June 03, 2020

Behind the Scenes of Pop-Up Magazine’s First Online Show

When shelter-in-place orders made their live event impossible, the creative team (once again) broke all molds to connect us in a new way.

Pop-Up Magazine, a much-loved part of our In/Visible Talks community, is a magazine performed live. What started as a hobby with a small audience has grown to become a cultural phenomenon held before audiences of thousands in historic venues (Lincoln Center, Howard Gilman Opera House, Davies Symphony Hall). Each show features never-before-seen or -heard multimedia stories performed by writers, radio producers, photographers, filmmakers, illustrators, and musicians. Established and emerging artists share the stage. Each event is unique, tickets sell out in minutes, and nothing is recorded: To see it, you have to be there.

That all changed with COVID-19 and sheltering-in-place orders. A decision was made to create a first-ever virtual experience, and The Spring Issue: At Home was released on May 27.

We wanted to know everything from behind the scenes of this ground-breaking collaborative effort. Once they caught their breath, Pop-Up Magazine team members Leo Jung (Creative Director), Annie Jen (Art Director), Rebecca Chew (Art Director), and Megan Lotter (Digital Designer) graciously answered our questions. In the process, they also gave us a look at how art and creativity helps us all stay connected during times of crisis. Cheers to them and their achievements!

What was your first thought when you learned Pop-Up Magazine’s Spring Issue was going virtual?

Annie: Scary and exciting. It feels different yet similar to our live show, and the most important thing is working on how to carry the spirit and feeling of Pop-Up Magazine to the video-viewing experience. 

Leo: I went through three stages: Fear (“How do we adapt the magic of a live show and make a video experience feel similar?”) —> Stress (“How do we highlight all the elements of our show without it looking busy and overwhelming?”) —> Excitement (“This is hard to pull off, but I think it actually works.”).

Was it a tough decision? One of the tenants of Pop-Up Magazine’s past has been that there’s no documentation of the live experience. 

Leo: Not really. Yes, you lose the fleeting and ephemeral quality, but in its place, you gain the opportunity to reach far more people and show them what we do. If you’ve never seen the show or have always been curious, this is a nice little taster. We, like many other companies in live events, are responding to the pandemic the best way we can. Our hope is that we, and our audience, will be back in theaters soon.

How did the constraints of adapting a live experience to an entirely virtual one shape your work? What came easily? Where were the challenges?

Annie: The challenge is to preserve the spirit of Pop-Up, but in a different medium. What comes easy are the aspects of what are the components of the show: the story, art, music that all come together to present a multimedia experience. Normally in our live production, there is a distinctive hierarchy you see on stage. The large screen in the middle projects art. On the two ends of the stage are the live band and presenter. You’re viewing the presentation from a distance. Video, however, is a much more close-up, individual viewing experience. When all three elements are presented on the screen, you can feel overwhelmed by all those movements, and your eyes don’t know where to focus. So, working on pacing, what cells are moving versus what’s static, what do you want the audience to focus on now at this moment. The approach of combining all three elements, editing them cohesively, and giving a good pacing throughout the story in the hopes of evoking the same storytelling experience can be challenging. 

Leo: We’ve never had to adapt the live show to digital before, so it was uncharted territory for us. We’ve never had to all work remotely before either, so the challenge was two-fold! What we do is rather unique: We tell a collection of unpublished stories, we compose music for them, and we commission art for them. Each component contributes to the interdependent dynamic of bringing the story to life. We didn’t want to hide any of those pieces. We wanted to remind folks that while you’re hearing someone tell a story from Portland, someone was playing a vibraphone in L.A., and someone painted this art in New York. There’s beauty in that. 

What direction, tips, or guidance did you give the team as you approached this new challenge together?

Leo: Before the pandemic, Rebecca had designed the beautiful identity for the Spring Issue. When shelter-in-place was in order, and we shifted to video, we didn’t want to hide the fact that everything was being created in people’s homes. We wanted to lean into it. And the results are a more analog/hand-done/stop-motion feel to the identity within the show. 

For the stories, I was adamant that I didn’t want any part of it to look anything like a video-conference call. Building space between art, music, and story was important. We took inspiration from the use of multi-cell grids from comics and graphic novels. It’s a great way to build scenes, create momentum, and give a cinematic quality to storytelling. We wanted to use the space on the screen in fun and unexpected ways. There’s no reason why every image needs to be full screen. And if you’re using multiple cells, there’s no reason why the first image needs to always start on the top left. 

What is the biggest learning you’re taking away from the project?

Rebecca: It’s my first Pop-Up Magazine issue, and almost everything about it is a new learning experience. Besides the technical aspect of turning a live show into a streaming video, my biggest takeaway is that it requires a collaborative effort to pull off good storytelling.

Megan: To trust my instincts and know that my team is so supportive of one another. We’re a small but dedicated group, and as a newer member, I’m constantly blown away by how kind and talented everyone is. As a former freelancer, I have done a lot of remote work but never experienced still feeling connected and creative with a team. It makes all the difference.    

Annie: In the past, when we were working on live production, as an art department we focused more on the art itself. But now we are expanding art direction beyond art directions for illustrations/animations, but also for filming and video editing, and for how to present music moments. You’re considering a more cohesive way of approaching the story. 

Leo: Working remotely is hard. Working remotely with no daycare is harder. Shout-out to all the parents out there. If my team wasn’t so patient, talented, and dedicated, we would’ve imploded.

What are you most proud of with this issue?

Rebecca: I’m proud of being part of the team of talented and hardworking people I get to call my colleagues. We’re all working remotely, and we’ve managed to create a virtual event that brings people closer through a shared experience.

Annie: I’m proud of the fact that when I see all the stories completed, and when I see the whole show from start to finish, this feels like Pop-Up. We, as a small team, had to pivot in such a short amount of time, and only this crew who really supported and appreciated one another was able to pull this off. This show feels tight and with high production, considering the constraints we had.

Megan: I’m so proud of the way every department really came together to make this show with the energy we did. It could not have happened so successfully and impressively without the dedication of everyone involved.  

Leo: There wasn’t a model for how a live show like ours should look on video. In some ways, showing all the elements that make up a multimedia story seems counterintuitive. We’re accustomed to not seeing the narrator or the band. But we made it work. When I watched the whole video, I genuinely felt like it had the essence of a live Pop-Up Magazine show. And that’s an incredible feat. 

What do you think the role of the arts is in a time of crisis?

Annie: What art provides in a time of crisis is to share connections. In the time of crisis, one can so easily feel overwhelmed by helplessness and loneliness. Through art, we are able to share our mutual experiences and connect with each other. 

Leo: We’re all looking to connect in a moment of disconnection. Reminding people of our humanity is what will get us through this. Why do you think seeing a group of ambitious, young Latin American students play mariachi is so moving? Why does the song “Don’t Stop Believin’” take on a totally different meaning for me now? It’s hope.

The Spring Issue: At Home premiered on YouTube on May 27 at 6 pm PST / 9 pm EST and is now streaming on demand. Watch it here.