Interview Sam Hulick
In 2003, multi-Award winning and BAFTA award-nominated composer Sam Hulick began his video game scoring career when he had the opportunity to write music for a project headed by Tommy Tallarico. In 2007, Hulick became widely known after providing music for the hugely popular game, Mass Effect. He also collaborated on the sequel, Mass Effect 2. His most recent project is the upcoming Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad, a new WWII first-person shooter.
Sam, thank you so much for making the time for this interview.
To start off, can you tell us about your background and how you first got involved with writing music for video games?
I've always had a passion for both. I have memories of a friend of mine and I recording samples of our favorite video game music onto cassette tape, way back in high school. I remember I had several tracks of Tim Wright's score for Shadow of the Beast 3 on tape. Fun memories! Anyway, to make a long story short, I was heavily inspired in the late ‘90s to take my musical interests and love for video games and bring the two together. It's not easy breaking in. I spent a few years trying to track down the right people to talk to, sending demo CDs - basically cold calling, which I can't say was completely non-productive because it got the attention of BioWare. It didn't lead to any work at the time, it was just more of a 'huh, interesting' type response, which was something at least! I joined G.A.N.G. and was very active in that community, and participated in a composer contest in 2003, which I won. Shortly after that, I was approached by Tommy Tallarico and was offered the opportunity to contribute to the soundtrack for Maximo vs. Army of Zin.
Can you tell us more about what was it like to work with Tommy Tallarico?
I was pretty excited to be working on my first professional gig! Tommy had a handful of composers contribute to Maximon vs. Army of Zin, and in total I composed about eight minutes of original music. Tommy knew that this was my first game score, he was encouraging throughout the process and so it was a positive experience for me.
In 2007, Bioware released its first Xbox 360 title — Mass Effect. The game was a futuristic character-driven RPG with a pretty amazing storyline. The score was a collaboration between four composers including yourself. How did you become involved with the project and what can you tell us about how duties were divided between composers?
I was invited by BioWare to demo for Mass Effect; Jack Wall recommended me to them because he was unavailable at the time. He had heard some of my music a couple years before Mass Effect came up as an opportunity, and he liked my work. But his circumstances changed, and he later did become available and so we essentially demoed for the same gig. He secured the contract, but he and BioWare really liked my music so I was officially brought on as co-composer. There wasn't too much structure put into who scored what, I think Jack was just able to get a sense of what each of our strengths were, and assign certain levels or cinematics to me that he thought I would excel at. It worked out really well and I'm very happy with my work on Mass Effect.
I know Jack Wall and you wrote the majority of the score, but was it Bioware’s decision to do it this way or who did Jack assume the position of the supervisor? How were you able to make it a unified and cohesive score?
Yes, Jack served as lead composer and supervisor. We were able to make the soundtrack cohesive by sharing thematic ideas as well as using the same software synths and some of the same presets within those virtual instruments.
Two tracks that you wrote for Mass Effect, “Sovereign’s Theme” and “From The Wreckage, “ feature a more pure orchestral sound without the 80’s synth sound textures heard in other parts of the score. “From The Wreckage,” in particular, evolves very nicely until that climatic, trailer-like ending. What can you tell us about these two tracks?
These are two tracks in particular that called for a little more emotional intensity, hence a more orchestral sound was employed. Casey Hudson, the producer of the Mass Effect franchise, specifically wanted a very dynamic and emotional piece of music for one of the big final moments in Mass Effect ('From the Wreckage') with a very subdued intro and a big ending. I think the different textures that are created by acoustic instruments vs. electronic instruments evoke different emotions in people and in this case, orchestral worked better. There are other pieces I wrote, such as 'Uplink,' where the purely synth ending works perfectly with the visuals, and I can't imagine orchestral instruments delivering the same feeling there.
For Mass Effect 2, you collaborated once again with Jack Wall and David Kates. Was this collaboration any different in terms of the roles each of you had as composers?
Yes, it was quite a bit different. I think there's a lot you can learn from the first time around that helps you improve the collaboration process for the next project. There was more structure in Mass Effect 2. Jack basically assigned entire levels to David, Jimmy Hinson, and myself, which allowed us to write more thematic content within each environment for more consistency.
What was your reaction when you heard Mass Effect 2 had been nominated for a BAFTA
I was totally thrilled! Being nominated for a BAFTA is a huge honor, and I feel both humbled and proud of the work we did on the score.
You’ve recently completed the new WWII shooter, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. Some people are not aware that this series has more complex and more realistic mechanics than other war shooter video games. Plus, The Battle of Stalingrad was a very bloody six- month event with close to 1 million casualties. Did all of this played a role in how seriously you approached this project even though it was still a game?
Absolutely. Video games based on actual wars in history can be a sensitive subject. I started the musical process by watching a couple of documentaries on the Battle of Stalingrad, as well as two films: Cross of Iron and Enemy at the Gates. I definitely wanted to respect the material and be sensitive while writing the music.
The tone of the score is certainly darker and more intense, but it still has a high level of emotionality injected into the music. How difficult was it to achieve all of this?
It is a bit of a roller coaster of emotions going on. I don't think this is the kind of score where you can sit down and approach it from a theoretical standpoint and say, 'Ok, I'm going to use this technique or harmonic progression because it sounds sad.' You have to make yourself feel it by imagining or recalling something really sorrowful, and channel that into your writing. If you genuinely feel these things when you're writing something, then your listeners will feel that as well. It's easy to pick up on music that's contrived to bring about specific emotions, and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. Some days I found it easy to sit down and channel the emotions needed to write the appropriate material, and other days it was a challenge. Writing something that's supposed to represent the loneliness and desperation of war on a day where you're all sunshine and smiles can be quite difficult!
How do you handle the concept of interactivity and responsiveness between the characters/ settings and your music considering that a game like Heroes of Stalingrad could have players spend any given amount of time in a particular territory or level?
Tripwire and I wanted a way to provide music that would be unobtrusive and yet emotionally engaging at the same time, so what we did was have the music organized in a playlist fashion, where one cue plays and is followed by another once it's over, rather than looping it. But all of the cues are divided according to team (axis or allies) and morale (high, neutral, low). So if you're on the side of the Soviets and your team is doing well, all the Russian high morale cues will play. We think it will work well and not intrude on the players' experience.
Can we expect an album release of this score later this summer?
I think so! I can't really say for sure because I don't want to make promises when it comes to release dates, but I think late summer is likely.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
Alas, I’m currently unable to discuss my upcoming projects.
Sam, it was a real pleasure doing this interview with you. Thank you for your time.
My pleasure, thank you for having me!