Interview: Composer Geoff Zanelli discusses Squadron 42 and Traffik scores

Fifteen years ago composers were compartmentalized into video game composers, film composers, television composers and commercial composers, but in recent years those labels have gone out the door. One reason being, the production value of games and television shows are now exceeding those of blockbuster films. A composer proving he can score any medium and genre is Emmy winner Geoff Zanelli. Zanelli recently received acclaim for his score to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and current projects include the Deon Taylor film, Traffik, now in theaters and the much-anticipated video game Squadron 42 developed and published by Chris Roberts’ company Cloud Imperium Games for Microsoft Windows. Squadron 42 is part of the Star Citizen project which has raised more money than every other video game on Kickstarter combined for numerous years. We sat down with Zanelli to discuss these two projects, read below.

squadron 42

How far along are you with the Squadron 42 score?

Even though I’ve written over three hours of music for Squadron 42 already, I’m probably just approaching the halfway point. A great deal of what I’ve done so far has been gameplay music, which the game will decide intelligently when to play. It’s based on the player’s situation, so for instance, if you’re just traveling through space and not in any danger, it will play one of the many variations of safe traveling music. The developers and I have gone through the game and cataloged all sorts of situations that will be scored during the game.

What I really want the game engine to do is make as many of the same decisions on the fly that I would make if I were scoring the player’s experience as a film. So there’s a little bit of my film composing mindset built into the game, in other words. And while I know that this type of thing has been done before in a game, I don’t think it’s ever been attempted at the level of detail or the scale.

What I have yet to write are location specific pieces because I decided to wait until the levels are closer to their final state. Things, as you can imagine, are constantly evolving as the game is developed, and it’s inspiring to see how it’s all coming together!

There will also be a number of what we’re calling “cinematic” cues, which are moments in the game where you’ll see the full extent of the amazing actors they’ve cast in it. They’re doing some amazing performance-capture work with the likes of Mark Hamill, Gillian Anderson and others. A lot of those moments will be scored similarly to the way a film is scored.

What has been your biggest challenge with the Squadron 42 score so far?

I think the biggest challenges so far were in the very beginning. I signed on to score the game a few years ago, and I was excited so I started writing immediately. You’d think I’d know better! But I got caught up in Chris Roberts’ ambitious plans. Chris, as you know, is the legendary game developer of Star Citizen, both the persistent universe and the story-driven Squadron 42.

So, of course what happened is I wrote a lot of music and as the game evolved, I started redefining the sound of the score, and I sat there going “well, I have to go back into this stuff because this new plot point, or ship, or character has inspired me to write something else.”

My goal is to always keep up with the excitement that the rest of the developers are feeling, and I’m constantly looking for places to make improvements.

Can you talk about the sonic palate you have created for the game so far?

Well, since the game is so epic and goes through so many varied stories and subplots, it’s hard to pin down a specific palette. There are a few of them, really. I’d say the approach is a hybrid of that big, sweeping orchestral sound you’d hear in classic space opera films, merged with some more modern synthesizer elements for certain situations or characters.

We’re going to record a huge orchestra once it’s all written, and that’s a big part of the sound, especially for combat and things related to your squadron. Call that the “Navy” music for lack of a better term. But for moments when you’re spacewalking, for instance, the tone shifts to something more modern and ethereal.
It’s funny because just this week I’ve started working on music for one of the alien races in the game. Sorry to be coy about it, but I have to keep some of that to myself. I can say, though, that different locations, races, and factions are going to be great excuses for me to further expand the palette into things which are much less conventional. Be ready for a few surprising sounds!

What do you think players are going to be most surprised about when the game finally comes out?

Ok, I’m going to answer this from my own perspective as a gamer, and I’m sure my answer will change closer to the release date as things are sure to continue evolving, but one of the things that really caught my attention last year when they showed me some gameplay footage was just how detailed the world is.

I mean, you might walk by someone in the hallway of your ship and they stop and say something to you, and most of the time when that happens in a game it’s some sort of canned quote that 10 different people will all say to you. But in Squadron 42, there’s an individual line from a chosen voice actor, whose performance is unique and specific. They might be a young pilot and want to talk about any tips you can share since you’re more experienced than they are. They might reminisce about serving an officer you once served.

The important thing is they have a backstory, no matter how small. And that level of immersion, for me at least, is unrivaled and surprising.

Traffik

What are the main differences between scoring a game such as Squadron 42 versus a film like Traffik?

In some ways, they’re not so different really. Maybe I should say that I got the job on Squadron 42 because Chris Roberts knew me as a story-focused film composer. I scored his movie Outlander some years ago.

But I bring it up to point out that I’m approaching Squadron 42 as though it were a film. A giant, epic, much-longer-than-a-regular-film film! It’s the only way I can get my head around it.

And I meant it when I said that I want the game engine to make as many of the same decisions in-game as I would when it dynamically scores the player experience. That’s where so much of the work from the audio team is going!

I read that you described your score for Traffik as ‘disgusting’, because of the subject matter. Can you elaborate on that?

Sure. Once I got into the story and started really thinking about what human trafficking actually is, and how prevalent it is, how it affects cities all over the world, that was the word that came to my head. “Disgusting.” It’s just so revolting to think that people can and do this to other people.

Even though the film takes on these big subjects, it’s still accessible to the audience. I’m not saying the film or the score is off-putting in that way, but it really was important that the music be full of tension. It’s uneasiness that should be coming through.

What was your main goal with your score for Traffik?

I thought it was an opportunity to write the score for an important film. This is a subject that is only now starting to get represented appropriately in the media.

My goal is to help serve this particular story, which is one of many lifelike stories you can tell about trafficking.

Did the director of Traffik, Deon Taylor, give you more creative freedom with this score or did he have a pretty clear idea of what he wanted the sound of the film to be?

Deon and I were on the same page from our first conversation. In that sense, I had 100% creative freedom but my thoughts happened to coincide with his.
We spoke about the uneasiness I talked about earlier and decided that the score shouldn’t give much comfort, but instead be used to play the tension.

There’s a love story here, too, and that gets a more melodic treatment but once you’re in the world of human trafficking, I didn’t want there to be anything to really latch on to. You should be off kilter during those moments.

We had a great time on this, Deon and I. We’re doing another movie together already, actually, called Motivated Seller.

And before I go, I want to thank you for your time and interest in my score for Traffik. I’m eager to see it reach its audience!

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