ScoreKeeper With Composer John Debney About Scoring LAIR For PlayStation 3, Maybe IRON MAN, And More!!
Published at: March 6, 2007, 2:01 p.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here with my first second interview of the third millennium, and who better to hallmark the occasion than film, television, and now video game composer John Debney?
The worlds of film, television and video game music are currently sparking a minor media revolution where the lines dividing their fields are rapidly fading. No longer are composers kept stabled in the corrals of a single field. Game composers have been crossing over into film and television for several years now while some Hollywood heavyweights, known exclusively for their work in film, have taken the plunge into game scoring.
Howard Shore scored SOULS OF THE ULTIMATE NATION, Danny Elfman composed the theme for FABLE, and now John Debney soldiers on with his fire-breathing score for LAIR, the highly anticipated video game by Factor 5 and Sony Entertainment for PlayStation 3.
What struck me most while talking with John was his spry enthusiasm for the project. Fresh off the LAIR recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios in London, he sounded like a kid having just left the candy score with his pockets full of sugary treats. I found it fascinating to talk to somebody with his experience exploring a similar yet undoubtedly contrasting medium.
If you would like to view the trailer for the video game LAIR you can do so by CLICKING HERE.
Enjoy the interview…
ScoreKeeper: A few weeks ago I get this press release that announces to the world that you have just finished up a score for a new video game. I thought to myself, ‘Wow! This is really cool.’ I don’t know anything about the game itself so can you start off talking a little bit about the story surrounding LAIR and introduce us to some of the characters?
John Debney: Sure! LAIR is a wonderful new video game that came to me “through the back door” as it were. I had never done a video game before. Once I heard about LAIR and talked with the creative team I was very interested to work on it.
LAIR is this incredible world populated by many different creatures. There are two major civilizations on this world who are competing and have been at war at different times…they are at odds, shall we say. During LAIR there is a flair up of tensions and war occurs. The most incredible feature of this world is that dragons are the mode of transportation and are an integral part of this world. There are many different types of dragons and they are used in a variety of ways. They are used in warfare and are semi-sentient. They are intelligent to a point.
It’s this wonderfully complex world - where one civilization is pitted against another. In the beginning you think that one particular civilization is the good civilization and the other is the bad but as it turns out there are many surprises along the way. That’s why the complexity of the game and the politics of the game are so interesting.
I think it’s a really cool game! There’s a definite storyline…a beginning, middle, and an end with a huge scope. It’s definitely a longer more complex game than most. What really sets it apart is the combination of amazing sounds and graphics. I think it’s really going to blow people away.
SK: Was this a project that was presented to you or did you hear about it and decide to go after it?
JD: No. This was something that was presented to me. I think what the Sony team wanted to do was to try to entice other movie-industry types to be a part of this game. So I was contacted through my agent to see if I would be willing to take a meeting which I did. I liked the direction of the game and liked everybody that was involved so it just happened like that.
SK: Prior to this particular project being presented to you had you ever thought you might possibly want to score a video game?
JD: Oh sure! Having three boys I’ve really seen the growth of these games over the last ten to fifteen years. From Pac-Man to this it’s pretty amazing. I think the sophistication of these games are now on par or possibly even eclipsing the film business. I truly think as these games get better it’s going to open a wide array of opportunities for composers to really stretch. That’s what I looked at it as…an opportunity to compose the quintessential adventure score and that’s what it was.
SK: Prior to say, five years ago, the video game music world existed independently from the film and even television worlds. Then video game composers started to cross over into the film world and now with Howard Shore scoring SOUL OF THE ULTIMATE NATION and you scoring LAIR we’re seeing film composers crossing over and scoring video games. It may within a year or two be so wide open that all the lines between the fields are blurred and everybody is scoring everything.
JD: It could be. That was the intention Sony had certainly with me. They wanted to really do it the right way and I give them all due credit. They came in and we talked in length about it. I worked on the game for about a full year. From the inception of getting hired to recording in London a couple of weeks ago was about a year. Different areas of the game trickle in visually, so I’d work on it a little bit here and there then go away from it and come back.
