Category Archives: Behind the Scenes


Updates and Downdates

  • Our current theatre sound design project is Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” at Moraine Valley Community College. I’m working on adapting the songs in the show to work as 1950s/60s pop tunes. Elvis, Donovan, the Supremes. I’m having lots of fun trying to mimic the orchestration and production styles of the era. And of course, trying to sing like the Jordanaires…
  • Tim Bradstreet has worked on Hellblazer, the Punisher, a series of sourcebook covers for Vampire: The Gathering, among many other things…and also created the cover art for my 2006 album, Rough Cut Love. If you’re a comics or graphic arts enthusiast, check out Tim’s new series of podcasts.
  • As I ease back into performing music, I’ll be doing a short set with Tim Hort and Tamara Vendetta in Madison, WI at the Art Fair on the Square, Saturday, July 11 at 2 pm.
  • Jared Newman at Technologizer posted a link to a Hollywood Reporter article: the 1979 arcade game Asteroids is going to be made into a movie.

    “Universal has won a four-studio bidding war to pick up the film rights to the classic Atari video game “Asteroids.” …As opposed to today’s games, there is no story line or fancy world-building mythology, so the studio would be creating a plot from scratch. Universal, however, is used to that development process, as it’s in the middle of doing just that for several of the Hasbro board game properties it is translating to the big screen, such as ‘Battleship’ and ‘Candyland.'”

    I’m not sure what disturbs me more about this, the idea of turning a completely plotless video game into a movie or the fact that four studios in Hollywood were bidding on the rights to do it.

  • We’re now done with shooting for the second Michael Brownlee short. Fortunately the weather was cool enough that it never got really nasty hot on set (the actors may disagree with me on that one). Props to Kevin, Steve and Phil for outstanding performances. Dave and Blood got some great noir looks on tape, and we’ll continue editing after the holiday. Happy Fourth everyone!
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    Production Diary, Volume 4

    The second installment of the Michael Brownlee short film series is underway. We shot at the first location on June 13, and this Saturday we’ll shoot the rest of the piece at the second location. Blood has assembled a rough cut of the stuff we have so far and it looks great.

    Here’s some photos from the first day of shooting.

    Blood directs Kevin Gladish Steve Price

    Blood directs Kevin Gladish and Steve Price

    Dave Taub (camera), Kevin and Steve

    Dave Taub (camera), Kevin and Steve

    Blood, Joe and Dianna check the closeup

    Blood, Joe and Dianna check the closeup

    Joe tries to figure out where to hide the mic

    Joe tries to figure out where to hide the mic

    Kevin was made for black and white

    Kevin was made for black and white

    Photos by Michael Brownlee.

    Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new

    Ten years ago, when we were recording raw sounds for our Monsters sound effects disc, we made a recording of the cat that lived at the house Toxic Bag called home. Gabby was a cat who was very sweet and affectionate to her human—and pretty much no one else. If anyone tried to get near her she would hiss and snarl and growl like crazy. Near a microphone she produced some of the most amazing pseudo-feral feline vocalizations I’ve ever heard. Gabby’s growls, spits and snorts became not only the basis for the almost-completely-unedited “Angry Cat” and “Really Angry Cat” tracks on Monsters, but were a vital building block for dozens of other creature effects we’ve created over the years.

    Gabby passed away yesterday at the ripe old cat age of seventeen. She was an important contributor to Toxic Bag’s body of work and a special part of our lives. Rest in peace, Gabby. We love you.



    Photo: Jodi Brown

    Short subjects

    More about the new thang

    Final auditions for the new Michael Brownlee short are tomorrow, and we hope to award roles this week. Meanwhile we’re working on production design and storyboards, and hope to shoot in mid-June sometime.

    Hi. I’m Joe, and I have a disk drive addiction

    Hard drives. Oh, man. I remember the 4 GB (yup) drives that came with the first Sonic Solutions audio workstation I used in 1993. They were as big as a car battery and cost two grand apiece. Now I can carry that much storage in my coat pocket, on an object that is smaller than a tube of Chapstick and costs less than twenty bucks. This doesn’t make them any less of a pain in the ass. I’m currently juggling about ten individual hard drives, some with current projects and some with archives. Some contain projects that have been active for over five years. I’ve had at least half that number of drives go bad. As Blood likes to say, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have had a catastrophic hard drive crash and those who are going to. Of course, I keep redundant copies of all my data, but geez, I really wish I could spend more time creating work and less time trying to make sure I don’t lose any of it. Big fancy RAID arrays are cool but a lot of money to spend all at once. It’s gotten to the point where if I’m driving home and I pass Micro Center or Best Buy, I think about stopping and buying another hard drive…but I can’t do this piecemeal anymore, it’s too risky (apologies to Vanessa Redgrave).

