I recently got the chance to speak with 2-time BAFTA award winning composer Jason Graves about his score for Until Dawn. Apart from many details about how he tackled a game that he had to score permanently to picture and whose plot can change in an instant, he also gave away some general advice to young composers which were not included in the previous article. Here’s what he would like everyone to keep in mind:
I’m sort of jealous thinking back to when I was first starting out in games: I remember having lots of free time on my hands. I would have a job that needed to get done and six to twelve weeks I was really busy doing that. But then I would have six to twelve weeks with nothing going on. Maybe I was pitching for some demos or I was going to a conference, it’s not that I was not busy but I was not writing. But I was still experimenting, trying different mixes and working on my template for the orchestra or, which is just as important, I was also listening a lot and studying scores. I always really focused on orchestral writing, so I was studying orchestral scores. I was listening to classical pieces and new film scores. Just absorbing everything that I could and when the next project came around a couple of months later it’s like I was all inspired and ready to go; just full of anticipation. Where now there’s no time for that, which is why I say I look back with some jealousy. I get up in the morning and I have music to write and at the end of the day I’m finished and the last thing I wanna do in the evening is go study a score and listen to more music. I need a break because the next morning I’m getting up and I’m writing more music! And it’s great because I’m working full time but I do miss that free time. That fresh brain, getting to go listen to things and be inspired by them.
So I would say: Write as much as you can, listen as much as you can and study as much as you can. Because there’s only 12 notes – if you’re talking about Western Music – and there’s no reason, you’re not having to reinvent the wheel from scratch. Learn from someone else’s mistakes, benefit from their victories and go from there.
He also mentioned how his approach changed throughout the years:
I found that in the last six or eight years that my musical journeys for new projects are a lot more inward in terms of “What can I do that I haven’t done before? What can I do that feels new to me as a composer?” As opposed to an outward approach which is what I used to do at the beginning. The first half of my career was mainly about “What have other people done that can influence me and help me go into the right direction?”
A lot of my behind the scenes thinking when I’m trying to come up with a new sound for a new game goes like, “what can I do that has the same sort of scary feeling in general but feels different from Dead Space for example?” In the dark somewhere it always says in the briefing: “Iconic, memorable music theme or menu piece that no one has ever heard before. That they can listen to 10 seconds of and know that it’s our game.” Which is a great opportunity to have but it’s also a tall order to do especially if you’re maybe spending a week on it and might be saying something like, “Here, mister developer, is my example of all those things that you’re asking for even though normally I only wanna do that after I’ve spent a couple of months on the game. I spent two days thinking about it and here’s what I came up with, a bit of shot in the dark.”
Supermassive [N.B.: Supermassive Games, the developer of Until Dawn] was great and they never really had any changes. Even the main theme on the soundtrack, which is the first track and it’s what’s played on the menus and the cinematics. That was my “two days, here’s my idea” demo that I sent to them. We never changed it, we recorded it with the orchestra and we put it in the game.
You can listen to a short version of the main theme below, the full version you find on Jason’s website: