The fun fair was a place for adults, where children would be corrupted – turned into jackasses. They were indeed messy and corrupting places filled with more adults than children. That’s the point. Parks are an opportunity for Bacchanalia – the ecstatic, the liberating, drunken and drugged outburst of enthusiasm required by society to keep strong urges in a contained context.


Still from “Speedy” c.1929 There children mixed in with the adults, but not as expected.

But in 1958 The Saturday Evening Post still counted four adults to one child in Disneyland. The ‘Orphic’ view (as in, that traditionally ascribed the legendary poet Orpheus) is that civilization requires balance with madness, Apollo and Bacchus – and the world fairs had this not by intent, but by demand of their audience. Disney was one man trying to impose his tidyness on the nature of things.

Cutting the dark side of the fun park from the light side wasn’t ever really possible, and lead only to an undeserved historical distaste for the earlier Bacchanalian ‘Luna’ parks. If you can’t climb up, then push down. A ride such as Snow White’s Scary Adventures is just a ghost train with IP attached.


I argue all of this because I can’t see a logical reason my own city’s park to be cut out of design knowledge. More on that later.

Sevcom 2018 Annual Report, and New Year Resolutions.

2017 being such a frantic year with shows here and in North America, it was inevitable that 2018 would be anticlimactic. It was that – but at times the climate fell into bleakness.


I’m sure VR will take off soon!

In 2017 we happily sailed the mainstream, the safety zone – live shows of elderly music. Like setting up at a trade show, you’re showing off your existing wares while delaying the development of new ones. It’s instantly rewarding with lots of praise and feedback for what you do – or to be very honest what you once did.

But we can’t continue to work for an audience that’s gone from the most forward looking to the one most adverse to new experience. Right now, they have the money and will pay for the excitement they once felt – the nostalgic T Shirt, the cassette. But that’s not what we wanted – back then or now. We’re supposed to keep pushing.

Thus 2018 was set aside for experimentation – real experiments that could fail. And they did fail – slipping slowly, fingernails scraping, off a cliff.

Clearing the decks

First there were some releases of projects that had been underway since 2017 or before. In April we released Aversion 2, being an album constructed of small splinters of classic rock music. A limited edition of 200 small plastic cases, each with a wire lab rat and USB card. The concept was loosely based around lab rats and experimentation.

Then Publicist, my follow up album to 2015’s Rhine. In June 2018 came Barbara UFOr, which completed the Barbara Island series that began in 2006. These three albums fill up the time in which things other than music albums must be the focus.

An album of ambisonic music was delayed until the concept became clearer.

Seeing the Future

So, what do most people call an experience in 2018? I think it’s useful to put aside your limitations for a moment and ask, ‘if I had unlimited resources…’. Back at the end of 2017 it seemed that surround audio/vision was a focus, and I upgraded our capabilities. We organised travel to the USA to see some of the state of the art in the entertainment industry. There is a movement for game engines to become the stage for motion pictures and experiences in general. I dedicated myself to mastering the Unity engine, at least to the point where I hoped to direct a team.

Puppet show at Halloween Horror Nights. Yeah, puppets.

Puppet show at Halloween Horror Nights. Yeah, puppets, low tech and it works.

Problems became apparent over the months.

VR is only part of a failed concept which I might label ‘constrained experience’. Quickest way to sum it up – once your brain gets used to augmented presentation – 3D, binaural, motorised seating etc. it disappears, as it no longer contributes to the story experience after a few minutes. Wearing a helmet doesn’t seem worth the effort. A standard 2D movie holds 99% of the story. A movie =/= a ride.

I’d rendered VR versions of two videos back in 2016, with little interest. I set about some new ones but found the whole VR realm to be dropping away, even for the largest players. When Google announced VR180, the game was up. Time wasted. I do see the worth in expanding the viewing space ­– with satellite (non-focussed) imagery on side screens. Projection mapping is also a successful area.

I believe that an engine such as Unity is the ‘studio’ for our future production. But even if you are given an entire film studio for free, you need sufficient staff to run it. I found it impossible to hold all the disparate elements in my head – humanoid animation, lighting, material design, coding … once I’d mastered one aspect, another would fall out of my head. I also fell into an endless loop between intentions and capabilities. I would intend something, it would come out differently, which suggested a different intention. This can be great in music, but in a complex world building exercise it’s a nightmare. Time wasted.

