Writing music is fun. But, for me, its also become a demanding job. So, every once in a while I need a break from work. I need play time. For me, play time is when I get to direct music videos. My most recent video is for Young Beautiful in a Hurry’s cover of the Queen classic “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and it debuted last week on IGN. Since then, YBH has posted my official ‘director’s cut’ version to their YouTube channel:
The ‘DSMN’ video is a passion project that started with an initial idea a year and a half ago. Members of Young Beautiful in a Hurry (including frontman Brendan McCreary and bassist Pete Griffin) and I were involved in a Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 2011, and the band had already been performing this cover for over a year. We definitely had Queen on the brain.
Earlier that year, I made my directorial debut with a zombie-inspired video for their song “I Don’t Want to Die a Virgin.”
For that video, I threw myself in the deep-end of the pool and completed the entire video from beginning to end in about a week. After a few months, I was already itching to direct a second music video, one where I had a little more time. Fresh off the Freddie Mercury Tribute show, Brendan and I started talking about doing “Don’t Stop Me Now” as our follow-up. This time, my plans were more ambitious. Little did I know at the time that my sophomore video would take over a year to complete!
“YBH had been playing DSMN for years at nearly every show,” Brendan recalled. “So when Freddie’s 20th anniversary came around, we really wanted to do something special. However it was Bear’s audacious and iconoclastic vision that quickly spun this thing out of control and into existence. I’m not sure where he got the idea…but one day he said,’ what if we make our music video about games, 16-bit games in particular?'”
Our concept grew quickly into a discussion of 16-bit gaming, in particular the SEGA Genesis console that dominated our particular household growing up.
“Retro gaming culture is really blowing up right now, and I think its a beautiful thing,” Brendan told me recently. “But it seems to me, both in the gaming world and the arts (paintings, etc) there is a strong emphasis on 8-bit gaming and visuals. Bear specifically wanted to do 16-bit, with a ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ vibe.’
‘When we were kids, there was very little that was more important to us then Sonic and the Genesis. Those games fueled our imaginations and our creativity in so many amazing ways. I know without a fraction of a doubt, we would not be the musicians we are today without many hundreds of hours of old Sonic tunes running through our heads, and that was just the tip of the iceberg.”
I am always amazed at how kids today don’t understand that characters like Sonic and Mario are actually from my generation’s childhood. Furthermore, the side-scrolling 2D action platformer game has been widely rejected in favor of more immersive 3D games. (I know there are occasional exceptions to this rule, but the trend is inarguably real.)
Of course, vidogames were just one major influence here. The other was the source material, the Queen song.
“Queen and Freddie changed everything for me,” Brendan recalled. “When I listened to their music as a kid, the world was no longer the world, it was magic. It was on fire. It was freezing. It was exploding and imploding simultaneously. I was madly in love with everything. I was heartbroken a million times over. Queen became my universe. It wasn’t until maybe 10 years later at the earliest that I really began to appreciate them musically.”
I’ve always loved the crazy energy in “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Brendan’s arrangement is even more propulsive. Somehow, I linked that energy with the thrill we got as kids playing these 16-bit games and our concept was born. We wanted to tell a story about a little boy who is harassed by his friends for not having a modern gaming console. The kid ends up discovering his dad’s old 16-bit console in the attic, and impressing his cynical friends with an amazing sidescroller. My vision was to animate YBH into the videogame.
When the concept and basic script were finished, they presented one serious production problem: the 16-bit animation. Our producer Joe Lynch (a brilliant director with whom I’ve collaborated on many occasions) hooked us up with Sam Balcomb, of Rainfall Films.
Balcomb and his production company produced IGN’s “Legend of Zelda” April Fools Day movie trailer that went mega-viral in 2008, and has since been seen over 15 million times. Sam, Brendan and I hit it off right away, and he was eager to tackle the animation for us. I could tell right away that Sam had an instinctual appreciation for film music and soundtracks. I then found out his father is composer Stuart Balcomb, whose credits include some of my absolute favorite episodes of ‘Batman: The Animated Series.’ Brendan and I knew we’d found our guy.
