Sabrina Peña Young is an award winning composer, and creator of Libertaria: The Virtual Opera, the subject of this case study.
Sabrina grew up the oldest daughter of Dominican and Cuban parents in South Florida during the 1980s. As a kid she remembers being fascinated with video games, electronic pop music, and computers. "My dad bought our first computer when I was in elementary school, the kind that ran on DOS, and I remember spending hours with a simple 8 bit MIDI sequencer and playing text-based video games. At the same time I wanted to be a writer (or an international spy), and wrote tons of crazy sci-fi stories about alien vampires and monsters taking over the world."
Her parents encouraged creativity in the family. Her grandmother had been an opera singer in Cuba, her mother was an amateur pianist and artist, and her father had studied architecture before switching to engineering and was a photography enthusiast. Creativity was in the genes. "I started playing the drums at a young age, and over time my passion for music took over my passion for writing. At first I wanted to be a famous rock drummer, like all young girls my age, and I spent my teen years and college life performing in various orchestras, alternative bands, and avant-garde ensembles."
In her freshman year in college she studied composition with Dr. Clare Shore and got the 'composer bug', and when she transferred to the University of South Florida in Tampa in 2000 she joined up with SYCOM (Systems Complex for the Recording and Performing Arts), an experimental enclave of composers and media artists. "We had this crazy avant-garde electronic music concert every year, and every year we would lose a quarter of the audience (including the head of the music department) halfway through the show because it was so 'out there'."
She abandoned the sticks for a computer mouse and became obsessed with new media and electroacoustic music. At the time she also worked with Emmy-winning director Charles Lyman at Atlantic Productions as a production assistant before leaving Tampa to study music technology at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, in 2003,where she met her husband, strength coach Nathan Young and had the opportunity to intern with legendary composer Pauline Oliveros in New York. During this time she explored media and music, writing music and creating zombie effects for indie B horror films, composing complex electronic media works like World Order #5 (about aliens discovering a diseased Earth), and studying New Media during an extra year at Florida International University before taking a job teaching music to homeless children in South Florida. Since then her family has moved around from Miami to Kentucky to Oklahoma, and now has settled in Buffalo, New York, where her husband coaches at Buffalo State.
"To date I have written over 200 musical works (both acoustic and electronic), created several dozen videos and short films, and have written dozens of books. My works have been shown from Beijing to Australia to Europe and the Americas, and online, too, of course. I love what I do, mixing media, technology, and music. Sometimes I feel lucky that I can still be that kid who goofed around on an old MIDI sequencer."
In 2009 Sabrina was commissioned to write an oratorio (a large scale choral work) for the Millikin University Women’s Choir and Percussion Ensemble. She created an incredible work about the Creation story, using abstract animation, a complex electronic score, beautiful lines for the 50-member women’s chorus, and a riveting rhythmic Afro-Cuban drumming ensemble. At about 40 minutes long, Creation took over a year to write, requiring multimedia, a full percussion ensemble, and a large dedicated choir who had to practice for several months.
In the end, the premier was in a stunning old church, with standing room only and received uproarious applause. It won the New Genre Prize from the International Alliance for Women in Music, and remains Sabrina's first 'masterpiece', and her experiences in coordinating the various elements put her in good stead for the future.
At this point, Sabrina knew what she wanted to do. "I wanted to create an opera, and I wanted to write a film, and at the same time a student of mine called Alan Manning started work on his first symphony, an incredibly ambitious undertaking which inspired me to just go forward with the opera."
But Sabrina wanted this to be a different sort of opera; one that could be easily presented and one that would appeal to a younger generation - a digital generation. "It seems the large music and opera companies in the U.S. have traditionally only appealed to the upper class, older members of society, often of certain ethnic demographics, basically a very elite group. It is no surprise to me that they are now folding after ignoring entire generations and demographics of individuals in America. I didn’t want to make that mistake with this opera. I wanted this opera to appeal to those who grew up on video games and social media. I wanted this opera to look like the new America, the America of the 21st century, and wanted this to be the type of opera that you could enjoy for less than the cost of a pizza."
Sabrina unearthed an old sci-fi short story that she had written about a geneticist that didn’t realize that she was experimenting on her biological mother. The story had hit a dead end, so she took the tale and transformed it into a story of a young girl who escapes from a genetics factory and teams up with an addict megalomaniac to blow up evil reverse-aging geneticists. "I wrote the lyrics over a period of several months, jotting down lines through stream of consciousness in an old journal. Libertaria was born!"
Sabrina had used many solutions for her animation, ranging from Poser, Bryce, Photoshop, Motion, DAZ Studios, and Final Cut through to charcoal animation. These produced stunning imagery, but often took a lot of time or computer power to complete short works. For example, she used DAZ studios, Bryce, and Live Type to create 'World Order #5', a sci-fi multimedia work for percussion ensemble and though she liked the end result, and the video by itself has been shown internationally, the effort involved was time prohibitive.
