Tim Wynn Interview: Top-Quality Orchestral Scoring (July 2011)
Tim Wynn has helped to set a high standard for orchestral scoring in video games with his deep and detailed writing. With projects such as The Simpsons, Command & Conquer, and Red Faction behind him, the composer recently co-composed Dungeon Siege III with Jason Graves. He also continues to make his mark on the film and television sector.
In this conversation with Matt Diener, Tim Wynn reminisces about career highlights while emphasising his general feelings and outlook on scoring. Among the highlights are his memories learning under the late Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein, his orchestral recording experiences for a range of game scores, and his recent endeavours composing the first 3D television show.
Interview Subject: Tim Wynn
Interviewer: Matt Diener, Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Matt Diener, Chris Greening
Matt: Tim Wynn, it is an honour to speak with you today. First of all, could you tell us about your background? What led you to pursue a career as a composer for films and video games?
Tim Wynn: Going back as far as I can remember, I always had a tune in my head. This was back in the early days when I was growing up, back when everyone rode bikes everywhere and I had a lot of idle time. If I had to ride for half an hour or even fifteen minutes, I used to sing songs and make up melodies. I was always drawn to music. Around 9 years old, I started taking guitar lessons, and I taught myself to play our family piano. In high school, I performed in the choir. At the same time I also got involved in the typical rock band situation — writing all the songs and singing them.
During my senior year in high school, my choir teacher Ralph Opacic started the Orange County High School of the Arts at my high school. I was admitted and was lucky to be one of the founding members. Ralph and fellow teacher Pete Williams mentored me and introduced me to various teachers in Hollywood to become a studio guitar player. I remember one of the first lessons with my teacher, Mike Ferenci — he was a real master class guy and an unbelievable talent. He said, "Alright, I'm going to make you the greatest guitar player for session work!" and I said, "That's great, but I kind of just want to write music. I don't want to just sit down with a chart and play somebody else's stuff." So, we pivoted and started doing a master composing class instead.
When it came time to go to college and I still didn't really know what I wanted to do, I decided to go to a junior college that specialized in recording. I was floating around that arena for a while when my theory teacher, Rose Ann Wood, saw something special in me. She suggested that I should audition at USC because they have a great music program. I didn't know anything about it at the time, but after I met with one of the instructors there, it seemed like a great fit. I tried out, was accepted, and the rest is history.
Matt: It was wonderful that your teacher was able to recognize your potential.
Tim Wynn: I owe a lot to a lot of people who have helped my career along, either with big nudges or gentle ones. So many people were instrumental to the success of my career so I feel very strongly about giving back to students and young kids. I hope somewhere down the line, someone will say that I was able to inspire them to create or find their path in life as well. Much like Ralph, Pete, Mike and Rose Ann did for me.
Matt: At the University of Southern California, you studied under some of the most eminent composers in the film industry, including Elmer Bernstein, Christopher Young, and Jerry Goldsmith. What important lessons did you learn under such veterans?
Tim Wynn: It was funny — the teacher that struck me the most was Elmer Bernstein. The first thing I remember him telling us is: "All of you students here are as talented as me and can write as well as me, I'm just better at it now because I've been doing it longer." So, really he taught us humility and confidence — all in the same breath. He inspired confidence by saying that we could be great writers too, but also humility because he's an Oscar-winning composer whose scores are unbelievable and he's saying we're his equals. The same can be said for Chris Young and Jerry Goldsmith. Chris Young was on his way up, and Jerry was in the later stages of his career.
But if I had to pick one out of all of them who influenced my music the most, it would be Jerry Goldsmith, especially when it came to action scores. I was drawn to his use of mixed meters from The Planet of the Apes to Rambo: First Blood. Rambo doesn't get talked about all that much in music circles, but as scores go, First Blood is incredible.
One of the best things Goldsmith does for movies is his spotting of music. This is one of the most important things that I learned from him: where to start music and where to stop music is just as important sometimes as the music itself. If you analyze where he starts and where he stops in his scores, he punctuates the movie in unbelievable ways.
Matt: I hadn't actually considered that aspect of film and game composition. I thought that was handled by the editing department. Do they factor your opinion into their spotting decisions?
