An Interview With Lorne Balfe – Behind the Music of Beyond: Two Souls and Skylanders Swap Force

BeyondFeature

Will Anderson managed to sit down with music composer Lorne Balfe after arriving from his latest tour and chat about the launch of two of his projects – Beyond: Two Souls and Skylanders: SWAP Force, as well as the role of music in video games and more.

Lorne Balfe: Hello Will, how are you?

Will: Hi!  Not too bad. How are things over in England?

Balfe: I think great. I think I just slept all day.  [laughs] My jet lag’s so bad…I flew over and got into Paris. And then, had to go and do things for promoting Beyond, and it all just caught up on me now. […] I woke up 3 minutes ago. Perhaps a waste of a day, but anyway. [laughs]

Will: Well, yeah, I imagine you have been pretty busy with Beyond coming out, and you’ve also got Skylanders (Giants), I know, so that’s probably keeping you a little busy too

Balfe: Well yeah, and also I’m in the middle of 4 other films at the moment. I think I spent about 2 days straight at the studio before I got on the plane.

Will: [laughs] Holy cow!

Balfe: Yeah, so. I couldn’t believe it! I opened my eyes, and my phone was reminding me that I had stuff to do today. It was a wonderful start.

Will: Well, I really appreciate you taking the time out of your super busy schedule to do this.

Balfe: Oh my pleasure!

Will: I’ll try not to take too much of your time here. So, obviously, you’re very busy with a lot of projects right now. One of which is Beyond: Two Souls. I’m sure the studio work is done, with a lot of appearances and everything…. But it releases next week, so that was one of the reasons we wanted to sit down and chat with you about Beyond and composing the music, and taking over from Mr. Normand Corbeil. So first off, what’s it like in a typical day for Mr. Lorne Balfe, when you’ve got all these projects [going on]?

Balfe: A typical day – oof.  I think…there is no typical day. Because, the thing is that with games…well, when you work on a film, you’ll have, normally – and this is normally – you’ll have a finished product; you’ll have the complete film. They’ll still be editing it, they’ll still have to colour correct it, and they could be adding visual effects to it – but you have the structure of the film. So when you start writing, you can get into it, and really start creating a long arc of musically telling what the story is. Now with a game, that takes a bit longer, because they’re developing that game over 2-3 years. So you can be busy working on it, and then all of a sudden there’s silence for a couple of weeks and there’s nothing to do, because the scenes haven’t been created. So, I find that that’s why some projects can take a long time. I think Beyond, I was on for over a year and a half. Mainly because there would be scenes to do at the beginning, but then there would be quietness. So basically every day is slightly different. There is no straight structural order to my days – fortunately, because I think if there was, I’d probably go mad. [laughs]

W:  [laughs]  So, you’re one of the few game composers in the industry that has a lot of experience going back and forth with film work and videogames.  I know you do a lot of work with Hans Zimmer, with – I believe – Pirates [of the Caribbean], and a couple other movies.

B:  Quite a few… more than a couple.  I started work with Hans about eight or nine years ago. My first real film with him was the first Batman, and then every Batman since.

W: So, with having that contrast between the film industry and the games industry, what would you say the bigger difference is, other than the schedule, when going about the composing?

B: Absolutely no difference.

W: No?

B: Absolutely nothing. I think there used to be a big segregation between game music, film music, and also television music. And now those borderlines have gone.  [Back then] when you were a TV composer, that was you, and it was difficult to be branching out into a different medium. And that is gone now. And you’re seeing it more and more common for film composers having a go at the game world. I think the game world is far more complicated than writing for films. For films, you sit there and you write an hour-and-a-half of music and you know exactly how much music you have to write. But for a game, like Beyond, I think I wrote three-to-four hours’ worth of music. So you’re writing far much more, and you don’t necessarily know where the music going to end up sometimes. With a film, you can write the whole score, and then you step back and then you start taking it out sometimes, because the director, the editor and you then slowly start realizing you have too much music.  And with a game, like with Assassin’s [Creed], it’s unimaginable to be able to fathom how much music there is going to be in the game… [There’s] almost 28-29 hours’ worth of gameplay, you can’t have 28-29 hours of constant music, and it’s got to be selectively not so continuous and that’s a difficult task. And certainly with Beyond, it was very complicated, because there are so many options, and different ways the route of Jody’s life can go; there has to be different musical interpretations of what those decisions have to be, which never happens in a film. Sometimes in a film, there will be a different ending, and they could go and film two-to-three different ways of the film ending. With Beyond, you can end up with [many] different ways. So it’s a very difficult process.

