“It doesn’t take a Super Bowl-sized budget to reach a Super Bowl-sized audience,” says Jason Berger of Kids At Play, a one-stop production company that specializes in digital video production. With a small, skilled crew it’s possible to quickly produce creative digital content, like Webisodes or mobile games, and easily disseminate it to a worldwide audience faster than any other medium.
With the increased use of smartphones and tablets, as well as mobile hotspots, people have access to that content anytime they want, and almost anywhere they go.
LIFE STINKS? — WEBISODES
Jason Berger, executive producer/founder of Kids At Play, thrives on a tight schedule, but shooting the Life Stinks? Webisodes were a bit challenging even for him. They shot three episodes a day for three days. Each episode was shot at a different location, so the crew had to set up, shoot, wrap up, move to the next location and go through that process again, for three locations per day.
Berger knows that when it comes to producing digital video content, time is always a factor. “Time is everything. A lot of the content we create on Yahoo!, for example, has to be quickly edited and quickly posted or else we’re going to lose several hundreds of thousands of audience members that would like to view the content because of what it is, because of the information.”
Life Stinks? is a series of Webisodes that follow actress Rachael Harris’s character, Abigail, through her awkward, yet hilarious, moments in life. Life Stinks? was created for www.NoMorePu.com, a site that promotes Tidy Cats cat liter. Amazingly, the Webisodes have nothing to do with cat liter, and don’t even mention cats. The concept, according to the Website is, “We’ve helped with the PU in the liter box, now we’re helping with the PU in your life.”
“The brand really got behind it, and they understood that if they don’t throw the brand name all over these things that they’ll be able to build some street cred,” explains Berger. “In return, consumers will say, ‘Hey this is great content,’ and they’ll ask who’s doing it, and then they’ll go buy their product. There are a few brands that do that, but it’s a long gestation process for them and the agency to get behind something like that. I was really happy with Purina and Avrett Free Ginsberg, the agency, and our production partners, Principato-Young Entertainment, and Electus.”
Even though digital video online content is nothing new, people are still trying to grasp the benefits of it. Berger feels the data that you can obtain from online content is far greater than any kind of data you can get from mainstream media. Also, because you can easily add and remove content online, it allows a company or brand to change direction quickly if something isn’t working. “Alex Bloom, the creative director at Avrett Free Ginsberg, did a really good job of helping the client understand how they can use this medium.”
LA-based Kids at Play (www.kidsatplaymedia.com), has been producing digital video content for the past six years. Three-quarters of all the content they produce is digital video for online. They create and produce content for sites like Yahoo, My Damn Channel and YouTube. They use a small, highly skilled crew to produce content quickly. “We pride ourselves on being nimble, a speed boat amongst freighters kind of thing,” says Berger.
When it comes to sound, Kids At Play sound mixer Ben Templin knows that the best — and fastest — post work is achieved by starting with the best sound recordings. “One of the most important things in a post sound mix is having quality production audio to begin with,” he says.
When recording on location, Templin used a Sennheiser MKH 416 shotgun mic, and a Sound Devices 302 three-channel mixer paired with a Sound Devices 44T four-channel audio recorder. He relied on the skill of his boom operators, Jordan Hood Taylor and Sabi Tulok, to record dialogue that was heavily improvised at times. Since great audio starts at the microphone, it’s important to follow the dialogue.
“The boom operator must position the mic just inches out of frame, following the dialogue of multiple subjects in the scene, all the while staying out of the way of multiple lights, any reflections from mirrors or smooth surfaces, and of course without dipping into the frame,” says Templin. “This project was particularly difficult because the heavily improvised dialogue meant cueing the mic back and forth at random.”
On Life Stinks?, frequent location changes posed a challenge, but Berger trusted Templin and his team to make it work. Says Berger, “There’s not a whole lot of time to make changes if a location has a lot of traffic noise, let’s say. Ben really does work through those issues. By the time we go into post on these things, which is usually the following day, the audio is great, to the point where if we did not have the time for Ben to do a sweep of it in post, then we’d be fine.”
