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Ever wondered what goes into creating the awesome music behind games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed 3? Well, wonder no longer! Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing the Grammy-award winning, Emmy and Bafta-nominated composer, Lorne Balfe. We chatted about his latest work on the new PS release, Beyond: Two Souls, and what it takes to be a composer in the first place. My nerves and goofy giggles aside, I really enjoyed getting this insider perspective on the process behind the music.
Check out a full list of Lorne’s work here.
Now, we had to split this bad boy up into three question-and-answer packed sections because of some software issues, and seem to have caught a weird-ass echo in the process, but you can check out the interview in it’s entirety below. And the transcript even lower than that.
Lorne Balfe Interview – Section 1:
Lorne Balfe Interview – Section 2:
Lorne Balfe Interview – Section 3:
Q: What I really want to do is get a feel for your process. You obviously compose for games and movies, and most recently for Beyond two souls, but what do you do to start the process?
A: I don’t think there’s any strict plan to it. Sometimes you talk to a director or you talk to somebody and they give you a backstory. Sometimes you get an idea from that, and sometimes it takes months. There’s no straight forward way of doing it.
Q: Is there any real difference between composing for a game or a movie?
A: It’s totally the same. The only differences are, with a film I’ll write an hour and forty, with a game you end up on 7, 8 hours of music. That’s the main difference. The thing is, games now are just as visual as films. The concept of game music is banished. They all sound grand, and it could easily be a film or a game these days.
Q: What limitations do you have on time for a game or movie?
A: I’ve worked on films where I’ve had three weeks! The timeline changes. With games, because the development is longer, they think of the music earlier on. So you get brought in earlier. A lot of the time with a film you get brought in near the end, when they’re editing. And with games you get brought in when they have the plots and characters sorted.
Q: How do you communicate with the game designer? He wants a certain thing. How do you know what he wants?
You don’t really know. It’s like trying to make a cake for somebody: you like the taste of it but he might not. That’s why you spend a lot of time talking to them. They’re going to talk about their point of view on the story and characters, just like in a film. The job of the composer is to translate what they’re thinking. They’ve visually created this world and the last remaining thing is the musical world. A good composer has to be able to listen to what they’re saying and try to write something that’s in their head.
Q: It must be terrifying to present what you’ve written to someone.
A: It’s horrible. You have this buildup and you know that on Tuesday you have to present to them. It can go two ways: they sometimes think you’ve saved the project and other times they think you’re about to ruin it.
Q: How do you avoid theme repetition?
A: I don’t know how you avoid it. The fact is, unfortunately, with game music if you stand in the same position, the same piece of music will keep playing. As the composer, you don’t really have control with regards to controlling the repetition. The composer writes music, delivers it and then it’s the game developers that implement it into the game and choose the experience that the gamer has. The composer isn’t to blame all the time.
Q: There’s a whole bunch of different settings in Beyond Two Souls, Somalia, Native America etc. Obviously you use different elements. How do you tie it all in?
A: The main way of tying it in is that the main character, Jodie, is there. So you’ve already got a way of having a thematically world in it. It’s the same as in a film, you can have the general theme of the game or movie, which is the entire world, but then you’ve got all of the characters that are in this world. And that’s the same with Somalia, it’s that she’s there so you can have a hint of her. As well as visually seeing her, you hear her as well .
Q: It must be fun when you have so many settings. Do you have any favorite element to use?
A: No. I wouldn’t say a favorite one. They’re all different so it makes it all equally as enjoyable. I composed the music for a children’s game, called Skylanders, and every level has its own theme. So I think on Giants I had about 15 to 18 themes for each area , plus character themes. You can end up with a lot of different themes and music going on. I wouldn’t say there’s a favorite. They’re all favorites.
Q: It must be quite fun to do a whole bunch of different themes!
A: Yes, it’s fun but it’s also very scary. It’s bad enough trying to come up with one good theme. But when you’re told you have to do 20 it’s quite intimidating. For instance, when you buy an album, you only get one or two good hits on that album – it’s very hard to write a lot of memorable hooks.
Q: Similar question. Do you prefer composing music for action scenes or something more soulful. Or is it all just awesome?
A: It’s all great! No, I think after a while you like change. If you keep doing emotional scenes you get a bit drained and then having an action scene is quite refreshing. If I only worked on horror genres I’d get quite bored. This year I’ve done 2 comedies, children’s games and adult games. I just try to do a lot of different things, so you can mix it up.
Q: I read from a few composers that the actual recording studio has an effect on the atmosphere of the music?
A: Yes, because it’s its own life. I’m recording at Air Studios this weekend and it’s got a different sound than Abbey Road does. The composer writes the music but then you get musicians in to perform it and that brings it to life, and then wherever you record is always going to be a contribution to the overall sound. It brings life to it. Air studio is a very large church, which is a very natural sound.
Q: How did you get started on Beyond?
A: Well I don’t know how I got started; I know when I started. We were doing lots of Skype calls to get into discussing what the world of Beyond is. And then thankfully David was in LA and then I presented him the main Jodie theme. There was a lot of talking done before any writing was occurring, and getting into David’s head because the game was part of his world for 6/7 years. So for me to start was almost impossible. I had to listen to him talking about Jodie and her backstory and be invited into her world.
Q: It’s more like an interactive movie than a game. How does that affect what you’re doing, when you have to accommodate for all the different scenarios?