Tim Wynn: Absolutely, but it depends on how much free rein you have. In most movies and games that I've scored, they do rely heavily on your opinion. So if you believe strongly in your point of view, you'll have the opportunity to prove it. Let's say there's a scene and they want the music to start from when the knife comes out to when the killer is running away. Sometimes what someone like Goldsmith might do is not to hit on the first knife shot and wait a couple of beats later or find a new place to punctuate things. The producer or director might want you to pick the obvious spots, but a score is almost always more clever and thought-provoking when you pick the less obvious spots for music.
The trend now is to play music loud, start from the beginning, and when the movie is over it stops *laughs*. But if you really focus on older movies and some of Jerry's scores, they weren't 90 minutes with 85 minutes of music — they were 90 minutes long with 45 minutes of the most thought provoking music you'd ever hear.
Matt: The scores for your video game debuts, The Punisher and GUN, featured some of the most lavish and polished orchestral performances in a video game up to that point. How did you achieve this at the scoring, recording, and post-production stages of the projects?
Tim Wynn: First of all, thank you for saying that — it's a very nice compliment. For The Punisher, it's something that came together and happened quickly. The project allowed us a lot of free rein creatively. We were under a tight schedule so it was a case of hitting the ground running. As we created the music for it, my partner Chris Lennertz and I had a good feel for the different elements of the game and we had a concept in mind almost immediately. The people at Volition Inc. loved it and told us to keep writing.
As a credit to THQ and Volition, they had the budget for us to record with a full orchestra. They also gave us the support we needed and it really turned out well. We recorded it in Bratislava. It was my first time recording there and they did an amazing job. When I go back and listen to it, I'm really happy with it. Even compared to scores that I've recorded at Skywalker Ranch and other places, I think this one still stands out.
Matt: In addition to solid production values, your cinematic music on Red Faction: Guerrilla shows incredible attention to detail. What is your production process when synchronising music to visuals? Is it ever challenging to ensure the music still develops fluidly?
Tim Wynn: There were two things that I was responsible for doing in Red Faction: Guerrilla. First, they wanted me to write the theme that would be used throughout the game with the other composers and they also wanted me to score the cinematics. I did the theme and all the live orchestral pieces, but there were other composers working on it simultaneously writing most of the gameplay. The one thing that I'm always striving to do is to take my skill (although, some people might say "lack thereof" *laughs*) in writing for film and to put it into games. Games and films are coming together more and more so I try to bridge the gap and make the game feel like a film. Besides the theme, all of my music was recorded at Skywalker Ranch. Victor Rodriquez from THQ and Dan Wentz from Volition were able to join me for the recording.
Matt: On the Command & Conquer series, you portrayed the Russians on Red Alert 3 and the Nod faction on Tiberian Twilight. How did you uniquely define these factions while creating music that still integrated with the rest of the score?
Tim Wynn: Well, I also wrote the music for the allies for Red Alert 3. James Hannigan did the Japanese faction. All of the factions in Red Alert 3 and Tiberian Twilight had their own unique sound. Because of this, there wasn't a need to have a lot of a crosstalk between composers. It was actually more interesting to have the change in styles between us. Nick Laviers was the audio director and had a wonderful way of describing his vision.
On Tiberian Twilight, there wasn't a lot of communication between myself and Jason Graves, who joined me and James on the scoring of the game. It was a well coordinated effort by Nick Laviers. He pulled all the strings and we created the music. Our different approaches meshed wonderfully. It can sometimes be difficult for composers to collaborate, but I've been lucky to work with wonderful and talented guys like James, Jason, Nick and Chris Lennertz, so that makes my job so much easier.
Matt: The music for the Command & Conquer also emphasises your talents for hybridising orchestrations with world instruments and contemporary elements. What inspired you to integrate non-orchestral components into such scores? What are the creative and technical challenges of blending these elements?
Tim Wynn: Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to blend rockband music with orchestral music. It's a 10 to 90 proposition: meaning, you have a 10 percent chance to pull it off and a 90 percent chance to fail *laughs*. We blended styles for the Russian elements in Red Alert 3, and it was a challenge, but I think it worked well. For Tiberian Twilight, we made the Nod sound more "technological" but also incorporated an earthy, sort of ergonomic element. That's where live strings, live choir, and ethnic sounds created an interesting blend.
