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A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Cracking the Code is back — find out where we've been (Part 1 of 3)

By October 22, 2013News

Once upon a few billion years past, a chance lightning strike on the roiling seas of an empty world synthesized the tiny germ of an idea: a plot to unravel the secrets of guitar pick mechanics. From that moment, a mad accretive genesis ensued, piling idea upon idea, giving rise to the florid tangles of jungles, the heaving throngs of cities, the sandy spires of the pyramids, the…

…er, the sound of my alarm going off? (Queue the iPhone “Marimba” jingle.)

In the Beginning

Six years with no updates. That’s one hell of a late morning there, Rip Van Winkle!

Indeed it is. And it bears some explaining. The world of Cracking the Code began as a speck in a dusty nebula — a weekend hobby of interesting potential. The kernel of possibility was the prospect of convincing world-class guitar players to submit to a nearly gynecological examination of their picking technique. It soon begat a quixotic search for a high-speed camera platform in a decidedly pre-iPhone 5s world. This in turn launched a flurry of jet junkets to far-flung locales in which to ply it. These were soon documented on a web site whose assorted blog entries and lessons assumed increasingly William H. Taftian proportions.

Then much like that day in the car lot, after months of temporizing, when you realized, you know what?, I do want the performance package, the rich Corinthian leather seats, and the six-disc changer, it became clear that Cracking the Code was no longer the side job: it was the job.

I strode like a spirally-eyed proselyte into the conference room of the recruiting firm I’d run for ten years, and explained to my partner that I needed a graceful exit. I had already stopped updating the project’s web site — not out of apathy, but thanks to the lactic acid buildup of the hamster wheel which rolled with increasing momentum from day job into night job. Propped on cinder blocks in the driveway, I was redlining in neutral, but I wasn’t actually going anywhere. I needed to pick a gear.

Dropping the Clutch

A year later I sat on my couch, marveling at the jagged melodies of a midday symphony I’d never heard before: the avian cacophony of the schoolkid bookbag brigade, the thrum of departing buses. This is where all those lunch trays and SunnyD bottles on my stoop came from. The real estate brokers never tell you what goes on in your neighborhood during the day when you’re not supposed to be there.

Sony Handycam vs. Canon 5D Mark II

TROY G. BIV: The 5D Mark II’s full-frame sensor, and Canon’s color science, versus the Sony HDR-HC1 small-sensor camcorder.

And even if I was no longer at a desk, there was plenty of work. For one thing, I still didn’t know an f-stop from an F stop. But when I juxtaposed a drab grey frame from my Code interview camcorder alongside the the starburst of colors available to my friend the portrait photographer, I was instantly besotted. I plunked down a credit card on a high-end photographic tool, the Canon 5D Mark II. It was a device of incomparable professional esteem which was ironically, like me, never planning to shoot moving pictures as its day job.

But it had sparked a revolution in videography circles. The camera’s supersized full-frame light sensor was a deluxe dimension equal to the size of the 35mm celluloid normally employed to shoot Time-Life photo essays or lush golden-era spectacles like White Christmas. Overnight, its availability on a modern video camera suddenly made cinematic tricks like shallow focus available to film school students and wedding photographers.

At the same time, the 5D’s ability to reproduce vivid color in everyday lighting, without truckloads of equipment, was revolutionary for a camera that you could toss in a backpack. That you could also sling it around your neck and disappear into a throng of Times Square tourists without so much as a glance toward City Hall for a permit was a feature not available on any other camera, at any price.

If I was concerned about dropping three grand on photographic hardware not expressly designed for documentary filmmaking, it was blind faith on my part that the speeding freight train of interest in DSLR video could not be stopped. It is also no coincidence that one of the last individuals I recruited before I left the office was the preternaturally talented founder of the Magic Lantern project for Canon cameras. Like the first of the Ones from the Matrix, he had created the initial hook between the rigid stockade of the Canon 5D’s firmware and the fungible world of open source.

Despite absolutely no precedent suggesting corporate megaliths like Canon might ever capitulate to the demands of the mewling masses, I and apparently many others were nevertheless persuaded that it was only a matter of time before the spur of crowdsourced innovation dug deeply enough. We would be a proper goad to the Borg to eventually, inexorably, incorporate the necessary manual cinematic controls into actual shipping cameras.

