Home » INTERVIEWS » Greg Edmonson Interview – we talk Uncharted with the series’ composer

Greg Edmonson Interview – we talk Uncharted with the series’ composer

Tell us a little about yourself, and how you got into videogames.
It’s difficult to encapsulate. I moved to Los Angeles and worked as a guitar player, and early on I got an opportunity to work for the animation company Hannah Barbara. I found that I really loved working to picture like that, so I continued to work in television and it just kind of blossomed from there. I ended up working on King Of The Hill, which was good because I’m from Texas myself. That ran for twelve years, and while I was working on that I ended up getting a job on Firefly – I can’t tell you how much I loved working on that. It was so much fun to work on.

After Firefly died I got a call from Naughty Dog, and they said they really liked the Firefly stuff and they wanted my help on a trailer they were doing for E3. So that’s what led to Uncharted!

The Uncharted series is the only videogame series you’ve worked on, right?
Yeah, that’s my whole experience in videogames! How lucky is that? For whatever reason I landed on top of the heap.

Did you have any desire to work in videogames before Naughty Dog approached you?
Well, no, I can’t say that I did. I got involved because they asked me. But the wonderful thing about videogames, at least for a guy in my position, is they have resources available that you could usually only get on feature films. For Uncharted 2 we had about 80 guys in the orchestra; you could never have that in television. It just doesn’t exist! What’s more, the creative process in videogames is really unusual and interesting, and you get to write music that perhaps you could never write anywhere else. Also, you’re working with creative people, like the guys at Naughty Dog and Amy Hennig and all the Sony team. It’s a venue that is just custom made for someone in my position. I’m really thrilled to be part of it right now.

What did you find were the main differences between writing music for television and writing music for videogames? Was it a steep learning curve for you?

Yeah, it was. Here’s the difference. Most of the time, in film or TV, I’m writing to a lot of picture. In videogames the picture is never finished when you’re writing the music. It’s in some state of being prepared, but it’s never finished. In some ways that’s kind of scary, because when you’re writing to a locked picture you can always watch the music against that picture and see if it’s working or not. You can judge if that way. You can’t do that with games.

But, saying that, in other ways having no finished picture is kind of good. It gives you latitude to write music for the sake of music. There’s a lot more imagination involved when it comes to videogames.

So what’s the process behind making music for a videogame? Do you have one big meeting with Naughty Dog and then go away and write the score, or is it a very collaborative process, where you constantly work side-by-side with the game’s creators?
For me, and I think I’m really lucky here, I work with two different entities. I work with Naughty Dog, and my contact there is Amy Hennig who’s the creative director on the Uncharted series and is involved for the decisions involving the way the game looks, the acting, the casting, and the music and all that stuff. My other contact is at Sony, SCEA’s music manager Jonathan Mayer. Their job is to act as a liaison between the composer and Naughty Dog. Although really we don’t need one because it’s just like three pals. Once we get started we talk on almost a daily basis, and Amy will say ‘ok we need some music for this level, and it’s going to look like this, and it’s going to play like this’, and sometimes they’ll send me a rough video, but again it’s probably really, really rough and everyone will say it’s going to look completely different when they’re done. And Jonathan at Sony is really good at saying ‘y’know, we’ve already got a bunch of high-intensity combat music’, for instance, so he’ll say ‘how about we go medium intensity?’ So that helps direct me. Then I just go with it.

It’s a flexible process. Let’s say I write three minutes of music for a level that’s unfinished. Sometimes when it’s all put together you’ll find that music works better elsewhere. So Sony is the one that’s responsible for implementing the music in the game and deciding where it works best. It’s a fun deal because you write the music and you never know for sure how or where it’s going to end up in the game.

There are a lot of different locations in Uncharted. How much does the setting affect the score?
A lot. Amy is very clear about what she wants. She’ll say ‘we’re going to be in Turkey here, then we’re going to be in Tibet’. So when we ended up in Tibet I used these gigantic Tibetan temple horns and lots of Buddhist elements. I’m never literal about that stuff – I never limit myself to the literal possibilities – but certainly once we knew we were going to be in Tibet I used a lot of Chinese instruments and I watched a lot of Chinese cinema to familiarise myself with that kind of music.

Are you inspired by a lot of cinema when writing the score for Uncharted?
I don’t think that there was a specific influence on the score. I just wanted it to be interesting. I wanted to take all the elements from the world in which we live – I always use a lot of ethnic elements, I have since Firefly. So we had all these ethnic woodwinds, and the Erhu, and we had a guitar player playing the Saz, which is a Turkish instrument. We just tried to mix all that stuff together and have some fun. I’m pretty proud of the end product.

How much of the original score has been retained throughout the Uncharted series? Has it changed from game to game, or do you stick with similar themes?
In Uncharted 2 it was all new. The only thing we kept from the first Uncharted was the main theme because Amy felt that we should stick with that, so we recorded it with a bigger orchestra. But the difference between the first two games for me was that the first one was set in a jungle, and there was a lot of underground stuff, so musically it was a little more ambient. Also the first one was my first experience in videogames, and they said you’ve got to be real careful about writing too much melody, because if the music’s going to loop, or the player stays in the same place for a long space of time, you don’t want them to be saying ‘oh no, here comes that damned flute melody again’. So the first game was a little more ambient.

The second game was a whole different deal. It was way more panoramic and cinematic in scope, and also I just didn’t want to do ambient anymore. So I just threw caution to the wind and said I was going to write melody, let’s hope it all works. They said just do it, we’ll make it work and it’ll be great. And they did.

I think the approach was different both because of the game, and also because game engines had changed. Game engines have evolved beyond the concept of writing stuff that just loops endlessly. So I developed this weird technique, which was instead of writing a three minute piece that was non-stop, I would write 45 seconds and then build to some musical crescendo, and then break for a couple of seconds, and then go back into it. Instead of just having to always break it down into a loop that allowed Naughty Dog and Sony to cut between sections, they could play the music a little more intact and cut to different sections as opposed to having to just turn stuff on and off in a loop.

Why do you find such a technique to be beneficial for Uncharted?
Well, the technique I just described, where you play something for 40-45 seconds and build to a crescendo, and then leave a tiny break and go back into something else; there’s a plus side and a down side to that. The down side is that you could conceivably be in the middle of a big combat situation, and you’re going to have a little break in the music. But that never really bothers me because you can have so many other elements in a combat scene, like gunshots, special effects, the sounds and so on. The good side is that when you break like that you will serendipitously catch events that look exactly like it was scored for that to happen, even though it was just a happy accident. So for whatever reason, this little technique of doing stuff, then breaking, then picking it back up, seems to work really well. It makes it really easy for Sony to implement the music and intercut between completely different cues, as long as you leave those little holes. For whatever reason it works really well. People always ask me, ‘man how did you score that? You caught this thing exactly!’ but it was just a happy accident!

What other videogame scores have impressed you recently?
We were up for a few awards for the first two Uncharted games, and I listened to the soundtracks of all the games that we were up against. And wow. The videogame music market is becoming so sophisticated so quickly. There’s really a lot of good stuff out there. I’m just honoured to be counted among those guys.

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  • JodoKast

    The Uncharted Soundtracks are perfect. Thank you Mr Edmondson.