Editing a music video – the balancing act

One of the interesting things about editing a music video, I find, is that there’s a real balancing act to manage the expectations of the artist(s) against those of the technical crew. This is even more apparent when working on relatively low budget productions.

The artist, of course, wants to look their best – and ideally that’s everyone’s goal for the video, as a music video’s primary purpose is to promote the artist and their music. The technical crew want their work to look the best – the shots they’ve taken, the way they’ve lit the set and every aspect of production that showcases their abilities. Their needs are also important as they are usually (at least in New Zealand) contributing their time and effort for a greatly reduced rate based on the understanding that they will use the resultant product as a calling card for their services.

The DP (Director of Photography) wants you, as an editor, to use only the shots with the best photography – the best lighting on the subject, the most interesting angle and ‘how’d they do that’ camera move. The artist wants only the shots that show their good side; those that catch their most natural moments of showmanship, not the ones where they’ve pulled a strange look to camera or performed an awkward move during the discomfort of trying to get “in the moment” at a public location with a crowded set and a tinny ghetto blaster providing playback(!). These issues may well be mitigated by larger budgets but with the scope of productions in New Zealand we are forced to deal with them on a regular basis.

The obvious issue that arises is when the needs of the two parties clash – the perfect shot that shows the DPs best-lit work contains a less-than-flattering angle of the artist, or the artist’s most natural looking moment of rock-star-cool happens as they pull back from their mark and go slightly soft focus… And when you’ve had to cram a three day shoot into one day there aren’t a lot of options.

Speaking of conflict between actor and crew, here’s the famous Klaus Kinski in one his many tirades at a crew member. The balancing act of managing volatile temperaments under pressure conditions is a whooole other post for another time…

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There’s no easy answer for this. My personal choice 95% of the time is to go with the best look for the artist over any technical issues – but I’ve also made the call at the 11th hour to completely reedit a significant chunk of a video because the DP was really unhappy with the shots used. In that case, the artist had made his own stipulations around any changes made to the cut he’d seen (i.e. we weren’t allowed to make any!) but thankfully, when it came down to it, he didn’t mind – I think mostly because he was unavailable at the time we had to make the edit and he only saw it much later so time had probably dulled his memory somewhat. I made the choice to edit, even so late in the piece, because my relationship with the DP was important to me and the shots used were important to him.

I don’t know if anyone else outside of NZ faces these issues but I know it’s something you have to get used to, working here. It keeps the tension high and makes for a significant personal win when everyone is pleased with the results! (fingers crossed for the current project!)

Voice Acting in Games

We’ve begun the process of casting a voice actor for the next game trailer we’re working on.

It always strikes me that there’s often an overly theatrical approach to voice acting in games, in general. I think we accept it only because we’re used to it. Many an article on voice acting makes a point of the fact that voice acting is a different beast entirely from screen acting. I think that’s obviously true in the process taken – but I find it hard to accept that the end result should be as different as it often is.

Theater acting is different from film in that there is a distance between the audience and the actor requiring projection and exaggeration. Voice acting for a radio show is a different discipline from either as there is no accompanying visual to assist in telling the story. With games, however, there is an accompanying visual and I feel the performance could go either way – if there are no close-ups and / or other filmic devices then perhaps a more theatrical approach is warranted (e.g. if the game maintains a top down view, not allowing the camera to go in close to see the characters – or if the characters are limited to reduced animations). The other situation is one in which you do have filmic syntax (close-ups, characters animated in sync with the story e.g. mocap) and that is the kind where I feel the standard approach to voice acting (being enclosed in a tiny booth without any of the environment or other characters to react to) is perhaps a less effective one.

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Games like Uncharted are getting closer to the best tactic, in my opinion, where the actors are being mocapped and delivering the dialogue at the same time. They are acting out the moves of the character while talking and responding to the other characters in the space.