Wardrobe can pose a challenge too. Templin used Sanken COS 11D lav mics, as well as a Countryman B3 or B6, depending on wardrobe. For “The Office” episode, actress Harris wore a huge apple costume. The challenge was to find a good wireless mic location that would allow the mic to be hidden but also capture clean audio. “Some tricks I use are hiding mics behind buttons in shirts, or in the knot of a tie,” Templin explains. “In the scene with the apple costume, it was particularly hard to find a good-sounding lav position. We used a combination of a lav on the apple, and a lav planted on the side of her computer.”
Despite an intense schedule, Berger’s crew was still able to have a good time. With obstacles on set, in several locations per day, and with a lot of material to cover, they still managed to complete the shoots on time. Berger says, “On these types of shoots, where you’re doing so much in so little time, people can get cranky and no one did. It was a lot of hustle, and to see everyone working that hard was fantastic. It turned out great, and once we got into post it was a breeze.”
To help the audio post process go even more smoothly, Templin recorded room tone at the locations, as well as all the Foley on set and any sound effects they needed.
When working on a tight schedule, Templin and his crew take the time to capture clean audio from the beginning so their post time is short. “We love when we have the time to send it back to Ben because in post he can sweeten the sound so much,” says Berger. “It really does sound so much better. We want everything that leaves our hands to be the best that it can be.”
After spending so much time and effort to create high-quality content, Kids At Play spend even more time making sure that quality is not compromised when it comes to compressing the content for streaming and downloading. File size is important. If a file takes too long to load, or if there is a problem with the download process, you will lose your audience. “It’s a big deal for us,” says Berger. “We work really hard on that content and we want people to be able to enjoy it. We want to make sure that there is no problem when it comes to watching the content.”
Over the past several years, he has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of online video production and believes the production quality, and the quality of the creative, are only going to increase. “Anyone can film their cat going to the bathroom, and it can be funny and go viral, but to really cut through the chaos and the clutter, you really have to produce high-quality content that hits somebody within 10 seconds so that they will continue to watch the content straight through. The audience is expecting highly creative content that you might not necessarily find on TV. They are also looking for quality production value. I think that more budgets and more time are going to be spent to make that content.”
POLLYPOCKET.COM — WEBISODES
Mattel created PollyPocket.com as an online presence for their Polly Pocket toys. The site has simple, interactive games, like dressing-up Polly in different outfits, and also offers :90 Webisodes to stream online. By creating new media, they give their audience a new way to experience the toy franchise.
Says composer Kevin Manthei (www.kevinmanthei.com), “When you have a brand like Polly Pocket, a toy brand, and you move it into the new media sector, it gives you a whole new audience. It’s very synergistic in that it goes back and forth from the toy to the online content to direct-to-DVD, and possibly into broadcast on various cartoon channels across the world.”
Manthei co-wrote music for all of the Polly Pocket :90 Webisodes, as well as the 22-minute long-form Webisode, Friends Finish First, and two 11-minute segments that are intended for broadcast. The music is a combination of rock guitars, Lady Gaga-inspired techno and orchestral instruments reminiscent of composer Carl Stalling’s work for the Bugs Bunny cartoons This unique mixture of musical elements changes quickly and constantly throughout the episode. It can be very techno-pop with the sudden inclusion of an orchestral layer that will then change into a zany comedy piece. “It’s very traditional in the sense that it’s cartoony, but we’re trying to bring in modern influences that a lot of kids might be listening to, and be familiar with,” he says. “So we are combining the genres and the sounds to create what we consider to be a real signature sound for Polly Pocket.”
Manthei composed the music using a combination of live guitars and sampled orchestral instruments from various sources, such as Vienna Symphonic Library Woodwinds, Cinesamples Hollywoodwinds and Symphobia. Using samples from various sources creates a more satisfying sound for Manthei. He also uses reverb to tie all the samples together to create a unified sound. “I like having different libraries because it helps it to not sound like it’s all coming out of the same box. Sometimes I can hear when somebody uses every single sample from the exact same library and doesn’t pull things in from other places. That sounds a little unsatisfying to me.”