I was able to clock a ‘world’ with a sequencer. I have so far not been able to perform the ‘world’ with standard musical instruments, partly because live MIDI is alien to game design and partly because I haven’t yet made one worth the effort. That would have come before performing the ‘world’ over a network connection, a goal that was supposed to be finished by now.

At least I get job offers for Unity now. Yay team. Shrug.

Our trip to see theme parks in California was instructive – I saw that some of the failures I’ve realised were ones they’ve suffered as well. I saw that big teams are not just small ones grown up – I’ve been taught the difference between ‘fine art’ and the team work of experience design. Given that few music artists are serious about current forms, and that I identify as an artist, I have to pick those battles I can win unaided.

Picking up the fragments

Ambisonic sound is still worthwhile, as earphones and smart phones are already clothing. If a visual analogue appears, well and good. Wait for that. Making music in surround is itself not easy to do well.

Let’s just convert one or two video clips into game worlds. That keeps the intention/design steady and gives an idea if the conversion provides any real benefit. Once built it’s easier to make modifications to provide MIDI controls, networking etc. I can then demonstrate this to try get support.

Satellite screens for existing videos are achievable. I’m creating some multi-channel work and showing in Adelaide in March 2019.

Continue to study experience design, perhaps enrolling in coursework.

In general, smaller bites, less chewing.

2019 is already happening as we try book gigs. Europe is on but it’s being very difficult to set up. I think we were a novelty in 2016, maybe you have to die and be reborn each time. Like Jesus.

Have a nice Christmas break!

Further lessons from magical kingdoms

In which we draw some technical conclusions.

Sanity Clause.

Before going deeper it’s worth a sanity check, in that the finances of our test subjects are beyond our reckoning. The rides described here cost around $100 million to create – and a whole land such as Universal’s Harry Potter is estimated at half a billion. What can we small makers learn from their construction?

Your short film is not going to be Star Wars – but the expensive failure of the latest Star Wars film Solo is lesson that resonates with any level of storytelling*. The successes and failures of giants still provide lessons for the rest of us.

3D video isn’t viable.

There’s a period from around 2010 to 2016 where Universal used 3D technology on rides such Transformers and the Simpsons – around the same time that cinema took on the format. The obvious Great Disappointment comes in 2016 when the Harry Potter ride was upgraded to remove 3D projection. Notably the more recent DreamWorks Theatre uses no 3D.


Meh… too dark

The reasons are familiar to any 3D cinema goer – I found the 3D glasses to be clumsy, dirty and to cut out light, making for a dark and distant experience. Instead Potter and DreamWorks use HD screens that wrap around your field of view, and frankly you don’t notice the missing depth.

Taken from here is the Harry Potter ride, giant screens at the left and giant robot arm at right. Look at the curvature on that telly.

Seeing as we’re working on a smaller scale this brings up the question, which I think has moved from “is VR failing?” to “in what way is VR failing?” The parks are finding that glasses are not as effective as real world set building, and VR helmets are even less appealing. Notably Google is moving into something called “VR180” on the basis that almost no one actually looks behind them. It can be experienced on a helmet but will probably end up being a domestic ‘very wide screen’ projection system. This would represent an enormous retreat from the all-seeing 360 eye of VR.

And so they mix video and physical sets.

The latest rides use flat or curved video framed in built sets. No one believes that the video is actually part of the set, but so long as the two are designed to collaborate on story, the effect is accepted. Projection mapping is definitely a key skill as is set design.

Wall panels with video screens placed at the top. You can see at the top left a screen pretending to be one of the panels below.

But motion beats just about anything.

When you are being thrown around by large forces you’re immersed. In fact, some of the rides – Guardians of the Galaxy, The Mummy, and to a certain extent Space Mountain, rely on absence of visual cues. Motion simulators and motorised theatre seating is a proven and effective way to grab people, and no wonder some cinemas, even in Australia, are installing 4DX technology for feature films.

This is terrible news for the small designer, who’s unlikely to have access to this kind of effect. No matter how effective a VR headset may be, it can’t compete with motors. I can imagine some technology that would talk directly to your vestibular system, but not this year or the next.

