A Glimpse of a 21st Century Akira

Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo

What would a live-action version of the film “Akira” have been like? Warner Bros. has been trying to get the project underway since 2002, when it acquired the rights to the original 1988 animated film. Nevertheless, as of this writing it seems that the project has been shelved. The cancellation became particularly painful a few weeks ago, when concept artist Rodolfo Dimaggio released a collection of concept images he created for the proposed upcoming film. His conception of the world of Akira was strikingly beautiful – but of course, it was a motionless vision. What would Akira have looked like in motion? Six years ago, Kanye West gave us a chance to see a brief glimpse.

In 2007, Kanye West released a music video for his hip hop single, “Stronger.” The song was West’s third number one single, and the music video was nominated for Video of the Year at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards. I’m not writing about this because I like the song. Every now and then I’ll stumble across the video while looking at something else on the web, and it will always make me pause. I’ll stare at the imagery, caught in a miasma of conflicted longing for the live-action Akira film that his music video presents in tantalizing snippets. The video was made as a loving tribute to a classic animated film, and gives us a fleeting taste of what a modern Akira motion picture might be like.

(Kanye West – Stronger)

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Akira is a series of Japanese manga (i.e. comics), written and illustrated by Katsuhiro Otomo and released in six volumes from 1982 to 1990. In 1988, Otomo adapted his own manga series into a lavish animated film, which he directed himself. The film stands today as an incredibly impressive example of what Japanese anime can accomplish. Akira features characters with expressive faces and fluid movements, a marvelously detailed futuristic city, and a cyberpunk story that works on a nightmarishly personal level, while also unfurling an epic science-fiction spectacle that builds steadily to a shattering climax.

(Akira Trailer – English)

Watching Akira for the first time is an unforgettable experience. I was a kid when I saw the film on TV. I’d never imagined that animation could tell such a dark and ambitious story, and I was both appalled and fascinated as I watched the events unfold, sometimes with a raw honesty that I’d never seen in animation before, and sometimes with shocking detail that deeply surprised me. As it did with so many others, Akira fueled my subsequent enthusiasm for Japanese anime, opening up a new world of speculative storytelling that I hadn’t known existed. The musical score of Akira was composed by Shoji Yamashiro, and included some of the most weirdly original music I’d ever heard up to that point. The use of vocals particularly impressed me. From the rhythmic gasping voices of “The Battle Against Clown” to the unsettlingly childlike singers of “Dolls’ Polyphony” to the aggressively hypnotic chanting of “Mutation,” the musical score used human voices in a much more central role than I’d ever before heard in a film score. It gave the film a unique sonic quality that helped to accentuate the disturbingly otherworldly nature of the story it told.

(Akira – Full Soundtrack)

So, now let’s go back to Kanye West. When he released the video for “Stronger” in 2007, it included images that streaked like lightning through the brains of Akira fans. The gleaming white scanning machine… the motorcycle gang speeding by and leaving long bands of glowing red across the screen … the nurse in a green-tinted hallway… the group of policemen sent flying backwards… it was clear that the Akira reference was thoroughly deliberate. Here was the closest we’d gotten to a live-action Akira film, and those brief glimpses were maddeningly beautiful. A visual tribute to an animated film from the 1980s had turned into a fleeting glimpse of what a contemporary Akira movie might look like.

But should a live-action Akira film be made? The issue is highly controversial. Ever since Warner Bros. acquired the rights to the property in 2002, the problems kept mounting up. Could the movie be made with a multi-racial cast, or would the cast have to remain strictly Japanese, and what would that do to the film’s commercial prospects in the west? Also, could the film retain its anticipated R rating and still be able to recoup the enormous budget it would require? As of this writing, the production has been shut down… and I must admit, I wish they had found a way to work things out. I’m sure it would have been an unforgettable experience.