The first step was production, to get the live action elements in the can. I drew some primitive storyboards to communicate my ideas and realized there was another set of major challenges: we needed sets.
I had envisioned that Ty, our main character, would find the magical 16-bit cartridge up in his attic, a reference to the 80’s classic ‘Goonies.’ Attics like that, unfortunately, are rare in Los Angeles. I didn’t know anybody who had one, and I certainly didn’t have the budget to hire a location scout. Furthermore, I wanted each member of the band to appear magically in the living room while the kids played, culminating in the drummer being revealed by a sliding bookcase. I definitely didn’t know anybody with a sliding bookcase in their living room! (Do you?)
Fortunately, I met up with production designer Robert Konowalow who figured out how to construct both the attic set and a sliding bookcase attached to a fake wall, and do it in our budget.
For the weekend we shot this video, my team and I turned two houses into a mini-backlot. The entire downstairs of my house was essentially trashed. The dining room table was moved out and we took down the hanging light fixture, for the space to become a soundstage for the attic set.
The dining room went from this…
… to this…
For more on this crazy process, check out little ‘Behind-the-Scenes Featurette,’ “Building An Attic In a Dining Room”…
During this process, my living room became a storage facility and the piano room became dedicated to hair / make-up and craft services.
And it wasn’t just my house we ransacked. My loving and eternally awesome neighbors let me clear out their living room and use it for our primary set. We moved out all their furniture and constructed a fake wall across the room. Robert devised a bookcase attached to tracks running along the fake wall so that it could slide on cue and reveal the drummer in the space behind it.
Our production days were crazy. We had two units going at all times, filming in one location while prepping and building in the other. I hopped back and forth between sets as much as I could, helped immensely by my AD Nick Erickson. We even shot out in the street, turning the entire block into a backlot. Naturally, it rained on our one outdoor day, but we bought some umbrellas and made it work. Extra applause is due to our sound recordist Vincent Fatato, who managed to get pristine audio of our actors, despite the rain and wind.
This was the first time I collaborated with DP Will Barratt, whose work on Adam Green’s projects I’ve always admired. Will is very knowledgeable and such a nice guy, I was honestly nervous to ask him to do the gig. But, he was a joy to work with. Incidentally, Will has a cameo in this shot:
Will plays Ty’s dad. There were originally extended scenes where Ty discusses his dad longer, and even one where Mike picks up the picture and comments on what a dork Ty is. Sadly, these ended up on the cutting room floor for pacing purposes. So, this hilarious picture never got the close-up it deserved.
The final day of production was the craziest, and involved all our ‘crazy party people.’ We invited our friends and family out to dress in crazy costumes and party like its 1999. And they delivered! They brought the party big time.
You guys might recognize a few of those folks, including…
… Aaron Douglas (BSG’s Chief Tyrol)…
… as well as James Rolfe (aka The Angry Videogame Nerd). We were also joined by Hero Lass (Tara Platt) and Bug Boy (Yuri Lowenthal) from “Shelf Life.”
The most hilarious cameos are Ward Roberts, Deric Hughes and Raya Yarbrough. Ward played the hapless boom mic guy who was killed by Zombie Deric in the “I Don’t Want to Die a Virgin” video, much to the shock of the rest of the band. We recreated this entire story beat from the last video in this new video, as an homage to the past.
Poor Ward, the guy can’t catch a break! (Ward was recently cast as the ‘Narrator’ in Raya Yarbrough’s “NORTH OF SUNSET, WEST OF VINE,” a new musical that I’m executive producing and music directing. Perhaps in this new project, Ward can manage to not get killed by Zombie Deric. You’ll have to come to the show to find out!)
The production design is full of other little hidden easter eggs and references. Can you guys spot them all?
With production out of the way, we went full swing into post. I barely slept the night before I started editing. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep! Finally, I just got up at 5am and began cutting. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Piecing together the shots, even just to tell this modest little story, taught me so much about filmmaking.
