This interview with the creator of the Chrono Trigger box set pairs well with this episode of the Video Game Grooves podcast!
VGG: Thanks for taking the time, we appreciate it. We’re looking forward to talking about this in a lot more depth. As we’ve talked about on other occasions, there’s a lot you’ve put into this release. We wanted to start out by talking to you about the pre-production side of things. You’ve mentioned this is a project that took quite a while to come to fruition, and we wonder about the lead-up to it and what it took you to come up with the concept, and what the planning stage was like before you started putting anything material together.
GH: So, about two years ago, in May 2018, I was participating in some discussion about bootlegs and wishlists, and somebody had mentioned Chrono Trigger in passing. I thought “Man, why isn’t Chrono Trigger on vinyl yet? Let’s do something about that.” My background is in web and graphic design, so it felt like if anyone should do it, it’s somebody who should have that aesthetic and bring a good concept to the table. But it took a long time to figure out what I wanted to do, and once I figured that out it was iterations after iterations… you second-guess yourself constantly as you’re building something. But May 2018 were my first conversations and brainstorming sessions. We started brainstorming, doing concepts in Photoshop, and scoured the Internet for other fan-made creations that could be influential to the process. We came up with a few mock-ups and, funny enough, it ended up being pretty close to the original concept. In fact, there was a t-shirt design on FanGamer that was sort of the original inspiration for the box design.
It had the pendulum swinging with the gears, so we kind of used that as a reference point. For the longest time we were actually thinking of copying that, but I didn’t think–it didn’t feel right. We’re copying everything else, we didn’t want to lift some probably-starving artist’s t-shirt design, as well. So that basically got us started as the first idea, and then you eventually get into “what’s the vinyl going to look like?” We went through some ideas on that, and talked to a few pressing plants, but nobody could really guarantee what we were looking for, so that’s why we shifted gears on that.
But yeah, May 2018. It was a long road to get to the finish line
VGG: You sort of answered the next question about the early concepts… But how much carried through? What was the core design? Was there anything you felt was ESSENTIAL, or really key to your final vision?
GH: Yeah, so obviously having every song, and every song looping at least once (or two full playthroughs) was always something I wanted to do, and so we had to have four discs, which already was a first in the VGM bootleg world. But as far as conceptual, like art, I don’t know that there was any “we must do this.” Obviously it had to have a box, but I wanted to have printed jackets, not just paper inner sleeves. I wanted everything to feel really solid and premium. But the design of the jackets for example, I always had the idea to put all the characters on there. But in the original iterations, I had actually hired an artist off of Etsy. And this girl is great, she does anime-type art, and I hired her to reimagine all the characters… but they just didn’t feel Chrono Trigger enough. So I had commissioned all the seven main characters and the Epoch, and at the end I was just thinking “man, I should have gone with the Toriyama art” but it’s just not high-res enough! So that’s how we kept the original idea, but ended up deciding let’s go back to the roots of the game and re-create the characters from scratch and stay true to the source.
VGG: Let’s talk about that for a minute. I’d like to get your account of that process, because I think people would be tempted to think, it is really 1-to-1 Akira Toriyama, and people would think “Oh yeah that came out of the Super Nintendo manual or came out of Famitsu magazine,” but that’s not actually the case, right?
GH: That’s right. So if you look online, or I’m sure you could scan things yourself, but what ultimately happens when you scan things is that you get color half-tones. You zoom in on that and it produces this sort of artifacting moiré effect, and it’s not going to reprint very well. Even if you were to essentially scan a 12×12 record-size print of that, it’s not going to translate
VGG: You’re going to be able to tell.
GH: You’re gonna know. So basically the idea is how do we get this pretty complex, detailed image to scale into any resolution that we’d need? I actually didn’t do the vector design. I hired somebody for that too. They basically did all the outlines of the characters; they did the color too. But there were a lot of minor details that had to be reworked to make sure it was a spot-on match and people really wouldn’t notice. So it was a lot of hours on my end just fixing little things, which, even if I didn’t do that, people probably wouldn’t have noticed. There’s probably nobody staring at that as much as I was, so…
VGG: YOU would have known!
GH: Yeah, I would have known, exactly. And there are a few things in there, there’s just so much art in that entire release that I don’t mention to people because I don’t want people to say “oh. ok. now I notice it.” But there are a few, and there probably always will be with any creative endeavor, some type of… I don’t want to call it a regret, but something that you overlook or wish you had done differently. And there are a few in Chrono Trigger, despite two years thinking that I’d covered everything, you know.
VGG: It’s like that old Woody Allen quote, you “only see the flaws”, right?
