Fable: Hollywood legend Danny Elfman dishes the inside dirt on his music

by Matt Leone
Some contributions from Scott Steinberg
Source: http://www.1up.com/do/previewPage?cId=3133731&did=1
Batman, Chicago, The Hulk... chances are, you've heard Danny Elfman's work before. A box office regular, the former front man for seminal '80s rock band Oingo Boingo found his true calling scoring some of Tinseltown's biggest blockbusters. But thanks to Microsoft, the composer—whose performance in last year's Big Fish netted an Oscar nomination—will soon be expanding his horizons. Fable, Peter Molyneux's long-awaited role-playing opus boasts an original theme penned the renowned musician. With the title's debut impending, we caught up with the acclaimed artist for an exclusive chat about one unsuspecting songwriter's foray into the glamorous world of game development.
So why would Elfman, having achieved success in other mediums, decide to take on a game? "For exactly that reason—because Fable wasn't a film or commercial," he says. "It's a welcome break from the daily grind that is working on a movie's score. A movie can consume your life for months on end. It's nice to have something that takes roughly a week to complete. That's a break, from my perspective."
When talking about working in the game industry, it's unusual for anyone to refer to their time as "a break," but Elfman has found a common ground between writing music for games and films. "Working on a game versus a movie really wasn't all that troublesome for me," he says. "In fact, in my mental processes, I was simply doing a fantasy/action flick. Had Fable really been a feature film, I don't see how the work would have been any different...Microsoft didn't even have an introductory sequence to show me when I wrote the theme. I just pictured an imaginary intro and ran with it."
In creating that introduction, Elfman incorporated a few of the main concepts from the game. Most notably, his theme is designed around the difference between those who choose to be heroes and those who play with evil thoughts. "In the context of the game, there's still a light side, a dark side, and an action-packed side to the adventure," he says. "It's a fairy tale with monsters, battles, heroes—all the standard elements are there. I'm simply setting a tone in the title sequence that states for the audience what's about to happen. The difference is that users can simply dial up the degree to which light and dark side elements factor into the experience."
As for how he expects players to react to his tune, Elfman is non-committal since he doesn't know exactly how the music will be used in the final game. "It's like when I do a theme song for a movie, but don't wind up doing the whole score," he says. "I write it, turn it in to the director, and then have no idea what they'll do with it. Who knows? The score as a whole could wind up being s***ty. A lot of what peripheral composers do can be good or bad. On this end, I set a really strong tone for the game that'll make the user go, "wow." Fable's theme feels big, that's for sure. But who knows what the final mix will sound like, or what the people composing the soundtrack will do to expand upon it."
Elfman says players may be surprised to find out that when he went in to record the song, he only used "a small orchestra" and he prepared for it like he would a commercial. "I tried to coax this big-sounding song from a really small group by adding synthesized natural sounds," he says.
Given that his time investment was relatively small, why does Elfman think more well-known composers haven't helped out with games? "Most have probably avoided the crossover because of the constraint that with most games, you're typically asked to make a synthesized score that's supposed to sound like an orchestra," he says. "To me, that just sounds cheesy. Who wants to hear synthetic oboes and clarinets? I [understand] why most game developers have to do it—they have no money—but for me, I won't use anything less than 80% real instruments."
Though Elfman is not much of a game player himself, he sees that as a good thing for a composer. "I approach every piece of work the same way," he says. "Let's say a project has some history behind it, like a franchise such as Batman or Mission Impossible...I try to divorce myself of any connection to that. History isn't a good thing to consider from a composer's standpoint. Approaching any project with a sense of its history automatically pulls down you a few notches and prejudices you as an artist."
However, Elfman wasn't always a distanced fan of the game industry. "There was a point in my own life where I was going to arcades in Venice, California all the time," he says. "I got so involved with these machines; it'd make your head spin. As a result, these days, I actually like recreations that don't involve and flashing lights or loud music. Surfing the Internet is about as much excitement as I can handle."
Despite that, Elfman is pleased with his contribution to Fable. "It was definitely easier than expected," he says. "I didn't encounter any pitfalls, even though I thought some might arise. Working on Fable was a lot nicer than working on a commercial too—advertisers are a pain in the ass to deal with. The guys at Lionhead were charming by comparison."
As far as future game work goes, Elfman says it's a possibility. "By all means, [though] I try to avoid genre quicksand whenever possible. For example, movies in the action category come to me all the time, but I hate doing two films in the same genre in a row. I was thrilled to have Big Fish arrive between Spider-Man and The Hulk. The next Mario or Pokemon titles are certainly possibilities. Whatever genre I just worked on, my desire is to never do it again. At least, as long as I'm not asked to do a romantic comedy instead. That's where I draw the line."
---in box-out---

Elfman's Ideal Game Project

"I'm sure whatever I'd think of, given a good game designer's imagination, they'd make a great title of it. But I imagine it'd probably be something having to do with mythology. Or, wait a minute...they could always make a game about Big Fish! The challenge is to reconcile the differences between father and son. You'll have to write stories, embellish them, then play through the tall tales!"
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