Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

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As a life-long fan of video games, I have often sought out projects where I could subtly reference the videogame music I remember fondly from my youth. I threw that subtlety out the window with my adventurous score to “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie.” Check out exclusive soundtrack excerpts and interviews with me and James in my new video blog:

I have been a fan of James Rolfe’s web-series, “The Angry Video Game Nerd,” for years. I even volunteered to score an episode back in 2010 (which you can read about here). Since then, James and I have become good friends and enjoyed a great working relationship. James even made a guest appearance in the Young Beautiful in a Hurry music I directed a couple years ago! Now, after many years of work, James’ angry character has leapt into a full-length theatrical feature film, available now on VOD. The soundtrack is available now from Sparks & Shadows.

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The premise of his series began simply enough: James plays The Nerd, and reviews games from the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and gets angry at them. Over the years, the web-series grew in scope. I always admired James’ combination of talent, ambition and skill in crafting a character that came to be beloved by millions of fans.  Obviously, making the leap from short online episodes to a full-length theatrical feature would be an immense challenge, but I knew James and his creative partners Kevin Finn and Sean Keegan could pull it off.  At last, the Nerd was stepping into a medium where he would require a sweeping, thematic and adrenaline-inducing orchestral score. I knew I had to score this movie.

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In the film, The Nerd goes on a quest to debunk the urban legend about Atari burying all the unsold copies of “E.T.,” the failure of which supposedly sparked the infamous video game crash of 1982. The Nerd teams up with his new sidekick Cooper and a game producer named Mandi, and together they unravel the mystery of the legendary game, and take on a deranged military general, killer robots, hippies, zombies, an alien and a towering Cyber-Mutant-Death-God named Death Mwauthzyx. The result is an incredibly fun party movie, packed with quotable lines, hilarious jokes and memorable practical effects. The film was funded entirely by donations from fans via Indiegogo, one of the first independent films to gather a budget of this size through the website. Every cent went towards a film that radiates love for its audience.

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The low-budget visual style has undeniable charm, but I was wary of matching it with low-budget scoring. I was nervous that cheesy orchestral synths would push the tone of the film too far into farce and take away from the permeating sense of adventure and fun. My solution was to go the other direction. Go big. Really big. Thankfully, James and his fellow producers agreed with me, and set aside enough of the budget to produce the score the way it should be done.

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Underneath its retro-electronic trappings, my music for “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie” is an old-school orchestral adventure score in the style of John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith. Character themes, most notably for The Nerd, Death Mwauthzyx and the evil General Dark Onward, weave throughout the orchestration and develop as the characters go on their journey. Compositionally, I think it stands alongside the best of my career.

I always look for sounds that can set every score apart, and here is where “Angry Video Game Nerd” truly shines. The ensemble is a combination of symphonic orchestra, heavy metal rock band and the retro video game sounds, combining into the ultimate love-letter to the genres I adored growing up.

The Nerd primarily reviews videogames from the Atari, NES, Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis systems, so I wanted to represent the sounds of those consoles in the score. I have blogged over the years about how I worked with synthesizer designer Jonathan Snipes to sample NES chip synthesis directly off the hardware, to create my score for Dark Void Zero (see my blog about that here). So, I already had a vast bank of true NES square waves, triangle waves, sine waves, white noise and pink noise.

In order to tackle the “Angry Video Game Nerd” score, I simply needed to recreate that process to acquire sounds from an Atari 2600, Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis. After several months, I had completed a template of over a hundred unique sounds, forming a sort of Video Game Orchestra. I had every conceivable video game color from that era at my fingertips: NES 8-bit crunchy percussion and signature wave leads, Atari distortion, Super Nintendo electric guitars and woodwinds, and the snappy FM-synths unique to the SEGA Genesis. I then added this entire template to my usual writing template of symphonic orchestra, rock instrumentation and ethnic soloists.  This “orchestra within an orchestra” approach gave me unlimited creative possibilities, though running it all at once nearly destroyed my computer.

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I have been working on “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie” for years.  So long, in fact, that I actually appear in the film itself, playing a zombie in a nightmare sequence. I had a blast on set, though I’m clearly not a good stuntman. I injured my leg falling off a slide so badly that I limped for six weeks after the shoot. (The shot where this happened is actually visible in the final film, so at least I suffered for the sake of art!

When I tweeted a photo of myself in zombie make-up, fans assumed it was from “The Walking Dead!”  To my shock, I actually ended up on the cover artwork itself, in the top left corner!

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My enthusiasm for this film never waned, even as the schedule firmed up and it became clear that the dub for the film would land a month after the birth of my daughter, Sonatine. This meant that the entire seventy-five-minute score would need to be composed, produced, recorded and mixed during the exhausting first month of parenthood.  In order to complete the score, I dove deep into the film at the end of May, composing for sixteen to eighteen hours a day, only stopping for three half-hour meals a day, for the weeks leading up to Sonatine’s arrival.

