Oscar-Nominated Composer John
Debney Goes Sky High for Factor 5’s “Lair”
by Louis Bedigian
“At every level, at every way you turn, whatever your field of vision is, the music is going to be affected.”
John Debney photo:
You know him by his music. His long list of credits includes Bruce Almighty, Elf, and The Passion of the Christ, which landed him an Oscar nomination. He composed the music for the first Sin City (along with the film’s director, Robert Rodriguez, and fellow game composer Graeme Revell) and is on board for the two sequels. Comic book fans can look forward to hearing his work in the upcoming Iron Man film.
John Debney, the man behind these and many other amazing soundtracks, has primarily been a film composer. That changed when Sony and Factor 5 approached him about doing the music for the upcoming PlayStation 3-exclusive release, Lair.
“They first approached me about this game about a year ago,” said John Debney, discussing how the project began. “The intention on Sony and Factor 5’s part was to develop a landmark game for PS3. What really appealed to me was that, when they started to talk about the game, they really wanted to create more of a cinematic experience. They wanted to create a true beginning, middle, and an end. They wanted it to have storyline with a really strong background and understand the cultures of this world called Lair. The idea of doing something more than a shoot-‘em-up was really interesting to me.”
He explained that, musically, the idea was to produce a large work of music “that was sort of a symphony in that it would have a beginning, middle, and an end.” It would have an overall arch rather than pieces here and there.
“As soon as I came on board,” he continued, “I started to write the main characters’ themes. There are a number of characters in the game who are the main characters so I had to develop things for each of them. That was the process. As the game started to [move forward], I would get gameplay or cinematics, and I would write to those visuals just like I would a film. In that sense it was sort of like working on another film.”
What was it like working with a 90-piece orchestra?
John Debney: Yeah, that’s a good question. It was very ambitious to do this. We had a lot of instrumental soloists from all over the world. The process was just how I would work on a movie. I demo the music in my studio, and play the pieces for the director and members of the team, get their feedback, then go from that. The game and the music were on a parallel path of development. Sometimes the music would get done, they’d like it, and prop it up against some of the gameplay. It was really interesting, and really organic in that the game and the music were being developed at the same time. I’m hoping that that means the music is really well integrated into the actual game.
Could you clarify what you mean about the game and the music being developed organically?
JD: They would give me descriptions of the game. They won’t have a certain section completed, but they’ll have it mapped out. In many cases I’ll be writing to a description of a scene. What was fun for me is that they’d take my completed music and put it up against the rough cinematic with my music in mind. Which was kind of cool. One was sort of driving the other.
Tell us about the sound and style of the soundtrack. You said it’s more of a symphony, but what specifically can we expect from it? Is there a way to describe what we’ll hear?
JD: I describe the score as not unlike a Star Wars or Lord of the Rings where it’s very large in scope with all sorts of ethnic drumming and more contemporary flavors infused throughout. It’s a very melodic, thematic, large work.
Are there hints of your other work in this soundtrack?
JD: Yes, you’re going to hear some of the same soloists who were involved with [The] Passion [of the Christ]. They’ve become close friends of mine, and I love to work with them whenever I get the chance. But really the first time I worked with most of these soloists was on Passion.
Musically you’ll hear little hints here and there of things I’ve done. There’s homage to an early film I did called Cutthroat Island, which wasn’t a big movie at all, but music fans seemed to like it. There are some other little things that people might appreciate as well.
“The visuals are really stunning. The depth of field is amazing. You get it on a high-def [television] and it’s very 3D. It’s a beautifully rendered game. I would say it’s pushing the envelope.”—John Debney on Lair’s gorgeous graphics
How did you end up landing this gig? Have you worked on video games before?
JD: I haven’t. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, I just haven’t had the opportunity. I received a call from someone at Sony inquiring about my availability. What was so cool is that I think Sony and the guys at Factor 5 wanted to “entice” a film composer to work on this thing. I’m sure they talked to other composers as well. For whatever reason we had a couple meetings and we all hit it off. Then we were off and running. Doing the game gave me a lot of creative freedom [that] sometimes one doesn’t have when doing film. I was able to try a lot of different things.