Matt: Between such serious titles, you also headlined the orchestral score for The Simpsons Game. Could you tell us what inspired your rather serious approach to scoring a relatively light-hearted game? Did you draw on Elmer Bernstein for that, or is it something you sourced yourself?
Tim Wynn: I think you hit the nail on the head with Elmer. Alf Clausen who writes the score for the TV show does an unbelievable job. Chris and I were inspired by his brilliant work. But my music was definitely more drawn from Elmer Bernstein. I like how he generally plays everything straight for comedy. So, that was the impetuous for it all: we played all of the comedic stuff straight. We didn't want it to be all dink-ing and donk-ing all over the place. Some of the music that I wrote on The Simpsons is very similar to The Day the Earth Stood Still score. The big brass pieces were a perfect element to draw from for this project.
I tried to write The Simpsons score as if it were very serious and dark with a light elements thrown in here and there. I worked closely with the talented Paul Gorman, the audio director, and Chris Lennertz the other lead composer. We ended up recording the score over five days at Skywalker Ranch and we had an incredible experience. It took that long because we recorded the strings and brass separately which allowed Paul to edit the heck out of the score. Fun times...
Matt: Since leaving university, you've also worked on numerous films with a range of budgets. Looking back, what three scores do you consider particular highlights for you?
Tim Wynn: One of the scores that I am the most happy with is one I did last year for a film called To Save a Life. The movie and the score ran the full gambit of emotions. I am proud of the work I did on this project because it was a hybrid of pop music and orchestral and it just felt right. I met the director, Brian Baugh at USC so that made it a really fulfilling project to work on. He has great taste in music and strived for an amazing score.
Another score I wrote was for a comedy called Partners, directed by Dave Diamond. Dave let me go for it creatively with little push back from him and it really turned out well. It's definitely an added bonus when you can work one-on-one with the director to keep the vision pure. On many of the projects we work on, the score gets second guessed by twelve producers and four executive producers, with all varying opinions. Dave had a unique vision for the music and would let me try to win him over even if he initially didn't see my point of view.
Finally, and this is hard because you love them all for various reasons, I wrote a score for one of Katherine Heigl's earlier films, a thriller called Descendant. I was influenced by the great scores of Bernard Herrmann for this project. I was also able to do some orchestral scoring in Prague.
It's easy to write a score when you have $500,000 to hire an orchestra for weeks on end, but it's much more challenging to write in a more compact way that will work in a multitude of arenas. Independent movies generally require you to work on a shoestring budget. If you're able to pull that off, you can pat yourself on the back and say "I did it". It's difficult when you've been working on projects with a large budget and then you return to one where you have to beg, borrow and steal (not literally steal! *laughs*) to get an amazing score. You learn how to be creative, that's for sure.
Matt: You have also created the music for several television projects, spanning collaboration with Christopher Lennertz on Supernatural to the accompaniment to the first 3D television series Tokyo Control. Focusing on the latter, what led to your involvement in this fascinating project? What sort of scoring approach was required?
Tim Wynn: I was approached for Tokyo Control because one of my agents, Koyo Sonae, knew the director, Gaku Narita. Gaku was interested in trying something new and unique. To get the dialogue going I sent Gaku a bunch of tracks from my scores as well as music from other scores that I thought may work. Since I was pre-scoring the series, we needed to brainstorm about all different styles of music they would need. It ended up looking like a musical laudry list. 2 minutes of this style and 2 minutes from another... It was actually quite fun.
Two things that stand to me about this project: First, the Japanese producers and director were absolutely wonderful to work for. They were very knowledgeable, kind and a joy to work with. There were some late night having meetings on Skype, but it really worked out well. This is the first series that I've pre-scored. They edited my music rather than having me score to a picture. I had to write a bit more broadly so I would close my eyes and try to envision how a scene would end even if I didn't have the scene in front of me.
I was the first American composer hired to write for a TV show in Japan so I had that pressure on top of it. If I messed this up, I would ruin it for the other guys! *laughs*. Luckily, the project turned out fantastically and I'm looking forward to doing more work with the director. He was a great person to work with.
