Sean Murray is the man behind the music of Call of Duty: Black Ops. The Feed recently got a chance to talk with Sean about what went into the creation of the music for the game, its soundtrack album, and some of the other projects he has composed for, including a previous entry in the COD franchise and a TV show about a teenage vampire slayer. We also got the details on a live orchestra performance of Murray's Black Ops music, along with other game themes, happening next week. And while there are no music-based perks in Black Ops multiplayer (really, there should be!) The Feed has deployed some sounds from the game in the interview for your listening enjoyment.
The Feed: This is your, pardon the pun, second tour of duty in the Call of Duty franchise. How are things different for you this time around with Black Ops compared to World at War?
Sean Murray: Well World at War was my first in the Call of Duty franchise. So the excitement level of being called on to one of the biggest video game franchises in the world was just unbelievable for me. And the excitement of getting to record in Prague with an eighty piece orchestra and choir was just absolutely beyond my wildest dreams. So it was just an absolute thrill. Now when Black Ops came around I was unbelievably exited to be called back. So the excitement level it absolutely equaled it or surpassed it. After the success of Modern Warfare 2 it was really an honor to be called back again.
The Feed: In your Black Ops compositions did you draw any inspiration from World at War or did you go in a completely original direction?
Sean Murray: Well we wanted to go in a completely distinct direction for Black Ops. But we also wanted to keep some of the threads back to World At War. Mainly in the main character, Victor Reznov. So we had a reoccurring character and we were able to bring back some of the Neo-Stalinist, Neo-Russian themes that had kind of developed in World at War. So we needed to be able to touch back on that and the music had a very different purpose in Black Ops and was quite different from what we were trying to achieve in World at War. What I really wanted was to capture the essence and paranoia and the state of mind of people during the Cold War. The paranoia being that at any moment we could suffer death from a nuclear holocaust. So what I did to capture that paranoia and feeling was I listened to a lot of composers that were doing experimental music in the 60s, 50s, 40s and 70s and 80s even. Twentieth century composers that all came from the experimental vein. I think the most influential on me were two Hungarians coming from the east block and that would be Ligeti and Kurtag. So I let that music kind of permeate me and I just drew inspiration from it. I didn't copy the styles but just having that exposure really helped me develop something unique with the modern approach that I took to the score as well.
The Feed: What orchestra did you work with to record the music?
Sean Murray: We recorded at the Eastwood scoring stage at Warner Brother's studio. We had two orchestra set ups; one was around eighty pieces or eighty musicians and that was tailored for specific queues. We worked with those guys for three days. And for two days we worked with a smaller ensemble of seventy-three pieces with different arrangements tailored for specific queues. The musicians were comprised of the best Hollywood players in town. I had one of the most amazing conductors, a guy named Tim Simonec. And wonderfully to my surprise I found out that Tim had actually conducted and orchestrated the very first two Call of Duty games. He orchestrated and conducted Call of Duty with Michael Giacchino and he also orchestrated and conducted for Graeme Revell's Call of Duty 2.
The Feed: That is following in some very good foot steps that's for sure.
Sean Murray: Yeah! So, and the reason why we ended up at Warner Brothers was really cool. A violinist that I've been using on my work for over ten years now, since actually Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I had hired him to be my first violinist and also to run the orchestra. He brought me in contact with Tim Simonec because he had worked a lot with him and Michael Giacchino. So he became my concert master and we talked about the different venues that we could record at and I was given the choice by Activision to record at Sony, at 20th Century Fox or Warner Brothers. We visited all the stages but I was really impressed with the warmth of the room and how the musicians really can hear each other in a way that you can't at the other studios. So it was a really nice choice for me to choose Warner Brothers because Tim had worked there so much with Michael and on great films like Up and Ratatouille.
The Feed: This is a big franchise it's kind of a no brainer statement but this is a big deal for both Activision and the developer Treyarch. How much freedom did your bosses give you in your compositions or how much direction were you given that someone else may have wanted in terms of sound?
Sean Murray: Well you know I had developed a really great working relationship back on True Crime: New York with Brian Tuey (Black Ops Audio Director) and he liked my unique approach to scoring. We really had a lot of freedom on True Crime: New York and he encouraged that freedom and experimentation. So when it came to World at War we really wanted to change the sound from the previous games. Which by the way, to add to your earlier question, I never listened to the scores of the Call of Duty franchise before I started on it. I didn't want to be repeating what they had done before. So I have a lot of creative input from my audio director there and the guys at Treyarch. They would give me an idea of what they expected for a certain level. What emotions they wanted to hit. What the psychological tone of the music would be. We had a lot of meetings very early on Black Ops about how we could make it different from World at War but also like I said, bring back some of the strings of the Russian themes from World at War. I would deliver them stems and a lot of break outs, which gave them the flexibility to remix and cut together new pieces out of the pieces I would deliver. And often times they would come up with some really unique takes on my original compositions.
The Feed: And that goes to the interactive nature of game music in general.