    “Moated Grange Blues,” by Griffin/Shakespeare

    Saturday we recorded vocals and some voiceover for the Measure For Measure sound design. Herman Wilkins from the Measure cast came in to replace the rough vocals I had put down for the song in Act 4, scene 1 (Mr. Shakespeare left us lots of words but no music, so we composers/sound designers are left to fend for ourselves…though it’s nice to be able to share songwriting credit with him). A consummate pro, Herman nailed the vocal work and really “put the eyebrows on” the cues, as Frank Zappa would say. Sunday I watched a rehearsal, which made me even more excited about the production…this show is going to be really good.

    Production Diary, Volume 3

    Pre-production for the new thang is underway…

    Last night we held auditions for the next short film in our Michael Brownlee short film series (I wrote about the first film back in March).

    We’ve still got some actors to see, but I don’t think it’s any great violation of any audition code to say at this point: damn, we’ve got some talented actors in Chicago.

    Joe and Blood on the "Loan" set

    Joe and Blood on the "Loan" set

    In a rare burst of competence, we held the auditions at the location where we plan to shoot, so Blood and Dave and I could look it over and figure out some logistics and talk about a few camera angles and setup issues. This puts us well ahead of our pre-production schedule.

    The shoot is going to be great fun and I think the end result will be pretty fantastic.

    Photo by Michael Brownlee.

    Long Distance Runaround

    We’re (virtually) putting the band back together

    Soon after college I moved into a small house in Des Plaines, IL with a couple of friends. The rhythm guitarist for the band I was in moved with his girlfriend to an apartment a few miles away, but the bass player and drummer settled in Ann Arbor, MI and Milwaukee, WI respectively. Needless to say, this created a huge challenge as far as rehearsing, songwriting and recording was concerned, and when piled atop personality clashes and creative differences the geographical separation caused the band to eventually disintegrate.

    Years later, I formed an experimental music project called Donny Who Loved Bowling with my friend Chris. At the time he lived near me in Chicago, and we put together about half of our first CD by getting together in my studio once a week or so. But then he moved to Austin, Texas and things got decidedly more difficult. We finished the CD by renting a dedicated studio space for a week, taking vacation time and flying Chris to Chicago. And while that was a hell of a lot of fun, we knew that constantly taking vacations and flying across the country was not going to be financially feasible for long. Nor would it be artistically satisfying; we wanted to be able to make music without having to spend months planning and scheduling, and without going broke on plane tickets. Without some sort of practical solution this band may have folded as well.

    Of course, as Donny Who Loved Bowling is an experimental/studio-only band, rehearsing for (and performing) live shows is not something we’re concerned about. We just need to be able to record. So we decided to figure out a way to collaborate on recordings over the internet. Chris set up a .mac account with a publicly-accessible folder so that we could upload tracks whenever we had something new to share. And since both of us have home recording setups, we only rarely had to spend money to go into a commercial studio.

    What happens now is that Chris will put together a track on his Apple Garageband rig, and then upload an .aif of the rough mix and “splits,” which are the individual tracks –guitar, bass, drum machine, and so forth—to his .mac account’s public folder. I download the files, throw them into my Pro Tools system and add my own tracks. I spit out a reference mix and upload it back to the public folder so he can hear what I’ve done. Then he’ll add some more stuff, or send me an email telling me what he thinks of where the song is at, and we repeat the back-and-forth process. Once we’ve done all of the overdubbing we want, we use this same procedure to mix the song—I upload each successive mix and wait for feedback from him via email.

    To tweak and perfect this workflow, we spent the last 18 months recording a full album’s worth of cover songs entitled Butcher Covers, which we put out as a download-only release earlier this year.

    Butcher Covers

    Butcher Covers

    The next step is to apply this process to an album of original material, and we’re already well into that.

    Of course it helps that we don’t have the interpersonal sturm und drang that the old band had. But it’s fantastic that we’ve managed to find a simple and inexpensive way to continue to create music despite a thousand-mile separation.

    The “Making Dreams Come True” Business

    We recently teamed up with Chicago writer/actor Michael Brownlee to produce some short films based on the darkly comic scripts that emerged from his sketch wars project. The first short, “The Loan’s the Thing,” was directed by Blood in late 2008. Dianna Driscoll, with whom we’ve worked on a slew of theatre projects, joined us as Line Producer as well as Production Designer, taking on the task of preparing all of the props and set dressing. Frequent Toxic Bag co-conspirator Dave Taub was on hand to light and shoot the scene, and his wife Mel once again earned her “Most Valuable Crew Member” title by providing craft services.



