Prolific game score producer and composer discusses his latest work on the animated film adaption of Eric Nylund’s 2001 novel.
The Halo score is one of the more iconic in the video game industry. The “monks” and the theme have become quite familiar to gamers since the release of Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001. Over the years, there have been multiple composers for the Halo franchise - most recently, Tom Salta, scored Halo: The Fall of Reach, now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. Salta created the scores for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 1 & 2, The Prince of Persia and Red Steel 1 & 2 before moving to the Halo franchise to modernize the scores for Halo 1 & 2.
Spencer Fawcett: Did you approach 343 Industries/Microsoft to score the remasters, or did they approach you?
Tom Salta: 343i/Microsoft’s senior audio director [Paul Lipson] reached out to me. We’ve been friends and colleagues for many years, sharing a passion for all things video games, especially Halo. Fast forward almost ten years to 2011. Paul called me and said that he was working with Microsoft on recreating the score of Halo: Combat Evolved for the anniversary release and asked if I would join his team. I almost dropped the phone, not believing what I was hearing. Paul knew well that Halo was my greatest personal inspiration for venturing into the video game industry - after a 15-year career making records - so having the unique opportunity to recreate the original score that started it all for me was genuinely a dream come true. And that’s how my journey into the Halo universe began.
SF: Was it daunting to approach the Halo games, which already had wonderful scores, and modernize/adapt them for the 2010s?
TS: The music of Halo is like sacred ground for me. When I first played the original game back in 2001, I had the epiphany that game music was where I wanted to refocus my music career. Halo is why I’m doing what I do. So with that as the context leading up to this opportunity, you can only imagine that no one would set higher expectations than myself.
Recreating and updating the original scores to Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 for the anniversary editions was an unprecedented and rewarding opportunity for me and the entire team working on the score. I think all of us and all the millions of Halo fans agree these titles were a huge success and paid homage to these legendary titles.
A few years later I was given another incredible opportunity with its own unique challenges - creating new original scores for brand new Halo games, but this time they weren’t the familiar first-person shooter that Halo fans are familiar with, but rather, top down twin-stick shooters designed for mobile devices in mind. The goal was to create music in a style that was familiar to Halo fans, yet new...and to create a full audio experience that made you feel like you were playing an AAA Halo game. Put on a pair of good headphones, load up Halo Spartan Assault or Spartan Strike on your iOS or Windows mobile device and you’ll be in for a treat.
SF: Did you take it upon yourself to read the Eric Nylund novel, “Halo: The Fall of Reach” to understand past the animated film?
TS: Yes, you might not believe this but coincidentally, right before I was approached by 343 for Halo: The Fall of Reach, my wife had just finished reading the novel and absolutely loved it. She is not a gamer but she wanted to know what all this Halo hubbub was about, so she read Halo: The Fall of Reach. So you can imagine how surreal it was to then be asked to compose the score to the animated film. Once that call came in, I immediately read the novel. Even though I knew they would send me the script for the film, I knew the novel would go into more depth than a 60-minute film possibly could, and it definitely gave me more material to be inspired by.
SF: Were there any particular scenes in Halo: The Fall of Reach that stood out to you or were difficult to score?
TS: Right from my initial viewing of an early version of the film, I immediately knew what the most critical scenes were. In fact, even before watching the film, I anticipated what they would be from reading the novel. I've been a Halo fan from day 1 so I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the story and characters. If you were to compare Halo to Star Wars, you could say this was the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. Halo tells the story of Master Chief, and this film starts from the very beginning when he was 6 years old, introducing all the most important characters and setting up all the most important plot points leading up to where the first Halo game, Halo: Combat Evolved, begins.
There were so many monumental moments in this story. Between meeting Dr. Halsey (the creator and consciousness of the AI, Cortana), Captain Keyes, John 117, Master Chief, the entire Blue Team and the Covenant, this story is a Halo fan’s dream.
SF: A film composer scores for the film. Video game composers have an active participant. Do you score for the set-pieces in the game or for the player’s movement in the setting?
TS: One of the ways I would describe scoring games is that you're scoring the activity of playing the game; you're scoring for what you want the player to feel as they are playing. But just like a film, you’re helping tell a story with the music.
The way a game score is approached is certainly affected by the type of game. Some are more cinematic, feeling like you're playing a movie, and some are more game-like…music to support the action of playing.
SF: Are there any future Halo projects you’ll be scoring as well?
TS: Due to the NDA nature of game development I can't go into any specifics, but I’m optimistic this won’t be my last foray into the Halo universe.
Spencer Fawcett is a screenwriter who also does production work for NBC/Universal. He has written for Parade Magazine and ASUs The State Press. Twitter: Whizbang813