Cheer Up: That we enjoy so many films without physical effects just comes back to the fundamentals – make us care and we’ll watch.

Except sound. Sound everywhere.

Sound is never neglected by the big players. The usual rig involves multiple speakers positioned on a ride car to provide a surround image for the riders. The sound stage for King Kong 3d uses a 22-channel mix, delivered on 16-speaker ‘clusters’ spaced along the stage. Disney places multiple speakers, as much as one per sound, so that they remain invisible to the audience.

Speaker arrays are beyond the reach of most small practitioners, but ambisonics has reached mainstream DAWs in 2018, and every sound designer now has the ability to produce a 3rd order image that can be subsequently mapped to speaker arrays if and when a specific project becomes available.

Haunted Houses.

Most of our vacation was spent being chased by scare actors in Halloween Horror Nights. Definitely something for a select audience, but something that could be expanded into a wider entertainment format.

Not so spooky in the daytime, but you can see the set building.

Not so spooky in the daytime, but you can better see the set building.

HHN includes a set of physical mazes, each about the same size as a small house, ground floor only. A queue of people goes in the front, weaving their way around in near darkness. Some parts of the house open up into wider rooms with set pieces – for example some sequential scenes from the old Poltergeist movie. The corridors are filled with hidden openings out of which pop scare actors, people in costume that pretend to stab or grab you as you go by. The noise level is intense – the Stranger Things house sounded like a plane taking off.

But a couple of things stop these from being scary. Most of all you’re one of hundreds of people flowing through these mazes at fast pace. The constant flow of people means you’re never in a state of apprehension, as tension is rarely allowed to build. If there’s a girl that screams in front of you, every scare actor will go for them and hide again by the time you get there. Lack of room means that the actors can only make repeated motions, although some of the better mazes had enough space for variation (the Universal Monsters maze was best for this).


There are also scare zones in which the attacks are more free form and creative. They work better because the actors have creative freedom, but are harder to define and market. I think these are models for something new where a ‘swarm’ of characters gather you up into events, the way that massive online gaming works. And yes, I have no idea how you would do this. Yet.

* Don’t extend your population of characters so far that you need an encyclopedia. There’s only so much care to share.

Narrative, Media Art and Donald Duck

In which I go looking in Halloween USA for the pumpkin spice of contemporary media art, and find that interaction design is better done with personalities than push-buttons.


I’m in Los Angeles. Touristing, but following the hunch that contemporary media art is best studied from leading commercial practitioners than any academic project. That is, if I want to observe the cutting edge, I’m better off at Disneyland than Carnegie Mellon.

A commercial entity has no excuses – it has to study, set and hit strongly defined goals. If an audience doesn’t respond to the work, it gets fixed or folded. There is constant war between companies to seize the state of the art. If one creates the leading experience, the others are in quick pursuit. But by itself technology is not the key to their success, and I am keen to understand the storytelling design that underlies the best work.

(There are of course ‘living museums’ – that understand the join between the two worlds. They are also inspiring sources).

I’ve no illusion that I can produce anything that compares, but I’d rather fall short of the target than the periphery. I’m keen to understand commercial ‘360 degree’ media design – experiences, movies, rides, and merchandise, so I’ve been studying the two most successful theme parks (by audience) operated by Disney and Universal.

The full essay would be much longer than you’d bother to read here, so let me just provide an executive summary and some points.

In the best case, the narrative rules for storytelling hold true for 360 experience – people care for, and identify with a hero or group of heroes, they prefer a narrative that conveys learning and morals. I believe that the centre of any interactive media is the character (rather than e.g. the mechanics of interaction). This is why e.g. it’s called Harry Potter’s Wizarding World – immersion involves identification with a person or persons, in a world that is formed to illustrate their personal journey.

The audience does not care for interaction without meaning – it must be in the context of the narrative and world. And this Interaction must involve the same cascading levels of jeopardy as set out in a linear narrative.

The Narrative Arc is across all outcomes

I always come back to the standard lead line: somebody, somewhere, wants something. They discover a gift, which then involves them in conflict. In overcoming an antagonist, win or lose, they gain insight and are uplifted beyond the power of the gift. This progression is obvious in movies – but it is found in roller coasters as well.

