Books, Blood, and Barker: An Interview with Cris Velasco
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Books, Blood, and Barker: An Interview with Cris Velasco

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Cris Velasco’s credits stretch well beyond horror — he has composed music for Borderlands, Company of Heroes 2, and the God of War and Mass Effect series — but he has recently become known for dark and moody video games scores, including those for ZombiU and Hellgate London.

He is known for his dynamic, experimental soundscapes of a profoundly orchestral caliber. His work on Mass Effect 3 garnered him a 2013 D.I.C.E. nomination for “Outstanding Achievement in Musical Composition.”

Velasco’s current project is taking him beyond the traditional professional milieu, with one of horror’s most important auteurs, Clive Barker. Barker’s famed Books of Blood are being turned into an elaborate audiovisual collection, incorporating panoramic vistas with Velasco’s music to make something else, something entirely bizarre.

Velasco previously worked with the horror master on the 2007 game, Jericho. He discussed his collaboration with Barker and his approach to creating scores with Bloody-Disgusting.

BD: First of all, a bit of a historical question: The score for Clive Barker’s Jericho was intense. How much input did Clive Barker have in suggesting music back in 2007?

The day after I was hired, I took a drive over to Clive’s house and spent the afternoon with him. We sat in his painting studio and listened to lots of classical music and horror scores that he likes while he also worked on a new painting. Clive loves music and knows quite a lot about it. We discussed what he was hoping to hear in the game and then he just let me go for it. He personally selected me to score Jericho and wanted me to have the freedom to do whatever the game inspired.

The score also had a VERY fast turn around. Because I was replacing a previous soundtrack, we had about two weeks to finish the whole thing. That included recording a live choir at Skywalker Ranch too!

BD: What was the process for working on Books of Blood?

Similar to a movie or game, I generally start working on a volume towards the end. That way I can experience an entire build, determine the typical pacing someone might read through, and then craft the music in a way that I think will have the best flow. The music will generally loop until a new page is triggered. It’s impossible for me to sync the music up exactly to the movement of the comic, but with some experimentation, I can do a pretty good job of creating a cinematic experience.

Once I’m happy with the score, I’ll take a trip over to Clive’s house and meet with Ben Meares, the project lead on Books of Blood. We’ll get the music implemented and then go through the comic a few times. Once all the music is approved, I’ll have it mixed and each track will be edited to make a perfect loop. We’ll do the final implementation and then call it a wrap until the next one!

One other cool thing I was able to do for the first episode was to write a main theme that will be used in some form or another on each one. I then wrote a four minute concert version of the theme for orchestra and solo violin. This was premiered at the PlayFest 2014 concert in Fuengirola, Spain.

It was such a surreal experience to hear the 80 piece orchestra performing something I did for Clive Barker. My good friend and violinist, Nicole Garcia, actually flew out with me to perform the solo. There’s a YouTube video of the performance if you want to see it for yourself.

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BD: How long did the two of you work on it?

Books of Blood is a huge project. We’re all still working on it and will be for years to come!

BD: The Books of Blood project is quite ambitious. What about Clive Barker’s works lend themselves to audiovisual collaborations?

Clive himself is a very visual guy. Just in his Abarat series alone there are thousands of paintings that he’s done to help bring the world to life. He’s done paintings, drawings, and sketches for all his novels actually. Of course, he’s also done movies like Hellraiser, Candyman, Lord of Illusions, and Night Breed. These all had scores by some very serious talent. Danny Elfman, Christopher Young, and Phillip Glass to name a few.

Just typing this makes me realize how incredibly fortunate I am to join the ranks of his composers. So Clive clearly has a history of of bringing his life to work with audio and visuals. Now that Books of Blood is a motion comic, it just opens up a brand new way to tell the stories. It’s really a completely new experience and Clive’s fantastic worlds are perfect for taking advantage of this medium.

This is taking storytelling through graphic novels to a new level. Clive is here to scare you with this series. We’re going to make sure you can’t unsee or unhear any of it!

BD: Are there any other writers you would like to work with on a similar kind of project?

I’d love to collaborate with Neil Gaiman on something! His novel Neverwhere is one of my favorites. Another of my other favorite writers is China Mieville. It would be amazing to work on something of his, specifically in his Bas-Lag world. China’s worlds are so huge and descriptive though, I’m not sure a game or movie could really do them justice. It would definitely have to be a big budget!

One of my dream projects would be to work on something of Lovecraft’s as well. Obviously, he’s long deceased so it wouldn’t exactly be working with him, but to work on Mountains of Madness or Call of Cthulhu… That would make me very happy.

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BD: I think a lot of people would like to know what the process of creating the score for a AAA title is like. Obviously, each game is different, but what is kind of the shared experience?

For me, there’s no real distinction between working on an indie game, a licensed project, or a AAA title. I find that you’re only as good as your latest score. I always put forth my best effort to make sure the client is going to be happy.

Generally, there’s one person handling the music. That’s definitely a bit of a pressure inducer. You think of the trust a developer is granting you. There are tons of artists, fx guys, programmers, designers, etc that form a typical studio. For them to entrust ALL the music to me, it’s quite an honor. A scary one though!

