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Jason Graves about the music and sounds in ‘Until Dawn’

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The theory of the so-called butterfly effect has been thematised in several very different movies already. No matter if Iñárritu’s ‘Babel’, Tykwer’s and the Wachowski’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ or Bress’s and Gruber’s ‘The Butterfly Effect’; in some regard they all played with the idea of how little events can have a immense impacts on a greater scale.

“With reference to chaos theory,” Oxford Dictionaries defines the butterfly effect as “the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere.” So what happens if we take this theory and use it as the driving force of a horror game? And how do you score a videogame where every decision a player makes, has an impact on the later story and its characters? Where the whole plot can change in an instant?

Those were the driving questions I had when interviewing 2-time BAFTA award winning composer Jason Graves on his score for Until Dawn, Supermassive Game’s sleeper hit teen slasher that promises to offer “thousands, literally thousands of endings.” In fact creative director Will Byles said in a recent interview with Polygon that he “can almost guarantee that there will be no two people on the planet who will take the same path through the game.”

Before we get to how Jason approached the massive task of scoring 15 hours of music almost entirely without loops and always to picture, here’s a gameplay trailer for you to get an idea of what this is all about. Beneath it you can read what Jason had to say about the game’s brilliant usage of the butterfly effect:

The biggest challenge with the game was the Butterfly Effect. Essentially you have an endless amount of choices to make. As soon as you start playing the game there are choices and some of them don’t seem like they are a big deal: You’re doing a little target practice and you’re showing off in front of the girls and then a squirrel runs across the targets – do you shoot the squirrel or do you shoot the can? Just little things like that have ripples down the line and will affect how different characters will treat you. Not to mention how the plot ends up unfolding.

Combining melodic with atonal: Doing two favourite things at the same time

As Jason told me right at the beginning “the butterfly effect was definitely at the front of my mind the whole time.” But it was not like a daunting challenge he was scared of just like the teenagers are in the game, but it was all the more a welcome opportunity for Jason to combine two of his favourite styles which he had not gotten to do before together at the same time:

Melodic writing, themes and melodies are some of my favourite things to do, and the other one is the opposite of that: Atonal, sort of crazy unrhythmic non-organized, what most people would say are “scary” sounds. I got to mash those two up together for the first time and that was really a lot of fun.

I’ve done scary scores before – especially with orchestral sounds, Dead Space for example was not a melodic game series. It was mostly texture. And even Tomb Raider which had some survival moments to it, so it was a little melodic but not really super scary. I’ve done other games like Resistance that were orchestral and had a little bit of a theme but were more combat, more action oriented. So this was really a first, just outright, unabashedly scary score combined with outright unabashed harmonic and melodic writing.

Supermassive, the developer, never gave Jason specific references of how they wanted the game to sound like. There was a mutual understanding from the very beginning that the whole project was like an homage to the movies everyone at Supermassive as well as Jason had grown up with, like ‘Friday the 13th’ or ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’. Taking the synthesizers of his score as an example, Jason mentioned how they are throwbacks to John Carpenter’s usage of synthesizers in his scores. Combined with the very melodic score of Until Dawn “it felt retro somehow in a way but then treating it with modern aesthetics so that it’s up to date.” (On a side note: If you always wanted to know more about John Carpenter’s creative approach as well as what hardware he used, you find a lot of information here.)

Furthermore Jason had mentioned in a recent interview with The Nerdist what a big influence Krzysztof Penderecki and Jerry Goldsmith had been throughout the scoring process. When I mentioned it, he could only stress on it even more: “Penderecki is inescapable if you’re talking about scary music. Anything in film or TV that’s been done since the 60s when they invented that language; they all have a debt of gratitude and credit to Penderecki because of those techniques he pioneered. And yes Goldsmith. Who can deny ‘Alien’, ‘Poltergeist’, ‘The Omen’ … So many wonderfully scary scores that he did that all had their own really unique sounds.” (The live performance of Jerry Goldsmith’s music for ‘The Omen’ at this year’s Hollywood in Vienna also was one of my absolute favourites of the show and you can watch it here.)

