The video game composer was responsible for producing the first ever video game score recorded by an Australian orchestra.

Stephan Schütze has worn many hats in the music world, beginning with his days studying at both the Victorian College of the Arts and LaTrobe University and spending five years in the Australian Army Band in Melbourne as a horn player. He is now a composer, a sound designer, a location recordist and has produced SFX libraries that are used globally by companies such as Disney, Skywalker Sound, Warner Brothers, EA and Activision. His passion for music led him into the video game composing world. In 2001, Schütze scored the Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis video game and was responsible for producing the first ever video game score recorded by an Australian orchestra. His most recent video game, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, was released this month. Chris Miller spoke to Schütze about scoring Yonder and how the video game composing world has changed in Australia in the last 15 years.

Your Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis score was the first full orchestra game score recorded in Australia. How did that come about?

JPOG was one of those “perfect storm” kind of events. I had been working at BlueTongue Entertainment (Later became BlueTongue Software, then THQ Australia) for only 12 months. Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis was only my second ever game project. I was pretty excited to be working on that franchise as John Williams had always been one of my biggest influences and I think his score to the original Jurassic Park has always been one of his best. So my brief was simple: “Write music that sounds like John Williams, without directly copying his music.” Simple, but certainly not easy.

I started to create some music. This was back in 2001, so I was working with a software package and sample library, but in those days the sample libraries were very basic. My entire collection consisted of five CDs. One for strings, one for brass, woodwind, percussion etc. At one stage Universal Interactive, our publishers, sent me a direct message. They wanted to hear how I was going with the music. This was a big franchise and being accurate and true to the original was an important part of the process. So, I sent them some of the tracks I had written. I was more than a little nervous. A few days later I got a reply. They were happy with the style of music I was writing, but they thought the samples were pretty bad. I apologised and told them I could try and source some better quality orchestral samples. They clarified by saying: “No, we don’t mean get better samples, we mean, let’s use a real orchestra, so please go out and get some quotes for live musicians.” Needless to say, this was a dream come true.

Stephan SchutzeComposer Stephan Schütze

Why did the orchestra choose to record in Australia?

After spending some time getting quotes for various ensembles and forwarding them to the publishers I got a response on their preferred choice. What is worth clarifying is that in 2001 the Australian dollar was about 50 cents US, so the quotes were all significantly less than they had expected. The publishers instructed me to engage Melbourne Symphony. So we planned for two recording sessions at the Iwaki auditorium at ABC Southbank.

The introduction sequence to Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis

Do you know of many other game scores that have since been fully recorded in Australia after Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis?

After Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis, I recorded two further scores with Melbourne Symphony over the next few years. The game for the film The Polar Express, and also a Spongebob Squarepants game called Nicktoons Unite. After those, I believe a few years went past before other games utilised orchestras in Australia. But recently some games have been recorded in Australia, again with MSO, and this is because the current Operations Manager Andrew Pogson is a huge fan of games and so sees the opportunities that games provide for the orchestra.

Your latest project is Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles. How would you describe your score for the game?

My main brief for the score for Yonder was to try and emulate the innocence and wonder of Joe Hisaishi’s music for the many Studio Ghibli films. This was yet another dream come true as the Ghibli music has been both some of my favorite music and also very influential on my creative approach. But it was also a massive challenge, and capturing those elements is far harder than it sounds. Many of my initial musical sketches certainly captured the light and joyful feeling, but they often sounded too “Disney” and not enough “Ghibli”. After a while I realized that my choices of instruments could significantly influence on which side of this fine line the music fell.

I wanted to voice wonder, joy, innocence and at all costs avoid any sense of dread or danger. Yonder is a beautiful visual experience and the scoring was designed to support the narrative of discovery and adventure. It was a delightful experience to be able to craft music with lots of life and a sense of discovery without the need for darker undertones. Much of this came down to the orchestration. The choice of instruments was always key to the success or failure of each piece. A few pieces I rejected and a few others I managed to renew through altering which instruments were used.

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles | The Grasslands

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is an open world exploration game, which allows for a more enchanting or immersive tone. Did you find you were using one instrument or a group of instruments more than others with the Yonder score?

As I mentioned, the instruments were key to the effectiveness of the music. I found that harp when used to create runs or glisses would instantly push me over the line into sounding Disney like. But I wanted an interactive element to the score. Games cannot be underscored in the same way a film can, because the player’s actions define exactly what will happen. So we craft a musical experience that has the ability to respond to certain elements of the gameplay. I grew up watching Looney Toons cartoons and so I drew some elements from the wonderful scoring of these cartoons.

