It goes without saying that music is an integral part of any video game experience. Those entrusted with captivating our aural senses often help elicit a closer connection with a game’s characters or premise as well as creating a deeper level of immersion. The people pulling the strings from an audible sense often lack the recognition for the work that they do, unless however you are an award-winning composer that is. I recently had the privilege of sitting down and chatting with Garry Schyman, an award-winning film, television and video game composer. Schyman composed the score for the recently released Warner Bros. game Middle Earth: Shadow of War (as well as its predecessor), and his other credits extend to his musical works on television programs such as Magnum P.I., the A-Team and his incredible work on scoring the Bioshock video game series.
DYEGB: Have you ever been to Australia?
GS: I have, I was just there three months ago, I was only in Canberra. I was invited to spend a week at the university there and lecture. I have a special appreciation for Australia. In 2004 I scored Destroy All Humans, which was developed in Australia. Pandemic Brisbane and the audio director was Emily Ridgewood she went on to audio lead Bioshock and I’m grateful to Australia for producing Emily.
DYEGB: Destroy All Humans was your first video game, wasn’t it?
GS: Yes and no. I worked on a few video games in the 1990s, Phillips interactive had a CGI technology in the early 90s which was kind of an oddball technology that was really kind of a series of movies where you would make decisions and I scored 3 of them, but it wasn’t until 2004 till I got into the contemporary scene that is video games, technology had advanced and it had become cool and interesting. I loved the experience and really got me up and running.
DYEGB: What got you into composing? How did your passion for music develop?
GS: I started playing the piano as a 13-year old. My mum rented a piano and I played it for long hours, 3-4 hours a day, I drove everyone nuts. I fell in love with music and I played at school and I decided I wanted to score film and television. So, I went to the University of Southern California and studied composition and graduated from there and then got involved in scoring television mostly in the early 80s.
DYEGB: What are your favourite instruments to use in a score and why?
GS: I love all the instruments, they are all amazing, but you want the right tool for the right job. Instruments that are 500 years old are still making this incredible music, it’s kind of a miracle of human evolution – they are beautiful and amazing.
DYEGB: What are your main influences or inspirations?
GS: The first composer I became aware of was Bernard Herrmann, he was really famous for the Alfred Hitchcock movies. He was iconic, he was much beloved by composers he had a really unique and cool sound. The later Gerry Goldsmith and John Williams also inspired me.
DYEGB: What would you say is the achievement you’re most proud of?
GS: Other than being a father? Musically I think I do believe that the best opportunities and most interesting work I’ve ever been asked to do has been for video games. So, some of the scores I’ve done for Bioshock series (it is the 10th anniversary of Bioshock) or Dante’s Inferno or currently Shadow of War have been extraordinary creative opportunities.
DYEGB: Bioshock is one of my favourite series of all time and a lot of thanks must go to you because the music behind it is incredible. I met Troy Baker recently and I talked his ear off about how much I loved the Bioshock games.
GS: You know Troy Baker does Talion in Shadow of Mordor/Shadow of War?
I think he even directed a lot of the voice acting as well, he was very involved with this game. There’s a lot of in-game cinematics and the acting is incredibly good.
DYEGB: When you’re composing do you interact with any of those people at all?
GS: I usually go in and meet the team in the beginning. Most often they are in another state or another country, like Destroy All Humans. I’m usually interacting with an audio director or music director so like in Bioshock infinite there was a music director Jim Bonnie, in Destroy All Humans Emily was the audio director, in Shadow of Mordor/ Shadow of War there is an in-game/in-house music lead and composer and that’s Nate Grigg. I wrote two and a half hours of music for Shadow of War and Nathan wrote another two hours, which is more music than I’ve ever written for any project. You basically need to give a month of your life.
DYEGB: How did you get into composing for video games after film?
GS: In 2004 my agent at the time sent over my résumé to THQ (via fax machine!), which was a big publisher at the time. My girlfriend’s roommate in college was an executive at THQ and they agreed to listen to my music because she liked me. They heard a piece of my music and they thought it was appropriate for Destroy All Humans and they asked me to do a pitch which is like an original demo to get a project. I said no, I should have said yes but they hired me anyway. They wanted this Bernard Herrmann style like from The Day The Earth Stood Still and they wanted to emulate that style. I sent them what they asked for so why should I pitch for it? I kind of figured I was probably being stubborn about it, I didn’t realise how cool games were.
DYEGB: How did you score the Shadow of Mordor gig?
GS: Nate hired me because he really liked what I did for Dante’s Inferno, A lot of people love that game. It did just okay otherwise they would have made sequels. But I loved scoring it, it was a blast. I got to score hell, you know how many people get to score hell? You could count them on one hand.
