I’m willing to bet a large majority of our reader base is familiar with Alex Mauer. but if not, let me direct you to the interview that our very own Kuma did with him last year. In the intervening time, in addition to a slew of other projects Alex did what might be the first of its kind – a chiptune score for a movie called Motivational Growth.
Released in October 2014, it’s the story of a depressed man who tries to end it all, only to find that the very filth he has cultivated in his apartment from his depression has come alive to try to get his life back on track (or has it?). It’s a very intense film – it’s got some blood and gore, and obviously the theme of suicidal depression isn’t exactly fun for the whole family, but it’s a hell of a film and something that really got to me personally.
I met Alex this year at MAGFest when we ended up sitting next to each other by chance at a large chiptune family dinner down at the Irish pub in National Harbor. One thing led to another while we were inhaling our food and suddenly Alex was willing to do an interview with the blog about Motivational Growth and the upcoming game Starr Mazer. I got in touch with him once both our schedules calmed down, and managed the following. Enjoy!
*The following interview contains light spoilers for the film Motivational Growth.*
Adam: So, let’s just dive right in. Motivational Growth. It’s been out for… what, about a year now?
Alex: Actually, no. It became available to the world in October 2014. You may find some contradictory information on the internet, but that’s the day we finally had distribution.
Adam: Oh okay! So it’s really only officially been out a few months then!
Adam: I guess the obligatory question here is, how’d you end up coming on board for a project like that? You’ve mentioned the fact that this may well be the first movie with a full chiptune soundtrack, that kind of thing sounds like it must have been a conscious choice.
Alex: The creator / writer / director: Don Thacker wanted to use the chip sound. He contacted me because he was a fan of my work like Vegavox and what I was doing for Penny Arcade at the time. He chose that sound because the film is set in 1991, and there are a bunch of clues for that: The main character Ian has an attachment to his television and video games, and the soundtrack to his world is chiptunes from around that era.
Adam: Ah, that actually answers my next question of why you went for the NES/C64 sounds! That makes sense, given the time frame.
Alex: Yeah! We were thinking about all the various possibilities – should we go Sega? Should we go TG16? We decided on the very recognizable NES and then the very deep synthy C64 because they lend very well to a film score and that they were huge in that era.
Adam: Speaking of scoring – I know you’ve done some intense scoring before for games – the Penny Arcade games come to mind – but scoring a movie, I imagine, is quite a bit different. Did you have to approach it differently?
Alex: Yeah, scoring a movie is way different than games – with games usually you’re matching a feeling or matching some example tracks the devs show you. With a movie, there’s usually a temp track which is already there – [the team] will edit to some music from an older film or something else and then the composer comes in and replaces the temp track with new material. The other major difference is you have to time the music to visual cues, and that timing can be the hardest part. I make a list of events that occur with time markers before I even start composing the score.
Adam: I know you must have spent ages working on this soundtrack. With just a few casual listens through, I picked up on the obvious motif of Ian’s Theme cropping up elsewhere, suitably tracked to the mood of the scene. Did you do anything stealthier than that in the score? Like, having certain instrumentation for various recurring actions?
Alex: There are leitmotifs everywhere – I’m thinking of one scene where Ian is considering The Mold’s offer. Ian mentions Kent, and the camera cuts to Kent for a second and Kent’s Theme cuts in for a brief moment, and then cuts back to The Mold’s offer. The bassline throughout the movie which keeps re-appearing is The Mold, and the lead melody which usually plays along with that is Ian’s melody. Then there is Leah’s Theme which appears a bunch when Leah is on screen – the high note arpeggiation and whatnot. And then in the opening sequence, the overture is based on every single theme in the movie all tied together into a big thing.
Adam: I do have to say, as a former actor in musicals, I really appreciate a good overture to set the feeling for what the score is going to be like.
Alex: Thanks! Yeah, I am especially proud of that piece – that song actually came well after most of the other music was composed. That part of the film didn’t exist until well into the editing phase and they asked for a driving intro song – I think we nailed it.
Adam: Agreed! So how long did all of this take? Or at least your chunk of the action, that is.
Alex: It was a long process. It was done in pieces – basically the entire temp track was replaced within a couple of months, then maybe a month or so went by, then they asked for me to add more, and a month would go by, and more – so on and so on until basically there was about double the amount of music than what was in the original temp track. I’d say the whole process took at least a year, and then I made extended versions of all the music for the soundtrack album too. It took much longer than one year to make the movie though – the editing and post production, the animation, the VFX, all of that took forever. At the same time I was doing other work for Imagos Films – we were doing commercials, shorts, and we ALMOST did a web series, but that didn’t pan out.
Adam: Dear lord – do you people just hate free time? It sounds like it.
Alex: Haha yeah, we do hate free time – we want success very badly so we use all of our resources to MAKE THINGS CONSTANTLY. It’s what we like to do – luckily we all found each other. It’s a good team.
Adam: It’s good to hear that some of your efforts panning out didn’t stop you from keeping on – especially since now it seems like you all have come together for Starr Mazer to be a thing! Now, obviously Starr Mazer makes a teeny tiny appearance in MG as a commercial (and one of Ian’s hallucination scenes), but I have to wonder, were you guys planning on trying to make that into a game the whole time?
Alex: Yes, we planned to make the game all along. In fact, when Don and I first met one of the things he said to me about the movie is that he wants to make Starr Mazer real – and this was years ago, like 2011.
