Gareth Coker

1) GARETH, LET US START YOUR INTERVIEW WITH YOU SHARING SOME INSIGHT INTO TRAILER MUSIC. YOU HAVE SO MUCH EXPERIENCE IN THAT FIELD, SO PLEASE TELL US, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE INGREDIENTS OF GREAT TRAILER MUSIC?

I’ve experienced a couple of different sides in this field. First, the more standard ‘submit to music library and wait for placement’ approach, but second, for almost a decade, I’ve worked with a couple of global marketing agencies directly on their trailers, generally bypassing the process of pitching or ‘auditioning’ muisc. I’ve had very few of what would be considered ‘major’ or ‘blockbuster’ placements, but the agencies I’ve worked for have been somewhat prolific in creating campaigns for independent and low-to-medium budget films. This work has paid my bills for several years, and it was all because I stayed in touch with a friend from high school who worked as a receptionist at one of these agencies!

In these cases, I’m likely replacing a temp track that their client (the film production company or distributor) did not have the budget to license. In most cases, the clients generally understand that they are not going to get the exact same sound as their temp, but the #1 job is to make sure that whatever music you are giving them, it makes them feel the same way. A lot of the time, I’m not looking to recreate the song, I’m looking to recreate the vibe. This requires making focused music that knows exactly what it’s trying to say, rather than overdoing it. Often in the attempt to make things sound ‘big’, it’s tempting to just try and add more, but then things start to sound confused. I find myself pressing ‘Delete’ a lot towards the end of a track’s creation to make the best ideas stand out as much as possible.

When submitting to the libraries, most of the time I’m creating the music in a three-act structure, and ensuring that it has plenty of edit points. In that scenario, you are writing for an editor, and not necessarily someone who will directly sign off on your work, so a composer needs to make the work as malleable as possible. To have real success in the library field I think you should have an original voice and it’s essential that you can write a lot of music and not get too attached to it. There are just so many library tracks and so much choice for editors, so you’d better make sure your production skills are top notch and your compositions have that special ‘something’ about them that makes them stand out (unless of course, the purpose is to solely be in the background!). I’ve always tried to write the music on the assumption that it will likely be discarded if it doesn’t pique the listener’s interest after a handful of seconds.

2) ‘ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST’ IS A UNIQUE SCORE. WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH THE INDEPENDENT STUDIO THAT PRODUCED IT? WAS THE EXPERIENCE JUST AS UNIQUE?

Moon Studios is a distributed studio. Co-founders live in Austria and Israel. Art was based in Germany and the UK, Animation was based in the UK and Holland, Tech/Programming was based in Australia, Israel, and Holland, Sound was based in Atlanta, and Music here in LA, with support from Microsoft, our publisher, in Seattle. The game itself was made over Skype, Google Docs, Dropbox, Hansoft (a project management / bug-tracking software) and TortoiseSVN (a version control software that manages all our different builds of the game). This kind of setup isn’t uncommon in game development, especially on the indie scene, but it’s rare (and please forgive my natural bias) for this level of polish – particularly on mechanics, game design, and in-game ‘flow’, to be achieved by studios without a centralized location, especially considering this was Moon’s first game!

Alongside the distributed studio model, Moon operates with a flat structure – any department can give feedback on any other department’s work, regardless of professional experience in that field. This is categorically not for everyone and certainly not for the thin-skinned. As one journalist said, ‘it sounds like chaos theory in action’. Fortunately, Moon have a propensity to hire people who 1) can handle working remotely and be self-starters, and 2) who can take and give feedback in a way that is positive for the culture of the team. Here’s an example of the feedback loop: there’s a moment in the game where Ori – the main character – successfully navigates a tough series of dungeons and reaches ‘the top of the world’. At the time, I declared the top of the world as ‘visually lackluster’. As a visual artist, I don’t have those skills and thus can’t offer specific criticism, but as a gamer, I could still communicate to the art department how unsatisfying the moment felt. The issue got logged, people looked at it, and like a triage, if people agreed with the original issue, it got prioritized accordingly. Conversely, an artist came to me and said there was way too much piano in a certain cue. I thought he didn’t know what he was talking about at the time, but tried his suggestion anyway and I liked the ‘less piano’ version better.

