How Japanese rock star Miyavi performs in a world without live music

The only live music I’ve managed to see all year came from an unexpected place. I recently found myself on a Friday night after hours at teamLab Planets, a popular tourist spot in Tokyo, watching rock star Miyavi working on his latest “Miyavi Virtual” project. Miyavi Virtual 3.0 will be available to buy and stream later today — it’s a live performance mixing drone footage with dazzling digital art.

At one point Miyavi, a bouncy, enthusiastic character with blue-green hair and a wiry frame covered in black ink wash-style tattoos, came over to me for a distanced elbow bump and asked if I was feeling sleepy. To be honest, I kind of was — it turns out that recordings for glitzy live-streaming productions can involve a lot of waiting around well past midnight.

But that’s just how it goes in 2020. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rob creators of the ability to play in front of live audiences or even record music videos in traditional studios, Miyavi and his creative teams are resorting to technology — and unusual work hours — to keep performing in front of fans.

Miyavi follows a drone outside teamLab Planets in Tokyo.
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

Born Takamasa Ishihara in Osaka in 1981, Miyavi is best known for his fast-paced, catchy electro-rock music and frenetic guitar playing. He started out in the visual kei band Dué le Quartz before embarking on a solo career that eventually began to encompass modeling and acting, including roles in Hollywood movies like Unbroken and Kong: Skull Island.

In other words, he tends to have a full calendar, and 2020 was supposed to have been no different. Miyavi normally bases himself in LA, and early this year was booked for some movies, TV projects, and a Gucci campaign. Then, his latest solo album Holy Nights was set for an April release with a tour to follow. But by the beginning of March, Miyavi found himself back in Tokyo, and it was clear that plans would have to change.

“For us creators, you know, we can’t do live performances now,” Miyavi told me earlier over Zoom. “So it’s really a crucial time to find a new way, a new normal.”

To start with, Miyavi’s need to work in both Japan and the US complicates matters. “To be honest, we had lots of paths and lots of ideas, and we also had a lot of arguments because nobody knew what it was gonna be like,” he says. “Each country has a different situation. Usually I have my team in Japan in Tokyo, and a team in America, so we all talk. But the situations [with COVID-19] we’re in are all different. So we heard lots of ‘it’s not the time to shoot a music video.”’ We listened but we didn’t stop, because in Japan, even at that time, record stores were not closed. So we were planning to do a regular campaign and I was even shooting TV programs.”

But it soon became evident that plans to shoot two music videos in the US weren’t going to work out. “In America, the emergency declaration already happened, and as soon as we found out that Miyavi cannot fly out to the States, we’ve got to switch to more virtual creation,” Miyavi says. (He sometimes talks in the third person.) “That’s why we started making the music video for ‘Holy Nights’ with our animators, so that creates a world without having me.”

Miyavi dropped the anime-influenced “Holy Nights” video, developed by his US creative team, on YouTube on May 10th, proclaiming it to be the beginning of “Miyavi Virtual.” But an anime music video doesn’t capture a real performance. For that, a new technological approach would be required.

Director David Cihelna talked with Miyavi’s US-based creative directors Dyan Jong and Annie Stoll about using volumetric capture with the video for “Need for Speed,” the next single. This is a technique that employs several cameras at once to capture a 3D model that can be used in CGI renderings. It allows for “virtual” video that’s based on an actual performance — and of course, it’s easier to do safely than a traditional shoot right now.

“The only physical shooting we did was in a volumetric capture studio in Japan,” Cihelna tells The Verge. “We had a minimal team there, pretty much just Miyavi recording 3D models of his movements. The rest of the team was on Zoom, I directed him remotely.”

“This technology is between VR, AR, and reality, so I was really fascinated,” Miyavi says. “Especially since it captures, like, my tattoos and my hairstyle! So it was pretty tough to choose a costume — I wasn’t allowed to wear any green stuff, it’s got to be really solid and tight because while shooting I was surrounded by a green background. It’s all imagination. It was a really…

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