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Composer Interview: Sarah Schachner

posted Jan 12, 2015, 3:19 PM by Kaya Savas

The versatile and talented Sarah Schachner takes some time to chat about her work including her scores for Assassin's Creed: Unity and The Lazarus Effect starring Evan Peters and Olivia Wilde. We discuss how she followed the path to film/tv/game composing and focus heavily on the process and approach for Assassin's Creed: Unity. From working with Chris Tilton and Ryan Amon to the technical process of game scoring, Sarah shares in great detail about how she tackled this project. We also discuss how she wanted to approach the horror genre with The Lazarus Effect. This is by far one of the most informative interviews about game scoring we have on Film.Music.Media, and it's also a great portrait of an amazingly talented composer. Enjoy!

Interview Conducted By:
Kaya Savas

Special Thanks:
Sarah Schachner
Greg O'Connor-Read
Top Dollar PR

Kaya: Firstly, I would love to know how you got into music, but specifically the composing path. What made you choose film, TV and game composing? 

Sarah: I think when I became bored of classical piano lessons and started altering Bach inventions, that was a sign I’d end up as a composer. I didn’t always set out to compose for visual media though. Writing and playing in bands was my focus and it wasn’t until after I began college that I realized film scoring was what I should be pursuing. I love the composing process way more than performing.

Kaya: Are there any composers who you really connected to when you were younger, whose music spoke to you?

Sarah: Well, there was the obligatory John Lennon obsession phase from age 5-10ish. But in terms of film composers, my mom would always play epic soundtracks in the house when my sister and I were young. We would dance around in the living room to scores like The Mission and Last of the Mohicans. Those early experiences with music had a big impact on me. And then, the first time I heard Thomas Newman’s music, I was blown away.

Kaya: How does your process begin on a project? What’s sort of the first order of business when it comes to starting a score on a project?

Sarah: Whether it’s a film or a video game, the first thing is to immerse yourself in the story and subject matter. Outside of reading the script, that can mean doing research on the time period/characters, reading related material, or acquiring special instruments for the project so you can start coming up with sounds and themes. If it’s a film, you’ll have a spotting session with the director right away where you’ll go through a rough cut of the film and decide where and how music will be used and discuss ideas. Video games are a bit different since they need the music as they go and you aren’t usually scoring to any specific visuals. Once you figure out the game’s sound and instrumentation, you then just lock yourself away for 6 months and write as much music as humanly possible, usually resulting in a near-death experience.

Kaya: As a storyteller, what speaks to you the most? What do you latch onto first that really drives your music? Performances? Editing? Setting? Story?

Sarah: I guess probably overarching themes and subject matter but it really depends on the project. Some projects are mainly character driven while others are more about the setting or some specific event etc. On a project like Assassin’s Creed, the historical time period/setting is what drives the music most. The time period is a character in itself.

Kaya: You have a great history working with Brian Tyler and have been part of his team on many of his scores. What have been some great lessons you’ve learned working with Brian?

Sarah: Yes, I’ve worked with him on a number of amazing projects. Working with any big composer, you find out pretty quickly where your weaknesses are, and it forces you to learn and improve as fast as you can. I learned how to improve my percussion programming and general action writing working with Brian. He’s a fantastic drummer and his action music is very rhythmic and effective.

Kaya: You worked with Brian on his score for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, did that make it easier to jump into the world of Assassin’s Creed: Unity already having a familiarity of the game structure?

Sarah: Oh definitely. That made it a lot easier and just generally knowing what to expect. However, there was still a lot that was new and different. The music needs in Unity were structurally more complicated than Black Flag since the implementation software had become more advanced. Instead of writing 3-minute general combat pieces, I was composing 5 minute suites with up to 7 different, loop-able sections that would be triggered by interactive software depending on what the player does, so they needed to be able to transition smoothly at any time. I don’t think those will ever be easy.

Kaya: Now, Black Flag was different in that Brian was the sole head composer on that project. Unity is more akin to other video games where multiple composers work on the game. It’s also not uncommon for composers to never collaborate directly on a large scale game like Unity. You share co-composing credit with two amazing composers Chris Tilton and Ryan Amon. How were scoring duties divided between the three of you? Were certain aspects of the game assigned to better suit your styles and abilities?

