Collaborations of East and West: Interview with Jamie Christopherson (Feb 2010)
Jamie Christopherson is a Hollywood composer who has worked with developers across the world. He is perhaps best known for collaborating with Eastern developers on a range of projects, including Capcom on Lost Planet, KOEI on Bladestorm, and NCsoft on Lineage II. However, he has also engaged in a range of Western game and film projects as part of Soundelux DMG.
In this interview, Christopherson reminisces about his major projects over the years, including the Lost Planet titles, The Lord of the Rings adaptations, and the upcoming Warriors: Legend of Troy. He reflects on how he has become one of very few Hollywood composers to regularly work with Eastern developers, while sharing his experiences on several film projects and film-to-game adaptastions too.
Interview Subject: Jamie Christopherson
Chris: Jamie Christopherson, we appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today. First of all, could you tell us about your musical background and journey to becoming a Hollywood game composer?
Jamie Christopherson: I love your term "Hollywood" game composer as it really points something out; it implies that game music quality has truly become on par with "Hollywood" film music, which I really think it has now. When I was growing up in Los Angeles I always wanted to be a film composer and I would listen to all of these fantastic orchestral and experimental scores. There seemed to be an ever-changing world of creative options for scoring films and I was drawn to that.
At the same time, I loved to play video games any chance I could get (Nintendo and arcades), but I wasn't as inspired by the music. While I do appreciate some of the early game music scores, the technical limitations (bleeps/blips and length of music) didn't appeal to me, so I never really dreamed of pursuing it.
Once I got into college and graduate school I didn't have much time for video games, so I had no idea how far things were advancing. Upon returning back to Los Angeles in 2000 I met a few game composers (Bill Brown and Mikael Sandgren) who played some of their video game music for me. I was blown away and a light went on.
Chris: Although you have composed a range of Western game and film titles, you have gained most attention as a contributor to various Eastern-developed titles, including the popular Lost Planet series. Given it is rare for Hollywood composers to be involved in the Japanese games industry, what resulted in you becoming a part of such titles? What aspects of your music did the developers of Capcom find appealing?
Jamie Christopherson: As you said, I've had a long relationship with several Asian game companies including Capcom, KOEI and NCSoft, and I'm really grateful for that. All of these companies are different of course, but they all share such a passion for making quality games and creating immersive worlds that it makes my job a lot of fun.
In the case of Capcom, they have always been wonderful to work with. They are so driven in their vision of what the game and the music should be. By the time I usually come on board, they have already thought long and hard about what type of score they want. Then it's up to me to exceed their expectations. My first project with them was Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams, where I was brought in to apply a Hollywood / western score to the dramatic cut scenes. At the same time I was developing the music to Lost Planet, which had a production period of over two years for me (on and off).
I think what appealed most to Capcom about my music was my melodic sense. They like strong, memorable themes. But they also like atmosphere and giving each game a very unique sound tailored to their gorgeous visuals.
Chris: You immersed yourself into the world of Lost Planet: Extreme Condition over an extended period to create the score. Looking back, could you detail what visual and other inspirations determined your distinctive stylistic and thematic approaches for this score?
Jamie Christopherson: When I started on that game, the snow was always there. Snow everywhere. Cold and futuristic but with a sense of humanity underneath. I had a lot of concept art for the characters and settings from an early stage, so those were my main source of inspiration when I started coming up with theme ideas.
Science fiction films have always been my favourite genre, so I was so thrilled to work on Lost Planet. But I hadn't seen any films set entirely in the snow, so I thought the concept was very original and my music needed to match. I developed something like ten main themes before we finally came to the right tone for the game. Every character in that game had their own theme, but they were always closely related to the "snow" world sound I conceived.
Chris: In contrast to the electro-orchestral original, the score for Lost Planet 2 was created in the essence of older science-fiction scores. What resulted in this considerable shift in direction? How did you manage to commemorate the classics while still asserting a unique identity?
Jamie Christopherson: For Lost Planet 2 I was given a lot more of the resources to score with. I even had a few video captures of game levels, which is pretty rare. Those are like gold!
The decision to go more orchestral and traditional was initially made by the audio director, Tomoya Kishi, and the rest of the sound team at Capcom. While I was very excited to work with a very large orchestra and write grand, militaristic pieces of music, I was always introducing electronic elements into the score. Many times Tomoya would have me tone those down and the result is the balance we came up with.
The thing with solid orchestral writing is that it seems to hold up over time much better than whatever electronic sound is currently "in", which instantly dates the music to the time it was written. So I try to keep that in mind and choose my electronics wisely.
Chris: On both titles, you created music from Hollywood for a game studio based in Japan. How did you approach these overseas collaborations in terms of organisation and communication? Were you given many guidelines or resources to inspire your music, particularly the cinematic segments?
Jamie Christopherson: Collaborating with companies in Asia isn't too difficult after you get the hang of it. The biggest consideration is the time difference (Japan is 16 hours ahead of Los Angeles), and coordination schedules based on that. For example, for the orchestra sessions that we had in Los Angeles, the sound team was not able to come so they had to stay up all night listening to the live music streamed over Source Connect.
Sometimes translations can be and issue, but music in general is such a subjective thing that it really isn't too much more difficult than working with an English speaking company.
Chris: Also for Capcom, you headlined the soundtracks for Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams and Bionic Commando. How did you conceive the hybridised cinematic cues for these very different scores? In particular, could you elaborate on your intentions while orchestrating their iconic main themes?
Jamie Christopherson: For the main themes of both Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams and Bionic Commando, I tried to stay as true to the originals as possible when I could. Note for note for the melodies. But everything around those notes got updated and changed. It's really amazing how much the harmonic context behind a melody can alter the mood and tone of the music.
