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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.



Opening The Vault Of Transmedia Storytelling

The first class that every Los Angeles Film School student takes — regardless of whether he or she is enrolled in the Film, Animation, Entertainment Business, Music Production, Recording Arts, or Game Production program — is Introduction To Transmedia Design. If you are unfamiliar with the term, transmedia design (also called transmedia storytelling, transmedia narrative or multi platform storytelling, or cross-media seriality) the development of stories and characters across multiple mediums and platforms, including films, music, books, games, webisodes and social media.

The purpose of the course is to get students thinking from the start of their careers not just about the entertainment medium they are focusing on, but to be aware of how both traditional and dedicated transmedia entertainment studios are beginning to embrace transmedia storytelling techniques in search of a new storytelling form that is native to networked digital content and communication channels. Whether students will eventually be working in film, music, or games, their creative work will likely be just one piece of a larger entertainment framework.

Specifically, the course practical strategies to increase audience engagement, create new revenue streams for producers, open up a project to multiple demographics and prime a project for generational success. Students learn the basic creative strategies and value propositions governing the transmedia space and, most importantly, how to use them to optimize projects and media throughout the entire entertainment spectrum.

Students present their final project — a transmedia project proposal built around a well-known franchise and encompassing film, television, music, literary and/or game components — at a monthly Transmedia Showcase event.  I attended last Friday’s Transmedia Showcase, and my favorite presentation, not unsurprisingly, was based on a popular video game franchise: Fallout.  To extend this classic post-apocalyptic role-playing game into other media, the student team presented a wide variety of concepts, including a novel, song, television series, and board game.  What really sold their project to me, though, was a live-size diarama of one of the shelters, called Vaults, from the game.

The concept of transmedia storytelling is not new.  When I worked as a video game producer at Disney nearly thirty years ago, we worked with film and television properties that were extended not just into video games, but also into books, records, and consumer products.  However, more and more entertainment producers are now developing projects not just as a single work, but as stories told across multiple forms of media that are not only linked together, but are in narrative synchronization with each other.  Lucasfilm, for example, created a Storytelling Group a couple of years ago to ensure that their Star Wars novels, comic books, movies, video games and TV shows were all narratively consistent with each other.

Emerging technologies also enabled projects to include real-time multiplayer experiences such as alternate reality games, which interactive networked narratives that uses the real world as a platform and transmedia storytelling to deliver stories that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions. The USC School of Cinematic Arts has run a semester-long ARG called Reality Ends Here for incoming freshmen since 2011. The game involves players collaborating and competing to produce media artifacts. In 2012, Reality Ends Here won the Impact Award at IndieCade, presented to games which “have social message, shift the cultural perception of games as a medium, represent a new play paradigm, expand the audience, or influence culture.”

The Los Angeles Film School’s own transmedia program is just getting started, but I’ll be very excited to see how our own students take to the challenge of inventing new play paradigms themselves, and what the cultural fallout from new forms of entertainment will be.