Interview with Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco
Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco have formed one of the most successful collaborations in the composing world. Together, the two have collaborated on numerous video game titles including Mass Effect 2, Tron: Evolution, Borderlands, Dark Messiah, Splinter Cell 4, Beowulf, Haze, Hellgate: London, Mortal Kombat vs DC, Prototype, GI Joe, John Woo’s Stranglehold and the just released Space Marine. Originally from Berlin, Germany, Sascha Dikiciyan (Sonic Mayhem) has been working in the video game world since the ‘90s and is well known from his first projects like James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies and Quake II. Cris Velasco (Monarch Audio), graduated from UCLA and started his career working as an orchestrator. In 2003 he was asked to provide music for the Battlestar Galactica video game.
Sascha and Cris, first of all let me thank you for making the time for this
• To start off, I would like to discuss your musical backgrounds and your first experiences scoring video games?
CRIS: Briefly, I studied music composition at UCLA, did the “paying dues” portion of my career and then landed my first game, Battlestar Galactica (Vivendi). I went on to write on several more Vivendi titles and then was given the opportunity to write music for the first God of War. That game really opened a lot of doors for me. I’ve been scoring games non-stop since then and I absolutely love my job.
SASCHA: Originally from Berlin, I moved to Los Angeles to study music back in the ‘90s. I’ve always loved video games so it was only logical to put both passions together. Back in 1997 my first experience was a big one: following Trent Reznor’s brilliant work and scoring the follow up, Quake II. It was the best introduction into the industry one could imagine. Scary but also very rewarding.
• Was Dark Messiah the official start of your very successful collaboration? Do you think collaborating is a more effective way of working on video game projects?
CRIS: Yes, that was our official first game that we collaborated on. We’ve been working together for about seven years now and have scored over 30 games in that time. For us, collaborating is a way to expand the music beyond our own individual comfort zones. We each focus on what we do best and then find a way to bring our music together. We also constantly push each other to become better composers. I wouldn’t ever say that it’s always a great idea to put multiple composers together on a project. However, Sascha and I have definitely developed a great working relationship together and I think that, yes, it’s become a very effective way to score games.
SASCHA: Well, besides having more than two ears, it makes the process much more fun. We both work on our own projects as well (I scored Tron while Cris worked on all of the God of War games), but ultimately Cris is brilliant at writing orchestral parts and I love my electronics or musical sound design, as I like to call it. So bringing those two skills together is really what makes this work. While we do differ in our approach about ideas from time to time, it has been a truly amazing ride so far and hopefully the best is yet to come.
• I know both of you worked on Hellgate: London, but, Sascha, I know this project holds special significance for you. Can you tell us what were the challenges this project offered that made it so unique and important?
SASCHA: Wow, Hellgate. Thanks for asking about it. Hellgate was indeed special. First off, when I saw the game at the 2005 E3 show, I knew I wanted to score it. I immediately approached the game’s producer on the show floor and bugged him about it. It was an unusual approach but my resistance paid off. Besides the technical challenges the title posed, it was our first true “hybrid” score. Lots of electronics, lots of orchestra. We wrote a ton of music for the project and we really put our hearts into it. It was sad to see the game getting dogged in a way because I think it tried to be too much too early. The ideas and story were brilliant though. And it was also special because we worked over a year on it.
• Beowulf was a very notable project considering you had the opportunity to record at Skywalker Sound. Cris, can you walk us through the scoring process for this particular title?
CRIS: Beowulf was actually the first score we ever recorded at Skywalker. It also marked the first time that we were able to establish our “team” for recording. This included Tim Davies (orchestrator and conductor), Erin Collins (score supervisor), Leslie Jones (engineer), Andre Zweers (Protools), and Janet Ketchum (contractor). We’ve kept this same core team in place for every subsequent recording. They’ve really become like a second family to me. For the actual score, we recorded strings, brass and choir for three days. Going to Skywalker that first time was a really dream come true for me. Actually the whole project was an absolute thrill. Ubisoft flew me out to Paris to meet the whole development team and discuss music for three days. After giving us some basic guidelines they really let Sascha and I just run with the music. We didn’t have any major restrictions (like following the Silvestri movie score). The result was a pretty aggressive and energetic score that we’re still proud of.
• Beowulf is just one of many games you’ve scored based on actual films. (TMNT, Tron, G.I Joe are others). In many instances you are scoring the games as the film composers are working on the respective films. In this case, do you appreciate when producers give you the freedom to come up with original material not necessarily based on the film’s score? My guess is that sometimes both of you (film and video game composers) are getting similar instructions from the studios, correct?
CRIS: We definitely love the freedom to come up with our own ideas and sound on these movie tie-ins! Usually it’s never even an issue though because the film score is being written at the same time we’re scoring the game. It’s funny though to often hear the similarities in both scores once the game and movie come out. So I’m sure we must be getting some of the same direction.
SASCHA: This really depends on the IP and how big the project is. However, with TRON for example, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. They knew how big of a fan I was of the original so they had no doubts that I could deliver. Besides that famous D minor arpeggio also used in the movie, I pretty much wrote what I wanted. It was a great gig.
• One of your more recent scores, Tron: Evolution, featured some amazing synth-based tracks that are undoubtedly richer and more complex than the ones heard in the film. Can you talk about the synth programming that went on for this project? Was it a combination of hardware and software-based synths?