Again, to their credit, Sony really wanted to do it the right way so we ended up in London with a big orchestra and some wonderful ethnic musicians. I’m quite proud of it. I think it’s going to hopefully peak people’s interest in what is possible now in a video game.
SK: I definitely agree…During your first few meetings with Sony what was the one thing about this project that told you ‘I’ve really got to do this’?
JD: That’s a good question. I think what appealed most to me was that there was a lot of creative freedom. In other words, the first thing that was up to bat for me was ‘What is the sound of LAIR?’ I had to come up with the sound that represented this world. What I ended up with, which they quite liked, was this combination of a large traditional western orchestra with other ethnic instrumental soloists like, for instance, the erhu which is an ancient Chinese instrument. I utilized some of these same musicians before on THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004).
That’s what was very appealing to me…not having as many constraints as most films do. The timeline was obviously much longer than a normal film and Sony just wanted me to go crazy and write a number of different themes for different characters in different situations. So that’s always fun.
SK: Yeah, I can definitely hear that. I just got the fifteen-minute promo CD yesterday but I’ve been playing it a lot the past twenty-four hours and it really sounds like a wonderful amusement park from a composer’s vantage point. It did sound like a really fun project for you.
JD: Yeah, that’s kind of how it was. The one thing they wanted was for it to be large in scale and that’s always fun for a composer.
SK: I would like to focus a little bit on the aesthetics behind scoring a video game as compared to a film. Was there anything that you were able to do in scoring a video game that you normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to do in a film?
JD: Well that’s a good question too. The process is similar. There are definitely scenes that one has to compose specific music for. A lot of the game play, i.e. the battles or the big set pieces, essentially has to be scored in some form or fashion. So that’s all similar to a film.
Aesthetically the biggest difference for me in scoring a video game is that you don’t have as much finished product. Much of the time I would be writing to a description of a battle…literally just a one or two line description. I would also be writing to maybe twenty seconds of game play that in reality is going to become ten to twenty minutes of game play. That was the biggest difference for me. It was more about writing to a concept or description rather than writing to anything specific.
SK: Who is the equivalent to the film director? Is there a primary collaborator you work with who spearheads the overall vision for the game?
JD: There was a gentleman named Ryan. He’s very nice young guy who’s had a lot of experience with gaming. I believe it was his vision and storyline that he had come up with. The fun thing for me was Ryan had never been to a recording session. What was so cool – and I kidded him about it – I told him that it was all downhill from here. (laughing) First time out of the gate he’s in London with a huge orchestra and choir at Abbey Road Studios. I told him ‘It doesn’t get much better than this. Enjoy it!’ Certainly he did and the creative team was wonderful.
It’s on my list as some of the more magical times I’ve had working on films. There are things that stand out and this is certainly one of them.
SK: Was working with Ryan similar to working with a film director? Were there any major differences in that kind of collaboration?
JD: Well, it was very similar. He was very well versed in the world that is LAIR. We would have a lot of discussions about different instruments and different colors. It was very similar to working with a film director. The best directors and the best people to work with are obviously people who have a really strong idea of what they want and have a strong vision. He definitely had that.
SK: Was there any adjustment necessary on your part to score this game? Maybe in your process or your approach?
JD: Not really. I did it in a very similar way. I demoed everything out which is how I do it for film. I would submit these demos and then get notes and make fixes accordingly. Very similar in that respect.
SK: How much music did you write for the game?
JD: There was almost two hours of music which in the scheme of games is not a lot. They’ll take that two hours and cut it up and turn it into hours and hours of music. That was another thing…the mechanics of writing music that they could cut really easily was important. A lot of the action oriented pieces are, by design, pretty rhythmic so that they could cut it very easily.
SK: Was there anything in particular you didn’t like about scoring a video game?
JD: Not really. The only real downfall – and it’s not really a downfall, it’s more of an observation – was that because everybody is working on a parallel path…the big set pieces and some of the visuals aren’t as finished as you’d get in the film world. It’s a very small observation not even a criticism. It is what it is. As time goes on and rendering gets faster that will all morph into more of a film situation.
It’s funny. I think they gave me more visuals than any other composer they had ever worked with had asked for. I’m so visually oriented. I need film. It sort of changed the way they were used to working which I think they liked. It gave them a really good reference point which helped them also.