"Working in film and music is second nature to me. I love editing, I love shooting footage, and I love music. I love how animation allows the craziness in my head to come alive. What I don’t love is tedious animation software that requires years and years of study to master."
As Libertaria is a narrative film, Sabrina wanted to avoid the typical abstract experimental video art style that she utilised for visual music pieces such as 'Enigma' and 'Innermost Thoughts of the Distorted Psyche'. In those works, the film runs by like a 'moving painting' with a single image morphing over time. Libertaria: The Virtual Opera is a different type of film - an action-packed sci-fi musical, so she needed to be able to create characters that the audience would identify with, and to do that she needed a software program that allowed her to humanize characters easily. "I tested out different consumer-friendly animation software programs like Poser and DAZ Studio and finally decided on Moviestorm. What sold me on Moviestorm was its affordable price, its quick results, and the easy lip syncing. I needed a program that would allow me to quickly make characters sing the lyrics of my opera with expression, allow for epic visual effects, and involve little render time."
Libertaria had several large scale sets like the Genetics Lab, Nueva York, and the Underground in the screenplay, something she easily created in Moviestorm. This is also where the expertise of modders like Lucinda McNary and Shirley Martin came in handy, with Lucinda creating the bulk of the sets and creating excellent mods that Sabrina was able to use throughout the film. "There are many third party mods available, and I used mods by Shirley Martin, Arthur V. Kuhrmeier, Gerald Lang, Hursto Presto Mods, Shortfuze, and Craig Rintoul, all credited in the opera. I also incorporated textures created in Bryce, and the Plasq Company donated Comic Life 2 to the production."
Sabrina tested out Moviestorm before full opera production by creating the 20 minute short 'TimeMan' for the Vox Novus 60x60 project - an international musical series that combines one hour of music with multimedia or dance. For Libertaria: The Virtual Opera, Sabrina didn’t want to create another Toy Story with plastic-looking characters, instead she wanted to look like a comic book or video game that came to life, and chose Comic Life 2 to create comic book panels and bubbles throughout the film.. "I wanted this work to visually mimic the graphic style of Marvel Motion Graphics and movies like 300 and Sin City. Moviestorm has several filters that you can use to create this type of look easily. In the end we used a limited color palette, sharp shadows, and the cel-shading option. Even the decision to design the subtitles to look like graphic novel text helped to create the overall visual style."
Sabrina gives kudos to both Kera Hildebrandt and Lucinda McNary for sacrificing over a year of their lives to Libertaria: The Virtual Opera. "My animation team was amazing! Both Kera and Lucinda are old pros at Moviestorm, and the software has an active tight-knit machinima community, so when I started looking for people to help me, Kera and Lucinda both offered their incredible talents, alongside Patricia Johnston."
Kera animated several scenes and mostly focused on the more emotional lip sync for songs like 'Mother Imagined'. Lucinda created most of the sets, mods, and visual effects for Libertaria, including the destruction of New York City, the massive Underground set, and flying drones, as well as animating selected scenes. Sabrina had an animator drop out before post-production started, so in the end she animated about half the film between the missing scenes, pick-up scenes, and the finale. "Maybe the most incredible part is that the animation team has never met in person. Instead we communicated through Facebook, Skype, and e-mail." Sabrina recently gave a lecture about the unique opera production process at Buffalo State. "Being able to use an efficient and easy-to-use program like Moviestorm made animating a feature-film easy, affordable, and efficient. We swapped files through Dropbox and shared sets and add-ons easily. Moviestorm doesn’t require a lot of render time, so we could quickly fix scenes the same day and share them. If we had been using render-heavy animation software, the film wouldn’t have been possible."
The production process
Libertaria: The Virtual Opera started out as sketches in a journal in early 2010. Sabrina spent several months sketching out scenes, storyboarding, and writing out lyrics.
The ideas first stemmed from an old sci-fi short story that she expanded upon and transformed into a more complex story of a young teen searching for her family and searching for her own identity. The backdrop was a post-USA dystopia where war and disease prevents natural procreation, leading to a powerful group of evil geneticists taking over the new USSA. The story is partly autobiographical and part politics, drawing from the latest headlines - she found it uncanny timing that the US Prism scandal came out just as we were finishing up post-production.
"When I sketched words, I also sketched out what I heard in my head. Typically I write out graphic scores, where shapes and symbols represent the music playing in my head. I then translate that to music."