GH: Right, yeah, especially when it’s you that’s creating it.
VGG: Yeah. And I do like the fact that, ultimately, rather than becoming a re-interpretation of Chrono Trigger, everything as much as possible goes back to the original material. I know there are some things that you can get away with re-interpreting, but maybe Chrono Trigger doesn’t fit that mold, would you say that’s the case?
GH: It’s kind of a perfect game! It’s so unique and original. I wrote a little blurb about it at the end of the book too. It’s something SquareSoft decided they needed to make a splash with, and I think they really did. And obviously the music was amazing. I think that’s the biggest draw for me. It’s not even my favorite game on the Super Nintendo, but it definitely is my favorite soundtrack. That’s why I knew that it needed a proper treatment. But yeah I agree with you.
VGG: I want to talk for a minute about this book because people tend to focus elsewhere, the record color, but I like a really good archive, a “what is this?” with behind-the-scenes material. This is really interesting because there’s some real synergy with the material in the book and what’s on the discs. You’ve done essentially a whole chronicle, from beginning to end, on gigantic 12-by-12 inch pixel art that’s been extracted rather than copied from screenshots. I’d like to talk about the process of producing the book, and your vision for this printed material, because it is THOROUGH. How did you get the art assets?
GH: First, regarding the synergy, when we sequenced the audio we lucked out because everything landed in the proper time period of the game. So one of the first pages in the book outlines all the different discs and their respective time periods that are associated with the songs on the discs. So that gave me the foundation, the “table of contents” if you will, for what would ultimately be the different iconic scenes from the game that would guide you through the journey. That was kind of the idea, it was taking what you remember from the game and bringing that nostalgia to the music so that you can follow along as you’re re-living that experience. But yeah, I pretty much did the entire art book. I had some help on the actual text. I used a website called Spriter’s Resource which is basically a dump of different assets from games. Everything in there is re-created using extracted pixel-sprites and the maps themselves. And that’s because you could do a screenshot from a game but you’d have to play all the way through to that part, and then get the right shot… but this also gave me the option to expand the field of view, because otherwise you’d only get the 640×480, 4:3 ratio, you wouldn’t be able to get everything in the frame. I took a few creative liberties there, but for the most part it is pretty spot-on to the actual scenes in the game.
VGG: So it sounds like you’d actually piece together like a quilt, what’s ultimately the resolution of the print here is far beyond what you’d get from a Super Nintendo or any other version of this. It sounds like you articulated the whole page, putting sprites in creative places to dramatize it a little bit. So you essentially pieced this together like a stained-glass window?
GH: Yeah, and what’s nice about pixel sprites is if you scale them properly, they can scale infinitely. They’re just, you know, squares. I kept the same pixel ratio throughout so there wouldn’t be any jarring effects as you flip through the pages and see something smaller or bigger than a previous page. But it’s essentially the scenes that I thought were the most important as they correspond to the music or the story itself that would keep you on that journey.
VGG: And in your own words too, right? This narrative of Chrono Trigger, as far as I can tell, is totally original, right?
GH: Yeah, and like I said I had some help with the text. There are some resources out there that summarize the story so I started with that as a reference point, filling out the pages. And that went through a lot of iterations too, because, the Kingdom of Zeal for example. I probably rebuilt that spread three times because it just didn’t feel right. I think I got it toward the end. Obviously I needed the floating city there, you have to have that. But the other page, it took me a while to get there, with the Mammon Machine and whatnot.
VGG: So it’s not copied-and-pasted from the back of the box.
GH: [laughs] Right. The guy that I had helping me with the text, he was actually going through Let’s Plays and verifying that all the stuff we had written out was correct, and we weren’t deviating from the story and we were hitting the main beats. We couldn’t get into all the minutiae, but everything that was important to the story.
VGG: There’s a lot of Japanese text in this as well. What made you decide to go that route?
GH: Because it’s a Japanese game I just felt it was good to include that. And it’s a design opportunity too, with the spine text, and on the back as well, where I tried to kind of mimic the SquareSoft logo with the red square, there.
VGG: I want to talk a little bit about the little extras in here. The little touches, the ribbon to pull things out of the box, the vellum sheet… How many different vendors do you have to piece out all this stuff? Is it an easy process? How much trouble do you go to for those details before you decide it’s too much work?
GH: I believe it was 8 vendors for the standard set. I’m doing a custom test press set as well, as you probably know, we’re raffling one of those off. There’s probably 10 vendors on that too, and it’s completely different, a totally different set. If count the plastic sleeves on the outside, and the sticker and the jackets, the vellum paper, the booklet, the discs, and then the slipmats and then the plastic the slipmats are contained in…. yeah, I think there’s 8 total.
