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Game Music Spotlight: Lorne Balfe

by Matt Helgeson on Oct 08, 2012 at 08:00 AM

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Lorne Balfe, who created the music for Activision’s upcoming Skylanders Giants, has a diverse resume in both video game and film, including such projects as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Skylanders, and Megamind. In the second of our Game Music Spotlight features, we interview Balfe about his background, process, and work with legendary composer Hans Zimmer.

Talk about your background. Did you take to music at a young age?

I was surrounded by music. My father was a songwriter and as a child, I was brought up with a residential recording studio next to our home that my parents owned. I always thought it was normal to have longhaired rockers wondering around your gardens!

What was your formal schooling in music?

No. I had piano lessons as a child but I was never very academic, so further education wasn't for me.

Was the goal always to compose or did you ever want to be a performer?

I didn’t really have a goal. I loved banging the piano as a child. I hated learning piano music. I would rather make noises and slam every note of the piano with the pedal down, for hours, than actually attempt to sight read a piece of music,

How did you get your break into soundtrack work?

I used to write a lot of jingle and commercials music. That led to television, then film, and now games.

You’ve worked with a lot of really high profile composers, including Hans Zimmer, who’s among the most famous in the world. What’s it like working with him?

Working with people you admire and respect is always a privilege. I still learn so much from working for Hans and am always amazed with every composition he creates. There are very few true musical living geniuses, and he is one of them.

In your biography on your webpage, I see that you’re credited with “additional music” in a many films. What is additional music and how does that differ from the score proper?

It can mean a lot of things. Additional music usual means you have provided additional music other than the actual composer whom has the credit. You adapt and arrange to the picture the themes and sketches the composer has provided.

You’ve worked extensively in the film business, how did you first break into video games?

My first game was for Rupert Gregson-Williams. The game was called Battlefield 2: Modern Combat.  Many years later, I then worked with Hans on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This game was the beginning for me in the game world really.

I know you’ve worked with Jesper Kyd, who I’ve also interviewed, on Assassin’s Creed Revelations. How was your working relationship and what was your role on that project?

We never actually spoke! We were doing different jobs on the project so there was no need to. We were also in different countries, so popping round to each other's studios would have been difficult.

Talk about your work on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It was simply the biggest, most anticipated game possibly ever in the history of the industry; did you feel a lot of pressure working on a project of that scale?

Thankfully, when we began writing on the game we did not realize this, so the pressure was not felt. The team behind the game was very passionate about music, so the journey was a lot of fun for us.

Where do you start when you work on a new series – you’ve obviously done some pretty divergent games – Call of Duty vs. Skylanders. How do you come up with a vibe that seems to fit or an approach?

Just like when I start a film, I look at the visuals and the story. Games have deep story lines that in the past did not exist. The music helps tell a story, and with game music, we have to help the gamer actual help get into the character and that world.

Is your process different working and composing for games than when you do film?

Exactly the same. The amount of music though is different. With a film you might compose from 30 to 70 minutes of music. On some games, I will have to write over 5 hours of music.

What’s your preferred instrumentation; do you like live orchestras, synths, or a combination?

I like writing what every the project needs. On the Rango game, it was great to compose for a mariachi band. I had never done that before, so working with the musicians was tremendous fun

Talk about the Skylanders project. It’s obviously more lighthearted and aimed at a younger audience. What did you want to convey with this score?

I wanted to simply have fun with the music. The game makers had a lot of ideas for each level. I wanted a slight retro feel as well as some of the colors from the prior game I did.

Who are some of your musical influences?

Everything is. Even though I write a lot of classical music, I don't tend to listen to that genre. I love a lot of 80's music. Depeche Mode and Peter Gabriel are some artists [I love], to name from a few.

Do you have any upcoming video game projects?

The next year is a busy year, but I don't even think they have even announced the games yet, so my lips are sealed what they are.

Related Story:

Game Music Spotlight: Assassin's Creed and Darksiders II composer Jesper Kyd