Hot on the heels of the non-holiday holiday, May the Fourth, a day which Star Wars fans have decided to occupy and claim as their own thanks to the similarity to the “May the Force be with you” line, it seemed like the perfect time to speak with the composers of Kinect Star Wars, Gordy Haab and Kyle Newmaster.
Now, it would be disingenuous to profess our love of the Kinect Star Wars game just because we interviewed two of the people that worked on it. That title had several flaws, but the music was not one of them. In fact, it was actually a highlight of an otherwise meh-ish offering.
Music in games is something that most players take for granted. There are exceptions where a score can stick in your head and improve your gaming experience, but for the most part the composers are an overlooked piece of the development puzzle. But then there is Star Wars. Thanks to John Williams, the Star Wars music is instantly recognizable to millions—if not billions—of people. So when there is a game that uses those familiar sounds, it attracts a heavier level of attention and scrutiny.
We spoke with the composers of Kinect Star Wars to learn the process of folding an iconic movie soundtrack into a gaming medium, how they put their own stamp on it, and the dream of working on Star Wars.
How did you two get involved with Star Wars Kinect?
Gordy: I first was approached by Microsoft after they had heard some of the work, and heard some of the music I had written for Star Wars: The Old Republic, and I think they liked what I did there, and kinda wanted their score to be sort of in a similar style, certainly. So they approached me about doing the score for this, and I brought Kyle on because I knew of his abilities to write in this style as well, and sort of formed the team.
Kyle: Yeah, that’s pretty much what went down. Gordy was definitely brought on first, and it was such a large amount of work in such a short amount of time that we decided that a team effort would be the best for this one. And we’d worked together in the past on other, different types of projects. He’s hired me to orchestrate and do some other music stuff in the past and vice versa. We work well as a collaborative team.
How much of a free rein were you given versus how much of Williams’ famed Star Wars score did Microsoft want to use?
G: They were pretty sure that they wanted it to live within the universe of the Star Wars sounds. That was sort of the confines from which we were working, but we had free rein to write our own original take on it, and certainly our own original themes. But we weren’t required by any means to use the John Williams theme unless we wanted to. So we did have some creative license in that sense.
K: We definitely wrote a lot of original themes, but there were some spots in the game too where they thought, and we thought, that it might be better to hint a little bit at the some of the original melodic ideas, like on Bespin. We tried to give some melodies that fans might remember amongst some of the other original stuff. So it’s mostly all original, but we were asked to bring in some of John Williams’ music here and there as well.
How long did it take? When did Microsoft first approach you?
G: They approached me—actually it was in March of last year, because it was at GDC when I first met the guys over at Microsoft and they expressed interest at that time. They didn’t actually come to me with a final assignment to do the project until June of 2011. We got started around July and had about six or seven weeks to write all the music for a recording session in August. So it was pretty quick once they actually brought me on to the project. It was a pretty quick turnaround.
K: Gordy ended up contacting me a few days in once he realized what the amount of work was, so we kind of right there organized everything. It ended up being about a 100, 120 minutes of music to write to write and orchestrate and pass off to copyists that all had to be ready for the flight out, which I think was, like, August 30th or something like that. So at the end of it, it was about seven weeks I think.
So does that include the other music, like the famous “I’m Han Solo” dance track?
G: We just did the orchestral score.
What is the process? How do you sync the music to the game?
G: With most games the music comes in sort of in the middle of the process. So there weren’t necessarily a ton of graphics or renderings to look at, at that point. So we were looking at lot at storyboards or still images of the game. There was some gameplay capture and that type of thing, but usually it is pretty concept based at that point when the music is being written. The technical aspect of writing the music is to sort of assume that there are going to be lots of scenarios in any one given confine, so that we write maybe three versions of any one piece of music so that there will be various levels, like low-intensity, and high-intensity versions of the same piece so that within the gameplay. As the game changes, it can jump from one to the next. And also so that they can loop from the end of one piece to the beginning so that it can constantly be playing.
Gordy, you also did the music for Star Wars: The Old Republic and Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings. How did you first get connected with LucasArts?
G: Yeah, exactly. Initially I knew someone that worked at LucasArts in the audio department, and it was right around the time Kyle and I had collaborated on a short film project called Ryan vs Dorkman 2, and it was a Star Wars fan-film. It got pretty popular on YouTube, and my friend at LucasArts had seen it, and a lot of people in his department were talking about it, and it was right around the time that they were starting to look for someone to handle the score for Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings, so they brought me in for that. They liked what I did on that, and Kyle actually wrote some music for that as well with me, and they brought me in for the Old Republic because of the work I had done on that, and so on and so on. That sort of just led itself naturally to work on the Kinect as well.
How did you each get involved in this line of work?
