chain factor: the video – an ant hill into a mountain

This is more for my own personal historical archive than anything else, but i thought i’d post it on my blog in the event that anyone else was interested.

The idea to make a video of me playing chain factor came as a result of me not finding any online videos of gameplay that could help guide my own play to being better, so i decided to make my own video of one of my better runs. I got lucky – the run that i ended up recording was the first run that i did, and while it’s not my best score, i felt it was good enough for me to use.

the run actually took about 22 minutes to complete, so the first step was to speed up the video so that it would meet youtube’s 10 minute specification limit (although i do realize that yt’s limitation has more to do with filesize rather than length). Doing that meant that i couldn’t use the original music/soundtrack without it sounding ridiculous, so the next step was to find music to go with the run. Ten minutes is longer than songs typically are, but i immediately rejected the idea of using more than one song because i didn’t want the video to be broken in half by two songs. The only piece of music that I had in my iTunes library that was close to ten minutes was Cheating, Lying, Stealing by David Lang. so i sped it up slightly to get it to the needed length, and planned to just stick it in the background of the video.

Once i had chosen the tune, it didn’t feel right to just have the piece sit in the background while the video did nothing but show a static gameplay field. So i decided some basic manipulation would be easy to do. So the “tremor effect” for all of the opening kick drum segments was born. At the time, i was to just going to do that in appropriate places and call it good, but once i started to put in the effect and thought about what was happening in the rest of the music, it wasn’t enough. I felt like the music deserved more – it’s a fantastic piece with a lot of immediate appeal as well as a lot of analytical depth. To have the video manipulation not reflect that depth goes against my general artistic principles. So i started brainstorming in my head ideas for what should happen in each section of the piece.

And it kept growing. and growing. and, um.

here’s a basic rundown of each section: the effects, the motivation behind them, the evolution of them, and some of the technical construction of them:

Section A (0’00”-0’34”) – Tremor Effect: I went to the web to figure out how to do this in FCP since i don’t have a copy of After Effects or a similar program. Basically it involved creating a copy of the snippet of video in question, and then doing a right and left reposition multiple times every two frames. I decided that the only thing that i wanted to actually tremor was the playfield, so i had to create cropped copies of the right “score” side, the left “Back To Menu” side, and the bottom “Level Up” side that would run independently of the playfield. This would be key to later sections.

Section B (0’34”-1’06”) – Echo layers: Originally, the idea i had was to create a “ghost layer” every time the cello changed notes. Each layer was supposed to clearly come from the spot that it just got left off, and all of the layers were supposed to be slower. I tried this at first and decided after i watched a few layers that it moved too slowly and was too boring, so i changed the concept to instead make the layers a mix of slower and quicker and have them start in a spot where at the very end of the section they would all converge to the same moment.

This was very early in my FCP video editing chops – if i had done the middle/late sections first, i would have done these sections differently. Probably a little cleaner, and also more interesting.

Sections A’, B’, A” (1’06”-2’41”) – Recap and Ripple: The ripple is the only thing that i did differently for the section recaps. That was a basic FCP video effect; nothing too special there.

Section C part 1 (2’41”-3’39”) – Moving Menu/Score: Originally i had an idea of having either the score or the menu jitter around for every piano hit, but since i lost my score to the piece from when i analyzed/performed it in college, it ended up being too daunting and impractical. I still wanted the menu and score to move, so i simplified the criteria.

i took the screen and replicated it six times: one for the cropped version of the playfield, one for the “Level” indicator on the bottom, one for a white bar on the left side along with the sound toggles, one for the “Back to Menu” that was on top of it, one for the white bar on the right side, and one for the score that was on top of it. The white bars served as a backdrop for the moving menu and scores, and i’m guessing that i probably did this in the most inefficient way possible – i didn’t create a .tga of a static white backgorund, i just cropped a white portion of the playfield and then zoomed it by 1000 percent. I’m betting that this took extra processing power because even though the video was “invisible” since i only picked a portion of it, i imagine that the video was still running in the background, which would have caused for more cpu needed and more time to render. but oh well.

getting the menu and score to move was a fairly simple matter of finding the frames with the audio that i wanted to line the move with and then creating two adjacent keyframes: one to hold the previous position, and one to immediately move it to the new position. i also added some motion blur to give the move some more “depth”.