Using MOTU Digital Performer, Manthei starts the writing process by pulling up an instrument patch or sample on his keyboard, depending on the cue he’s writing. If it’s a Carl Stalling-esk section, he’ll start with staccato woodwinds or staccato strings. “Whatever I’m writing for, if it’s brass or strings, I’ll start my composition from that perspective. For me, it’s cue dependent. It depends on what is happening on screen. That’s where I get my inspiration.”
While writing for the 22-minute Webisode, Manthei and co-writer, Jimmy Schafer, created a signature theme for Polly Pocket that they weaved throughout the show’s music. He then started using the theme while writing music for the :90 Webisodes. The theme helps to unify the whole Polly Pocket experience.
“It’s really inspired by the way composer John Powell did How to Train Your Dragon. He had so many great themes, and every time he came back to a theme he re-worked it to be a unique variation on it. For Polly, we like to do that. It’s a real up beat, fun theme. It works really well if you kind of rock out with the guitar a little bit, but it can also be slowed down to be more sweet and tender if it needs to be.”
Since the Webisodes have a lot of story to tell in a short amount of time, the action, and the music, moves quickly from one point to the next. The composing challenge for Manthei is making sure the music works correctly, making all the necessary hits, while still staying musical. “The intent of the music is to be very cuey, that is, it’s meant to hit a lot of the actions very much like a traditional Bugs Bunny cartoon. While we are doing that, we want the music to not only be comedic, but we want it to hit all the other emotional points along the way.”
Manthei also composes music for Generator Rex, an animated series on Cartoon Network. Similar to Polly Pocket, Cartoon Network uses the Internet as a pivot point for their brand. By putting their broadcast episodes online, they are able to capture a new audience, test out games, and introduce new toys. “It’s the opposite of Polly, because Generator Rex started out as a cartoon, moved into new media, and then into toys (also created by Mattel), where Polly Pocket started out as a toy, moved into new media, and then moved onto DVD and possibly broadcast. For companies like Mattel, it’s a great win-win. They’re giving the audience a new experience for the franchise.”
POCKET POTIONS — MOBILE GAME
Barry Dowsett, composer/sound designer/co-founder of Soundrangers (www.soundrangers.com) in Seattle, has been creating sound exclusively for interactive media for the past 15 years. His work includes sound for videogames for Facebook, mobile games and apps for iOS and Android platforms, and creating user interface sounds, most recently for the Google Chromebook OS.
For Dowsett, currently the most interesting interactive media are the games and apps being created for iOS, and for Facebook. As bandwidth opens up for consumers, the memory limitations on interactive media will become less severe. More memory means more opportunity to do fun and interesting things with audio, like creating reactive runtime environments, using randomization for reoccurring sounds, improving the use of music, and having more control over the in-game mix. “What’s cool about those platforms are that they are so accessible to so many people. I think it’s only going to get more interesting from an audio standpoint.”
For mobile apps and games, Dowsett has to work within strict parameters in order for audio to function properly. Memory limitations are always a concern. The device itself is only capable of holding a certain amount of content, and long load times can cause problems. “You have to really pay attention to what the memory requirements are because all of them affect the load time. A longer load time is problematic. A fast load time is what a lot of developers are looking for and there are a lot of things that you have to arm wrestle when you have a particular memory imprint you’re working under.”
One way to keep within the allocated memory is to create very short sounds. For music, the challenge is to write a short, looping track that supports game play but doesn’t noticeably loop. “For iOS, music is not much more than a :30 loop,” explains Dowsett. “The music has to play seamlessly, so that means the music probably won’t have a lot of melodic content. In a short loop, you’re really going to notice anything that’s melodic looping over and over.”