I spend most of my professional life looking at footage that has been professional directed and edited, so I’ve certainly invested time analyzing the way things should be done. But, there’s nothing like hands-on experience. As I cut, I quickly discovered coverage I wished I’d shot. Going through the footage frame by frame taught me a lot to apply next time.
I also had a hilariuosly self-reflective experience when it was time to add score to my little story. I normally encourage filmmakers I work with to try cutting without temp score, to prevent them from falling in love with a cue they place in the edit and then ultimately forcing me to emulate that temp. That’s never fun for a composer. As I was editing my own movie together, I temped the attic scene with a cue from ‘Goonies’ that I always loved. And immediately, deep in my heart I knew it had happened: I had fallen in love with my own temp selections and I was going to force myself to copy it. That was a first.
While I was cutting the live action footage, Sam Balcomb started the animation process. He designed 16-bit ‘sprites’ for the four band members, and created various enemies for them to fight. I wanted each band member rescued to give Brendan a new power-up, inspired by Mega Man, so we had to visualize what those powerups could be and how’d they be influenced by the instruments each person played.
“When Bear & Brendan approached me about helping to produce, and design the animations, I was thrilled,” Balcomb said recently. “But as I soon found out, the task of building out custom 16-bit graphics, that moved and interacted in a genuine ‘Genesis’ style (which we all grew up on), was crazy complicated. I have a whole new admiration for the people who made games like this.’
‘It took months to design the character sprites, levels, enemies and power-ups. When all was said and done, I think we had close to a thousand iterations of the elements all combined. Although it was a ton of work, it was a blast; the McCrearys are some of the most talented and creative dudes I know, easy to work with, and always pushing for the best. We’re really proud of this video.”
The trickiest design was the Evil Executive. Originally, I imagined a big wall-street-looking guy, but that seemed out of place for our fantasy story. So, we ended up with a cool viper-in-sunglasses-in-a-giant-mech-suit that layered overt metaphors on top of one another. In fact, my favorite moment in the video is when the Executive offers Brendan a record deal contract and he must choose to ‘Sell Out’ or ‘Rock Out.’
On May 11th, “Don’t Stop Me Now” screened before a YBH concert to a packed house in Los Angeles. Strangely enough, I really hadn’t been thinking about the implications for me that night. I just thought it was another concert, one that coincidentally would start off with a video I made.
When the lights dimmed, however, and the images lit up on the big screen, I felt a charge bolt through my body. With each story beat, I could sense the audience following along for the ride. And when Brendan first appeared in the video as the song started, people went crazy. With each successive story beat (the reveal of the keyboardist, the bassist, the ‘rock out’ / ‘sell out’ moment) the audience got more and more excited.
Sitting in the corner of the room, watching my video for the first time with an audience, I felt a rush unlike anything I’d ever felt before. I’d worked on this video for over a year, and temporarily torn apart two homes in the process. But, it was all worth it for that moment. It all built up to that visceral thrill of sharing that moment with an audience.
I had so much fun cutting together the music video, that I’ve since cut together a fun promo video (called an EPK, or ‘electronic press kit’) that introduces the band. This one draws from our various music video, some live footage and an interview I shot with Brendan. It actually features two new YBH songs hot off the presses that will be coming out with their new record later this year:
“Freddie Mercury, Queen and 16-bit games (especially the music) have probably had a larger impact on me then anything else, creatively and artistically speaking,” Brendan said recently. “This may sound ridiculous to some, but perfectly sensible to others. I’m quite sure my brother can agree. And that’s how it came to this. This beautiful, harmonious, and raucously awesome video. The ultimate mashup. The ultimate love letter.”
I spend so much time scoring films and television shows that sometimes my brain feels like its going to explode. So, it was a welcome treat to step outside that world for just a minute and see if I could tell a little story of my own. I’d like to thank Brendan and Young Beautiful in a Hurry for trusting me with their videos, and every single person who helped make this a reality. You guys are the true rock stars.
Ok, play time is over. Now I have to get back to writing music.