On June 2nd, Sonatine announced her arrival and I had to stop writing. I had completed about two thirds of the film, more than enough to send to James for comprehensive feedback.  I took two weeks off from composing, (during which, like the weeks prior, I basically never slept) and then finished up writing at the end of June, in a final marathon of long days.

I pushed myself hard on this score, not because the deadline was stressing me, but because I adore these video game sounds, and recognized this is likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore them. Combining swashbuckling orchestral flourishes with rockin’ video game riffs took me back to my childhood, when I first started sequencing 8-bit Mega Man music on my Yamaha keyboard.  This score was my first opportunity to combine those retro video game styles with live orchestral layers.  8 and 16-bit synthesis has such a piercing, relentless tone that I wasn’t sure it would mix in with the lush, live orchestra. I looked for ways to play to the strengths of each style of instrumentation.

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You can hear every combination of my experimentations on the “Angry Video Game Nerd Soundtrack” album. “Humvee Chase” is produced solely with synthesis taken from SNES hardware.  I always loved the unique slap bass and distorted guitar effects heard in games from this era, in particular the “Mega Man X” series. These sounds do not sound real, far from it. Nevertheless, they have a genuinely exciting character. I wanted to see if I could produce an action cue without relying on any live players to add energy. I strove to create a track that sounds so similar to a Super Nintendo song from the early 1990’s, that fans would not even realize that they are hearing score.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are tracks like “Zandor’s Tale” and “Howard Scott Warshaw.”  These cues are almost entirely live orchestra, and would sit at home in any adventure film. There is more here than meets the ear, though.  Tucked in underneath the swelling strings and ethereal winds and brass, are buzzing Atari synths and NES triangle wave basses.  Even the snare drums that sound convincingly live are actually pulled from SEGA Genesis hardware! (Check out “Zandor’s Tale” from 2:00 – 2:36 for the perfect example of this hybrid in action.)

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The film’s third act goes completely insane, as the movie erupts into about two or three new genres all at once. Here, I went a bit insane myself.  The score mashes together the orchestra, rock band and video game synthesis into some of the most driving action music I have ever composed. Check out “Death Mwauthzyx Rises” or the epic ten-minute extravaganza, “The Nerdy Hero.”

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Some of the challenges in this film were completely outside of anything I’ve tackled before. One scene in particular, features Tupac, an old Elvis and Michael Jackson moonwalking on the set where they filmed the moon landing. I had to create music to represent these three totally different artists, and switch between their styles after about six seconds each. It was easily the most challenging fifteen-seconds I had to write for the entire film, but the end result is pretty hilarious.  Special thanks must be given out to the vocalists for their spot-on impersonations: RJ Ujahdugele for Tupac, and my brother Brendan McCreary for Elvis and Michael.

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As I mentioned earlier, my score features various character themes, but the most significant is for our protagonist, the Angry Video Game Nerd himself. The web-series has long featured a theme song, by Kyle Justin. Legions of fans need only hear a few notes to be immediately taken back to the character. A melody with that level of thematic recognition in its audience is a crucial tool for a film composer. I felt strongly that Kyle’s theme should play an integral role in the score.

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In keeping with leitmotif writing, I quoted Kyle’s Angry Video Game Nerd Theme for significant moments when The Nerd’s character arc shifts.  You will hear it early in the film when The Nerd decides to save his fans, again during flashbacks to the moment the anger began in his boyhood, and in triumphant orchestral statements throughout the third act. The film’s closing cue is an old-school Hollywood rendition of Kyle’s theme song that would be at home in any blockbuster, with swirling strings and soaring brass.

In addition to these fragmentary quotations, I also produced a new rearrangement of Kyle’s theme for the film’s Main Title sequence. Over the years, James has featured dozens of fan covers of the main theme in his videos, so the idea of rearranging the tune was hardly new. In fact, the song has been covered so many times I was nervous about doing it at all. If I produced my own cover version, I knew it must have a unique approach.

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My cover of the AVGN Theme is a representation of my score: a combination of orchestra, rock band and video game elements, coated in a glistening 1980’s sheen. I composed a new riff of driving guitars and stabbing synth brass to weave Kyle’s choruses and verses together. Those choruses and verses themselves are a history of video game consoles! The first time we hear the theme is in an 8-bit NES style, drawing from sounds from the hardware. The second time we hear it in a purely Super Nintendo arrangement, featuring the signature slap bass, electric guitars and brass that take us right back to 1991. Then, when the B-section returns, the arrangement pivots into a SEGA Genesis style. Lastly, after the track expanded to include Brendan McCreary’s blistering guitar solos, the final verse and chorus return in a triumphant arrangement combining all the video game sounds, the orchestra and the rock band together.

