Ground Control to Major Tom: Remote Collaboration

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A couple of weeks ago, I saw an incredible video, along with millions of other awestruck YouTubers. From the first exterior view of the International Space Station, followed by the interior shot with the little sign taped to a door that read, “Recording In Session,” I was hooked. Now, after over 15 million views and nearly 306 thousand YouTube “likes,” the music recording of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” by Commander Chris Hadfield on the International Space Station stands as the most remote music collaboration in the history of planet Earth.

Since I first saw it, I’ve thought a lot about remote musical collaboration. In Chris Hadfield’s version of “Space Oddity,” the guitar and vocal parts were recorded on the station, 230 miles above our planet. If his recording session took 90 minutes or more, then he zipped completely around the Earth while he performed Bowie’s space-aged track. Recording artist Emm Gryner had previously performed the piano accompaniment in Toronto, Ontario, so that Commander Hadfield could lay down his parts on the space station. Once the vocals and guitar parts were recorded, music producer Joe Corcoran executed the rest of the instrumental performances and production on the track from his studio in Los Angeles, California. So, the track was both international and extraterrestrial.

Most of us will never participate in such a remote collaboration, but we can certainly be inspired by the successful outcome, as David Bowie was when he said, “It’s possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.”

Bringing this back to our own field of endeavor, let’s talk about remote collaboration in game development. Perhaps more than any other segment of the entertainment industry, video game development thrives on bringing together the talents of people scattered around the globe. Game developers are perfectly comfortable communicating with each other remotely, and the technology of off-site collaboration doesn’t intimidate developers in the slightest. In my own projects, I’ve composed music for development teams located all over the world, and I’ve learned that good communication is vital in working effectively with remote teams.

From teleconferencing and Skype, to exchanging files via FTP and cloud storage, to good old-fashioned e-mails and phone calls, there are lots of ways to make sure that everyone on the team is up-to-speed, regardless of their location. While communications technology does a good job in addressing logistical concerns in coordinating remote members of a development team, there are also matters of a more abstract nature… and these have to do with the spirit of collaborating.

For instance, when I was first hired to compose the music for Speed Racer The Video Game, my direct supervisor for the project was a producer with Sidhe Interactive, located in Wellington, New Zealand. After a short Skype conversation in which we compared notes regarding time zone differences, we set aside that approach and began e-mailing Microsoft Word documents to each other. In these documents, we broke down the music requirements for each level of the game, discussed possible music style choices and traded ideas back and forth. In addition to allowing us the opportunity to share our enthusiasm for the project, communicating this way had the side benefit of encouraging us both to carefully think things through. Plus, we enjoyed the added advantage of simultaneously creating a set of documents that we could then use as guidance throughout the music production process. It was a win-win situation, and made for an enjoyable collaboration.

At its heart, collaboration is about being a part of something bigger than ourselves. The goal of a good collaboration is to create something that couldn’t be achieved by one person alone. The inspiration of the team is very important, so everybody has to have faith in what they’re doing. As members of a collaborating team, we all have to make sure that we convey our inspiration to each other. Once that’s accomplished, distances tend to dissolve away.

This blog entry focused mostly on the experience of working with distant game development teams, but remote collaboration can also involve partnerships with other composers or performing musicians. For those kinds of working partnerships, there are plenty of online software tools available to make the job easier. You’ll find some in this article and in the online music collaboration directory on Yahoo.

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