Sarah: The three of us met with the developers in Montreal in the beginning, but once we began composing, there was very little communication between us. Ubisoft had pretty specific plans for what they wanted each of us to do. Chris’ primary focus was the narrative parts of the single player campaign. I was hired to do the bulk of the combat music and the multiplayer/co-op missions while Ryan covered the modern day areas of the game.

Kaya: Was there any communication between you, Chris and Ryan? Is it difficult trying to create a uniformed body of work?

Sarah: Ubisoft didn’t put much pressure on us to try to sound like each other which was nice. They wanted us to do our own thing and we had to trust their overall vision with the implementation of the music. It definitely felt strange at times feeling disconnected to what was going on in other areas of the game, but at the same time, we didn’t have to concern ourselves with trying to sound“uniform” and could just focus fully on our own inspiration.

Kaya: In terms of the music you were tasked to compose, I feel like your music feels most at home in the game’s French Revolution setting. What was the goal musically for you? Was it fun to immerse yourself in that time period?

Sarah: Thanks! Yeah, that was absolutely the goal. I don’t think this time period was as musically obvious or distinct as the 18th century Caribbean pirates of Black Flag, but adapting Classical-Baroque counterpoint techniques to a combat/gameplay context was really fun and not something I get to do often – or ever actually.

Kaya: If you’re composing a video game score is it important to keep in mind that the player is going to be playing hours upon hours at a time? Does that influence how you write your themes and melodies?

Sarah: Yes, it’s definitely something you need to keep in mind but I try not to worry about that too much. I think ultimately, people would rather hear a great melody a little too often versus unidentifiable wallpaper music. You just need to be aware of how the cue will function in gameplay and understand that not every piece can be a standalone theme. Due to the interactive nature of gameplay, music has to often function in strange and unmusical ways (starting and stopping and skipping around). That’s the most challenging aspect because you want the music to be as interesting as possible and still have catchy memorable melodies, but there has to be a balance.

Kaya: So normally a composer on a film or a TV show would have a spotting session with a locked or maybe rough cut of the project. How do you spot music for a video game, especially an open world game like Unity? Is that process even applicable here?

Sarah: Since the audio team controls the implementation of the music, a traditional spotting session isn’t really applicable. It’s a bit weird to not always know what exactly you're scoring like you do in a film, so you have to use your imagination a lot. In the beginning, you’ll get a bunch of story/setting/character information, artwork, storyboards, and some sample gameplay videos to give context and inspiration. Most of the time, you won’t have any video to score to and even if you do (aside from the cut scene narrative stuff) it’s only a loose approximation of what the player might be doing with very rough graphics. After that, the music team will send weekly briefs of what they need with general descriptions.

Kaya: If you could take the Assassin’s Creed franchise into any time period or historic place, knowing you’d have to compose the music for it, where would you like to take it?

Sarah: Vikings during the Saxon Wars from 772-804 would be awesome.

Kaya: You also have a film called The Lazarus Effect (Relativity Media) starring Even Peters, Olivia Wilde and Donald Glover that you wrote the score for. In your opinion, what is the key to scoring a horror film and what did you want your music to do for The Lazarus Effect?

Sarah: Horror is so different than scoring any other genre because so much of it hinges on surprising the audience and making people feel really uncomfortable - which is not the usual approach to writing music (at least not for me). You have to mix it up and not resort to the same sounds and techniques over and over. The Lazarus Effect is about a group of young scientists who have developed a serum that brings the dead back to life, but not without change and consequence of course. I wanted the music to represent the clash between the natural brain and the chemically altered,“enhanced” brain post serum. As the film progresses, you hear less and less organic, familiar sounds.

Kaya: And to wrap up I always like to ask composers, if you could score any film ever made, pretending the original score never existed. Which film would you choose?

Sarah: Jurassic Park.

Kaya: Thanks so much for your time Sarah!

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