Creating this cover was a huge challenge, and I’ll admit I gave up on it more than once, on one occasion going so far as to delete my file! But, I could never quite shake the concept and kept returning to it. Now that its done, I think its one of the hippest tracks I’ve ever produced, and I hope it stands up with the best covers of the AVGN Theme out there.

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During the course of working on this film, I had the great pleasure of collaborating directly with AVGN Theme composer Kyle Justin.  I was a bit star-struck, since I’d seen him playing “Guitar Guy” in the web-series for years! I worked with him to produce a new arrangement of a song he composed for the film, “Sacred Ground of the Golden Turd.”

kyleandbear(Kyle and Bear at the AVGN premiere in Hollywood)

Kyle and I had so much fun working together, that we decided to create a new mix of the original “Angry Video Game Nerd Theme Song.”  I always loved his song, but recognized that the mix and performance could be refined. Kyle was kind enough to dig up his multi-track for me, and I worked with him to create what we consider the ultimate recording of his classic theme. We added new guitar layers to fill out the stereo spectrum, courtesy of my brother Brendan, and brought in bass player Pete Griffin to lay down a foundation below the original drum performance by David Ruscitti.

I turned the tracks over to my mixing team, supervised by Steve Kaplan, with Laurence Schwarz, and my mastering team at Bernie Grundman Mastering, led by Patricia Sullivan. The end result is a song that definitely sounds much more energetic and aggressive, but still retains the gritty charm and humor of the original recording.  This new version of the AVGN Theme is not in the film, but was produced as a bonus track for the soundtrack album. Fans of the series will get to hear the famous theme with new life, and my fans who may not know about AVGN will likely find that hearing the original theme augments their appreciation of its various quotations throughout the score.

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The album also includes another bonus track, “Maverick Regeneration.” I initially produced this recording for a charity album a few years ago.  Since then, James Rolfe used it in various trailers for the film. Fans often ask me if music from trailers will be on my soundtracks and I have no control over those tracks in the vast majority of cases. Here, however, the trailer music happened to be mine, and a track I am pretty happy with, so I was thrilled to make time for it on the record.

pianoBear & James working diligently at the piano.

Two other songs instantly stand-out, in both the film and album: “Nerds Before Birds” and “Barcade,” written and produced by Brendan McCreary, and performed by his band Young Beautiful in a Hurry.  These songs evoke the spirit of 1980’s hair metal anthems, and also integrate video game influences, musically and lyrically.  Brendan’s vocals shred, Pete Griffin’s elec bass destroys and drummer Bryan Taylor is rocking the double kicks.  I know I speak for myself, James, Kevin and Sean when I say we are all grateful these guys brought their talent and energy to this project.

I’d like to give an extra big hug to everyone who helped make this score a reality. In particular, I could not have completed this project without contributions from my mixer and co-producer Steve Kaplan, music supervisor James Jacoby, music editor Denise Slenski, S&S manager Joe Augustine, and my S&S support staff, especially Michael Beach, Jessica Huber, Melissa Axel, David Matics, Olivia Blissett, Sam Ewing, Laurence Schwarz and Ryan Sanchez. I’d also like to give an extra shout-out to the film’s sound designer and mixer Demetri Evdoxiadis, who carved out space for his epic sound effects and my sweeping score to live together in cinematic harmony.

thegang(L-R: James Rolfe, Kevin Finn, Bear McCreary, Kyle Justin)

“Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie” just finished a theatrical festival tour of the United States and Canada this summer and is available online now, with more digital venues offering it in the coming weeks. The soundtrack album is available now from Sparks & Shadows, on iTunes and Amazon and other digital retailers. Here is the complete track list:

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01. Theme from Angry Video Game Nerd The Movie
02. Nerds Before Birds (Young Beautiful in a Hurry)
03. Nerd Nightmares
04. The Landfill
05. Humvee Chase
06. Barcade (Young Beautiful in a Hurry)
07. Story Of Death Mwauthzyx
08. Save The Fans
09. Zandor’s Tale
10. Howard Scott Warshaw
11. Sacred Ground of the Golden Turd (Kyle Justin, Produced by Bear McCreary)
12. General Dark Onward
13. Unidentified Flying Nerd
14. Killer Robots
15. Death Mwauthzyx Rises
16. The Nerdy Hero
17. Birds Before Nerds
18. Source Music Medley
19. Maverick Regeneration
20. The Angry Video Game Nerd Theme Song (Kyle Justin, Produced by Bear McCreary)

I think if you give this album a whirl, you will have a great time with it.  I sure had the time of my life writing it! Check out the previews on iTunes and hear the madness for yourself.

-Bear