In all the cases I’ve seen in LA, the movie (incorporating book, play, TV series) is the first outcome but there are alternate cases such as the game Five Nights At Freddies. In creating the movie, the designers necessarily come up with the elements that serve all the other formats.


Is this a hero? Or scenery?

There is a someone who wants something. The hero. What do they look like? What’s their past? What do they want? What instead do they need? Harry Potter is 11 years old, an orphan, treated like a slave – copied from Cinderella (which addresses the same teen yearnings) he will be given a gift – with consequences. When the battle starts, hubris may bring him down. The character is crafted with a back story, desires and motives, a physicality, emotional weakness and so on.

The Character is the store of narrative ‘reality’, and includes at least

  • motivations (goals, back story etc.)
  • limitations (lack of insight, point where their risk-taking tips into failure)
  • embodiment (colours, physical attributes, clothing, etc.)
  • totemic items (things that illustrate the gift)

By defining the motives and limits of the hero and villain, the plot will mostly write itself. A movie follows a segment of the inevitable action up to the moral outcome set in a third act, after which a sequel will hopefully be required. The experiences are endless, a perpetual storytelling.

Harry Potter land

Harry Potter land. Bring your haptic controller, pardon me, magic wand.

This action needs a somewhere, and I’d argue that it too is generated when the characters are properly defined. In film these are generally called worlds. The theme parks I’m visiting are divided into lands, each being a confined sub-area in which the features are strictly designed to appear part of a world. Examples include Disney’s Fantasyland, Pixar Pier, and Universal’s Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, and Springfield. Usually there is a gate to each land, or at least a bend in the road that obscures one land from others.

(It’s reminiscent of computer game design, with walled levels, NPC’s, collectable weapons etc., and tempting to think that RPG gaming inspired this physical immersion. But the theme parks are much older than gaming – Disney derived his park in the mid 1950’s from older European parks he saw on his own study tour. Instead parks and games have common requirements and have cross pollinated.)

(When Disney broke these rules in Disney California Adventure, they suffered badly. The changes made since that ill-fated opening illustrate the point being made here).


My hunch is that the tale of Nemo requires an ocean in which to be lost, and Toad requires a shiny automobile. Or, more accurately, the attributes of the character, such as Toad’s vanity and privilege, demand a situation in which they can be presented as a morality play. Design questions are answered by asking ‘what can, and would the character do in this situation, given their motives and failings?’


The Incredicoaster is the latest part of DCA to be reformed from the disastrous ‘mock California’ launch. It now has a story line based around the physical abilities of the Incredibles characters, expressed as movements of the coaster through chapters, defined by figures placed in tunnels on the track. The ride is narrated by speakers built into each seat, presenting a moral about the family working together. Notably the ride itself is not made longer or faster than before – it has instead been improved with an arc.


The scream tubes first enforced to reduce noise pollution were made even longer to add in the narrative elements.

Jeopardy points in the story-line become the (apparent) jeopardy in the adult rides. For example, in Universal’s The Mummy a tussle between good and evil is enacted by throwing of the riders into a dark abyss filled with scarabs by the god Imhotep, from which they are retrieved (backwards!). Splash Mountain, Forbidden Journey, even The Simpsons Ride – all are narratives where a machine shakes emotion into the story. Some of the small children rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventures are obviously also narrative, while the carousel doesn’t seem to suggest any at all.

I also couldn’t see the jeopardy expressed in most of the lands, where the audience is free to wander. Perhaps events like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are the start of something, which could be expanded outside of the horror genre.

The last point I can fit here, and one that still puzzles me, is about totems. The bears, mice, dogs and whatever-the-hell Goofy is supposed to be are all well within the long tradition of fables. Rabbits have been heroes all the way back to Africa, so that’s well documented. I wonder if the modern cartoon character – Minions for example – are the same psychological device and I think, yes, we have now adopted machines as we once did creatures.


The second question is about totemic objects or ‘merch’ – the hats, t-shirts, lanyards, plushies etc. that bulge throughout every land. Are these simply souvenirs, or do they bring identification with the hero, or some more complex process? And what is their role when used inside the land, such as the wands used in Harry Potter than are actually haptic controllers for various ‘magical’ events?

