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TMNT Interview with Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan

DreamStation.cc was given the opportunity to interview multiple award-winning composers Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan the composers of the music in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. They were kind enough to answer a few questions both about the process of musical composition as well as the video game business.Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is available now for the Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 2, Sony PSP, PC, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, Nintendo GameCube and Wii.

DreamStation.cc: For the record could you introduce yourself and tell our readers what your job title is? Could you also tell us what games you’ve worked on in the past?

Cris Velasco: I’m Cris Velasco and I write music for games. Some of my past titles include God of War 1 & 2, Dark Messiah, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance.

Sascha Dikiciyan: I’m Sascha Dikiciyan, co-composer of TMNT. My past work includes the Quake Series, Dark Messiah and the main cinematic title for Splinter Cell: Double Agent.

Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan

DreamStation.cc: What were some of the challenges of composing the score for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game? Is it more difficult when there is already an established score in place, for example the animated series both new and old, the original films, the older video games, does this provide more of a challenge or does it make it easier?

Cris & Sascha: The studios wanted the Ninja Turtles to have an updated image. They’re still fun but with a darker edge to them. The music needed to be updated too. We crafted an entirely original score. It was a mix of big orchestra, electronics, rock guitar, and ethnic instruments. The score is very energetic and maintains a sense of fun while still adding a hint of seriousness to it.

DreamStation.cc: How closely do you get to work with the composer(s) of the score for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film? Is there any interaction at all or swapping of ideas, picking of brains, etc?

Cris: There was actually no interaction at all. The game was released three days before the film. With a schedule like this it’s very difficult to make time to have any interaction with each other. It’s not unusual for the game and movie to have completely different scores. I’m sure that the direction we were getting was very similar to what the film composer was being asked to do though.

DreamStation.cc: Where do you get inspiration from on a project like this? What sort of research do you do when composing music for a game like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

Cris & Sascha: We partially flooded our studio and brought in about 100 turtles…just kidding. There wasn’t much research to be done on this one. We were big fans of the Ninja Turtles to begin with so we were already well acquainted with them. We also kept in close contact with the audio team at Ubisoft. Not only for music direction but also to get tons of screenshots and video captures from the game. Ubisoft knew exactly what kind of score they were after so there was no guess work involved.

DreamStation.cc: I have a bit of a musical background and am somewhat of an audiophile. I know how important a score can be to a film, why do you think that it has taken so long for the video game world to realize that a game can also convey emotions through more than just through cutting edge graphics?

Cris: I don’t know that it’s really taken “so long.” Video games are still a relatively new industry. At first, it was hardware limitations that kept a score like this out of a game. But as games became more popular the budgets increased and it became an almost cinematic experience. It was only natural that music would finally have a chance to step up to the plate. This is a very exciting time to be in this industry. As a composer, the big payoff is hearing your music performed. More often than not, our scores are being recorded with live orchestras.

DreamStation.cc: Could you take us through the process of composing the score for a video game from start to finish?

Cris & Sascha: Each game is a slightly different process. Usually, the game is well into development before we get the call for music. At this point we try to familiarize ourselves with the concept, story, art, design, etc as much as possible before writing a single note. This usually involves a trip to the developer to talk with the team and get a good look at the latest build of the game. Then it’s much like writing music for any other medium, at least in terms of the creative process. We set up our themes, write music for all the given scenarios, score to picture if there are cinematics, and do the orchestrating/copying if we will be recording live. It’s the mechanics of a game score that make it interesting though. We’ve got to write music in such a way that it lends itself to being interactive and dynamic. Long gone are the days of hearing one cue loop for an hour. We do multiple remixes on each cue and let the audio engine decide when and where to change music. But the magic of it is that it all sounds like it’s from the same piece of music without getting repetitive or boring. Now do this for every level and you can start to grasp the complexity of writing a modern game score.

DreamStation.cc: Video game music has come a long way from the simple “bleeps and bloops” of the early days. How has Dolby Digital changed things and what exactly does it allow you to do for a video game score?

Sascha: Well, sound has come a long way. Today we can mix sound and music in 5.1 even 7.1 if we wanted to. Basically it changed everything. It means quality and total immersion for today’s gamers.

DreamStation.cc: We have a lot of readers who wish they could get into the video game industry, but aren’t exactly interested in the programming side, how did you get your break in an industry that isn’t about what you know, but about who you know?

