November 20, 2009 12:00 PM | jeriaska
[Continuing his 'Sound Current' interview series for GameSetWatch, Jeriaska sits down with video game and music documentary makers 2 Player Productions to discuss their work showcasing Blip Festival -- and, notably, this year's Penny Arcade Expo -- in cinematic form.]
When the chip music scene began to form in New York City, 2 Player Productions found a way to capture the excitement of Manhattan arts organization The Tank's live events in their video reportage. Their footage led to a feature-length documentary called Reformat the Planet, screened online on Pitchfork.tv and at the 2008 Penny Arcade Expo.
Founded by Paul Levering and Paul Owens, the team has branched out into various videogame-related media, including capturing the behind-the-scenes making of the game Infamous and overseeing the mixing and mastering of the Blip Festival 2008 live album. Their next big media adventure will be translating the events of PAX 2009 to DVD.
In this interview with the filmmakers, taking place during their relocation from New York to Portland, Oregon, the Pauls offer some background on their history with PAX-headlining band Anamanaguchi and the Penny Arcade team. The discussion provides a history of their movie-making process and also hints of what to expect in months ahead.
Paul Owens and Paul Levering at the Penny Arcade Expo
Previously 2 Player Productions has documented chip music performances including the Blip Festival. What approach do you feel has worked best in introducing audiences to this form of music?
Paul Owens: Just presenting things in a natural, truthful way. Showing you how it is, basically. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but most things tend not to be presented that way most of the time. The chip music shows are really energetic and raw. You can get a camera in the crowd and present it the way it is.
Paul Levering: Stylistically we leave in a lot of stuff that other people would leave out. We mix in some of the B-side and it just gives it that extra bit of dimension. You see another side of someone: maybe they’re making mistakes, maybe they’re nervous. Little things like that flesh out their character and makes it feel more personal.
PO: At the point where we were making Reformat the Planet we had seen a lot of other people looking at it and documenting chip music as well. Everyone seemed to be focusing on how they were doing it, and I think going in we were definitely like, well why are they doing it?
In the first five minutes of the movie it’s explained, they’re making music on a Game Boy. We present that fact and then from there on you can kind of forget about it. You can focus on the music and people.
PL: We had one LSDJ demonstration in the movie… that I think has been cut. The concept is that if you’re watching a rock documentary, why would you have somebody hold up a guitar and show you how a guitar works? We wanted to get away from the novelty of the Game Boy as much as possible and focus on the inspiration.
At the moment you are in the process of putting together video of the Penny Arcade Expo. What form of media do you see this footage arriving on?
PL: It’s always been for a DVD, but if the Penny Arcade crew wants to do more web distribution they have a ridiculous amount of content to work with. We brought in more cameramen than we usually have, and we were all really surprised by the size and the energy of the event. I think it made everybody perform at their utmost best.
And now you've been immortalized in a Penny Arcade webcomic.
PL: Yeah, I’ve read the strip for as long as it’s been around. We were just in the Penny Arcade office, beginning to shoot the documentary, and they were making a strip about the camera crew. They said, “Who wants to be in the strip?” Everybody just kind of pointed to me. It was pretty crazy to sit there and watch Mike draw the strip. I know there are a lot of people that would probably kill for that, but it just sort of happened.
What are major differences between filming music and documenting the game design process, such as on the making of Infamous?
PO: In a way it’s all the same. We hold to the same values.
PL: Honestly, with chip music you don’t have to care about continuity because it’s just somebody pushing buttons. We have to be more careful with this show because with live rock you can’t go back and just put in a different shot of someone playing the guitar.
Is it true that you've both known each other since high school?
PO: Yeah, in South Jersey. At the time we met I had already been planning to go to film school. I think we both loved movies and connected over that, but I don’t think we saw collaborating as an option.
PL: We weren’t huge friends at this point.
PO: We had English together.
PL: It was something where we both had the same kind of personality, where we didn’t have huge amounts of friends, but I think we respected each other. We got back in touch years later and started collaborating on these projects. It worked out really well. Paul had just finished college and I was looking to start a serious life change. We both went in this direction.
Is it accurate to say that one of you brought brought documentary skills, one of you brought chiptunes, and that added up to 2 Player Productions?
PO: Yeah, I didn’t know anything about it until then. I had a lot of experience with documentary work in school at Drexel in Philadelphia. It was easy for Paul to watch the other stuff I had filmed and translate it to chip music.
PL: I was on a videogame music kick. It’s never really went away. I noticed the alternate branches it took around the late ‘90s when the remixing scene was taking off and chip music for the Game Boy sect was starting up. I would hear about rock cover bands like the Minibosses but it took awhile to notice the bands that were taking it in even stranger directions.
PO: I think we had an interest. I don’t think we knew it was called “chipmusic,” or that there was even a term for it.
PL: These were some of the earlier 8bitpeoples releases, around 2003, when it was Nullsleep, Psilodump, Paza. I had never heard Game Boy music being arranged into actual songs instead of for the purposes of a soundtrack. It just blew my mind. We hunted down local shows, since it was all in New York and went to check it out live. That was the big game changer I think.
Peter Berkman of Anamanaguchi with Paul Levering at PAX's Bandland area
When did you first encounter Anamanaguchi?
PO: The first show we saw was Nullsleep and we saw Anamanaguchi together with Shawn Phase and Tugboat at the very next Pulsewave, the New York monthly chip show.