Matt: To close the interview, I'd like to discuss your recently released work on Square Enix's Dungeon Siege III. How did you mark this long-awaited revival musically? What moods and styles were required to complement Obsidian Entertainment's beautiful world?
Tim Wynn: I think you hit it on the head with the word "beauty". The beauty aspect was very high on our list of goals to aim for. Scott Lawlor, the music head at Obsidian, was playing with tracks from Jason Graves and myself. That is how we both wound up working on it together. My music worked great for some parts of the game while Jason's worked well for the others. We started meeting at the Obsidian office in Irvine so we were able to see the unbelievable artwork for the game. It was easy to be inspired by the environment there to explore different musical ideas.
The score isn't a clash of different styles, or a blend of any one type of score Jason and I tried to add elements of a lot of different genres to create an interesting canvas for Dungeon Siege III. We put in a lot of a mystical and ethnic elements together because there was so much world to explore.
Because we had worked together on Tiberian Twilight, Jason and I already had a strong connection. We talked about the score and came together with Scott Lawlor to identify the things that we each wanted to do and how best to pull it off. I ended up doing a lot of the thematic parts and all of the movies and menus. Jason wound up scoring the action themes and other aspects. It came down to a pretty good split. And my hat is off to Scott and Jason for doing such an amazing job.
Matt: There have been numerous developments in terms of adaptive scoring since Dungeon Siege II was released. Did you reflect this while scoring Dungeon Siege III?
Tim Wynn: Absolutely. We wrote music that had many layers so that you could trigger any of the colors at any time based on what was happening on the screen. Scott Lawlor and I met while working on an EA game back in 2007. Our main focus on that project was to make the music fit the gameplay flawlessly. For Dungeon Siege III, Jason and I went out of our way to ensure that the music would fit every style that the game needed. Writing it was a little tricky because we had to make sure that the music could be recombined or relayered and stripped down or augmented by any of the colors. This ultimately helped propel the music and the game. I am not 19 hours into playing the game yet, but from the small sampling that I've seen, it's really neat to see how your music gets morphed into this piece that loops and evolves with the gameplay.
Matt: So far, no announcement has been made about a soundtrack release for the game. Would you like selections of your music to be compiled on to an album, or do you think the score principally works best as a contextual experience?
Tim Wynn: We (Jason, Scott and I) would like to see it become a soundtrack. I think it could be a project akin to The Batman Begins series where every track was attributed to James Howard and Hans Zimmer.
Collaboration used to be, I don't want to say frowned upon, but more than one composer on a project wasn't as widely accepted as it is now. There used to be just one guy writing everything but now people realize that because there can be two or three editors on a film, why can't there be two composers on the score? Batman Begins is a perfect example. James doesn't need to share it with Hans, and Hans doesn't need to share it with James. They're both unbelievably talented guys and could do an amazing job by themselves. But the combination of both of their talents created an unbelievable piece of work. Sometimes you want to do it all yourself, but in my experience, a team effort has been tremendously positive and rewarding especially when there is a free flow of ideas.
Matt: You continue to divide your work up between films, television, and video games. From your experiences, what are the contrasting demands of these types of media? During your time in the industry, have the scoring approaches between these media grown closer, or are they still worlds apart?
Tim Wynn: I think that they've come closer together. It's more normal now to have composers like myself who work on a wide range of projects rather than just a video game composer, a film composer, or a TV composer. As movies are made into games and games are made into movies and TV shows, they're all blending together and they all require the same things. Game writing is still a little bit different than the others because you write a little more "widely" than what you would do for film or TV, but the essence of it is all the same. I love the diversity because it keeps your job fresh. Everything has its challenges with scheduling and budget, but it's fun to hop around and work on different things.
Matt: Many thanks for your time today, Tim Wynn. Is there anything else you'd like to say? In addition, do you have any message for your fans around the world?
Tim Wynn: It's really good to get feedback from fans for the various scores that I've worked on. I had the opportunity at E3 to meet a lot of fans at a meet and greet with some of the composers after the Video Games Live event. Meeting the hardcore gamers and people who enjoy and respect your music was great because they appreciate everything that you do. Sometimes music gets overlooked but it is such a huge component in gaming and really all types of media. I want to thank all of you for your playing, your comments, and your support.