Raphael Gesqua Interview: A Veteran Looks Back (September 2009)
Interview Subject: Raphael Gesqua
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: Greetings, Raphael. You have been working in the game industry for about 17 years now - an immense span of time. How did it all start?
Raphael Gesqua: Well, at the very beginning, in the early eighties, I started to “compose” some music on C64 and Amstrad CPC. At that time, you also had to be a bit of a coder, at least in basic computer language, if you wanted to make any sound with a computer ;-) I also remember that I made some little games for fun (I wish I could recover the tapes and floppy discs, as souvenirs). But I really “started” in 1988-89 on the Commodore Amiga, when I discovered the great art of tracking with Soundtracker, created by Karsten Obarski of course, and also Sound FX from Linel Software, if I remember correctly. I started making simple “conversions” of well known original movie soundtracks, and then I began to create something from my own twisted mind ;-)
People and friends around me began to push me in that direction, telling me that I might have some talent. Even though I had always been somebody who's addicted to music, I didn’t think that I might have some kind of talent, and I had never planned to try to be a composer in some way... However, there was one way to get one’s art spread across the computer world, and that was (and still is) the computer demo scene. One day, I decided to try my luck on some "big" demos, after I was invited by coders who had listened to my work during a “coder gathering”. That was in 1990. Right after that, I directly made it to first place on what was called the Eurocharts, a top 10 demo scene of graphic artists, coders... and musicians. I remember staying number one for over seven months without interruption, under the handle of Audiomonster. I was informed of this by a musician friend of mine :) That was pretty surprising... and pleasant, for sure ;-)
But that was not enough to give me sufficient faith in my work, and I still didn’t try to make composing my profession. However, a friend of mine, which I’ll never be able to thank enough, decided one day to take some floppy discs with some of my Amiga music modules to famous developers like Ocean Software and Delphine Software International. And guess what ? Some days later, they gave me a call, and thus began my career. It's as simple as that. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have become a professional composer without that - I surely would have tried later, at least, but we’ll never know for sure... Jonathan, my friend, if you read this, I send you my best regards, buddy!
Michael: How and when did you decide to compose music?
Raphael Gesqua: When I was 3-5 years old, I was always singing some weird melodies when I was alone (in my head, of course), without really knowing where they came from. Still, I felt the need to create them, and that need has never left me, as you can see. It was just a matter of when fate would decide to give me a push and let me not only dream of composing, but would actually make me do it. The only thing that was missing to achieve my goal of composing music were the tools, no matter whether these tools would be real instruments or not.
By the way, when I think of the time when I was still at school in the late eighties, I remember lots of afternoons where I wasn’t going to college ONLY to play video games (shame on me), and I particularly remember some of the games from Delphine Software International like Bio Challenge, Future Wars, Cruise for a Corpse and Out of this World. I also remember thinking how lucky the composers were who got the chance to create music for such great games. So, can you imagine what it felt like when, a couple of years later, I got a call from Paul Cuisset, creator of those titles and later Flashback, Fade to Black and Moto Racer, to come and work with him on Delphine’s next games? Believe me, it took me several days to realize what was happening to me !
Michael: You are best known for your score for Fade to Black, successor of the legendary Flashback. Released in 1996, Fade to Black was one of the first Western game scores to a dedicated album release on CD. What was it like to work on such a big title?
Raphael Gesqua: Well, Fade to Black was a great adventure, a great moment in my career, for many reasons. Firstly, I've been a video game addict for 30 years now - just imagine what it felt like when for the first time, Paul Cuisset showed me a demo prototype of the game, back in 1994, just before the release of Sony's PlayStation. Fade to Black was the first game ever to include moving cameras, something that has now become a standard in games. By the way, at the 1995 E3, Steven Spielberg himself expressed his admiration for the game, and even wanted to produce a movie from the game. What's more, not only him, but other guys from the big Hollywood studios came to Delphine Software for the same reason, and a Fade to Black movie was scheduled to be made at one stage. Also, as you said, Fade to Black allowed me to be one of the first Western video game composers to have his soundtrack released (1996 - Sony Music - Delphine Records) - another dream come true and a source of great pride. Finally, Fade to Black was as great a success as Flashback, selling around one million copies, which was huge in 1995.
To create Fade to Black's music and sound effects, I remember using an Amiga 1200 (yes!), OctaMED connected with MIDI to a Macintosh Power PC with Digidesigns Sample Cells cards, a Roland S-760 sampler and an Akaï S3200 sampler... all connected to the good old Amiga :) I just couldn’t do without tracking, and I still can't! (even though I also know how to use “conventional” sequencers such as Cubase etc) Fade to Black was also my first real attempt at creating sound effects for a video game. I also created some horrible human and monster screams with my voice, and even replaced a line of dialogue - the one from the Morph, in the introduction of the game in the New Alcatraz penitentiary. The reason was that after we had recorded the voices at Delphine Studios in Paris, Paul Cuisset was not totally satisfied with the way the French actor had done it. And since he had often heard myself joking/speaking “morph-like”, he asked me to give it a try. I laughed, did it for fun, and... he put it in the game, instead of the original performance (which was very good, though)... That was pretty funny...
