MICHAEL WANDMACHER (2012)

April 9, 2012 | By

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Prior to the release of Sony’s reboot of Twisted Metal for the PS3, composer Michael Wandmacher (Dirve Angry, Piranha 3D, The Punisher: War Zone) discussed the intricacies of scoring music for an in-development videogame, plus a few quick tidbits on his latest horror film score – the upcoming The Haunting in Georgia.

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Mark R. Hasan: I guess this is your second or third videogame soundtrack?

Michael Wandmacher: Technically it’s my eighth, but working with a major label, it’s my fifth. The first three I did were movie-ports for Activision. They were the two Madagascar films and Over the Hedge, and after that I did Singularity for Activision with Charlie Clouser, and now there’s Twisted Metal.

MRH: I guess this is your first action-oriented game?

MW: Singularity was kind of a sci-fi / horror. It was a first-person shooter, but in terms of style of game play, Twisted Metal is much more of an open field, team combat kind of thing. The game play is actually pretty insane, and I would consider them different types of games, but they’re definitely both from the action genre. The music has a decidedly different feel in Twisted Metal than in Singularity.

MRH: The use of electric guitar is very heavy. How involved were the producers and writers with the music?

MW: They were very involved. There’s a few composers who worked on the game, and my main task was to come up with the themes for the main characters, and score all of the cinematics that are interspersed throughout the game to drive the story along, based on what each player does on each level; how they want to move the story along; and which characters are playing in that particular round of the game.

There were other people and other bands who did game play-type music or other types of interstitial music, and I’m not even sure what that was on their part, but for me the involvement was [score]. I was talking to the music supervisor at Sony pretty regularly, probably over a 2-3 month period where the game was being developed, and I had multiple discussions with the director of the game, and I would write things based on video as it was being developed.

The first things I saw were a lot of green screen type shots – very raw footage – and as they went through each pass of the video, it became more stylized, and then I would fine-tune music after that. The length of those cut scenes kept changing, so I would either have to add or take out parts, but it was really important to develop a specific sound for each character.

MRH: You mentioned the green screen, and it makes me wonder whether someone new to videogame scoring would be able to handle scoring scenes that have partial effects and rough renderings, or do you thing that at this point it really doesn’t matter, because most people have a cinema education from seeing films, seeing how their made, making them on their own, or just going to film school?

MW: I think it varies. If I was just starting out it would throw me to just see footage of somebody on a prop motorcycle; it’s not even a full motorcycle, just the handle and the seat, and they’re in front of a green screen, and there’s nothing else. You might see a couple of operators making the bike bump up and down and make it look like he’s actually riding it. Things like that.

You look at storyboards, or you see what’s called a wireframe sometimes, which shows you the most basic idea of how the character’s going to move. Let’s say if someone’s going to crash, you might be able to see the most basic timing of how that’s going to happen, but a lot of it you just have to imagine in your head and come up with how you feel like it’s going to flow, and hope it’s going to fit.

You get used to it after a while if you work on those types of projects. I’ve done a lot of genre films, too, and during the special effects sequences, in some cases you don’t even see the finished effect until the movie’s actually in the theatre. So you just take your best guess, and the more you do it the easier it is to visualize in your head, and come up with something that you know will work.

MRH: You said that you were brought in quite early and had about 2 months worth of conversations, and I wonder if that’s part of the game maker’s design, where they just want to make sure that musically, just like with the special effects, everything is going on track?

MW: It varies from game to game. On Twisted Metal in particular, this game has been in development for a very long time. (I think it’s been over 2 years). I’m hoping I get my facts straight [but] Twisted Metal was the first PlayStation-exclusive franchise game… I think now it’s something like 10 years later and they’re rebooting and re-launching the whole thing. The characters are the same, but the look and the feel are different, and it’s utilizing the latest game engines.

I had come in when they were well along in the game play part of it and were just starting the cinematic portion of it… They usually dig into [the cut scenes] once the game play bugs have been worked out and tested really well. You’ll usually write in spurts, then give the music to the developers who put it in the game and see how it works, and it comes back… and as you go through it you refine whatever the sound is or the theme. I would say in the grand scheme of the game, I was the last person on the music end to get involved, but even then, for me it was still on and off probably over a period of 4-5 months.

MRH: Are the cinematic scenes basically the action set-pieces or are they the transition stuff when you from different levels?

MW: Yeah, they’re the transition stuff. These are more stylish and detailed and refined than just about any game I’ve ever seen… They used live actors, and then sort of painted over it, and the finished effect is very, very dramatic; it’s very compelling, and it’s something that I got to see evolve over 2 months while I was working on the music.