The Thunder Years

The Atari

4 * (SHAVE + HAIRCUT) = 8 BITS: The Atari 2600, at home among a wall of rock stars.

But it was also becoming clear that live footage alone wouldn’t do the trick. I had written a script that recounted, like The Wonder Years, the history of rock guitar in the ’80s as I personally experienced it. This was a trunk for supporting boughs on topics of nostalgic reverence to anyone who has ever hoisted an axe skyward in mock triumph: the BMX-like oneupmanship among neighborhood guitar heroes, the continual trawling of mass media for any shred of useful instruction, the challenge of deciphering fast playing from recordings.

The point of all this was to express in a visceral and entertaining way, even to non-guitarists, why anyone even cares about guitar technique in the first place — let alone to the often bizarrely fetishistic extent that most guitarists do. You don’t see flautists in marching band turning their backs to the audience to hide their fingerings. But the nearly alchemical fanaticism of the search for playing secrets has been part of the culture of guitar since the earliest days of rock. It is why this project exists. And I wanted to do that justice.

In Motion

But when I thought about depicting the experience of actually listening to music, that’s when I came up empty handed. It’s one thing to excerpt footage of famous guitarists playing. That’s documenting a historical event. And consuming such a document is primarily a visual enterprise. In fact, a spate of fascinating recent studies has underscored the primacy of visual sense in guiding our impressions of musical performance. In other words, exciting players tend look as exciting as they sound. And this goes a long way to explaining the popularity of guitar performance clips on the internet. The accumulated kinetic energy of the world’s clicks on internet shredders may be second only to its furious reloading of pixelated cat videos as the green energy source of the future.

But watching music, as the saying goes, is still fundamentally like dancing about architecture. Even today, the conversation between artist and listener takes place most principally through speakers and headphones — which is to say, inside your head. This intensely shaman-esque experience is often more about visions and feelings than actual sound, even minus the chemical enhancement my parents undoubtedly experienced at concerts in the ’60s.

Note Emitter from "Jump" Animation

INNERVISIONS: Particle emitters in Apple’s Motion making the aural, visual.

When I thought about those visions, the first thing I imagined was a glowing white musical note, streaking across the vast expanse of an inky void. This was a scene I’d often imagined as a kid — maybe as a result of years spent reading printed music, but with the colors dramatically inverted. This wasn’t the only way I had heard music — the opening riff to Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love was a vortex of indigo and purple — but it was a recurring one. And it wasn’t literal. I didn’t know what the void represented: A sky? A lake? But it was blank, like a canvas, and that seemed like a suitable metaphor for the inherent individuality of musical perception.

The good news is, there was also a way to make it. I had stumbled through most of Final Cut Studio over the preceding years, but there was one application which I hadn’t ventured to open. Motion is Apple’s authoring software for motion graphics animation. Traditionally, motion graphics are the stuff of evening news and Monday Night Football — whiplash assaults of flying logos and glowing box scores. Though I was unfamiliar with the conventions, the tools turned out to be equally well suited to blazing musical notes.

Now Your Wrists Are Burned

After three weeks of coffee-fueled couch imprisonment, I’d hacked up a first stab at representing the imaginary life of the guitarist: a stream of animated sixteenth notes strafing a stormy animated sea, set to the sinister strains of Yngwie Malmsteen’s Now Your Ships are Burned. Using a Motion feature called a particle emitter, Motion created an invisible spray nozzle that churned out a blast of glowing notes. Animating the spray nozzle in three dimensions traced a contrail of those notes through the scene, like Tinkerbell on afterburner. Applying random motion, gravity simulation, and scale behaviors to the emitted notes caused the trail to flutter and sink as it dispersed. The overall effect was both eerily naturalistic and entirely fantastical.

Ships Solo Animation

NOW YOUR SHIPS: Are burned white-hot, Yngwie’s impossibly fast licks translated into visual frenzy.

