Interview with Neal Acree (September 2012)
Neal Acree has been attending Hollywood scoring sessions for much of his life, but it's only in recent years that he's been leading them. In this interview, Acree talks about the experiences, people, and philosophies that helped him towards scoring major gigs. Among them, the television series Stargate, the action film Assassination Games, and, of course, the best-selling MMORPG World of Warcraft.
Acree dedicates particular time to discussing his roles creating cinematic music for Blizzard Entertainment's major franchises. He discusses the composing process behind the openings of the World of Warcraft expansions, reflects on the unique scoring demands for Diablo III and StarCraft II, and provides a preview of his work on the impending Mists of Pandaria.
Interview Subject: Neal Acree
Chris: Neal Acree, we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today. Your career has undergone a spectacular progression, from your debut in cartage for scoring sessions, to your assistant composition roles on various television scores, to your recent lead roles on major action flicks. Could you share your journey to where you are today?
Neal Acree: Thank you for having me! If I was to start at the beginning I'd say that I grew up in a very artistic and musical household. Art was always being made, music being played, and every weekend we'd go to the local drive in theater and see movies like The Empire Strikes Back, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Rocky. It was probably inevitable that I would end up in some kind of creative field. Because I could draw I had always assumed I would be a graphic artist or something but music is what I ultimately found the most interesting, specifically the power of music and image combined.
After I switched my studies from art to music I had an electronic music teacher named Mike Watts, who was a session keyboard player for John Debney, Shirley Walker and others. He took me to a few sessions early on, most notably for Walker's Turbulence and Debney's Liar Liar, both with full orchestras at a couple of the best scoring stages in town. Something about being there at the sessions and seeing how enthusiastic and grateful everyone was to be there, especially the composers made the dream seem much more plausible. I decided right then that I wanted to be a composer and never looked back.
Once I graduated I took on a job doing cartage, which is essentially delivering and setting up music equipment for scoring sessions. I was a little reluctant at first because it was hard physical work and not very glamorous, but I quickly realized it was probably the best way I could have gone to get access to all of my composer heroes and to see them in action. Within the first week, I had met James Horner, Marc Shaiman and Jerry Goldsmith and got to see them all in action and over the next couple years I got to see pretty much every one of my idols at work. I was in the room while they recorded Titanic, Star Trek Insurrection, The Thin Red Line, Mulan, Mousehunt, Deep Impact, Red Corner, and so many others. It was a real world graduate program unlike any other and during a golden age of sorts in the LA scoring scene.
I eventually apprenticed with Marc Shaiman a bit around the time he did Patch Adams and the South Park movie and met Joel Goldsmith as well through cartage, who would eventually give me many opportunities that led to everything I'm doing now.
Chris: You are renowned for your technological prowess and orchestrational depth, both major assets for a Hollywood composer. Could you tell us your education and experiences that enhanced your abilities in both areas?
Neal Acree: I've always looked at the orchestra and electronics like complementary colors on a painter's palette. When mixed properly one can achieve something greater than could be achieved by either on their own. Usually a dramatic choice dictates how much of a role electronics might play, but the orchestra is timeless. You hear the score to Star Wars and you don't think of the 1970s or of futuristic music. Electronics, however, can take music to a place stylistically that the orchestra can't and the potential for experimentation is infinite. I've never really been a purist on either side. Though I've studied classical theory and orchestration and am perfectly happy going that route if it fits, I'm willing to bend the rules in the interest of finding a new sound.
I've always enjoyed with experimenting with new ways to create music and manipulate sound. A lot of that came from the fact that, when I first started writing and recording music, I had a very limited budget and had to make a lot out of very little. I had a four track, a guitar, a drum machine, a very cheap keyboard, and a very limited sequencing program on my Apple IIGS. I had no idea what midi was, yet I managed to make a lot out of it because I've never allowed my ideas to be limited by lack of means.
For that reason I got pretty proficient at emulating the sound of an orchestra early on because I didn't want the lack of budget to stop me from delivering a big sound if the project called for it. I did a lot of TV and film scores with nothing but a couple samplers and was able to get a lot of production value out of very little money. I knew that the orchestra was there in the music and it was just a matter of time before someone would pay for the real thing.
