Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Art of Vampire Variations Volume III

The darkness has enveloped us. The mist has enshrouded us. The wolves are howling. Vampire Variations Volume III has been out a little over a week now.
Are we enjoying it? Speaking as a huge fan of Super Castlevania IV; I for one certainly am.
So - here we are again. Usually Dracula is revived once every century. In this case, it took just two years. Yikes. Bad humans. Is there a Belmont in the house?
As its title suggests, Vampire Variations Volume III is the third and final instalment in Alex 'Chernabogue' Mourey's trilogy of terrors. Or threesome of thrills. Hmm, I think the first one was better. And what a high note to end on. Pun intended.
VV3 re-arranges the entire soundtrack to Super Castlevania IV; originally released on the Super Famicom/Nintendo in 1991. SCIV is known among Castlevania fans as having a wonderful atmosphere of dread, as ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties creep out of the darkness as poor old Simon slogs his way up to Dracula's boudoir. SCIV was essentially a re-make of the original, entitled Akumajo Dracula in its native Japan, which harnessed the power of the Super Famicom console to create a new version of the classic adventure; adding new game mechanics, more levels and greater graphical detail. Fitting then, that Vampire Variations comes full circle with this title as its final instalment; after starting with the original as an anniversary fan project back in 2011.
But this time there's a twist. The keen-eyed among you will notice that VV3 is not released through Nitro Game Injection as the previous two volumes were. This time, OverClocked Remix has stepped into the fray and released VV3 as its own original album. Furthermore - they have re-released volumes I and II with it to create a Vampire Variations Trilogy package.
Hours of music and all of the artwork I produced are available completely FREE at the VV website right here. You can either download any album separately or all of them as a complete torrent. Plus you can get yourself into the mood by listening to any of the tracks from the albums through their cloud player. Fluffy.
Yet again it seems that I am forced to provide something a little different than merely posting the artwork that you may have already seen here. So, I have looted my sketchbooks for various drawings and sketches that contributed to the body of work created for Vampire Variations Volume III. Though the process was a lot smoother this time, there still was a process, and I shall do my best to give you a glimpse of it as we go on.
Deep breaths.
When Alex first prodded me about working on VV3 - I was about four months into illustrating Nature, Red, and about six months away from finishing it. But I wasn't to know that at the time. Contributors and fans of the previous albums had in the past, as far as I'm aware, poked and pleaded and begged and threatened for there to be a SCIV fan album. I confess, I was also secretly one of them. SCIV has always been one of my favourites, coincidentally, as much as Rondo of Blood and The New Generation which got the VV treatment within Volume II. So you can imagine how pleased I was when a) he said that there would be a third album re-arranging the SCIV OST; and also b) said that he would like me to produce illustrations for it, similar to those produced for Volume II. After warning him that I was knee-deep in comic book production; I naturally leapt at the chance and started thinking. Then, when I could, I would start drawing.
The first ideas that struck me (and this will sound really lazy now) was more or less what actually became the final covers. But we'll get to those later. I've always loved how SCIV presented itself: the creepy title menu with crawling bugs and rumbling thunder, and the iconic first shot of the opening demo - Dracula's dirt covered grave. Since SCIV was already full of iconic imagery, it seemed natural to try and replicate this as a viable album cover. However, I was also interested in drawing Dracula and Simon themselves; considering VV1 focused on environments and VV2 focused on monsters, it seemed logical that the heroes and villains should grace this cover. All of these ideas were thrown into the melting pot of my brain - and while I slaved away on Nature, Red - I left them to simmer.

A page from my sketchbook early into the project: One of the many drawings of Dracula's grave, plus some thumbnails of the proposed album covers.

Alex seemed to agree with my idea of having the iconic shot of Dracula's grave as the cover image, and also with having the background of the tile menu as the back cover. Both screamed SCIV. However, I was still interested in drawing Simon and Dracula, so I started planning the possibility of including those too.

One of the (surprisingly few) rough designs for Simon that I came up with early in the project.