I’ve often wondered whether a better approach might be similar to that taken when “looping”. One could get the actors into some kind of space and film a sequence using a standard video camera. Then, in the studio at a later time, essentially carry out a standard looping session – having the actor read back their lines as they watch themselves perform the scene on video. The purpose of this is to allow the actor to holistically embrace the emotion of the scene and to have them feed off the other players (if there are any) in the space. Budget-wise it wouldn’t have to cost too much extra – unless you wanted to dress the actors and the set, of course. I’ll be trying this on a future project and will do a write-up on its effectiveness!

Speaking of overly theatrical, the embedded video shows a behind the scenes look at the Dawn of War 2 voice actors. I mean in no way to cast aspersions on the approach taken for Dawn of War – if anything, they support my assertion that the theatrical approach may be warranted in places where cinematic devices are limited. The voice acting in DoW2 usually accompanies talking heads and topdown viewed characters so it makes sense that emotion and inflection is left for the voice to convey. There’s a lot of talent and ability on display here!

Oi! Besides providing the deep tones of Captain Davian Thule, Fred Tatasciore has been in almost everything else – from games to cartoons – including the voice of The Hulk in Ultimate Avengers and Hulk Vs, Damon Baird in Gears of War 3 and Saren from Mass Effect!

Editing another game trailer

I’m currently working on the next trailer for Path of Exile, the Online Action RPG by Auckland’s Grinding Gear Games.

I love the process of editing a trailer. You get to put together a tight little package of exciting content to convey a quick, simple message and generate questions and interest in the viewer’s mind.

I’m aiming to have the draft put together by tonight, ready for tomorrow where I’ll put in a full day onsite at Grinding Gear’s Titirangi office polishing and tweaking.

The first part of the process involves a lot of listening to the music tracks available to use. The very talented Mr. Adgio Hutchings of Texas has composed some wonderfully anthemic and epic tracks for Path of Exile so I’m not starved for choice. The trick is to find the best piece for the relevant section of the trailer and to be able to segue into the next piece in a way that makes sense logically, musically and emotionally.

The guys at GGG are after a tense, horror theme for the first section of the trailer so I’m looking for pieces that generate tension and grate ever so slightly on the hackles… (can one’s hackles even BE grated…?)

It’s great fun! More to come…

Matt Meikle – the future of cinematography

I’ve made a couple of music videos with Matt Meikle as the DP (Director of Photography) and he’s been a legend – showing me the ropes, taking the time to explain things patiently and giving me the floor as Director to make the necessary calls.

The Big Idea has an article / interview with Matt called “The Future Of Cinematography” and Matt gives some interesting insight into his own experience throughout his career.

“Matt Meikle… reveals a mature and considered approach to growing a career…”

Check the article out on The Big Idea.

The role of music in games

Some games understand the importance of dynamics, subtlety and just plain rightness when it comes to music.

My early experience of a deft touch of minimalism in game music occurred with the very first Tomb Raider game. My friend and I were caught up in a virtual world, staring at his projector screen in awe as Lara wandered through ancient ruins with nothing but the crunch crunch of gravel or clop clop of stone beneath her feet. The occasional brief musical stings as Lara entered a new area and a gorgeous vista opened up beneath her feet, were perfectly placed and brought a swell of anticipation whenever they appeared.

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Other games have a George Lucas approach to music: there is always a soundtrack playing. The japanese seem to love this style. Many’s the game where one finds oneself wandering through a picturesque village with jaunty music plunking away on endless repeat. The music becomes part of the background atmosphere after a while, then when you enter the next area – e.g. the vast, uncharted wilderness – a stirring anthem of adventure bursts forth and your expectation of new encounters, excitement and danger suddenly kicks in to gear.

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There’s obviously something appealing about the approach above (constant music) but I’m more of a fan of dynamics, personally.