Chris: You developed collaborations with numerous composers during this journey, but none were quite as fruitful as your roles with the late Joel Goldsmith, on projects such as Stargate, Witchblade, and Sanctuary. Could reminisce about this partnership and why it became so long-standing?
Neal Acree: I started out as Joel's assistant after helping him move his studio and eventually transitioned into doing additional music for him and even co-composing the last three seasons of Stargate SG-1 with him. Over the years, I learned so much about the business and the craft of scoring from Joel and he was like a second father to me. I can trace so much of my career back to opportunities he gave me early on.
We had a great partnership in that our strengths and styles as composers and our personalities complemented each other's and he was the type of guy that kept his people close. Working for him was like being a part of a family and nothing like any other job I had ever had. Some days we'd all play Halo together (he would usually kick everyone's ass) and other days we'd all be up for a week straight trying to meet some crazy deadline. We worked on a lot of shows together and over the years he afforded me a lot of freedom to find my own way and went out of his way to give me opportunities of my own, many of which lead to where I am now. He would flatter me by joking that some day he would be working for me. He believed in me before anyone else did.
I think the partnership was so long-standing because we trusted each other a lot and he always knew he could rely on me when he was in a bind. Even when I was off doing my own projects I'd always make time to help him out. He had the blessing and the curse of two to three hour long series going on at any given time which is just too much for any one person to handle and I always had a great time working with him. He was like family and we had seen so much action in the trenches together that I'd always be glad when he called with something.
For anyone that doesn't know, Joel died of cancer this last April at 54 years old. It was the biggest personal loss I've ever experienced, but I remember him every day and continue to try to make him proud with my work.
Chris: You have extensively worked on all three television series dedicated to Stargate. What was it like to work on a series with such a rich sci-fi canon? What musical influences were most significant for you?
Neal Acree: Working on Stargate was a dream come true for a lifelong sci-fi fan like me, especially since I had really enjoyed the music from the original film. The cool thing was that over the course of the series I got to write in all kinds of styles and pay homage to all the sci-fi and fantasy movies and shows I had grown up with. I've always said that it was like composer school for me. For years I got to work closely with and learn from Joel Goldsmith while writing tons of fully produced and orchestrated music week after week, all with samples. It was a great way to learn the craft and I'll always be grateful to Joel for taking me under his wing.
As for influences on the shows? David Arnold's score to the original film, naturally. Beyond that, everything from John Williams to Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard and Elliot Goldenthal. I often found myself listening to the scores to the Star Trek films and series since the shows often paid fond homage to that universe.
As for Stargate Universe, that was really Joel at his purest and most inspired. I had the honor of helping out a little here and there but at that point I was deep in my own career and Joel was given a clean slate to reinvent the medium and he truly did.
Chris: Since the mid-90s, you have also worked on numerous film projects, most recently the high-profile action titles Assassination Games, 6 Bullets, and The Mechanic. Looking back at all your film projects, which are most significant to you and why?
Neal Acree: The ones that have always stood out the most to me are the ones that gave me the opportunity to write in styles I hadn't before. Those are usually the most fun because I get to draw from new places and challenge myself to develop a new vocabulary rather than find new ways to say the same thing.
One of my favorites is an Elizabeth Hurley film I did called Method. It was a dark period film about real life turn of the century serial killer Belle Gunnes within a modern thriller. For the period score, I got to do something in the vein of The Hours but with a darker twist. It was dramatic but dark and even though the film didn't make much of a splash it was a great opportunity to show a different side. There are a couple sound clips on my website. Maybe one of these days it will get a soundtrack release.
I enjoyed scoring Assassination Games and 6 Bullets. Both are recent Jean Claude Van Damme action films and I got to go a little off the beaten path with the scores, focusing more on the emotion and on the use of ethnic instruments than one might expect for those types of films. I like doing that when it's appropriate, playing against expectation. I really enjoy working on a score that has a little of everything, drama, emotion, action, suspense and finding a way to make it all fit under the same thematic umbrella and sound fresh and unexpected without alienating the listener is an exciting challenge every time. I'm currently putting together a soundtrack release for Assassination Games so please check it out.
Chris: The opening cinematic of World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade marked your video game debut. What were you able to uniquely offer to Blizzard's music team that led to your involvement in this project? How did it feel to become part of the world's most popular MMORPG?
