Due to a lack of time and a lack of inspiration, I asked my Berg colleagues to help write my blog entry this week. Inspired by a recent NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, I asked them what they would consider their pop culture “comfort foods”: music, movies, books, TV shows, games, etc that they return to time and again because they are comfortable and familiar, bring you back to a happy place, create a certain feeling in you, etc. NPR’s Linda Holmes described it as things that “we turn to when we get into a cultural rut and want to reawaken our love of the things we love, as it were.”
I can think of so many things that fit in this category for me. Here’s a few:
The Sound of Music (both the film and the soundtrack)
Pride and Prejudice – both the book and the films (both the Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle version and the Keira Knightley & Matthew Mcfadyen version)
The West Wing
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
U2 – Achtung Baby (brings me right back to my first year at university)
Hem – Eveningland
A House Like a Lotus and A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle
I’m happy to say that everyone in the studio humoured my request. Here’s what they had to say:
Winnie the Pooh
Midnight Run, must have watched it 50 times. The most re-watchable film of all time.
Also Rhubarb and Custard (As a kid I slept under the animation table at Bob Godfrey Studios on Neal St, still remember Bob doing the voices).
I still return to many of Kieslowski’s films, they were formative in my understanding of film.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade
“Can’t buy a thrill” by Steely Dan
Yo La Tengo – Little Honda just for the distortion sound if nothing else
Any video of Sister Rosetta Tharpe I can find
The drum battle where Steve Gadd (he starts at 2.45 in the clip below) launches a stomp attack on Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl and their supple wrists.
Asimov’s “Robots of Dawn”
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes
Underworld’s “Second Toughest In The Infants”
Once Upon a Time in the West, which has the single best concentrated set piece scene of any film at any period in history. It is beautiful, epic, speaks truth to humans, society, and history, and I can watch it infinitely.
Starship Troopers, the book, and actually any sci-fi stories from the 1940s to the 1970s I can find in second hand shops or Project Gutenberg
‘F-Zero’ / ‘Unirally’ for games
Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder for music
‘C’était un Rendezvous’ for moving image
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
And the films: My neighbour Totoro (for the scene at the bus stop)
Bourne Ultimatum (for the scene at Waterloo station)
This nutrigrain ad from a billion years ago, which I don’t think ever got aired but gets better every time you watch it:
So how about you? What are your culture “comfort foods”?
Via Mike Migurski came Xiaoji Chen’s Isochronic Singapore. It’s fascinating to see the city of Singapore expand and contract like a living, breathing thing as average travel times change from hour to hour and day to day.
Chen has been playing with other dynamic maps of Singapore as well:
Finally, via our neighbour and RIG super group member Alex Deschamps-Sonsino, a list of Robots, Cyborgs and Computers in Film and TV. It seems that list hasn’t been updated in at least five years (and therefore actually feels rather short), but for me the best thing about it is it reminded me of something I had completely forgotten about: the TV show Small Wonder. Ah, mid-80s American family sitcoms. Most of them are best forgotten, actually…
1980s people were asking this question. The band Daniel Amos wrote a song about it:
Video by lonzo625: “A video I put together in the 1980’s for the “Rocket Packs” song by Daniel Amos. It’s a reminder of the visions of the future seen in sci-fi movies and books in the 20th century. FYI…that’s Lenord [sic] Nimoy (Mr. Spock) at 3:30 in an actual Rocket Man serial appearance.”
Matt Webb found this gorgeous isometric map of Hong Kong. I’ve not yet been to Hong Kong, but looking at it from this perspective, the immense density of the city started to sink in. Look at all those high rise buildings smushed in together!
Via Alice Taylor ‘s round-up of Toy Fair USA we discovered Kauzbots. How great are these? You get a cuddly handcrafted robot toy and support a good cause at the same time. I think several people I know may be getting these as gifts this year.
Finally, in case you missed it yesterday, the last Discovery space shuttle mission launch:
We’ve been sending humans into space for fifty years now, and there are two main thoughts that usually occur to me whenever I reflect on the fact of space flight: 1) “WTF?! We send people into space! There are people LIVING in space on the International Space Station! Un-effing-believable!” and 2) In the 1960s people expected by now that we’d have colonised the moon and interplanetary travel would be no big deal. What happened? Why aren’t we there yet?
Our friends at Tellart made something lovely this week.
“Bells” lets you compose a tune using tiny digital toy bells on the web, which will then through the magic of the internet, solenoids and electromagnetism play out in their studio on ‘real’ tiny toy bells.
Matt B wrote about Music For Shuffle this week: a single composition made out of many audio files, designed to be played in random orders on any devices. And, of course, when I say “wrote about”, I also mean composed. You should go and listen to it right now!
Matt explained more:
I set myself a half-day project to write music specifically for shuffle mode – making use of randomness to try and make something more than the sum of its parts. The ever-brilliant Russell Davies (who works a few desks away at the BRIG) sowed the seed of the idea in my head around January 2011.