K: Gordy and I both grew up really into music. In my case I took piano lessons from the age of eight, then trumpet lessons, then played in band in high school and all that, and I started writing music. When I got to college, the only thing I really wanted to study was music, so I went to school for music and figured out along the way that composing would be the best direction for me to go. It’s the thing I had the most fun with and got me really motivated. So I just kind of built from being a kid. I kept learning and getting more and more interested and involved and ended up pursuing it all the way through school. Then deciding to get into film scoring I decided to make the move, to get in to film scoring and gaming scoring I decided to make the move to Los Angeles. For there I just kind of said that’s what I was doing, and that’s what I ended up doing. It was just kind of a gradual progression of studying and learning, then going out there and doing it. Luckily I’ve been able to get on a variety of cool film and game projects.
G: For me I can trace it back to almost one particular moment, when I saw E.T. in the theaters. I remember hearing the music and watching the film maybe two or three times in the theaters, and I knew every note of the score but couldn’t name once person in the film. I don’t know if that necessarily a good thing, but it certainly caught my parent’s attention so they started to push me into music lesson and that kind of thing. I think I probably decided at that point, and I was maybe six or seven years old, that I really wanted to start writing music, so I started writing music at a very early age. I always remember that the original reason I was interested in that is because of how music affected film, so going into film scoring was a natural progression to me.
K: When I was a kid I used to sit around with a tape recorder and sort of do audio dramas, and record them, and sing themes. And try to incorporate the Star Wars music that I loved so much at that time. Like Gordy, it was practically the soundtrack to being a kid. It was like getting an interest in it, I didn’t realize that I was going to have any chance at actually doing it, but it definitely all started way back then for both of us.
So what do you both have coming up next?
G: I have a couple game projects. The game industry is so secretive that I can’t say much about them, but I do have a couple cool ones coming up. In the film world I am gearing up to score the prequel to a film that I scored called Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. It’s a horror film that did really well with the horror fan world, something I am also a part of, actually. So they are doing a prequel to that film, and I’m starting to gather my ideas and create themes, that kind of thing to get ready for that.
K: Right after finishing Star Wars I ended up working on a thriller film that should probably be coming out sometime this year. Obviously I don’t have any control over distribution, but we finished it in the last month or so, and it’s called Something Wicked. I think that’ll get out there sometime in Fall.
So are you two gamers yourselves?
G: I’m a gamer from way back. I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid, back when I had my first Atari 2400—which, by the way, I still have and still play. I played all through my youth. Once I started getting really busy as a professional, it was harder to keep up with all the game trends and that kind of thing, but I try to play as often as possible.
K: For me, same thing. It was Atari, then Nintendo, and Super Nintendo. I remember having all the handheld games, like even the Lynx, if you remember that—
Loved the Lynx…
K: It was pretty awesome at that time. If I went back it probably wouldn’t hold up, but I remember it was the best graphics on a handheld. I was really into it all the way through and into college. But music was just so overwhelmingly time consuming that I ended up not involved for years. Now games have come so far, it’s amazing. I’ve got a PlayStation 3 and an Xbox 360 now, and I’m trying to get back into it as much as I can. It’s actually been fun playing the game on Kinect and seeing how that technology works. I hadn’t actually experienced it prior to that.
What would each of your dream projects be?
G: It’s interesting, if you had asked me that question a few years ago I would have said Star Wars without question. And now the answer is probably still going to be Star Wars. I just want to keep doing this because this because I really love this music. I actually really have a sweet spot in my heart of the Harry Potter series. If they ever do a new game for Harry Potter I would jump all over that and have every phone ringing in town that I could. I love that music too, particularly the first three films. John Williams’ score is just brilliant in my opinion.
K: Same as Gordy, I never really imagined that one of the first game projects I ever worked on would end up being a Star Wars project with the London Symphony Orchestra. That’s kind of the dream scenario, writing that style of music, and I love writing big orchestral, melodic, dramatic music. So more projects like that would be great. It would be cool to try something similar that was unattached to a franchise. It would be cool to create an original sound something like that. I’ve had a chance to do that quite a bit in film, but not as much in games yet. I think just doing more projects like this, honestly, would be kind of what I would hope for.
Have you guys had time to really play Kinect Star Wars?
G: Yeah, I thought it was a lot of fun, particularly the Rancor mode. It’s just kind of fun to stomp on villagers. How often do you get to stomp on villages and pick people up to throw them into electric fences?
K: I had a lot of fun, and I kind of liked the podrace mode. I like racing games. I’m not very good at it yet, but it’s cool to go through the environments, like on Bespin, and see things that harken back to Empire Strikes Back. It’s cool to drive around and explore.
Are there any plans to release your score from the game?
G: Yeah, there’s talks with it. No decision has been made yet, but it is certainly something we’re all talking about and hoping will happen. Certainly Kyle and I are definitely hoping it will happen, so people can start hearing this music separate from this game. Time will tell, but hopefully so.