Music in the Manual: FMOD Studio Vs. Wwise

Wwise-FMOD

A few days ago, I downloaded and installed the latest version of a software package entitled FMOD Studio and was pleasantly surprised to discover that an oversight had been corrected. It’s not unusual for software updates to correct problems or provide additional functionality, but this update was especially satisfying for me. The makers of FMOD Studio had added the “Music” section to the software manual.

A brief explanation: FMOD Studio is a software application designed by Firelight Technologies to enable game audio professionals to incorporate sound into video games. The application focuses solely on audio, and is used in conjunction with game software. In essence, FMOD Studio is folded into the larger construct of a game’s operational code, giving the overall game the ability to do more sophisticated things with the audio side of its presentation.

When FMOD Studio was initially released in August of 2012, the manual did not include information about the music capabilities of the software. Admittedly, the majority of FMOD Studio users are sound designers whose interests tend to focus on the tools for triggering sound effects and creating environmental atmospheres. That being said, many composers also use the portions of the FMOD Studio application that are specifically designed to enable the assignment of interactive behaviors to music tracks. It was a bit puzzling that the manual didn’t describe those music tools.

One of the biggest competitors to FMOD Studio is the Wwise software from Audiokinetic. Wwise offers much of the same functionality as FMOD, and in working with the software one of the things I really like about it is its documentation. Audiokinetic put a lot of thought and energy into the Wwise Fundamentals Approach document and the expansive tutorial handbook, Project Adventure. Both of these documents discuss the music features of the Wwise software, offering step-by-step guidance for the creation of interactive music systems within the Wwise application. This is why the omission of any discussion of the music tools from the FMOD manual was so perplexing.

It’s true that many of the music features of the FMOD Studio software are also useful in sound design applications, and some are similar in their function to tools described in the sound design portions of the manual. Firelight Technologies may have assumed that those portions of the manual would be sufficient for all users, including composers. However, composers are specialists, and their priorities do not match those of their sound design colleagues. In using the FMOD Studio tools, the needs of composers would be sharply different from those driving the rest of the audio development community. Wwise understood this from the start, but FMOD seemed to be following a philosophy that hearkened back to the early days of the game industry.

In those days, the audio side of a game was often created and implemented by a single person. This jack-of-all-trades would create all the sound effects, voice-overs and music. Nowadays, the audio field is populated by scores of specialists. It makes sense for FMOD Studio to acknowledge specialists such as composers in their software documentation, and I’m very glad to see that they’ve just done so. If you’d like to learn more about FMOD Studio, you can see a general overview of the application in this YouTube video:

My Music Around the World – Accidental Discoveries

As a composer for media, I sometimes stumble upon uses of my music that I didn’t know about. Some are television and film productions in far-away places, where I would never have dreamed to hear my music performed. Some are lovingly-made fan videos, which always entertain me with their creativity and enthusiasm. I thought that every now and then it would be interesting to share a few of these accidental discoveries with you:

Night Shopping in St. Petersburg

The Gallery – a huge mall in a historic building in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia – created an enormous light and video projection show coordinated to music I composed for the SimAnimals video game. The whole thing was projected onto the front of their street-facing facade. I just happened to stumble upon this when I was surfing around YouTube. It was a huge surprise!

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Britain’s Got Talent

I owe Lucius H. Moxon for letting me know about this first. He heard music that he liked on the Britain’s Got Talent TV show, and then he used the Shazam app to identify it — the app listens to whatever music is playing and then gives you the name of the song and the artist.

The icon for the Shazam application

The icon for the Shazam application

Then he searched for me on Twitter, found my Twitter profile, and tweeted me to let me know that he’d really enjoyed my music on Britain’s Got Talent. Thanks again, Lucius! It was flattering to have a track featured on such a popular show. The track was called “Deploy the Toys” from the Christmas album I composed for Extreme Music.

