Jim Dooley: Infamous Epic Mickey Music Master

Composing music is no walk in the park. The best have worked years creating portfolios to attract the attention of the film and television industry. Increasingly, these talents are dipping into video games, creating compositions that can rapidly change. These dynamics are different from the linear music of TV and films, and it takes a pro to work through them. Take Jim Dooley, for example. Not only has he touched some of the biggest franchises in Hollywood, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, but also made a name for himself in the video games medium. From Epic Mickey to SOCOM, Dooley is a master of the craft from all across the spectrum of entertainment.

GameZone: First of all, why don’t you introduce yourself?

Jim Dooley: Hi, I’m Jim Dooley, composer extraordinaire. Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. How’s that? [laughs]

GZ: I first heard about you for the upcoming WonderCon convention in San Francisco, where you’re going to be talking with some other sci-fi and fantasy composers for film, television and video games. What’s it like working within these genres?

JD: You know, it’s really a dream. For example with Epic Mickey, for me to do my job, I get lots of gifts bestowed upon me. I have access to the Disney archives if the project requires it, so my friend over there helped me get my hands on the original Mary Poppins score with the original piano parts, or the original Pinocchio score, or Peter Pan. My directive was to get a handle on the Disney sound, so I had to “go to school.” Imagine getting to sit down and watch Mary Poppins a few thousand times with the piano charts. That is really one of those dream projects where you get to go through a little history and learning as part of your job. And the theme park, which is also part of the job!

GZ: Obviously Epic Mickey, one of your more recent projects, was a pretty distinct and illustrious opportunity. You got to go down to the core of what it means to be “Disney” in music form. What was it like to work with something so iconic?

JD: It was a lot of weight to bear, to be first guy on the line to scrub a franchise, especially with something as iconic as Mickey Mouse. He’s 83-years-old going on 84, so you have to honor that legacy. It also requires a study of the canon. That’s how I’ve honored that legacy by really researching every component I could, going through all of the short films, going through the score material to really get it under my fingernails and make it a part of who I am.

That allowed me to then use that knowledge and flex with it and elaborate a lot of the styles, orchestrations and approaches. You know, if you look back at some of the original Disney music, they were much more adventurous than they are today. For example, some of the things I had to research, like the Haunted Mansion ride in Disney Land. That theme was written by Buddy Baker, who was my teacher at USC. “Grinning Ghost” was the tune he wrote, and the theme in there is an improvisation that he performed in Burbank. For the ride, there is no notated version of that tune. It was an adventure into some very strange places. For that, you have to give them a lot of credit for taking some big risks! Obviously, building the park was a big risk, but these very incredible musical risks that we experience daily and think, “Oh, this is some really cool music for this ride.” For them it was really a big leap of faith and is something to remember when you are working on these types of projects, to remember to not get complacent with the materials you have at hand.

GZ: Speaking of Disney, you’ve worked with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. What’s it like to jump around Disney’s iconic products?

JD: Again, it’s a very Disney product, but what does that mean? And that was one of the challenges with Epic Mickey, was how do you honor that past and bring it forward? Working on [Pirates of the Caribbean], the material is Hans Zimmer’s almost exclusively. It’s his vision; for me to be one of the guys helping along on it, I don’t want to take anything away from what he created for those movies.

GZ: To keep things focused on video games, besides Epic Mickey, you worked on a Jak and Daxter title, inFamous and inFamous 2, a couple of SOCOM titles, Dead Rights II, even Def Jam: Icon–which is pretty interesting, a game based upon hip hop artists with a normal composer. Let’s start off with Dead to Rights II in 2004.

JD: That was a very interesting game for me. I think it was one of my very first games. I had a friend who was working on Dead to Rights II and that’s how I got to work on that. Essentially, if I remember correctly, the game got broken down into three components: the hand-to-hand combat and two other things. I can’t remember. Essentially, there were levels that had to be ‘arcadey,’ and that was a real challenge because they wanted it to be really pumping music all the time. It wasn’t the most delicate score I’ve ever done. It was for adrenaline junkies.

GZ: You went on to keep up the adrenaline with SOCOM 3 and SOCOM: US Navy SEALS Combined Assault in 2005 and 2006. What was the jump between these two franchises like?

JD: Well, the SOCOM franchise is really based more in the orchestral world. This militaristic feel with pumping adrenaline component is what makes those SOCOM games work. Those were a blast to work on. With SOCOM 3 we went to London and did it properly with the proper band for that kind of epic Hollywood sound, which is why I was brought on after working on some of Hans Zimmer’s movies. That’s why some of the video game companies approached me in the first place. That’s to get the high-quality cinematic sound into video games. To get away from the stigma that video game music is somehow less than and not equal to cinema style.

GZ: After the SOCOM games, you worked on the cinematic scenes for Def Jam: Icon. Let’s talk about the irony of working with that game as a traditional composer.