It was the first long-form animation I’d attempted, and it is the oldest that still found its way into the finished product, as the apex of Episode 1, “Rock to the Future”. The speeding note emitter also became a kind of mascot for the project. It was useful for conveying not just the adrenal rush of fast guitar playing, but like a metaphorical fMRI scan, it also depicted the inevitability of imminent creative insight, and more generally the expansiveness of the interior monologue. In fact, we recently spent an afternoon designing a logo for the new web site, before it occurred to us that we already had one: the emitter is ensconced comfortably in the upper left of this page.

Six months and several dozen animations later, the visual language of Cracking the Code had begun to coalesce as a loopy amalgam of the documentarian and the wholly imaginary. Somewhere between diorama and funhouse, the so-called “2.5D” aesthetic — flat objects arrayed in three-dimensional space — seemed entirely appropriate for a story that begins amid the youthful trappings of book reports and Atari cartridges.

Avengers Assemble

But just as animation was helping to give a quaintly nostalgic form to the many observational flights of fancy in the script, the sheer volume of keyboard and trackpad attachment involved was also threatening to bestow a different kind of gift: carpal tunnel. It was now nigh on a year since I had left the office, and I had to admit that the task was turning out to be decidedly more than a one-man job.

Digging deep into the headhunter toolbox, and also the headhunter checking account, I placed a few strategic emails to music and film faculty at the alma mater. When these returned with the same two graduating senior recommendations, I took that as a hint from Olympus. A month later I, Adam, and Brendan were installed in a loft sublet in DUMBO, and a foodtruck-fueled creative juggernaut was born.

I had showed up to work on day one with a half-finished first draft of Season 1 that was less a collection of episodes than a relentless stock ticker of vignettes. Jammed with visual references impossible to spot by anyone without a meth addiction and a finger on the pause button — and with absolutely no room between lines of voiceover to squeeze in even a Dunlop .73mm nylon guitar pick — watching a full episode from start to finish would probably have sent an infomercial director into a PTSD tailspin.

Usfest Animation, Take 2

BUSTFEST ’83: Nothing says summer like a shirtless Vince Neil.

It wasn’t immediately apparent to us that this was a problem. Like a two year-old with a new vocabulary, flexing the burgeoning skillset through context-unaware repetition was all part of the learning process. And learn we did. Our Motion-fu grew mighty as we designed, re-designed, and re-re-designed the same scenes with increasing visual sophistication. We became as familiar with Motion’s many capabilities as its maddening deficiencies. Nerd hilarity reached its apotheosis when we realized we were about to redo the “USFest ’83” scene precisely one year to the day from its original creation. (Before you ask: July 6th.)

The Sound is the Fury

We were proud of our growing fluency, but one thing we noticed in displaying work-in-progress episodes to friends, officemates, the UPS guy, and anyone else who dared poke a head into our doorway was the disconnect between the voracious energy with which we crafted scenes, and the palpable lack of it in our unwitting test viewers. A polite nod of approval felt more the feigned interest a preschool teacher shows in a child’s fingerpainting. It was hardly the gut punch of “Awesome!” we were hoping for.

Moreover, half-hearted postscripts about what an episode would be like when it was fully fleshed out didn’t work. It was clear that viewers were understanding intellectually rather than reacting instinctively. And the problem was something you might have expected a show about guitar playing to intuit much sooner: sound.

In much the same way that sense of smell is the other side of the coin of taste, we learned very quickly that visual impact is at least fifty percent aural. By analogy, it often takes an experienced mix engineer to be wowed by the unmixed tracks from a recording session. Absent the frequently extreme dynamic range compression present on finished records, which helps increase the perceived volume of a song, raw studio tracks can sound laughably tiny when played on consumer equipment. The power is there, but it’s twenty decibels quieter than your iPhone can actually deliver to your ears.

In fact, raw recordings of incredibly dynamic instruments like snare drum would need to be cranked through huge amplifiers with tons of reserve power, or “headroom”, to accurately reproduce the kind of punch that a drummer hears when playing the real thing. This is one of the reasons that big honking far-field monitors in expensive mix studios are often called impress-the-client systems. By contrast, rock mix kingpin Chris Lord Alge is famously reputed to mix at such low levels that the whoosh of his computer fans can be heard over the track.

