Jason Graves Interview: Scoring Dead Space
Jason Graves is a classically-trained composer of video games, films, and television. After gaining experience in the games industry with franchises such as Blazing Angels, Star Trek, and Rayman, he made his popular breakthrough in 2008 with the award-winning orchestral score to the horror game Dead Space. Since then, he has worked on a range of high profile recent and upcoming titles, ranging from Section 8 to Command & Conquer 4 to Alpha Protocol.
In this comprehensive interview, Graves recollects his recent and upcoming works. He discusses the challenges and rewards of scoring Dead Space, the advantages of recording with full orchestras, and the emotional inspirations behind many of his works. He also provides a valuable preview of his progressive works on Command & Conquer 4 and Silent Hunter 5.
Interview Subject: Jason Graves
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Greg O’Connor-Read
Chris: Jason Graves, we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about your recent and upcoming works today. First of all, could you introduce yourself for those who aren’t already familiar with you, and give an overview of your musical background and career history?
Jason Graves: I come from a classical music background — that’s where it all started for me. After getting my undergrad in Music Composition I studied Film and Television Music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which is where I began my career mostly scoring movie trailers and television. That was about fifteen years ago. The last eight years I’ve been focusing more on composing for video games, though I do work on the occasional film and have my music licensed for television on a regular basis.
Chris: While you’ve worked in the video game industry for a number of years now, your breakthrough work in terms of popular recognition was Dead Space. Could you recollect your experiences of the score? Looking back, what do you feel made it so exceptional?
Jason Graves: Dead Space was both the most challenging and rewarding score I’ve ever worked on. I learned so much throughout the scoring process. Some things transformed the way I work day-to-day and how I approach music composition in general.
It’s easy for past projects to sound dated to me after a little time away from them. The Dead Spacescore has a fresh, unique sound to it. It’s still something I’m very proud of, despite the fact that most of it was composed a few years ago.
I think there are three key ingredients needed for a game score to get any kind of recognition: a creative musical opportunity for the composer, solid music implementation from the developer, and a well-made, well-received game. Unfortunately, you really need all three elements together on the same title and that doesn’t happen very often. Lucky for me, Dead Space had all three.
Chris: Dead Space pitted gamers against fearsome aliens aboard a stricken spaceship. What techniques did you use to portray the central horror elements? Were you primarily inspired by the visual inspirations, for example of the Necromorphs, or an emotional factor, for example empathizing with the fear the lead character might feel?
Jason Graves: For me, it’s always about the emotion. When I compose, my first and foremost thought is what the music can emotionally convey to the player. The fact that Dead Space had such shocking and frightening creatures in it was just the icing on the cake. EA wanted to make the scariest game ever made, so I was tasked with composing the scariest score ever heard in a video game.
Not a small order, but when you simply think about it in terms of emotion, and more specifically the emotion that Isaac feels throughout the game, it makes the whole thing a lot more approachable.
What sounds scary? Things you don’t recognize. How do you make music unrecognizable to the player? Use contemporary orchestral techniques and make the music as NON-musical as possible. If I did my job correctly, a huge stuffed bunny rabbit could fall from the ceiling in Dead Space and the player would still jump out of their seat, simply as the result of the musical tension that had built up beforehand.
Chris: Since then, you scored Dead Space‘s prequel, the Wii’s Dead Space: Extraction. How did the musical and technical direction compare between in the prequel? How did you establish a mixture of continuous and novel elements between the two projects?
Jason Graves: Technically speaking, EA used the same interactive, four layer music system that was so successful in the first Dead Space. In fact, I heard that was the first Wii title to utilize multi-track, interactive music.
Since Dead Space: Extraction was a prequel, the music was put together to follow the storyline and finish where the original Dead Space picks up. It starts out a lot less savage than the original score, but by the time you’ve played through the game you hear the same musical point where the music for the first Dead Space began.
Chris: For Section 8, on the other hand, you offered a hybrid of electronic and orchestral elements. What inspired this increasingly popular approach? Was it compositionally and technically challenging to seamlessly blend the two elements?
Jason Graves: The developer wanted the music to be futuristic, tense and action-packed, so an orchestral/electronic approach was a natural fit. I incorporated electric guitars and synthesizers into the orchestra, augmenting the more traditional sound with some modern, futuristic textures.
Since I was the one performing all the non-orchestral instruments, I made a concerted effort to “carve out” space in the score, otherwise I would have ended up with a huge sonic mess. When the orchestra takes the foreground it’s playing up the heroic, positive qualities of the score. When the guitars and synths take the lead they’re emphasizing the more brutal, dark aspects of the gameplay.
Chris: Among your other major science-fiction works are the Star Trek franchise. Could you discuss what it has been like to compose the series’ video game adaptations? Were you ever inspired by the film scores of the series during these works?
Jason Graves: The Star Trek games were a wonderful opportunity to really stretch myself as a composer and write all that glorious, fun “space music” that I love listening to. I definitely felt pressure to try my best and fill the enormous shoes of Goldsmith and Horner. The developer obviously wanted music that sounded like it to fit in the Star Trek universe and I paid particular attention to the scores from the first two Star Trek films. While I was unable to legally use of any of the themes from the films, I did try and convey the same sense of wonder and majesty that the original film scores made me feel.
Chris: Over the last few years, you’ve also composed World War II titles such as the Blazing Angels series, Hour of Victory, and Silent Hunter 4. How did you depict the scenarios for these titles? What were your inspirations?
Jason Graves: World War II titles are always a bit of a challenge because there’s so much already out there; they have a very established musical universe. I always try and think of a unique approach for each score, especially when I’m venturing into the same musical territory I’ve been in before.