Sean Murray: Yeah, the important thing is when I give them a piece of music I want them to be able to mix it and match it and really fit within the environment of the game. So giving them more creative flexibility makes the game better because sometimes if you have an element that is pulled out you get a completely different attitude than that. Say it's a percussive element you pull that out and you just have the instruments playing, you get a completely different vibe from the piece of music. So there was a tremendous amount of interaction in that regard with Treyarch audio.
The Feed: In the case of cut scenes, do you get the ability to see them to compose against like you would in a film setting? Or is it still ideas back and forth with the developers?
Sean Murray: Well, I got many cut scenes that were finished. So when you have a cut scene you always score it just as you would score a scene in a motion picture. And what was really great was I really got inspired when they started delivering the cut scenes with the actor's voiceovers. So for example, when I did the queue from Black Ops called "Deviant," it was about the Vorkuta Breakout and you had Gary Oldman's terrific performance that really inspired me to really go a bit further with the music there than I would have if it was not this great voiceover. Sam Worthington brought gravity to the scenes that I worked on having just seen Avatar and hearing what a great job he did in that, it was just really fantastic to have his powerful voice. And then Ed Harris who's another personality and a voice that really you just dream about working with. In a motion picture or animated game, it doesn't matter, when you have those performances it's always inspiring.
The Feed: Let’s talk about the soundtrack release for the game. Obviously you are composing for the game originally, what challenges do you have when Activision decides, hey let's put this out as a soundtrack album?
Sean Murray: Well, I was given a lot of freedom in choosing the tracks. So I wanted to give everybody a really good idea of the breadth and the scope and the different types of music and genres I explored throughout the game. So I really just picked my favorite pieces and I chose thirty of them and much to my surprise they said okay, we'll go with thirty cuts. Like what? You're going to put out almost two hours of music? I believe it's almost two hours. Now for the game I scored just about three hours of music. So it was neat to get over half of what ended up in the game on the soundtrack album. Then after I chose the thirty pieces, Brian Tuey and I discussed which ones we would be using from their remixes. Treyarch's remixes are basically how they manipulated my score to work within the context of the game. So it was really neat, we were able to give the listener everything they heard in the game as well as my original orchestral mixes. So it was a good cross between remixes and original score. A lot of the remixes had a lot more focus on my electronica and synth elements that were mixed up and certain elements would be pulled out.
The Feed: That's interesting you work both in the orchestral and the synthesized realm. Is there a different approach when composing for the two different styles?
Sean Murray: No, because when I compose my pieces I always do my mock ups as they're called. They're not really mock ups, they are just pieces of music when I deliver them to Treyarch or to any film company that I am working with, so they can stand by themselves alone without an orchestra. But I do put so much time into writing all of my string parts and horn parts as if I am writing for orchestras so that when we do get to the point of the recording them live then it's easily mixed back into my entire score. So yeah, I always approach orchestral instruments very traditionally but on top of that I try to manipulate sounds in as many creative ways I can dream of. And I was very encouraged to do that on both of the Call of Duty games. I mean the weirder the stuff or darker the stuff or more sinister and the more chances I took, that's when people always responded the best. When I tried to push the envelope a little bit.
The Feed: This is your fourth video game title you have composed, in addition to the other COD and the two True Crime games.
Sean Murray: Yeah it is. Now the way I got in to composing for games, my brother in law had been working with Luxoflux and he was a lead artist over there when Luxoflux was developing True Crime. I really had not paid too much attention to composing for games because I had done quite a bit of television and a lot of independent features and films and television movies. So I was more focused on that aspect of my career but when I saw what they were doing with True Crime I became very interested because I saw that it was absolutely a wonderful new kind of medium for composers. I met with the producers and they had liked my credits (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, God the Devil and Bob). But the great thing was I really had to audition for the job. And the way they did that was they gave me a couple of cut scenes and I scored them. They had some other composers score the cut scenes as well and the entire studio voted for who they liked the best. My brother-in-law got me the meeting but I really had to pull it off by doing an impressive demonstration of my work. So they all voted and I got the most votes and that's how I got into video games.
I had met Brian Tuey on True Crime: LA and he was an audio designer at that point. Now when it came time for True Crime: New York he had become audio director for Luxoflux. So it was so fun to have Brian give me the call and say, dude come on back here, let's see what we can do with this one. When they knew they wanted to take the direction of the World War II shooter into a totally different direction he thought that I could lend a unique kind of sound to it and make it a little bit more fresh.
The Feed: Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a pretty long running series. How many episodes did you work on?
Sean Murray: Well I worked on the second season, I had a partner and we did every other show and another composer who did every other show. One week we would do a show, next week the other guy did a show. So I ended up doing I believe 10 episodes of that and what was neat is that we were called in to kind of change the direction of the score and the sound from the first season. And I believe me and my partner we came in and really rocked things up a bit, very dark and sinister as well as bringing a gentle approach to some of the more romantic scenes as well.
The Feed: Since you work in all three disciplines of soundtrack composition between games, tv and film, is there a huge difference between them or is one easier over another?
