The Paranormal Unicorn

Pic: Viki Noviki

There’s a new name in the lighting world that is fast gaining recognition for its innovative approach to design, and for the variety of projects that already fill its extensive portfolio. And it’s a name that sticks in the mind.

Founded in 2011 by Austrian-American art student Stefan Yazzie Herbert, The Paranormal Unicorn describes itself as an ‘audio-visual artist collective’ that specialises in stage and lighting design. Based in Vienna, Austria, the firm originally began as a platform for Herbert and two friends, carpenter Benni Frener and Philipp Gantioler to launch a prospective music career.

“We were hobby DJs who wanted a cool stage show for ourselves, so we made our very first project together: Stage One,” explained Herbert. “After quickly realising that nobody really wanted to book us as DJs but they still wanted the stage, we started renting it out to raves and festivals. As we got to know people in the industry, we were asked to do more and more commissioned work.”

Now, Herbert runs The Paranormal Unicorn with current business partner Dominik Hell-Weltzl, and over the years the company’s skill set has expanded to include video and content production. Though Herbert says that their passion is still rooted in light and stage design: “That’s where we shine – no pun intended.”

Herbert’s fascination with light began while helping out friends at design studio Neon Golden on an installation at Viennese club ‘Grelle Forelle’ during his studies at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. “During that project they taught me how to solder, how dimmers work and gave me a rough understanding of electronics,” he said.

“Later, after the success of Stage One, people started to know me as ‘the LED guy’, so lights and projects associated with light seemed to follow me. The more I worked with the medium, the more I fell in love with it.

“I had previously done quite a bit of work as a VJ but once I started working with LEDs, my passion for projected light fell by the wayside. The intensity and emotion of emitted light was much more powerful to me than what projected light could ever give.”

Since the inception of The Paranormal Unicorn, Herbert has been very open about his relative lack of experience in the lighting world, but he’s always keen to improve his knowledge through working with others. While this approach brings with it an element of risk, Herbert believes that such risk is the only way to truly reach the next level.

“Every time anybody wants to do something never done before, it’s a risky move,” he said. “And besides, if I knew exactly how to do everything already, life would be boring. Every new project is a learning experience – at least, the fun ones are – and for several of the more complicated projects I’ve worked on, I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who would have known exactly how to handle it.

“Throughout my career I’ve taken on projects that others perhaps wouldn’t have. It’s scary doing something bigger or more complicated than you’ve ever worked on before, but if it takes you to the next level, it’s almost always worth it. Sure, it’s risky and I’ve taken a black eye or two when I’ve underestimated the breadth of the project, but if I could do it all again, I would still rather take the black eye than turn down an amazing opportunity.”

Herbert’s notion that you “don’t need to be an expert in order to make things happen” is a refreshing approach, but he feels that by accepting your own limitations, it allows you to develop your skills and progress further.

“Embracing your own ignorance gives you the power to find people who are better than you in that specific field, and that improves the quality of a project,” he explained. “I constantly try to surround myself with smarter and more experienced people. Knowing the extent of your own skills is paramount. If you overestimate yourself, the project will ultimately always suffer from it.”

Indeed this collaborative element of his work is something that Herbert wants to see more of in the lighting world. “I hope to see more collaboration between fields,” he said. “As a society we are tending more towards specialisation but in my opinion, the most fascinating innovations are happening where multiple areas of expertise overlap.

“All of the technological inventions that are currently being hyped, like smart lighting and wireless technology aren’t really changing the aesthetics of lighting that much. Interconnectivity between people is more important than between devices.”

While The Paranormal Unicorn has often taken on jobs without knowing how to complete them, Herbert believes that this constant drive to find new projects in new areas helps make them unique. “What really makes our company stand out is that we aren’t afraid to try out new things, and really enjoy working in new fields,” he said.

“We’ve forayed into unknown territory so often at this point that we’ve become quite good at learning new workflows and interfacing with new teams. We never shy away from a challenge, and we’re always excited to see what’s going to come next.”

By venturing into the unknown throughout their tenure, The Paranormal Unicorn has landed a number of really fascinating projects, including light art installations, music video productions and stage designs for festivals and touring musicians. There are two projects though that, for Herbert at least, stand out among the others: “From an artistic standpoint, Hidden Noise is by far my favourite project that I’ve created, and Gravitas was the most fun from a teamwork perspective because it involved so many different fields of expertise.”

The Hidden Noise project, created in 2014, was one born out of necessity for Herbert. A failing university student, his professors had voted to kick him off his course, but after being granted one last chance, he needed a good idea to keep him in school.

Luckily, inspiration came to him during a workshop with Christina Kubisch, where he was given ‘electro-magnetic transducer headphones’ to work with. These devices could sense the environment for anything that used electro-magnetic waves (Wi-Fi, motors, lights, etc.) and convert those waves into audio signals. It was here where inspiration struck.

