Interview with Mass Effect: Paragon Lost composers Joshua R. Mosley & David Kates

The Mass Effect trilogy story continues on in the upcoming anime film, Mass Effect: Paragon Lost, starring Freddie Prinze, Jr. as James Vega. With the release of the Blu-ray/DVD heading soon on December 28, 2012, Nerd Reactor had a chance to interview the composers behind the animated movie, Joshua R. Mosley & David Kates.

ictured from left to right: David Kates, Joshua R. Mosley

Nerd Reactor: How did you guys get into composing?

Joshua R. Mosley: I grew up playing piano and trumpet and loving film music.  From a very young age I used to (and still do) sit through the end credits of movies such as Return of the Jedi, Back to the Future and more to just listen to the music, but it wasn’t until after I graduated high school that I knew I wanted to be a composer. I started out writing and producing songs and then expanded my interest further writing film cues. I linked up with a writing partner friend of mine and started pursuing clients for scoring projects. Basically I jumped into this business with both feet. After a year of scoring various projects, I enrolled in the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program in Seattle, Washington, instructed by Hummie Mann. I continued on that road and it has led me here!

David Kates: As a child, I was a classical pianist, studied Jazz and played in rock bands. In college, I was a documentary film major, and while making my graduate film about a group of immigrants who came into the United States via New Jersey instead of Ellis Island, I began to score the movie myself.  I realized my passion for storytelling was through music, but having that foundation in filmmaking was invaluable for understanding the process.

Who were your influences?

Joshua R. Mosley: I seriously have so many. There has always been a strong musical environment in my life and my mother was huge part of creating that environment. My grandfather (on my mother’s side) was a professional bassist and arranger who played with the likes of Tony Bennett, Lou Armstrong, and Peggy Lee. So many strong jazz and R&B influences as a kid.  As far as film composers go; like most kids of the ‘80s I was crazy into Star Wars movies and pretty much had them on repeat. I fell in love with the music of those films. So, like many of us composers, John Williams was a major influence. I then discovered the music of Alan Silvestri,  James Horner and James Newton Howard from their many great film scores. In my more recent years, I became more influenced by the musical approaches of Thomas Newman, Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer. I also have a heavy background in Hip Hop, Pop, and Electronic music.

David Kates: Certainly, as a child it was the masters like Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.  I also loved Jazz artists like Coltrane, Miles, Brubeck, Jarrett, Weather Report, etc., and was deeply influenced by theatrical rock bands like Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, Kansas and other bands where orchestration was always being used.  In the film world, I love all the old scores by Rózsa, Herrmann, Bernstein, and my favorite, Jerry Goldsmith.

For Mass Effect: Paragon Lost, what was your biggest obstacle?

Joshua R. Mosley: The first edit of the film we received was entirely in Japanese. We did receive an English dub soon after, but in the interim we had to work with that Japanese version. We needed to get a start so we did the best we could in laying out rough sketches at least. It was definitely a challenge but it all worked out in the end. Overall I would say it was a very smooth process.

David Kates: Making sure that the tone we set would match well with the animation.  We wanted to establish that the Mass Effect quality was there, but also bring in a new level of emotionality.

How is it like co-composing with each other?

Joshua R. Mosley: I had a really great time working with David. I think what made this such a smooth experience is that from the beginning we made sure we were on the same page about the approach and the psychology of the score. We both agreed that we really wanted to accent the humanity of the story and not just write an all-out action score. Once we had our color palette and themes in place, everything took off from there. We really had a lot of fun with this score.

David Kates: It was seamless for me.  Josh is a terrific composer and a sensitive soul, to boot.  We shared the same passion for bringing humanity to such a dark subject as well as keeping our own egos out of the process.  We regularly critiqued each other’s sketches and kept ourselves honest about what we were striving to accomplish.  We discussed each other’s dramatic choices, as well, and were always open to each other’s ideas. Except for that one time when we had to take it out back…just kidding! I’m very grateful to Josh for bringing me on to collaborate with him on this. I’m really looking forward to us working together again.

Have you guys played the Mass Effect video games?

Joshua R. Mosley: I have played through some of Mass Effect 2 and more of Mass Effect 3. Both are great titles and with great music of course! I wish I had more time to play through more games like I used too.

David Kates:  I’ve been through Mass Effect 1 and 2. Since I got involved with Paragon Lost, I haven’t started Mass Effect 3 yet. It takes me forever to get through a game, that’s why I love the production copy…I can put myself in God mode, and never die!

Is composing for an animated film any different from composing for a video game?

Joshua R. Mosley: Yes, definitely. When writing music for a film or a game, the ultimate goal is to enhance the viewer/player’s experience by creating an atmosphere, feeling or mood to immerse the player into the game or viewer in the film. There are different avenues to accomplish this in each medium. With a film, the first thing you start with is “spotting” the film. Spotting a film is the process of watching through the entire movie and making judgments on where music should and should not be, what moments to accent musically and what feelings and emotions you and the director are wanting to evoke. It is always a linear writing process. With video games, it can be a linear writing process as in making musical cues that loop in the background during gameplay or it can be a musically interactive score. This is where you are writing cues in layers in such a way that the different layers can be triggered and either added to or removed from the cue seamlessly. This emulates the effect of how film scores serve the action on screen by accenting emotion highlights. With in-game cinematics, those are often scored to picture just like you would a film. Two very different beasts, I love composing for both!

David Kates: It’s very different. Scoring an animated film is very much like any movie, in that you are dealing with specifically timed scenes that never change. In games, during the “gameplay” segments you have to create short looped pieces that play over and over while the action develops. The audio engine in a game gives the composer a number of options in how to make these loops “feel” as though they are developing and changing. The greatest challenge of a game (for a composer) is how to make it feel as though the same piece is not simply playing over and over monotonously.

The greatest thing about the Mass Effect soundtrack is the ’80s electronic mixed in with sci-fi ambiance. Will we get to hear more of this in Paragon Lost?

Joshua R. Mosley: Absolutely. You will definitely hear familiar textures from the great Mass Effect games scores. Paragon Lost has a strong symphonic backbone that complements the electronic coloring as well.

David Kates: You certainly will. We’ve combined the classic Mass Effect sound which has lots of electronic elements, but also added a wide screen, orchestral and cinematic flavor that gives it an expansive and emotional nature.

David, since you’ve previously composed for Mass Effect, was Paragon Lost right up your alley?

David Kates: Great question! I think I was suited perfectly for this project partly because I composed for the first two games, and also because I have a background scoring animation. I worked on a Disney series where we took old classic Silly Symphony Cartoons and created new scores for them, but in the classic style. It’s something I’m very comfortable with.

Has working on Mass Effect video games with BioWare different than working on this project?

David Kates: The process of composing for the games was very meticulous and intensive. We were always conscious of making sure that what we wrote would work properly in the audio engine. At the same time, I would say that those restraints brought about a very fascinating creativity that in the end produced a very compelling body of work. Scoring the movie has been more straightforward and almost without tension. The sheer nature of the game medium allows for the development of themes and ideas to flourish. The storyline allows your imagination to flow, and ideas you would never imagine just seem to find their way to you. The movie also really gave us the rare opportunity to comment on subjects like brutality, battle, loss, tragedy, hope, and excitement. We were very fortunate to have BioWare’s support throughout the production. They were very excited about what we were writing and felt that what we were contributing to the movie was complementary and consistent with the games.

Thanks for having us interview.  You guys do an awesome job!!!

Also stay tuned as we’ll have a review up for the Mass Effect: Paragon Lost anime soon.

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