This week’s From The Mouth Of The Mouse is a bit more musical than usual because we’re joined by Emmy-award winning composer Jim Dooley!
Jim is probably best-known among gamers as the composer of the original game score for Disney’s Epic Mickey, and for the upcoming Epic Mickey 2. In the past, he’s also worked with Disney on the Pirates of the Caribbean films and The Little Mermaid 2. He won his Emmy for ABC’s Pushing Daisies. Even if you don’t recognize his name, you will definitely recognize his music.
Jim spoke with me about his process for composing the Epic Mickey soundtrack. Taking classic tunes and warping them into something new for the video game was a daunting task, but one Jim pulled off quite well!
Of course, what’s an interview with a composer without music? Listen to or download the podcast and you’ll not only hear more of my chat with Jim but also a few tunes played by Jim exclusively for this interview.
And now, here’s Jim!
JEFF: How is it different composing for a video game versus a TV show or film?
JIM: With film and TV, the timeline is linear, and with games, it’s dynamic. The timeline isn’t fixed, and you have to write music that is adaptive. When you create themes for TV and film, the story structure dictates those themes. But with games, how you act in the game has an impact on your character directly, so the music needs to relate to that.
So it becomes a bit more complicated. I have to write music for someone who is very experienced and can get through the game very quickly, and for people who are not as experienced and take the game more slowly. The music needs to adapt to both their paces. That only works as a result of careful planning and working with the creators and the audio team.
JEFF: Do you write the music so that it can loop back to the beginning in case the player takes a little longer than usual to do whatever he’s supposed to do?
JIM: Absolutely. Its all built in there, but hopefully you don’t see the seams. For example, if you’re in a boss battle and it takes you a little longer to do it, eventually the music will loop back around, but its all been designed in different levels: a low, a medium, and a high intensity.
So, depending on how the battle is going, elements will come in and out to make it more dynamic. We had to take it a step further with the advent of technology. Essentially, the music is designed in Epic Mickey to be incredibly dynamic. All the exploration pieces, the beginnings of each level, as you navigate your way through new territory, are some of the most complex pieces I’ve ever had to write.
Think of it as panning: center is neutral, left is dark, and right is light. Neutral is always playing, but if you go toward the left, you get the neutral and the dark, and there is no light in there. But if you go to the right, you can have neutral and light, but you don’t have dark. Light and dark never play at the same time, or it would be a cluster of bad notes all at once, especially when mixing major and minor keys.
The “it’s a small world” piece, for example, is one of the more dynamic pieces in the game. There are wrong notes in the dark parts of the piece, as you start erasing things in the Wasteland, then it starts to go horribly wrong, and the music echoes it.
It’s tricky, because you have to write it all from left to right with enough harmonic information to still compliment all three parts of every piece. It’s very tricky.
JEFF: So you essentially had to write three versions of each track?
JIM: In a way, yes. It made my mind itch just as much as it does yours! I was working and thinking how many more of these pieces do I have to do?! It’s a lot of going back and forth between the tracks, trying to make sure you don’t ruin it. The trick is that all three pieces are playing at the same time; you just don’t hear them. The volume and tracks are regulated based on game play, and the game creators work very hard on making all of that be seamless.
JEFF: How much freedom were you given with the music?
JIM: You have to remember that this game is based on Disneyland, in a way. Since it’s all related to a real place, the music had to relate to the real places that you may have experiencd yourself. It had to reflect everyone’s love of Disneyland. So I had to start with: “Well, what does the music in the Park sound like for this?” Which, of course, meant a lot of ‘research.’ And by research, I mean visiting the parks, and going on the rides as much as possible! Research, indeed!
JEFF: How else did you prepare yourself for composing the music?
JIM: In addition to studying the music of the Park, I really wanted to get my fingers on the original orchestrations. I had a lot of help from a friend at the Disney Archives who let me go through all this old, classic stuff. You have to remember, with Mickey Mouse, we’re talking something like 80 years’ worth of music. So it was a lot to go through. And it was a lot of pressure. These are beloved tunes that I was working with, and I didn’t want to mess it up.
I did the game over a period of a year and a half. And probably like eight months into the game, I didn’t remember, in detail, the stuff I had done before. It was a lot of music! It was a wonderful process, but you get these tunes, and you can really just run with them, and I enjoyed that. It was like being a kid in a candy store. Once I had the style down, it was like, how far can I bend it before it breaks?
JEFF: What sort of music did you use to help inspire you?
JIM: Well, I bought the history of Disneyland Collection, that massive 6 CD set, and I went through all of it, many, many times over. And then I went to the Park, and it was a lot of listening and immersing yourself into that world. You have to throw yourself into the deep end of this music and just live it, because it sticks in your brain when you do. It’s just like a vibe; you have to get into it!
JEFF: Did you beat the game?
JIM: [Pause] No. [Laughs] It’s funny, every time I play the game, I get really involved in doing the quests and trying to find all the little hidden secret bits. I know what the end of the game is, so I’m more interested in the nooks and crannies of the game. I know there’s a lot of different ways to play it. The problem is, again, I’ll forget the stuff I composed already. And I’ll get to a part, like the Lonesome Manor pieces, and I’ll be like “Oh, this is great! I forgot I did this!” So, I get a little sidetracked with playing the main game itself.
JEFF: In films and TV, they can show you scenes and how they play out to help you set your score. Did they give you advance footage from the game, or did they just tell you the situation and have you go from there?
JIM: I went to Austin, where Junction Point, the studio who developed the game, is located, and they’d show me the different levels as they ‘came off the press’, so to speak. As they designed levels, those are the ones I’d do next. They’d show me some game captures of the next level, I’d get a feel for it, do some research, and go from there. The first part was finding specific tunes for characters. Like Mickey. I cant even tell you how much pressure that was!
Thanks, Jim, for speaking with me about your music! The podcast features Jim sharing more about his tutelage under Disney Legend Buddy Baker, revealing what’s he’s up to next (which is good news for Pushing Daisies fans!), and playing some great music!
And be sure to check back every week to read more directly From The Mouth Of The Mouse!
If you are, or know, a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and possibly be featured right here on MiceChat, please email me at [email protected]. I’d love to hear from you!
You can read older columns of From The Mouth Of The Mouse here!
Jeff can help you plan your perfect Disney vacation with Fairy Godmother Travel! Call him at 732-278-7404 or email him at [email protected] for a free, no-obligation quote for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Aulani or Adventures By Disney.
Jeff also writes a MiceChat column titled The 626. We invite you to check it out!
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