How to record a Butterfly Effect movie game score: Separate sounds as much as you can

So the mood of the score was pretty much set when Jason got to work. But how do you approach a storyline that can change within a second – especially if the whole game is set more like a movie than a regular game? Here’s what Jason came up with:

It’s all custom scored to all the specific scenes. It’s not like we were just doing one-off of three minute cues and then cutting them up later. Everything was done to picture. Just like it were a film. That’s why there’s so much music. But that’s also one of the reasons that the game and the scares in the game are as effective as they are. Because it’s all custom score.

You have possibly hundreds of hours of different outcomes. With the music we couldn’t do hundreds of hours of music. So the idea was, instead of what a normal orchestra session would be where you sit down with the music, record it, it’s done and you put it in the game as the orchestra played it; instead we piecemealed it together.

The score is only partially made of live orchestra. The remaining two thirds of it are tonal kinds of sounds and effects that I’ve recorded here around the studio. Everything that I record here myself I have a lot more control over. So we needed to make sure that I could control the orchestra the same way. Thus instead of having them all play at the same time one stereo regular take, we’d break it all up into tiny little pieces and record them that way. So I was able to take all those orchestra recordings back to my studio and manipulate them in the same way I would experiment with me bowing a cymbal in a different way and getting variations on those. I had orchestral variations and then the music was put together kind by pulling different things out of those three pots and combining them in different ways, then sending it off and well there we go, there is one piece of music. It’s very malleable.

I could reuse pieces and combine them in different ways that they weren’t necessarily intended for. Like one of the youth themes, that the violins play which has a slight melancholic kind of sound, and putting that over some scary elements that I recorded here at the studio. It affects you in a different way: A sad theme that‘s got some longing in it but there are these freaky, quiet kind of noises going on in the background. You also get a lot of mileage like that.

The same with orchestral textures and sounds that you wouldn’t really consider music if they were performed on a concert stage. It’s like, “Are they playing? I see them moving their bows but that sound doesn’t…” You know it’s not a melody, it’s not a harmony, it’s not tonal, it almost sounds like an air conditioner rumbling.

In particular there was the soundboard of a piano that inspired Jason a lot while scoring Until Dawn: “I’ve had it just outside the studio in the hallway for a couple of years but I’ve never been able to use it quite to the extent I did for Until Dawn. A lot of it was just simply putting a very sensitive microphone on it, turning it up, putting some headphones on and doing a lot of things really quietly and listening to what it sounds like through the headphones. There were all kinds of great sounds. I would practically write entire pieces just with these textures and rhythms, then come back into the main studio, cut them up and use them in different ways. It was just a really great source of inspiration because it’s a real instrument that has all those overtones. There’s 88 keys on a piano but there’s at least two strings, most of the time three strings on each one of those keys. You’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of strings that all ring sympathetically with each other. Even if you’re just talking, stand next to it, you can hear this thing. It’s got a personality of its own.”

You can listen to parts of Jason Grave’s score for Until Dawn below:

Jason had already heard about the project as early as in 2011. Back then it was supposed to be a Playstation Move title and Jason sent over a demo track to Supermassive which ended up being the main theme The Shadow of the Mountain which you hear in the menus for example (you can listen to the full theme as well as some other cues on Jason’s website). Because the developers liked it so much it was never changed and recorded in the same way Jason had sent it over as a first idea. In general Jason stressed several times on how good the collaboration with everyone at Supermassive Games was which must have eased the whole approach a lot: “Barney Pratt (audio director) was able to come to the first session. He flew over here to New York from London and stayed in my studio for a couple of days. He went with me to Nashville and I’ve met him in New York a couple of times as well, so he was very hands on. He also kept saying, “I want you to do your thing” and I felt very comfortable because they were really good about positive feedback.”

I was interested in hearing more about the exact recording process: The live recordings were all scheduled throughout 2012. Half of the cues were aleatoric which gave the musicians some freedom. Jason asked the orchestra for example to “pick these 5 notes and play them in any order you want as fast as you can very quietly and do that for 30 seconds. Then play those same 5 notes in any order as fast as you can very loudly. Do that for another 30 seconds.”

