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In Virtual Reality, a Condemned LA Punk Venue Becomes Immortal

This VR film will take you to a show at The Smell, complete with crowd surfing.
Still from virtual tour of The Smell. Image courtesy of Vice Cooler

Last summer, DIY music and art space The Smell received notice that the Downtown LA building it occupied since 1999 had been sold to developers and was slated to be demolished. It would have to find a new location. Music video director Vice Cooler, who played at the all-ages club many times in bands like XBXRX and Hawnay Troof, knew he might not be able to save the venue from eviction, but wanted to do something to help. He asked his friend, film director Gil Kenan, to help him make a virtual reality film to document a place that has been so important to them and countless others.

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Still from virtual tour of The Smell. Image courtesy of Vice Cooler

“Both of us did it for the same reason,” Kenan says, “We both look to The Smell as the center of culture for us in Los Angeles. Both of us have sort of grown up there and it's been an integral part of our lives.” In keeping with the punk-rock ethic that has always been a part of The Smell's culture, neither filmmaker had ever worked with virtual reality before, but, with the pro-bono help of Butcher Bird Studios, they attacked the project with enthusiasm.

Kenan and Cooler enlisted The Smell regulars, like noise rockers No Age and relative newcomers Clit Kat, to perform in the video, and everything was shot in a matter of hours. Nearly all of the performances were done in one take. The result is a virtual tour which captures the performance space and the scene it has fostered. The video takes viewers through various areas of The Smell, including the bathroom, while navigation buttons allow them to explore every graffiti-covered corner. Light stands are visible from some angles and in some cases the four-directional camera was operated by volunteers who had never touched a camera before. The audio was professionally recorded and mastered, but no special effort was made to make the performances sound better than the venue would typically allow for. “We wanted it to be very honest and true to the space,” Cooler says.

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Still from virtual tour of The Smell. Image courtesy of Vice Cooler

Shooting and editing a virtual reality film is time consuming and costly, but Kenan says it was valuable as a way to show that the experience of being at The Smell is about more than what was happening on stage. “There is the inevitable moment when you turn to see the people on either side of you, or look behind you to see the crowd's reaction, and there is the experience of walking in and finding your place in the crowd. Those are feelings that are hard to convey with a fixed angle,” he explains. Kenan recommends experiencing the video through a VR headset with headphones while standing, but says you can get the idea just by watching from your laptop.


“We wanted to create a visual piece to raise awareness but also to document what The Smell is, or, perhaps, was, for future generations. There will always be kids who need music that is off the beaten path as a way to survive the teenage years and beyond. In Los Angeles, it's been The Smell that's stood up for those kids,” Kenan says. Cooler, for his part, hopes the video will remind people that The Smell is still there and still needs help—The Smell has until July in its present location. Organizer Jim Smith is raising money to rent a new space or buy a building. Get inside the VR tour below:

The virtual tour of The Smell is also available for free download from The Smell website.


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