W: Oh, I can imagine.

B: But the actual writing of the music is the same process, no matter what medium it is. It’s just that with games, it’s far grander, and there are more options that it makes it more complicated

W: Ok. You mentioned that there used to be a segregation between the different mediums (film, videogames, and television), and we’ve noticed in recent years, big film composers have been experimenting a little bit with coming over with the video games. Hans Zimmer, I see, joined you as producer for this game; Steve Jablonsky did Gears of War 2.

B: Yep and Clint Mansell

W: Yep. So do you feel that it’s just technology, or that the industry has gotten so big that there’s that demand, or is it the cinematics? What is it that you feel is drawing people into the game industry?

B: To me, it’s obvious what the reason is. It’s another platform for people to express and write to. The jump… why I wanted to get into writing music for films, is because I loved being part of a team that’s created a story… and games now… well I think Beyond itself is really what it’s all about; it is a total cross platform. I was reading on YouTube, some people were questioning ‘Is it a film or is it a videogame?’ And composers want to be able to push themselves, and games are naturally the way the future is heading. Games like Beyond: Two Souls, is the future, because it’s a mixture of both, and people are wondering: ‘Oh, it’s a cinematic experience, but also I’m actually playing.’ So to me, it’s going to become more and more composers working on games. And also the cinematics in games are getting… there’s far more of them, and there’s more storytelling, and I think in films – you get beaten quite a lot by the director that you’re punctuating dialogue and properly helping tell the story. So that’s how games are now becoming: instead of running around and shooting people, now there’s very complicated storylines that need help with punctuation and telling the story.

W: Let’s shift gears a little bit here, let’s talk about Two Souls. Obviously, you had to pick up the game midstream. […] From your perspective, as far as the process of coming into this and seeing the game, (I’m not going to ask you details as far as what happens or anything) I’m interested to get your take on the kind of feelings you get when you see Beyond: Two Souls on the screen, and where it drove you to take the music on this one.

B: Well, working backwards, last night in Paris, we watched in [La Grand] Rex Cinema, we played 45 minutes of the game. And it was very surreal, because it was what we would normally regard as a cinema experience: people sitting in seats, eating popcorn, and looking at a big screen. So the buildup to the film being shown was like a film premiere, and watching it on the screen was like watching something what was a CGI-based film, and all of a sudden things would come up onscreen giving options of what decision to make, and automatically you would go, ‘Wait a minute, now I’m in a game’. And I think when you start a project… David had lived with the character of Jody for years, and had a very clear sound of what he wanted. I knew this wasn’t going to be…I think accidentally, the first thought in my head was to not try and do this as an action game, because it’s not really an action game; it’s the story of a life… you chronicle her life right from the very beginning. I think a lot of game music is very loud, and very percussive, and I’ve done enough games where that’s what you do, because you’re trying to get the gamer through this adventure. But the difference with this game was that because there’s that much storytelling, you were able to breathe and think slowly and not make fast decisions, which I think happens quite a lot in games…

So  the main thing about was trying to create space musically, and when you see the visuals of the game, just like working on a film, the colours of what you see visually and what is on the screen helps you come up with the sound and colours of your music. So that to me is also the major factor when I saw the Jody character and I saw the scenes, the colours in the scene contribute to the actual sound of the score.

W: Excellent. Now that you’ve seen the story from your perspective and everything, just a kind of general opinion: What’s your feeling of the game and the direction that they took it in?

B: I think… you know, it’s interesting, some people have problems with this kind of platform game. And I don’t understand why. Because to me… I love film, and if I was good at playing games, I would love games. Unfortunately I’m just rubbish at playing games. And the thing is that, this to me is the most perfect experience you can have. It is what you dream of. You sit there, and it’s like being in the film. And also the fact you see characters like Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page that you can relate to, and you automatically feel like you’re in a film. And this is the future, this is the way things are going to go. It lets people that aren’t necessarily hardcore gamers into the world of gaming.  Because I know a lot of people who have no interest in playing games, but I know are going to be playing this in a week’s time, because it’s all they’re talking about. So to be opposed with this medium of playing, I just find it’s narrow-minded; I don’t understand why.

