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LOTR:The Two towers (EA Games)

Storm front studios interview

Through a close collaborative relationship with New Line Cinema and the New Zealand-based film production team, EA's The Two Towers game features actual sound effects from the films and voice-over from the real actors: Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), and Ian McKellen (Gandalf). To add to the authenticity and to the cinematic experience, the game also features over five hours of Howard Shore's Academy Award winning musical score. We spoke to Andrew Boyd, Director of Audio at Stormfront Studios, about the challenges of integrating the films' music and sounds into the game.

Music4Games: How familiar were you with the film score before commencing work on the game's soundtrack? Were you a fan?
Andrew Boyd: We actually began work on the overall sound direction of the game before "Fellowship" was complete, long before we'd heard the soundtrack. We knew that Howard Shore was to be the composer, and we were certainly fans of his. So we built up extremely high expectations for the music. Even still, when we finally heard it we were simply blown away. And the more we listened and worked with this music, the more impressed we became. Usually, when working on a big project, you get several months into it and become so sick of hearing the same music over and over and over that you can't wait to move on to the next thing. That simply didn't happen here; our respect and fondness for this soundtrack has only grown - even over months of intense exposure.

Music4Games: How important do you think the soundtrack is in recreating the film experience?
Andrew Boyd: My opinion may be a little biased (!), but I think the importance of soundtrack in general cannot be underestimated. Few people ever get to watch a film with no musical score, then watch the same film with music in place. Experiencing that even once would convince the most skeptical people of music's power. Here, in moving from film to game, the music was obviously a cornerstone in evoking the film's emotion and scope. What's great is that it works both consciously and unconsciously. Those with the musical knowledge and sophistication to recognize what we've done in repurposing the soundtrack should appreciate the effect. But even someone who doesn't know anything about music or music editing (or doesn't care!) should still experience the same emotional impact. The reviews have been outstanding regarding our use of the music in the game, so it seems we achieved our goals (it certainly helps that the music was so good to begin with).

Music4Games: How much of the original "The Fellowship of the Ring" movie score is used in the game? Which musical themes are retained for "The Two Towers" videogame soundtrack?
Andrew Boyd: The "Two Towers" game actually features scenes from both the "Fellowship" and "Two Towers" films. We had the full recording of the "Fellowship" soundtrack to work with, but our game focuses entirely on the action/battle sequences from the movies. So, as beautiful as the work is in whole, we ended up using almost exclusively the big percussion and brass-heavy sections, the full-choir pieces, etc. In a few instances we were able to utilize some of the sparser, tenser pieces, but unfortunately we just couldn't justify including the really subtle, sweet, romantic, or melancholy parts of the soundtrack.

I've never tallied the exact running time of the source pieces versus the edited pieces that we made. The amount of music actually heard in the game depends on how it's played, since some players will complete missions much faster than others, some might complete a battle and linger in an area, some might never see the losing cinematic for each mission, and so forth. So it's hard to say exactly how much was used. Anyway, for those missions with a counterpart in the "Fellowship" movie, we tried to use primarily the same music from those scenes. For the "Two Towers" missions, we tried to stay as true to the thematic intentions as possible, and to stay true to the conventions we established (so missions would sound cohesive and fully realized). For example, while we obviously didn't have a "Helm's Deep Theme" per se, we were able to use music from "Fellowship" that was thematically related to the characters or the action in some way, while keeping the emotional tenor correct for the given gameplay circumstance.

Music4Games: Tell us about the music editing process. Can you describe some of the methods, tools and issues involved?
Andrew Boyd: All music that occurs during game play, during in-engine cinematic sequences, and under interface screens was edited here at Stormfront in Digital Performer 3.1 running on Mac G4 computers. We worked from "un-mastered" stereo mixes, and did some light processing with Waves Renaissance EQ and L1 plug-ins to prep the files for inclusion in our game engine. Robb Mills, my Senior Sound Designer/Composer did the vast majority of the editing (I contributed the remaining minority) and he did an outstanding job. His work was so good, in fact, that I think he'll get underrated for it-so many of his edits are so clean, so strong, I doubt that anybody but Howard Shore himself would even know they are there! Yet it's exactly this editing that brings the music into the game world so seamlessly.

Robb began by painstakingly going through the entire recording and marking sections that seemed promising for one mission or another. This process gave him a really intimate familiarity with the music, and by the end he could find a key phrase - a single bar of music-out of the hours of recordings in a couple of seconds, just by glancing. Anyway, he and I would then go through the missions in the game, often together with the level designer and the producer, and decide what kind of music we wanted where, how we wanted the adaptive music system to tie into the gameplay on that mission, and how the mission fit into the overall game. We'd look at the cinematic sequences that would play during the mission too, and decide which ones should flow naturally with the current music in the mission, which ones needed a custom piece, and which ones provided a good point to switch from one piece to another. And then we'd begin cutting.

