Covid-19 is an obvious challenge to so many industries, the games industry of course being one of them. I hope that some readers might be interested in a brief look at my personal creative, composing, and recording process during this time, more specifically for the Cuphead PlayStation announcement trailer, released on July 28, 2020.
Covid has imposed on many of our already underway projects, it’s not surprising why some days it feels hard to muster the motivation to get to work.
Like many other creators I’ve spoken with or read about in recent months, staying motivated has been a frequent struggle. Some days feel like you’ve been blessed with all the time in the world, while other days, the lock down, compounded by the weight of many recent world events, as well as the delay that Covid has imposed on many of our already underway projects, it’s not surprising why some days it feels hard to muster the motivation to get to work. Ending up with a relatively short term project with a definite deadline felt in many ways like a stroke of luck, and I was very grateful to have this to work on, if only for a few weeks.
When Chad Moldenhauer (art director at StudioMDHR) originally approached me about this, right away I had a few good ideas for tunes, including one unused tune from the original game that I felt would be great for something like this. Unfortunately this tune was, of course, conceived of and written for big band. Gathering 15 or so musician’s in a room was not even legal at that point, and we obviously would not want to put anyone at risk even if it was.
We knew from the outset a couple of things which really helped us to come up with a musical direction: 1) it was going to feature King Dice, and the return of the inimitable Alana Bridgewater, reprising her original role; And 2) it was going to have to be done with the bare minimum of musicians in order to ensure everyone’s safety. There is a concept in the creative arts that says the more restrictions that are put in place, the easier it is to define the box within which one is working. Knowing these 2 things really helped us narrow down a starting point from which to proceed.
With these points in mind, Chad and I started brainstorming concepts, for both the lyrical and musical content. From the outset the video was always going to be a stop motion animation, influenced particularly by Len Lye’s ‘The Peanut Vendor’ from 1933. As I frequently lean towards the vibe of things being darker and more on the ‘meta’ side, my original concepts were much creepier than the finished trailer.
My initial musical concept was a fairly dissonant, somewhat deranged, out of tune circus march. While this was a good place to start, I’m glad now that this didn’t end up happening as originally envisioned. While researching ‘circus music’, I came across numerous calliope videos online. After we decided that was the right sound for the trailer, I began the (surprisingly difficult) process of trying to source a real working instrument. Our first strike against this idea occurred when we realized that the only functioning calliope within a reasonable distance was not very close to us at all, across the Canada/US border in rural Michigan. Even if we had stayed with this original plan, crossing the border during Covid is difficult if not impossible, so we ended up abandoning the calliope.
After we decided that was the right sound for the trailer, I began the (surprisingly difficult) process of trying to source a real working instrument.
Lyrically speaking, my initial concepts were also much darker than the final version. Rhyming ‘PlayStation’ with ‘Cremation’ should give you an idea of the approach I was going for. As has happened often in the past, Chad convinced me that something a bit less ominous is the right way to go. Because of these setbacks and changes in direction, we decided that we had to change our approach.
This was my first experience writing for this type of animation, and one of the challenges was that the animators required a quick turnaround with the finished music so that they could get to work matching the stop motion models (and more importantly, the model’s mouths) with the song. About a week before the music deadline, a decision was made that I’m sure most composers dread; we decided to scrap the music written up to that point and go in a different direction. In hindsight this was absolutely the correct decision, but at the time it kind of threw me into panic mode.
I’ve often found that it is quite easy to get hung up on an idea and keep trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. I was still hearing the ‘out of tune calliope’ sound for this, and it took a few days to really come up with something else that I felt would work. Adding yet another limitation (a fast approaching deadline) added another challenge. Artists frequently say that until there is a hard deadline, it is often difficult to really finish anything. I certainly experienced that with the original Cuphead soundtrack, continually making minor, often pointless changes to otherwise completed tunes until we officially had studio time booked, and it was only then that anything actually got officially finalized. On top of this was the looming issue of booking studio time on short notice, and finding the right musicians also on short notice, particularly musicians comfortable being in the studio.
The other (non-composing) half of my musical career is as a percussionist, so I am reasonably familiar with the xylophone ragtime works of brothers George Hamilton and Joe Green. Studying and playing xylophone rags is a pretty standard thing for percussionists, and I’d wanted to write something along those lines since the original game, but there just hadn’t been the opportunity to do so yet. While down a research rabbit hole I found some videos I had not seen in some time, featuring the incredible xylophone playing of Teddy Brown. These two sources greatly inspired what became the PlayStation trailer that exists today.
Those videos in particular led me to settle on the instrumentation of piano, xylophone, and of course vocals. This was great as only 3 musicians would be required in total, and we would be able to record each of them separately in order to help keep everyone safe and healthy. I feel that an important aspect of the sound of the original Cuphead soundtrack was the vibe of all the musician’s playing in the same room, at the same time.
Both are fine as long as you are staying true to yourself and your capacity.
There is an almost intangible quality that exists when you have a group of musicians making music together, working as a single unit. Recording one at a time is in many ways not ideal, but I was happy with how cohesive everything ended up sounding. It made the most sense to record the piano first (played beautifully by Elizabeth Acker), in order to have a solid foundation with which to layer everything else on top. Alana’s vocals were recorded next, and lastly followed by xylophone.
Even though the xylophone can be considered the predominant ‘sound’ of the trailer, as well as frequently being the melody, in some ways it’s the least important to the foundation of the tune, and therefore was why we recorded it last. I think that it can almost be considered the ‘spice’ on the main course. The xylophone part called not just for great technique but also improvising ability, and we were very fortunate that Michael Murphy, a great all around percussionist, happened to be back in Toronto when we needed to record.
I’ve been asked to end this article by offering my advice on how to stay motivated during these challenging times. It’s hard to offer specific advice – we are all different people in different circumstances. Speaking solely from my perspective, I think that if Covid has afforded you the time to pursue work and to be creative, really try to make the most out of it that you can.
For some that could mean incredible amounts of productivity, and for others much less so. Both are fine as long as you are staying true to yourself and your capacity. For me personally, I’m thinking ahead to when the restrictions start to really lift and life begins to return to whatever ‘the new normal’ will be as a source of motivation. I want to be able to look back and feel like I did the best work I could under the circumstances, and that I’m emerging more prepared to tackle whatever musical problems come my way.
Having said that, be careful of working yourself to the point of feeling overwhelmed and therefore losing sight of what’s important, and absolutely don’t forget to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. I believe that being engaged with what is happening locally and globally, and staying in touch with family and friends, can help to maintain a sense of perspective on both your life and your work, and can help illuminate what is truly important. Set both short term and long term goals so that you give yourself the chance to feel like you’re accomplishing something of value; I frequently find that maintaining a consistent (yet not overwhelming) work ethic is in many ways a self perpetuating process.
I also truly believe that if circumstances demand that you have to limit, or even completely step away from creative endeavours during this period.
Re-read books or re-watch films that have inspired you in the past, listen to music, read books on other people’s creative process, or check out blogs and Twitter posts of artists you respect to see how they are keeping motivated and busy. I also truly believe that if circumstances demand that you have to limit, or even completely step away from creative endeavours during this period, that your creative spark will not leave you, and when you are able to return so too will the inspiration. Sometimes an extended break from something only ensures that it comes back stronger and with more focus.