For the mobile game Pocket Potions, by Breaktime Studios, Dowsett created a music bed that runs continuously under game play. He wrote several short music loops that would seamlessly stitch together. Dowsett created the fantasy/sci-fi score for Pocket Potions using sample libraries from EastWest, Cinematic Strings, ProjectSAM Orchestral Essentials and Orchestral Brass Classic. “These days the sample orchestral libraries are pretty good, so we start there and we create a track. If the client wants live players to replace the parts, we’ll do that. For some of the Facebook media, we’re starting to see live orchestral score. Those games are generally more complicated and pretty expensive.”
In some mobile games, developers choose to use music in a different way. Instead of creating a looping track that plays continuously under game play, they’ll use music to highlight some thematic event. For example, they may give the game a musical identity, or theme song, for when you first open the game. Also, they’ll have music cues for transitional points, like when you finish a level. “That way you can do some different music that won’t eat up a huge amount of memory, and it gives the user more positive feedback between transitions and at the beginning of the game,” says Dowsett.
In addition to the score, he also created the sound design for Pocket Potions. Many of the sound effects were tonal sounds, so Dowsett composed them to blend with the music. “From a sound standpoint, there were a lot of little animations. You’d drink a potion and you’d have a power-up sound depending on the type of potion you made. So if it was a love potion you’d hear a harp gliss. The trick was to write the music and the sound effects in the same key so they work together.”
Game play on mobile games is often simpler than on console games. In Pocket Potions, there are no complex interactive environments that required sound. To stay within the memory restrictions, Dowsett only created sounds for events that really needed them. He also created quick sounds that wouldn’t require a lot of memory. “For Pocket Potions, you make potions, and when they are complete, you sell off the potions and then somebody drinks the potion. Each individual potion makes its own sound. The sounds are a mix of synthetic and organic sounds.”
Recently, Soundrangers created the user interface and accessibility sounds for the Chromebook OS. Unlike game sounds, where there is an action to drive the sounds, creating user interface sounds requires a different approach. “It’s tough because you’re not looking at something that would give you an idea of the types of sounds you should make,” says Dowsett. “Also, you have to make the sound palatable for a huge demographic. We work with the developer to determine where a sound is going to play and how it’s going to play, and then we come up with something that can be listened to over lengthy periods of listening.”
Soundrangers presented the client with four different palettes of synthetic sounds. Once the developers agreed on a particular palette, Dowsett then created the rest of the interface sounds based on that palette. “We had to create a palette of sounds that was complementary to the interface so that regardless of what the user was doing, all of the sounds would come together to make a unified palette. So, the start-up sound would be a certain sound when you first power it on, then if you open a browser or are shutting something down, or if you’re logging in, all these little sounds will play and they will all have a similar sound to them that stamp them as the Google interface sounds.”
Bringing a mobile app or game into the market doesn’t require a large staff or a large budget. Dowsett finds that a lot of small start-up developers are producing innovative content. “The indie developers out there are not afraid to take risks. We are seeing a lot of two- or three-man start-ups making these really cool games. That’s fun for us because that’s where the sound design gets pretty cool.”
BLA BLA — INTERACTIVE FILM
NYC and Montreal-based musician Philippe Lambert (http://black-mantra.com) comes from an experimental noise background. He remembers growing up watching weird, artsy animated children’s films in the ‘70s, and he wanted to re-create that dreamlike sound for an interactive “film for the computer,” Bla Bla.
“The director, Vincent Morisset, and I have been friends since the mid ‘90s. The Bla Bla project has its roots in the early performances we did together, where I would do vocals and he would animate a digital puppet in realtime to react to the sounds I did.”
Bla Bla (http://blabla.nfb.ca) is an award-winning interactive film that relies on the viewer to drive the experience. It explores human communication and interaction, as well as our emotional response to events. The film takes the viewer through six chapters, and the story gets progressively more complex. It starts with a simple black dot that divides and comes back together when you click on it and around it. In chapter two, you meet and interact with the main character. In chapter three, you send the main character through a hole in the ground, but it’s actually a hole in the sky, and he is sent speeding through the air and into chapter four, where he meets a character much like himself.