    Dianna and Dave

    Dianna and Dave

    The actors we initially asked to be in the film were unavailable, so Michael and his wife Karyn agreed to do it…as it turns out it was pretty much perfect casting so I don’t know what we were thinking asking anyone else to be in it. After a month of weekly pre-production meetings to determine set design, nail down a location and work out script and storyboard details, we built the set and pre-lit at our friend Walter’s building on a Friday night and shot the scene Saturday.

    Karyn had a 3 pm call for a show she was in, so we planned to shoot all of her material by 1, break for lunch, send her on her way, and then work on any close-ups of Michael for the remainder of the day. As it turned out, Karyn and Michael nailed everything so quickly that we stayed well ahead of schedule. We made a decision to work a few minutes past that 1 pm cutoff, and we were entirely shot out by 1:30 in the afternoon.

    The "Loan" set

    The "Loan" set

    Blood directs

    Blood directs

    Guerilla film geek tips:
    • To achieve a cold, sterile look, Dave white-balanced the camera against a pink sheet of paper.
    • Dialog was shot to a ZOOM H2 portable flash recorder. Very cool because 1) the ZOOM is really inexpensive and b) dialog files can be imported into ProTools really quickly.

    The next day I digitized all the footage into Final Cut and handed a hard drive off to Blood, who spent the next week editing at his house. When he brought the hard drive back to Toxic Bag HQ to finalize the edit, however, we discovered that –due to a discrepancy between the small Final Cut rig at his place and the big Final Cut rig at the studio—all of the footage in the edit had become corrupted. We spent the evening frantically re-assembling the cut, referencing a Quicktime movie he’d exported to match the timing. We’ve since brought the two Final Cut systems to a mutual understanding and they play nice now.


    Dianna prepares take numbers

    "Loan" set, from behind the sound cart

    "Loan" set, from behind the sound cart

    The final product is on our YouTube channel, and we’re now hard at work on the next short in the series. Stay tuned!

    On-set photos by Michael Brownlee which is why he’s not, um, IN any of them.

    What Kind of Witch Are You?

    There’s a difference between creating for yourself and creating for someone else, and for pay to boot. When I’m writing music for me I can make it whatever I want. One of the more freeing things about the Donny Who Loved Bowling project is that, since we’re not trying to be a “rock band,” there is no template, no single rule we are required to follow. Even in my solo rock stuff –-which is also not really aimed at the radio– I allow myself to skirt certain conventions, the most obvious being direct lyrics. The initial disruption caused by hearing “I Am The Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” at age 12 never wore off, and to this day my lyrics remain pretty darn abstract, as though “She Loves You” never sunk in quite as deep as the later, loopier Lennon. This lyrical tic earned me the title “Captain Incomprehensible” from my former songwriting partner.

    Writing “to assignment” though…it’s another story. I run up against rules and conventions, especially when a certain style of music is requested. If a director or client asks for old-timey music or punk or something a nun with six weeks of piano lessons might play to lead schoolchildren in a singalong, I’ve got to pick a certain palette of notes, specific instrumentation, melody, lyrics, harmony. I have to figure out, what are the specific signifiers of that style, and how do I incorporate them into a new piece in such a way that it sounds like what it’s supposed to be?

    I’ve been working on a theme song recently for Witch Girls Adventures, a pencil-and-paper roleplaying game marketed toward “tween” girls. The client emailed me a bunch of lyrics and requested a song that sounded, well, like tween pop. Which, since I’m not a twelve-year-old-girl, isn’t exactly in heavy rotation on my iPod. I’m much more partial to my Radiohead and Beatles. I don’t hate the stuff but I don’t seek it out either.

    It’s been a fascinating process. I found myself listening intently to music I wouldn’t pay much mind to under most other circumstances, discovering the heavy craftsmanship behind what many musos write off as dumb pop music. I also had a heck of a lot of fun and got to work with a really talented young singer. Now, ultimately I’m not gonna give Marco Marinangeli or Matthew Wilder any sort of run for their money, but you can be darn sure that the tricks I learned producing a tween-pop tune are gonna somehow work their way back into my personal projects. Some of those guys do some sick, sick stuff with vocal layering.

    What can we learn from working in genres from which we traditionally steer clear? Have you found value buried in something you’d previously derided, disliked, avoided, ignored?

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