In Yonder, each piece of music has a harp line written for every single note of the piece. The harp plays a descending arpeggio pattern. The clichéd “floating to the ground” motif. But 99 percent of the time this layer is muted. When a player runs off a cliff or jumps from a mountain, their character deploys an umbrella, Mary Poppins-style, and floats safely to the ground. Each time this occurs, the harp line lifts in volume and accompanies the journey as the player floats downwards. Because the harp line is specifically written for each note of each piece, this harp line is perfectly in key with the music at all times.

Similarly, in most pieces the underlying bass beat or rhythmic passage is controlled slightly in its playback volume. So the “ohm pa-ohm pa” of walking actually reduces in volume if the player stands still and increases in volume as the player walks or runs around the world. These are both very subtle dynamic uses of the instrumentation, but they add to the sense of underscoring the experience.

Finally, the game has a day and night cycle that is reflected in the music. At both dawn and dusk, very short musical themes transition the feel of the score. All the night time music has the exact same chord progression to provide familiarity. Night time presents no danger to the player, so the music is soft, comforting and the consistent chord structure of each piece provides no surprises. As dawn breaks a short motif changes the feel of the score and the daytime pieces are presented in a range of different keys, instrumentations and styles to support the idea of adventure and discovery. So Yonder’s score is less about certain instruments for specific locations and more about the transitions from day to night and the passing of time.

Instrument-wise, woodwinds often played the part of thematic material to accompany the world. The light and characterful nature was ideal for the world in Yonder. As a professional horn player for many years I would often turn to solo horn lines to enhance the grand and magical nature of the world. Strings provided the sense of freedom and were the overall foundation that tied everything together. And finally, a delicately scored piano part was key to capturing the core of a Ghibli style.

Trailer for Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles

What was your inspiration for the Yonder score?

As I mentioned, the brief for Yonder and my primary inspiration was Hisaishi’s glorious music for the Studio Ghibli films. But so many great artists have created wonderful music for films over the years. In general, I would say animated films were the key inspirations. Ghibli, Disney, Pixar, and some of the absolutely wonderful music crafted for Jim Henson’s wonderful works. The Dark Crystal score has been a massive influence on me for many years, and is one of the key influences on me getting into sound and music.

Not only do you create the score for games but you also create certain project’s sound design. It’s rare in the business for a composer to do both – how did you get in to sound design?

When I started in my very first studio role nearly 18 years ago, I believed I was being hired as a composer. Day one I was informed I was also responsible for creating all the sound design, editing and implementing all voice-over dialogue and creating both video content and its associated audio material. I believe the term “trial by fire” may be applicable here.

While that was a massive challenge I also believe the term “what does not kill you, makes you stronger” may apply. The need to understand all elements of the crafting of audio for a project had such a massive impact on my entire career. It made me better at all aspects of audio design, creation and implementation and in video games implementation is 50 percent of the task. The more I worked on sound design and location recording the more I liked it. I ended up spending several years creating sound effects libraries as my primary focus. The collection of those recordings is now a series of SFX libraries with over 30,000 sounds that are used globally by companies such as Disney, Skywalker Sound, Warner Brothers, EA, Activision. All of these skills; location recording, Foley, sound design, composing and implementation interweave and I think each helps you become better at the others.

Trailer for Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles

Is it more challenging to do both the score and sound design on a project or easier?

While it is obviously more work, I now believe it allows me to create a better version of both the sound and the music. I can craft an entire audio environment that is not just complimentary, but most importantly sympathetic to all elements of the audio. I know when the sounds will be loud or soft, I know how the music has been tailored to support the narrative. I can even manipulate the tuning of the birds singing in the trees to allow them to be in tune with the theme that accompanies a walk through the forest. Obviously the larger a project gets the harder it is to get every single sound in that I might want, but I have found in many ways my output increases on larger projects because I have a vision of the entire audio world which can really improve the efficiency of creation. For reference, I created all the sound and music for Yonder while simultaneously working full time on multiple other projects. So, it can be done

In the last 15 years how has the video game composing world changed in Australia?

I think game composing has changed worldwide. Australia has some incredible talent and our game industry is a leader in many aspects. We have spent many years highlighting the importance of high quality musical scores for games and now we even have sell-out concerts for video game music. I think the most recent changes have been in understanding how dynamic implementation can help us move towards underscoring the unpredictable narrative flow of interactive video games. And the most recent arrival of Virtual and Augmented reality technology is going to be a whole new challenge to deal with. I have spent the last 18 months researching and writing a book on the new realities and I think the possibilities for dynamic, spatial, immersive musical content is so incredibly exciting that most of us are unprepared for the amazing new content that is just around the corner, and I think Australia is very well positioned for this new technology. It is an incredible time to be working in a creative field and a huge privilege to do what I love every day.

Stephan Schütze’s latest video game Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is out now on PC and Playstation 4.