CAMBRIDGE — Lead Artist Dare Matheson’s job isn’t easy: as the man in charge of digitizing the Beatles’ likenesses, he’s steering clear of the Uncanny Valley while treading lightly over four decades of popular culture, the visual legacy of the world’s most famous band, and most importantly, the power of the imagination. We sat down with Dare to discuss 21st-century psychedelia, the liability of literality, and the wonders of Paul McCartney’s eyebrow.


Listen to Blast's entire, unedited interview with Dare Matheson

Blast editor John Guilfoil: Well, we’ve talked to the audio guys already, and the project lead on the game. You had to kind of take the audio and the concept and all the orders from the shareholders and crew and make it look good. What was part of the challenge of doing that?

Dare Matheson: What wasn’t part of the challenge of doing that? Obviously, it’s like you’re taking some of the most iconic popular music, and everybody who likes the Beatles, and who’s listened to the Beatles, has their own sort of connection with it. People listen to the lyrics, and have their own interpretations and visualizations that go along with it.

It’s sort of like, with the historical venues, that’s sort of one thing, and that’s really tied up in our interpretation of the characters and the settings. Maybe I’ll just speak to that really quickly and then go to the dreamscapes, because I think that’s really where things get crazy, and that’s really where the biggest challenge for us in the game was. So, with the characters, we really wanted to get something that felt”"you know, there’s a whole range of ways that the band has been depicted in terms of art. Everybody’s familiar with their likenesses and their personalities, and the emotions that they show on their face, so we really wanted to get the emotional side across. They’ve been depicted in, for example, the Yellow Submarine movie, which is a great reductive approach to them that could represent the furthest extreme of what we could’ve done. And we like that style, we like that look. But it felt like that would be too limited for the majority of the experience, for a total experience of the band in this medium. So we kind of looked at that possibility.

What we wanted to do was get something that immediately was familiar as the Beatles, had all of their unique identity and personality that could show through for the four guys, that people could pick up on and really connect with, and have it be a bit stylized. Because on the one extreme would be going too cartoony, and you wouldn’t get enough of the identity and richness of connection — you’ve seen photos and footage and all that, so it could be sort of like you go too far in that direction. The other danger would be to go sort of too realistic, and you know how it is in games where it’s like, you see something where somebody’s trying to make a real person, and it just looks creepy, and it just looks kind of scary and kind of gross, so we wanted to avoid that.

The dreamscapes Matheson helped create add to the Beatles experience in the game.

The dreamscapes Matheson helped create add to the Beatles experience in the game.

So that was the key, and that’s the thing that stands true whether you’re talking about the historical venues or the dreamscapes. With the historical venues, we really just looked at a lot of the archival footage, and we really tried to get a sense of the atmosphere, and that’s the thing that we went for, we went for the atmosphere and tried to find, for each one of the five historical venues, that each one of them had a distinctive atmosphere from each other, and it so happened that we did. In some cases, we exaggerated a little bit.

For example, Budokan was — you know, typically in these games we go from a smaller venue setting to a bigger one, showing a sort of career arc there. And in this case, Budokan was a smaller place than Shea Stadium, and Budokan happened afterwards. So in the case of Budokan, we didn’t want it to feel like a letdown, so we exaggerated the verticality of Budokan, and really had it feel like this sort of compressed version of a giant arena. And the stage in Budokan is — I think the real stage was something like 12 or 15 feet, really tall, just this giant blue plan box — so we even exaggerated that a little bit further, and just made everything feel like it was going “Ëœup.’

From the beginning, with the psychedelic dreamscapes, when we showed an early prototype of a dreamscape — it wasn’t even a prototype, it was just a storyboard, an animatic — to Giles Martin, it was this idea that the band would depart from Abbey Road, and they would change into more psychedelic outfits, and they’d be in a magical land. And Giles was like, “ËœOkay, that’s cool. Looks good. I just want to make sure that you guys don’t hold back.’ And he’s like, “ËœMake sure this is as psychedelic as you can make it.’ Because, going to a magical land — I think the land in our animatic looked a little bit like the Yellow Submarine movie, and he basically said, ‘Okay, that was psychedelic in the sixties, but what’s psychedelic now? You guys have to bridge the gap, because something that is truly psychedelic is something that is a new experience.’