A typical game score starts off with me and the audio director having a long chat about the game, the style of music, what instrumentation might be used, and how the score will be implemented. The first thing I generally try to write is the main theme. Almost every game has one, and it will set the tone of the entire score usually. It’s also the hardest piece to come up with.

Once we have that locked in, I’ll just start tackling each other cue. If there’s a specific order they need the music in, I’ll do that. Otherwise, I’ll start with whatever inspires me. I do very detailed mockups of every track. Even if the score will wind up being recorded live, the developer needs to hear the closest approximation of what it will sound like.

This is a ton of work and very time consuming, but well worth it. Also I will often come back to early cues and revise them. Even though they’ve been approved, if I feel that the game would be better served with different music, I will always go back and make changes. The end product is always king. I never want myself or someone from the team to play through the game on its release and wish that the music could’ve been better.

BD: In what ways do you interact and collaborate with game designers?

Well, I don’t have that much interaction with the designers. The one thing that does tend to happen is that I try to get involved with the implementation. I’m a gamer myself, and I have played enough titles that I know what works great and what becomes annoying. Music should help the game be immersive. Once it stops doing that, there’s a good chance someone will turn the music off. That’s definitely a worse case scenario for me. So I come up with ways that I think would be a perfect solution for the game at hand.

If it’s doable, that’s when I might have some interaction with the designers and/or programmers.

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BD: What is your process for iterating on the game’s main musical theme for different environments and missions?

That’s where having a classical music background comes in handy. Theme and variation is such a staple in ALL music, but having studied composition and theory can definitely teach you a few tricks. Changing the rhythm, changing the harmony, adding extra notes, taking some out, elongating the melody, shortening it, playing it backwards, using different ochestrations…these are all ways to iterate in the main theme that might make it more suitable for different locations.

BD: Musically, your music is quite dark — even the tracks for Assassin’s Creed Unity – Dead Kings would feel just as welcome in a horror game as an action-adventure title. Did any of the teams over at Ubisoft give you any sense of what they wanted to go with, tonewise, or was that left entirely up to you?

Yes, Manu Bachet (audio director) and I had a couple conversations about the tone of the music before I got started. It was explained to me that while the music needed to retain the spirit of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the Dead Kings story was to be much darker in tone than any of the preceding games. We decided early on to use the lower end of the orchestra for the bulk of the score. Cellos, basses, bassoons, and bass clarinets did a lot of the heavy lifting on many of the cues.

I also got to use quite a bit of harpsichord to help root it in its historic period. There are some interesting textural things I was able to play with as well, just in case things weren’t already dark enough. Things like scraping the strings of the harpsichord or bowing metal and then detuning them down a couple octaves. It was all a lot of fun!

BD: Your compositions contain quite a few layers. How do you build your arrangements? Do they start with a specific instrument or sound that you’re most comfortable with, or does it depend on anything, really, at all?

I’m a melodic guy at heart, so a lot of pieces start with a melody or a fragment of one. I’d then set it aside for use later, once the frame of the piece was built. Then I’d generally lay down some sort of rhythm after examining the scene I’d be writing for. Something to set the pace of what the character would be experiencing. This could be with percussion or orchestra.

After the bones of each piece are in place is when the little details start coming in. I’ll play the piece on a loop and just listen as I walk around trying to distract myself with something other than composing. It’s sort of unfocused attention.

Eventually, I’ll think “it’d be cool to have the clarinets doubling the violas in this section” or “maybe a cimbalom would sound good accenting the high notes on the harpsichord here”. I just start filling in the gaps unil I’m happy that each cue can stand on its own. When I’m finally satisfied, I’ll play the track on a loop one more time, use that unfocused attention technique again, and make sure nothing sticks out as annoying.

This is usually about five full playthroughs. Something that sounds cool on one listen can become just awful to hear on repetition. I’m quite critical of my own work so if it passes this test, I feel confident to call it a wrap.

BD: What upcoming projects, side projects, or other works do you have coming up?

As usual, there’s a lot of stuff I can’t divulge right now. I can say that I’m currently wrapping up the next issue of Books of Blood. We’re doing Midnight Meat Train right now. Stylistically, it’s quite different than my first score. This time, we’re doing a bit of an ‘80s throwback. Sort of John Carpenter-ish.

It’s a lot of fun! I’m also working on an extremely cool survival game called The Long Dark. It’s not your typical “end of the world” scenario. It’s basically you against a frozen Canadian wilderness after all the power has shut down because of a catastrophic global event. There are definitely no zombies! You do need to watch out for roaming wolves though…

BD: Finally, what’s your favorite work of Clive Barker’s?

I have two books that are difficult for me to choose between: Imajica and Weaveworld. I love all his books, but these are standouts for me. The Scarlet Gospels is coming out this year though. It’s about the death of Pinhead, his most iconic character from the Hellraiser movies. I have high hopes for this one. We’ll see…maybe it’ll edge out one of these others.

Velasco can be found at Monarch Audio. Samples of his scores are available on his SoundCloud account.

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