Interview with Chris Velasco

Assassin's Creed Unity: Dead Kings surely had a different mood if compared to the main chapter of 2014 and the soundtrack definitely helped to define it. The gothic and dark tones of the DLC music accompanied us through the story thanks to the notes of composer Cris Velasco who is joining us today for an interview about his work.
Cris is a multiple award-winning composer of epic orchestral, dark experimental and modern hybrid music scores for video games, film and television. Among his scoring, you may find many major titles including Company of Heroes 2, Mass Effect 3, Borderlands 2, ZombiU, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, God of War 3, Tron: Evolution, Borderlands, God of War 2, Darksiders, Clive Barkerís Jericho, and many more.

Interview with Cris Velasco

Without any further ado, then, we leave you to the interview, and we thank once again Cris Velasco for his availablity and kindness!

Q: Which has been the path that led you to work in the videogame industry? When and how did you begin?

Iíve been an avid gamer since Space Invaders hit Atari in 1980. However, I never really considered writing music for games as a career until right before I graduated from the music composition program at UCLA. I was always interested in writing the kind of epic orchestral scores that I fell in love with from the movies, though I hadnít really heard anything in games that led me to believe that this was a viable path. Eventually though, with the game industry leaning towards more narrative storytelling, I was able to really fulfill my dream as a composer. Not only do I get to write the kind of music that inspires me, but I also get to record with amazing orchestras and choirs around the world. [2003ís] Battlestar Galactica was the game that gave me my first opportunity.

Q: You worked on various OSTs for Videogames such as the God of War series, Mass Effect 3 and many others. Which one of these games was the most inspiring and which one did you enjoy the most composing the OST for?

I can't pick a favorite! Each project has its own personality. I truly love writing music and each job has its own rewards. However, you did pick two truly outstanding experiences. God of War gave me the opportunity to write some of my favorite music. Just unabashedly epic orchestral music. Mass Effect was like coming onboard the Star Wars trilogy. With so many fans of the game and score, it was a very exciting chance to take the helm!
Recently though, I've had the experience of writing music for Assassin's Creed: Dead Kings. That was truly a dream come true. I've been a huge fan of the whole series since its inception. In recent times, that was definitely a big highlight of my career.

Q: We know that you scored soundtracks for both movies and television. Are there big differences in the approach to these fields, in your opinion? And do you prefer one of them over the other?

A: I just love writing music in any medium. I do have to say that games offer more creative freedom than anything else. In games, you're obviously not locked to picture. The music can really exist on its own. In some ways, this makes writing for games much harder. I often don't get to see the game I'm working on until the very end. This makes the entire score fueled on my own imagination and creativity. That's a lot of fun but can also be quite challenging when under a deadline.

Q: When beginning any project (film/TV/games), how do you initially decide the overall ďsound paletteĒ (sound/instruments) that it will require?

A: I'll almost always have a discussion with the audio director before I ever write a note of music. I'll then inundate myself (in the case of games) with screenshots, concept art, and videos if they're available. I want to live in that world for some time to soak up the atmosphere before I get started. Then I'll start to get ideas about the sound palette. Will it be orchestral? Will it be synthetic? Or a combination of the two? I then begin work on all the thematic cues that I think will be needed in the game. This will eventually set the tone and pacing of the whole game and gives me material to expand on for the rest of the score.

Q: How much time does it take to create an entire soundtrack and which are the main challenges you have to overcome?

Each soundtrack takes me approximately the exact amount of time I'm given! I've worked on scores for a year. I've also had to write two hours of music in three weeks. That just seems to be the interesting thing about deadlines. You can't miss them, but you can also really stretch things out if you have the luxury of doing so.

Q: During your work on the AC Unity Dead Kings OST, have you been in constant communication with Ubisoft and did they give you a path to follow or did you have complete creative freedom? Did you see some concept art or trailer of the DLC before scoring the music to get what it was about?

I was always in contact with the audio director, Manu Bachet. He is fantastic with writing up a music doc on day one that describes in detail what he is looking for. After he sends me the guidelines though, he then backs off and lets me interpret it in my own way. Most of my instruction for Dead Kings was "keep things dark, and incorporate period instrumentation (like the harpsichord)".

Q:The soundtrack for Dead Kings perfectly fits the gloomy atmosphere of the game which also matches what the main character, Arno, is feeling throughout the DLC. What were your main sources of inspiration?

Since a lot of the game takes place in the catacombs, the music definitely needed a darker tone than its predecessors. I was able to see a lot of gameplay videos when I first started. That was so helpful in establishing a style for the score. I listened to a lot of late Baroque and early classical music as well to get the period right. We still went for a modern-sounding orchestra however it was definitely tinged with music from that period.

Q: The ACUnity Dead Kings OST, as we said, is mainly characterized by dark tones. Do you like to specialize in this particular style or do you consider yourself a multi-genre composer?

I'd like to think I'm a multi genre composer. I do enjoy writing "dark" music very much, but I've been fortunate to write in LOTS of different styles in my career. Borderlands was sort of a modern western score. Mass Effect is all Ď80s sci-fi. I've been doing a lot of a Company of Heroes games lately and those are pure orchestral with a nod to WWII. I've even been working on the Chinese port of Plants vs Zombies recently. That score demands comedy.

Q: With the huge success of the Assassin's Creed series, the expectations must be high to keep a high standard of quality. Which was your approach to the composition of the soundtrack and was it different from your past projects?

I always feel a bit of extra pressure when I take over an existing franchise. With something as renowned as Assassin's Creed, the fan base is huge. I don't want to let them down! But like any project I take on, I just try to do my best work and hope that it shows in the end.

Q: Looking at the future, would you like to concentrate more on video game scores, film scores, or a mixture of both and why? Can you tell us a little bit about your future projects?

A mixture of both would be great. I'm currently working on a number of games. Most I can't talk about yet. However, I can mention a few. The Long Dark is one. It's a post-apocalyptic game, but not in the normal sense. It's you, alone in the Canadian wilderness. There are no bad guys or zombies, or aliens. It's you against the elements. The score is quite subdued and different from anything I've done before. I'm also doing another post-apocalyptic game called H1Z1. This one is all about zombies! The music on this is what you might expect. Lots of orchestral tension. Real scary stuff. I'm also working on a game called Armored Warfare. It's being developed by Obsidian and is their next gen answer to a tank-based warfare game. The score is sort of a hybrid of orchestral, electronic, and world music. I've got a handful of other games and a movie I'm currently working on too!

Q: Lastly, can we hope to see you again working on a future Assassinís Creed installment?

We'll have to see. I would absolutely love to though!

This last question ends our interview. We would like to thank Cris Velasco for his kindness and, having listened to his work, we hope to hear again another of his scores!

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