You're taking some of the most iconic popular music, and everybody who likes the Beatles, and who's listened to the Beatles, has their own sort of connection with it, Matheson said. (Darcy Hoffman for Blast)

You're taking some of the most iconic popular music, and everybody who likes the Beatles, and who's listened to the Beatles, has their own sort of connection with it, Matheson said. (Darcy Hoffman for Blast)

So, that was our big call for ourselves, that in the dreamscapes, and in the style of the game generally, we wanted to find something that — you know, the Beatles’ music, the most amazing music, happened forty years ago. So, we’re trying to find something that will feel authentic and connect clearly and well with that time, for people now, so that people who were there then and saw the Beatles will immediately connect with it, and yet people who have never heard of the Beatles, who see this game and will be able to experience them for the first time, it will feel connective for them, as well.

Blast’s Ben Lindbergh: How much of a help or hindrance was it that the Beatles have this legacy of visual creativity themselves? We didn’t get to see your dreamscape for “I Am the Walrus” but I’ve read that it sort of mimics the Magical Mystery Tour ethos that they created. Is that something that made you feel constrained by what they had done in that area already, or did that free you to be even more creative?

DM: No, it was awesome. First of all, they set the bar high, and so there’s a ton of rich material there. There’s all the album art, there’s their movies, their crazy clothes, their avant garde look, the music itself. It’s like they shot for the skies, so there’s a ton of rich material to draw from, for one thing. For the second thing, they — Apple Corps, and the shareholders themselves and everybody we worked with — were very encouraging of us to not hold back. So, basically, as opposed to what you might think could happen with sort of a “Ëœbrand’ that is from that far away of an era, there’s a chance that it could have become rigid, and only presented to the world in a certain way that’s comfortable for them. But no, they totally wanted”"once we gained their trust, once they saw that we had people that could interpret the Beatles, and they were comfortable with that”"they really encouraged us to go nuts. You know, they told us what they thought, we had weekly calls with them, and we worked through everything together, but they were very encouraging of that. So, again, on another level, it was not constraining. And I thought there was a third thing, but, there’s only two.

JG: Building the characters themselves, the four guys on the stages, were there specific things that the shareholders would insist on, or were there things that you really wanted to make sure you captured, like the way someone stood, or the way someone strummed the guitar, or the way Ringo banged the drums? Were there certain things about the Beatles, when building the characters, that you were encouraged not to miss?

DM: Well, first of all, we absolutely set that challenge for ourselves. We knew that we wanted to make the characters look, visually, a little bit reductive — you know, they don’t have skin pores, and we sort of buffed out certain areas of detail to try to find the distilled version of Paul McCartney’s face. But we really wanted the animation to feel very much like them. So we really tried to nail the movements and the little nuances. We tried to pick up everything little nuance. Generally, peoples’ faces are much more expressive than you find in videogames, and much more nuanced. And we tried to get that. Somebody told me recently — maybe it was a cover band or something — got a hold of one of the demos and was like, “ËœOh, this will be the acid test for this game — did they pick up on Paul’s crazy, weird, extra eyebrow motion on one side? They got it, they got it!’ We concentrated on Paul’s eyebrow for like a week straight.

One of Matheson's challenges was capturing the essense of The Beatles without crafting creepy, hyper-realistic computer people.

One of Matheson's challenges was capturing the essense of The Beatles without crafting creepy, hyper-realistic computer people.

But in answer to your question, we had our own bar set very high. And we actually got feedback directly from the shareholders. Most intensely, actually, from Olivia and Yoko. I think Paul and Ringo gave us feedback, but they were kind of like, “ËœYeah, I look awesome in that!’ I think Yoko and Olivia have a legacy to maintain that goes beyond their own selves, so we got a lot of direct feedback from both of them, and it was super-helpful, incredibly useful.

A few of us went out to meet with Olivia in Friar Park out in England, and we brought the George model that we had at that point. And she opened up her private photo albums and showed us a bunch of pictures of George. And we earmarked some, and she had her assistant scan it and send it to us. And Yoko visited here, visited the office, and we looked at the game together. And she gave us a lot of detailed feedback on, specifically, “ËœWell, there’s something going on here, there’s a way that John is nodding his head that he just doesn’t do that, he wouldn’t do that.’

So somewhere along the way, we may have added in a little of our own thing, or a motion capture actor added in something extra, and that was something that Yoko didn’t find to be authentic, so we stripped that out. We had pages of notes. She was here for about four hours, and we had pages and pages of notes, and we just responded to that feedback. Super, super helpful.