JD: Well it’s interesting, as every video game has emotional content, and it’s not different for Def Jam. These cinematics need to be addressed emotionally, so they came to me to bridge the gap between the game music and the emotional experience of the story that we are trying to tell. Doesn’t need to be a grand emotion, but an emotion nonetheless. A bit of comedy, a bit of storytelling–it all pushes through.

GZ: After that you got on with Monsters vs. Aliens and Nerf N-strike, but your most well-known title from this time was inFamous, and you worked on inFamous 2. What’s it like to work on that franchise?

JD: Yeah, that one is out in June, so I don’t think there is any mystery that I need to hold back on inFamous 2. That was another really incredible experience. The best part of that was I worked with the fellows over at Sony’s music team for many titles now, from SOCOM 3, SOCOM: CA, as well as inFamous and inFamous 2. With inFamous 2 we’ve had half a dozen [games] under the belt, so we’re very comfortable taking a lot of risks. Just like I was saying before how it relates to Disney products, this game really was about trust more so than anything else. Jonathan Mayer was the music manager as well as composer and performer on the score. He pushed it in a way that allowed me and myself to allow Galactic [a jazz band from New Orleans] and Brian “Brain” Mantia [drummer for Primus, Guns N’ Roses, and more] to really come together and try things.

You don’t know if they are going to work necessarily, but you can try and see. [That’s] the only thing that could happen, for no one is going to get fired if this doesn’t work. To do better than the first one, you need to take a lot of chances, and that involves sending material to each other that is incomplete. So here’s the sketch of something, and Galactic will play something on it, and then Brain will do something on it, and then John would play with it, and all this would come back in the mix, which would come back to me. Then I would do some more stuff on it.

JD: It kind of weaves through the inspiration that came off of the sketch and sees where it took us. Those iterations, now if you have one piece, you can have an infinitely different versions of that. In much of the game we’ll do alternate mixes of the same piece, so when you get to the same point in the game you’ll have a different track. Only through calculating where you are and what you’ve done in the game will it trigger, possibly randomly, a different mix of that track.

So having this music go around between us, it really allowed for an infinite variations on themes. Also, this natural cross-pollination happened where I wrote Cole’s Theme and then we’d jam on something like that and that would then end up with Jonathan and he would do things for a string quartet on that, and then we’d end up coming back to me, and I’d be like, “Well, that sounds like what I did, but it’s different.” It all ended up being related. That’s why it has such a strong center at its core. Even though the material got passed around a lot, we were all listening. There’s nothing random, for it’s all character-driven and -based.

GZ: I see that your film projects are pretty substantial: Hannibal, Black Hawk Down, Pirates of the Caribbean, Matchstick Men, King Arthur, the Madagascar series, The Da Vinci Code. You’ve got some pretty big names here.

JD: You’re making me tired hearing it all! [laughs]

GZ: It is a substantial list! What’s it like jumping back and forth between films and video games?

JD: The jumping around keeps you healthy, the same way that if you do the same exercise regiment your body gets used to it. You need to change it up so it keeps you busy guessing. There’s strength that comes from the variation, not the repetition. The same goes with music. I like jumping around between games, films, TV shows, and commercials. It keeps me sharp. Specifically, for video games, how do you address music, which you experience in time in a finite way? A gaming experience is non-linear, and no one will play the same way twice. How do you write adaptive music in a way that appeals to the experience of professional and experienced gamers and make it enjoyable to newer gamers? That is certainly a challenge. It’s something that you do not experience in film, because the timeline is fixed. Everybody experiences it the same way. Not in games. It presents its own challenges to immerse them in a world, but to also tell narrative and also have it be adaptive, where the contours of a players experiences are echoed in the decisions on how the music is played.

GZ: Are you particularly proud of a moment in a game or song where you just blew your own mind?

JD: There are a couple times when you end up patting yourself on the back, which isn’t a bad thing. I do take pride in my work. In Epic Mickey, I had to do very difficult gameplay tracks that were dynamic. Essentially, think of it panning back and forth. There were three music tracks playing at the same time. In the center there is a track that is playing all the time. The central is neutral and to your left is dark and to the right is light. Dark and light and neutral. Right? Neutral always plays. If you start creating in the world, it starts playing the light element, and if you start destroying the world, it will go to neutral. If you are mischievous it will start adding this dark element.

That’s very tricky with harmonic music. It’s one thing if it’s percussion, cause the dark and the light pieces are diametrically opposed, but they need to be 100 percent complimentary to the neutral track that plays. I had to do a version of “It’s a Small World” for an experience like this.

