ASCII by Jason Scott

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Pitch Dark Post Mortem —

The rise of “post mortems” in relation to games and other software projects is kind of interesting; it has rarely been the case that groups would trumpet what they did wrong or would want to change about something they just finished before. I suspect that for some it’s a case of being able to exorcise internal demons, or to talk through concepts or lessons that they might not otherwise explicitly regard. I’ve heard post-mortems that are basically a case of “Man, looking back, perhaps we just did everything so damned perfect we may have set ourselves for a lifetime of disappointment”, but I assume this is when the marketing/management gets a hold of the materal. In my case, the project is a video one, and I’m also the management, so that’s probably not going to happen.

So with that weird introduction in mind, let me write a bit about the now-completed “It is Pitch Dark” MC Frontalot video and my experience with it.

To recap, I contacted a large number of people in regard to the BBS Documentary and doing “stuff” for it. Among these was MC Frontalot Nerdcore Rapper exquisite. I like his stuff and I thought he’d be fun. Unfortunately, he indicated he was too busy. After the film came out, we bumped into each other at an event and he indicated that he regretted not contributing something, so I mentioned GET LAMP, and he signed on. A few months later, “It Is Pitch Dark” appeared, and we discussed the possibility of me shooting a music video. And he agreed to it, and there we go.

That video was officially finished last week (that is, I finally coaxed a few minor changes into the editing that nobody would notice) and delivered it to Frontalot. It’ll be released at his pleasure in the coming months in a pairing with the release of that song as a single. So this entry doesn’t have a link to the video, in case you’re scanning it for such.

I heard the song about a week and a half before the filming of the video. I’d heard a demo version a month and a half before that, so I knew the general approach, although half the lyrics were missing. A limitation that was made known almost immediately was that Frontalot was going on tour within a week. This basically worked out to about 4 potential shooting days, all things going well.

I had a meeting with Frontalot at the local hacking hangout (he’s staying locally to me for a while, which helped a lot) and we discussed ideas. I had a whole range of ideas of possible things the video could have, and he had ideas too. Frontalot had very little in the way of “will not do” rules to put down, and the main one we were both in agreement about: no parodying of other rap videos. That is, we weren’t going to put Frontalot into “bling” and make him pose near dubs and act like he had weapons and strippers falling out of his “ride” and all the rest of that. I told him clearly I wanted to make something where other people would find stuff to parody. That is, original new stuff.

The original plan was for two shoots; one at my house, and one on a nearby college campus. The idea behind this was to have a sequence where Frontalot plays a text adventure and you see video of him doing text adventure-like things, like trying everything against a door, trying all doors, and so on. Then, we’d have text along the bottom of the screen telling you what he was doing, and so on. I also wanted him to have a made-up “office” that he’d be working in, loaded up with references and items relevant to computing and games and nerdishness.

So, what worked out:

  • Frontalot’s a compelling video presence. This may sound obvious, but it’s not always the case and a music video director will get around this by shooting things so that the “star” isn’t the dominant feature. If you’ve ever seen a video where it appears that it’s more about the hot model or the animation than the band, and it’s a brand new band, then one of the contributing factors might be that the band itself isn’t exactly eye candy. In Frontalot’s case, I found his look to be very compelling, even in high definition.
  • Frontalot’s got good motion. I filmed him dancing in his geeked-out fashion from multiple angles and I think those worked out very well, and it gave me a lot of good footage to work with.
  • We were pretty efficient. I’d estimate we ran through the song or parts of the song about 15 times, and in about three hours of shooting came away with 45 minutes of footage. I later augmented this with roughly 30 minutes of additional shooting not requiring Frontalot, so his “workday” was kept nice and short.
  • The set decoration worked out. We shot in my basement, and I hacked up a sort of office into the corner with all sorts of equipment, boxes, and so people will find lots of vintage equipment to browse over in the background while Frontalot is on camera.
  • There’s an animation sequence using a fake map of an adventure game that kicks butt. It freaks people out when they see it for the first time.
  • Similarly, there’s a cameo appearance of someone associated with text adventures in it. This was also effective and worth the delay of a couple weeks to work out scheduling. Frontalot was well away on tour when this happened. So when he’s “interacting” with this cameo, they’re not in the same time zone at all. Worth the effort.
  • Shooting in high definition. I used the HD camera to do all this, and that thing takes great shots. Even though it has issues with low light and it’s weird to work with P2 cards instead of tape, I’ve gotten compliments from people about the image quality and action in it. When it shrinks down to a standard-size video screen, it looks spectacular. So yeah, HD’s worth it.

What didn’t work out:

  • A second day of shooting didn’t happen. I looked at the footage and figured we had enough, and that the “make Frontalot run around” footage would be a lot of work for little benefit. This was an intentional choice, but I was making it on the fly and that was a possibly unnecessary risk in terms of having coverage.
  • A second day of shooting might not have hurt. I didn’t need it in a do or die fashion, but giving Frontalot a day to mull over his performance and then bringing him back into the set to work with it further might have yielded additional footage and a gem or two. That said, he really was in top-speed planning mode for his tour and was happy he didn’t have to do a second night of shooting.
  • This was an odd song to do a music video for. Obviously, with my own selfish interests, this was a perfect song, since it’s about text adventures. But there’s no video for the main single, Secrets From the Future, and text adventures appeal as a subject to a reduced number of people who might otherwise find appeal in the main single. A lot of this is simply because Frontalot is not a massive signed artist with money to burn; this video was done for free as far as he’s concerned, so why not. But I wonder how much it’ll confuse people; the word “text adventures” never appears in the song, although any amount of listening to it tells you what he’s talking about.

The video that came out was probably 60% what I thought it would be when we started planning the shooting. To be more explicit, it’s 60% similar to my plans. It’s 100% good, and I gave a sneak preview of it at Notacon, to good reaction. It’s a great feeling to sit in the back of an audience and feel how it all plays out, and it does the job. I hope it sold a few copies of his album right then.

Would I do it again? Sure. The production time was probably 4 weeks with that being probably 6 days of actual “work” involved, either shooting or editing or screening or refining. I had to delay GET LAMP for a little while this was done, but what a bonus feature it’ll be on the DVD set!

Onward to filmmaking.

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  1. Me says:

    When the hell are you going to put the video somewhere that some 14 year old from china can rip it and stick it on you tube so that I can watch it again cuz it’s pretty damn good and the song is pretty damn catchy (I saw it at NOTACON) but i’m too damn cheap to actually buy it.

    Oh, and it’ll be nice if the MP3 gets plastered all over usenet.


  2. MJPM says:

    Hey, just wanted to say I loved your video. We got to see it at PAX 2007 yesterday at the panel on the OTRSPOD (the Penny Arcade game). It was phenomenal, I thought; a very good review by the rest of the audience’s reaction. I for one can’t get the damn song out of my head.



  3. Jason Scott says:

    Thanks! I was in the room as well; I thought the reaction was pretty good for a room of people who didn’t know they were going to be subject to a 5 minute music video out of the blue.