Section C part 2 (2’56”-3’39”) – Number Fill: Conceptually the gradual number fill turned out exactly how i wanted it – start with a basic number fill, gradually hit a point where the entire board is filled with numbers by the end. In some of its execution i’m also pretty happy with what i did; it was a deliberate choice to start with a predictable pattern before finding new ways to break it – start with all 7s, then 6s, then 5s, then break that by doing something different, then break that by doing a more random pattern, then break that by turning the numbers upside down, &c. Even so, i’m not *completely* satisfied with that section because at some point it loses its sense of direction because i didn’t pace it properly and think enough ahead.

This was the first time that i deliberately decided to take a snapshot of all of the numbers indivdually into still .tga’s as opposed to grabbing small clips of video. It did me a lot of good in the long run i think – it would have been a headache both cropping-wise, timing-wise, and rendering-wise if all of those numbers were film instead of snapshots.

Section D (3’39” – 5’28”) – Rotating Playfield and Number Trails: The slowly rotating board felt appropriate for the mood of this section; since everything prior to this part was primarily percussive, the more legato sense of this section needed a more legato visual effect. The white-faded rotation that lines up with the piano cluster hits is meant to be a variation of the original “Batman” rotating segue, and although you can’t tell, it’s a copy of whatever the current playfield is at the time. Originally i had it in negative colors, but it was too distracting from the main playfield action, so i decided to change my approach.

The number trails were fairly straightforward to do, but is also one of my favorite effects in the whole video. It recycled the .tga snapshots of the previous section, just placed in strategic spots with the piano cluster hits as well. The thing that i wrestled with a little here was how the growing number of “stuck” numbers obscured the playfield, problematic because despite all of the video manipulations i was doing, the main premise behind the video was still to demonstrate gameplay. Ultimately i decided that i liked the effect too much for the lack of complete clarity to matter enough, and i’m glad i kept it in.

Section E (5’28” – 6’13”) – Moving Playfield: Another ‘gradually evolving’ section where i tried to establish the basis for the section by zooming in place, then breaking that expectation by zooming to different spots, then breaking that by adding x-axis rotation, then breaking that by adding z-axis rotation. Standard fcp functionality, but i think it’s fairly effective. i’m annoyed that by doing the z rotation, the “crop” changed so that you could visibly see the score as it rotated, but i was too lazy to try to create a moving crop to match the rotation. too much work for too little return.

Section F (6’15” – 9’06”) – Pendulum Playfield/Zoom Echo Playfields/Snare Drum Flashes: The original concept i had for the Pendulum Playfield was instead to have the hits be “mirror polarity”, as in for every hit it would flip between a mirror playfield and the regular playfield. I nixed that idea for the same reason i was wary about the “sticky” numbers in that i felt that it would obscure the actual gameplay too much. When i first did the pendulum swinging, it was an extreme and unchanging swing the whole way, and the result was pretty dissatisfying because after establishing the swing, it didn’t go anywhere and got boring too quickly. The gradual increase of the swing gave it direction but a subtle one; hopefully it’s something that you can easily not notice because it’s gradual enough and there’s too much other stuff going on, and before you realize it, the swing is at its peak.

The zoom echo playfields effect was a fairly straightforward execution at this point since i had done a different version of that earlier in the piece. I systematically created two ‘echo playfields’ that would zoom out to 1000 percent centered on a random spot, then two ‘echo playfields’ that would zoom in to zero percent centered on a random spot. This repeated for every moving note in the violin part. I toyed around with trying to make the playfields change opacity over time, but having multiple layers on top of each other achieved the effect well enough and any more lessened the impact of the swinging pendulum which i still wanted to be main focus. i did put the opacity of all of the layers back to 100% when they all came back in a collapse to try to create more visual tension. That particular moment i tried about 10 times and i’m still not completely happy with it. I had this idea of playfields zooming suddenly in in rapid succession and in rapid velocity, but i couldn’t get the effect to work the right way, so i settled for the final effect here because at this point i was also impatient to get the whole project done. I think i have a better idea of what to do if i ever tried something like that again.