Over an hour or so, I wrote a series of short, interlocking phrases (each formatted as an individual MP3) that can be played in any order and still (sort of) make musical sense.
Brilliant. Matt’s notes on influences and the process behind the composition make for great reading: as ever, there’s a lot of thought and insight there, expressed succinctly, and lots of nice jumping-off points within his notes.
Another form of light-painting, this time from Daito Manabe. By firing a laser at a wall coated in fluorescent paint, an image appears. As subsequent “passes” of the laser describe element closer to the foreground of the image, those areas of the wall are “activated” again and stay brighter; the elements towards the rear of the image stay darker. It takes a while to process what’s happening when you first see it, but the moment it all clicks into place feels great.
Chris Harrison’s Abracadabra is a prototype interface for very small devices. What might a rich interface for a device too small for a touchscreen look like? Harrison’s interface is based upon magnets: a tiny magnet on the fingertip, detected by a two-axis magnetometer in the device – providing enough sensitivity to track movements in a horizontal plane, as well as a “clicking” action in the z-axis. Extending the space of physical interaction outside the device makes a lot of sense, and it’ll be interesting to see where this kind of interface goes in the next few years.
Fizzogs popped up on the studio mailing list last week, and there followed a brief reminiscence for Ken Garland’s work for Galt Toys, which included the marvellous Connect. Matt J bought his copy in; even the box is gorgeous:
Simple, well designed games, with lovely graphic design and colours, that still manage – very much – to be toys to be played with.
Unless the behaviours and personalities of these things that compute are designed well enough the things that are not so good about them or unavoidable have the potential to come across as flaws in the object’s character, break the suspension of disbelief and do more harm than good. Running out of batteries, needing a part to be replaced or the system crashing could be seen as getting sick, dying – or worse – the whole thing could be so ridiculous and annoying that it gets thrown out on its ear before long.
There’s lots of other nice points in here; too many to quote. Notably, I liked the idea of considering what an object’s Attract Mode might be; similarly, using role-playing/method-acting/improv as sources of experience in designing subtle experiences. Good stuff.
Some of you might have seen this film we released with our friends from Dentsu London the other day. At the time of writing, it’s had over half a million views. Whoa.
Also, a few people have been asking about the music we used, so I thought I’d chat a little bit about it. We wrote it ourselves, here in the studio. I pasted it all together, with direction and input from Schulze, Timo, Beeker and the rest of the Dentsu crew.
Some of the best bits about working at BERG are how everyone, despite having particular specialist skills, gleefully ignores boundaries, disciplines, labels and predefined processes, and allows themselves space to just run with things when they get excited. Deciding to do the music for the first Making Future Magic film ourselves was one of those moments.
“Yeah, so who are your influences then?”
About ten days ago, after the animation had reached a final(ish) edit, I happened to overhear Schulze, Timo and Cam batting a few ideas around about potential soundtrack music. I hadn’t really been involved in the project so far, but at this point I dropped what I was doing, went a bit Barry from High Fidelity, and started throwing some MP3s at them.
That weekend, on a long train journey, and with a few hours to kill, I was listening back to the tunes we’d picked out, and thought I’d sketch out some musical ideas to accompany a few clips of the current edit, just as a little exercise. Like loads of people I know, I do enjoy a bit of noodling around with things like Ableton Live, Logic, Beatmaker on the iPhone and so on. So I had a crack at it.
On the Monday morning, everyone had a listen, and nudged me to do a little more, just to see where it went. Gradually, things began to firm up into a “proper job”. I’d never written music for a film (or anything else, for that matter) ever before, but hey, everyone knows the best way to learn something is simply to set a risky week-away deadline involving potential public ridicule. So here went nothing.
Designing the Music – first sketches
We all know that a lot of the unseen (yet most satisfying) work in design goes into getting rid of things. Tidying up. Wielding Occam’s Razor. Making things unnoticeable. Getting things under the hood working so well you forget they’re there. All that good stuff. There are obvious parallels to this in music, but I guess this applies even more so to making soundtracks.
Not your rousing, whistle-able belters of your Williamses or Morricones; I’m thinking more about Bernstein’s work for the Eames films, John Cameron’s haunting soundtrack to Kes, anything on the KPM label, or, say, Clint Mansell, whose Moon soundtrack got quite a rinsing here in the studio last year. There’s a quiet unselfishness to this type of music which I’m really drawn to – it’s kind of half-there, beckoning you to invent accompanying stories and pictures in your head, and sometimes it’s at its best when you don’t really notice it. I imagine this rings lots of little bells in the heads of anyone involved in design or making things – it definitely does for me.
As I say, I’d never really written any music before, so pretty much used these little scraps of what I know about design (and what I love about film music) as a way in. Finding the grain of a material and playing with it; hitting on an idea and not getting in the way of it; looking for patterns; making references to other, familiar concepts, using broad brush strokes first, then (quite literally) tuning and polishing – all the usual approaches, really. The same way we’d work with any (im)material here at BERG.