VGG: I want to talk a little bit about the audio production side. Is that something that was out of your hands, in this case?
GH: Yeah, most of that was out of my hands in this case, I’m definitely not an audio engineer. I did have a few notes that I made to kind of change a few things, raise levels here and there on a few tracks. But for the most part I just let the audio engineer work his magic and I feel like the result is a good, clear, true representation of the source.
VGG: Tell me about the source, is it from the CD soundtrack release?
GH: No, we obtained pulls from a Firebrand-modded Super Nintendo. The guy who developed this mod for the Super Nintendo did a number of extractions from different games. And he provided us the whole soundtrack of Chrono Trigger that he pulled directly from the hardware, and gave us his permission to go ahead and use that. It’s pretty common in this space. Firebrand is has a digital out, so you can use the original hardware.
VGG: The remarkable thing I’ve heard about that is that the audio you get directly from the hardware is essentially the purest, almost program-level version of that audio. Is that a fair way to put that?
GH: Yeah, I think so. And if you think about when the game came out, you’re on an old CRT TV with probably a single speaker or two… I’ve seen a few comments from people that this is the first time they’ve heard the music, really heard it. And that’s an interesting thought because we all remember the music a certain way, but you can’t–I was 11 years old when the game came out, so my recollection is colored by all the years of nostalgia and whatnot. But I’d agree, it’s as raw as you can get out of the system without introducing any feedback from the original outputs. I wanted it to be pure. I wanted it to be as original as possible. There’s a number of methods you can go through, I think CD is a viable one. A lot of producers will use that because it’s easy to get great audio. But I don’t know, sometimes I think it’s better to spend a little bit more time to do it in the “purest” way.
VGG: We talked about this a little bit, but can you talk about the process of designing the discs? You had said you had something particular in mind for the discs, and you came up with what I personally feel is a really elegant solution. Can you talk about how the colorway ended up being what it is, including the idea behind the slipmat.
GH: Yeah, so I had always wanted to bring the time gate, the portal as you’re traveling through time into the set. In fact one of the things I did as a prototype was to build a lenticular out of the .GIF animation. It didn’t turn out how I wanted it. It was actually going to be the first thing you saw when you opened the box, but we ended up doing the vellum sheet over the booklet, and I like where it ended up there. But because of the failed attempt there, I thought, well, why don’t we bring that to the discs? Why don’t we do something cool where we alternate between the blue with black background and the magenta with black background so it has this sense, as you’re moving through each disc, that you’re alternating and going through that time portal. So we had looked at a splatter design. The plant we were initially going to use, they had a colorway to match the blue side exactly. And what we tried to do was take that into Photoshop and make it the magenta side, but when discussing it with the rep over there, he was saying “yeah we can try it, and you might want to try these colors, but there’s a chance it doesn’t turn out that way.” So rather than end up with half the set not really hitting the mark, I didn’t think it was worth the risk for something so important, and such a big investment. I wanted to switch gears, and I had always wanted to do a slipmat of some kind. As I was researching, I came up with the idea to create UV ink printed slipmats, so I immediately thought, “well, why don’t we light this up?” My brain is always trying to add more, so I saw this and thought “man wouldn’t it be cool if I just included a black light in every set?” So ordering 250 black lights was another thing I had to deal with. But I think it worked out. I went through probably 20 different iterations of that slipmat design, too. I had to print them out and test them on that table, because what it looks like stationary isn’t what it’s going to look like when it’s spinning, so… being perfectly honest about the design, I don’t love it when it’s sitting. It really needs to be spinning to get the full effect or else it doesn’t really feel–
VGG: –you don’t get the full idea.
GH: Yeah exactly. And that’s kind of why I decided, well, if people are going to use this, they might use it when they’re playing the records, but when they’re just hanging out and have the mat on their turntable it might be a little too much. So I thought, we can also do one that’s a little more simple and minimalist that could potentially just sit on everyone’s turntable maybe-indefinitely. And that was a late addition. I added that even after I had announced. I’d used the game’s 25th anniversary to announce. I actually added the slipmat in 3 weeks after. I did a rush-order to get those made.
VGG: Well, I think, you know the music is great, the art is great, but as far as the Hey-Check-This-Out factor, you could show the art or whatever to a friend and they’d say “oh yeah that’s cool”, but if you show someone a black light slipmat that shows through a clear disc… that’s memorable! And there are plenty of vinyl releases with cool little gimmicks, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything like that before.