The snare drum flashes came from taking a few snapshots from the background combo flashes, photoshopping out the gridlines, and then putting them all in frame by frickin’ frame. Granted, once i got the main repeating pattern, i could copy/paste the repeating pattern and place it when i needed to, but for each one i also had to make sure that where it hit didn’t potentially collide with new objects in the playfield, so it involved looking at each one fairly carefully, and when the pattern was interrupted, i’d have to shift the whole pattern around.

the snare drum hits in the music contribute greatly to the tension of the climax, and although i think i conveyed that okay in my visualization of it, it gets completely lost because of the echo playfields zooming in. I’m not completely happy with how that turned out, but again, after so many failed attempts and just wanting the whole thing to be done, i decided to call it good.

As for the final recaps of the opening sections, i put some consideration into doing something different with it to give it a better bookend but decided against it because doing anything different felt like it would have been completely out of context.

The whole project took me roughly six or so weeks to complete. crazy considering that originally i was going to make it a one-session video edit and call it finished, but i’m glad that it turned out the way that it did, because i’m happy with how it turned out, and it’s expanded my vocabulary and conceptualizations of what i can do with video manipulation which will hopefully help me with my Green Lantern project.

go me.

joining the iPhone revolution (with a tangent on music notation software)

for various reasons that would be highly tangental to this post, the tulane band staff recently got iPhones to use as work mobiles.

a few people who know me pretty well said, “it’s funny to think of you with an iPhone,” and it’s true. i’ve stated a few times on this poor excuse for a blog how i distinguish between technology innovations that i feel are practical or useful or worthy of note versus technology innovations that are fluffy and uninspiring, and in my previous post i went off on how mobile and easy-to-access internet potentially creates a new psychological standard that is hazardous to our mental health. I’d used the iPhone a few times before, borrowing from one of my colleagues, and I was highly undecided about whether i thought the technology was of the practical and awesome category or of the fluffy and uninspiring category. Now that i actually own one, it brings to light how the question of which of the two category it belongs to is the the wrong one to ask; it’s not the iPhone itself that can be practical or awesome or uninspiring or fluffy, it’s how people choose to use it.

This is something i had already grokked when it comes to other uses of technology, most notably when it comes to technology with music. Finale was the pioneer of music notation software in the early 90s and as i started to use it as my main tool for music notation, i discovered how easily Finale could be used as a crutch if used the wrong way. Because of the kind of composer i am, the crutch of Finale for me was initially using it too often as a composition tool as opposed to a notation tool, meaning that I would do my composing directly in Finale and use the playback as a measure to “hear” how the piece was going.

I discovered that while there are times when that’s fine and effective for the kind of composition i do, more often than not it would a) limit my compositional creativity and space, putting that music into a particular kind of box that could fall short of its true potential, and b) potentially lock me into treating the crappy MIDI playback file as “this is how the piece will sound” as opposed to trusting how it would sound in my head. As such, i changed how i used the program, first by conceiving it to be the tail end of the process as opposed to the initial process by sketching my ideas out on paper first to get a big picture and some details of what the piece would turn into and then put the notes into Finale using it to fill in the blanks; secondly, by preferring to hear everything on a piano voice as opposed to their crappy MIDI instrument equivalents so that playback was used only to double-check harmony and pacing and not to represent the actual color, timbre, or overall feel of the piece.

Additionally, the training that i had as an electronic musician from two excellent professors (Larry Nelson and Jeffery Stolet) as well as some strong influence from Robert Maggio in one of my undergraduate compositions originally written for solo mallet player and electronic accompaniment taught me an important lesson about the representation of real instruments using electronic sounds, namely to avoid it as much as possible. Now if i’m going to write an electronic music piece where i want a piano or a flute sound, i prefer to use acoustic samples or live performers rather than try to emulate those sounds electronically; electronic music in that context is better suited to creating sounds not duplicatable by other means. Again, how someone uses the technology being the problem rather than the technology itself.