Still a lot more to think about.

Barbara rUFO

For the last 12 years, every four years, I have made music about a mythical place called Barbara Island. This year sees the fourth and last chapter, titled Barbara rUFO, and I would like to tell the whole story of how it came to be, and why it finishes in 2018. This is a longish story, but don’t worry I’ll keep it tight.

We could start late in the last century, when I found two painted wheat bags on a telegraph pole outside my house. One of them looks like this:


At the time 2018 seemed a long long time away. But time speeds up.

Over Barbara Island

In 2006 the National Art School held a fund raiser. I was asked to contribute a live performance, and I said yes. The school is housed in a very old prison with small stone cells, but the show was to be held outside. As it was winter, they would supply tiki lamps. I thought ‘tiki lamps!’ and started to make something a little Martin Denny and a bit stormy. As it turned out the night was very stormy itself, and the show had to be held in a small jail cell. Not very exotic.

At the time I was making what was to be the last Severed Heads album, called Under Gail Succubus. This was a silly band name I had come up with years before – I always thought it worth using someday. I added the live show to the main album as a bonus, and thought it would fun to call it Over Barbara Island. And so – Gail and Barbara.

It was the last full Heads album (although many years later some shorter special projects went out under that name). In 2008, the band was lowered into a grave.

A funny side note is that a local agency tried adapting some of Barbara for a Coca-Cola advert. Three attempts did not get run-it-up-the-flagpole, and so sadly Things did not Go Better With Barbara.

Return to Barbara Island

In 2010 the body was exhumed for the Sydney Festival, and as a consequence I was asked to perform at another charitable event – this time for Rainforest Rescue. Again, yes, and again it seemed a good time for palm trees. This event was more bumpy bumpy and so Return to Barbara Island is a lot more streamlined that the volumes before or after. I made videos for each track, but the screen was a gaggle of hexagons and so no one really saw what I was showing. And like the previous event I don’t think there was too much benefit for the Rainforest, but I got an album out of it.

Around this time I wondered of there really is a Barbara Island, and there is. It’s very cold, but maybe not forever.

Barbara Channel Three

In 2013 Severed Heads played the Adelaide festival. We were both dead and alive, an echo, and I was desperately trying to come up with new material with which to move on. But being a full time academic, delivering a computer game for the festival, and being carer for an invalid spouse I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t going to happen in time.

It was 2014 before this material came together, and here was the four year cycle demanding that it be obeyed. So it was to be Barbara again. Channel Three refers to radio and there are many radiophonic touches – but much of what appears to be shortwave is actually synthesisers. I’d regained a hardware sound studio, including some of the gear I had owned back in the 1970’s, so there’s some familiar old sounds in there. But to buy the gear I needed the job that meant I never had time to use the gear.

When the UK magazine The Wire requested some music from ‘Severed Heads’ it was a horrible dilemma – this was me, Tom, not Severed Heads. But without the old name there was no interest. I had to supply them with some of Barbara, which mean ‘moving on’ was yet again defeated.

This is around when I pulled out my wheat bag with the UFO message. 2018 was four years away, and it dawned on me that there must be a Barbara FOUr, actually a Barbara rUFO in this year. I needed to go back to the wheat bags.

Barbara rUFO

By now I knew of the UFO Man, Alan Philp. I had seen him standing out in the mall, sun hat on and wheat bag around his neck. But by this time he had faded from the collective memory and needed to be brought back. In 2017 Severed Heads toured on an image that recalled his message.


But it was only in 2018 I found his image on a older blog site. This is Mr. Philp.


We must respect the message that he gave us for decades. When the UFO comes this year, what will it want? Will be a handshake or a spanking? Will we end up gods, or meat Popsicles? This is what Barbara will tell us I hope.

Since 2014 I have become successfully underemployed, the band continues, the bad times that ran through all the previous chapters have faded away. I have just finished Barbara rUFO today. It is the last Barbara, and perhaps, UFO willing, the last normal album I do. It is time for change.

I hope you will like it, but please also hear the earlier chapters, they do not cost. I will let you know when the UFO lands.