Does the sound have any interactive elements?
JD: Absolutely. Everything that one would expect when you complete a task, or when there’s a sense of danger, and so on. What I really love is a concept we came up with early on, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out. Because you’re in this world and a lot of the time you’re on these dragons, which are really beautifully rendered – sometimes the dragons could be 30,000 feet into the air, and other times really close to the ground – we really took that into account.
There are layers of music that are going to happen depending on where you are in the game (and that altitude that you’re at). You might be very high up and there’s sort of an orchestration of music, and then as you get to the ground there’s a new orchestration. At every level, at every way you turn, whatever your field of vision is, the music is going to be affected. Things are going to change. It’s very reactive to whatever the player is doing.
Can you fly from 30,000 feet all the way to the ground? Or is it a jump that happens automatically?
JD: That’s a great question. I’m probably not the one to answer that. I’m not sure that that phenomenon is going to occur in every level. In particular it’s going to occur when we’re flying our dragons over to the other civilization.
There are two main civilizations: Mokai and Asylian. There are some very interesting things that happen between the two cultures. The Mokai are more of your native people. There’s a part of the game where you fly over to the Mokais. They’re more in the hills, and that scene I know – because of the perspective – you will get this effect. But I’m not sure if it’s in every level. That would be a question for the game designers.
What was your timeframe for Lair’s compositions?
JD: It was great for me because it was a long process – almost a year. That enabled me to work on it a bit, leave it be, and come back to it. I rarely get that much time to really craft music that carefully. It gave me the opportunity to develop these themes over time, which was pretty great. Working in film, much of the time the schedule is pretty brutal.
Did you work on other scores while working on Lair?
JD: Yeah, I did. I worked on a couple movies. We’re finishing up a couple right now.
How do you work on a particular project? If you start working on, say, Movie A on Monday, then is that all you can work on for the day? Or do you prefer to jump around?
JD: That’s pretty much how I am. Sometimes I intentionally jump back and forth in a given day because I may get farther ahead than I thought. So I may use a decide to use a couple hours to work on Project B. But I’m a pretty good multi-tasker. I almost use them (the various projects) as a way to stay fresh. If I feel I’ve been on one thing for a while, it’s natural to want to switch gears for a period of time.
Are you the kind of person that has to be pulled out of the room because you won’t stop composing? Or is there a point that you reach where you’ve got to take a break?
JD: I tell ya, it seems easy to pull me out of the room. I like to get in, work really hard, and leave. I’m not one of those guys that’s in there 24/7. I like to have a life. And I’ve been doing it a while, so I’m pretty disciplined.
How much music did you end up with?
JD: It was a little more than a normal movie, upwards of 90 to 100 minutes. There’s a lot of big action music. One of the more daunting tasks was to write all this very complex and difficult music. But when I’m in London with the musicians or here in LA, they get it done and make us look good. There’s nothing they can’t play.
What do you do when a song won’t come together? Do you just have to get away for a bit? Is there something you look to for inspiration?
JD: I think all of the above. There are certain days when you’re trying to get something and it just isn’t happening. Again, I’ve been doing this a while, so I know if I’m hitting a wall it’s time to take a break. I’ve worked on a lot of movies, so I know of ways to get around my own roadblocks. But certainly there are days when you have to take a break.
What’s next for you?
JD: I’m finishing the sequel to Bruce Almighty, which is called Evan Almighty. It’s funny and there’s a lot of heart to the story. Steve Carell, the guy from The Office and Little Miss Sunshine, he’s playing the lead character. He’s great.
Yes, he was in the first film.
JD: Yeah. It’s now his show, and he’s done a great job. I’m finishing that up. We record in about a month or two. I’m also finishing up a movie for Garry Marshall called Georgia Rule. It’s a really cool film with Jane Fonda and Lindsay Lohan.
Any other games in the pipeline?
Not at the moment. I’ll see what comes up. Given the right opportunity I’d love
to do this again.
Awesome. Thank you for your time.