It just makes it more complicated. You just spend more time looking at Google Docs, and plots, trying to figure out: have you covered this decision? You have to make sure you have the correct arrangement. There’s a lot of time spent looking at computer documents, making sure you cover the right things. When you watch a film, it’s an hour and a half. With a game like Assassin’s, it was 28 hours. So, it’s very hard to get from beginning to end and judge everything musically. If I had those 28 hours free to do that, I would be unemployed. I would have no time and would not get work done. It’s difficult to judge the bigger pic but that’s when you rely on your audio team to look at these things and say there’s not enough thematical elements or there’s too much. You rely on them a lot.
Q: Do you play video games?
A: When I started Assassin’s I hadn’t played a game since I was 9. I just had no time. When Assassin’s came out, when I did Washington, I then started trying to play. But then I would sit down and lose 5 hours. It’s very time consuming especially when you’re not a good gamer with no coordination. I spend a lot of time going around in circles. One of the first games I worked on was Call Of Duty, and my mother was better at it than me! A lot of people think you’ve got to be a gamer to do the game music, but I have worked on a lot of games and I know a lot of the guys who make them and they don’t have free time to play them. Just like I know people who act and don’t have TVs. I don’t think it makes a difference, as long as you understand the technical points of what it has to do. I don’t think anyone wants me to write game music, they want me to write music that matches the game.
When I first started, games use to reference film. Music was a reference from films. Now, in the last year or two, I haven’t gone into a meeting with a game company where they’ve referenced a film. They want their own identity. Now it’s a role reversal.
Q: Have you seen an increase in work on the gaming side?
A: Probably more. I get asked more but I do less. With a film you come in and do them in three weeks but games, normally, I work on for over year. I’m not working on them full time, sometimes there’s nothing to do. The levels haven’t been created yet. Games can change characters and plots easily, it would be very hard to work on several action games at one time. You wouldn’t be able to get a distinct voice for each one.
Q: Do you get to see any of the actual production? The actors?
A: I got there the day they finished. So I missed it all, unfortunately. No, the more focus you have, the more ability you have to be part of the project, the better end result you get. Because you have a better understanding of it.
Q: How did you get involved in the project?
A: It’s always a weird question that! You get involved because somebody asked you. It’s like going out on date. Somebody asks you out and you go. I got asked and I read the script and watched it, and it seemed like a really unique and individual project. And, most importantly, with David it’s his passion for it. If you’re going to work with something for a long time, you need to work with something you believe in and that you connect with and have a lot of fun with. It’s going to be a year and bit of your life. So it’s not just about doing it for the sake of it, it’s got to be something interesting. It’s obvious after meeting David and his passion for the game you want to be a part of it.
Q: Then obviously you have a musical background. You grew up with it. So how did you get started? What there a big break or was it more of a slow progression?
A: No, I think the break is yet to happen. I wouldn’t say natural progression either. With music it’s not just about writing music, it’s who you know and how you get on with people. I started work at a very young age doing a lot of commercials, and it just lead into other things. I was fortunate meeting the right people. I can’t pinpoint what happened. That’s how it works. It’s not based on going to a great music college. It’s like being a creative director: you don’t really study at a film school, they make films and that’s how they get their style. If you don’t work hard you’ve only got yourself to blame if you don’t achieve your goal. Doing music I don’t think is a job. It’s a hobby you get paid for. If you have a weekend off, you still write music, even if you’re writing it for yourself. Composers can work for 20 hours, same as the guys who work with games. They will all be working with no sleep for 2-3 days to try get that game finished. They have a lot in common with composers.
Q: It must be wonderful to translate a passion into an actual career
A: It’s an absolute privilege. And I’m fortunate to be able to do this. It’s not a normal job and there’s no plan. With a lot of other jobs there’s a plan: you go to University and you get good grades. With music there’s no plan, and if there was everybody would do it and everybody would be very successful. Thankfully there is no clear plan to it.
Q: What instruments do you play, if any?
A: I play the piano, but not very well. I play percussion. I studied drums and percussion, because I thought it was easier than playing something with notes. Which was not the case, but that was my reasoning to it. But with the piano I started, but I’m dyslexic so learning music was difficult. So learning an instrument, as soon as you get an obstacle you then give up.
So I kind of gave up, because I was bad and lazy and couldn’t read the music. It’s a very common problem and that’s what happens. I came across some great teachers that came out with ideas of how to get around not being able to read the music, but unfortunately it was much later on in my life. If I’d had it at a younger age, I would have been a better pianist. But great pianists are not necessarily the best composers.
You’re constantly trying to invent new things. And if you’re great pianist you know where everything lands. So I find by not being a great pianist I find new ways to do things.
Q: In Assassin’s Creed 3,in the frontier section, there’s a Celtic influence. Does that come through often?
A: Apparently it does. I wasn’t aware of it until people started telling me. It just kept creeping in all the time. But with Assassin’s there was a reasoning to it because it was the beginning of the Americas and there was a hub of different cultures coming in and the Celtic world had to be a part of it. That was important to me to try and instrument , using the pipes and Irish low whistle to have a color to what America was becoming. The Scottishness wasn’t just my Inverness roots kicking in.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: What’s next is… this week I’m recording in London but I can’t talk about it. Then I’m working on two films which I can’t talk about. And the way things works these days you don’t want to talk about them in case you get fired. So until it comes out mums the word! At the moment I’m in the middle of 2 games and 3 films. That’s me over the next festive period.
Thank you very much.