Neal Acree: I think, when I was demoing for the job, they got a sense that I was going to stay true to the sound of the franchise and if anything take it further into the realm of cinematic grandeur. I knew I was walking into a hugely popular and well-loved franchise with a lot of history and lore and that was exciting for me. There were existing languages I could incorporate into the choir lyrics, a theme for Ilidan I could reference and then plenty of room for me to make my own statement. It's a great feeling to know that the music I've written has been heard by as many people as it has and even covered and remixed by fans on YouTube. It only makes my try harder each time to give them even more.
Chris: The openings of The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm are all incredible, in part thanks to your dramatic music. Could you tell us more about the process you used to compose and record these themes? How were you able to integrate so much beauty, darkness, and action into single compositions?
Neal Acree: Thank you so much and what a great question. So much goes into each of the cinematics and they have so much to accomplish dramatically in a fairly short time. Whether they're setting up the story and giving the first peek into a new WoW expansion or acting as a cinematic interlude in the ongoing story of StarCraft II, they only have a few minutes to say a lot and I do my best to make as strong of a statement as possible in that time.
Usually from the first viewing of what is generally a rough animatic with some temp voice over, music and sound effects, the ideas start racing in my head. The director and I discuss the story and how the music will help tell it both thematically and stylistically. We discuss whether or not there is a way to incorporate an existing theme or sound to tie it in to the existing Blizzard universe and where the dramatic peaks and valleys should fall. Even at this early stage the director has a pretty good idea in his head of what he wants the music to accomplish dramatically so it's then up to me to interpret that musically. I start writing right away which, for me, involves recording the music one instrument at a time into a computer based sequencer called Logic using samples to create a pretty polished orchestral mockup that gives the director a good idea of what it would sound like if we recorded it the next day. This is where the collaborative process really begins.
Once I've sent off the first mockup the director will send me some feedback, reacting to dramatic timing, mood, theme, etc. We'll go back and forth over several months, fine tuning the music as the visuals begin to take shape. As we get closer to the orchestral recording dates, I'll add the finishing touches and hand it off to my orchestrator Penka Kouneva who gets it ready for the orchestra. Then comes my favorite part, the scoring session. We've been lucky to have worked with some of the best musicians in the world and to have worked with legendary scoring mixer John Kurlander. Hearing the music come alive for the first time after months of pain-stakingly prepping everything electronically is the best. Then we mix the orchestra with the electronic elements and it gets dubbed with the voice over and sound effects.
The truth is I don't know where it all comes from except that it takes all of my experience and a spark in the form of the most amazing visuals I've ever worked with to ignite the inspiration that I've felt on every cinematic I've scored. The stories Blizzard tells in the cinematics and the grandeur in which they do it is the stuff composers dream of. Getting to play on a canvas that large with so much detail going into every aspect of the production is thoroughly inspiring.
Chris: Given that you generally worked on cinematic game scoring, it would be interesting to learn if you have experienced any differences working on video games compared to film and television. Have you noticed any? What positives and negatives have you experienced while working on video games?
Neal Acree: When I score a film, I'm thinking about how the viewer will experience the story over its two hours. I'm asking myself how the themes will be introduced and developed as the story progresses and looking for opportunities to tie everything together stylistically. I'm thinking about how each cue will lead into the next, about creating dynamic peaks and valleys, tension and release, all dictated by the edit of the film. I'm looking to add emotional depth to the characters, emphasize locale or period, or create unexpected viewing experiences through the juxtaposition of music and picture. Such is also the case on an episode of television but the ark can be spread out over a much longer time despite the episode itself being shorter in form.
With games, a lot of the same ideas are in play, especially theme, style, locale, period, etc. but, with the exception of cinematics which are essentially short movies, the specifically crafted interaction between music and picture gives way to a more fluid, interactive approach. There are times when the processes are very similar and can feel very similar in the experience of watching a movie versus playing a game and there are times when it's very different. Usually the biggest difference I've experienced is when I've written stand-alone game music without the constraints of picture. As much as I love the magic that can happen when music meets picture, writing music purely off the top of my head and allowing it to go wherever feels right is very liberating.
