“The Beatles: Rock Band”: Night Flight talks with animation director Robert Valley

By on November 21, 2015

In early September 2009 (on 9/9/09), Harmonix Music Systems, a video game development company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, released a new game, The Beatles: Rock Band, the first band-centric game in the Rock Band series, which featured heavily stylized opening and ending cinematics produced in part by Pete Candeland of Passion Pictures, with major assistance from the very excellent animation director Robert Valley.

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MTV Networks, itself a division of media conglomerate Viacom, had announced In September 2006 that it had acquired Harmonix on behalf of MTV Networks for $175 million, and within a few months, a discussion between Dhani Harrison, son of George Harrison, and MTV’s President Van Toffler, led to further meetings between Harmonix and Apple Corps, Ltd., which ultimately then led to Harmonix producing the first standalone title based on the Rock Band premise.

Surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr provided input on the game itself, we’ve learned, and Giles Martin — the son of Beatles producer Sir George Martin, who produced most of their albums — was the music director for the game, which was developed by Harmonix, — for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3– published by MTV Games, and distributed by Electronic Arts. Developer Pi Studios developed the Wii version.

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We’ve never actually played The Beatles: Rock Band game, but we understand that the game itself includes a visual and musical history of the Beatles, and features forty-five songs from their 1962-69 tenure with EMI, using the UK-released versions of their albums Please Please Me through Abbey Road, including “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” Here Comes the Sun,” “I Feel Fine,” “Taxman,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Get Back,” “Day Tripper,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

As you can see from the “Intro” clip above, which kicks kicking off the game with “Hard Day’s Night,” as performed by the band as seen performing at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, England, and the “Outro” clip below — our favorite, which features their track “The End,”, the last song recorded collectively by all four of The Beatles — the animation is consistent with the excellent work we’ve been seeing from Valley for a few decades now.

We loved seeing his now familiar animation style translated now to the showing the Beatles — tall, exaggerated, angular figures representing John, Paul, George and Ringo — who are seen playing onstage at Shea Stadium, walking across the zebra crossing in the street front of EMI’s Abbey Road studios, and making their final public performance as a band with an impromptu lunchtime concert from the roof of Apple headquarters at 3 Savile Row, London, on January 30, 1969.

“The game is good, the graphics are very good, we were great!,” Ringo Starr said at Microsoft press conference — part of the E3 Developers Conference, held on June 1, 2009, in Los Angeles — to promote The Beatles: Rock Band video, appearing alongside bandmate McCartney, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison.

McCartney added, “We never thought we’d end up as androids!”

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Robert Valley

Night Flight reached out to Robert Valley, via email, to ask about his work on The Beatles: Rock Band, along with some of the other projects he’s been involved in over the years, past, present and future.

Night Flight: You were born in Vancouver, BC, in 1969, right around the time that the Beatles were first beginning to work on their various solo projects, and focused on their Apple Corps company, all of it leading to their breakup in 1970 — were the Beatles an important band to you all when you were growing up?

Valley: We had one of those big record players growing up, and my mom had a small selection of records in heavy rotation: Jim Croce’s Greatest Hits, Glen Campbell, Elvis, and the Beatles’s Rubber Soul. That was Xmas music to us.

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NF: We’ve read that your studies in animation were done at Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design, in Vancouver B.C. What do you think first inspired you to pursue animation? Were you a comics fan too?

Valley: Yes, I was comics guy, I didn’t really understand the world of fine art and didn’t really see a way of making a living doing the gallery circuit. So I just kind of fell into animation. It was a good fit for me because I could never really finish a drawing, I was always redrawing the same piece of art over and over again. Does that sound like animation? You bet it does.

Here’s a video interview with Robert Valley that we found online; part two is here.

NF: Who would you say are some of your artistic and creative influences? You’ve developed a pretty distinctive style all your own, but how would you say it developed over the years?

Valley: Well…[Frank] Frazetta, (of course). It seems like he was painting more from his imagination than from life, that was hugely impressive. There is also this moment that he chooses to paint, this moment of heightened drama, that seems to tell the most story. Then it was Mike Mignola… he wasn’t such a huge stretch from Frazetta, but he was taking it in his own direction, simpler and more graphic, flat and designy, he got me into drawing architecture. The other side of the coin was Moebius [French artist Jean Henri Gaston Giraud] and Peter Chung. Detail as opposed to graphic simplicity.

