Star Apps: Thomas Dolby

The musician who ushered us into "The Golden Age of Wireless" sounds off about the software behind his new film "The Invisible Lighthouse" and multimedia presentation, as well as his favorite apps.

If synthpop star Thomas Dolby's assumed stage name is a testament to his appreciation of sound, his new film, "The Invisible Lighthouse" honors his love of light, specifically a twinkling light from his favorite lighthouse on the East Coast of England, which lulled him to sleep, in childhood. But as satellite navigation now renders it obsolete and global warming and beach erosion threaten its very existence, the lighthouse is in danger of closure. In an attempt to stem the tide and save his cherished landmark, Dolby has produced the awareness-raising film "The Invisible Lighthouse" and has toured it as a multimedia event, complete with concert and narration, around the U.K.

Thomas Dolby is suited up and ready for battle to save his cherished lighthouse. (Credit: Bruce + Jana)

Now the multiple-Grammy nominated artist, producer, and tech wizard, who blinded us with science and made us "Hyperactive!" in the 80s and helped develop downloadable music files and mobile ringtones in the 90s, brings his software-laden show to the U.S. for a 20-date tour of classic cinemas and indie film festivals, starting with the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 10. As his stateside debut approached, Dolby sounded off to about the now-endangered lighthouse that landed a thousand ships, his already award-winning film, the software behind his impressive multimedia extravaganza, and his favorite apps.

Aside from the specific lighthouse that is the subject of your new film, what do lighthouses, in general, symbolize to you?
I think lighthouses, for many people, symbolize the nobility of the coast, and the fact that they're comforting, because you know that they've guided sailors and ships and so on; and they're dependable because they're always there. That's what it meant to me, but as I've shown the film to other people, I've found that everyone has a favorite lighthouse that they feel the same way about.

How did you go from having an interest in a particular lighthouse to deciding to make a documentary about it?
Well, I felt a little powerless, really, because when I first read about it, I thought that something has to be done about this. But it turns out that the coast is so fluid that the erosion is so bad that there's no possibility of removing or trying to protect it or anything like that. So the goal was to document these things and try to hold a mirror up to reality, and so that's what I chose to do. But I already made an album, "A Map of the Floating City," and some videos, which were heavily influenced by the atmosphere of that coast, so I wanted to try a different medium and I thought about a film.

This seems like a major undertaking. What were you most nervous about, when starting the project?
I was slightly nervous about walking across a site where there were unexploded bombs, to be perfectly honest. But here I am [laughs]. I tried to get cooperation from the various authorities: the Ministry of Defence, the National Trust, the Trinity House, which is a 500-year-old institution that for centuries has been taking tolls for lighthouses and they still control them and I've gotten no cooperation from any of them, which is a bit disheartening.

But I think that's just because I'm a maverick individual and not the BBC, and so I took the law into my own hands and was determined to get out there and do some shooting, so I did a clandestine commando raid of the islands in an RIB [rigid inflatable boat] with cameras rolling.

Did you think that you might get arrested?
I did and I thought that it would be Michael Moore style if I did and I could integrate it into the film. Or if there are indeed unexploded bombs on that island, it would be a suitable climax to my film [laughs] and I might win a Darwin award.

In the film you mention using Google Maps. I'm curious, were there any other apps that helped you through the process?
I shot with a straight-level camera such as a Panasonic Handycam. I also shot with a Parrot AR.Drone, a little quadcopter that you can fly using your iPhone and it has an HD camera in it, so I did some aerial shots with that. I edited the film with Apple Final Cut Pro X. I should also mention Shutterstock, which is a user-driven stock footage library, where anybody who's a photographer or filmmaker can sell their own work as stock footage, like an Etsy for film. They have a huge selection of stuff.

What can you tell us about the performances that you'll be doing to accompany the film on this tour?
I project the film, but I do the entire soundtrack live with the help of Blake Leyh, who's a world-renowned sound designer and music supervisor, so he's really slumming it with me on this tour. But we have a great partnership and are having a lot of fun.