Composing and auditions
In this case, the system was streamline. Instead of playing around with melodies for weeks on end, she dictated what she heard in her head directly to the computer. She used Logic Studio to record herself singing the tunes, then created simplified orchestrations of each, leading to some lead sheets and eventually simplified scores with timecode created in Finale, a music notation program. She then uploaded the scores online through a site called Bandcamp.com for performers who she found online. She conducted virtual auditions through Music Xray and e-mail, with performers sending her a raw vocal take. If they passed the first screening then she would have them sing back an excerpt from the opera. At that point they were assigned a part and would later download Libertaria Rehearsal Albums that included scores, a click track, screenplay, and instructions.
Though cast members changed throughout the process, in the end she had a core group of eight cast members that sang the bulk of the opera. One cast member, music technology guru Perry R. Cook, actually joined the cast after he contacted her about a lecture on virtual choral works. He auditioned and ended up sharing the lead with indie rocker Matt Meadows (aka Rango the Dog) and sang most of the male background vocals. The incredible cast included sopranos Kate Sikora, Gracia Gillund, and Jennifer Hermansky, actress and engineer Gretchen Suarez-Peña, indie rocker Matt Meadows, pianist Yvette Teel, music guru Perry R. Cook, and pop singer Joe Cameron. Additional narration was done by movie star impersonator Johnny Video and Alan Peña.
Using 'Metal Ink' as an example of the musical production process, Sabrina wrote out the lyrics in her notebook...
“Metal Ink/That’s the Stuff We’re Drinking/Half-Oil, Half-Charity, Half-Who-Knows-What?/But that’s the Stuff We’re Drinking/To Stay Alive/No Survive!/Delicious Tweaking Metalness Trickling Down my Rusted Pipes/Organic/Decaying to so much Less.”
Watch Metal Ink (Final cut)
She then sang the lyrics into Logic, and then recorded some drums underneath - as a percussionist Sabrina often thinks in timbre and rhythm before harmony. She then laid down some vibraphone tracks and simple piano comping. She added in a click track and a piano track that played back the melody. This was exported into Finale where she cleaned up the score and added in timecode (ex. 3:22) for the performer. She uploaded the instrumental song, the click track version (which had the piano part), an instruction booklet, and the screenplay to Bandcamp.com as part of the Rehearsal Album. Matt and Perry downloaded the Rehearsal Album. Each singer recorded their parts at their location and emailed her multiple raw takes (no processing, no effects, and no instrumentals) timed to the soundtrack.
She listened to the multiple takes, sometimes resulting in over forty takes per song depending on the how many cast members were singing, and mixed down rough tracks for the animators. "In the end I had over 1000 takes for the entire opera!".
Through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Sabrina was able to hire New York based composer Patrick Rundbladh to master the final soundtrack, which is now available as the Libertaria Soundtrack (Special Edition) in iTunes and CD Baby.
Music production took well over a year. During the same time, as she mixed down rough cuts of the vocals, she coordinated the animation team. Though she originally started with about six animators and graphic designers, in the end they were down to three because of commitment issues and talent needs. She really needed animators familiar with Moviestorm and chose to work with Kera and Lucinda who both had a high calibre of experiences and expertise.
She set up a Dropbox folder for the animators that included vocal mixes, instrumental mixes, character files, add-ons, and sets. While Dropbox worked really well for music production, it was less effective for the animation, and she ended up using Sugarsync with Dropbox. Fortunately both Kera Hildebrandt and Lucinda McNary had the full Moviestorm package, and we could easily share sets and characters. We each purchased different mods for our portions of the animation, and shared links to good mods to purchase and download, like those from 'Mods N More' created by Shirley Martin. They each created different textures, mods, and characters to share, to keep the continuity in the shots.
The animation team worked off the original screenplay, which eventually was tweaked as the production developed over time. They would share works-in-progress, discuss visual ideas, and find ways to make the different Moviestorm scenes work together. The entire film was made in Moviestorm.
Sabrina used programs like Comic Life 2, Photoshop, Bryce, and Final Cut to enhance the programs features and for post-production. Originally we had an Art Director that was giving input into the project, but she was unable to participate in the end, which made the production much more difficult both in terms of realizing the script and in meeting our deadline in time for the world premier on October 5th, 2013. Some other crazy things happened that slowed music production, such as Kate Sikora, who shared the female lead Libertaria with Gracia Gillund, having a delay in recording because she had rescued her neighbor from a house fire. Another recently married cast member, Jennifer Hermansky, was preparing for her wedding while finishing up the opera. This was where using Moviestorm helped in production - the animation team was able to make up time and create the last few scenes to meet the deadline.
The biggest challenge lay in coordinating animation for the songs that had heavy lip sync because these depended on good vocal mixes. The animators had to work on these scenes without the vocal takes sometimes, then added lip sync later. Kera even recorded her own voice singing the songs to speed up the animation process. "In retrospect, I might have started animation production after the music production was complete instead of doing them simultaneously, if only to make life easier for the animators."
