Quantum Break TV Show Composer Talks About Working on His First Game

We talk with John Kaefer about the work he did on Remedy's ambitious game.

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After years of development, Alan Wake developer Remedy Entertainment's ambitious time-bending Xbox One/PC game Quantum Break arrived this week to mostly positive reviews. The game's main point of distinction is that its story is told across a game and a TV show. We recently had the chance to speak with composer John Kaefer, who wrote the music for the TV show element (in-game music was composed by Alan Wake's Petri Alanko), who told us all about working on his very first game.

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Quantum Break is the first game that Kaefer has worked on, but The Juilliard School graduate is already an established musician and composer. Some of his credits included music packages for ABC's Good Morning America and 20/20, as well as the Crackle series Sequestered. He also has some hardware, as he won a BMI Pete Carpenter Fellowship in 2006 for which he worked with the TV show theme song legend Mike Post (Law & Order, Magnum P.I.).

Below you'll find our interview with Kaefer, condensed and edited for clarity. Kaefer talks about how he got into the music business, what attracted him to Quantum Break, and what he learned on the project, among other things. Outside of music, Kaefer is a dedicated runner, having completed four marathons to date. His personal record is an impressive 3:35, which he recorded at the New York City marathon.

For more on Quantum Break, you can read GameSpot's review here. You can also read GameSpot's interview with Alanko here.

Starting from the beginning, I suppose; could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you broke in as a composer?

I've been creating music for as long as I can remember. I started composing young, in 3rd grade--I loved to tinker with sounds and textures. By the fifth grade I was steadily writing, producing new pieces every week. By the time I reached high school I was studying in New York at the Manhattan School of Music and spent summers at The Aspen Music Festival. Throughout all my early training I was given tremendous opportunities to hear my music performed with fantastic players, from small chamber ensembles to full orchestras.

I continued my studies in college and earned degrees from The Eastman School of Music, Yale School Of Music, and The Juilliard School. Over the years my concert music has been performed all over the world, including premieres at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, Wigmore Hall in London, and La Schola Cantorum in Paris. I'm currently writing a new work for the Hollywood Chamber Orchestra, to be premiered in LA in July 2016.

Kaefer
Kaefer

I began working in film and TV around 2004, towards the end of my time at Juilliard. I always had a desire to explore this world, and the timing seemed right--I love collaboration and working with others to achieve something great. I also felt I had something unique to offer. So I purchased new equipment and immediately started writing and producing. After working on several film and TV projects, including a three-part documentary, I was hooked!

How did you come to be attached to Quantum Break specifically, having worked in TV and film before?

The live-action TV series for Quantum Break was produced by Lifeboat Productions. In 2014, I worked with Lifeboat on the score for the Crackle original series Sequestered. I talked with executive producer Jaime Burke and Director Ben Ketai about Quantum Break and it seemed like an excellent fit. I came on board in July 2015. I was thrilled to join the team.

Quantum Break is a really interesting project in that it's a video game and a TV show. How did you find the experience working on the show component compared to some of your past projects?

I worked on the live-action series only. In many ways the scoring process was similar to working in TV--I received a locked cut of each episode, discussed the music with the producers and director, and then composed. However, the TV show was just one part of the puzzle--it needed to be seamlessly integrated into the game. This was achieved through the use of junction points--each time the player completes a level, an in-game scene is presented that serves as an introduction to the upcoming episode of the TV show. In the scene, the player is offered a choice--a junction point--that dramatically alters the trajectory of the show. Because of this, each episode of the TV show had multiple versions and numerous scene variations. Certain scenes were scored three or four times, each with a different approach and storyline.

I approached scoring these junction points like a theme and variations--the musical ideas and palette had to be from the same world, but each with subtle--or not subtle!--differences that explored a new facet of the story and/or character development. This integration of both video game and TV show is unlike anything that's been done before.

What kind of preparation did you do for this project specifically?

In addition to the standard show prep--reading scripts, discussing story/character arc and tone with producers/directors, etc.--I also received an audio style guide document from Remedy. This guide provided additional score references and further insights into musical style goals for the project. I then experimented with sounds and textures and ideas, while also building a customized template in my digital audio workstation. With regards to the uniqueness of the TV show, I strategized with Ben and Lifeboat as to how best approach scoring the junction points, both logistically and artistically. All this advanced prep really helped make a more streamlined compositional process.

What would you say are the overall themes of the music you wrote? Is it thematically similar to the game?

The live-action TV show explores the game characters and storylines in greater depth, and provides context to their motivations and thinking. The overall thematic ideas in my score reflect this--I explore ideas of intrigue, deception, tension, love, and loss. My score doesn't use specific melodic themes for characters, but instead has a distinctive sound palette that reflects, and enhances, the mood of the story. The live-action score is similar to the game music in vibe and feeling, but Petri and I use different musical material.

You weren’t the only one scoring Quantum Break. Did you collaborate at all with Petri? How did you go about keeping the tone similar, if that was indeed the goal?

While I did not collaborate directly with Petri, the tone and direction of our work is complementary. Keeping the sound similar actually wasn't a huge challenge, thanks to the prep work discussed previously.

I saw a previous interview you did where you said Quantum Break represents where you want to go as a composer; where exactly is that?

Overall my goal is to approach all scoring with artfulness and a sense of honesty and truth, to work collaboratively and to help tell the story. It's an exciting time to be a composer, when music can have great depth and diversity. While I have classical training, I love the freedom and inspiration that work in film, TV, and games offers. I feel the live-action score for Quantum Break embraces many elements of my musical personality--it has a modern electronic/acoustic palette, incorporating elements of minimalism with sensitive cinematic writing, while also supporting and enhancing the story and action onscreen. With every project I attempt to create a unique sound, something fresh and identifiable. I was lucky to work with Ben and the great team at Lifeboat--they gave me latitude to think outside the box and explore all ideas. This is the ideal!

I've spoken with other composers who have said they often learning something new and significant with every project they work on, whether it's about themselves, the medium, or anything else. What did you learn on Quantum Break?

I've worked in film and TV for over 10 years, but Quantum Break was my first video game. I view every project as a learning experience. Outside of acquiring new technical skills--in particular, the logistics of scoring junction points and in general how games are put together--I felt I explored a new direction in my sound, one that embraces all elements of my musical personality. I learned more to trust my ear and follow my instincts. Scoring the show confirmed this. I also learned that I very much want to work on another game project, hopefully soon!

Another cool thing about Quantum Break is, though there is one ending, there are branching paths to get there. What was the experience like re-doing scenes with a different feel to them? I imagine it's not something you've done often in the past?

You are correct--scoring the junction points was a new experience. The idea of writing multiple versions of similar scenes was really cool and exciting. However, each scene had its own distinctive vibe and I approached it as such. I didn't view it as 're-doing scenes.' The player will only experience one version of the show--for each go-around of the game--so no matter what variation I was scoring, I had to make sure it all felt seamless and natural.

Quantum Break is blazing something of a new trail--what's your take on what Remedy has achieved with this project?

Remedy broke new ground with Quantum Break--it's really exciting and I'm thrilled to be involved. Every element of both the game and TV show was beautifully designed, conceived, and executed. I think players will love the integration of the live-action series with the gameplay--the story and characters will come alive.

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