What happens when you mix an accomplished Writer/Director, a gifted Composer/Pianist, and YouTube? You get Player Piano – a sensational duo made up of Tom Grey and Sonya Belousova. Together these two artists create music videos that put a classical spin on popular songs and soundtrack themes. Their YouTube channel has over 100,000 subscribers and well over 5,000,000 views. I had the chance to talk with them about their success, music, and the production of their music videos.
Together Tom Grey and Sonya Belousova make up Player Piano, could you tell us how this all got started?
Tom: It began a few years ago when I was the head producer for comic book legend Stan Lee’s (Marvel) YouTube Channel: World of Heroes. I was looking for a new show concept and I wanted to do something with music. After a lengthy search, a composer who I was working with on a short tipped me off to an incredibly talented composer and pianist named Sonya Belousova. And that was sort of that.
Sonya: When I first met Tom I absolutely loved the idea of the project and I definitely wanted to be involved in it. However, at that time I was busy with several other projects and had to fly to Boston for the premiere of my ballet Orchis with the Festival Ballet Providence. So at first I thought it wasn’t going to work out since he was on a tight schedule and wanted to have a few arrangements ready in a very short period of time. But I so really wanted to be a part of this music awesomeness that somehow I managed to complete the first couple of arrangements in a record time – 3 days to compose and learn 3 virtuosic arrangements!
Independently both of you are well accomplished. Is Player Piano something that you focus on full-time?
Tom: It certainly feels like full-time as my role extends far beyond directing content. I’m also raising money, dealing with taxes/insurance, hiring crew, editing, marketing, etc. So yes, at the moment I spend a huge amount of my time on it, but it isn’t a big enough operation that I can dedicate myself fully to it. My other muse is my writing. Currently I’m working on finishing up a middle-grade fantasy adventure novel.
Sonya: Yes and no. A lot of my time is dedicated to Player Piano, especially when we’re in process of releasing videos. A lot of arrangements I write are technically quite challenging and therefore require some time to both write and learn them. Moreover, I like reimagining the concept of the original composition since simply transcribing the music for a different instrument or set of instruments doesn’t appeal to me. Whenever writing a Player Piano arrangement I have to fully dedicate myself to it as there’re a lot of deadlines to be met (recording, mixing, shooting, etc.)
Aside from Player Piano I’m constantly being very active as a composer and performer. I just finished writing the score for The Christmas Switch starring William Baldwin and Denise Richards as well as arranged and orchestrated for the upcoming album of Mario Frangoulis, a Greek pop star, that was recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London. I’m also in process of recording a solo piano album which hopefully should come out in 2016.
Some of your YouTube videos have reached over one million views. What goes into making them? Do you use any CGI or is it all live action?
Tom: Short answer: ALOT goes into making them. Sonya and I spend a great deal of time and effort making sure we’re delivering the best content possible. We certainly use CGI when we feel that it enhances the videos, but we first shoot as much as we can practically. For example, the Doctor Who video had post work in nearly every shot, as we had to extend the cloud set and create the night sky background around her. Practically on set we used several fog machines and a black curtain with a real Tardis. In the Zelda video where Link is riding a horse with an epic mountain range behind him, all of those mountains were composited in. In the original footage, our actor is riding a horse on a field in Riverside California and in the background are a bunch of houses.
YouTube videos are one thing, but you also have a couple of albums out as well. Most seem to be video game themed. Is this because people want to hear that type of music or do you have a particular interest in it?
Tom: Yes and no. I know I certainly have an interest in video game themes as I grew up in the 8-bit generation and there is a great deal of nostalgia associated with those themes. But in reality most of the themes we’ve done are based off of movies and TV. At the moment it feels like we focus on videogames because we just released the 8-bit themes album. That particular album was a perk that we offered our supporters during a crowdfund campaign that we wrapped up in January. But going forward, it will be a healthy mix of all kinds of music.
Sonya: So far we have released two albums. The first one was a compilation of various arrangements of Film/TV scores like Doctor Who and Ghost Waltz (main title of Stepford Wives), Anime scores like Akira, classical pieces like Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet by Sergey Prokofiev, popular songs like Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen and video games like Street Fighter and Tetris. As Tom mentioned, our second 8-bit Themes Piano Album was in fact a perk we offered during our indiegogo campaign. Tom is a huge fan of video games. I belong more to the Film/TV world. However, I had a blast arranging all those 8-bit video game songs for the album. Overall, we’re trying not to focus on any particular genre but to stay as diverse as possible to appeal to a wider audience.
I have to ask you about the Nintendo Piano. What went into making it? Why Nintendo and not some other gaming system?
Tom: This all came about because we were producing the 8-bit album for our crowd fund contributors and we wanted to do something really great for them. Since all the 8-bit themes were from games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, it just seemed appropriate to make the piano a giant NES console. I work closely with our amazing production designer Megan Burns, who is a wizard when it comes to building props. Her work on both this piano and our previous pinball piano is just incredible.
Do you currently tour? If not, is that something you would be interested in doing? Perhaps something like Video Games Live.
Tom: We do not currently tour, but yes we absolutely plan to delve into live shows. I’m a huge fan of orchestra shows and I’m sure that is the direction we would take.
Sonya: Not at the moment. Tom has a few very exciting ideas and we’re definitely planning to discuss them soon.
What is next for you?
Tom: We have quite a few more videos that we’ve shot and are working on finish up to release over the next few months including ones based on: The Walking Dead, I Am The Doctor (Doctor Who), Happy, Batman, and Superman. Sonya and I have also been talking about some originals and other works. On the more long-term goals, I’m developing a feature to produce next year that I would direct and Sonya would compose the score for.
Sonya: For Player Piano there’re more videos coming out soon, more sheet music as we promised, more versatile arrangements including other instruments rather than just solo piano, definitely more original music. For me personally it’s finishing another feature, finishing the piano album, and a couple of other really interesting projects and films on the horizon. And yes, Tom, I can’t wait for your film, I’m already brewing ideas!