An Interview with Sean Murray: Composer of Black Ops

Call of Duty: Black Ops Screenshot - 840982

When playing a game, watching a movie, or even laughing along with a sitcom, so much of the weight and power of the experience is tied up with the music. We're not talking about backing pop tracks, but the orchestral tones and sounds behind the scenes can transform a piece of entertainment into a masterpiece. Sean Murray is the man behind such beloved shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and such games as True Crime and the lauded Call of Duty: Black Ops. Without his contribution to these pieces of work, who knows how successful they may have been in pleasing their audience.

We chatted with Murray last week, and were able to pick into his mind the process of creating music for games. He had lots to say, and offers a peek into the world of game, film and TV design few ever get to see.

GameZone: Some of the bigger named franchises you’ve worked with include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and on the videogame side you’ve worked with the Call of Duty franchise, specifically with World at War and Black Ops. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and some of the work you’ve worked on?

Sean Murray: Well television I started off with a TV series called the Savage Dragon. That was back in 1997, and that was an animated series for the USA network, and it was a really aggressive, and interesting and dark cartoon. From there I went on to do a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Around that time I had also done a TV series for Showtime called “Women: Stories of Passion.” That was very different from the Buffy stuff and Savage Dragon, all the really dark, orchestral gritty stuff. Women: Stories of Passion was very sensual, sort of a like a Red Shoes Diary type program.

That was my early days in television. I actually started my early days in television were writing for soap operas, and I wrote for As the World Turns, Guiding Light and Another World. After Buffy, my next TV series was God, the Devil and Bob, which was an animated series on NBC. That starred James Gardner, French Stuart and Alan Cummings. That was a really a fun comedy TV series, but it was also very dark and dramatic. I had bits of very gothic and horror cues mixed in with comedy cues.

My first videogame was with True Crime: Streets of LA in 2003. Then the second videogame I did was a follow up to that, the second in the franchise, True Crime: New York City.

GZ: So you’ve had experience in videogames and movies and television. What’s the difference between working on a videogame like Call of Duty and a TV show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

SM: The main difference between writing for film, television and videogames, is the amount of time you have to develop your music. When you are doing a television show, you’re lucky if you have four days to write for an hour-long series. In that four days, you have to write 25 to 40 minutes of music, sometimes even more. That’s just a fallout assault to your stamina and musical creativity, you’ve just got to go go go go. You’ve just got to go and get it done. It’s very exciting, and it’s very challenging.

Movies, you have anywhere from four and six, and if you’re lucky, about eight weeks on some projects. But yeah, [you’ll have] about a month or two to write 75, 85 minutes of music. It’s very high activity, a lot of action, and you’ve got to move. You set up a time frame for yourself, and you draw a road map of how much material you need to get done each day. Usually you want to get a minute and a half to two minutes done a day. So you’re really scoring by the clock and trying to be creative and enhance the film. Help it find the voice, and make sure that you get the amount of music done a day. It’s a real high-pressure situation.

Now with the videogames, you have way more time to develop the tone and feel and to get into character. Basically you have months in a game, weeks in a film, and days in a TV show.

GZ: For a videogame, what’s the experience like to compose the music for Call of Duty: Black Ops, for example?

SM: That was just an incredible experience, from the get-go. Learning about the story, and how different it was going to be from other games in the franchise. It was a real kick-starter. Working with Treyarch, it’s just been a pleasure. I came in to Call of Duty through a guy named Brian Tuey, the audio director for Treyarch. And the way I got involved with him was on True Crime, where he was working as a sound designer on the first True Crime. On [True Crime] New York City, he was the Audio Director, and we had developed quite an interesting working relationship there. When it came time for World at War, he called me in and wanted to change the sound of the franchise a bit by bringing me in with a little bit different approach.

We were able to achieve a very different sound and different flow and different message taste in World at War, and when it came time for Black Ops, we just built on that relationship we had built during the previous two games. We were trying to once again take the music in a different direction given the time period and the cold war and the subject matter and the very interesting time and year of Black Ops. It was exciting to be able to go to so many different places in the world in Black Ops. It was a very rich musical experience, and we had so many ideas from the get go.

GZ: When you were working on Black Ops, what did you do to get inspired in creating the sound and the feel of this game. It takes place in the cold war, in Vietnam, and it has a distinctive audio pallet, so what did you do to be inspired for the creation of this music?

SM: First the story was integral, and the animation and the artwork that was brought along, PowerPoint presentations as well, and then I would start to get video in. So it was really great I a really feel for how dark and disturbing some of the gameplay was going to be. One of the most inspiring things was the concept art. It was so brooding and disturbing, and had a really great feel to it. That really got my head into the space it needed to be for the content of what we were going to be doing. This was a much more psychological game than even World a War, and it was going to be about the perspective of the American soldier, Alex Mason I was writing for the American perspective, and that perspective mirrored the state of mind of Mason. For the Communist motifs and themes, that came from the mind and state of Victor as well.

The music that I listened to for inspiration was music from the Cold War era. I really immersed myself in fifties, sixties, the Cold War era, and I brought elements of those styles into the score. Of course, those elements were heavily orchestral, and we brought electronic elements and heavy guitars and ambient synth elements to the game. It’s very eclectic and it follows the characters around the world, and there are those very musical characters with the different places we went, whether we were in Hong Kong, whether we were in South East Asia, whether we were in Russia.

GZ: I had a chance to speak with the composer for the Dead Space franchise, and we discussed the challenges of creating music specifically for videogames, and at any given point the player could change what they were doing, and the audio cues have to change with it. Do you every struggle with creating music for games?

SM: Let me tell you how I approach it. For the cutscenes, I approach it exactly like I would approach a film. I’m always aware of the dialog first and foremost. For the gameplay, it’s almost like writing for film. I would have video of the level being played through, so I would score parts of each level like with a movie, but I wouldn’t hit as many specific cue points.

For a later cue in the same level, if we had to pump up the energy a bit, sometimes I would write in the same beats per minute, so you could jump quickly and seamlessly between two cues without changing the tempo, but you could drastically change the vibe of it. I would make tempo maps out of all of the cues I made, and the guys at Treyarch could match anything on that map with anything of the same tempo. Sometimes within the same level, you would have an action point, like a plane crashing, where a new piece of music would start, and you would score from that section. You always score a little bit longer than the gameplay you think it’s going to be. Within every level, there are going to be several action points you are going to cue off of and change the music for. It’s not really a challenge, it’s just part of the process. It’s a really fun part editorially and writing and figuring out where you’re going to go from this cue to this cue. It’s not as technical as it sounds.

Let me tell you, when I’m scoring for gameplay, you know there is so much gunfire going on, so many explosions and so much activity, I would get from the sound designers of a loop of two or three minutes of just gun fire that would be in that level. When I would be looking at a screenshot, I would always have the gun fire in mind when creating music for those levels.

GZ: Now that you have finished Call of Duty Black Ops, what can we see from you next? Are there any projects you can talk about

There are several projects in the works that I am signed up for that are in pre-production. There’s some stuff you’ll be hearing about.

GZ: Are there any IPs, whether it’s films, television or games, that you would really love to work with in the future?

SM: I love writing for games, I love writing for movies I’m just a big fan of the artform. I look forward to every project, whether it’s a game or a film I enter with the same kind of enthusiasm and work ethic. I really do look forward with working with Activision again, and we’ve got some things coming up

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Ben PerLee
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