‘Halo Wars 2’ shoots for a Grammy, and a composer scores with music made for video games

Gordy Haab
Composer Gordy Haab during a promotional event for the music of the video game “Halo Wars 2” at SIFF Film Center in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

It’s safe to say, film fans, that a large part of the enjoyment derived from watching movies comes from listening to them. As video games compete for attention and dollars in the overall entertainment space, they’re doing more to appeal to the conventional cinematic experience, especially when it comes to music.

Thursday night at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle, music composed for the “Halo Wars 2” video game — from 343 Industries and Microsoft Studios — was showcased, along with the folks who created it. The effort was aimed at attracting the attention of Recording Academy members in the area who might help nominate the music and those involved for a Grammy.

Composers Gordy Haab, Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White of Finishing Move, and audio director Paul Lipson, VP of creative services at Formosa Group, created the ‘Halo Wars 2’ music with an 80-piece orchestra on the Fox scoring stage in Los Angeles and a 20-piece choir at Skywalker Sound.

Haab is already an award-winning composer for film, television and video games. His work for the Electronic Arts game “Star Wars: Battlefront” won Music of the Year, Best Interactive Score, and Best Instrumental Score at the 2016 GDC G.A.N.G. Awards, and was nominated for a BAFTA for Excellence in Audio Achievement.

Hardcore Gamer called that score “the best music John Williams never wrote” in a nod to the legendary film composer known for his music for such films as “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “E.T.” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and more.

The comparison is not lost on Haab, 41, who grew up a huge fan of the Star Wars franchise.

“John Williams in particular, of all the film composers that have inspired me, is probably the biggest,” Haab told GeekWire. “Star Wars was right in my wheelhouse. It was one of the first movies I can remember seeing. Before I knew anything about music, the music that was sort of inspiring me and making me want to become a musician and a composer was the music of John Williams … Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe it’s all true — that I get to live in this universe that was the very universe that inspired me to do this in the first place.”

If you can hear Williams’ Star Wars music playing in your head while reading this, welcome to Haab’s world. In writing new music for a franchise like “Battlefront,” he’s tasked with writing transitions out of Williams’ music and into his own and back. He said it’s “kind of cool” to have to bridge those gaps between his own work and the stuff of legend.

Halo Wars 2
Seattle musician Rachel Flotard of the band Visqueen hangs with the guys of “Halo Wars 2,” from left, Gordy Haab, Brian Trifon, Paul Lipson and Brian Lee White. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

While Williams doesn’t write for games, Haab is committed to the medium and the creativity being fostered.

“Games have come so far even in just my time of being involved, which has been about 10 years,” Haab said. “I’ve seen them grow from simply what we called them, which is a game, to being really like a full cinematic experience that you get to be a part of. It really is the next generation of entertainment and being a part of that is really cool.”

For “Halo Wars 2,” Haab, Trifon and Lee White ended up creating 150 minutes of music, with 30 minutes of that being cinematic cut scenes.

“The cinematics are pretty beautiful in this game, I’ve got to say,” Haab said. “It’s like watching a feature film on the highest of levels.”

Haab remembers the video game he was playing when he first noticed a musical score being employed and heightening the experience. He previously thought music in games served a one-dimensional function — faster music means hurry up, or that kind of effect.

“I remember playing this game, ‘Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis’ and the score was a full orchestral score,” Haab said. “It was the first time I’d ever heard that in a video game and I was kind of blown away by it. That was the first moment I realized, ‘Oh, wow, I like games, I write cinematic scores and had no idea that the two could be combined.’ So i started pursuing writing music for video games at that point and sort of found my way into the industry by that inspiration, really.”

Haab has recorded and conducted his music with orchestras from around the world, according to his bio, including The London Symphony Orchestra, The San Francisco Symphony, The Nashville Symphony and the Hollywood Studio Orchestra.

He recently composed the music for Activision/AMC’s “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct” game, based on the popular zombie-infested television series.

Halo Wars 2 music
The music of “Halo Wars 2” was discussed during an event at the SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Haab said every game has its set of challenges, just like a film, and while he finds the same inspiration in writing for either medium — characters, story arc — the process for games and movies is very different.

“Composers are brought on to a video game much earlier than they are to a film,” Haab said. “Usually on a film it’s almost the last step in the process in a lot of ways. The composer is usually working in the last six weeks of production when the film is already edited, cut together, there’s a full film you can look at and then you score it.

“But with games you’re writing music almost at the same time the game is being developed, so I’m working with still images, written scripts that give me a sense of what the story might be, concept art, that type of thing. Very rarely am I even seeing game play. I’m writing music to a concept, essentially.”

Lipson spent almost five years at Microsoft on the Central Media Team and then as senior audio director at 343, the studio that makes “Halo.” He left for Formosa Group, one of the largest post-production teams in the world, and he’s spent three years working on “Halo Wars 2.”

“When I was looking to do the next ‘Halo’ score — and I’ve done a bunch of them — Gordy immediately popped out,” Lipson said. “His voice and what he does is so unique.”

He said it made sense to pair Haab and “the two Brians” because “Halo” has a long tradition of being a hybrid score. It’s not just an orchestral score, or an electronic-based score.

“You needed masters of their domain that could work together to produce a singularity,” Lipson said. “You stay up at night and you dream about your partners, and I thought up the team and … luckily I was right!”