Adam: How fortuitous you had a spot to stealthily plug it in your movie, then! Haha. Is anything from MG going to creep its way into the game, by chance? Or, another way, how deeply entrenched in the universe that Motivational Growth takes place in is Starr Mazer – does it exist in its own vacuum, or is there going to be some interplay?
Alex: Absolutely! Ian gets lost in the Mazer world during MG, and he will make an appearance in game. Beyond the Ian cameo I’m not sure what else Don has planned…but I’m sure there will be more crossing over.
Adam: Oh, I guess that reminds me – so is everyone from the MG creative team back for Starr Mazer? I know you have a bunch of new people, of course, but I mean are the core crew all back?
Alex: Well, even though we’re the same company, making a game and making a movie are two very different things. For example, our usual DP, Bliss Holloway won’t be working on the game. Although the name Holloway does appear in the game…so what do I know? Don is directing, we have another writer working on it as well, and I’m doing music again as well as sound effects this time. I’d say me and Don are really the only two who are doing similar roles in both MG and Mazer.
Adam: Got it. Well it seems like you guys have really assembled quite the all-star crew for the game: I was poking through the KS page as I’ve been talking to you and I know the list of guest musicians on this thing is a mile long, to say nothing of all the other roles.
Alex: Right! Yeah, we’ve got an all-star line up – a bunch of friends we always wanted an excuse to work with, in addition to some people we’ve looked up to for a long time. It should make for awesome results.
Adam: I’m certainly hoping so! I mentioned the KS page a second ago, and I know you guys are in the home stretch and it’s painfully close, so I’m really hoping it works out! It’s a pretty unique sort of game as far as these things go, right? You’ve got shmup action and point and click, Shadowgate-y stuff going on in different parts?
Alex: Basically, we’re fusing these two genres together into a new genre. It’s not just two things in the same game, they’re cohesively combined. It’s like in Super Mario Bros: You play through the normal jumping levels outside and in the sewer, then all of the sudden you get to a level where you’re swimming. The swimming doesn’t feel like a different game even though the game play radically changes during those parts. It all still feels like the same game – so with Mazer, we have parts where you’re flying in your ship, you encounter bosses which have dialogue with you just like in adventure games, you chose your responses. Same with when you’re walking around – you encounter various other characters and have dialog and you have the option to shoot anything with your pistol so there is still action even in the adventure parts. We want the two different game plays to feel like one thing: natural.
Adam: That makes a lot of sense! Now, the better question: Do you have enough save slots to use the shoot first method on literally every scene, and then go back and fix it? (I’m kidding, that’s a terrible idea.)
Alex: Actually, our design breaks the story up into many modules, so depending on choices you make in the game you’ll get different storylines. So yeah, you can go into the game guns blazing and shoot as many things as you want (if you survive). Being violent can bring an end to your life pretty quick though – a lot of the other characters are badasses. For example, Mega Ran is an NPC in the game and he’s a bounty hunter – you don’t want to mess with him.
Adam: Ah yes, I saw you’d just announced him! That’s so badass! You guys seem to have quite a bit of crossovers planned, both with other game devs as well as real life like with Mega Ran. It’s cool you guys have so much support from the community!
Alex: We do know a lot of people, which should only add depth to the game. And while we’re friends with a lot of the devs, we’re not just crossing over with people because they’re friends – we legitimately picked out things we think fit or are just too cool not to put in the game. We were selective about it.
Adam: Well that’s certainly a great problem to have, to be spoiled for choice on something like that! Now that we’re getting close to the end of our time, I know we’ve touched on Motivational Growth and the process behind it and on the Starr Mazer Kickstarter – is there anything else you’d like to get in here?
Alex: We’re super thankful for all of the support we’ve had so far! Please check out our Kickstarter – we have big plans for the final 24 hours of the campaign. We’re streaming on starrmazer.tv for 24 hours with musical guests and a lot more cool stuff. We just want to make the coolest game we can, and the fans will not be disappointed. If the game doesn’t get funded, we’ll still be making the game – but obviously a lot of our guest artists and other stretch goals are dependent on meeting and exceeding the Kickstarter goal. Also, it would take us longer, since we’re trying to make sure we get enough money to pay everyone to work for a year so we don’t have to worry about other jobs. We’re pretty confident about it, though.
Adam: With as many great people you have on your team as you do, and from what I’ve seen just from the trailer you guys had up at MAGFest, I have the highest of hopes. Before we wrap though – jumping back to Motivational Growth, if I were a person and I wanted to give you real American dollars in exchange for the opportunity to watch or download the film, where would I look?
Alex: We’re streaming on Amazon, Vimeo, and a bunch of other VOD services. You can buy a copy on iTunes, and you can buy a physical copy from Parade Deck (our DVD distributor).
Adam: Righteous! And the soundtrack is, of course, up on your Bandcamp page with the rest of your discography.
Alex: Correct. The soundtrack is on Bandcamp, which is our primary store. For those who don’t use Bandcamp it’s also available on most other digital music stores.
Adam: Thanks a bunch for your time, Alex. You’ve done phenomenal work with Motivational Growth, and I’m excited to see what comes out of Starr Mazer. It looks like it’s gonna be a real blast.
Alex: Thanks! I appreciate it.
And that’s all! Be sure you check the links below for how to check out Motivational Growth and Starr Mazer, as well as the rest of Alex’s phenomenal work.