Typically for me - when I seem to have an idea that works, I then think of even more that may work. I was still toying around with other environment and character ideas for inclusion with the album - perhaps as website illustrations, or to be included within a digital booklet. I even wanted to produce the intro to the game as a short b+w comic - but sadly there really wasn't time, plus, with a digital release, it didn't really seem necessary. Tying in with the intro, I also had the idea to render Dracula not as the widow-peaked Count he often appears as; but as the demonic bat-like creature, fresh from the grave, before his powers are fully replenished.

Another early sketchbook page. Castle, environment and demonic Bat-Dracula concepts.

A sketch of Dracula's grave after it is struck by lightning. This would have been in the b+w comic; but sadly there wasn't time to produce it. However a more final version of this image was done later.

Like VV2 before it, it seemed necessary to produce a set of illustrations that would serve to advertise the album when it was announced; for use in trailers, websites, etc. I decided to carry on the idea from the previous album and do some black and white illustrations of the Gothic environments that all the Castlevanias are known for.

A more rendered version of Dracula's grave as his spirit escapes; designed for advertising purposes.
Another 'advertisement' illustration. This one and the image above ultimately ended up on the final album's disc art - included in the download package. 

Harking back to the statue illustrations for VV2, this was produced for possible inclusion on the website. Ultimately however it was left unused.
Detail of the candelabra.

With the advertisement images complete, it was time to start the covers themselves. At this point I'd more or less abandoned the idea of including Simon, but Bat-Dracula was still a possibility. That, however, would have to wait. By now also Nature, Red was finished and out of the way, meaning I had more free time available to paint the covers. The result was as you may already have seen.

The finished cover painting of Dracula's grave. In its final, trimmed cd-size.

The finished painting for the back cover. In final, trimmed cd-size. It was left deliberately sparse in detail because the track listing would inevitably be put over it.

There was, however, more to produce. Alex informed me that because OC Remix were releasing the whole lot as a trilogy of albums, they would need an image to represent the package as a whole. We both had the same idea of using the castle itself as the main archetypal image. Alex originally wanted to use the b+w render from volume II as the source, but considering I had time and the means, I said I would try and do something a little more suited to the style of the last two volumes.

Sketchbook concept of the castle image that would represent all three albums. I wanted the setting sun, the castle itself and the bright moon to represent some sort of trinity (the albums?) and also, somehow, suggesting the passing of time; as the story passes from generation to generation. Or something like that.

The final 'new' castle image. This ended up being the new cover to the OC Remix release of Volume I.

With the three covers done, they were sent to Alex for approval. While he was slaving away creating the logos and the artwork to go over the top of the covers, as well as doing the trailer and overseeing the finished album - I would get cracking on one last image: Dracula himself. Only hairier.

Early sketchbook page of more Bat-Dracula concepts.

A further study; the composition here was ultimately abandoned for the one below.
A sketchbook drawing of what became the final Bat-Dracula illustration.
The final Bat-Dracula design and the final illustration produced for the project. It ended up being used in the trailer for the album.

So there you have it. My part was finished. I just had to wait for the rest of the awesome music to come in (though I was fortunate to be able to listen to a handful of tracks in their early stages - it was good painting music ^^) and the album to be finished - a stake driven through its heart in exclamation. Below is the artwork as it appears both originally and through OC Remix's trilogy package.

Final album art for Volume III by Chernabogue. Note the slight changes to allow the logo.
Final back cover for Volume III by Chernabogue with track list and credits.
The final covers as they appear in the complete package through OverClocked Remix. The originals on the left and the new 'trilogy' versions by djpretzel. I think they're rather nice.

And so, once again, the castle crumbles about us. Dracula is dead (orrrr is he?) and all his little pixies have scampered away. The breaking dawn whispers promises of a brighter tomorrow. I guess. I do hope everyone enjoys the album and all that has come before it. It is a brilliant achievement and a real step forward in giving video game music the recognition it deserves, and showcases real musical talent among fans. My congratulations and thanks go to Alex and all his little pixies - too many to name here. But, trust me, after listening to the album, you'll know who they are forever. I will however mention a few - purely because it fits the end of this post nicely. As famously said by Bela Lugosi in 1931's Dracula - and brilliantly used in Jorito and BMC_WarMachine's track Dracula is our Vampire:
"Children of the night. What music they make."