“Voices” Music Video: Process Blog

For “Voices,” the first single off of our latest album, I worked with multi-hyphenate artist Mark Landry to create this video:

Here’s the process we took to get there:

For the song “Goodbye at the End of the World” on the last album, Dust Among the Stars, I created an animated music video. I loved how it turned out, but as not-a-professional-animator, it was a colossal undertaking. So when it came time to think about music videos for Dreamers & Runaways, I knew I wanted to do something that was similarly unique, but I also knew that I couldn’t take a bite from the same apple.

The ideation process for the “Voices” music video literally began in the dark, with me thinking through the lyrics of the song, and allowing whatever images they might conjure to come. It was about the same time that the U.S. had decided to separate families — literally ripping children from their mothers’ arms — at the southern border. As an American, and a parent, this was simply too much to bear, and it’s no surprise that those images crept into my darkened little mental theater, and a story began to take shape from there. But a scenario that starts with militaristic thugs in masks yanking a baby from a mother’s grasp and that ends with a rally full of thousands of followers started to feel like an animated project again, and one that I would simply not hold up under.

That’s when the idea of doing this story as a comic came to me. I am very fortunate to have a friend in Mark Landry, who created the comic Bloodthirsty: One Nation Under Water. I reached out to him, to bounce ideas off of and see if he might have any interest in drawing the comic. So Mark came on board.

Step one was the script. I’d never done a comic script before, but there are some great resources out there. I relied on Dark Horse Comics’ sample pages that they make available.

Mark had a ton of great insight on my first pass of the script. After we talked it through and I made the necessary changes, Mark moved on to thumbnails.

We massaged those a bit, and he went to pencils, working backward through the book. The final pages were the most difficult and time-consuming, with all the detail and crowd work, so he started there.

Thumbnails through layout through ink

As Mark did all the pages by hand, scanned them in, and sent me inked pages, I started lettering and coloring them. For lettering, I bought fonts from Blambot, which were an absolute joy to get to use. Please never use Comic Sans. Please support these great craftspeople.

To get the aged comic look, I relied on a set of tools called DEBASER from True Grit Texture Supplies.  It’s an amazing bunch of tools, and I thought the results they created were outstanding.

As a matter of fact, in order to learn DEBASER, I colored a black-and-white version of the first page of EC Comics’ legendary story Judgment Day and tried to make it look like the original. You can see the results here:

Original (L), Fantagraphics Key Art (C), After DEBASER (R)

But during the coloring process, Mark and I hit a snag in terms of scheduling after his light table broke. The song premiered online while I was literally driving to San Jose for WorldCon 76, so we needed to get the video done quickly. With Mark about to start another project with a hard deadline, and his light table out of commission until a replacement could arrive, we discussed me creating the cover of the book. I don’t draw well, and this seemed like an impossible task…but I took a couple of reference photos in the hotel at WorldCon, and started doing pencils for the cover on my iPad.

I created the finished cover in Illustrator.

I started putting the actual printed book together, and pulled in some vintage ads from real 1940s comics. These public domain sources are available from the Digital Comic Museum, a site I simply cannot recommend highly enough if you have any interest in vintage comics.

One painful, explanation-heavy trip to FedEx Office later, and I had an actual, printed comic in my hand. I put it on my kitchen table, and filmed it to create the finished video, shooting in 4K so I could push in for greater detail, since the video was mastered to 1080.

That’s about it. If you buy Dreamers & Runaways on Bandcamp, a digital download of the comic is included as a PDF. If you want to check out Mark’s other work (and you totally should), you can see much of his brilliant painting output at LandryImages.com.

And finally, if you are an eligible nominating member of WorldCon 77, the “Voices” video is eligible to be nominated in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category. Help spread the word!

Film Scores, Inspiration, and Whatnot

I’ve had some conversations this week about inspiration, and finding yourself in unfamiliar artistic waters, and it reminded me of something I’d written earlier this year, but never got a chance to share. Infectious Magazine wanted me to write a guest piece about film scoring, and instead I gave them a shaggy dog story about how an unconventional piece of music changed my musical path. They didn’t really go for it, so I gave them another piece they liked better.

But I liked the first draft, too, and I thought it was a nice look at how opening yourself up to things outside of your regular artistic focus can have wonderful repercussions. So here goes…

Without a doubt, the single piece of music that has had the most tangible impact on my life is Moussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and there’s a bright line between me seeing that performed for the first time and all of my film composition work. Many years ago, while in college, I was playing drums in a progressive metal band, and our cellist was in her campus orchestra. They did Pictures at an Exhibition, which I’d never heard, and my seat was right up front, in front of the double basses. I watched them for most of the performance, and, even though I’d seen orchestral music performed before, this was the first time for me that an orchestra stopped being a unified wall of music-making, and I was able to recognize the disparate parts, and begin to recognize how much or little the different sections played, and how these many pieces fit together.
I don’t know that I’d ever written a song at that point, and I’d only ever played drums — maybe I was just starting to pick up the guitar — so the idea of creating melodies was not something that I’d ever really entertained. But after that night in San Marcos, Texas, I downloaded a modular software synth and started exercising a totally new set of muscles.
 
I was also a filmmaker. A few months later, I was directing a short film with a big surrealism element, and I happened to find a harpsichord abandoned in a dark hallway (different story for a different day). I thought surrealism and harpsichords would go together just like melting clocks and barren trees, so I wrote a four-minute piece for solo harpsichord to go with the movie, and bam! I was a film composer.
 
