The Big Score: Jason Graves

Frustrated with the direction of his career, composer Jason Graves answered an ad for an Australian game developer seeking original music for an upcoming title. He got the gig, and has gone on to produce award-winning scores for the Dead Space series and the latest Tomb Raider game.

 

We’re all a little nostalgic for the classic 8-bit themes, but those punchy melodies have given way to sweeping scores that rival major motion pictures. Jason Graves, who’s worked on more than 100 games, says it’s creative freedom that keeps him coming back to virtual worlds.

After graduating with a degree in film and television scoring from the University of Southern California, Graves moved to Los Angeles where he landed work writing music for advertisements.

I would literally write 80 different pieces of 30 seconds of music, just over and over and over, iterating, iterating, changing, tweaking. ‘It needs to be black. No, it needs to be blue. It needs to be loud. No, it needs to be quiet,’ because they don’t know what they want,” Graves says. “[I was] just banging my head against the wall.”

Graves moved to Wilmington, North Carolina and started picking up radio spots, corporate work, and the occasional gig scoring an independent film. Through his personal network, he heard about a game developer in Australia who was looking for 45 minutes of original music.

They had absolutely no corrections. The only feedback they had was ‘Sounds great. Send us more music tomorrow please,’” Graves recounts. “I had no idea that [writing for games] would be that creatively liberating.”

Jason GravesJason GravesSince then, Graves’ credits have expanded to include 21 Game Audio Network Guild Award nominations, four wins, and completed scores for games like Area 51, Resistance: Burning Skies, Star Trek: Legacy, and the Dead Space series, which landed him two BAFTA Awards. His most recent project, a reboot of Tomb Raider, has sold more than 3.4 million copies within a month of release this past March.

Get In Media: For Tomb Raider, you built some of your own instruments for the score.

Jason Graves: This is the first time I’ve been able to do something like that. There are these guys called The Scavengers. They’re kind of the main bad guys in the game and the island that Lara’s on. They were previously stranded there, but they’ve been there a lot longer, so they have this shantytown construction zone-looking area where they live. I thought it would be really cool for the music to reflect that rusty, homemade-looking aspect in the music. I started out with some fencing and just things I had around and the sounds were neat, but they were very limited.

I worked with a sculptor named Matt McConnell. His studio is right around the corner from my studio. We started experimenting—just started figuring out what different things sound like when you put them together. [Tomb Raider development company] Crystal Dynamics really took that idea and ran with it, and ended up commissioning him for a sculpture/instrument. The sculpture, actually it’s called “The Instrument,” was about a year’s worth of experimenting with different sounds, different materials. 

Matt put it all together in this absolutely beautiful yet terrible-looking sculpture that I think, sonically, it really plays throughout the entire score. It’s not just some marketing gimmick. I literally played that thing throughout a lot of the music. Visually, it looks like something that could be on this island next to a crashed plane and it would fit right in. I couldn’t have been happier with the way it turned out.

Jason Graves and "The Instrument"

GIM: Once a game developer approaches you, what steps do you take between initial contact and getting the music out?

JG: Fly out and see them for a couple of days and really soak in the atmosphere. As a composer, our job is essentially to sit in the room by ourselves all day and there’s no social interaction. On top of that, it’s very, very quiet. Being able to go to a developer where they have 50,000 square feet of office space, there’s artwork on the wall and everyone’s working on different things, and the game is everywhere; that’s really key for me to be able to zone in on the universe that they’re creating and what the appropriate music would be to solidify this universe as being completely realistic.

Even if I can’t go see the developer, I always get captures of gameplay, concept art, and scripts. Preferably, there’s a story in place before they’ve brought me online so I have an idea of what the game is about. It’s really anything and everything that they’ve done up to that point. They give it all to me and then we start talking, usually in fairly general terms about the emotions. That’s what I like to key in on. Everyone might not know what cellos and double basses in octaves sound like, but everyone can say, “We need it to sound ominous but not scary.” When you start talking about emotions and adjectives like that, it’s a universal language.

A lot of times, I’ll go back after those initial conversations and just start piecing things together, maybe themes on a piano like I did for Tomb Raider, maybe it’s more textures and kind of visceral gut reaction musical ideas like I would do for Dead Space. Then it’s just a matter of bouncing them back and forth. It’s a collaborative effort and I really enjoy the feedback I get from game developers. It’s almost the antithesis of what I experienced in film and TV. Film and TV is very… “We have this music from this movie. It was a big hit last year. This is what we want you to copy because it means our film or TV show will be a big hit.” Game developers say “We want music that’s completely original and brands our title where if you hear ten seconds of it you go, ‘Oh, I know what that is. That’s our game.’” That’s the kind of creative freedom that I really love, and it’s essential to have that dialogue with a developer. The fact that they’re pushing originality and they really do want something new and unique and they see the value in it; that’s why I’m here.

GIM: After your panel at the South By Southwest interactive festival, I heard you tell an audience member that film producers will say, “We want music like this other piece” but if you do it too similarly, you can get sued and if you don’t do it similarly enough, you can get fired.

JG: Yes [laughs]

GIM: Is that also a problem with games?

JG: It seems to be that game developers will use [another person’s music] as a starting point and then you’re free to jump off from there. I’ve never really been painted into a corner creatively where I just had to go back and really copy a specific soundtrack. At least not very often. It’s rare that it happens.

RELATED: Audio manager Craig Duman creates the music, sound effects, and atmospheric noises in games like Fallout and Lord of the Rings: War in the North.

GIM: Is that more of a problem with film?

JG: I think it is, yes. All the tests, research, polls, and everything else that they do for film and TV—the music has ended up being the saving grace of any project. “Oh just wait until we put the music on. We’re going to make it sound just like the last Transformers. It’s going to be great!” You really need to be a James Newtown Howard or a John Williams or a Danny Elfman. They kind of take a bow and say “With the utmost respect, what would you like to do with our film? We want to hear something from you creatively.” Everyone else is getting tied to the mast of a previous score. You can hear it. That’s why so many scores all sound the same these days. The production value’s fantastic, but you get a lot of stuff that sounds like The Dark Knight because everybody loves the music, they love the film, and obviously if our music sounds like that then our film will do fantastic.

GIM: What do you recommend future game composers do to break in?

JG: You need to practice. It’s just like if you were learning to play the cello. You’re not going to get right out of school and be first chair with the London Philharmonic. You need to practice your art. It’s the exact same thing with composing. If you want to write music for a living, no matter what the genre is or if it’s for film or games or advertising, you need to be writing music all the time.

Learn how to use a microphone. Learn how to record a voiceover. Learn what EQ does because most of the time as a composer – well for me all the time, but especially when you’re first getting started – you need to do all of that stuff yourself. It’s amazing to have a live violin come in and play something for you, but if you don’t know where to put the microphone or even how to use it, then you’re going to be stuck. You’re going to have to pay somebody else to do it. Being well-rounded and having your expectations be open are always good things because if you have those two things, you’re always going to be happy. You’re always going to be working towards a final goal and that’s totally fine. You want to do music for games? That’s awesome. Just realize you’re not going to do it immediately. Let everything else you do inform you and educate you and move you towards that ultimate goal.

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