Animators created the scenes that Sabrina then dropped into Final Cut for compositing and final editing, re-syncing Patrick Rundbladh’s mastered soundtrack for the audio. It was tedious work, as she often had to move around the audio frame-by-frame to make sure that the final audio matched the rough takes used by the animators.
"I am big into compositing, visual effects, and editing, and many of the final shots are cut intricately from several scenes. For example, in the prologue I included several comic book panels and had to cut and splice scenes to fit into the diagonal patterns. In another scene starring Simeon, I age the Nurse by crossfading younger and older shots of the Moviestorm puppet. I added in special effects created by the animation team, as well as compositing shots of Moviestorm fires and explosions against black as overlays to original scenes."
Like with traditional filmmaking, Sabrina edited around the awkward shots often seen in amateur animation, such as where characters move through walls or have bad static lip sync due to unclear sample audio.
"In many ways I cut the film like a music video, where the music carries the film dramatically as much as the visuals. One deliberate decision was to avoid intricate sound design and foley effects. Instead there are a few key moments where sound effects are mixed into the track, but other than that, the instrumental music provides the sound scenery."
Ultimately Libertaria: The Virtual Opera was like any big time Hollywood production. Everything was nonlinear from animation to music production to editing. The production schedule was difficult, and Sabrina gives enormous thanks to her incredible cast and crew for their patience and talents. In the end, though this is only the second time that she has directed a large-scale production, she found the process both challenging and rewarding.
Sabrina confesses that she borrowed heavily from other films, and in some ways, Libertaria: The Virtual Opera is a unique homage to her favorite movies. For example, the team started to develop a distinct black and white style inspired by Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List for flashbacks, where the images are black and white with splashes of red, like a red balloon inspired by the film of the same name. She used the red cut filter in Moviestorm combined with the tint and contrast options in Final Cut to create these scenes. She played around with the slow-motion running in Moviestorm to create a dream sequence of a young Lucinde (the antagonist in the film) running with arms outstretched to her father. She included several easter eggs like a character from Blade Runner showing up in a bus scene, references to the Matrix and Star Wars, a Dr. Who-like song, and even an Alfred-Hitchcock-inspired cameo of the director in the middle of a scene. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush even show up for a few frames, congratulating the Collective on their newfound discovery. "The graphic style is definitely inspired by comic books, but also video game and martial arts and action films like Kill Bill. For the finale, I went all out, and decided to go crazy with explosions, fights, and action-action-action, all impossible in a traditional opera, but perfect for machinima."
The launch and beyond
On October 5th, Libertaria: The Virtual Opera was premiered as part of the Concerts at Calvary series in Lake Worth, Florida, hosted by Dr. Clare Shore, a close friend and mentor. The premier was preceded by a panel discussion with music critic Greg Stepanich from the Palm Beach Arts Paper, actress Gretchen Suarez-Peña, and the director. They discussed music production, the opera, and the animated style.
"Now that Libertaria: The Virtual Opera is completed, everyone wants to know “What’s next?” Originally I had planned on doing a complete film festival circuit for a year, but the music community is very, very interested in viewing the film now." Several universities around the country are interested in premiering the film, music festivals plan on presenting it, and Sabrina has been asked to lecture on the film production aspects. It is a very different direction than she expected. Composers and musicians want to use machinima for their own projects and they are interested in how Sabrina used technology, Moviestorm, social media, and the Internet to present an opera. Traditionally large operas require large capital often around six figures in American dollars, but this film cost a small fraction of that amount, so artists want to know how they can do the same thing.
In response to demand Sabrina has created a Virtual Movie Theater, called Virtual Theater 3000, as an online launching platform to watch the film and other indie films through Video on Demand. One click on 'RENT' on the film widget, and fans can watch Libertaria: The Virtual Opera. Virtual Theater 3000 has links for popcorn-delivery to your door (US only right now), and she is adding up to 25 films and short films to its offerings, with a new Friday Feature each week. She is using a platform called Distrify.com for the VOD options, which also allows affiliates to post Libertaria: The Virtual Opera on their own websites and receive 50% of the profits. "I wanted Libertaria to be an opera for the masses, so how is that? An opera that pays you back for watching! Let’s throw traditional opera on it's head. I pay you!"
Sabrina is also compiling a list of venues and universities interested in presenting the opera that will receive a screening packet, and planning to lecture considerably on the project in the year to come. As a side project, Sabrina started to work on the novel version of Libertaria a year ago, and plans on publishing the novel next year.
Libertaria: The Virtual Opera is just the beginning of an epic journey.