Greg Edmonson is the composer behind the award-winning soundtrack to G4tv.com's 2009 Game of the Year Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, as well as the original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. He is also the man who brought the music to life on the beloved “Firefly” TV series. Mr. Edmonson was kind enough to take time to answer some questions from the Feed and from some of its readers. Come inside and find out what went into creating the score to Uncharted 2, the difference between composing for games, TV and films and what certain thread connects Uncharted’s Nathan Drake with Malcolm Reynolds.
The Feed: First question, how does it feel to have had your Uncharted 2 music honored by so many different game awards this year?
Greg Edmonson: Well it certainly came as a surprise. When you are working on a project you tend to have tunnel vision and to just focus on the task at hand. There is so much to be done and so little time to do it, that you don’t think too far ahead. Games differ from a film or TV show in that the graphics are mostly unfinished when you write the music, so I relied heavily on Amy Hennig (Naughty Dog) and Jonathan Mayer (SCEA) for guidance. When I finally saw what the final product looked like, I was astonished. The graphics in a game change on a daily basis as new layers are added and changes in the lighting are made. So the game changes right up until the very last day before you deliver the final master. It was so very gratifying to find that people enjoyed the score and I think that a good part of that was because the game itself was so spectacular. I am so proud of what Naughty Dog accomplished with Uncharted 2. They just raised the bar on every single level. The game had a real story, great acting performances, stunning graphics and I was honored to be a part of it all.
The Feed: Did you approach this sequel any differently compared to what you did with the Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune soundtrack and how much, if any, was directly inspired by the original?
Greg Edmonson: Well, to me at least, the games were different in this way. The first game was set in a jungle and in a lot of underground environments, so a more ambient approach worked. Uncharted 2 was an expansive and more panoramic setting and cried out for a bigger sound and a more thematic approach. Also as game engines become more sophisticated you can write differently as well. In Uncharted: Drake's Fortune I tried to stay away from too much melodic content in the gameplay sections since the music needed to be able to loop. In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I threw caution to the wind and just tried to write music that I liked and trusted that Jonathan Mayer and Scott Hanau (SCEA) would be able to make it work. Implementing the music into a game is a unique art and the Sony team is “as good as it gets.” Since you are writing before the game is finished sometimes music that was intended for one section might end up working better elsewhere. The Sony team makes a master list of all the music that we recorded and then goes through the game, playing it all day, every day and mixing the music into the game.
The Feed: Coady wants to know where you got the inspiration for the soundtrack of Uncharted 2?
Greg Edmonson: Before we started I spent time watching a lot of Chinese cinema. Many of those movies
have epic stories and a lot of action sequences. “House of the Flying Daggers” and “Hero” were influential and so very beautiful to look at. I listened to a fair amount of Buddhist temple music as well. But once we started I just wrote from the heart and tried to find something that would blend in well with the game. Amy and Jonathan allowed me to write music that was melodic and emotional but had no specific place in the game. This is a major departure from the way that some other projects are done. Games are adaptive in the sense that they evolve over time. They are not cast in stone as a TV show or film might be. It is a little like making a film over the course of a year rather than a 7-8 week shoot. So Amy didn’t nitpick the music, she and Jonathan just let me write and we all hoped that as the game unfolded that we would find a place to fit the music in. Obviously if it was a combat situation I knew to write action music and the cinematics dictate exactly what the music should be. But I was given a huge amount of latitude to experiment and most importantly in any creative endeavor, I had the freedom to fail. Once you have that you are able to throw caution to the wind and just have fun!
The Feed: On a similar note, Kenneth wants to know where do you start to get ideas for the soundtrack for a game that takes place in different parts of the world? Does the game’s locale dictate (or even matter) how the music might sound?
Greg Edmonson: Yes Kenneth, The locale does matter. It gives you an opportunity to provide a little “local color” but you need not be strictly bound by such. I learned a huge lesson on “Firefly” that any ethnic contribution will help to involve the viewer/player in such a way that they will feel that this is an “exotic locale” and doesn’t really need to be specific to the actual place. The most important thing is for the player/viewer to feel that we are “not in Kansas” and there you have it. Every culture in the world has found that there are things that you can beat on, blow into and strum. How very cool is that? Since a little bit goes a long way, I tend to use them as spice rather than trying to make ethnic music. In Uncharted 2 we used all manner of ethnic flutes and woodwinds, the erhu (an ancient Chinese violin played by Karen Han), Giant temple horns, Guzheng and Taiko drums.
The Feed: Carlos has an interesting question and asks what was your biggest obstacle in creating the soundtrack of such an epic game?
Greg Edmonson: Hmmm, not sure. Time is always an issue since there never is enough of it. And sometimes you are not sure what to do, but that is just part of the job. I must say that Amy and Evan at Naughty Dog and the whole SCEA crew are so supportive that it really makes life great. Naughty Dog was willing to fund the cost of the orchestra and that made it possible to write in a certain way. When I think back nothing really stands out as being problematic. When I am writing, Amy always makes herself available to discuss anything about the story or the script, and I found out later that some videogame composers do not have such easy access to the creative team making the game so how lucky am I!