The other major difference I've noticed is in the timeframe of the project. Film scores tend to be done at the tail end of a project and composers are usually have three to eight weeks to write, record, and mix everything. Television has a quick turn around as well. Games, however, tend to be scored over a year or more as the game is developed and tested. Some of these cinematics take over a year to from storyboard to completion with the music being developed meticulously over this time.
Chris: The World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo franchises all boast huge worlds, deep mythology, and passionate fanbases. How do you manage to show appreciation for their histories, while offering new directions for the franchises? Is their magnitude ever intimidating?
Neal Acree: Research and preparation have aways been important to me when stepping into a new project and I knew from the very beginning I was stepping into some big shoes. I've always looked for opportunities to incorporate existing themes and I've almost always written lyrics in languages developed for the games. There's so much to draw from and that's one of the funnest parts of the job, making it more than just a piece of music to accompany a scene. There are layers to some of the pieces most people have yet to uncover.
I've never let myself be intimidated by the magnitude of the fans. If anything I do my best to tap into that passion and let it inspire me. At the end of the day all I can do is my best to try to give them what they want and to give them something I'm proud of and so far I've gotten nothing but positive feedback.
Chris: Since your debut with Blizzard, you have gone on to take larger roles on World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, Diablo III, and now World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria. Does you wider involvement reflects the more cinematic scope of these projects? What individual challenges did each project bring?
Neal Acree: The cinematic scope of the franchises has certainly grown but I like to think my widened involvement with Blizzard is a result of a successful relationship we've developed over the years and a lot of hard work. I've always prided myself on being a team player and I've always put the music first and that's really important when working on a project with several composers and a pre-existing catalog of themes. I have Russell Brower and the awesome directors to thank for continuing to bring me back. Each time out is the ride of a lifetime and I can't wait for the next one.
As for individual challenges, the biggest one was creating a unique sound for each of the franchises and a lot of the credit there goes to the cinematic directors and to Russell Brower, Derek Duke and Glenn Stafford whose in-game music makes Blizzard the musical powerhouse it is. My goal with each piece of music whether it be in game or accompanying a cinematic is to tell a story within the context of the game as a whole and to help create an environment for the player to experience.
The worlds of Diablo, Starcraft and Warcraft all have their own musical identity. With Mist of Pandaria, the World of Warcraft continues to expand musically and in an exciting, exotic way. With StarCraft II we've been trying to push the envelope with electronics and the orchestra/electronic hybrid sound. I'm really excited about Mists of Pandaria and Heart of the Swarm because I think we've been doing some stuff that's never been done in game music and I can't wait for everyone to hear it.
Chris: Could you elaborate further on your contributions to World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria and Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm? Will your music play a prominent role in both titles?
Neal Acree: I'm really excited about both titles since they are completely different from each other musically but both unlike any other game music I've heard before. In both cases, I was a part of an amazing team of composers which on Pandaria included Russell Brower, Sam Cardon, Jeremy Soule and Edo Guidotti, but got to focus on cinematic as well as some in-game music. Mists of Pandaria was a dream project for me made all the better by the talent Russell put together for it. I feel like this one raised the already stratospheric bar that Blizzard had set in game music. It's a richly melodic, exotic and sophisticated score that combines Western orchestra and authentic Eastern instruments. The musicians we got to work with were superb and the world the designers created was thoroughly inspiring.
Chris: To date, you have worked exclusively with Blizzard Entertainment on video game scores. Are you interested in collaborating with other companies? Would you consider taking on a solo role in the future or do you prefer working as part of a team?
Neal Acree: I've had the best creative experiences of my career with Blizzard and I hope to have a long relationship with them but I'd absolutely welcome a chance to collaborate with anyone out there with a passion for their craft. I've worked solo on all the feature films I've done and I've worked plenty on teams and while both have their pros and cons, it's really all about what's best for the job.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Neal Acree. Is there anything else you would like to say about your video game scores and wider works? Do you have any message for readers around the world?
Neal Acree: I've been lucky to have been involved in both the Stargate franchise and all three Blizzard franchises and the passionate fans of all these have made for a pretty exciting career thus far. Reading the fan comments and hearing the covers and remixes of my music on YouTube makes all the hard work worth it. Keep listening!