The Making of a Sackboy Music Video

I’d like to talk about a little personal milestone that just happened this week. My music video, “Little Big Planet 2 Soundtrack – Victoria’s Lab,” reached 200,000 views on YouTube. This is not an astounding view count – it isn’t viral by any means. However, it’s a lot more than I ever imagined when I first decided to create a music video for one of the songs I composed for the LittleBigPlanet 2 video game. I thought it might be interesting to talk briefly about how this video came about, and how the LittleBigPlanet game makes it possible to create a humorous music video like this one.

While there have been many other music videos made with the characters and creation tools of LittleBigPlanet 2, I think this one may the first (and perhaps the only) music video made by a LittleBigPlanet composer. The track, “Victoria’s Lab,” was the first I’d composed for the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and I was tremendously excited about it. The track included an ambitious vocal arrangement for four singers. I sung all the parts in this fugato, which is a composition in which multiple independent melodies play simultaneously. They echo each other’s melodic content and then branch off into lots of variations.  While this was essentially a serious vocal composition style, I performed it in a whimsical way using syllables such as “la dee dah.” The whole thing was supported by an accompaniment that included string orchestra, circus organ, beat boxing, rock guitar, vocoder, and lots of other odd and eccentric instruments.

The real fun of a vocal composition like this one is watching it performed live. If you’ve ever seen this kind of vocal counterpoint performed live, you know how interesting it is to watch the melodies shifting from one vocalist to the next, while the others sing independent and related parts. I had this desire to create a visual experience for my Victoria’s Lab fugato… but how?  I really didn’t think that anyone would want to watch me in splitscreen, overdubbing vocal parts into a microphone – that would be boring. The LittleBigPlanet aesthetic and sense of humor heavily influenced this composition, so wouldn’t it be more fun to see a group of Sackgirls singing together?

The developer of the LittleBigPlanet game, Media Molecule, did a wonderful job of creating both a fantastically entertaining gameplay experience, and a imaginative and inspiring creation tool for making game levels. Moreover, they also made it entirely possible to create short entertaining films with LittleBigPlanet, too.  Characters are called “Sackbots” and have the ability to lip sync as you speak into a microphone connected to the PS3. For my music video, I created and dressed up three Sackbot singers. Then I played back recordings of each of the vocal parts into the PS3’s microphone. I played them one at a time, isolated from each other and from the rest of the composition. While each of the Sackbot singers recorded their individual parts for lip sync, I moved the Sackbot’s head and body using the PS3 controller, animating the Sackbot to give it a more realistic “performance.” I recorded each of their dramatic singing performances against a green screen backdrop, so that I could put them into any environment I liked. Sometimes I had them singing on a theatrical stage. Other times, they sang in square frames on screen, Brady-Bunch-style. Finally, I dressed up a Sackbot singer to look just like the character of Victoria Von Bathysphere from the LittleBigPlanet 2 game. Victoria got to sing the operatic, aria-like parts, which she performed with intensity and dramatic flair.

Sackboy-WP

Since I couldn’t leave Sackboy himself out of the fun, I created scenes in which he vigorously headbanged and rocked out to the music. I had him dancing alongside large skeletons playing guitars. Finally, I let him run around the delightfully wacky environments created by Media Molecule for the Victoria’s Lab levels, where this music is actually heard in the LittleBigPlanet 2 video game. The levels created by Media Molecule are pure genius – a combination of joyous silliness and sublime artistry that come together to form the perfectly delightful playground for Sackboy and all his friends.

I recorded all these performances and action sequences using the Hauppauge PVR system, which allows PS3 video to be fed into a computer and captured as video files. Then I edited the video in my computer using Final Cut Pro.

It was a bigger job than I thought it would be, but I had a great time creating the music video. I’m very happy that people have enjoyed my singing Sackgirls and headbanging Sackboy. 200,000 views may not be huge by YouTube standards, but it certainly makes me smile to think of that many people watching my Sackgirls sing. Making the music video was a great way for me to participate in the LittleBigPlanet philosophy of Play, Create, Share.