What happens when a game composer steps into the film world? Nimrod’s Mark Canham tells us about his experience…
Back when Chucky Egg was on my computer screen at home, it was film that made me want to compose to the moving image. Step forward in time and I was fortunate enough to find myself as a composer in the world of video games – a world that has proved more exciting creatively and technologically than anyone could have predicted.
However, it was with a new sense of intrigue and excitement that I recently received a call from director J Blakeson, confirming that I would be scoring his upcoming feature film The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Despite my enthusiasm, I initially feared being branded as the ‘video game composer’, knowing that the production company felt they were taking a gamble on Blakeson’s belief that I could do it. At this stage one could easily feel paranoid that the film world still sees us as plotters of bleeps and bloops rather than craftsmen of sound.
But what would the film process be like? Having been near the top of one ladder, I was now very much at the bottom of another, and having to learn fast: I only had four weeks to write and complete a 65 minute score. Any advice I recalled was from big film composers at conferences and in articles talking about scoring games, rather than the other way round, so their take would be slightly different. We the video game composers are, after all, 3D thinkers when it comes to audio and interactivity – the linear medium of film in comparison is relatively straightforward.
However, it is the 3D ability of our ‘audio’ brains that sometimes prevents us from being as emotional in our music as we possibly can. The linear medium of film allows for total immersion in the story the music tells, ebbing and flowing with the drama onscreen. The ability to create that emotion and control its path exactly is a big difference between the two disciplines. It results in creating purely emotional music when scoring a film, whereas games blend a combination of emotional and functional.
With games we have small snippets of cutscenes, Metal Gear aside, allowing us to really sync audio with visuals which, admittedly, are then rudely interrupted by the in-game soundtrack. This is the great challenge for the video game composer and ultimately where our strengths lie: in creating variation yet providing enough cohesion so that the music doesn’t appear jarringly patchwork or too repetitive throughout hours and hours of gameplay.
One of the things I found refreshing and inspiring in scoring this film was the closeness with which I worked with Blakeson, and his continuous efforts to preserve and encourage my take on his score. In times when we were being cursed by the temp track and I felt the need to pull away from this, he backed up my decisions and allowed me the space to create.
On the topic of creativity, I think it is vitally important to preserve our ‘voices’ as composers and try to nurture creative relationships with game developers that allow us to invent rather than conform. In the world of soundtracks the plague of ‘sameyness’ is widespread, and we should be encouraging different approaches, avoiding where possible the obvious cliches as our only references. Video games can afford to take creative risks, and we have the pool of talent to draw upon so we should use it more to do so.
The production standard side of things is where I feel films currently shine. There is an automatic assumption that, throughout every stage of the music making process, the best possible people should be involved; from producers, to mix engineers, mastering and dubbing. There’s no such thing as one person composing through to mastering his own work; a bad habit that we are now moving away from in games.
Alice Creed was recorded at Abbey Road, mixed at Air Studios and dubbed at Pinewood. Whatever compositional ramblings I may have created, at least it would have sounded sonically good as my work was in the hands of the best people. Notably, at no stage did I have to justify this process – the highest standards were the norm and what was evidently expected.
Games are certainly rapidly catching up on 70 or so years of the film score making process. I don’t really look at films anymore as a jump up some kind of career ladder or standard of audio. My recent experience suggests that they are slightly different beasts, presenting differing challenges of equal reward.
The reassuring thing for me was that ten years ago I wouldn’t have imagined that we would now be in a position to match the standards of film audio, yet our industry is creating soundtracks that are becoming as iconic as great film scores. If we keep putting creativity and standards first, they will undoubtedly continue to do so. Gone will be the days of feeling like the dysfunctional sibling of our film-composer older brother.