Similarly, visual artists may be used to watching silent animated sequences and intuiting the invisible musical energy that will inform the finished product. But for everyone else, if we wanted to gauge the real impact that our work would have in its final form, we realized that we had to present it with soundtrack.

Just Breathe

Space Blues Breathification

WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T BREATHE IN SPACE?: The Episode 4 Eddie Van Halen “Space Blues” animation, breathified to make room for custom soundtrack.

But to incorporate music required a total rethinking of the visual flow of our creations. The seizure-inducing visual bombardment, when paired with the verbal fusillade of the analogy-dense voiceover script I had written, meant that one animation railroaded right into the next. Worse, having paid no attention to the interplay of sight and sound, we had inadvertently crafted a mosh-pit of animations, voiceover, sound effects, and music, all simultaneously jousting for intelligibility.

None of this left any room for exposition of the sort that actually makes music enjoyable. And to make that room, we had to do the unthinkable: we unsheathed the pruning shears. By literally grabbing the scissor tool in Final Cut and snipping animations into sections, a process we’d anointed with the passive-aggressively unwieldy moniker “breathification”, we inserted gaps to keep visual and sonic elements from getting kicked out of the venue for fighting.

One by one, breathification reduced previously finished scenes to slivers. Episode timelines expanded like perforated origami snakes to include dozens of black “slugs” of dead air. It felt like punching holes in your walls where all the picture frames should go.

In the Beginning, There was Time

19 SECONDS TO LOVE: The dolly move from Episode 3’s opening sequence, Bullet Time.

But if the prospect of redoing yet again nearly everything we’d already redone wasn’t suitably daunting, we realized along the way that simply adding time alone wasn’t enough. What if the soundtrack we had yet to create overflowed the bounds we’d allowed for it? To be absolutely sure that our breathification wouldn’t simply trigger a re-breathification at some point down the line (probably on July 6th), we needed to make sure that we weren’t just adding time. We needed to add tempo.

By preemptively choosing a metronomic click for animated scenes, our thought process about flow instantly became more musical. Previously, the compulsive rush to make every iota of screentime a high gothic visual experience meant that we made production headway about as quickly as medieval masons clinking their chisels atop Chartres. But when we stopped thinking in frames — one 30th of a second — and started thinking in measures, it was like growing wings. The idea that we’d drift languidly through a scene for no other reason than to build a mood almost seemed like cheating. Nineteen whole seconds of screen time in one camera move? (Episode 4 opening sequence, “Bullet Time”.)

Oh the decadence.

Just when the lily was not so much gilded as bronzed like a baby’s first pair of shoes — when no more stuffing could be jammed into the visual turkey — something magical had begun to happen. Cheeky lunchtime discussions of the “Pause Brigade” who might eagerly freeze-frame our episodes while scanning for visual in-jokes suddenly became fewer as we instinctively shifted our storytelling away from the style of a Red Bull-fueled Easter egg hunt toward something more expressive. The rigidity of the click had, ironically, set us free. Episodes attained pacing, legroom, flow. In short, things became watchable.

Next up: “New Wave” (Part 2 of 3)

7 Comments

  • capnzilog says:

    I do so love this behind the scenes stuff! I’m getting an education here. Keep it up!

  • Very insightful… Thank you for sharing!!

  • Roger adams says:

    Thanks for getting this old guy off the sofa and playing more; I had the metal method back in the day too! This is the most in-depth teaching I have ever seen and your monster chops are so inspiring. I can’t appreciate your lessons enough. Thank You!

  • webpage says:

    When I initially commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I receive four emails with the same comment.
    There has to be a means you can remove me from that service?
    Thank you!

    • Brendan Schlagel says:

      Sure we can remove you from that, no problem. I don’t see any comment subscriptions with this email address though, is it a different one? Please send us a note with details and we’ll get that taken care of!

  • Andrew says:

    Do part two and three exist yet? Thanks.

  • Dan McCaughern says:

    Hi
    I’ve tried to subscribe but receive no instructions after filling in my email address. What’s happening?!

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