That's one of the greatest (and most challenging) arts of writing music: trying to keep a melodic fragment remain interesting and fresh over an extended period of time and in multiple contexts. Just listen to all of the great "variations" written by classical composers. My approach to these types of scores is quite similar actually.
Chris: Beyond your works with Capcom, you also create a wide variety of music-for-visuals outside of video games. How do you find production for different media types compare, for instance films with video games, in terms of both composition and implementation?
Jamie Christopherson: For game music, the implementation process actually does influence the compositional process as well, and vice versa. It really helps to be aware of how the audio technology works within the game, and develop a plan with the audio team of how to use that technology to achieve the best musical results and not become repetitive. There is a lot more conceptual planning that goes on in game music.
In film music, you don't have to think about such things. Your only scoring what is exactly on the screen. Of course, though, there can be a huge range in how you score that scene.
Chris: To date, you have been involved in numerous film scores, including the El Dorado and the Jack Hunter series. Looking back at your career overall, which scores are most significant to you and for what reasons?
Jamie Christopherson: My first break in film music came from the film The Crow: Wicked Prayer. That will always have special meaning for me, both because of being my real feature film and because I'm still very proud of the score. The director and producer really let me experiment with the score, and I think the result is a cool hybrid of many musical genres.
Chris: In addition, you have led the scores for a wide array of film-to-game adaptations, including titles set in The Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man, and The Golden Compass universes. Talking generally, how do you ensure a high quality and fitting scores for such titles? Do you often look to the relevant movie scores for inspiration or do you prefer an entirely new approach?
Jamie Christopherson: In some cases, like The Pirates of the Caribbean Online, I've had access to the original music from the films and have to write similar music, but in many cases I've been asked to write original music for these film-to-game adaptations. This is because the games are often in development during or sometimes before the film is completed.
That was the case with The Golden Compass score, where I composed an entirely original score. It was fun to see the film afterwards and listen to Alexandre Desplat's score comparing notes on how he scored certain things. The game and the film are really two beasts though; often what works in the film just wouldn't work in the game, and vice versa.
Chris: We'd particularly love to hear you reminisce about your original scores for The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth series. Was it challenging to portray Tolkein's fantasy within a novel game setting? What musical features were most central to your depiction of Middle-Earth?
Jamie Christopherson: The main goal that we had when writing music for the Battle for Middle Earth series was to sound like the music from the films without actually using any of the films. Knock-offs as they say. For various legal reasons, we couldn't use any of the themes from the films. So I studied the harmonic structures and how Howard Shore developed his music. And then I wrote new music in that style.
For the second game, the player got to choose to play as some of the other races in the game such as the Dwarves or Goblins. Since Howard Shore never really wrote specific themes for those characters, it was fun to imagine what he would have done if asked.
Chris: You have also had a long-running involvement on the MMORPG Lineage II. How has your approach to the franchise evolved, from your supporting role on The Chaotic Chronicle to your solo role on Magmeld? Now eight years since you started participating on the franchise, how influential do you consider these scores in developing your musicality and career?
Jamie Christopherson: I always love returning to the Lineage universe. I'll be sad when it ends, but maybe there will be a Lineage III! It's such a vivid and varied world, and the music is just as varied. Aside from not having any electronic elements, we have pretty much covered all the different approaches to fantasy music there. But every year there is an expansion that is very unique and thus needs unique music, so as long as that happens I'll be glad to keep writing it! All in all, I've written close to 300 minutes of music for the game I believe.
Chris: To close the interview, it would be interesting to learn about your involvement in another Japanese company: KOEI. What led the company to hire you to score Bladestorm: The Hundred Years War when they had previously mainly relied on veterans from the Japanese animation industry the setting or the desired production quality? How did you reflect the medieval Europe setting and brutal warfare depicted on this title?
Jamie Christopherson: I'm not exactly sure why KOEI contacted me originally to score Bladestorm, but perhaps it was because of my work with Capcom. Also, as you say, the game was set in a non-Asian setting, which was a first for them. But why they didn't hire an English or French composer to score it instead of an American I don't know.
The sound of the score relies heavily on the text of the Latin mass. Before writing a note, I studied the texts and picked out specific prose for each of the characters and settings in the game. Musically I actually played against the brutal nature of the war, instead using beautiful choirs and sweeping strings to create an emotional experience. I wanted it to sound more like a classical hymn than a brutal game score.
Chris: You recently scored another historical simulation for KOEI, Warriors: Legend of Troy. Could you give us a preview of what we should expect from your score when the game is released in 2011? In particular, could you tell us more about your experimental use of ancient instruments?
Jamie Christopherson: Legends of Troy features a very raw sounding score. Instead of taking the God of War approach with huge choirs and heavy brass, or the 300 approach with electric guitars and synthesizers, we decided to go for a very authentic and ancient sounding score.
At times it can be very intimate, as many of the main characters are represented by solo themes played on slightly skewed instruments. I had all of my solo players perform their parts with high emotion often at the expense of pushing their expensive and beautiful instruments into not so pretty territory. Everything needed to have this very specific sound. And yes, there are huge drums but it's not an "epic" score per say. I'm very proud of it!
Chris: In the last decade, your career has developed from supporting roles for several franchises to fully-fledged movie scores and international collaborations. Looking back, are you pleased with everything you have achieved? What are you plans and wishes for the future? Many thanks for your time.
Jamie Christopherson: I hope to continue my involvement in game music and work with developers that are interested in pushing the envelope even further. At the same time I am looking forward to working on more meaningful film projects and perhaps a comedy here and there. The kinds of films that have you thinking about them long after leaving the movie theatre. Thanks for the questions and memories!
To learn more about Jamie Christopherson, visit his official website, where there are further details and full-length samples of many of his scores.