SK: Are you personally into gaming? With three boys you may not have a choice huh?
JD: Oh yeah. I play a lot of games with my sons. My boys are a little older now but we do play games like MEDAL OF HONOR and there’s a game for the PS3 which I like called FALL OF MAN. I’m not very good at any of these. They like to kid me because I’m really bad. I’m like the world’s worst HALO player.
JD: But they’re fun and I try. I’m absolutely quite interested in these games and how they are progressing. When I first heard the music for MEDAL OF HONOR a couple of years ago…that’s Giacchino I guess who did that…
JD: …I was very impressed! Wow! I think that’s probably when I first really started to pay more attention. Two to three or four years ago I started thinking ‘that’s cool…I may like to do that sometime.’
SK: It definitely sounds like you had a good experience. Would you consider scoring a game again?
JD: Yeah I would. What I got into was the creative freedom that I had.
SK: Has any other opportunities arisen since wrapping up LAIR?
JD: Not yet. We literally just finished this.
SK: Yeah. How about a soundtrack release? Any plans as of yet?
JD: We’re talking about doing a 2-CD set actually. There’s a lot of music!
JD: We’re hoping. Right now we’re talking to a couple of labels.
SK: There’s definitely…a revolution I guess you could say, between the mediums where all the boundary lines are blurring and people from all these various industries are coming together to work on film, television and games interchangeably. I’ve talked about that with several television composers how TV and film are blurring and now video games are added into that mixture. Everybody is creating everything.
JD: Which is great!
SK: Definitely! It’s healthy because the result is great entertainment.
JD: I agree with you! I think it’s great…I’m in those same kinds of discussions right now. I see literally – and I don’t think anybody would argue this point – I see most of the great work being done in television.
SK: And I don’t think that it is any coincidence that when television entered this higher realm of quality in terms of the storytelling and presentation, the lines between film composers, game composers, and television composers were becoming more undefined. People just want quality across the board.
JD: Bingo! And a lot of the talent – the directors, producers, etc. – they looked at the landscape of filmmaking and saw the budgets getting tighter and the studio systems getting more restrictive…so I think it’s a great thing that filmmakers and creators have gone back to the small screen where they’re finding a little more creative freedom. Therefore you’re getting great shows like LOST and HOUSE and GREY’S ANATOMY…really good quality and interesting shows.
SK: So what’s next for you? Can you talk a little bit about what you have coming up?
JD: One of the most fun projects I have is the sequel to BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003) which is called EVAN ALMIGHTY (2007) starring Steve Carell. It’s really an amazingly fun film! There are tremendous opportunities for music. In this film – and I don’t want to spoil it – but there’s a lot that happens and a rather large flood occurs…
SK: Yeah, I’ve seen an early trailer. It’s the Noah’s Ark story right?
JD: Yeah, it’s a kick! It’s a lot of fun but there’s a lot of heart to this thing. Steve Carell is really great in it. We’re going to score that in about a month and a half. Most of the music is written. I’m just making some fixes right now.
I’m also finishing something for Garry Marshall called GEORGIA RULE (2007) which is a really nice…smaller drama starring Jane Fonda and Lindsay Lohan. It’s really good.
There’s a lot of stuff that might happen this year and next.
SK: Speaking of stuff that might happen. I was elated to hear your name being mentioned for IRON MAN (2008). What’s the situation there?
JD: Well…I’m hoping to do it. We’ve had some discussions. There’s been no official “sign on the dotted line” but I’ve done Faverau’s last two movies. He’s just now starting to film. When the time is right I’m sure we’ll be having some discussions.
I would dearly love to do it. IRON MAN is very near and dear to my heart. When I was a kid that was my favorite superhero.
SK: Well John, once again it was a sincere pleasure speaking with you. You’ve been most generous with your time and I thank you.
JD: Great talking to you too! Let’s stay in touch.
On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News I want to thank John for taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with me. He’s one of those genuinely nice guys who always has so much fun talking about his work. I shall hope to talk with him again soon.
My special thanks also go out to Tom Kidd whose assistance made this interview possible. For more information about John Debney you can check out his web site at www.johndebney.com.