For composers, video games are the surreal land of opportunity
Posted in: Games
Ramin Djawadi always dreamed of composing a film score, and the Berklee College of Music graduate has done plenty, including 2008’s “Iron Man.” But this week saw the release of one of Djawadi’s most ambitious soundtracks to date — “Medal of Honor: Warfighter.”
Not in a theater near you? That’s because “Warfighter” is not a movie, it’s a video game. “My goal was always to do music for movies,” Djawadi says. “But having said that, the way things have developed today have made games like giant movies.”
For a cadre of top composers, the action isn’t in film but video games. Djawadi’s score for “Medal of Honor: Warfighter,” for instance, boasts 100 minutes of music, much of it downright experimental by film composition standards. It’s alternately symphonic, electronic and rock ’n’ roll, and it’s emblematic of an industry that’s providing room to roam for those used to scoring to picture.
Yet it isn’t just musical freedom that has composers excited about the growth in video game music. A reliance on big-budget films, they say, has created an industry with a wider-than-ever gap between blockbusters and more modest films. The former offer little room to experiment, and the latter pack significantly smaller music budgets. Even though the money spent on tent-pole fare isn’t declining, composers say the money spent on music is.
“I don’t do that many video games, but it’s becoming quite challenging in the film world,” says John Debney, an Emmy-nominated composer for “Hatfields & McCoys.”
“They’re still making large-scale films, and yet the music budgets are usually not commensurate to what the production budget is,” he continues. “For whatever reason, music is one of the areas they rob Peter to pay Paul. Therefore it makes the idea of doing a game more interesting and more viable to someone like me.”
Box office receipts for the early part of 2012 were heavily weighted toward the big budget and the brand names. Through the first 61/2 months of the year, more than $1 billion of the $6.05 billion in total box office was generated just from “The Avengers” and “The Hunger Games.”
“A lot of the middle ground movies have disappeared,” says “Dexter” composer Daniel Licht. “All the movies-of-the-week have disappeared. There’s a whole class of film composing that just does not exist anymore. So TV and film composers have gone into video games to keep working on long-form fiction.”
Musically, video games have become more attractive out of necessity, despite the fact that in terms of the overall money spent on a game, the amount allotted to music is small.
“Usually 1, sometimes 2% of the overall budget is the video game’s music budget,” says Steve Schnur, who oversees music at Electronic Arts. No longer do top composers view the video-game world as child’s play. “The Dark Knight Rises” composer Hans Zimmer has scored multiple games, “Shrek” composer Harry Gregson-Williams has contributed to the “Metal Gear Solid” series and Brian Tyler recently worked on the action film “Battle: Los Angeles” and the action game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.”
“The score will never play the same way twice,” Tyler says. “I like to watch people play ‘Call of Duty.’ It’s like watching a DJ remix my music.”
“Dexter’s” Licht had been working in film and television for more than a decade before scoring his first game, and if he has a regret, it’s that he waited so long.
“The sad story is that 10 or 12 years ago I was in Seattle recording the score for ‘Stephen King’s Thinner,’ ” he says. “A contractor said, ‘Are you interested in doing video games.’ I was like, ‘Ha! No! I’m a film composer.’ I was thinking video games were just old Nintendo games — just electronics with not a very big budget. That turned out not to be the case.”
On Oct. 9 Bethesda Softworks will release “Dishonored,” a highly anticipated action-adventure game scored by Licht. He couldn’t be happier with the result — an ambient, violin-heavy score aimed to reflect 19th century London. The game even comes complete with a series of animated webisodes that provided more traditional scoring opportunities.
“Film has become a little paint-by-numbers,” Licht says. “They have such huge budgets that no one takes chances. They’ll go for a brand-name composer and a stock sound rather than trying something startling. I know that’s not always the case. ‘The Social Network,’ for instance, had a different feel.”
The 2010 David Fincher film featured a sparse electronic score by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and his frequent collaborator Atticus Ross. It was an unlikely Academy Award winner for original score. But it was actually the previous year’s Oscar score winner, Disney/Pixar film “Up,” that may have done more to bring respect to composers from outsider disciplines.
Before “Up” composer Michael Giacchino partnered with J.J. Abrams for the ABC series “Alias,” he was writing scores for video games. His 1999 “Medal of Honor” score is a genre touchstone, as it treated the Electronic Arts game as if it were a Steven Spielberg war epic.
“Horrible Bosses” composer Christopher Lennertz followed in Giacchino’s footsteps and ultimately scored three “Medal of Honor” titles. “We were all jumping up and down and cheering when Michael won his Oscar,” says Lennertz, who’s at work on NBC’s “Revolution.” “There was legitimacy then.”
Popular video game soundtracks, such as the accompaniment to 2010 Microsoft game “Halo: Reach,” can sell as many as 30,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. Though details are scant, Paul McCartney revealed this summer that he is working with Bungie, the studio that developed “Halo: Reach,” on an upcoming project.
If anyone isn’t already paying attention to video game music, a Beatle should help. “Video game music fans are as obsessive to game scores as we were to the ‘Star Wars’ score or to the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ score,” says Electronic Arts’ Schnur. “We were all obsessed with those. Those became important in the cultural conversation. I would say the same today when it comes to ‘Medal of Honor.’”
At the very least, Giacchino and Lennertz are evidence that the franchise has helped fuel careers. Video games have become vital, says Tyler, in developing new composer talent.
“For as long as I can think back, there were two areas you could compose and find work: television and movies,” he says. “Now there’s a third completely separate entity that exists for composing, and it didn’t exist a few years ago.”
Debney goes one step further. Composing for media is a relatively niche art, he acknowledges, and he compares those booking live orchestras for video games to the art patrons of yore, in that they are helping to keep a skill alive.
“People who aren’t in this business may not realize that a musician spends 15 or 20 years studying an instrument or a discipline,” he says. “If they can’t play on a video game or a film score or a TV show, that art goes away.”
It’s likely here to stay, but composers are bracing for change. As the gaming industry transitions to one dominated by mobile games and digital downloads, ultimately it may more closely mirror the movie industry.
“There’s room for big movies, indie movies, cable movies and Web series,” says Lennertz. “The same goes for games. There will be the blockbusters and there will be small stuff that’s a lot more niche based. What’s going to drop out is going to be the same thing that has dropped out of movies — the middle level. It’s largely disappeared in film. You will have high-end, and you will have simple, mobile games.”
Culturally, the reach is already becoming clear. A career highlight, says Lennertz, was being invited to the Netherlands a few years back to lead the country’s Metropole Orchestra in an evening of symphonic classics.
What classics? “The classics,” he says, “you know, like ‘Halo’ and ‘Zelda.’”
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