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Hollywood Sound: Part One
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Hollywood Sound: Part One

September 16, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

In the film industry, or more specifically Hollywood, convergence within game development has arrived. It's happened fast, and in a very big way. The next generation landscape promises even more integration and spectacle in this direction. In this three-part feature we will take a look at how the three different aspects of game audio, music, sound effects and dialogue, are affected by that arrival.

We begin part one with an overview of music, taking a look at the opening of the interactive world to Hollywood composers and the record industry, and how that content is becoming integrated into video games.

New Musical Structures: Communicating Interactive Structures to Traditionally Linear Film Composers

Migration from, not to Hollywood

For designer, producer or sound director, working with composers, not to mention big name Hollywood composers, can be a challenge. Here we consider the inherent differences between content and structure in both cinema and video game music.

It is often said that the games industry is perceived by composers as a stepping stone, where one can train, or at the very least get paid, until film or real work comes along. Over the last five years the stepping stone has transformed and now offers far easier navigation in the opposite direction. Being a small budget game composer has never really represented a clear path into linear post production of mainstream cinema, whose roles and employment hierarchy are rigidly defined after over 100 years of industrial history. The most talented Hollywood film composers are instead migrating to games, larger audio budgets enable publishers to bypass the ‘sample based' and employ the best composers, arrangers and orchestras working in Hollywood. This allows the games industry unprecedented access to the highest quality of cinematic music.

Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman's recent work on Big Blue Box's Fable, and the more recent mention of Howard Shore's involvement in Webzen's SUN instigates a trend for name composers that is equally becoming established for Hollywood voice talent, sound effects creation and screen writing. Hollywood's finest actors for example are now lured to games by the fact that, among other incentives, rather than embarking on a year-long training and pre-production schedule, and rigorous and tiring location shooting on a film, they can earn similar money for doing a few day's of voice work in a comfortable sound studio.

There is a proven economic advantage to employing name actors and name composers on a video game; it gives public relations a hook to grab onto and to generate much larger PR budgets, this directly equating to increased revenue. Ask any producer how sound can sell more copies of a game and you will get the same answer: big name voice talent. Now that the score is moving into that realm - it is time for the composers in our industry to integrate on a much larger scale. (1)

The incentives for the Hollywood composer are evident. Working on a game actually affords the composer a temporal luxury in that the development time on a large game far outstrips the small amount of time they would have to work on a feature film. Traditionally a feature film commission requires that the entire score is written, arranged and recorded as soon as a temp edit of the film is created. There are exceptions to this, the film composer Gabriel Yared works exclusively on a film title from day one of a project until it is completed; however, not many composers have this luxury. A final edit may result in a few changes to the timings and structure of the piece, but that period of time between the temp edit and the final edit is pretty much all the time the composer has to fully flesh out the score. So let's take a look at the videogame/film music landscape.

Bill Brown, composer for videogames such as The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth as well motion pictures such as Michael Mann's Ali, Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, and recently the television series CSI New York, suggests:

“First, I think something that is worth sharing is how qualitatively speaking, games, films, and TV music are merging.  Over the past 10 years, we have been slowly bringing the consciousness of the value of live orchestra (that is taken for granted in films now) into games. […] Another thing that comes to mind is the ‘cinematic' approach to video games. This to me means more attention is being paid to how music is working to support the narrative of the game - music is now taking the next step in gaming to become a deeper part of the story-telling experience. Game developers are truly interested in the depth and dimension music brings to their product and are willing to invest more now than ever to take their project to that next level.  Developers really understand that a 60-90 piece orchestra sounds better than orchestra samples and that makes a difference in the impact of their game.  Triple-A titles and A-List films are enlisting some of the same players today. Howard Shore, one of my favorite composers, is included in that new cross-over group of artists. This concept of cross-over artists is becoming more and more the standard for our industry.” (2)

The fact that names like Howard Shore or Danny Elfman are mentioned with such excitement in game music circles reveals a great deal about music in games, especially as Elfman only wrote a main theme for Fable. Why aren't we talking about the other composers on Fable who adapted, fleshed out and integrated this ‘theme' into the core mechanics of the game? This is again representative of the way that games are marketed, in a similar way to films. There is probably little difference in terms of quality the ‘non-name' composers on Fable and the work that Elfman did; however, Elfman's name is the currency. It is his name that is used as an index of quality in the public mind.

Garry Schyman, composer of music for both games Destroy All Humans and Voyeur, and films Lost In Africa, Horse Player and The Last Hour, argues:

“When truly creative opportunities present themselves composers, even Hollywood 's most famous, will want to get on board. Games have evolved to a point where game music has become as important an element to games as it is to films, and the quality expected by game companies is very high now. I think game music is the place to be at the moment for any composer interested in plying his or her trade. What is likely is that composers will cross over back and forth between the two genres.” (3)

This idea of a crossover artist is something that both Bill Brown and Garry Schyman see as clear for the future of composers. A future where there will be no categorization of either ‘game' or ‘film', but simply ‘composers.'

There are some interesting reasons why the games industry would look to a composer of Elfman's caliber. It can be viewed as a sea change for game composition that breaks down some previous boundaries - in the eyes of gamers, critics and the composers themselves, games are becoming recognized as serious cultural artifacts. This is intensified by the huge sales the medium is generating, not to mention the maturing and stratification of the overall core demographic of gamers and game creators.

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