It’s not a perfect system (what is?), and is especially challenging when there is a disagreement with an even split of team members on either side. That scenario is rare, but debate can last months and require several proofs-of-concept before resolution. Moon’s mantra is ‘Show don’t tell’, so if someone believes something should be produced differently, that person should go make it. I think ‘show don’t tell’ – while not always practical – is a great mantra for any creative industry. e.g. as a composer, go out and produce the alternative and show why you think your own idea for the cue that is nothing like the temp track is better!

In terms of scoring the game, I had almost total freedom throughout the process. I scored the prototype before the game was even called Ori and the Blind Forest, and before it was pitched to Microsoft. From prototype to launch day was a four-year process, and while I wasn’t working full time over that period, I was around the game while it was being built from the ground up. Thus, I had a lot of time to find out what did and didn’t work. Incidentally, the look and feel of the final game is completely different to what we presented in the prototype!

Finally, most of the team never met in person until the evening of the launch of the game, including our sound designer and mixer Andrew Lackey. Yet my relationship with Andrew is easily the most synergistic I’ve had in the industry and as a collaborator, I felt like I’d known him for years. We made suggestions on each other’s work throughout the process, and they almost always worked. The mix on Ori is a direct result of each of us intuitively knowing what the other was thinking and seeing things the same way throughout the game. I’m still not quite sure how or why this happened, but I don’t really care. That was unique because it was the first time it happened to this degree for me.

3) HOW IS COMPOSING MUSIC FOR GAMES DIFFERENT THAN COMPOSING FOR FILM AND TV?

The first thing about this question is that composing for games is non-linear, meaning you have to consider multiple alternative actions and outcomes based on player choices. I think that has been discussed at length here by other game composers. What I’d like to expand on is the actual process of determining these actions and outcomes.

It’s been my experience – and take that word with a pinch of salt, because I’m still new on the scene – that composers are often asked to write within a music system was designed before the composer is hired. Ideally, composers should be involved as early as possible to determine the musical, narrative, and interactive requirements of the game so they – along with the audio team – can figure out the best way to handle the music interactivity, whether it needs layers, location-based triggers, event-based triggers, all the above, or none of the above. Composers are storytellers, and I also think we’re good editors, because we should have a solid understanding of pacing and flow, whatever medium we’re working in. So, getting us onto the team earlier, can really help shape a game’s development and provide clarity and focus moving forward through a game’s development.

I’m very passionate about composers for games playing their games as much as possible (or if you can’t, hire someone who will!), particularly for narrative games, but also for games with a deep level of musical interactivity. It’s imperative to be able to test your work in context. That’s not to say that a great score for a game can’t be done if the composer isn’t playing the game, but there’s a personal touch that can sometimes be missing unless you have a fantastic audio team implementing your music that fully understands your vision, and the game’s vision, and so can represent your work in the best possible way. However, when you’re starting out in game scoring, you almost certainly won’t have a large elite audio team or someone solely dedicate to audio implementation to work with, so you’ll likely have sole responsibility for how the music plays. So it’s on you, the composer, to get your hands on a build of the game as early and frequently as possible, so you can understand how your music is going to be used, how it is being played back, whether the triggers are setup correctly, and then give feedback if it’s not satisfactory and try to get a programmer to correct it, or learn how to correct it yourself. That said, on an extremely large game such as Witcher 3, Fallout, or Skyrim, where playtime is over 100 hours, it’s impossible to test all cases. My general point stands though, I think the best opportunity for an amazing score happens when the composer has a hands-on role early in the game’s development.

A personal illustrating this: the decision – made 2 years prior to launch – to rarely use percussion on the soundtrack for Ori and the Blind Forest was the result of me playing the game with the early sound effects and realizing that the sounds for Ori were tactile enough for music to stay out of the way and encompass the bigger picture, as opposed to punctuating character actions. Sound was already giving us the moment-to-moment experience of Ori’s actions, and music was free to express what Ori was feeling. Sound and music stayed out of each other’s way for almost every section of the game, and resulted in a mix that sort of worked before we even truly got started. Could we have found this if I started later or come on at the end of production? Maybe, but discovering this early shaped my approach for scoring the rest of the game, and possibly Andrew’s approach for sound too.