W: I know especially with Beyond… actually Quantic Dream’s previous game, Heavy Rain, was a very, very cinematic type experience with a control scheme that didn’t really match up with the traditional action or platformer type of game; it was a very interactive experience from a life perspective. With Beyond, it’s kind of interesting, because it’s one of two or three games that has been featured in the Tribeca Film Festival, where the game is crossing over into that entertainment media, and being recognized for being so cinematic. So it is really interesting seeing where things are going with it.

B: Yeah. And the whole reason we are where we are with games, is because people have taken risks and progressed. And it’s the same with filmmaking: If we don’t take a risk, we don’t progress, it’s that simple. And we have to do things that are not the norm or the predictive. And what David is doing is fantastic, and if some people have problems with it, just don’t play it! It’s very simple. It’s like when people have problems with my music– just don’t listen to it!

W: Absolutely.

B: We’re never going to keep everybody happy. It’s just impossible, and if that’s your aim in life, you might as well not wake up, because you just can’t do it. And I went through, when I took over the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I never knew how passionate gamers were for music, having come from the film world. Because the film world, I never truly understood how important the music was to games than it was to films, because in a film, you have that 2-hour experience where you sit, you watch, and then you move on with your life. With games, you’re living and breathing this world, and that music becomes your DNA for several months. And boy when a game comes out, they’ll get onto Twitter and they’ll destroy you sometimes. [laughs] It’s like “Why’s there no ambient music? Where’s the ambient music? I hate you because you didn’t give me ambient music!” Strangely enough, some people don’t want ambient music! It’s very hard to win these things.

W: It really is. Well obviously you can’t please everyone all the time. But I do get what you’re saying. It’s very interesting the way that technology has progressed and everything. It’s only just about 15 years that we were listening to videogame music created through MIDI, and I think the technological progression has given gamers – they expect more: the bigger graphics, the higher resolutions, and with it comes the better sound and better music.

B: And I’ve only relatively been in the game world really recently. And I know that when I started, references to music was always based on film. So you would go and talk to the game developers and they would reference films: “We like Bond” or “We like Dark Knight”, […] and now, I never hear anybody reference films. Because games have now realized: “Why do we want to copy films? We should be trying to create our own path in life” which I think is fascinating. Because it is its own identify, and why be cheap, and rip off another world when this is your own unique world?

W: Yes, absolutely. So, you’re always working on new projects, and I know that you’ve done every Skylander game, haven’t you?

B: Uh-huh, yes.

W: And Skylanders: SWAP Force is just around the corner – where do you find time to just sit down and relax? I have to ask!

B: Well, when you do a project like Skylanders, you’re kind of relaxed because I’m kind of allowed to do everything I’m not allowed to do in other projects. If you listen to it, you can kind of tell that the rules don’t exist. That’s the best and joyful thing about Skylanders, because visually it’s crazy! It just looks nuts! And what I love about doing the music for it is that there are no rules really. You can do anything you want musically and use any instruments. You can be using a harmonica and mix it with a classical violin – it’s just its own world of organized chaos. It’s straight fun doing it. Again, to me, why it’s all so enjoyable, I hope that it creates its own sonic world. It makes it unique. Because some of those pieces are pretty crazy. I think it all adds up to this wonderful unique experience that is Skylanders. I mean, I’ve played it, and it’s a trip! I’m glad that I’m too old to be getting addicted to buying all the figures, because I could easily be stuck doing that, and not leaving the house for a couple of days.

W: [laughs] I’ll tell you what, I’m in my mid-thirties and I’ve got a pretty huge collection on my wall too!

B: [laughs] Really!?

W: Oh soo many! And every single time a new game comes out, there goes my wallet! [laughs]

B: [laughs] Well, it’s better than drinking or drugs!

W: Well that’s a good point!