JG: What was it like being that hands-on with the band and the shareholders? Usually you’re dealing with dozens of bands, and you’re never really putting that much detail into what specific members of bands look like, like in Rock Band or Rock Band 2. What was it like having this level of detail, focusing on this one particular band?

DM: For me, it was great. I love it. I mean, I love Rock Band, and it’s sort of a platform, and that’s its purpose. But because of that, you’re automatically, things get more sort of dispersed. So it’s great for me. This game has been my favorite version of this type of game to work on, because the music — there’s something already that roots it and makes it consistent, and that is that it’s based on a real band that had an artistic legacy. And it was such an artistic legacy that, like with your question, it basically, we had the world to go after with this one.

Blast got to play Beatles Rock Band at the Harmonix Studios in Cambridge (Darcy Hofmann for Blast)

Blast got to play Beatles Rock Band at the Harmonix Studios in Cambridge (Darcy Hofmann for Blast)

BL: Do you feel that some of the customization options that were present in Rock Band or Rock Band 2, do you think that’s something that will be missed? As a fan, I don’t think it would be for me, but if there are players who take a lot of pleasure in dressing up their characters, or making them personalized, putting their stamp on them somehow, do you feel like that’s something that will be lacking here?

DM: Well, I think that the idea of a Beatles dress-up shop would be fun for some people, because obviously they had this very exciting, avant-garde fashion sense. But really, the choices that we made in terms of the design, and what we exposed to the player, we tried to keep everything to the core experience of the Beatles. And I think that that might be a fun novelty, but I don’t think that it would add to the game, and in fact, it kind of would subtract from it. And there are other places that we had to make concessions like that, but I think that with every choice we made, we tried to always go towards advancing this very core, Beatles-centric experience.

BL: Do you feel that in the in-studio portions of the game, does the fact that the band was, at least by modern standards, pretty restrained in terms of their movements and actions on stage — obviously with the dreamscapes, you can kind of get away with it, but with those actual segments in a live setting, was there less for you to focus, less going on on the screen, less action?

DM: Well, the Beatles had a ton of energy on stage. I mean, they weren’t kicking over props or spewing fire or anything, but they had a tremendous amount of live energy. But yeah, in the studio, the great thing about the studio is, so, right, they’re not performing for an audience, they’re not performing for the camera, they’re performing for the audio track. In the studio parts, every time they’re in the studio, and you see that in the game, the song ends up expanding out into a visual dreamscape. So it’s actually really cool, and this is something that we haven’t seen in these games before, where it’s a much more intimate feeling. So rather than having it be about, “ËœI’m performing to a million people’ or whatever, it’s more about, you really do feel like you’re sitting there watching John Lennon close his eyes and rock his head back and just sing into the microphone, and you get this much more emotional thing that just sort of bravado and antics. Which is fine, too, but this is something a little bit nice to have in a Beatles game.

BL: How much research did you do even before you put anything on paper?

DM: Well, I’ve been researching this band since I was six years old. As a team, we did a ton of research, and in addition to other planning meetings and design meetings, we had, a couple times a week, we would spend an hour or two together. We spent, probably, several hours a week, just as a whole team, watching the Anthology, watching the movies, watching whatever we could get our hands on that would expand our knowledge. We were sending around emails with links to anything we could find. It was crucial. On the team, it goes from people who have been mega-Beatles fans since they were born because of their parents’ record collections, to people who, it’s newer for them and they’re learning a lot about it. But it’s crucial for everybody to be experts, Beatles experts, so that’s what we went for.

BL: Have you gotten a chance to see in person any of Paul’s recent concerts, where he had the footage playing behind him? Because for me, certainly, that would be pretty awesome.

DM: Yeah, I did, actually. It was cool, yeah. It was great. I saw him at Fenway Park a couple weeks ago, and yeah, he had two songs where he played footage from the game. One song he had dreamscape footage, and another one, he used some of the Passion Pictures intro footage. Yeah, it was great. He talked about the game on stage, and it was really, really cool.

John M. Guilfoil and Marc Normandin of the Blast staff and Blast correspondents Steve Bagley and Darcy Hofmann contributed to this report.

About The Author

Ben Lindbergh is a Blast Games staff writer

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