The Premiere of Beep at GDC 2016 was shown to a packed room at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The audience was primarily comprised of the cast, and so contained some of the most iconic figures in game audio, as you can see in the photos throughout the article. To be watching this epic documentary alongside them added to my excitement. I believe this film marks a new era for game audio, and we will all look back to that night and this film as the moment game audio, as a worldwide collective of students, professionals, and fans, really came into its birthright.
The anticipation for this film very high, and it is currently doing a festival run but is expected to release it to the public (and Kickstarter backers) in early summer. For the latest news and info, head over to beepmovie.com.
Blurbs about Beep – Reaction from the Game Audio Community
Karen Collins and her team literally moved mountains on a shoestring Kickstarter budget. The film is huge in scope, having interviewed more than 90 audio professionals and having been filmed on several continents. The interviews took place in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, London, Liverpool, and Washington. At 5 A.M. on the morning of the Premiere, Karen Posted this message to Facebook:
“Tonight is the Premiere of my film Beep, the culmination of two years of ridiculously long hours, seemingly endless travel, and henceforth to be known as “the project that very nearly killed me”. The project is far from over, and I feel a little like someone who has just climbed a mountain, only to discover that beyond that mountain there is only many more mountains. But today, I’m just going to sit here, catch my breath, and watch the sun come up.”
At its heart, Beep is the story of the struggle between creativity and technology. It follows the arc of the history of adding sound and music to games, and starts off at the Musée Mechanique of San Francisco, which I have visited before when it was located in the Cliff House (It is now at Pier 45 near Fisherman’s Wharf.) What I had not remembered was that the music was added so that the early arcade games could skirt the gambling laws of the day.
From there Beep moves on to Pinball, and an interesting interview with Brian Schmidt, who recently noted the re-emergence of pinball and who has also just completed work on a Game of Thrones Pinball score. The film quickly moves on to the early days of arcade (Space Invaders!!! – a favorite of Chanel Summers according to the film…) and 8-bit audio hardware and all the constraints that the technology placed on the composers and sound designers.
As one of the protagonists of the film, George Sanger had this memorable quote:
And then, Nobu Uematsu speaks from his experience of the same era:
And is echoed by Noriyuki Iwadare:
The film then does an excellent job of telling the saga of PC Soundcards and how SoundBlaster rose to prominence. From there, it talks about the early sampling technology of the day, which Tom Rettig bemoans:
Composers finally had a chance to spread their wings on games like Monkey Island 2. The music system developed primarily by Michael Land along with Peter McConnell and Clint Bajakian was so smooth, apparently no one noticed how great the transitions between the scenes were:
“It’s a lot of work to be invisible; it’s a lot of work to be a ninja” – Tracy W. Bush
Then Beep moves into the CDRom tech that opened the market to truly cinematic scores. The next foray was into XBOX and the era of surround sound, which is just now making a HUGE comeback thanks to VR. The final evolution of the tech saga brings up full circle back to mobile devices, the reintroduction of midi (for a short time) and the dawn of the billion dollar casual game market. However, the ever cheerful Peter “pdx” Drescher notes:
The film also examines the “music outside the game” that is in true ascendance. This all started in Japan, and has spread to the West thanks to the pioneering work of Tommy Tallarico with Video Games Live, Shota Nakama with Video Game Orchestra, and Orvar Säfström’s Swedish based Score.
The extended version the film has dedicated sections on voice, sound design and music. This was one of my favorite sequences with great interviews of D.B. Cooper, Jason Graves, Garry Schyman, and Stephan Schütze to name a few. I particularly liked a comparison of the same video footage (a ship sailing on the open sea) that was underscored two different ways by Jason Graves. No spoilers here, but it was a fantastic demonstration of the powerful emotional impact music plays on a scene.
The Cast – Photos from the Afterparty
Here are some photos that I took at the afterparty. The audience was primarily made up of the cast, crew and sponsors of the film and their families.
