Sound Byte: Meet the Composer - Christophe Heral
We chat with the Ubisoft in-house composer about the esoteric Rayman Origins soundtrack.
Video game audiophiles usually regard the soundtrack of Beyond Good & Evil as one of the best in the industry. The score was nominated for numerous awards at the Game Audio Network Guild awards in 2003, and it was featured in the Video Games Live music concert.
The man behind the music is Christophe Heral, who has worked for Ubisoft since 1999. His latest work is the soundtrack for the action platformer Rayman Origins. GameSpot managed to catch up with the composer to ask about his past, as well as current, work.
GameSpot: Tell us about how you got started in the music business and games industry.
Christophe Heral: I grew up in a family of musicians. My grandfathers were musicians, one a baritone and the other a mandolin player. They are the ones who transmitted the music virus to me.
My older brother played in a rock band. His band rehearsed only on weekends, and the lead guitarist had the habit of leaving his stuff at our place after the rehearsals. At the time, I was 11 years old, and I never missed the opportunity to play during those weeks and polish my one-fingered interpretation of "Smoke on the Water." I really started learning how to compose when I was 19 years old.
I composed my first OST for an animated short film when I was 26, and then I kept on doing soundtracks from there. The film was done by Hubert Chevillard, an animated film director and comic-strip writer. He introduced me to Michel Ancel in 1999; this led to me composing the music for Beyond Good & Evil.
GS: What are your favorite instruments when composing music?
CH: The piano. I compose when I'm in the shower or when I hang out my laundry. And, of course, when I'm sitting next to my piano!
GS: Who are your key inspirations in the music field?
CH: If we had to stick to the chronological order, I'd say Vivaldi for his sacred music, Bach for all his inventions, Mozart for his genius (but also Schonberg, Bartok, Stravinsky, and Varese for the way they rethink their own cultures), and Ligeti and Reich for my personal enlightenment.
I would also add to this list of outstanding musicians all the painters I love: Bruegel, Rembrandt, Pollock, Bacon, Matisse, Bonnard, and so many others.
GS: Let's talk about Beyond Good & Evil's OST first. The game's soundtrack is still considered to be one of the best of all time. What was the thought process when you began writing the game's score before the game's release in 2003?
CH: As I did not know much about the universe of the game, I composed the BGE soundtrack the way I'm used to composing: by creating music! I think that it's because I was not basing my work on the video game stereotypes that this music has been a success. Those are just pieces of music based on a main theme that are evolving as the game progresses, which is exactly the same as for a movie or an opera.
Video games are just a different narrative medium. To work with Michel was an incredibly enriching experience because he knows how to guide the artists he is collaborating with.
GS: The standout track according to fans is the overworld theme "Home Sweet Home." How long did it take you to compose it and figure out which instruments to use in the piece?
CH: I personally love "Home Sweet Home." This is a good example of a piece composed for a feel-good moment in the game. I don't exactly remember how long it took me to write it--probably several hours--but everything was crystal clear as soon as I had the intention to create this piece. And when it's clear, everything flows freely.
You can find some interpretations of this piece made by other people on YouTube; I love the arrangements.
GS: Concerning the game's track "Propaganda," what is the language used in the lyrics? What was the thought process behind scoring that track?
CH: For the lyrics, what is first noticeable is the play on words between "Adjust the Hit" and "Just Do It." But, more globally, the meaning of this song is the main topic of the game: propaganda, lies, and stealth.
I recorded the voice of a Bulgarian friend, and she actually tells meaningful things about the manipulation by the media. As for myself, the fact that I sing in a totally fake Slavic language does not have any significance; what matters is the intention.
GS: The game also has a mix between serene pieces and a combination of both industrial and percussion. How long did it take you to come up with the perfect balance for the soundtrack?
CH: The BG&E project lasted for quite a while, so I had the time to experience new things. Laetitia Pansanel was on my side to orchestrate, and my young brother Patrice took care of the drums. Simply put, it was the dream team. I think that BGE's OST is rather homogenous. Even if some pieces are faster paced than the others, there is still a real musical consistency.
GS: Let's now move on to recent fares: Rayman Origins. Given the context, is it safe to assume that the game's OST is going for the "anything goes" approach? Or is there a method to the madness and unbridled energy?
CH: Yes, of course! Every style of music was possible on this project. Michel told me that he wanted diversity, and diversity he got, I believe!
Being myself or Billy Martin, who composed very nice things on the OST, we would just let ourselves go with the most whimsical energy. I even recorded my aunt, who sings marvelously out of tune. Only the very good players, the ones that get access to the "Land of the Dead," will be able to enjoy the moment of lyricism performed by this wonderful "diva!"
GS: Compared to the music from past Rayman titles, Rayman Origins' score seems less whimsical. Were there even any elements from past Rayman titles you channeled? Or is this a totally brand new direction that focuses on experimentation?
CH: I wouldn't say that this OST is less whimsical, but we wanted to use new sound material, new themes, and new bases, as this game takes place, chronologically speaking, before the previous opuses. The first world especially uses primitive instruments, such as the didgeridoo, the drums, and the Jew's harp. The ukulele has an important place in the entire game, just so you know!
GS: What are the standout tracks in Rayman Origins you wish for players to listen closely to while playing the game?
CH: I'm found of the "Sea of Serendipity" theme, particularly the "Lums of the Water" (Glou Glou) track. For this piece, I wanted to pay a tribute to Esther Williams and her aquatic ballets. I also love the "Desert of Didgeridoo" themes, where everything is music in the rhythm and the keys. All of the players' movements are synchronized and tuned.
GS: If you had to single out a track that took the longest to compose, which would it be?
CH: For me, it's definitely the music in the Desert of Didgeridoo level because it was rather complex to adjust the gameplay elements to be part of the musical score. I don't know if players actually notice it, but I think it really brings something to the gameplay experience. As they say in France: "Je ne sais pas si le joueur s'en rend compte, mais je pense que c'est un vrai plus pour le game play."
GS: What's in the pipeline for you in the future after Rayman Origins?
CH: I will be composing the OST of a short animated film directed by Helene Friere, followed by another very nice project for spring 2013 with Thierry Petit. He is a bass player from the Montpellier Orchestra, a troupe which gathers children and orchestras from the Mediterranean coasts, Lebanon, Tunisia, Greece, Majorca, and France. As for video games, you might hear my music as soon as next year.
GS: Will you be working on Beyond Good & Evil 2's OST? Anything you would like to tease for fans of the game?
CH: It would be such a personal delight to live new adventures with Jade, ahem, Shauni. Do you want to know a secret? When I grow up, I want to marry her!