Both Blazing Angels titles had the obvious theme of flight since they are flying simulations. I tried to give the music some sense of the fast-paced dogfights the player experienced, tempered with the joy and tranquility that comes from flying. My dad was a pilot in the Air Force and still flies today. I’ve been up with him on many flights and would often think about them when I was working on the score.
Silent Hunter is the best submarine simulator out there and, fortunately for me, about as far away possible from flying high over the battlefield as you can get. I liked the idea of things that exist on a submarine being conveyed through the music as well; the pinging of the sonar (repeating short woodwind chords), the waves hitting the sides (violin notes bubbling up and down over a melody), or simply the idea of being submerged deep in the ocean (lots of low, slow orchestra sounds). Submarine combat is all about tactics and patience. The score echoed that through slow, steady chord progressions and slowly evolving melodies. There were also Japanese instruments such as taiko drums that musically represented the unseen enemy you were fighting.
I was actually composing Silent Hunter 4 and Blazing Angels 2 at the same time. The simple idea of “up in the air” versus “deep underwater” was the main compositional wedge I had to give each score its own unique identity.
Chris: You’ve noted that Silent Hunter 5: Battle of the Atlantic will be even more musically liberated than your World War II works. What inspired the novel approach to this title? Could you elaborate on the new influences you demonstrate on the score?
Jason Graves: The idea behind the gameplay for Battle of the Atlantic is you are the Captain of your own German submarine. I wanted the music to illustrate the same perspective. I decided to approach the score as a German composer, or at least with a Germanic slant to it.
The main themes in the game have a very operatic approach, perhaps as Mozart or Wagner would have done if they were scoring a game. I used chords and harmonies that are normally only heard in classical music or opera — not necessarily music for games. In fact, I was concerned the developers would think it was too pretty; that it didn’t sound the way a game score should sound. In fact, those chords and more classical turns in the music were the parts they always picked out as their favorites. I also used a choir to give to impart that dramatic, operatic sound to the major themes and key moments in the game.
Chris: On the topic of war games, it’d also be fascinating to hear your insight on Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight. What were the major aims and concepts for this score? Where does the score lie in the context of the series’ vast musical history?
Jason Graves: Command and Conquer has definitely been taking a more cinematic approach to its music in the last few releases. EA wanted Tiberian Twilight to take it up another dramatic notch, both in production value and composition. I knew from the beginning we were recording with a live orchestra, which as a composer makes a huge difference in how I approach a score. This score is also a lot darker and more cinematic than previous scores. There’s a lot of drama and desperation in the music, which makes sense given the epic storyline and characters involved in the gameplay.
Chris: On this project, you worked alongside Red Alert 3‘s lead composers James Hannigan and Timothy Wynn. How did the three of you work together on the project? Which types of cues were you each responsible for?
Jason Graves: Tiberian Twilight allows you to play as either G.D.I. or Nod, which are the two opposing forces fighting each other in the game. As a result, there are two completely different sets of scores composed for the game, one for each faction.
Tim was responsible for the Nod music and I composed the music for the G.D.I. campaign. Jim was the “catch-all” guy that did a little bit of both. Even with three different composers on the same game it was pretty simple to understand who was responsible for what. As a general rule, my portion was all orchestral and Tim’s was more electronic/world-based. I think they provide a nice contrast to each other in the game.
Chris: Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight offers perhaps the most exuberant production values of the series. What do the high quality performances and recordings bring to the overall experience? What was it like to record with the London Philharmonia for the title?
Jason Graves: The London Philharmonia was amazing and recording at Air Studios in London was a wonderful experience. This is my second game with EA and I’m really impressed with the attention and care they put into their music production. There’s definitely a “wow” factor that hits you when you first hear the new Command and Conquer music, in or out of the game. I think having a score with such high production values elevates the entire gaming experience for the player.
Chris: Moving to your upcoming works, you stated that you will offer a hybrid score for the City of Heroes expansion, Going Rogue. What do you think your involvement will bring to this franchise? Will you be taking the franchise in a new direction or will you maintain the musical approach of the original game?
Jason Graves: Paragon Studios brought me in to give the franchise a more epic, cinematic feel. They wanted to take a few steps away from the previous techno/rock sound and move more towards a dramatic, orchestral sound. The tagline for Going Rogue is “Walk the line between good and evil, or cross it.” The score is being composed in such a way as to suggest that good vs. evil idea.
Chris: In addition, readers would appreciate an insight into your music for the much-anticipated espionage RPG Alpha Protocol. What should we expect when the game is released this summer?
Jason Graves: Alpha Protocol is a hip, modern score for undercover agents with pulsing synths, filtered drumbeats and live orchestra. It was a lot of fun to work on, especially since it was one of the first hybrid game scores I had the opportunity to compose. I’m originally a classically-trained percussionist and have turned into a bit of a world music freak the last ten years or so. The world-wide locations in Alpha Protocol were an absolute blast to score and I played percussion on almost every cue in the game. There’s a lot of energy and intrigue in the music.
Chris: We really appreciate you talking to us today, Jason. Good luck with all your upcoming projects. Is there any message you’d like to give to your fans around the world? Thank you.
Jason Graves: Thanks for listening and keep on playing!
Many thanks to Greg O’Connor Read for coordinating this interview. The Command & Conquer 4 Tiberian Twilight Original Soundtrack will be available as a pre-order bonus for those who purchase the game and will be available as an iTunes download on March 16. Learn more about Jason Graves at his official website.
Posted on March 22, 2010 by Chris Greening. Last modified on June 4, 2014.