GH: I thought it was cool! But now the trick is, how do you top it? [laughs]
VGG: [laughs] Yeah, but I also want to tell you, I just ended up mounting that blacklight above my turntable and I shine it on just any given disc. I have found some weirdly reactive discs. I don’t know if you saw the interview we did with Knight of the Round, and they didn’t even know about it. I talked to the lead guitarist and said “Did you know your entire disc glows brilliantly under a black light?” and he said “we had no idea.” And it’s sort of a Mako-themed “Lifestream” disc, so it’s appropriate. And some of my slip mats also glow pretty well, the Binds On Pickup slipmat with the Tyrael angel design is pretty cool too. And there are some discs where there’s just little slivers of material that will react, but not others… so I just wanted to say it’s changed my experience. I’m always like “ooh, let’s see what this looks like under the light.”
But I just wanted to ask you a stupid little practical thing with respect to that light. I’m just curious: when you have to pack something like that into a box with all this delicate stuff, how do you personally ensure that stuff is not going to come through mangled? Do you pack it up and ship it somewhere and then unpack it? What was your process to put an extra piece like that, which again I think is fairly unprecedented… How do you get comfortable with the idea that you’re going to ship electronics with this and you don’t want it to show up in pieces?
GH: Yeah, no there’s a lot to that. Obviously it was a little bit of a dice-roll when I ordered boxes and packing material, too. I knew the dimensions of the box set, and I knew the general dimensions of the lamp itself and the clip at the end of it. I didn’t actually plan to do two separate sets of jackets so that threw off things a little bit but it ended up working out for the better, keeping them outside. So I did a test send to a friend before I even listed it and put it up for sale. For one, I wanted to get the proper weight, so I told him “Hey you let me know how it arrives, and if something is messed up I’ll go back to the drawing board.” So as I worked through the process I started iterating on the packing, as well. I wanted to ensure that–especially overseas shipments–nothing got damaged. When you have something packed justified to a corner, like the box set, and then you’ve got the lamp, you want to make sure that any jostling or anything that happens in transit doesn’t cause a sharp piece of the lamp to jam into the side of the box. I’m actually super-surprised, but I haven’t had anyone say that there’s an issue. I think a large part of that is that I hand-cut every strip of cardboard.
VGG: I was going to say! It looked like all those little cardboard pieces just fit in there so well, and it was either a great coincidence or he hand cut all of that cardboard!
GH: Yeah, and I had so much cardboard. Everything comes in cardboard so it was a great way to get rid of that too. Most of those packing pieces actually were cut from the boxes in which the discs came, because the discs and jackets came separately. So as those came in, I’d stack them up, and then I’d get on my hands and knees with a backing board for cutting, and I just hand cut each one of those to give it a nice little corner, so that even if something happened it would jam into that piece of cardboard before it ever touched the side. And even the process of wrapping the vinyl and the box itself, I was trying to use the least amount of packing materials. I had to order more anyway so it didn’t matter much… rather than wrapping the whole thing I tried to minimize materials while still keeping things protected. As you probably remember, there’s still a lot in there as far as bubble wrap and all that.
VGG: I actually kept some of that bubble wrap. I want to keep it as pristine as possible, even though I’m sure I’ll ding the corner of something some day. But it really is worth keeping this in the best shape you can, and I’m sure others feel the same way.
GH: It’s funny because I didn’t mean those foam sheets to be anything other than to protect the vinyl from rubbing together in transit, and I see people keeping them in there. And honestly it’s–I don’t want to call it “elegant”, but–it’s just kind of nicer to keep them in there, and it really is just packing materials. I did notice when I’d get the big boxes of jackets, the ones at the ends would end up getting almost a polished look because of the soft-touch matte finish, so I thought “I can’t have people get these with half of the soft-touch matte scraped off” so that’s why I decided to put those in there.
VGG: We haven’t really talked anything about the music. It really seems like a super-clean pressing. I know that’s sort of hit-or-miss from copy to copy but it really is an excellent listening experience. It flows through all 4 discs, just like you said. What is your estimation of that? Are you pleased with how the actual audio came through?
GH: Yeah! It took a really long time to do, and that’s actually why it took 2 years to do this. I put the initial order in about a year before I was actually able to announce the release. We did what’s called a reference acetate first, which isn’t super-common. That’s just a way to really get a feel for the sound and the cut before you move into the lacquers and the test press phase. The first acetate came back super quiet, and I didn’t really like it. So I had to redo that. The second one came back, and it was great so we decided to go for the test presses. All the test presses but one were great, so I approved 3 of the 4. And then we went through 4 other rounds for this 1 problematic disc, and that’s what took so long because you’re basically waiting for them to cut the lacquer or whatever they need to do. Sometimes they recut the lacquer, sometimes they just put it in a chemical bath–
VGG: Black magic, who knows what they do?