SASCHA: Glad you are asking. Yes, once I got the call for Tron I immediately went to work. There were two main sources where all sounds ended up for further processing: the Kyma workstation and metasynth. Most all of the filters you hear is metasynth doing it's digital magic. A good friend of mine, Andrew Souter from Galbanum, helped me create custom sounds and loops before I started writing. Kyma, which is a proprietary audio workstation, was used for creating morphing passages and for that digital 8 bit crunch. It takes years to learn but I’ve been using it now for 6 years and it holds a truly amazing sound quality. Most of the synths you hear were actually the Juno 106, ms2000 and a set of custom vst plugins. These VSTs just basically emulated the old 80s synths like the famous cs80, also used by Vangelis on Blade Runner or the old moog synths. Bringing all of this together, created the soundscape of Tron: Evolution.
• Interestingly, you offered extended versions of some of the tracks on your websites. Is this something you like doing for the fans of both the game and your music?
SASCHA: A lot of time, while working on a cue, sometimes ideas just won't stop or the tracks need to be a certain length for technical reasons. I really like when cues develop over time, take you on a journey so to speak. I always keep these versions and then release them online. I think the fans definitely appreciate it and we plan on doing the same thing for Space Marine extended tracks.
• Let’s switch gears and talk about your most recent score: — Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. What were your first impressions of the game when you first saw the artwork and storyboards? Did you begin creating themes right away or how long does this process normally take?
CRIS: Relic had us both fly out to their studio to show us the game in person. That was really our first impression of the game. We were both so blown away by how much fun it was and how good it looked. The guys at Relic have been making Warhammer games for a long time and it really shows! They’re just incredible at what they do. When Sascha and I got back to LA we immediately started writing what would become Titus’ Theme. This music would really wind up setting the whole tone for the entire game so we wanted to get it just right. There was a lot of back and forth between us and Glenn Jamison (Audio Director) to perfect the mood they were going for. But when you finally nail “The Theme” it’s a great feeling!
• Were both of you familiar with the fictional world that encompasses the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game and did the latter have any influence in your musical approach? I know it’s still evolving and going through developments and upgrades so people are still playing it.
CRIS: I’ve known about the Warhammer franchise for a long time of course. However, I’ve never played the tabletop game and I didn’t really know any of the specifics of it either. I think that this actually helped in coming up with a unique sound for Space Marine though. This score was a definite departure from the other Warhammer scores, which only makes sense with this being such a different Warhammer experience. Working on this game has definitely piqued my interest however. I’m very curious to delve further into the world!
• The underlying story of Space Marine is related to the survival of human kind in the Warhammer 40,000 dystopia. From the very beginning of the soundtrack, the music creates a very solid emotional foundation aided by rich and gripping string lines with powerful harmonies. Do you think harmonic content plays a larger role than other musical elements in the score?
CRIS & SASCHA: The harmonic progression of the music is actually a huge part of what we were trying to do musically. It was a subtle thing though and I’m happy you picked up on it! From the very beginning we have the Titus Theme. It starts in D minor. Everything leading up to the melody tells you it’s in D minor. But when the first note of his theme comes in it’s in Bb major and doesn’t resolve to D minor until the last note of the melody. The Inquisitor also has a theme that is harmonized very differently depending on what’s happening. Again, it’s very subtle. But it’s one of those composing “puzzles” that makes things interesting. Or at least interesting to me! So I wouldn’t say that the harmonic content is more important that anything else, but it’s definitely something that I was conscious about when I was writing.
• What can you tell us about the different themes and motifs you created for the game?
CRIS & SASCHA: There are four recurring melodies throughout the game. We took a pretty straightforward leitmotif approach with them too. There’s a theme for Titus, which also kind of becomes the main Space Marine theme. There are also themes for the Inquisitor, Mira, and the Power Source. It was a lot of fun combining and deconstructing these within the game. The music is also very different depending on where you are in the game. The music that plays as you battle hordes of orcs is mostly made up of war drums. It’s also randomized so that you shouldn’t really hear the exact same music twice. The boss fights, cinematics, and other special events are much fuller sounding. When you finally meet the Chaos entities the music completely changes again and gets pretty wild.
• Valkyrie Run is one of the best single cues I have heard so far this year (from either a video game or film). Having not played the game, can you describe the role this track plays inside “Space Marine?”
CRIS: Thank you! That piece was so much fun to write. It’s very different from anything else in the score so I’m glad that Glenn allowed it to stay in. I think he could tell I had a vision for it! :-) I don’t want to really give anything away, but that scene does involve orcs equipped with jet-packs. It’s kind of a frenzied yet funny scene I think. I’ve played it and I can at least tell you it’s a lot of fun!
SASCHA: Ha yeah. I think it's one of the best pieces and really something new in a sense for a game score. I think once you see it with the scene, you will be surprised how well it really fits!
• Do you have to consider the way the developers establish the different gameplay systems, particularly in the case of multiplayer modes, when creating your music? If so, how exactly?
CRIS & SASCHA: The music we wrote is for the single player campaign. I really couldn’t say if any will be reused for multiplayer.
• Surely you are incredibly happy seeing that the soundtrack will be bundled with the Collector’s Edition, but are there any plans to release it independently?
CRIS & SASCHA: Yes there is! In fact, I believe it’s already available for pre-order on Amazon. The fine people at Sumthing Else will be distributing the standalone soundtrack.
• Without a doubt you must already be busy scoring more video games; are there any upcoming projects you can mention at this moment?
CRIS: I wish we could! It’s policy for the developers to implant those Khan ear-larvae things before each project though so...no comment.
Sascha, Cris — it was a real pleasure doing this interview with both you. I can
foresee this score winning some major awards. Thank you for your time and we wish you the best!
CRIS: Thank you for the great interview!