Much of the time we'd start working from a thirty or forty second piece that fit the mission perfectly, but we'd need to make it five, eight, twelve minutes long to service the needs of the game. So we'd search out other statements of the phrase, different orchestrations, similar pieces that worked well together, contrasting pieces that provided some structure when cut in, etc. Once these longer pieces were built up, we'd use a custom toolset to put them into the game world and play the mission over and over, checking to see that the music was appropriate no matter how the mission was played, making sure the music wasn't repetitive or boring, and so forth. We'd also pay close attention to ensure that the mission seemed cohesive and, for want of a better word, "intentional." We wanted the music to sound as if it was actually composed directly for the game, so we'd often do several refinement passes to really get everything smooth. Some missions have dozens upon dozens of edits, so getting it all together took some time.

Music4Games: What is the hardest part of music editing? Isn't it a laborious exercise?
Andrew Boyd: If the music is interesting and beautiful, editing it can be nearly as intense and rewarding as original composition. Certainly it's pretty laborious to cut 0:10, 0:15, 0:30, and 0:60 versions of bland stock music for low rent advertising all day long. But this project didn't go that way. It was exhausting, maddening, obsessive, frustrating, and overwhelming, but it was never really dull, boring, or laborious.

The difficulty in this project was staying fresh enough to do the material justice. Not because the task itself was oppressive, but because it was just such a huge undertaking and the stakes were so high. Good editing requires the ability to constantly refresh your ear to hear whether an edit has successfully created a new musical experience, or simply pasted two old pieces together. It's very easy to spend a huge amount of effort on an edit and start to hear it as finished even when it isn't. Many times Robb would be working on an edit and I'd walk in and listen and, eyes closed, spot it on first hearing. We'd then look at it to try and find the problem. After two or three hearings, I could no longer spot the problem I'd heard on first listening. But Robb would invariably track it down and fix it (or declare the edit impossible and move on). At least in this case, the hardest part was making every listen like the "first listen," with ears as fresh as the player's who would be hearing all of it for the first time. And doing this for each of the hundreds of edits in the game's soundtrack.

Music4Games: What makes a good music editor? Do you have to be a music composer to be a good music editor?
Andrew Boyd: There is a level of musical sensitivity required for really fine music editing; because of this it certainly helps to be a composer for most music editing projects, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a necessity. Especially when editing rock, techno, and other forms of contemporary music the musical "rules" are very easy to grasp even for someone without formal training. On the other hand, some of what we were doing with the "Two Towers" game involved pretty complex orchestral music, and I think it was important that Robb and I each had extensive music composition experience in order to maintain as much of the musical integrity as possible. Plus, as composers, we could look at situations in the game and analyze what they needed, and then find the source from which we could create it. An editor without composition experience might have been limited to listening to the source and thinking about what he or she could make out of it, then trying to find a place to make it fit. The ability to look ahead and create with a final result in mind was invaluable.

Editing has a technical side too, of course, quite beside the musical content issues: are the cuts tight, are the crossfades smooth, do the levels match, is the timbre consistent? It goes without saying that a good editor has these issues down cold, can create seamless edits quickly, can spot good opportunities for edits, knows all the tricks to make a complicated edit work. All the composition experience in the world doesn't help with this aspect of the job. The only thing that matters is practice and more practice. The first hundred edits an editor makes will be awful, and they'll take way too long. The next hundred will only be marginally better. Thousands of edits later, an editor will be working at a professional pace with professional results. This speaks a little to the previous question - if there's a laborious aspect to the job it's how much learning has to happen before an editor is a master of his or her craft.

Music4Games: What was your most memorable scene from the movie where the music score really shined? Have you managed to capture this in the game?
Andrew Boyd: There were so many great moments in the film's soundtrack it would be really hard to pick a favorite. The signature Ringwraith figure, the long tremolo glissando in the violins and the subdued male choir "chant," was extremely effective at indicating the haunting dread of those characters. I do think our Weathertop mission in the game captures that feeling really well, and still manages to build tension over the course the mission as required by the interactive gameplay. And of course the music that accompanies Sauron as he strides onto the battlefield in Mordor and ultimately loses his finger to Isildur is unforgettable. It appears largely unchanged in the game, and I think it's just as effective there as in the film.

But probably the best example is the Amon Hen sequence; in the film, Aragorn battles his way down the hill through the forest as Boromir tries to hold off Lurtz. The game sequence is very similar (with the addition that you can play as Aragorn, Legolas, or Gimli), but of course it's interactive-we have no idea how long each part of the mission will take for any given player, what order a player will choose to do things in, etc. Luckily, the music for this sequence provides two wonderful variations on the same basic theme (the great 5/4 Saruman/Uruk-Hai theme). One is more restrained and tense, with the primary rhythmic figure pulsing on a low piano note and string swells floating over the top. The other is fully orchestrated with huge percussion and powerful brass. The game switches between these statements of this theme based on how far the player has gotten in the mission, the status of combat, and so forth. And toward the end of the mission, when the fellowship reunites at the bottom of the hill, we bring in the heroic "fellowship" theme to really pump up the player for the final battle. Technically, this is not exactly the way the music is put together in the film, but the resultant emotional affect ends up feeling very similar.