GH: [laughs] So yeah, it was just a lot of waiting, and you’d cross your fingers like “please, please fix the issue” and then it would still be there, and you know, I’d say I’m 90% happy with that one. I just got to the point where after 5 rounds, it’s just not going to get any better unless we redo the whole thing. And I’m very critical because it’s my thing, and I just sort of had to say “no one else is going to notice this” and really what it is, is inner-groove distortion. There’s not a whole lot you can do with the time of that side and the songs that are at the end of the disc are a certain level of dynamics. Overall, I’m very very pleased with the audio. I think the engineer did an amazing job. And despite all the back-and-forth with the plant… they were super gracious about everything despite how particular I was about it. But yeah, I’m very happy with the outcome.
VGG: And as far as I can tell, so is everyone else. [laughs] So we’re all in agreement.
Well the last thing I wanted to mention, and this thing is chock full of secrets, some of my favorite little details. My favorite thing to notice is the tiny foil-print details on the jacket. It’s embossed too, in fact. And I really appreciate how the clock face, you can see the Roman numerals on the different points of the clock. I think it might just be serendipity, but the numerals get a little rubbed off so they show clearly through the foil, and you can see the text of the clock face and I think it’s just so cool.
GH: Yeah the process does produce some variation, but the effect came out really well, I think. Essentially the printers will make a mold, like basically a metal stamp if you will, and heat it up, and they place a piece of foil between the plate and where you’re pressing it, like the box. And they actually wrap the box after they’ve done the sheet there. So there are some inconsistencies across the foil, if you look at it closely. If you look at the spine, it’s the same exact vector logo–in fact I think the spine is a little bit better in terms of the detail on the clock numerals. It just depends on the size of it. So it’s gonna miss every once in a while, different parts. Even the definition between the clock hand arrows are a little bit better on the spine than on the jackets as well..
VGG: Oh yeah, you can sort of see the little negative space in between them there.
GH: So, yeah, the size is a factor, and those are both produced at different places so maybe the box manufacturer was a little bit better. I think they were personally. But, little details? Yeah, there’s a lot of little details… One that I don’t think many people notice that I thought was kind of clever is the way I restructured the Chrono Trigger logo on the [disc] center labels to correspond with the time periods of the game, and the time periods that correspond to the music on each disc. And so at first glance you might see the logo and say “oh that’s the Chrono Trigger logo” and not give it a second thought, but each side–I think you’re looking at side B?
VGG: Yeah, I can see it right here.
GH: So side A, 1000 A.D., side B, 600 A.D., and so if you were to align that with the different time periods within the game, that all matches up… along with the vinyl “settings” page, along with all the different pages in the booklet, there’s just kind of a cohesive connection there.
VGG: It’s like if aliens were to uncover this at some point, they could do like in Contact and reverse-engineer everything and see how cohesive it is and understand everything they need to know about Chrono Trigger!
VGG: Well the final product is just absolutely astounding and I want to congratulate you on that. It is really work well-done. To everybody who was involved in that, really good job. As many people have said to you it’s an absolute center-piece for a collection, and considering that’s how a lot of people feel about the original material itself, I would consider that to be a pretty great compliment. I think you’ve accomplished pretty much the goal you set out to, so really well done.
You did mention “how do you top that” earlier… Is that something you’re thinking about?
GH: Oh yeah, the wheels are turning. Before I was done with Chrono Trigger, I already had an idea to do another record, kind of in a similar vein, and I’ll leave it at that. But you know, it’s a lot of effort and I’ll probably take my time with it. I might do one smaller thing first just to kind of not kill myself doing two back-to-back–
VGG: –cleanse the palate?
GH: [laughs] Right, exactly. But it’s a lot of fun, and you know there’s a lot of great talent out there. And I think when it comes to this scene, you can go the “pre-order” route which is an option… I didn’t really want to do that for a number of reasons, primarily just the risk, and also really having complete control over what I was going to do. I could make last-minute decisions and not affect the budget that I had set by taking X dollars for each copy. So that was kind of nice, and I’m probably also one of the few, if not the only crazy-enough people to do something like that. And I just wanted to do it because I respected the game enough that I wanted to push through and produce something that I personally would want, and I’ve got a couple of things in mind, so… I’ll keep you posted.
VGG: Thanks a whole lot for taking the time!
GH: Thank you!