The iPhone has a large potential for abuse and fluff, and worse, a psychology that can convince people that these potential misuses are a neccessity. The easiest example is email accessability; the ability to check and reply to emails on the go has its uses, but for some it’s become an expectation, and it creates a newer kind of social structure that has staggering implications – and it’s not even necessarily an expectation of the person who receives email on the go, but an expectation of the sender who knows that the recipient has email on the go. They send the email and in knowing that the other person can receive it right away can then make assumptions based on whether they get an immediate reply, such as “oh, he didn’t reply to my email right away. he must be ignoring me.” While the social tension from that may be small in comparison to, say, not inviting your best friend to your birthday party, enough of that can start to create a pollution that is grounded on a particular understanding of email etiquette that could be completely false.

But again, while issues like that may be more easily brought to the surface because of the technology available, assigning the blame to those issues on the technology as opposed to how it’s used is an important distinction. The iPhone itself and what it has to offer is a pretty fantastic piece of technology in many ways both subtle and obvious, and while it has its share of issues, some of those i can temper based on how i incorporate it into my life. In particular, i’m very picky about how i use the internet on my iPhone, restricting myself mainly to email only, and then using the web only occasionally to keep up on livejournal and facebook, with the occasional wikipedia lookup when necessary.

After familiarizing myself with the iPhone and immersing myself more in the iPhone “culture” as it were, i can pick out what i feel is the strongest positive and negative thing about the whole deal. The positive is how the iPhone has helped revitalize the shareware paradigm that died after its prominence in the pre-broadband and pre internet 2.0 era. At first, the idea of applications that were “lite” versus “full versions” bothered me, but the more i thought about it the more i generally appreciated that the $1 and $5 application market exists as an avenue for basic apps and for the independent developers.

(Granted, i don’t know what sort of control Apple exerts over what gets put into the App store or anything else behind the scenes, and there’s the negative side effect of how some of those apps contribute to the overall fluff aspects of the iPhone.)

The strongest negative to me is that although i acknowledge that the iPhone is groundbreaking technology for the mobile phone market, i still feel that there has been too much value placed on the product rather than its innovation, and that has largely to do with Apple successfully marketing the iPhone to all demographics; as a power tool for corporate business folk, and as the new trendy technology fad for teenagers and college folk. As a result, AT&T can jack the price for a data plan and text messaging for the iPhone higher than that of other phones. This may be justified at some level due to the difference in the speed of the 3G network, but the extra price option isn’t sold that way, it’s sold as being “because you’re using an iPhone.” Those subtle forms of focus-shifting to increase the strength of the brand are the sort of thing that i both admire and loathe.

but more importantly, since the iPhone has defined the next generation of mobile phone technology, every other mobile company was forced to create their own copycat version of the iPhone in order to keep up with the trend. The best example of this haphazard copycatting was the LG Voyager. When the Voyager was first launched, it was basically a touch screen version of the LG enV; in other words, a touch screen phone in which the touch screen aspect added nothing to the functionality of the phone because the firmware was identical to the non-touch screen enV. Granted, they put out firmware updates and patches that started to use that, but instead of hammering all of that out and then releasing the product separately, they rushed the Voyager out hastily so they could boast that they had a touch screen too.

And as more of these touchscreen phones and 3g phones come out, i can’t help but feel that what the general consumer is starting to demand from its mobile phone is moving in the wrong direction, that instant connectivity at your fingertips, while having its benefits, will continue to enforce a set of values to this and future generations that i feel needs to be tempered or at least balanced.

as a post-note, i may blog a more technical review of the iPhone in the near future, as there’s a lot milling about in my brain about the effectiveness of the iPhone versus other mobile devices for what it is designed to do.

originally posted on darkblog resonate. i prefer any feedback or commentary there.

initial conceptual thoughts/personal notes about my choir piece

it’s odd to think that my first “real” music project in several years is using an aesthetic that i’ve never felt comfortable with – singing and piano accompaniment. One of the last works i wrote as a masters student, Remembrance, is the only serious vocal piece i’ve ever written, and i think i got lucky in how successful i feel it is.

The challenge i have regarding vocal music is three-fold: a) there’s a lot of text out there, and finding text that i would feel comfortable setting to music gives me that whole needle-in-a-haystack feeling, b) once i actually have the text, i can overanalyse exactly how much meaning needs to go into the music to reflect what is occuring in the text, and c) even though i’m a pianist, i’m not that great at writing piano music and piano accompaniment.