“My classmate David Osthoff and I loved this idea of an entirely new world that was constantly around us but that we couldn’t see,” Herbert said. “We wanted to visualise it in a way that immediately made sense to the viewer. So we created a technique using the transducer, an LED stick, a photo camera and a video camera that made it possible to ‘show’ this hidden world by visualising these audio waves.

“All of a sudden, you could see the hidden processes around us in plain sight. Subways starting and stopping, car motors zipping by, power lines humming all became suddenly visible. There is no judgement in the art piece, though it is intended to cause awareness about the ubiquity of this hidden noise around us.”

Hidden Noise is a remarkable, visually stunning art installation, and since its creation, it has been exhibited in Austria, China and Cuba. The reception it received meant that Herbert was ultimately not kicked out of university, although he revealed that he did later drop out anyway.

Herbert’s second favourite project, Gravitas, was something altogether much more high-octane. Following their work with Austrian drum and bass artists Camo & Krooked on their 2014 Zeitgeist European tour, in which The Paranormal Unicorn created a full-scale festival production for the show, including integrating its Möbius stage element, Herbert teamed up with the musicians, and the Red Bull Skydive team, for a very special music video that literally lit up the sky.

For the music video, The Paranormal Unicorn was approached by Red Bull to create a portable lighting system that had all the functionality needed for a full-colour, synchronised light show, while simultaneously being able to stand the wear-and-tear of skydiving.

“It was a perfect project for me because it encompassed so many different fields,” explained Herbert. “First off was the choreography. Because the Red Bull Skydiving team didn’t know anything about light, and I didn’t know anything about skydiving, we had to work together to develop a choreography that utilised the best of both worlds.”

After receiving the song to base the programming on, The Paranormal Unicorn worked closely with the skydiving team in order to come up with an interesting show that would showcase both their abilities as athletes and realise the full potential of the lighting system that they had created.

The technical aspect of the project provided the most difficult challenge though. Building a system that worked perfectly from a 4,000-metre jump all the way to the floor was no easy feat, thanks to a myriad of factors that they never had to consider before, like pressure, altitude and temperature. Alongside this, everything had to be wireless, and work with small batteries so that the enclosure for electronics weighed as little as possible.

After climbing to the required height, the jumpers synchronised their suits in the plane via remote control. All jumpers had earplugs so that they could stay synchronised and maintain awareness of what part of the choreography they were in.

Once the signal was given, the four athletes jumped out of the plane, followed by the cameraman, who had a 5kg camera attached to his head. The jumpers went through their choreography and then landed on an LED landing strip, also prepared by The Paranormal Unicorn. Because several angles were used in the video, the scene was repeated five times in total. “The weather didn’t always agree with us and we had to cancel a few jumps, but through thick and thin, we pulled through,” Herbert said.

“For me, what really made this project so much fun was the creative reign that I was given by Red Bull. They let me film, edit and direct the final video as well. We partnered with our friends at Frame Fatale for the post-production process and created something that we could all be proud of.

“Having knowledge about all of the different aspects involved in making a project like this is what made it work in the end. It’s projects like these that make me want to keep learning and innovating.”

The work that Herbert has done with The Paranormal Unicorn means that he could be classed as a ‘Light Artist’, rather than a lighting designer. However, while art and design are closely related, if he had to put a label on it at all, he seems himself as more of a designer.

“I have definitely created art in the past and continue to do so on occasion, but most of my creations are firmly in the realm of design,” he said. “But the label I give myself depends on the work I am currently doing. Sometimes I am a lighting designer, sometimes I’m a light artist, but I have donned the mantel of lighting technician, creative director, technical project manager and even lighting consultant.”

Whatever his title, Herbert is keen to take The Paranormal Unicorn further in the future, and while his profile has been boosted over the past twelve months, from speaking at the inaugural Trends in Lighting event, to hosting his own talk at TEDx Dornbirn, in which he designed his own stage, he’s still unsure what the future holds.

“I wish I knew! This year we’ve already had amazing opportunities to start working in a few new industries, from set design to product development,” he said.

“What is more fascinating to me though is the unknown. There are so many industries that are a complete mystery to me and I imagine that the next few years will be doing our best to see what industries could benefit from using light in crazy and innovative new ways.”

Indeed this quest for innovation is a driving factor for Herbert, who gets fairly philosophical on the subject: “I really believe in true innovation, completely new fields of thinking,” he said. “I want to use technology in order to create new ideas, try out things never done before, and to do it beautifully, aesthetically. If I can come up with one truly new idea before I die, in the world of lighting or otherwise, I can die in peace.”

But aside from his approach to lighting design, and what the future holds for The Paranormal Unicorn, there’s only really one question left to ask: where does the name come from?

“The Paranormal Unicorn doesn’t really mean anything, and none of us can really remember how it came about,” Herbert said, “but it does represent us quite well. It’s childish, fanciful and fun.

“We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we hope nobody else does either!”