When this kind of synergy happens across departments, when the story, controls, gameplay mechanics, visuals and audio line up in perfect harmony, that’s when you can really suck the player in to quite deep levels of immersion. Most gamers know it when it happens, you reach a totally different state of mind and are truly engaged with the experience, and forget that you are playing a game. I think in film and TV, getting to this point of ‘creating the magic’ is more established and streamlined. Game developers – because of the constantly changing tech, and dealing with so many non-linear or moving parts – are still learning how to make games. This to me, is exciting, because the potential ceiling is so high for the still-maturing video game industry, yet there’s already so many outstanding and varied experiences to be had.

4) BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCE, WOULD YOU AGREE THAT CONCERTS OF FILMS/GAMES MUSIC ARE BECOMING INCREASINGLY POPULAR? 

It’s pretty clear that they are! It seems like barely a week goes by without some kind of concert for films or games happening. From a games perspective, I’ve experienced first-hand how passionate the fans are about the music that is in their games. They are very vocal and it feels like they really want to support the music creators. Overall, with regards to live concerts, we are just getting started and long-term I think we will see more and more individual/franchise concert series (e.g. Journey Live) that exist in addition to the concerts such as Video Games Live that play music from multiple titles. I think the games industry is still in a learning process of how much life music can have after a game is released, but it feels like publishers are really starting to get on board and support it. We’ve all seen the amazing attendances of VGL and the awesome number of people that turn up to game composer panels at events like PAX to realize there is a big market for these events. Also, anything which gets young people involved and interacting with live musicians is a major plus point, and the concerts for game soundtracks in particular really seem to be doing a great job of getting them engaged with and experiencing music with a traditional orchestra.

Additionally, as a composer, the chance to interact with fans on a one-to-one basis is rare, and it’s one of the great joys of the job, especially because it’s an excuse to get out of the studio! At PAX Prime a year and a half ago, I ended up meeting one of Ori’s most enthusiastic players and ‘speed runners’ (a player who tries to finish the game as quickly as possible, the current world record is 22 minutes – in a game that takes most players 10-12 hours!). Despite working on the game for almost 4 years, this person seemed to know more about the project than I did, and we just nerded out for ages! The ever-increasing number of these concerts, panels, and conventions will bring about more interactions like these, which is a positive thing for everyone involved.

5) DESPITE THE COMPETITIVE NATURE OF OUR INDUSTRY, THERE ARE MANY INSTANCES OF COMPOSERS HELPING EACH OTHER. WOULD YOU CARE TO COMMENT ABOUT THAT?

One of the first things they told us at the University of Southern California’s Scoring program, was that ‘of the people in this room, many of them will be your colleagues and friends for the rest of your career’. In my case, and many others, it was so true. Two of my classmates, Alexander Rudd, and Zach Lemmon have helped me out on numerous occasions. Without them, the Ori recording (for example) would not have gone as well as it did. I’ve had the pleasure of having Alex conduct my music for 7 years. He’s brilliant with the musicians and while we compose in different styles, he always has an ear and understanding of what I’m going for. Most importantly, he is a unique character and makes the sessions fun for everyone. Similarly, I can’t imagine not having Zach’s ears and musical knowledge available to me in the booth. We have now worked together on several projects, including Ori, Minecraft, and ARK Survival Evolved, and I hope it continues but there’s always the possibility that they get too busy with their own work, as they are both great composers themselves.

Additionally, established composers are constantly helping those who are just getting started with internships / assistantships. This is something I did in my first year and a half here, and if I’m being honest, I wasn’t great at it because I was a little too entitled and my heart wasn’t truly in it. If you do get the opportunity to assist, make sure you think long and hard if it’s really for you, and then once you start, be truly committed to it, and you will likely get some amazing experience and knowledge that you can’t get in school, and can only get by learning on the job.

While it is a competitive industry, the only thing you can really control is the quality of your music and your interactions with people. Even if you are amazing at absolutely every skill you need to have a career in this industry, it’s still incredibly hard to succeed as there are so many factors that you don’t control that come into play, which can be tricky to deal with, especially early on in your career. Having a team of friends or family (or both) who you know you can call at any time to be able to help you – and vice versa- can provide at least some respite or a sense of peace and help you get through the ebbs and flows that working in this industry inevitably throws at you.

Talk of friends and family seems an appropriate place to sign off, and with that, I’d like to give everyone my best wishes for a very happy holiday season!