But after talking to Jenni on the drive back from the Gustav evacuation, i determined that not using her choir as an available resource to perform some of my creative outlet is simply dumb, so we both talked about me writing a piece for their 2009 performing season.

As i was completing my drive back to NOLA, ideas started flowing into my head – oddly enough, coming up with how i wanted the beginning to start without knowing what the text was going to be. I know that it’s been done before, but i wanted to explore the idea of starting the whole choir doing a “sh” sound that led into music and then turned into text. And this led directly into the next formal idea of the piece, of starting the piece in the *middle* of the text as opposed to the beginning, mainly because i thought it would be too difficult to find a quote or a passage to use in which the first sound was a “sh” sound.

The concept then turned into a hybrid of what Steve Reich did with Proverb – instead of using a long passage and through-composing the music relating to the passage, find a single quote and build the music around the single quote. And since i was looking for the “sh” word to be in the middle of the quote, slowly reveal the quote from the middle outward.

Once i came up with this idea, i asked some people for some of their favourite quotes with “sh” sounds in the middle, and one of my former coworkers from Oregon gave me exactly what i wanted, a quote from Henry Miller:

“in this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest.”

The quote is perfect to build from the middle outward because if you isolate the middle of the quote carefully enough, it can seem to convey the complete opposite message of its point: “There is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned.” And instantly the form of the entire piece was in my head. Start with the “sh” sound, develop it into the SA singing “short cut”, develop that into the SA singing “There is a short cut”, then “There is a short cut to everything.” Create a call and response between the SA of that phrase with the TB singing “the greatest lesson to be learned.”

In my head, i have the idea of shifting the perception of the order of the quote at this point to make it seem like “the greatest lesson to be learned” comes *before* “there is a short cut”, so it’s conceivable that maybe i’ll make the TB development phrase “the great lesson to be learned is:”. I may also add “in this age” as an isolated segment so that it can read “in this age, there is a short cut to everything.”

From there, the transition from the deceptive meaning to the actual meaning is still fuzzy in my head. The ending is somewhat uncertain as well, though the idea i have right now is to layer parts of the quote on top of each other as tension into a climax before returning back to “A” accompaniment material (that i use in the beginning) to set the stage for the entire quote being sung in unison at the end, but the “A” accompaniment material takes on a slightly different character (maybe something as simple as minor in the beginning, major at the end).

Having finalized that concept in my head about a week ago, i started to try to put down some of the opening on paper and discovered a couple of issues that i need to work through. The first is that the style of the piece in my head is fairly post-minimalist, but i don’t want to make the piece so minimalist that it’s not enjoyable to perform, and i need to try to keep the piece under seven minutes. Resultingly i’m already shifting some of the creative ideas in my head to allow for more interest and faster development. The second issue is that, as i had stated, i’m not the greatest at writing proper piano accompaniment – most of the piano stuff i’ve written whether accompaniment or soloish or electronic music integrationish has used the piano mainly as a backdrop to create tall chords, and i see this very similarly.

Granted, the accompaniment to Remembrance was fairly successful even with the chordal backdrop because of the bitonality and the rhythmic interest generated – even just the simple two-against-three in the beginning. i don’t conceive of this piece as having much bitonality or pantonality in it, but i may be able to create some sort of countemelody or “future fragments” to generate more interest so long as it doesn’t distract from the main ideas and prevent the choir from finding their pitches. Resultingly i may have to compose the ending fairly soon so i can swipe the material from that final singing of the quote for developmental material in the main part of the piece (a technique i’m quite fond of thanks to one of my former composition professors at West Chester).

Likely i’ll be working out some pacing in my head and then putting more ideas on paper on thursday. Next week will be busy with lots of various marching band stuff and the (hopefully) final stages of unpacking, but at least in the next couple of weeks i want to take some of the sketchwork and do some of the computer notation parts so i can see and hear how it Actually Sounds in my head and figure out if it’s going okay or if it sucks and i need to rewrite it or reconceive my idea.