PL: Anamanaguchi was like 15, 16. I don’t think they had played many live shows at that point. They were really young and were stiff, kind of bashful.
PO: I came away from it definitely not being impressed.
PL: But then we loved their EP!
PO: I think they were also a little uncomfortable because they were using guitars mixed with the chip music. They didn’t know if people would take them seriously because they "weren’t a true chip band." As people got into the music, they became more comfortable.
PL: Now they’re playing at PAX and we see them playing in front of 5,000 people. They try to interact more with the crowd and Pete is a fan of irrelevant comedy, so he always brings that into his performances now. They also have a dedicated drummer with Luke.
PO: To see them go from there to here in three years is pretty cool and we have it all documented. In the beginning it was just Pete Berkman having written all the music and the lineup was constantly changing. Now I think they’ve settled on four guys that really fit into the band.
The Penny Arcade organizers have talked about a heart-wrenching letter that they received from you about South by Southwest, how you had completed Reformat the Planet and didn’t have anywhere to show it.
PL: I was very disenchanted with that entire process because we spent a tremendous amount of money. Reformat the Planet cost nothing to make, while South by Southwest cost $20,000 just to go there. We don’t have that kind of money, so it was borrowed from family members. The experience and the results were not what we thought it would be.
Here we are two years later and we’re releasing the movie ourselves. I had always wanted to work with Penny Arcade and I really wanted to show the movie at PAX. We had gone through all this and we needed some extra exposure. They helped us out and set us up at PAX, and that led to much greater things.
You’ve purchased solid state HD cameras for PAX. Does this offer advantages over working with tape in that you are not required to switch out casettes in the middle of a set?
PL: This is our first big HD project and is a big step up from the Blip Festival recordings. I think it’s going to end up being about 3 terabytes of footage. The workflow is different in that we have to be more on top of it now. Before you could always just pop tapes into the camera but now you have to be sure you’re rotating your memory. We don’t have so much memory and it has to keep cycling: getting copied over to a hard drive, erased and back to the camera.
You can almost have a continuous recording with solid state. It’s also kind of scary, because if you’re not careful you can mess and delete all the footage while transferring the backup. With tape you always have a physical object. The concerts are long (they start at 9:00 and run until 2:00 in the morning) so the cameras have to be constantly cycling. If you mess up you can delete someone’s entire set. You can’t have that happen.
Anamanaguchi and VJs Paris & outpt at PAX
What made you decide to relocate from New York to Portland?
PO: We really liked the experience of working on INFamous, the PS3 game. It was such a cool experience, so we’re looking to do more with them. Penny Arcade is out here as well.
PO: It’s a little bit about spreading the chipmusic around a little more. There’s only a handful of guys doing it in Portland, but from everything we’ve heard, they support underground music. It hasn’t been presented in the best way possible yet.
PL: There are things that need to be done in order to inform the general populace, just so that it’s not alien or a strange gimmick. Doing workshops, having speakers, showing the movie and trying to educate people about what the music is—that’s the kind of thing we want to try to apply.
The Blip Festival 2008 Live Album was on sale for the first time at the PAX Bandland area, where Anamanaguchi and Metroid Metal were hanging out. How does this CD fit into your mission to popularize chip music?
PO: It’s purely live chip music, so if you like this, there’s another world you can enter now.
PL: Even though the live album is representing the festival in its purest form, I still feel like the stamp of our style is on it. The live album was very specifically built and all the tracks were selected, the flow was constructed in a certain way. The transitions, the style, the ambiance was very thoroughly plotted out. We didn’t want just a straight board feed. We wanted that excitement that you would have at the show.
We got partnered up with Gabe Liberti around when we were working on the 2007 DVD. He mixed a lot of our audio, and he’s a brilliant sound technician. Gabe was like the biggest missing piece of the puzzle since none of us had any idea of how to do any of this stuff.
PO: I don’t know why he started working with us. He was telling me the other day, “Oh man, I was so excited to do that Bit Shifter video in 2007.” I was like… “Really? Why did you want to work with us? We didn’t have any money.” I still don’t know why.
PL: He’s completely brilliant, so we got another big loan to kick start the company, gave him a budget to buy sound equipment, record Blip and do it right. Gabe mixed all the audio and we got it mastered at one of the best mastering houses in New York, because Gabe knew people there and could get us a cheap rate. It would be a top quality release in any genre.
Has it helped spread word having the album up on Bandcamp?
PO: Yeah, you can listen to the whole thing, buy it and download it.
PL: We all adore Bandcamp. We had envisioned this album as something that could be distributed for free online, that artists could embed on their myspace pages. Bandcamp provides all those things. Every suggestion that we’ve made for features, they’ve done it, and in the period of a couple of days. We wanted to embed pictures of all the artists in the songs, so you could see who they were, and it happened.
PO: I always maintain to Paul, just wait 15 years. People will look at this and think it’s important. Right now it’s on the table at Bandland and no one cares. They’ll pick up an Anamanaguchi t-shirt… which is okay, but. Over time it will find its place, I think.
PL: If VH1 does a history of chip music 20 years from now, all they’re going to have to cut back to is our stuff. That’s all that’s going to exist. We’re in for the long hall.
[Learn more about 2 Player Productions by visiting the official site. Images courtesy of 2 Player Productions. Photos by Jeriaska.]
Categories: Column: Sound Current