So, here are the three first sketches I did. The visual glitchiness of the animation was the main thing I wanted to complement, so I went outside, made some little field recordings on my phone, chucked them all into the computer, then pressed record and left it on. I assembled the samples into few rhythms, teased out little patterns of pitch, timbre and so on, and eventually, after a few hours, out popped a few bits and pieces. It took me about 6 hours of jamming to come up with three one-minute ideas. Told you I was new at this.
That was a bit Chris Isaak meets Twin Peaks. Bland. Nah. Next.
We all sat up at this one. Warm, bubbly ARPy synths; Reichy scales and patterns; plinky, poppy glockenspiels; pentatonic scales giving off a subtle whiff of J-Pop (which might sit nicely with the Dentsu folks), and it had the most potential to grow melodically. Tick!
Building out the musical structure
After that, it was time to work out how this sketch would evolve to fit across the whole film. The first task was to build the scaffolding we wanted to hang everything off, by translating the timing of each visual cut into bars and beats, which I did with a metronome and a few big sheets of paper. I grabbed Schulze, talked about where we wanted the main narrative pivots to be, and stuck those on post-it notes.
Since we had three sections to work with (Making, Future and Magic), everything pretty much finished itself after that. We’d built the scaffolding, so now all that was needed was the rest of the building – from the main zones down to furniture, textures, colours and so on. I blocked in the main themes and some large areas of texture, then just worked my way down to polishing little details. I don’t know much about how composers work, but this bit wasn’t all that different from we usually get from whiteboards and post-its down to pixels and working code.
Jack and Timo were still making edits to the film as I was composing, so I needed to leave a bit of slack here and there to adjust to their timings. I made little modular loops of different lengths (3, 4, and 5 notes, in different rhythms, at different speeds), which meant I could cut or extend little phrases here and there, ignoring strict time signatures as needed. Again, just simple, common sense stuff, really.
The final mix
After 3 or 4 days of tuning and polishing, we had an overall structure everyone was pretty happy with, so we got in touch with the chaps at Resonate to help us mix and master everything – the proper, detailed tuning. Big big thanks to Liam and Andy for being super helpful at such short notice! Aside from treating a novice like me very kindly, they brought a level of clarity and depth to the mix way beyond what my ears had previously heard. Here are the before and after versions. Spot the difference!
Mixed and mastered:
And of course here’s the finished film.
Overall, the music took us about 6 or 7 days. A mere blip compared to the weeks of late nights that went into the animation, but a nice example of how when the studio is simmering nicely, everyone’s interests, hobbies and hunches tend to bubble to the surface and happily get put to use, all in the name of doing Good Stuff.
Evan Roth’s “Graffiti Analysis 2.0″. Roth is trying to build a “digital blackbook” to capture graffiti tags in code. He’s started with an ingenious – and straightforward – setup for motion capturing tags: a torch taped to a pen, the motion of which is tracked by a webcam. The data is all recorded in an XML dialect that Roth designed – the Graffiti Markup Language – which captures not only strokes but also rates of flow, the location of the tag, and even the orientation of the drawing tool at start; clearly, it’s designed with future developments – a motion-sensing spraycan, perhaps – in mind.
But that’s all by the by: I liked the video because it was simple, ingenious, and Roth’s rendering of the motion data – mapping time to a Z-axis, dousing the act of tagging in particle effects – is really quite beautiful.
I showed it to Matt W, and he showed me the light paintings of Julien Breton, aka Kaalam (whose own site is here). Breton’s work is influenced by Arabic script and designs, and the precision involved is remarkable – so often light-painting is vague or messy, but there’s a remarkable cleanliness and precision to Breton’s work. Also, as the image above demonstrates, he makes excellent use of both depth and the environment he “paints” within. If you’re interested, there’s a great interview with Breton here.
Nick’s off skiing this week, but he posted this screengrab from his iPhone to Flickr, and it’s a really effective implementation of AR. It’s an app called Peaks that simply displays labels above visible mountain-tops. It’s a great implementation because the objects being augmented are so big, and so far away, that the jittery display you so often get from little objects, nearby, just isn’t a problem. A handful of peaks, neatly labelled, and not a ropey marker in site.
And finally: Matt B’s Otamatone arrived. It’s delightful. A musical toy that sounds and works much like a Stylophone: you press a contact-sensitive strip that maps to pitch, but it’s the rubber mouth of the character – that adds filtering and volume just like opening and closing your own mouth – that brings the whole thing to life. You can’t see someone playing with it and not laugh!
It’s a product by Maywa Denki, an artist makes musical toys and sells them as products; previous musical toys include the Knockman Family, all of which are worth your time watching as much of you can on Youtube.
And if you get your own Otamatone, and practice really hard, maybe you could play with some friends: