An Interview With The Composers Of Kinect Star Wars

by Andrew Reiner on Jun 15, 2012 at 07:42 AM

I'm fairly certain every reader who visits Game Informer's website can hum one or two Star Wars melodies. The classic John Williams themes are some of the most familiar in pop culture. The task of composers Gordy Haab and Kyle Newmaster is to take the style and atmosphere of those familiar themes and translate them into new melodies that will fit into a project like Kinect Star Wars. I talked to these two talented musicians about the Star Wars music legacy, and the challenges of working on a video game score.

What’s it like working on such an iconic franchise like Star Wars?

Gordy Haab: It’s quite overwhelming actually and somewhat intimidating. Obviously, we have to fill pretty large shoes. It’s exciting to be a part of something that has an already well-built fan base, and it is inspiring to be a part of something so huge.

Kyle Newmaster: Yeah, absolutely. Both Gordy and I are huge Star Wars fans, we have been – I know I have been – since I was a kid. Just being a part of a Star Wars project and being able to fully realize the music with the London Symphony and with pretty much the same production values they have on the actual movies was an amazing experience. Definitely a dream come true. So for me, I had a great time working on the project and I am sure that Gordy did too.

Did they give you access to John Williams' scores?

Kyle: Yeah. I think in the beginning we weren’t sure exactly how much of that we were going to be allowed to use. At first, we were focuses mainly on completely new material with no Star Wars quotes at all, melodically or harmonically. But then along the way they were figuring out if they were going to be using some of the original Star Wars themes and they did decide to do that. We were allowed to quote here and there. So I think that about five percent of it quotes some John Williams themes or little motifs that people would recognize from the original movie.

Gordy: As far as actually looking at the physical scores, they didn’t give us scores. Kyle and myself have lived with this music for so long that it was essentially – we would transcribe what we liked. But again, they gave us free reign to use any of the themes from the original films.

Kyle: When we were looking to be inspired, or were looking to do a certain type of track, we would go and check out something we really liked from the original scores and would study it individually and transcribe it. I think we did a lot of that on our own as needed, where we broke down the track and figured it out. Looking at scores, we just looked at some of the ones that had been published in the past.

Do they have any guidelines, like absolutely no tubas in the Star Wars universe?

Gordy: [laughs] No, there were no guidelines to that extent. Essentially, the guideline was "make this sound like it comes from the John Williams canon and the Star Wars universe." So anything that was used in the Star Wars universe was essentially fair game. I think beyond that there was a lot of trust involved to allow us to do what we do best, which is to understand the orchestra and understand our own writing and use whatever we felt was necessary.

Kyle: In the beginning, we were still figuring out what we would do. Are we going to have three trumpets or four trumpets? Are we going to have a piccolo flute or a just flute? You know, things like that. And it turned out that we had the full symphony, so it was at that point that we just got to do whatever we could imagine. It was really cool.

And how do you prepare something like that? Do you put the music together, and then produce sheet music for the symphony?

Gordy: The process essentially is the same for Kyle and I. We are both essentially old-school composers where we like to actually write music by hand instead of notation software. For us, it was a matter of writing what we wanted to hear as though we were writing for the full symphony. And then we had a couple of people working with us that would create synthesized mock-ups, and that’s what we would send to Microsoft and LucasArts for approval. Once that was approved, we would take our scores and send them to another person who was a copyist, who would clear up the scores a little bit and create parts for the symphony orchestra. So it was definitely a process.

Kyle: Normally we would have to do our own mockups. We brought those guys on just because of the amount of work we had to do in a short amount of time. It was really great to be able to write right onto the score and not have to worry about it. For the most part, they did a great job. And I know it was kind of a pain at times; sometimes with MIDI it’s hard to even accomplish some of the things you can write out for real musicians. So, it was great to have that.

I remember seeing videos of John Williams playing along to the movie, scenes in the movie and syncing up the music perfectly. Video games are is a little different. You might run into someone who spends three minutes in a lightsaber battle, whereas it takes someone else 20 seconds. How do you deal with time differences? Do you worry about looping? Does it have to be longer?

Gordy: That’s a good question. The process there is essentially, yes, we did have to write music that would seamlessly loop from the end of the queue to the beginning of the queue. There was a determined length of time between a minute and a half to two minutes before it had to loop back to the beginning. That was essentially the assignment. But then also for scenes there are two more queues that are almost identical – one that is a little more intense than the one before, and one that is really frantic so that as you play the game the intensity heightens.

Kyle: We would have to do little winning moments and losing moments – things of that sort that were maybe only ten to fifteen seconds long that we could queue in when you finished a certain task in the game. It was a challenge, definitely, because you almost have think like you were scoring a film and both Gordy and I, you know, have worked a lot in film, too. When you’re doing that, you do have to write specifically for what is on screen. I think Gordy and I talked about this before that when we are writing. We actually imagine we are playing the game, and try to think about how we want it to develop if we were watching the game happen. So you’ve still got to think cinematically even though it is going to be completely different for the person playing.

You know video game development is an iterative process. Does that apply to scoring as well? Were you able to record a track and they’d come back to you and say, “Hey, we have this section here. We’d like a little slower music for this section”?

Gordy: Everything was pretty much predetermined in advance for the recording sessions. When we were at the recording sessions, we’d record everything at once. You know, the whole orchestra is there. We weren’t recording them to death. We didn’t record just the strings and then just the brass. We’d record everything at once, and then we did go back at the end of the session just for options to give to Microsoft and LucasArts. We would record maybe a version that didn’t have any wind or percussion, just to have a variation that was a little slower or a little less intense. That way we gave them options to use in the future if something changed in the game.

Kyle: We had some queues that really emphasized the choir, and then there were other queues where we actually gave a version without the choir. It was pretty organized ahead of time, and we’d just go in knowing exactly what each piece of music was going to do, and how it would move and how that might go and things like that. So we had a pretty good plan of attack with the developers and the guys that laid it out for us.

After you finished recording, when did you see and hear how it all came together?
Gordy: Hearing it was almost immediate. After we arrived in Los Angeles from London, we immediately started to mix it. Within a week it was completely mixed and mastered and we were listening to it at that point in its full form. And the first time I saw it in the game was the day I played it. [laughs] There are always changing schedules, and we were originally expecting it to come out in December. And then it pushed back. Our first opportunity to play it was when it came out.

Kyle: I was keeping my eye on the Internet with various things that were coming out ahead of time. There were a few advertisements and things like that where they were already using [the score], and also some of the demos that I’ve seen online, but yeah, actually when the game came out or pretty close to that was when we saw our work fully utilized in the game, which was pretty cool.

And what was that like? Was the music where you wanted it to be? Was there anything you saw that was out of the ordinary? Did they use something that wasn’t supposed to be in specific places?

Gordy: I would say that 90 percent of it was exactly like what I was expecting it to be, and worked exactly as I had hoped it would. And then there are a few things that maybe something in the game changed. They used a queue from a different place in a place where it wasn’t originally intended for, but was still based on the theme of the planet or a particular mode of the game, so it was in that scene as well. But most of it was exactly as we planed it to be.

Kyle: I think that there were quite a few tracks that were used more than we anticipated, which was cool. Like, we wrote them for one thing and they actually worked well for another thing as well, so they used it there as well. I think because the game was expanded, they reused tracks, which worked well in other locations and still related to the original place. So those surprises were kind of cool to see.

Gordy: Even from the beginning it was determined that at least a portion of the music in the game would be music from John Williams' scores for the original films. So when I saw the gameplay, and I knew where those were supposed to be, they had actually used my music and Kyle’s music instead. It was flattering and kind of cool.

There are a bunch of new characters in the game; did you write original music just for those characters?

Gordy: We weren’t writing themes necessarily for characters, but more for planets. In any given mode, there are certain planets that you can play the game on, and so each of those planets has its own theme and its own sound. Even further than that, each mode has its own sound – not necessarily a theme, but certainly a style of music that we were writing within.

Listen to the Kinect Star Wars track for yourself by checking out this Sound Cloud page.