Music4Games: What are the differences between music for a game and music for a film?
Andrew Boyd: That's not a question with a simple answer - they are fundamentally different pursuits. One key difference is the amount of attention that can be paid to the music. In a game, a player has a lot of attention focused on the actual game mechanic, whereas in a film all the viewer's attention is available for the sonic and visual presentation. Another difference is the format in which they are delivered. Games are always played at home, and almost never by more than four people in a single location (and most of the time by a single person). Films tend to spend at least some of their lives being shown in large-scale theaters and watched by a number of people simultaneously. But probably the primary difference lies in the interactivity of a game. A film composer can watch a scene over and over and create a score that precisely modulates the emotions of the viewer as the scene unfolds. This means that he or she can foreshadow future events, build to crescendos, drop to silence, increase or decrease tempo, change orchestration, etc., and do this all within a musical framework of his or her own device.

In a game, a composer (or music editor, for that matter) usually has no control over how a scene unfolds; the player controls that. There is a very basic disconnect between music and the game, each of which happen over time but according to very different internal logic. Since the goal most of the time is to give the appearance that no matter what the player does, the music is appropriately supporting the action-to make it sound as if the music was composed exactly for the situation at hand, no matter what the situation is-games have begun adopting "adaptive" music systems. This kind of system allows the game's music to be manipulated by the game itself at runtime, according to a set of rules established by the composer/editor. The big issue is managing the tradeoff between moment-to-moment relevance in the soundtrack and some sense of musical integrity. It is possible to constantly switch pieces of music based on the action, but then the music will lose any sense of coherence, flow, and integrity. On the other hand, just letting a piece of music play without regard to the action might end up with very inappropriate music at some points.

For "Two Towers" we built a very sophisticated adaptive music system that allowed us to keep the music stereo and full resolution, but switch instantly and arbitrarily between any pieces in the game. It allowed us to specify markers in pieces where musically relevant switches could be made, and it tied into the AI and combat systems, level design, cinematics engine, and more. Even all that is no substitute for a human composer making the decisions, of course. But in the end I think we were able to strike a good balance of maintaining a sense of the integrity of the music as composed for the film, and still service the interactive needs of the game.

Music4Games: Do you think that game composers are able to compete with film composers?
Andrew Boyd: Sure. There are plenty of extremely talented folks working in game music, just as there are in film music. Similarly, there are untalented hacks working in both media. And there is a huge middle ground of good solid composers who, when matched with the right project, will do wonderful work. It may be true that the very, very top tier of current film composers outperform the current top tier of game composers in some ways, but I think that's as much a comment on the maturity of the craft as it is on the skills of the individual participants (though the top five or ten film composers really are artists of significant prowess).

Film music is a much, much better understood medium than game music. Just look at the time-frames in which they've been practiced: film composers have had around eighty years to perfect their art and their craft, whereas the field of game composition has only existed for fifteen, maybe twenty years. And just as there was a long period during which film music was understood primarily in its relation to concert music and/or opera (as opposed to an art unto itself), so too is game music now mostly considered in relation to film music. But I do feel like this is changing, and for the better.

I hope that the "Two Towers" game provides some important perspective on this. Obviously we started with one of the great film soundtracks, and there is a lot that the game audio community can learn about the benefits of really exceptional composition, conducting, musicianship, and recording in a soundtrack, elements that are sometimes less good in games than in films. At the same time, there was no way that the music would just "drop into" the game-it took months of painstaking editing and an extremely advanced runtime playback engine for the soundtrack to work in a game with anything close to the power it possessed in the film. While I do think we've demonstrated that a film's soundtrack can in fact be made to work in a game, if anything, the experience with this title only further reinforces my feeling that the games and films suggest very different approaches to music, require different skills, and suggest a different set of metrics by which to measure quality. As the art and craft of game music matures, I think we'll see its finest practitioners begin to be recognized on the level of the great film music composers.

Music4Games: How do you feel the gamer's experience will be enhanced by music from the film?
Andrew Boyd: The gamer's experience in any game is affected by music-positively or negatively-in a profound way. The use of this music in this game should really enhance the experience in a couple of very positive ways. First, it is excellent music that fits the emotional content, the mood, and the setting extremely well. Second, it is "authentic," taken directly from the movie that is for many the definitive "Lord of the Rings" experience. I felt that the music in the "Fellowship" film was a key element to bringing the viewer into the world of Middle Earth, into the minds and hearts of the characters, and deeply into the story. The game's use of the music should help put the player in the world of the films, and therefore into the world of Middle Earth, the characters, and the story.

Music4Games: Do you think fans of The Lord of The Rings will be surprised by the attention to detail in the game?
Andrew Boyd: Hopefully not surprised - pleased and maybe a little proud! One of the great things about Peter Jackson's interpretations of these classic texts was the depth of his vision; he rendered the smallest elements of the world in so much detail, the grand, epic elements with such scope and sweep, and made it all fit together into a cohesive whole. I certainly hope that when fans of the film play the game they feel we did it justice.


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