Mandy Crew USA

'Go to conferences' Star Wars Battlefront 2 composer Gordy Haab on how to make music for video games

Gordy Haab is a multi award-winning film, video game and TV composer who has written music for video games including Star Wars Battlefront 2, The Walking Dead, Halo Wars 2 and enjoyed a BAFTA award nomination for Excellence in Audio Achievement as well as scoring movie War for Lionsgate and Oprah's TV show The Judds. Gordy made nine trips to London, UK, to fine-tune Star Wars Battlefront 2 with the London Symphony Choir and here tells Mandy News about his process of scoring for games.

21st May 2018
/ By Diedre Johnson

Video game Star Wars Battlefront 2 composer Gordy Haab GORDYHAAB

How did you first find out about video game jobs?
Actually, I’d never thought about video games. It never even dawned on me. I moved to Los Angeles to score films and that’s primarily what I was doing but I scored a film that was a short, Star Wars fan film, 13 years ago or something like that, and someone at LucasFilm had seen it, really liked the music in it and reached out to me about an Indiana Jones video game. They needed a composer to score that and that’s actually how I landed my first video game job.

I started working with LucasFilm and now I’m doing video games as my primary career.

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When did you actually realise this could be a living and a career?
It was that very first video game when I realised that video games are something a composer should take very seriously as an industry because they are willing to put into the budget, a budget for lots of minutes of music and in video games you have a pay-per-minute, which is kind of different than films for rental. So, pretty much immediately, I realised, "Oh wow, this could be a lucrative career move." Or at least a lateral move in addition to film and television, and something I should take seriously.

Take us through what you actually do to create music for a video game.
Sure, composing for film, for example, usually starts towards the end of the filmmaking process and you are brought on, if you are lucky, for the last six weeks of the film production schedule. You are working with a completed product and then scoring it for a picture.

But video games are very different because they usually bring composers on somewhere in the middle of the production schedule. So video games take a long time to make. The average game schedule is somewhere between two to three years. We start maybe in that second year of production and are working to a concept rather than to an actual finished product.

A lot of times I’m composing music to still images of what a world might look like or a script or just a synopsis of a character so it’s much looser and because of this, the music for games is usually more vast. You end up writing quite a bit of music and that’s why they bring you on pretty early. Video games are kind of cool because you are in on the project in the very early stages of development, which means you have a lot more time to develop ideas and understand characters.

You recently did the third Star Wars Battlefront. What was this about going to London nine times?
When I was hired to score Star Wars Battlefront, one of the directives I was given from DICE, the developing company, and EA (Electronic Arts), the publishing company, was that, "We want the game to be as authentic a Star Wars experience as possible, right down to the music" so my role was not only to compose music that fits into that world but also to direct their resources in a way that could get that product. 

The idea was that we would record with the exact same orchestra, the same size of orchestra and the same recording studio, etc. as John Williams did for the Star Wars films. So that’s how we landed in London because that’s where he recorded. We went there to do the same thing. We had the same size orchestra and the same microphone set up for the studio, used Abbey Road studios like he had done in the prequels to get that quality that he was able to get.

Not a bad work trip
It was a great thing!

Can you work anywhere?
It used to be that to be a film composer you needed to be in Los Angeles and, to some extent, that is still true with film and certainly with TV. But with games it’s not quite as necessary anymore because these game development companies and game publishers are based all around the globe. EA, for example is based in the Bay area and DICE, are based in Sweden and they are recording the score in London. 

A lot of the other games I’ve worked on, the developers are based in Montreal or Vancouver or Austin, Texas, for example. The production companies are scattered throughout the world.

That said, I think it’s somewhat important for the image of the composer to be in a metropolitan centre that has an industry built-in, like Los Angeles. I know a lot of these companies come almost exclusively to Hollywood composers to do their scores. So being here helps but I could really do the work almost anywhere, I think. As far as orchestras go, there are great orchestras around the world. I’ve recorded game scores here in Los Angeles, London obviously, in Bratislava, San Francisco, Nashville, all really, really great orchestras.

You use a Mac correct?
Yes and no. My main computers are Macs. I actually have two other computers that are PCs that run the sounds I use; the orchestral samples and synthesisers. PCs are sort of workhorse computers that are running all of the sounds that is RAM, if you want to get technical about it, but the computers that are driving those computers are Macs.

What is your greatest challenge when you are composing?
A lot of times, the sheer amount of music can be daunting. For Star Wars Battlefront, since the beginning of my time on that project, I’ve written well over seven hours of music. And for all of the Star Wars games I’ve worked on, I think it’s a total of 17 hours of music. Halo Wars 2, another game I worked on, had 200 minutes of music just from the one release package of the game, so it’s quite a lot of music to write and to keep it interesting and fresh is a big challenge.

When you’re dealing with these larger IPs, like Star Wars or Halo, or something that people really know, you’re dealing with a built-in fan base that has high expectations for every part of the game including music. It’s often daunting, the amount of people who are expecting you to do a good job. That can be overwhelming at times and it can be a really strong motivator as well.

What is your advice for those wanting to get into the business?
I would say if you are a composer and you are interested in getting into video games, the best thing you can do — and this is something that I feel is very exclusive to the games industry – is go to these conferences that are held year-round, the biggest one being The Game Developers Conference (GDC). It’s held every year in San Francisco in March or April and this is a resource that really doesn’t exist in film or TV.

There’s no conference every year where every major film director shows up to see what kind of project you have. GDC is something that I think is really cool and it’s an opportunity that new composers should go take advantage of. They even have systems set up to create meetings for you with various game developers. It's like speed dating for meeting game developers. It’s a cool way to meet new people, tell them about your projects – everything from independent game projects all the way up to triple A-projects like Star Wars Battlefront – and that is how I’ve managed to get a lot of the work that I’ve had; by attending events, meeting people and networking.

Have you met any actors or directors from these projects that you were thrilled to meet?
On this most recent one, the lead actor is Janina Gavankar. She plays Ivy and she’s a pretty well-known actor and she’s been on fanboy shows like True Blood. I knew she was playing this lead character, so I really wanted to meet here and know her and understand her as I’m trying to get to understand the character better. I had the opportunity to speak with her and get to know her a bit and discovered through that process that she’s also musician and happens to be an ensemble percussionist. So I featured drums and percussions in the game to get her theme into the game. I thought that would be a cool nod to her as a person.

I met George Lucas, which I think is cool. It was very random. When I was recording at SkyWalker Ranch, he was there in the cafeteria by himself having lunch so it was kind of a cool opportunity to stick my head in and say thank you for everything you’ve done, let him know why I was there and that the opportunity would not have existed had it not been for him.

Throughout my career, I’ve bumped into tons of actors in very random circumstances. I think that is part of living in Los Angeles. You can’t get that in any other part of the world except New York

What are you most looking forward to this year?
Star Wars Battlefront 2 continues and that’s another great aspect of video games, they keep building on their initial releases so I just did a recording session a couple of weeks ago for more music for Battlefront and that will continue throughout the year. One thing that is pretty common is secrecy so a lot of the projects I’m working on, I’m not allowed to speak about but I promise you that I have some really cool stuff lined up. 

Actually, a really great film project as well, so lots of cool stuff coming around the corner. I can’t wait to talk about more.