Cris: It took me several years to break in. But I was extremely tenacious. I spent all my free time just composing for myself and trying to hone my craft. Not a single day went by where I wasn’t writing. At the same time I was putting myself out there, trying to make friends and contacts. I was finally given a chance to score one cinematic on Battlestar Galactica back in 2003. This led to additional work on that title which led to further games with that developer. I always try to do my best work and make the client, and gamers, happy.

Sascha: When I started around 1996, the industry was a lot smaller and everyone knew each other. People like John Romero were hanging out on IRC and chatting with fans. It was there that I heard id software was working on Quake 2 and I just thought this was the perfect opportunity. I emailed them, submitted a demo and 2 weeks later I had the job. It was good timing with some luck I suppose. But today things are a bit trickier. Companies have grown larger, more people are involved. I’d say it really boils down to who you know and how good you are at your craft.

DreamStation.cc: A lot of famous and award winning composers have made their way from the film industry into the video game industry, what is it about the business that makes it an attractive opportunity for such highly acclaimed composers to “jump ship”?

Cris: It really is amazing how popular it is now. Even just three or four years ago when I scored my first game, people told me they were sure my luck would turn around. I guess they felt sorry for me that I was only scoring games. Now it’s become cool. With the next-gen consoles out now games are beginning to look amazing. It’s only natural that they should sound amazing too. I think composers are being given a chance to not only be epic with their writing but to try new things. There’s no definition right now of what a game score should sound like. We’re not being asked to write to a pattern or mold. Writing music for games gives you a completely new set of challenges as a composer and I think a lot of composers find this refreshing.

Sascha: Oh yeah, it’s hilarious. Years ago people would came up and ask “so what you do?” and I would tell them I write music for games. They laughed and turned around. Now people are asking me all the time, how they get into the gaming industry. Besides the fact that visually games these days look better everyday, sound and music wise, at times it even surpasses movies in terms of originality and quality. People realize that gaming is the future of entertainment.

DreamStation.cc: Who or what game inspired you to get into musical composition for video games?

Sascha: Games always played a part in my life early on. I think the original Amiga (which I had to work all summer long for to be able to afford one!) got me really into electronic music. It had an amazing sound chip. Still to this day that famous SID sound is being used. But it didn’t hit me until 1996, after playing Quake I really knew that writing music for games is what I want to do. I think that game had one of the first real audio CD quality soundtracks. While more noise than music, I saw the potential and wanted to be part of something totally new!

Cris: If I’m being honest then I’d have to say that Lennie Moore’s score to Outcast was a major catalyst for me. It was just the kind of score that I would love to write. I’ve loved playing games since my old Commodore 64 and that, combined with this score and others, put me on the path to my career now. The coolest thing for me is that I’ve since become great friends with all my past inspirations. These days I regularly take Lennie’s money from him at our poker games!

DreamStation.cc: When you’re not writing music, what games do you play? What’s your current favorite game?

Cris: I just finished Resistance: Fall of Man and I’m working my way through God of War II right now. I’m also getting pretty good at Guitar Hero.

Sascha: For some reason Cris has way more time to play then I do. ;) I’m still trying to finish God of War and Splinter Cell: Double Agent!

Bonus Questions

DreamStation.cc: If you were a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, which one would you be and why?

Cris: Probably Michelangelo, but only because I always thought nunchucks were cool.

Sascha: Raphael/Nightwatcher for me. I guess I can relate quite well. I usually work late at night…but minus the mask of course.

DreamStation.cc: Your other half says you can only get one “next-gen” console, which do you choose: Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360? Why?

Cris: I actually own all of them. But if I had to pick one….probably the 360 just because there are more games on it that I enjoy at the moment.

Sascha: Oh I didn’t know that Cris has them all. Well I’m still looking for a Wii so right now I like my 360 a lot!

DreamStation.cc: On behalf of DreamStation.cc I’d like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for us and our readers. We look forward to playing and listening to your work in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well as any of your future work.

Cris & Sascha: Thank you so much for the interview. We’ve got a lot of very interesting projects we’re working on right now that we can’t wait to tell you about.

Cris Velasco - www.monarchaudio.com
Sascha Dikiciyan - www.sonicmayhem.com

For more information about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) the Video Game visit www.tmntgame.com.

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TMNT Interview with Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan

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