How To Work With A Maestro of Game Music

This weekend my wife and I went to the Hollywood Bowl outdoor amphitheater to watch John Williams conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic as they played some of William’s most famous film scores, particularly the ones to the Star Wars films. Of course, light sabers were a very popular souvenir item among the audience, and Star Wars fans waved their swords in time with the rhythm as Williams conducted The Imperial March (also known as Darth Vader’s Theme). The show, called “John Williams: Maestro of the Movies” also included film clips that accompanied some of the pieces Williams performed.

We had attended William’s other performances at the Bowl several times before, but this year fellow film composer David Newman opened the show by conducting the Philharmonic as they played the scores to a number of films, including The Godfather and North By Northwest. Between a couple of the pieces Newman stopped to emphasize how important that a score serve the film in which it plays, becoming an entirely new experience from what it was on the page once it is married to the imagery of the film.

As an example, Newman explained how score composer Bernard Herrmann drew his inspiration for the film’s classic crop duster sequence from a Spanish dance called the Fandango. Because North By Northwest is essentially a chase story, the score is composed with driving, dancing rhythms. And yet, when one watches the film, one thinks not of dancing, but of the protagonist being chased headlong through the music.

Now, this blog is about video games and not films, but some music composers are maestros of both movies and game music.  Michael Giacchino, who composes many of J.J. Abrams film scores, began as a game producer for Disney Interactive, thinking he could hire himself to write music for the games he produce.  He indeed composed music for the Sega Genesis game Gargoyles, the SNES game Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow and the various console versions of The Lion King. Another composer who has worked in both the game and film industries is John Ottman, who both scores and edits many of Bryan Singer’s films, composed the soundtrack for I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream for me.

One thing that I have learned about both film and game composers is that they are hired onto a project long before the visual part of the project reaches its finished form.  The film composer needs to have the music written by the time the final edit of the film is completed, and the composer will conduct the musicians in the recording session while watching the film play onscreen.  A game composer is likewise brought onto a project long months before the game is completed, but due to the interactive nature of video games, the game experience is different for each player, and so the composer doesn’t watch someone play the game while the music is recorded. So, even more than with film music, the game composer relies on having a clear understanding from the creative team about what the final experience needs to be like.

When I start working with a music composer, I already have formed at least a preliminary idea of how many musical pieces I will need from him or her.  Usually I will want a different musical piece for each of the game’s main mechanics: exploring, building, fighting, and so on.  These need to be looping pieces that play continuously through that mechanic’s core loop.  Often I will also want variations of each piece for different settings in the game: a desert, a jungle, a city, and so on.  As David Newman illustrated in his story about the North by Northwest score, a musical genre can be used in unexpected ways to create an entirely new experienced when paired with the visual element of a movie or game, and so I typically don’t tell my composer what music genre I’m interested in.  Instead, I will explain the emotion that the piece should convey: excitement, fear, suspense, and so on, as well as the pacing and context of the game sequence in which it appears.  Sometimes the choices the composer makes for the delivered piece surprises me, but when I play it in the game sequence, it usually works.

My job as a game director and designer is to decide the experience I want the player to have, but I leave it to the music experts to figure out how to convey that experience through their compositions.  And if our visions successfully synch up, we’ll hopefully have the players perform the mechanics in time with the rhythm.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on September 5, 2016, in Game Design, Game Production and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. So the music in movies is conducted when they’re being played?! So that explains why the actions and music are synced so well! I thought it’s mostly the magic in the editing room! Thanks a lot, that was very informative!

    I don’t want to be rude, but how long does it take a music creator to make music? Since “a few months” sounds like barely enough?

    • Some composers for indie movies can turn around a score in a weekend. Hans Zimmer usually comes up with the main cues for his music, but has the bulk of it the work done by his team. But I’d say that the typical film composer takes anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks to compose a score for a 2-hour movie.

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