Michael: Going back in time a bit - you worked on the Amiga conversion of Flashback. At that time, composers used trackers to create music for the Amiga platform. What kind of software did you use to create Flashback's soundtrack?
Raphael Gesqua: Guess what? Protracker, simple :) Delphine’s coders where very open to musicians' different ways of creating music (Hi my friend Benoit Aron, if you're reading this ;-))
Michael: Can you tell us a bit about the difference between working on game music in the early 1990s and now?
Raphael Gesqua: Well, digitally produced music has evolved so much! Back in those days, if you wanted to produce some “professional” music, you had to use very expensive studios - you had no choice! And that’s what Delphine Software/Records offered me for Fade to Black and later Moto Racer, including some real and great guitar and saxophone players. The great point is that today, you can compose/produce your music with a single computer which you can buy in a supermarket for less than 500 dollars. Believe me, any game composer from the 1980s-90s would have dreamed of what we have today! And what's more, there are so many free sequencers, plugins etc. that allow you to spend even less money on making music... Today, more than ever before, it's only talent that helps young composers to stand out.
On the other hand, there's also the issue of less talented artists claiming to be professionals, sometimes even publically on their Myspace or Facebook pages :) These days, you see people who've never worked on any professional project saying that they're film and/or video game composers. But this business is far from being that easy, and they learn this the hard ways, unfortunately... They shouldn't forget that a music career is a matter of talent, of course, and a little bit of luck, but ALSO of very hard work and perseverance. You have to go and meet people, create real (and sincere!) relationships with directors, game designers, producers... Opportunities certainly don't just fall out of the sky into your lap. And when you finally manage to build your portfolio, that’s when you can call yourself a professional composer: someone who lives from and ONLY from his art... Very simple, after all...
Michael: What instruments can you play and what hard- and software do you use?
Raphael Gesqua: I can’t really say that I’m a musician, as I’ve never been interested much in playing my music. What I love is composing (and of course orchestrating) music. I have too much respect for real musicians to pretend to be one. And honestly, seeing real musicians playing a symphonic score you composed, right in front of you, put tears in your eyes, and that’s a part of my life I’m leaving behind right now, and that I will never forget... So, I prefer to let them do their great job, and stay in my place, as a simple composer... But I may try to improve myself in this regard, modestly, one day, if I have some time on my hands...
Michael: What can you tell us about your methods of creating music?
Raphael Gesqua: You want to know a secret ? OK :)... Let’ see... What sequencer do you think I’m using nowadays? Cubase? Logic? Reason? Protools? Cakewalk? Well, well, well... In fact, none of them. I proudly use (and will keep on using) Modplug Tracker (Open MPT). Yes, I know I may be the only person on the planet who still uses Modplug Tracker for games and movies, but that’s absolutely no reason for me to stop. Besides, with VST compatibility and such intuitive conception, I don’t see any reason for me to stop using tracking sequencers and ModPlug Tracker in particular, since I can do all that I want with it - at least all the things I could with other software as well (believe me, I know what I’m talking about, I've tried them all :)) I'm definitely not saying that Modplug is better than other music sequencers, but it's the one that I’m most comfortable with. And after all, that’s all I’m asking for.
Michael: Your more recent game music is somewhat less well known, often because it's been attached to lower profile projects. Do you plan to return "big time"?
Raphael Gesqua: Yes. Some pretty huge budget games that I might compose music for are on their way right now, and their development should begin in 2009. I’m currently also working with a symphony orchestra for the first time in my career - it's a Requiem for a well produced short film, with about 20 musicians, and I will surely call upon them again for a future game and/or movie ;-) But you know, the reason why I stopped working on AAA titles (except Horse Life - the streets and subways in Paris are full giant Horse Life posters at the moment) is that in France, game companies have been mostly producing low budget games since a sort of crisis in 2001-2002. And as you may know, for reasons I won’t go into now, it’s been nearly impossible for French music composers to work on recent French blockbuster games... and French blockbuster games are really few and far between. If I wanted to focus on blockbusters, I would have to change my life, move to the USA or Japan, leave my family, friends, relatives etc... No way... That’s a bit sad, as I’d love to work on a USA or Japanese game, since I'm really a huge videogames addict...