Sean Murray: I like them all because they all have their different challenges. A lot of times you’ve really got to find a balance between being creative and having a strict deadline that you have to adhere to. So the challenge is no matter what you're working on is just being at your best and doing it quick with confidence. And I've always just thrived on that kind of scenario. Now motion pictures, sometimes if you get called in late or maybe they decided they wanted to change the score, sometimes you might have 10 days to do a score. Sometimes you have two months or six months depending on how early you get involved in the process. But usually for me, films take between four and six weeks. You're very connected to a director when you're working on a feature film and you tend to get to know the directors very well because you've spent quite some time with them. You spend a lot of time trying to understand what they expect from the music and what kind of character they want the music to take.
Television is a little bit faster. You've got to know the material, you've got to know the essence of the story and what the music's character is because you don't have a lot of time to for a television show. You probably have half a day where you've got to decide where the music comes in and where it goes out. You've got to deliver within three to four days on an hour long show, so it's quite a rapid pace. You get a little more time when you're working on a video game. As you know, videogames take a couple of years to really develop. And I was lucky enough to come in on both Call of Duties about half way through the process. I spent almost a year on World at War and Black Ops, so I really was able to get inside the character of the music and understand what was expected from me from the story’s point of view and I was able to develop a great character and influence on the game.
The Feed: So despite the countless hours and billions of kills gamers have racked up playing it, you really had a much more intimate relationship with the characters in Black Ops long before any of them got their hands it.
Sean Murray: Oh yeah, absolutely. One of the cool things early on I had a few levels of game play to score to on Black Ops. So I was able to get into some big pieces and some big themes right off. One of the first two cuts I wrote was Pegasus and Invictus and they were bold and brash, very big orchestral cuts. And then as I started getting more like a storyboard when scenes weren’t finished I would look at Powerpoint presentations and also concept art. So when I didn't have a scene to write to or game play to write to, I started experimenting just looking at the imagery. And boy I tell you the concept art was so beautiful, so dark and disturbing that it really gave me a lot of ideas for the music. So once I started getting some more of the darker elements and more psychological aspects of Alex Mason, the main character's psychological training with the CIA and the SOG unit, I started to shift my focus on my music a bit more to make it more paranoid and more darker and more about stealth, camouflage and being off the radar. But we also were able to keep the big orchestral elements as well.
The Feed: Can you give our readers the quick background on the pieces they are listening to with this interview: "Virus," "Hard Target" and "The Wall".
Sean Murray: "The Wall" was originally written to a piece of the level Cosmodrone and I wanted to try something that was sparse because they were outside this missile base and there are all these old shells of missiles that have exploded and it was a really stark atmosphere. I was also thinking about the Berlin Wall, so I had this imagery to write to but it was more about the missiles and the Soviets and I started thinking about the Berlin wall and it's coldness and the stark division that it represented during the Cold War period. That was a very experimental kind of piece. After I finished it I decided to expand on it further and make it more about the cello. The original piece was actually called "Flash Point" and then it became "The Wall" after I wrote the entire piece for cello.
Now "Virus" I wrote to picture. It was a battle sequence and that's when it started getting a little more focused on the direction and tone of the score. I had a wonderful guitar player from Treyarch, Kevin Sherwood, who had played on several of my tracks from World at War. I had him take a crack at rocking it out a little bit. We both actually played guitars on that and it was a neat combination of his metal against my other kind of dreamier guitar parts and I really love the way that turned out. That’s an example of the collaboration that I have with Treyarch.
"Hard Target" came from a helicopter fight sequence from the escape from the Vietnamese camp and the cue Eagle Claw, which is the cut where I put in this kind of interesting lyrical theme to break out of the intensity of the queue. And from that theme I decided that I would develop an entirely new piece and that became "Hard Target." So Hard Target grew out of the mid section from Eagle Claw.
The Feed: Is there anything you are working on now that you could possibly share with us?
Sean Murray: Yes, I've got a video game coming up! I just got off the phone actually with somebody discussing what we were going to attempt with that so it's going to be an interesting project. And I will let you guys know as soon as I am able to announce a press release on that.
The Feed: It was just announced that your music from Black Ops will be performed by the Golden Stat Pops Orchestra here in Southern California next week. How did that come about and did you have much involvement in it? This must be quite exciting for you as well.
Sean Murray: Yes, I'm very excited. This came about through my orchestrator Emilie Bernstein. Steven Allen Fox, the GSPO artistic director, contacted her through a mutual friend. He wanted to perform something from Black Ops for their upcoming show in April. I was all for it. I sent them the score and parts for the cut "Deviant", one of my non-synth, orchestra-only cuts and that is what they will be performing. It will be rehearsed for the first time the day of the show and I'm confident it will be great.
The soundtrack album for Call of Duty: Black Ops is available through Amazon MP3 and iTunes and if you are in Southern California on April 9th, tickets to the Golden State Pops Orchestra performance of “Video Game Soundtracks” are available here.