First of all, that tune is impossible to get out of your head. Forget if you have to spend a week on it! To write a piece with the churning clock mechanism, but there’s harmonic information in there. The neutral is the meaty part of the piece, so you have to have all the parts in it, and you need to make a piece that can work 100 percent that makes it sprightly, and then when that piece goes away, you need to make a piece that goes against that, that goes 100 percent dark. For that, it was a huge challenge. I had to do a lot of those gameplay elements that had to have these three components, and they adapt and mix on the fly as you play the game. To do it with harmonic information is a real challenge, and it’s a challenge you don’t see in television.

For “It’s a Small World,” I still find it to be pretty funny. When it gets mischievous and dark, I find it hilarious. Some pretty out of tune low bassoon and clarinets that are humming and honking around. I sampled all of these clock mechanisms and make it so you have this experience of the clock in that’s outside of “It’s a Small World” the ride, and it gives you a hint at that mechanism that’s always present.

There’s a lot of thought that goes into each track, and it’s not always obvious. But we really think about these things to draw you in really make this an immersive experience.

GZ: Are you a fan of video games?

JD: Yeah! I have an Xbox, a Wii, and a PlayStation 3. I’m not a big fan of combative, violent games, but I do like things that are bizarre and interesting. I do play a lot of Wii games because they’re something I can play with my friends. We can all, girls and guys, have some pizza and drinks and play together. It’s not like I can pull out Medal of Honor and then the girls are not as interested. If you play tennis, everyone is interested. I like those games better for groups, but by myself, I love the original Super Mario Bros. I have a whole bunch of these old games, and I have an old N64. I still get a kick out of playing some of the old stuff. I play the new ones on the Wii, which are great. I play some games online with my friends online.

GZ: You seem to be pretty in-the-know with video games, and you mentioned Mario Bros. Those games have one of the most iconic tunes in video games and pop culture. Is there any game franchise you’d love to work with?

JD: It’s funny you mention that [plays the Mario theme] I love it. It’s great! It’s pretty complicated too, a samba over a straight high hat [plays some more]. When you do that samba of the beat, it’s actually harder than you’d expect. It’s like doing the “Linus and Lucy” thing [plays Linus and Lucy]. There are two things going on that you need to play. You have to get the samba right on your left hand … It’s very complicated rhythmically.

GZ: So what’s it like for you when you hear a lot of those classic gaming tunes?

JD: I’m a big fan of them. My first game memories are on my Commodore 64. When the NES came out, it was like, “Wow! I had the ColecoVision. I could play Donkey Kong on a ColecoVision.” That and the circus game … I had the Atari expansion pack so I could play things like Maze Craze. I mean, some really old titles. Tooth Invaders on the ColecoVision. Crazy things! I’ve been listening to this stuff for a long time.

GZ: Is there a franchise you’d love to get your hands-on?

JD: You know, my favorite stuff to listen to would be from Koji Kondo. Music from Mario Kart, Super Mario Bros.–all of his stuff is brilliant. I wouldn’t want to be involved because it’s too much fun to listen to since it’s so brilliantly structured. It’s complicated yet really accessible. It’s very difficult to do. It’s like “It’s a Small World” in the same way that the music is actually a bit more complicated than you give it credit for. What makes it work is that the verse and the chorus have almost identical harmonic underpinnings, that the extension of the chords are almost the same between verse and chorus, so the underpinning baseline, as you go through the ride, it doesn’t throw you off as you transition from different points in the ride. It’s very clever. This is really what I enjoy about game music, so you don’t see the seams and you don’t see the screws and bolts of how it’s put together. You get to just experience it. Working as a music engineer behind it, it’s hard. I need to see the bolts and the seams, yet not let you as the gamer see them.

GZ: So, Jim, what’s next for you?

JD: Well, I just had a soundtrack just release for a film called Carmel by the Sea. It’s available on CD Baby; the movie has not released yet. It’s got Hayden Panettiere, Alfred Molina, Lauren Bacall, and Josh Hutchenson. It’s a really cool movie about art forgery in Carmel, California. Pushing Daisies Season 2 album comes out next week. I just ran out of my copies. Yesterday I went to do a talk to some students, and I was like, “Oh, I’ll just take some copies of Pushing Daisies CDs. Oh, I don’t have any!” I just gave too many out, so I have none for myself. I’ll have to go buy more. [laughs] I’m very excited for that to come out.

I’m doing a few interesting TV shows this season. One that’s going to be airing this summer on FX called Wilfred with Elijah Wood. It’s a pretty brilliant show, a buddy comedy with a dog and his best friend. They become friends, and the dog helps the Elijah Wood character come out of his shell. We’re going to do 13 episodes, which I’m starting now.

GZ: And of course you have inFamous 2.

JD: InFamous 2 comes out in June, right? Yeah, my work is just in implementation phase. We’re working on fine tuning it and getting it in the game. My work on the writing component is finished at this point. I think that’s all I can talk about, but there should be a couple more TV shows coming up.