B: And I think a lot of people come to forget about is that there’s a whole massive team creating these things. When you see…and I know this is a sideline…it was just something we were talking about in Paris for Beyond:Two Souls, you forget the size of team working on games and the hours they work on them. When you go to the gaming companies near the end of a project, they’re working all night and day. They’re sleeping – and it’s different from what you see in films sometimes. Because in films, you have to finish it at this hour, because it’s union-based. But in games, the people creating it, this is their passion and love.

W: It is! I’ve talked some developers where I’m catching them as a game is going gold, and they tell me straight up: “I haven’t seen my family in six months!” It’s a very arduous and demanding process, but the dedication that goes behind it is just phenomenal.

B: Oh yeah. And the Skylanders work, and even though it’s for children, there’s nothing patronizing about it. The one thing that I’m always trying to do when I try to write a piece of music for it, I try to imagine my godchild dancing to it, or just the most craziest experience that a child could be part of. It’s no less a feat doing a children’s game like that than doing Beyond. They’re both the same experience. To take about 15 minutes answering your question: No there isn’t downtime. Downtime is choosing different types of projects.

W: Excellent. With kids’ games, I know that people tend to stick to niches – it’s a natural thing. Everybody does it regardless of if it’s a hobby or music or anything like that. But you have a very diverse, very broad range of things that you do. What was the attraction with Skylanders? You’ve worked on every single one since it came out and you keep coming back to it. Other than the whimsical nature of it and being able to get away with stuff… I’m probably answering my own question…

B: I think you just did! Well done!

W: [laughs] oh well, time to wrap it up!

B: I think I’m at the beginning of my career now, and if I chose the same genre and did that all the time, I don’t think I would be learning anything, and I don’t think I would be creating a good end product. I think to be able to do a horror film, and then do a comedy and then go into an action film, all gives you more different points of view how to tell a story and to be part of this creative process. And if you kept doing horror films, how do you progress? How do you change [to] a different way of musically portraying what is onscreen.

W: That’s a good point.

B: To me, also, I feel that I would get absolutely bored. I think if you constantly write happy music, then… I would run out of ideas. I think when I was doing the Skylanders –the last Skylanders – I was in the middle of writing for a TV show called The Bible. It was the exact opposite of each other. The Bible was a vastly epic score, and had to be dark to represent the devil, and also writing scenes that were 15 minutes long that portraying the crucifixion of Christ. But then I could have a break and write Skylanders, where I was able to write Kaos’ theme. To me, it makes this all…it’s not a job, it’s like a hobby that I get paid for, and I’d like to constantly have…it would be like eating tomato soup every day of my life, I’d find that very boring. And I think having all these different things to taste, it makes it exciting!

W: Awesome! We’re coming on the 30-minute mark here…just one last question…

B: I turn into a pumpkin after 30 minutes! [laughs]

W: [laughs] Well, my writers get mad at me if we go over 30 minutes, because they have to transcribe it all. [laughs] But, what is your dream project?

B: Dream project…I don’t think I’ve ever thought what my dream project would be.  Any time I have a project, it’s a dream. It’s that simple. […] Just simply writing every day is a dream. I honestly don’t think I could sit there and describe what the dream project would be, because… My god, that’s a hard one…

W: You’re already living the dream!

B: Oh no [laughs] Yes, I’ve been asleep all day! [laughs] No, I think it’s impossible to come up with “What is the dream project” – Is it a game? Is it a film? Is it a documentary? I don’t think there’s such a thing. I’m just very fortunate that I do get to try to do different things. Things like there’s a film I finished where there’s a happy ending that I got to write songs for, which I haven’t done before, and I like trying different things.  And Beyond now is the next way of looking at things, and that has been a great adventure. One of the next projects I’m working on is going to be, again, another type of revolutionary experience of gaming. So every single thing that happens, I like the way that we’re progressing in these mediums, and that makes it exciting!

W: Fantastic! That is wonderful.

B: Wonderful!

W: I really appreciate you sitting down and talking with me, Mr. Balfe.  I know you’re busy and you’ve been all over the place, you probably need a little more downtime. I would be more than happy to give you a bit of time.

B: My pleasure. It’s been lovely talking with you.

W: Awesome. Good luck with seeing Beyond get out there and SWAP Force. And best of luck to you on your next project!

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