However, after having worked on AAA titles like Fade to Black, Mister Nutz, Shaq Fu or Moto Racer, I can certainly tell you that it is very refreshing to work on lots of little games, because you never get bored by working for up to two years on the same title, which can be very annoying and exhausting, believe me… And besides, in 2007, a mid-budget Nintendo DS game (Glory Days 2 from Eidos/Ghostlight, developed by Odeni Studio) allowed me to be twice nominated by IGN for Best Original Score and Best Use of Sound for the Nintendo DS, next to The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. That made me pretty proud and happy ;-)
Michael: You've also made some forays into film music. Do you think it's true that every game composer wants to write music for films and that film composers sooner or later try to write music for games?
Raphael Gesqua: Well, most video games composers hope to become movies composers, and I understand that, for sure. However, as far as I’m concerned, I will NEVER stop composing music for video games, even if, one day, movie soundtracks become as important in quantity as video games in my schedule... The reason is simply that I just LOVE video games, and I think that video games and movie soundtracks are two different jobs, with their own set of rules. It’s a mistake to think that movies composers can easily move into video game music, and vice versa...
From my modest point of view, movie soundtracks are much easier than video game soundtracks, since they are totally linear and don’t require any knowledge of format technologies (different kinds of machines for different kinds of sequencers, sound types etc.) or ability to work with little memory (MIDI for SNES and Sega Mega Drive back in the day; Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS or mobile phones today). Movie composing is "only" a matter of talent and culture... As for movies composers, there are two kinds: those who came to video games very early because they had great artistic interest in doing so (for example Michael Giacchino, a great composer that I discovered on The Lost World in 1997), and others that totally rejected and underestimated video game music back then, and finally worked on it because it's become such a huge business... Hum, I won’t mention any names, I don’t want to lack courtesy.
Michael: Where do you get your inspiration from?
Raphael Gesqua: Listening to other composers has always been my sort of music school, as I'm a total autodidact. As I always say, my favorite composer of all time is John Williams. I can't stress enough how much his music has counted in my life, and it really lead me to understand the vital need for music in video games and movies!
I wrote some parts of Fade to Black without having slept for about 120 hours! Indeed, the realisation of the album was really hard, with too little time in the studio and the need to still record 70 minutes of music! And as everybody knows, not sleeping for too long induces the same kind of state in you as 10 glasses of vodka...
Michael: What do you think the future of game music will look like?
Raphael Gesqua: Well, I can at least tell you how I HOPE game music will develop, in my country. Look at all the CD releases of video game soundtracks in the USA and Japan, where game music is really taken seriously - we're still a long way away from that in France and Europe, where too often, game music is still underestimated, treated as a nearly useless part of the game, whereas I think it contributes about 50% of the emotional response that the game evokes, even if the player isn’t aware of it when he plays a game... That is precisely why I’ll try to release soundtracks for my future big budget projects, helping to have other European composers see their music released on CD or online, and contributing to people gaining a more mature outlook at video game soundtracks. The recent success of the Video Games Live concerts by Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall are proof of the very long way that video game music has come.
Michael: What groups and performers do you like most and with which artists would you like to work together?
Raphael Gesqua: Well, I’m not a big fan of groups, but there are some that I really enjoyed back in the day like Toto, U2, The Police, Dire Straits, Eurythmics (I know, they're all very old ;-)) Today, I must say that I think there is a dramatic lack of new melodies in music in general (pop etc.), and particularly in movies... I’m not sure if it's a tendancy or a general lack of talent, but I’m sure of one thing: I just hope it will change! Amongst musicians, I really admire Stephane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty (jazz violin), Hélène Grimaud and Michel Petrucciani (piano), and so many others... I hope I’ll have the chance to work with one of them, one day...
Michael: What advice can you give to aspiring composers?
Raphael Gesqua: As I said before, never assume that producers will just approach to you - you always have to make the first step, at least until you're famous enough and won't have to anymore... Also, don’t hesitate to go to trade events like E3, visit developers' studios, show your enthusiasm and passion and develop your own network of contacts (don’t hesitate to use Myspace, Facebook etc.) And never, never loose faith. It’s a really hard business, but if I had given up during bad moments in my career (and there certainly have been a few), I wouldn’t be speaking to you right now.
Michael: What projects are you working on at the moment?
Raphael Gesqua: I’m working on several games (confidential, sorry), among them a new license on Nintendo DS, a great platform/puzzle game that's fresh and colorful in that "cute Nintendo summer game" style (I even "sing" in it ;-)) It’ll be released next summer...
Michael: You now have the opportunity to leave a message for our site visitors!
Raphael Gesqua: Well, to all artists who are just starting out: don’t let the sharks eat you, otherwise there will probably be no more creators left in this world, only stupid, powerful and greedy, money-addicted jerks... To everybody in general: eat and drink music without moderation... but don’t forget to pay the artists you like, instead of stealing on the net... Just a matter of respect... Last but not least, if you want to know more about my work, be very welcome to visit me at MySpace.
THANKS TO ALL OF YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO READ MY ANSWERS!!!
Michael: Thanks for your time!
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- Info about Raphaël Gesqua