Since the recording approach was not the usual one, I was curious if there was any room for experiments or if any coincidences happened. Jason mentioned though that there was never much discussions at the sessions. It was already the third game score Jason recorded at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville (you can watch a Behind the Scenes video here) and also drawing from his yearslong experience he knew exactly what he wanted and the musicians all knew what they needed to do as well.

With recording a lot of aleatoric cues there was one particular difference to other recording sessions though:

With a normal recording session you expect to get maybe five minutes of finished music every hour which doesn’t sound like much but the musicians are sight reading this music for the first time. You want to rehearse it a couple of times, get multiple takes and maybe correct a few things here and there. It’s not like that with the kind of music we were doing. Most of it was just: “You play it once and we’re finished.” There’s no way you can play it wrong. It’s these crazy, fun sort of textures. So instead of coming away with five minutes of music, I was coming away with 40 minutes of material – I won’t say music because these are all the little bits and bobs that we were going to use to make music tracks later.

The implementation of the music in the game Jason then shared with Supermassive’s audio director Barney Pratt who accessed all the same sound elements. Coming to speak again about the massive amount of 15 hours of music Jason told me on that regard that apart from occasional loops “it really came down to scenes that were scored to picture. Maybe a little stinger that would transition us to something else or maybe while the game is waiting for the player to make a decision or waiting on something to happen, there might be something that’s going to loop but usually you die before the loop can kick back again. So it doesn’t feel like the music is looping. And I say feel because I’ve always had a strong feeling that the worst thing you can do is to have a piece of music playing over and over again. It just completely destroys the momentum of the game. This way you’re progressing through the game, you’re progressing through the story, you’re progressing through the plot and the music is progressing with you. It feels like it’s custom score, because it is!”

Whom to save in an orchestra and how to play Until Dawn: About brass players and beverages

Coming to an end of our interview I had a burning questions to ask: Because our whole conversation was about a slasher game I wanted to know which section of an orchestra he would save if he could only save one from a killer. Here’s whom he chose:

It would have to be the brass section. I love strings and woodwinds and I’m a percussionist so I do love percussionists as well but there aren’t enough of them to save, there’s only about three. So the brass guys are like the cool orchestra players because normally they also played with bands growing up or something like that. They are always the ones that I end up hanging out with. I love string players, they are great but their job is to be uniform and have no personality. They are supposed to fall in line with everyone else and just be part of the group. I’d save the brass players, yes, sorry everybody else!

Getting a bit more serious in the end again, Jason also told me the best way to experience Until Dawn:

The biggest compliment I’ve heard for Until Dawn is: People who don’t like playing video games will love playing Until Dawn because it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a game. It really plays more like a film. I think the best way to play Until Dawn is by getting together with your friends on a Friday night and some beers and drinks. It’s a one person game but play it the way such that when you die you hand the joystick to somebody else. It’s just as much fun, if not more fun, watching the game as someone else is playing it. It really sucks you in and you have the chance to live through a horror movie. But all those typical “Don’t go down the hallway, are you crazy?!” reactions, well, you don’t have to go down the hallway, you can go do something else. I think that’s the best way to experience it: In groups with friends and beverages involved.

So whenever you have followed Jason’s advice, feel free to send us your videos which might turn out a little like this one.

Overall it was obvious how much Jason had enjoyed the whole process of working on Until Dawn with Supermassive Games and how happy he was to have been given the opportunity to again try new approaches. I hope I could transfer his passion for the project into this little write-up and hope you enjoyed it!

Feel free to check out our other article about Jason Graves’ tips for young composers too! All updates on Jason Graves’ projects he wasn’t able to talk about yet, you will find on his website, SoundcloudFacebook and Twitter. Jason Graves’ soundtrack for ‘Until Dawn’ is available on iTunes.

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Based in Berlin, Germany. Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief. Music Producer at Eon Sounds Productions. Founder of Composers for Relief. Keeps Moving.

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