Composer interview: Cris Velasco
I had the pleasure of chatting with Cris Velasco, the prolific and versatile multiple award-winning composer of epic orchestral, dark experimental and modern hybrid music scores for video games, film and television. He is well known for his collaborations with celebrated author, filmmaker and painter Clive Barker and also for scoring major franchises such as God of War and Mass Effect. His latest composition is the score for the game Assassin’s Creed Unity: Dead Kings.
So, first of… The “Books of blood” music is not traditional horror. It’s rich and layered and creates a powerful imagery… It’s almost sweet in some moments but it’s also so deceiving. How did you get so inspired? Was it just the books? Did they challenge your imagination? Did you work closely with Clive Barker while writing this?
“Books of Blood” is an ongoing project. I’m attempting to write each episode in a different style, while maintaining an overall cohesiveness. So at some point there may be some of that “traditional” horror type music, but I’m a big fan of finding the beauty in these stories and allowing the music to accentuate those moments. We’ve done two stories so far. I’ve just finished the second one, “Midnight Meat Train”. There’s almost no acoustic instruments in that one at all. It’s a real throwback to the ‘80s Carpenter style.
Clive’s stories are so visual by nature. When they’re combined with this motion comic format and illustrated by Sam Shearon, I feel like the music almost writes itself. Very inspirational stuff. I’ve actually been working very closely with Ben Meares on these. He’s the guy in charge of adapting Clive’s stories for this project. Ben is so passionate about these books and it’s really coming through in the final product. It’s so nice to have a team that’s extremely talented, but also such fans of the material.
Where can I hear Nicole Garcia perform, on other scores I mean? She is amazing.
I’ve known Nicole for over 20 years and have used her on many of my projects! Some of her other standout moments for me as a soloist on my own work are “A Heroes Legacy” from Warhammer: Space Marine, the “Main Theme” from Company of Heroes 2, and the “Echoes” trailer from The Long Dark. She even traveled with me to Spain last summer to perform the solo on Books of Blood at the Playfest concert in Fuengirola and then stayed around to perform a solo at my wedding there!
What’s your writing process usually like? Is it different for games and for other projects?
It’s pretty much the same for everything I do. I start out just setting up what will be my palette for the project. This can be the orchestra or synths or a combination of the two, plus whatever extra soloists or weird sounds I might want to incorporate. Then I’ll start writing the Main Theme usually. It’s good to start with that so I can build the score around it if it will play an important role. If I’m scoring a film, I like to start at the beginning and just work laterally until the end so I make sure that the music achieves a good flow from scene to scene. In games, I tend to jump around. I like to do a couple of hard cues (combat stuff usually) and then break things up with an easier cue (ambient).
Would you work with another writer for something similar?
Yes, I’d love to! I’m a pretty voracious reader and there’s a number of authors I’d love to work with. Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, China Mieville, and Brandon Sanderson are some of my favorites. He’s dead of course, but I would also love to be involved in something H.P. Lovecraft related.
Your music is usually dark and layered. Does this reflect your personality? How much of you is in these compositions?
All the music I write feels extremely personal. Like a lot of artists, I’m pretty introverted most of the time. Music is a big way that I express myself so yes, there’s a lot of me in my music. I’ve always loved creepy things ever since I was a little kid. I think that’s why I gravitate towards some darker projects. These kinds of projects seem to offer more creative freedom as well. I appreciate your “layered” comment too. I try to make my compositions interesting for everyone involved. There’s nothing worse than being in a session or at a concert and seeing bored musicians. It’s a great feeling to see a happy orchestra. I think that’s where I can really draw from my classical background. Studying the scores of past masters is extremely helpful in writing a rich score. You won’t see 100 bars of string ostinatos with a unison horn melody in Prokofiev 🙂
Assassin’s Creed Unity: Dead Kings. The standout track for me is “Hidden temple” which is amazing, where did that come from?
That was the one moment in Dead Kings where I was able to bring in something very melodic. It was definitely the light in the darkness. It comes in a part of the game where a very cool artifact is revealed. I wanted to write an almost religioso type piece. It was my “uncovering the ark” moment!
Game music taken out of the context of the game loses some of its enjoyment factor and I imagine it’s a tough call for a composer: serve the game 100% and maybe sacrifice the standalone listening experience or go all in and maybe make the game difficult to play? How do you approach this?
The music has to serve the game 100% of the time, no question. That’s the whole point. Anyone that wants to have their music be a standalone listening experience should just write concert music. That being said, I see no reason that it can’t be both. I do try hard to make my scores as enjoyable outside the game as in it. Taking the time to really craft your music is the first step to achieving this. Simply laying down a pad or loop, while it may fade into the background and possibly work with gameplay, isn’t going to provide any kind of great listening experience. It goes back to your “layered” comment. If you take the time to learn what makes up great music, your scores will have a better chance at having life outside the game.
What do you prefer writing for: games, movies, independent projects? Why?
I just like to write music, period. However, I might lean slightly towards games. Not because they’re more fun to write for, but because they offer me more creative freedom usually. With a film, the music needs to service the picture 100% of the time. In games, even though the music needs to suit the gameplay, I often don’t see any real footage of the game while I’m writing for it. Each piece of music sort of exists in its own world for a while.
Are you a fan of film / game music? Do you listen to scores?
Oh yes, I listen to scores all the time. When I was a kid, before I was even remotely into music, my first LP was from Star Wars. These days, I’ve been in more of a classical music mood, but I probably have close to 1,000 game and film scores in my collection.
What’s next for you?
Lot’s of cool stuff! I’ll be working on Books of Blood for the next six years. It’s off and on though so it’s pretty easy to slot it into whatever schedule I have. I’m also currently scoring The Long Dark. It’s a survival game (no zombies) by a new company called Hinterland Studio. This game is truly gorgeous and is going to be huge when it’s released. I’d describe the score as lonely and beautiful. I was also just announced as the composer for H1Z1. This too is a survival game but with zombies! This one is being developed by Daybreak Games (formerly Sony Online). The score is far from beautiful though. It’s meant to give you anxiety while you’re playing. There are others that I’ve either finished or am currently working on now too, but I’m not able to reveal them yet.