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NF: We understand that you moved to San Francisco in 1992, when you were in your early twenties, was that for a job in animation? Change of scenery? You still live there, correct?

Valley: I got a job working in an animation studio called Colossal Pictures. In 1992, that was great, worked on Aeon Flux with Peter Chung. That job fizzled out eventually and I remained in SF for several years after that. I finally left the Bay area in 2001.

NF: You started your own company, Maverix, in ’97, is that correct?

Valley: Ahh, yes, Maverix studios. In the south of Market.

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NF: Tell us a little about Massive Swerve which we see described on your Vimeo page as “The 2002 classic that won absolutely no awards and was accepted to no animation festivals world wide,” with music by Massive Attack.

Valley: Oh fuck… that pretty much sums it up. I wanted to do something that would make people jump up from their seats and yell ‘Play it again!,’ which is exactly how people reacted to the Gorillaz Clint Eastwood music video. I kind of achieved something which was the exact opposite.

NF: Tell us a little about some of your other work leading up to The Beatles: Rock Band? Most of our readers will likely know you best from your work on the Gorillaz videos, but give us a little bit of an overview, please: your other biggest project seems to have been directing Aeon (Æon) Flux, correct?

Valley: Man, you have done your research. Between Gorillaz and Aeon Flux there was a whole lot of advertising work [his clients included Coca Cola, Nike, Disney and DC/Warner]. Every few months we would be working on a different style. Sometimes realistic, sometimes graphic or cartoony. It was a good place to cut your teeth in those early days.

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NF: Let’s talk about The Beatles: Rock Band, then. When were you first approached to work on the animated films?

Valley: The Beatles: Rock Band was a natural progression from the Gorillaz music videos. Not for me. but for Pete Candeland [he also produced the opening cinematics for both the original Rock Band and Rock Band 2]. Pete was riding this wave of success and great jobs and had gathered together this crew of folks like me.

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NF: Were Apple, or EMI –or anyone from the Beatles organization perhaps — involved early on for your storyboard designs or animations, or were you able to freely work on your own?

Valley: Apparently there were meetings with Sir Paul, but I was downstairs working.

NF: The intro and outro clips were directed by Pete Candeland of Passion Pictures, but what we’re seeing of the band themselves, they appear to have been so wholly and clearly examples of your very stylized work — the animation, layout, story, and design — so we’re curious as to how closely you worked on what ended up being the final product?

Valley: Pete was all over those jobs, as was Alberto Mielgo [he did the background visuals]. What was more interesting, I recall, was this crew of animators and assistants we put together for that job. A collection of good old boys from the London animation scene. There was this feeling that collectively we were able to be part of something so uniquely British, something as iconic as the Beatles. I, being a Canadian, was flattered to be included in such a thing. It sounds corny now, but it didn’t feel corny back then.

NF: How was the animation received by the surviving members of the Beatles? Ever get any feedback?

Valley: I never heard anything about that.

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NF: More recently you’ve been doing the character designs for Disney’s Tron: Uprising and Motorcity, is that correct?

Valley: That is correct, although that was quite some time ago.

NF: What new projects can you tell us about?

Valley: Since then I have been on this wave of animating short films in Photoshop. The first was this series of Wonder Woman shorts I did for Warner Bros:

Followed by this series of five shorts I did called Shinjuku:

Episode 1:

Episode 3:

This all leads up to the release of my second short film, called Pear Cider and Cigarettes, due to be released in March 2016. This 32-minute film was completely animated in Photoshop, and took just over two years to produce.

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I guess I am still trying to get people to jump out of their seat. Only time will tell how this next film will play out.

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Credits for The Beatles: Rock Band trailer: Animation was developed at Passion Pictures by director Pete Candeland, producer Debbie Crosscup, executive producer Hugo Sands, head of CG Jason Nicolas, VFX supervisor Neil Riley, technical director Julian Hodgson, CG animation supervisor Wes Coman, lead compositor Johnny Still, 2D animation director Rob Valley, editors Dan Greenway and Jamie Foord. Telecine was produced at Rushes Sound was mixed by Giles Martin, the son of Sir George Martin.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.