Over the years since, I wrote quite a bit of (mostly) electronic music, trying to learn more about different voices, different textures, and just overall composition. Some of that music was specifically for film projects of my own or for friends’ projects, and some of it I just wrote and it later found its way into films. So with film composition as a sort of sideline hobby, I started paying more attention. Requiem for a Dream and Amelie came out about the same time, and both totally changed how I thought about film music. A year or so later, maybe, Turner Classic Movies hosted a Young Film Composers Competition, giving burgeoning composers the opportunity to score classic silent films. I watched everything I could about that, and learned a lot about traditional approaches to scoring — things like character leitmotifs. As I got more tuned-in to that kind of thing, I started thinking of film music as a way of communicating information, in addition to enhancing onscreen emotion. There’s a great example of the score actually telling a joke in Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, when a little kid of dubious parentage walks into a room. And Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock is legendary; in the moment in Vertigo when James Stewart is at his most emotionally fraught, and the music is swelling, suddenly there’s somebody just raking their fingers across a harp. You’ve never heard anybody do that to a harp, and even if you don’t consciously realize it, your brain registers that we’re in a new, terrifying place in this person’s psyche.
 
I don’t know that I’m qualified to give anybody advice on film scoring (or, anything, really), but my own path has involved 1) knowing and meeting people making films, 2) consciously trying to evolve and try new things as someone who writes music, and 3) learning how to play more instruments…or at least learning enough to screw around on more instruments.
 
Over this past summer, I was asked to score a complete feature film for the first time, and I think we took a pretty unique approach to the idea of a film score. The director asked if he thought I could do a “rock and roll score” — not songs, but essentially a traditional film score played with loud-ass guitars, distorted bass, and booming drums. After years of playing drums in rock and metal bands, playing guitar in a couple rock bands, writing and recording some 30+ songs with my band Sci-Fi Romance, and whatever on-the-job training I got from working in the world of short films…well, I was sure as hell going to find out if I could.
 
And if you think about it, Pictures at an Exhibition is really a film score, even though it was written before there was such a thing as film. Modeste Moussorgsky attended an art gallery showing of works by a friend who had recently died. Afterward, Moussorgsky wrote a piece of music for each painting on display, and connected them all with a Promenade theme, which evolves and changes as you move through the temporal experience of the show. It’s putting music to picture. And maybe nobody’s ever done it any better.

 

“Goodbye at the End of the World” Process Blog

The music video for “Goodbye at the End of the World” was a pretty major undertaking for me. It is a four-plus minute, computer animated music video about an alien invasion and a couple whose relationship is on the rocks, but who try to save the world. It was written, designed, animated, and rendered by me alone. I had never done anything like it before, so I wanted to run down the process behind the video and tip my hat to the individuals and sites that helped me eventually get the thing across the finish line.

When I set out, what I wanted to do was tell a story that allowed me to pay homage to the sci-fi, classic horror, and cult films that I love, and that have been a front-and-center influence on the band’s music. Initially, I had the notion that I might actually hand-draw a video in an attempt at something like the UPA style of animation that defines the look of 1950s animation for me. I figured it was contemporary with the great 50s sci-fi films, and it would feel like a natural fit.

I went away to a cabin in the mountains to watch old movies, drink beer in a styrofoam cup, and write the script

I went away to a cabin in the mountains to watch old movies, drink beer in a styrofoam cup, and write the script

Thing is, I’m a terrible draftsman, and I wasn’t able to even design characters that I liked. There was certainly no way I’d be able to hand-draw the thing. I have experience in motion graphics and a little bit of experience in 3D modeling programs, although never really with anything much more ambitious than flying text. I was able to design a pair of characters and some alien vehicles that I could live with, and then set to work trying to model them.

Concept Sketches

Concept sketches for the two characters and the alien walker

The modeling and animation were done in Cinema 4D. I had the help of Josh Johnson when it came to rigging the humans, because my first attempts at that were so disastrous that I knew I’d never get there in the time I had. I relied heavily on C4D Cafe for tutorials and insights available in their message boards. I watched a ton of videos on Vimeo (many from Greyscale Gorilla and EJ Hassenfratz) to learn about rigging, toon shading, and more.

The characters, aliens, some of the buildings, the streets, a number of props, and the interiors I mostly built from scratch. For the rest, I used some of the models that came in Cinema 4D, as well as models available at Turbosquid and Archive 3D, to which I usually made some kind of changes. I don’t feel too bad about using canned models, since I was working on my own and simply did not have the time to model everything from scratch.

I cannot thank the artists who made tutorial videos and contributed to these sites enough. I simply never would have been able to do this without their generosity.

Once all the sets and rigs were completed, I just got to animating. The entire project start-to-finish took about three months of late nights, usually starting work about 10 pm and wrapping up between 1 and 3 am. And then up again at 7 to go to work.

The finished video has over a dozen references to films and writers hidden (mostly) throughout. I think the video rewards careful viewing for that reason, and also because, particularly inside the museum, there are some set-dressing elements that help fill in the backstory to the aliens and why all of these events are happening in the first place.

Museum Kane Shot_0087

A still from inside the museum. Notice the crashed flying saucer on display. Keen-eyed viewers will notice a number of other things hidden in this shot, as well.

I’m quite proud of the finished video. Its technical shortcomings are certainly evident, but for a one-person production, I think that all-in-all, I punched well above my weight. I’m proud of it as a piece of storytelling, and for the fact that somehow, I feel like the characters came out empathetically.

Goodbye at the End Script

I had two of the walkers 3D printed at Shapeways. Because.

I had two of the walkers 3D printed at Shapeways. Because.