A great example of soundtrack dynamics from film is in Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, during the sequence in Balin’s tomb, in the mines of Moria. When the orcs finally burst through the door and the battle is joined, the soundtrack that had been gradually building the tension of their approach drops out completely and all we hear is the thwack and whump of swords and arrows, interspersed with the occasional grunt and cry.

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Peter Jackson (or the editor ; ) uses the music to bring us into the mindspace of the heroes of the Fellowship: before the battle, when they can hear the howls of the orcs outside and the hacking of axes at the door, the music escalates along with the tension they are feeling; then, as the fray begins in earnest, the heroes’ focus turns from their imagination – from anticipation – to their immediate predicament; to the urgency of life and death and the simple act of keeping their enemy’s sword from entering their body. They hear no ‘mind music’ of escalating dread and anticipation – they are in the moment: a frantic and uncluttered zone of conflict (and, by extension and musical cue, so are we).

After a time, and at a significant moment in the narrative of the battle choreography, Jackson reintroduces Howard Shore’s score and we are figuratively ushered back in, as an audience, to witness the spectacle of our heroes in action.

~ * ~

Those sorts of dynamics, when applied to games, interest me the most. The music in a game is one part of a multi-faceted whole that includes the visuals and the gameplay experience – and just like an individual instrument in an orchestral score it should be employed at a specific time of the creator’s choosing. In musical scores an instrument is introduced at points where its particular contribution is most perfectly suited to the emotion or feeling the creator is trying to express at that time. At other times, it suits the score for that particular instrument to be silent.

As I said, I can’t understand the benefits or artistry involved in the decision to have a soundtrack constantly playing throughout a story experience (please enlighten me below!) – but it seems to me to be the difference between being enveloped in a holistic, engaging experience or simply playing a game where the music is a convention, like the health bar and the opening menu – something that, if missing, would be sorely noticed but when present, seems simply to fade into the background like so much wallpaper.

Some would say, “George Lucas had a constant soundtrack and we still experienced a great emotional journey from his films”, but I would point out that the music was often composed specifically for the images and action on-screen and was thus dynamic in its makeup – a dynamism that game music often can’t emulate (as the Player could take ten seconds to walk across the screen to the next area or they could take thirty minutes – by which point the music has had to loop a number of times).

What do you think? Is a dynamic, nuanced soundtrack more likely to engage the Player on a deeper emotional level than a soundtrack that plays constantly throughout the game?

(Reposted from my original PlayMaker personal blog)

NZ Indie Community Building

Our indie game developer community site – PlayMaker – is gradually coming together.

We still have some work to do around building the community but we’re confident that we’ll soon have a base of  great content to build an engaged and interested network.

The latest thread of interest in our forums is the current Art Challenge: “Current Gen Characters Reimagined in 16-bit Pixel Art”. Be keen to hear what people think of some of the great art in NZ’s talent pool : ).

My favourites at the moment are this reimagining of a character from “Borderlands”, drawn by user Harbadakus:

… and this pic of Dragon Age character Morrigan by Paul Catling:

Making a music video

I’m working on the music video treatment for DJCXL’s debut single “My Love” featuring J Williams.

It’s an interesting juggling act: being a “new” artist launch coming from the genre of hip hop and featuring an established R&B label-mate means the video has to stay true to its overriding creative force (DJCXL – hip hop Producer) and yet maintain enough of the image and character of its major guest star (J Williams – R&B artist). J comes from a smooth, younger, female-demographic, R&B angle while CXL’s style is an older, rawer, rootsier hip hop aesthetic – in other words, the concept can’t be too polished, overly-commercial and “youthful” (like J) but it can’t be so raw, “real” and “mature” that J’s vibe doesn’t work with it.

As always, though, it’s about the music at the end of the day and fortunately the track is great and breezes by without any inkling of the aforementioned juggling act even raising its head – that “concern” is purely my own consideration to work through. Ultimately, my job is about finding the essence of both artists in the music and taking it from there.

Fingers crossed.