Tai Freligh chats with award-winning composer Cris Velasco…
Cris Velasco is a multiple award-winning composer of epic orchestral, dark experimental and modern hybrid music scores for video games, film and television. After graduating from UCLA with a degree in Music Composition, Velasco pursued his passion to write music for visual media; his first major release was composing for Sony’s blockbuster God of War.
A prolific and versatile composer, Velasco has become one of the most sought-after composers in interactive entertainment, scoring many major titles including Overwatch, Battleborn, The Long Dark, Bloodborne, H1Z1, Assassin’s Creed IV: Dead Kings, Company of Heroes 2, Mass Effect 3, Borderlands 1 & 2, God of War 1-3, Tron: Evolution, Clive Barker’s Jericho, and many more.
Velasco also composes for independent films, trailers, and commercials for high-profile clients such as Coca-Cola, Disney, Lexus and Mercedes. His music has been licensed for numerous movies, documentaries and television shows. In addition, Velasco arranged, orchestrated, and conducted multiple arrangements of the Monday Night Football theme currently airing on ESPN.
He took time out of his schedule to chat with me about his work on Resident Evil 7, Freakish and other upcoming projects.
You do music for video games, TV, movies, commercials. Is there a different approach for each medium?
Writing music for games is by far more challenging than anything else I think. I usually have very limited visual input to go on. That frees me up quite a bit to just be creative, but it’s also quite a challenge because it sometimes feels as though I’m writing an hour of concert music. TV, film, and commercials are a bit easier for me because the picture really dictates what the music should say. Having a more narrative medium like this makes some of your musical choices for you relatively speaking.
How would you describe your musical style?
I’m probably best known for my orchestral scores. Recently I’ve done a couple of all electronic scores for games, and a lot of synth work in television which was tremendous fun. I also think I’m a fairly melodic writer. I always like to get a good theme going that will stick in your head.
You have scored music for several different types of video games. Do you find that the companies hiring you have a very specific musical style in mind or do they leave that up to you?
It just depends from project to project. I think it’s best when they have a fairly informed idea of how the music should sound, but then let me interpret it with my own style. A good example is a game I’m scoring now called Dauntless. The audio director had a pretty good idea of the emotions the score should exhibit. Something more raw and visceral than a typical fantasy setting. They also wanted it to be mostly orchestral with no electronic elements at all. Finally, there should be a signature sound or instrument to tie the whole score together without it feeling like it’s from any particular culture. So I set about making my palette with strings, winds, brass, a lot of “found” percussion, and hand pans as my signature sound. They’re a fairly new instrument and aren’t tied to any particular culture. It’s been a very interesting challenge, but one that I was allowed to discover on my own.
What’s your process for scoring a video game?
I like to get as much material as possible before I start. Since it’s usually rare for me to get an actual playable build, I settle for concept art, screenshots, and playthough videos if they’re available. After that, it’s coming up with a palette for the whole game. This can be a mixture of orchestra, electronics, or…some hybrid of sounds. After I’ve immersed myself in as much game-related material as I can, I just start writing. I’ll generally try to come up with a main theme first, if that’s appropriate for the game. Then it’s just a matter of chipping away at the score, cue by cue.
Who are your influences in both music and life?
I’m quite influenced by art. If you visit my studio, it’s very different from how most composers are set up. It looks more like an art gallery and arcade. Art has always been one of my biggest influences throughout life, so I’ve really surrounded myself by it.
What was your game plan for scoring Resident Evil 7: Biohazard?
Our biggest directive for this score was to make it super scary. Capcom was taking this series back to its roots. Just a purely terrifying, survival horror experience. What was very different about this score from other horror titles I’ve done though, was a technique called musique concrète. A very simple explanation of this is imagining you’ve recorded lots of different elements to tape. Then, almost like a film editor, you cut all this tape into different sections and start splicing them together in interesting and unusual ways. So we did this with the orchestra, sound fx, and vocal fx to create a unique experience that would be impossible to achieve by scoring this traditionally.
You did music for Freakish on Hulu. How is that different than scoring video games?
The obvious differences are that it’s a linear narrative. It was my first TV show that I’ve worked on, and there were a couple of new challenges. The first was the time frame. I had to write, revise, and mix about 20 minutes of music every 5 days. As a composer working in games you’re used to a more relaxed schedule. I had to really figure out how to write much quicker than I was previously accustomed to. The other challenge was just learning that music can take a back seat a lot of the time. Game music tends to be quite intense and in the foreground. So just stripping back a lot of complexity in my music was a new approach I had to get comfortable with.
What other projects are you working on right now?
I’m currently wrapping up the first season of another new TV show. I’ll be announcing what it is soon! I’m also writing music for a couple of awesome looking games. The Long Dark and Dauntless. I have a very cool VR game that will be announced soon too!
Finally, I’ll be teaching a masterclass on writing music for video games in Baden, Austria from July 12-14. It’s going to be very hands-on and in-depth. You can sign up here.
What is your favourite video game?
Favourite score that you composed?
The one I’m working on now.
In your opinion, the first video game where use of music was a game-changer?
How do you survive in the zombie apocalypse?
Stay indoors, drink wine, wait it out.
Favourite horror movie of all time?
Probably Hellraiser 2.
We want to thank Cris Velasco for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. The Resident Evil 7: Biohazard game is available now for PS4, XBox One and PC. Freakish is now streaming on Hulu.
Tai Freligh is a Los Angeles based writer and can be followed on Twitter.