The lights are on
Cris Velasco is a rapidly rising star in the world of video game scores, having composed music for blockbusters like Mass Effect 3, Borderlands 2, and the God of War series. We spoke to Velasco about his background, approach to creating game scores, and the future of the art form.
You have a degree in music composition at UCLA? Did you always study music as a kid? Were you originally a performer or did you always focus on composition?
No, music came rather late to me. I started playing guitar at around 17. I actually played in a death metal band in local clubs for a few years. I remember refusing to learn to read music for the first couple of years too! I was still playing in the band as I started out at the local community college. I never even considered music as a career initially. I just took classes in lots of different subjects, looking for something that was going to click. I happened to take a music appreciation course one semester though. Our instructor played Mozart's 40th Symphony during one class and I had an epiphany. I just knew that I should be composing. It was a crazy notion because I had no previous experience that would ever lead me to believe that I could actually do it! Nevertheless, I took all music courses the following semester – theory, ear training, piano lessons, private lessons from the music teachers, etc. I put together a score, clicked in one note at a time via a mouse into Finale, and sent it off to the music schools at UCLA and CalArts as my audition. I actually got into both schools but decided that UCLA was going to be a better fit for me.
A lot of people doing game soundtracks today came into it from other fields of music, be it film score, rock music, or electronic music production, what does your educational background allow you to bring to game scores?
My background as a classically trained composer really just gives me a nice foundation in orchestral composition. I’ve studied tons of scores from composers better than I to really figure out what works well together in an orchestral palette. It’s nice not to have to reinvent the wheel in this sense because I'm really just building on the backs of giants a lot of the time. My background as a lifelong gamer also helps out tremendously. I know what I'd like to hear in a game and what will annoy me. I think it's very important to love what you're working on.
Who were some of your musical influences coming up? Do you primarily listen to classical or do you have popular music influences as well?
I do listen primarily to classical music, unless I'm getting ready to play sports and then I revert back to my metal roots. For classical, I'm really into the Russian composers these days. Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Glière, and Stravinsky are some of my current favorites. For metal, I still like Slipknot and Five Finger Death Punch a lot. Occasionally, you can even catch me listening to Norah Jones, Carla Bruni, or Hot Club of San Francisco when I cook.
How did you come to be involved with video game soundtracks? Was that always a goal of yours?
I did decide fairly early on that I wanted to pursue video games as my career. While I was still in college, I started searching the mod communities online. I found a few very talented groups that were creating games based on the original Half-Life engine. The one I was most impressed with was called Gunman Chronicles. I chose wisely on this one too. The game was eventually picked up by Valve and released in stores! You can still find it on the shelves occasionally. I was hoping that this would be the thing that launched my career as a composer for games. Unfortunately, the team sort of went their separate ways and I was forced to find a new way in.
I then struggled for many years, using the time to get better and faster at writing music, until I finally got a call to demo for the Battlestar Galactica game. They eventually agreed to let me write one track for the game. I put everything I had into that track. It was well received and they gave me a couple more to do, and then more after that. I struck up a good relationship with the developer during this time and they brought me in on their next three titles too. I continued to make friends within the industry and was soon given the chance to demo for God of War. After my involvement on this one, the doors really opened for me.
When you sign on to a new game project, how do you begin the process? Do you sit down with the developer and learn what kind of direction they want?
Yes, there's always an initial “sit down” with the developer to trade ideas back and forth. Sometimes they already have a strong vision of how the music should be, other times they're more interested in hearing what my ideas are. All the available material is sent to me at this point too. Scripts, storyboards, concept art, screen shots, or even gameplay videos if they're far enough into the development. The more I can inundate myself with images from the game, the better I will understand it, and that will help ensure the score complements everything just right.
How much are the developers involved? Does that vary from project to project?
It definitely varies between projects. Some people are just naturally more hands-on than others I think. I had one project where someone actually came to my studio and sat beside me while I worked. After every note I played on the piano, I'd glance out of the corner of my eye to see if he was smiling or frowning. That was completely on the far right of “hands-on” though. Usually, I'm allowed to just do my thing, turning in MIDI mock-ups of each cue as I finish them to see if there's any additional feedback.
Do you work primarily with orchestras or electronic instruments, or both?
It's about 50/50 these days. And it may not always be full orchestras when I record live either. My latest title, ZombiU, just had a string quintet that was recorded live. This was intentional though. I wanted the intimacy and the rawness that would come with such a small ensemble. A big orchestra would have sounded too polished for the real scary sound I was going for.
For Borderlands 2, I used a wide variety of acoustic and electric guitars, banjos, mandolin, harmonica, and oud. I recorded a bunch of weird percussion instruments too. An empty wine bottle came into play a few times.
Sometimes there's just no budget at all to record live. This is when I'll have to turn in a mostly MIDI score. I spend a lot of time tweaking the sounds to get the most realistic performance possible. But even on a score like this, I'll still try to add some live elements into the mix to help raise the overall sound quality. It's amazing how adding a solo string or strummed guitar can make a whole track feel live.