The Music of Beep
The beautiful music of the film was composed by Leonard J. Paul, and its hallmark is that it was mostly procedurally generated! It reminded me of chill house music, and had the feel of classic video game music meets modern synthesis. I felt it was the perfect choice for a film that spans the history of game audio. The director, Karen Collins, told me that her brief to Leonard had been to use different sound chips but add an organic feel, and indicated “something along the lines of Tycho, or Arcade Fire’s score for Her”. Leonard wrote procedural-based music, and then added some live cello, by Juno-nomiated Peggy Lee. In addition to the main score, Jason Graves composed some additional music that was one of the highlights of the film for me – more on that later.
Designing Music NOW: I know your goal was to use procedural music in writing the score of Beep. How much of the final score was procedural, and how much was “composed”?
Leonard J. Paul: My goal with using procedural music in Beep was to challenge myself to create music that I felt captured the feeling that I get when playing great games from the golden age of video games. I wanted to reflect the sense of wonder that I got as a kid when playing games and felt I really needed to push myself into discovering new ways of working with music. To make things come alive, I created different processes that are musical and warm but can surprise me from time to time. For the underscore of the film I didn’t use any MIDI and made 99% of the music using synthesis with the language Pure Data. Each song is individually created to use different rule sets to change the music, synthesis, effects and mix over time. You can listen to a small preview of the underscore for Beep here:
DMN: It is a novel idea to use procedural music in a liner format, but it worked beautifully. Did you have any trepidation going in or were you confident that it would work?
LJP: I spent a long time in preproduction on the score researching different techniques and approaches that I might use since there was over two years between when we completed the Kickstarter and when the film premiered. I initially thought that I would spend more time learning about the iconic changes in the games systems from the Atari 2600 through to the Playstation 1 to mirror and illustrate the difference in styles as they were presented in the film. Each of these early game systems is really an instrument in itself and not only requires unique approaches to their audio limitations but also understanding the different systems that were used to score the music for them from assembly language code to MIDI sequencers.
When working on the game Retro City Rampage, I had several years to learn about the details of making music in just the style of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and so I eventually felt with Beep that it would be difficult to create the depth of emotive qualities that I wanted for each of these systems and to have them work well together. I decided to look into the era of modular synthesis music that inspired many of the game composers at the time and I worked to create a similar feel using synthesis in Pure Data, which was definitely a tricky approach. I really wasn’t sure if I could create the music I wanted using these tools as it is relatively easy to make computer generated music that is cold and angular but I wanted the score to be warm and evocative of the nostalgia that I felt for classic game music and sound.
DMN: Besides the feature length documentary, you are also involved in an “interactive” documentary. The procedural music approach must come in very handy for this. Can you explain how it will work in the interactive version?
LJP: There are plans for creating an interactive extension of the history explored in the Beep music in the future but I’m not sure how things will progress as I’ve been quite focused on getting things together for the initial film release. My goal is to continue the educational aspects of the film and try to make the interactive version as accessible as possible so people can explore how sound and music was made for games and how that continues through to today similar to the video that I put together on the logo sound for the movie, but in a more interactive way: CLICK HERE. I plan to take some of the techniques that I use with game audio students at the School of Video Game Audio (SoVGA.com) to help teach an even wider audience with the Beep movie.
DMN: You have a passion for procedural music, when did that start and what are the major challenges to producing great sounding procedural music?
LJP: I definitely have an interest in making music that allows for some serendipity in its creation. When composing music for the documentary film The Corporation, I used a lot of sample granulation to create textures that were slightly different each time they were played. With Retro City Rampage, I would often create the main theme on an acoustic guitar, enter it into the tracker, improvise over it with the guitar, edit the results and eventually arrive at a version that I felt was a fun conversation between myself and the limitations of the NES hardware. For the theme music for Beep I had cellist Peggy Lee improvise various lines and I chose the ideas I liked the best to integrate into the final version.
Besides the score for Sim Cell, which you can listen to by clicking here, I haven’t worked much directly in procedural music so the score for Beep was quite difficult for me. The level of details that you can delve into with Pure Data, such as coding custom filters or making complex music logic behaviours, can make it feel like you’re working on a score with a microscope so it was a continual challenge to stay focused on the big picture and work on the overall feeling and meaning of the music so that the technology becomes transparent.
The Voice of Beep
For the film’s voice over, the impeccable DB Cooper lent her famous voice to the narration. The script was brilliant, and her rendering of the words and emotions of each scene that she set up was pitch perfect. Additional voice work for the male voice-over was done by Michael “Skitch” Schiciano. Collins stated that she felt having a female narrator was an important way to balance out the film, since many of the interviews were with men. The entire Beep crew was very committed from the start to showing the wide diversity of people working in game audio.
Designing Music NOW: Tell us about your experience working on a film of this magnitude and scope.
DB Cooper: It was mighty staggering to be the narrator for such an undertaking. I knew the narration had to be unobtrusive, so I tried it first with a “NOVA” feel, but when I heard it along with the visuals, I realized it wasn’t honest. I’m passionate about games, and people who know me know that. I recorded nearly everything a second time because it so important for the audience to trust what they hear.
DMN: What are the differences between working on VO for Film and for Video Games?
DB Cooper: Holy cow— it’s worlds apart. Like comparing a fine damask tablecloth to a splendid patchwork quilt. With narration for a film, my job is to tie parts together, and be authentic, discreet, and consistent.
With games, there can be many wildly different characters, but with each game there is an overriding sensibility that guides the intent of the characterization.
DMN: There is an “interactive” version of this documentary in the works, are you doing anything special for the VO for that version?
DB Cooper: I’ll be ready if they need me!
The cinematography by Matthew Charlton, of Flat Head Dog Productions, was also perfectly executed. The interviews were all done in unique looking settings, and the shots of Tokyo’s Akihabara district were mesmerizing.
This film is groundbreaking and expertly tells the story of game audio from its inception in antique arcade machines through to the up to the minute revolutions that are occurring in game audio. It is heartfelt, emotional, even spiritual at points, especially in this, the final scene of the film, by George Sanger:
And the music is getting better.
And the music is getting better. Yeah. We’ve come a long way from the boops and beeps of yesteryear.”
– George Sanger
The only downside of the film is that I wanted it to go on forever. We all got to watch the extended cut, which is nearly 2 hours long, but I still wanted to see more. The Festival cut of 1 hour and 20 minutes will tell the same story, but I find so many of the themes in the film to be of such interest that I could watch them for hours. This is why Beep has a life beyond the film – there are in-depth webisodes out now, and there is going to be an “interactive” version of the film online as well. In addition, there is a two volume book with the complete transcripts of the interviews. So I am sure I will have a chance to learn even more about the field that I love so much, and is so well represented in this wonderful film!
Additional Information about the Film
The Cast of Beep
Cast includes such game audio industry heavy hitters as Martin O’Donnell (composer, Halo), Yoko Shimomura (composer, Kingdom Hearts and Mario & Luigi series), Scott Gershin (sound designer for many blockbuster Hollywood films as well as games), BAFTA-winners James Hannigan and John Broomhall, The “three stooges” of LucasArts: Peter McConnell, Clint Bajakian and Michael Land, Nobuo Uematsu (composer, Final Fantasy series), and many more.
Full cast list can be found on the Beep IMDB page.
The Crew of Beep
Crew: Director: Karen Collins, of Ehtonal, inc. Ehtonal, Inc (pronounced “atonal”), a media development company in Waterloo, ON, Canada. Karen Collins is the Canada Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the University of Waterloo and an internationally recognized expert on game audio. She received her PhD in Music from the University of Liverpool. She has fifteen years of experience in researching and teaching about game sound, and has published four books on the topic (Game Sound; Playing with Sound; From Pac-Man to Pop Music and the Oxford Handbook of Interactive Audio).
Cinematographer: Matthew Charlton, of Flat Head Dog Productions. Matt has extensive videography/cinematography experience with subjects as diverse as Marilyn Manson underwater freediving.
Composer: Leonard J. Paul, composer for video games and composer for award-winning documentary “The Corporation”.
VO: DB Cooper, voice actor for Bioshock, DC Universe Online, and more:
Other: Beep full crew list can be found on our website.
Film Dedication: Brad Fuller
The film was dedicated to Brad Fuller, one of the protagonists of the film, who passed away earlier this year on January 16, 2016.