See the performance trailer for "The Invisible Lighthouse" below:

Can you talk about some of the software that you use for the performance?
So everything is run off a pair of Macbook Pros and Blake and I each have Apple Logic running in real time and that's doing most of the synthesizers and effects and treatments of the sound. In that case all my keyboards are triggering sounds from within Logic, and in Blake's case he's got a microphone full of foley sounds like footsteps and the beating of bird wings and it's been treated by Logic, and Logic is also controlling lights and smoke and lasers via another app, which you can use to control your light show. And the sound is entirely mixed through a new Mackie mixer called the DL1608, which uses multiple iPads as an interface. Now, instead of having a mixing desk in back of the room, a front-of-house engineer can sit in any seat in the house with an iPad and mix the sound and each of the musicians onstage can mix their own sound via their own iPads, so it's a very sophisticated setup and a new approach to live sound mixing. The visuals are QuickTime movies being triggered from Logic.

Dolby\'s new show is best described as a multimedia extravaganza. (Credit: Bruce + Jana)

You released the Toad Lickers app, back in 2011, to accompany your last album. Which apps do you use in your free time?
You know, I'm not really that geeky anymore, believe it or not. I haven't been immersed in geekdom for a couple of decades. Lately I've been more into racing classic sailboats and walking in the countryside. I use Shazam quite a lot because I'm really focused on knowing who current artists are. So I'll be sitting in a coffee bar and if I really need to know what something is, I Shazam it. I've got the Square app, which we use for merchandising on the road. I've got a brainstorming app, called Popplet and one called Corkulous, where I jot down ideas. I've got a parking app that I use in England whenever I have to find a parking space called RingGo.

Do you ever DJ on your iPad?
I do a little bit of DJing and there's a Traktor DJ app that I use on my iPhone and iPad for my friend's parties.

"The Invisible Lighthouse" has already won multiple awards. Is more filmmaking in your future?
I like being a lonely maverick filmmaker and not sure if I've got another personal story in my arsenal as deep as "The Invisible Lighthouse," but other people do...and the key to this DIY filmmaking is that personal stories will start to get told that would never have gotten funded by the studio system, so I can make more special interest films while applying the same homegrown techniques that are in "The Invisible Lighthouse" to someone else's story. It will be exciting to see where the wind blows me next.

Catch "The Invisible Lighthouse" in your city:
Thurs., Oct. 10 MILL VALLEY, CA Mill Valley Film Festival
Sun., Oct. 20 ORLANDO, FL Orlando Film Festival
Wed., Oct. 23 SELLERSVILLE, PA Sellersville Theater
Thurs., Oct. 24 PHILADELPHIA, PA The Trocadero Theatre in association with the Philadelphia Film Festival
Fri., Oct. 25 ALBANY, NY The Egg - Swyer Theater
Sat., Oct. 26 SOMERVILLE, MA Somerville Theatre
Mon., Oct. 28 NEW YORK, NY Gramercy Theatre
Tues., Oct. 29 CARNEGIE, PA Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall
Wed., Oct. 30 TORONTO, ON 99 Sudbury
Fri., Nov. 1 GLOUCESTER, MA Cape Anne Film Festival
Sun., Nov. 3 ROYAL OAK, MI Royal Oak Music Theatre
Mon., Nov. 4 CHICAGO, IL Mayne Stage
Tues., Nov. 5 MINNEAPOLIS, MN Cedar Cultural Center
Wed., Nov. 6 MADISON, WI Majestic Theatre
Thurs., Nov. 7 MILWAUKEE, WI Shank Hall
Sat., Nov. 9 ST LOUIS, MO Blueberry Hill in association with the St. Louis Film Festival
Mon., Nov. 11 LAWRENCE, KS Liberty Hall
Wed., Nov 13 BOULDER, CO The Dairy Center for the Arts
Thurs., Nov. 14 DENVER, CO Bluebird Theater
Sun., Nov. 17 VANCOUVER, BC Rio Theatre
Mon., Nov 18 SEATTLE, WA Showbox at the Market
Tues., Nov. 19 PORTLAND, OR Alberta Rose Theater
Thurs., Nov. 21 SAN FRANCISCO, CA Swedish American Music Hall
Fri., Nov. 22 LOS ANGELES, CA Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Sat., Nov. 23 SACRAMENTO, CA Crest Theater

About Joshua Rotter

Joshua Rotter is a copy editor for and covers iOS.