DYEGB: Are there any projects that you look back on and listen to and wish you could do differently? Are you happy with the way they turned out?
GS: There’s always something you hear that you wish you’d done different, taken more time with, or you wish you had come up the idea a bit earlier, but you don’t have that much time as you have a deadline to meet. Some of my music I listen to that I think I really nailed is from Bioshock, it was an incredible score and I think that it was on the money.
DYEGB: What was your favourite world to compose out of Rapture or Columbia?
GS: I enjoyed both games, I mean Bioshock was the first of those games – I think that one I’m closer to, it has more special meaning. Infinite was a really cool game, they wanted something quite different. Irrational games made Bioshock 1 and Infinite. They are both so different, one is set in Rapture the 1960s and the other set in 1912 in a city in the clouds, they really should be unique and distinct worlds. I have a special feeling about Bioshock with it being the first.
DYEGB: Do they get you to play the games first at all? Or do they give you little snippets and go in blind?
GS: Upon starting with the game it’s usually unplayable or it’s in a rough condition and I can’t really play the game because I don’t live in the same city. They just don’t let it out because they are cautious with their games. Bioshock Infinite cost 100 million dollars to make, so it’s a huge investment and they’ll be very cautious about it. They’ll send me game captures, someone will be playing the game in-house and send me a capture file and I will use that to inspire me and I will get information from the team about why there is music there and I’ll send the team something and if they like it great/ if they don’t I can make changes and that is just your normal process.
DYEGB: How much creative freedom do they give you with a project?
GS: I can write whatever music I want if they like it, which is true of any film or tv show. They want you to be creative and have fun with it but obviously, it’s got to feel right to them too. I respect that they have a special connection to the game, they’ve been working on it for a year or two before I’ve even become involved, thinking about it day and night and they have an insight as to what it’s supposed to feel like. My ideas must gel with that, sometimes they’ll love everything I do and sometimes I must try and experiment. Like with Bioshock Infinite I was trying a lot of different things and nothing was quite working. Then there was a preview of the game at E3 and the character Elizabeth had been a part of the game but not a focal point but when the press started talking about it all they could talk about was this Elizabeth character and it made Ken and the team go ‘we need to change this game, this character needs to be central’. When I heard this, that’s when I wrote Elizabeth’s theme I knew it was critical. I played it for Ken and he loved it. They didn’t know what the game was about until then, and I couldn’t quite nail it until they figured out what they wanted.
DYEGB: Do you play video games yourself at all?
GS: I like to play my own games so I can see how it’s been used and really hear it in its proper place. I have certain games like Portal that are all-time favourites of mine. I hope they make a Portal 3.
DYEGB: Have you ever played anything that you thought you’d be able to score better?
GS: Yes, I won’t say which games they are. I’ve also played games where I’ve thought this is brilliant and I wish I wrote this. I’ve seen films where I’ve had the same vibes.
DYEGB: What’s your schedule like when you’re working on a project, do you have one project at a time or are you working on multiple things at once?
GS: Sometimes I’m doing multiple, sometimes one at a time. Very often in games, it’s so stretched out over time that you have time to engage in other projects and quite often you must because you’re not making enough money. You may be paid well for that project but if it’s spread out over a year or more it’s not going to cover your mortgage, so you have to be open.
DYEGB: What’s the longest you’ve worked on a project?
GS: Shadow of War I worked on for over a year and a half and I wasn’t fully employed with it. There were times I had nothing to do for weeks at a time and usually towards the end you get very busy. I would say probably 80 percent of the game is made in the last 20 percent of the time left to make the game and that’s probably true for a lot of things in the world before they go out for publication.
DYEGB: Speaking of Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War, did you have to watch Lord of the Rings in preparation for composing these?
GS: They actually forced me to sit in a chair and tied me up with my eyes held open and I had to watch (laughs). No, actually, believe it or not, I was never a big fan of those films, I wasn’t against them either but I’ve only seen the second Lord of the Rings film and I really liked it. I haven’t really been marinated in any of the music that Howard Shore wrote and we were not asked to emulate it. We kind of went in our own direction and because Shadow of Mordor/ Shadow of War have their own unique storyline and I think that worked. You know we aren’t trying to do a game about the movie, we are trying to make a game about the world of Mordor and creating a unique story. I say we, but I didn’t have anything to do with the story, I was just writing the music but it wasn’t something we were asked to emulate no.
DYEGB: Given Lord of the Rings was such a successful franchise was there a lot more pressure put on you to score these games well?