MRH: I guess what’s pretty satisfying for a composer now is that with the variety of stuff that you can do, whether in films, different genres, and videogames, you’re probably seeing not just more of the technology being applied towards the making of these things but it’s like an education for you because as it becomes more intricate it also becomes more fascinating.

MW: Absolutely. Games are just as valid an avenue for a composer now as any other medium. In some cases the scope of games is bigger than some feature films. There are games like Skyrim or Gears of War or Assassins Creed where they have 90-100 mins. or more of orchestral music in these games, and they’re big orchestras and big choirs, and all performed with live musicians.

It just depends on the game itself, but it can be as daunting or sometimes more daunting, in terms of scale or scope, than even a feature film. They don’t have any boundaries; if they want a certain kind of sound, they’re going to figure out a way to pull that off no matter how weird or how big it is, and it’s gone way beyond what people used to think were just writing all these little loops that would play successively. Music has become in some games dynamic, where it actually morphs as the game evolves: each time you play through the game, you get a different musical experience.

MRH: My next to last question is regarding the musicians. Your score has some really intense sounds and I wonder if you had to look for specific musicians, particularly guitarists?

MW: No, I did everything myself! Part of the fun for me was being able to come up with everything, coming up with noises, especially in the case of Sweet Tooth, the iconic clown character in the game who everybody really knows. He’s this huge, muscular dude who wears this very bizarre clown mask and carries this huge, homemade knife around, and he’s a very daunting character.

Everything musical about him is kind of chaotic and industrial and dissonant and heavy. The music morphs from very metallic, industrial type music to kind of aleatoric orchestral music, then to what I like to call music design, where I’m taking sounds from the environment and then putting them into ProTools and sometimes giving them pitch or tone, and then using those as the actual instruments, and mashing it all together in one piece of music.

MRH: I got the impression from the music, and certainly form the guitar solos that it was just a heck of a lot of fun to perform, like a jam session.

MW: Definitely. There’s no question. There were no boundaries in that regard; if you wanted to really go crazy on the guitar is was completely okay. Tempos and things were really wide. Some things I did were very slow, and some things were above 200bpm.

I was just able to go with it and try and achieve something that was really aggressive, or in the case of Dollface, the main female character, I did this very twisted version of a little girls’ choir singing almost like a lullaby that’s run through all these distortions and other effects so it sounds very de-tuned and ‘off’. Even though it’s still a little girl singing, the combination of those two things made it very eerie and kind of masks the completely psychotic aspect of that character.

MRH: For the soundtrack album did you have to make any unique editorial choices to make it fit?

MW: The edits from the soundtrack were actually done by the music supervisor…I was pulling my hair out, trying to think ‘How am I going to condense all this stuff down?’ I had made a few attempts and I couldn’t come up with pieces that were short enough, and then he went and did his version, and it was actually better because he was looking at it from the non-composer standpoint; he needed to get the best ideas across, so I think he actually had a better perspective in that regard… I thought they were very representative of what was in there.

MRH: Last question – You’re working on a horror film called The Haunting in Georgia, and I wonder if the director’s part of Patrick Lussier’s colleagues, because I think Tom Elkins was one of the editors on Lussier’s films?

MW:  Yes. Tom Elkins, the director, has worked with Patrick quite a bit, but his style is very different in terms of how he uses music, and his actual personal filmmaking taste and his choices.

Haunting in Georgia is something that I really wanted to do because it’s very different, in terms of tone. It’s not the high-octane in-your-face stuff that I’ve done in the past; it’s very eerie and subtle and creepy. It’s actually been a lot of fun to find a way to creep people out using very little as opposed to having these massive, dense cues, so that was a component that was really appealing.

There’s also a family drama taking place that’s very poignant, and Tom wanted to highlight that. There are strong family themes in the film that would be classified as Southern Americana. They’re actually big sweeping themes, recurring lines and strings, and some of it using guitars and other instruments that are most associated with that part of the country, but it’s a big juxtaposition from what I’ve done prior to that, even though it could be considered the same genre.


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KQEK.com would like to thank Michael Wandmacher for discussing his latest work, and Alex May at Costa Communications, Inc. for facilitating this interview.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2012 by Mark R. Hasan

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Also Available:

Twisted Metal soundtrack album review.

2011 interview regarding Drive Angry 3D.

2010 interview with Michael Wandmacher regarding Piranha 3D (2010).

2008 / 2009 interview regarding My Blood Valentine (2009) and The Punisher: War Zone(2009).

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