Hi Kevin, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game industry?
My first game soundtrack came about almost by accident. I had just finished getting my Scoring for Film and Television degree at USC and was networking with various people and one of the sound fx/post companies I was talking with was looking for someone to write music for a game they were hired to do sound on. The game was a film tie title called “The Indian in the Cupboard” based on Paramount Pictures film. Once I scored that game I had caught the bug and then began to actively market myself to gaming companies and began down the road of composing for games.
You’ve scored a wide palette of different game genres in the past ranging from strategy to role-playing and jump-n-run. How do you approach each genre musically? Are there any particular Manthei-techniques that you apply to every genre?
I have been fortunate enough to be involved in many different genres and have yet to get pigeon holed or lumped into a certain category. I was the "cinematic war" guy then the "dark" guy then the "electronic meets orchestra" guy and more recently the "Dreamworks movie games" guy. I like that my career has moved through various genres. It would be sad to get stuck writing the same music over and over. I approach each game in similar ways – my number one goal is to achieve what the producer and creative folks want. Within that I always strive to do something slightly different or unique that I can call my own. I enjoy mixing it up – and that varies with project and genres but as an overall concept it stays consistent. I am not sure I am a good enough musicologist to determine what my Manthei-techniques are. Maybe you can help me with that. :)
One of your upcoming scores is Blizzard’s Starcraft: Ghost. What can you tell us about that project?
From what I have heard Ghost is no longer. Or at least it has been ‘shelved’. I scored 70 plus minutes of music for the Nihilistic version of the game and had really positive feedback concerning the music from Blizzard and Nihilistic. We all know how Blizzard is with their games and their willingness to let them go if they are not up to their standards. I am bummed out that the music will never see the light of day via the game but it was still fun to work on.
You’ve also done a number of games that base on movies (e.g. Shrek 2, SharkTale). How much were you influenced by the respective movie scores, if at all?
SharkTale was a brand new property and because I was scoring the game before the film composer(s) I wasn’t able to reference any of the music because it didn’t exist yet. So I was free to come up with my own direction coupled with the direction of Activision and the developer Edge of Reality. I was also able to reference some of the popular music tracks that they were going to license for the film. There was an Elvis remix that I recall referencing for one of my gameplay tracks and then there was the influence of hip hop and rap as well as classic songs like Carwash that helped influence my score. The score ended up with influences of funk, rap, hip hop, jaws like music, and modern orchestral scoring.
Shrek 2 was influenced mostly by the levels and the direction of the guys at Luxoflux. We on occasion referenced the score from the first movie but what most people remember from the first Shrek was the amount of pop music in it. In Shrek 2 we did do some pieces that were influenced by some of the new pop music that was going to be incorporated into the Shrek 2 movie.
You’ve also scored a great variety of movie and TV shows. How would you compare movie and game scoring?
They are very similar in that it’s my job to capture the right mood of each scene/level. But the difference is that in TV and film you're scoring to picture – you're writing music to the actions of the screen. In games you can’t score things exactly because it’s interactive and the player never does the same things twice. So I find in games it’s most important to get the right mood and flavour of the level or section I am working on and then from there I am free to write the piece as I see it. In TV and film I can’t continue writing a great idea if the action stops – my music must follow what takes place – that is the basics of scoring to picture.
Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?
I think I am a bit unique in the gaming industry because I have been working in TV, Film and Games for over 10 years. I really don’t feel the whole crossover thing is relevant to me as a typical year will have me working on a few game projects will attending to my scoring duties for my television show(s). Its great to see Giacchino ‘cross over’ but its not really like there is this magic line drawn in the sand in Hollywood. His music is awesome and that is why he is where he is today. The fact that he did or didn’t do games doesn’t really matter in my mind.
As far as established film composers coming over to games I see that as their way to satisfy their curiosity in the genre and perhaps the perception that gaming is the cool thing to be working in. As gaming becomes more and more mainstream I think the lines between gaming, film and TV will be less drawn out and you will see many composers working in all three mediums.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
Because projects are getting bigger and more expensive there will be less games being produced. Because there will be less games being produced publishers will go with safer bets and probably go with movie tie in games and sequels. Because of the movie tie ins and sequels there will be much less opportunity for young composers to get their feet wet and established game composers will have to fight even harder to get on a game. I also think that B+ and A list film composers will continue to do games and will find them as part of their scoring duties for the movies they are attached to. This will make it that much harder for the established game composer.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a game?
Writing music is the most challenging, difficult and rewarding thing I can imagine doing. It’s a magical process that at times can bring you to your knees in frustration and at other times reward you with the greatest feelings of accomplishment. I can’t imagine doing anything else!
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?
I have been listening to my friend and fellow USC graduate Chris Beck’s score to The Sentinel. I have been a fan of his work since we have been in school together. I have been listening to lots of other scores – to many to mention. My favourite composers who I listen to closely on every project they do are: Danny Elfman, John Williams, John Powell and my friend Marco Beltrami.
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on? What would be your dream project?
I don’t really have a favourite project – I really have had such fortune to work with many great producers on many great games. Most recently I have enjoyed my work on Activision’s Ultimate Spiderman, EA’s The Sims 2 PSP and Cryptic Studio’s City of Villains. My dream project would be a game requiring so much music I would be able to just work on that project for years. :)
What are you currently working on?
I am currently talking to several game companies about their upcoming ‘secret’ projects as well as working on some episodes for a new Nickelodeon series to come out this fall. I am also slated to work on a independent film project in the coming months. More info to come as it presents itself!
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
I am into my Xbox – don’t really play games on the PC anymore. I like realistic war games and games based on the Star Wars universe. The games I play have to be able to be picked up and put down between many weeks and months and still be able to remember the controls. I am not into overly complicated games as my time to play is not a huge amount.
Tell us about your animation composing career.
Besides my work in games I have been busy working on 4 different animated shows over the last 6 years. I composed the music for Nickelodeon’s Invader Zim, Warner Brother’s Xiaolin Showdown, Warner Brother’s Johnny Test and Disney’s Brandy and Mr. Whiskers. Animation demands creativity on a weekly basis. I have scored over 130 ½ hour episodes and have found the challenge extremely rewarding. Its been fun to work on a dark sci fi industrial project like Invader Zim and then go to an all out Asian based action adventure comedy for Xiaolin Showdown. It was also a very difficult but rewarding experience to compose the main title song for Johnny Test – an emo punk tune that all the kids like to sing. :)
Please feel free to visit my website and hey you might even want to buy a soundtrack! I have been fortunate enough to get the rights to sell many soundtracks for the games I have worked on via my website. Hope to hear from you and thanks for reading…
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.