The Feed: David asks how do you decide on how a piece will sound when placed with video footage of a game? Do you see the footage first before you write the score? Are you working in a vacuum or do you score to picture like with a film?
Greg Edmonson: As per above, the game is always a work in progress so nothing is ever finished until the last day. Naughty Dog gives me whatever they have but with the schedule being what it is you do indeed use your imagination to connect many of the dots. In other words, sometimes I will write for a level that is mostly unfinished and the characters may not have eyes or maybe their hair is green, as coloring and lighting are added in layers.
On occasion I have had to score the mocap (motion capture) session because the animation process hasn’t even begun, so you just see the actors in their mocap suits. So you just learn to interpret and keep moving forward. The game is divided into two sections musically. Gameplay is the interactive portion, where the player determines the course of action. These sections are somewhat easier to write since you just need to capture the overall feel of the area. Is it exploration, combat, action, puzzle solving etc. The cinematics are the other section and these are more like a film/TV cue in that they must match the picture and help to tell the story in a way that makes the player feel involved and motivated to continue onward.
We record the music in two separate session arcs. First we record the gameplay music only; this gives Sony the time to implement the music into the game and the time to make the creative decisions that are involved. Then, at a later date, we record the music that will go into the cinematics. These are similar to a film/TV cue in that the music will just drop in and then be mixed with the dialogue and FX. Since it is impossible to score every single cinematic, we choose the most important ones and Sony uses music that we have already recorded to “track’ the others. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to work with a team that can make these decisions correctly. So how very lucky am I to be working with a team that does such a wonderful job!
The Feed: Jake asks what was the hardest part about creating the audio, and did you find yourself having a hard time capturing the games constant action?
Greg Edmonson: I think that the hardest part is trying to give each music cue its own identity. You want the score to sound cohesive since it is all part of the same project. But you have to write so much music, in order to fill the 12-14 hour game that it is easy to start to repeat yourself. So finding that balance can be a little tricky. Games have a lot more action music than a film would. Even big action films have a lot of waiting and building up to the action sequences. Then the actual action sequence may be relatively short. Games just jump right in with guns blazing and keep right on going. So somewhere in the process you find yourself wondering “What do I do now?” and you try to learn some new tricks in order to keep it all fresh.
The Feed: Jason wants to know how does the music budget of a big game measure up to a big TV show or feature film?
Greg Edmonson: Games can have a much larger music budget than any TV show could ever afford. Obviously that depends on the budget for the entire game and what the publisher is willing to spend. Uncharted 2 allowed us to record a total of about 80 players on the Skywalker recording stage for several days. That is much closer to a big film budget and a luxury for all involved. There is just nothing like hearing that many wonderful players bring the music to life. “Firefly” on the other hand could only really afford a few live players per episode so the orchestral stuff was mostly synth. You just take the project at hand and do what you can. When you are using synth sounds instead of a real orchestra, you tend to write more sustained parts and less fast stuff since that is what the synths do better. But really the fun part is writing music to picture and there are so many great tools to use that you just hope to find an inspirational project and try to do a good job!
The Feed: Jeremy wants to know what was more fun, working on Uncharted 2 or "Firefly?"
Greg Edmonson: I absolutely loved “Firefly” and I miss it still, I thought that Joss Whedon created the best TV show in history. “Firefly” had so many possibilities and it is criminal those stories remain untold. I also absolutely love Uncharted and I actually find a certain thread that connects them both. In “Firefly” Mal’s relationship with Inara was similar to Nathan Drake’s relationship with Elena. Both “Firefly” and Uncharted feature strong women; strong in a real and human way, not in a comic book fashion. And most importantly both projects feature spectacular writing and acting - without that, all is lost. I am extremely fortunate to get to work with writers like Joss and Amy, and all of the wonderful actors who breathe life into the characters.
The Feed: What involvement did you have in the creating of the soundtrack album for Uncharted 2? Are there things you have to change when formatting game music to an album format?
Greg Edmonson: The game process is a little different than other projects. Because the music has to be used in an interactive environment the Sony team is very involved in both the recording and mixing of the score. When we record we have all of the players in the room at the same time. Then after rehearsing, we record the strings and horns separately. Once we have finished with the orchestra, Sony takes the music back to their facility in Foster City and mixes the music so that they have stems that can be used in the game. As they mix, they send me the roughs and I send them notes on tweaks. The Sony team is really good and I trust them absolutely. They care as much as I about how the music turns out. When it was time to create the soundtrack, we all put our heads together and assembled the CD cue order and then Marc Senasac remixed and mastered. The only rule was that each track should be followed by a track from a different genre (i.e. an action track followed by an exploration piece or a thematic piece)
The Feed: One last question. What’s next for you? Which new games or other projects will we be hearing your fine work on soon?
Greg Edmonson: I am finishing a film right now called “Montana Amazon” featuring Olympia Dukakis and Haley Joel Osment. It is a very black comedy and is completely different than the Uncharted world. There are a couple of pending projects that I am not at liberty to talk about yet and then we will have to see. I am wide open to anything that presents itself and I would love to continue to be involved in the video game world. I really just like to stay busy and I have been so fortunate to work on great projects with people that I love to work with. How lucky is that?
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