A Composer's Perspective on Game Audio part 2 - Scoring Cut Scenes

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Scoring Cut Scenes

by Lance Hayes

Composing music for games is, in some ways, like composing for other media. One similarity that games share with linear media is scoring cut scenes. In games a cut scene is usually a small sections of pre rendered animation or live action content that is often managed like a short film. They are used for various reasons to propel the storyline, tell back-story, present montages etc.

Depending on the project, cut scenes are handled much the same as short pieces for film or television. Many will have original music, sound design, voice over and even Foley work. They can be quite sophisticated and are often one of the more exciting pieces from a game. This is why they are often used by the developers and publishers in the advertising campaigns. Few parts of the gaming experience are so distilled.

Examples (WARNING: Some of these clips contain spoilers.)

As an example of a high-end project with superb use of music and audio here is a cut scene from The Force Unleashed II. The editors have done a wonderful job of balancing composer Mark Griskey’s powerful choir and orchestral elements with the sound design in the scene.

Another great example of music and sound in a game promo/cut scene is Russell Shaw’s music blending with a fantastic voiceover and top notch sound design in the Fable III Intro Cinematic.

Composing and Mixing the Forza 3 Intro Cinematic

Closer to home, I thought I might talk a little about my experiences working on the Forza Motorsport 3 intro video. While not as epic as the previous examples, this cut scene was enormously fun to work on and was a hit with the millions of fans of the Forza franchise.

The intro video composition process started when I sat down with Landin Williams, the cinematic lead at Turn 10, and looked at a rough edit of the video. We talked about basic ideas and about the sound that they were looking for. This is different than the approach in most projects where you are often given the final edit already picture locked so that, ideally, no further editing takes place.

Back at my studio I sat down at my keyboard. I often start out playing piano to come up with some basic ideas, and then I work up the arrangements from those concepts. After I wrote some basic themes and ideas in the initial creative sessions, it was time to move over to the electronic tools. The drums were worked up using a blend of Battery and Reason. The synths were a combination of custom sounds from Absynth, Reason, NI Massive, and Arturia. As I often do, I used the sequencers in both Reason and Sonar on this project. I like the control that Reason allows you and how fast it is so I tend to use its sequencer alongside Sonar which is both a fantastic VST host and a good MIDI focused DAW.

As an interesting aside; while working on this piece I composed a number of tracks that, while not a perfect fit for the intro, wound up in use elsewhere in the Forza universe. One good example is this piece that ended up the trailer music for the FM3 “World Class Car Pack” (featuring Mike Caviezel on guitar and bass).

As the project neared completion we were getting down to content lockdown and the team was furiously working to get everything into the game. There was a lot of back and forth as we worked to get the perfect track for the feel of the game.

When Landin, the team and I had a direction that we liked and the video had come together more completely I would get edits via FTP, plug them into Sonar and compose to picture. Once we had an edit that worked I was able to focus on the finer details of the production. After that, the biggest time commitment became tuning the production to fit changes and team requests.

Once we had the track nailed down, I took the stems to the Turn 10 studios at Microsoft. The audio director Greg Shaw and I worked up a 5.1 mix that focused on balancing ambience and intensity. The car sound design was layered in on top of that and the end result is what you hear when you first start up the game and the cut scene fades in on your new car experience.

Final Thoughts

Cut scenes offer a unique opportunity in the game universe to present the player with a linear experience. For composers it’s a fantastic opportunity to emphasize or introduce the ideas you have for the core concepts in your soundtrack. In this example the intro cinematic cut scene in Forza 3 helped us set the tone for the soundtrack and the user experience. The cut scene challenge on FM3 was to meet team and fan expectations while reinforcing the user experience in an efficient constructive way.

In upcoming posts, I’ll be talking about interactive music which is where game music really shines. Also note that the end all, be all of game networking events in the US, The Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, is coming up at the end of February.


Pro Tip of the Month: On occasion I’ve talked to composers who haven’t picked up a game since Pac-Man’s rein and want to write music for games. If you're interested in game audio you should probably play video games. Games in any format you can find including all of the major consoles, handheld devices, phones, pc, web, etc.It is definitely one media that hands on experience is an unbeatable resource. This is not to say that if you are well known enough or your niche is fine enough that you can’t find work but for the rest of us it’s sort of a necessity. So get out there and rack up some points!

Author bio: Lance Hayes is also known as DJ Drunken Master and is a keyboardist, synthesist, and leading composer of music for video games. Most recently, he composed the soundtrack for Microsoft's Forza Motorsport 3 title. Find out more at www.djdm.com.

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