The two characters talk to each other using simple “words,” and their interaction is based on where you click. In chapter five, clicking divides the main character into many different clones of himself, and the characters speak in longer “sentences” and often talk at the same time. In the final chapter, the scene is a close-up of the main character alone. Clicking next to the main character changes his mood, and clicking on him repeatedly intensifies his emotion. He displays three fundamental, though complex, emotions of contentment, sadness and anger.
Lambert approached Bla Bla as a single musical piece with six movements. He used a variety of acoustic sources such as bamboo reeds, vocals, kalimba, cymbals, chimes, bells and drums. For example, to create the mellow tonal sound in the first chapter, Lambert used a contact mic on bamboo tubes. He also incorporated analog components by recording on old reel-to-reel tape using toy microphones and sampling with cheap keyboards like the Casio SK1. For filtering, he used guitar pedal effects and modular synths. He then played sounds back through tiny speakers, or big amps, to add more effect. “From the beginning, I wanted to have clean, pure sounds rubbing against dirty, noisy sounds. I am really happy with how noisy the freefall chapter came out and how psychedelic the merging of the two characters and their unison mantra is in chapter four.”
Another concept in Lambert’s sonic approach is what he called, “controlled randomness.” Lambert explains that for each user interaction there are a number of possible sound events happening within a range of parameters. “I worked closely with Édouard Lanctôt-Benoit, the programmer, to create special algorithms, randomness generators, sequences and pitch modulators to make every experience a unique one.”
Lambert has been using extended vocal techniques in his music for the past 15 years, so when it came to creating the language, Lambert approached Bla Bla as a single musical piece with six movements; he was quite comfortable performing it himself. He recorded live improvisation sessions for each section of the film, then cut the recordings into separate clips, which he then organized into banks. “There are over a thousand little voice clips in Bla Bla, and I probably left out 10 times more. It got easier as we progressed with the project, and as the character became more defined.”
For the ambiences, Lambert captured field recordings from both urban and forest environments. After spending a day in the National Film Board of Canada sound library, he found it easier to just record what he needed for the project, instead of sifting through thousands of sound clips in a library. “They have kept an archive of all the sounds recorded for their projects from the past 60 years. As amazing as it all sounded, I ended up only using the cricket sounds from some South American jungle documentary they did in the ‘70s. I also did some home-made Foley, like punching myself to get the poking sounds in the second chapter.”
Bla Bla was a collaboration of sound and visuals. At the end of each day, Lambert and designer Caroline Robert would send each other what they created, and they would make changes based on what the other person had done. “We both got inspired by what each other had come up with,” explains Lambert. “The whole project was a very organic process. Hugues Sweeney, the producer at the NFB, was incredibly trusting of our artistic vision, giving us the resources and time to just try out things.”
Since the music, voices and sounds were all programmed into the film and played back with a degree of randomness, Lambert made sure that all the individual sounds worked well together, and that they translated on both high-end headphones and “crappy” laptop speakers. “The result is always mixed on the spot with variable volume parameters, so I basically just had to play with it for a week on different set-ups and fine tune it.”
Recently, Bla Bla was featured at a month-long interactive exhibit in Paris, at the gallery at La Gaité Lyrique. The challenge for Lambert was to take the linear story of the film and adapt it to looping stations that could all play at the same time. He spent a lot of time calibrating levels so each section of the sound would be punchy, but would not obscure the other chapters. He also made quadraphonic mixes. Lambert used the facility’s 200-speaker ceiling grid, as well as additional subwoofers, to reproduce the sound. In addition, he created a new generative track for the exhibit entrance.
“The whole experience was amazing,” he says. “It was particularly moving to see kids interact with what we had created and experience it with total wonderment. Hopefully, it will plant seeds of creativity in them, like the weird animation films of my youth did for me.”