GS: When we did Mordor, I don’t think anyone expected it to be the big hit that it was, we were hoping of course. I didn’t realise how incredible it was because I hadn’t played the game, I didn’t realise the Nemesis system was so powerful and how unique it was. I think that’s what drove its success and thus the sequel. I really think that the original one set the standard that we used as a template to take it to the next level. Obviously, the game changed and we had more music to write.
DYEGB: Did you get an increased budget because of its success?
GS: Yes because we had to write more music we had twice as long as we did last time. We actually spent two weeks with an orchestra, so yeah definitely the budget went up; everything cost more to finish that game. Warner had a big investment, so everybody go buy that game (laughs).
DYEGB: What is involved in working on a sequel creatively? Was it harder or easier because you did Shadow of Mordor before Shadow of War?
GS: Yeah, I think in some ways it’s easier because you know what it’s about and in other ways you’re challenged to not repeat yourself and do something unique so it’s both, you just take it one step at a time. It’s like how they say you eat a horse one bite at a time, it was like eating a horse there was so much to do. You just take the music you have to write that day and you write it, so that’s how you do it and you try to find what’s important.
DYEGB: Do you have any favourite scenes that you’re proud of?
GS: There was a lot of fun stuff to compose. I really enjoy doing the in-game cinematics, there’s a lot of music I wrote for SHELOB, I won’t spoil it for you but there’s a seven-minute-long cinematic towards the end of the game I enjoy, though the music may not pop out at you I really enjoyed playing that sequence, I wrote some big giant battle sequences with drakes flying and spitting fire that were enjoyable as well.
My parents were very supportive, they had their concerns but they wanted me to be happy and follow my dreams
DYEGB: What would you say are the more challenging aspects of being a composer? And do you have any advice for people trying to follow the same kind of career path as yourself?
GS: I think there are a lot of challenges. I think you need to become a really good composer and you need to develop your own kind of unique sound, I think that really helps. You need to have personal skills and the ability to go meet people, because when you first get started is when it’s the hardest because there are so many other people who want to do it, and so much competition and getting someone to trust and believe in you especially on a big project is very hard. It can be quite a struggle, it’s not for the faint-hearted because you might see your friends become lawyers and doctors and you might be in your Mum’s basement struggling to find enough money to go to McDonald’s. It is a hard way to make a living, once you’re into it you can do quite well. It’s tough, you must want it and be so in love with scoring that you’re willing to go through what it requires to become successful and it takes time, focus and certain personality skills. It also takes grit to be like ‘I’m going to do this no matter what’, then your breaks come after you get a lot of knock backs. Eventually someone says ‘yeah, I want you to write my music’. I remember first getting started and people finally saying yes and me being shocked, like really? Then all of a sudden you get better and better at it as you score more things. Even the act of writing music, that’s one skill but the act of scoring things that’s another skill that you have to relate and have to do a lot to become good at it. It’s what I had to do in this life, I pursued it and I’ve been fortunate, I had this insane desire to get good at it and you’ll need it to achieve those goals.
DYEGB: Did you have a lot of support behind you with this dream?
GS: My parents were very supportive, they had their concerns but they wanted me to be happy and follow my dreams. My brother also followed his dream and became an airline pilot, we both had things we loved doing and our parents supported us.
DYEGB: Is there anything you’re working on at the moment?
GS: I’m working on a VR game, I can’t really talk about it but I have an orchestral session in a week at one of my favourite places to record in the world, the Fox Newman scoring stage on the Fox lot here in LA with the amazing musicians of LA.
DYEGB: Are you composing video games exclusively now? Do you prefer working on video games?
GS: I just got hired to score a film, so as soon as I’m done with this game I will be scoring a film. I still do film and TV as well so I consider myself a composer for audio/visual media. I’m a composer and I love writing music for picture whether it’s games/ film/TV. I would say much of the work I’m best known for in the last decade or so has been for games and I’ve really been so lucky because really, it’s the coolest music anybody could ever be asked to write, I do really enjoy it all.
DYEGB: Is there a standard retiring age for someone or could you probably do this until your 80?
GS: Well John Williams is 84 and he’s still scoring, and I want to keep going. In ways it doesn’t feel like a job, sure there are chores that are a pain in the ass but most of it I enjoy doing and as long as people keep hiring me I’m going to keep working. I’m in my early 60s now and I want to keep writing music, it’s a blast, it feels like someone’s asking me to do something I love doing rather than work and I can’t think of anything better than waking up in the morning and working on some music.
DYEGB: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us at DYEGB, it’s been an honour especially for me. Thanks for working and bringing to life the video games that mean the most to me and good luck with the rest of your projects.