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iMuse Island
Interview
with Clint Bajakian



 
 
Clint Bajakian was involved in the music production of many LucasArts games, such as Monkey Island 2, Fate of Atlantis, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, Dark Forces... He also composed the entire score of the award-winning Western shooter Outlaws. Recently, his new company "C. B. Studios" produced the score of Escape from Monkey Island, Clint Bajakian being the lead composer.

 
 

Hello! Could you briefly introduce yourself? How did you end up into the world of music?

My name is Clint Bajakian. I began musical studies on piano and euphonium at the age of eight in Massachusetts.  I played in a marching band from grade 5-8, then took up the guitar and played in a number of rock bands from 1977 to 1984. In 1982, I enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, fulfilling a double-Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Theory and Classical Guitar Performance. I earned a Masters of Music degree in Music Composition at The University of Michigan in 1991 culminating with an orchestral work that was performed publicly. That same year, I got a call from Michael Land, an old friend with whom I'd played much music since 1976, inviting me to compose music with him and Peter McConnell, another old friend, at LucasArts (then Lucasfilm Games). My fiancée and I hit the road from Michigan and I worked several months on Monkey Island2: LeChuck's Revenge and Indiana Jones: The Fate of Atlantis. In 1993, I took on a full-time position there which I kept until May 2000, at which time I started my own music and sound production company called C. B. Studios.

How did you get the job at LucasArts in the first place?

In 1991, full-length MIDI musical scores became the norm in games. Michael Land, an old high school friend and fellow musician, had been acting as a one-man sound department at LucasArts until there was suddenly such an intense need for music, he turned to Peter McConnell, also an old friend of ours, and myself to help him out with music composition. This work was done as a contractor. Working on two games led to my being offered a full-time position in late 1992, which I assumed in January of 1993 starting off working on Star Wars: TIE Fighter and Maniac Mansion 2: Day of the Tentacle.

What can you tell us about Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Star Wars: Dark Forces? Was it hard to write something new, having to respect John Williams' themes and style at the same time?

The music of John Williams has always been a great inspirational force for me. His handling of drama and ability to enhance a dramatic scene has been inspiring and exemplary. It has been a pleasure and learning experience to emulate his style in my work, especially with licensed subjects based on films he'd scored.  While I continue to develop my own "inner voice", or style, I view his approach to orchestral dramatic writing as a kind of central waypoint in all my orchestral writing.

Outlaws had one hell of a soundtrack! The music and the sound quality were extraordinary for that time. What can you tell us about the music production of that game?

Upon planning the production process, I realized that I needed to build a small production team and hire many live players.  It was a bit of a break from the more common "composer does it all" approach in the gaming industry at that time. I enlisted the talent of Hans Christian Reumschussel, a fantastic cellist, composer, producer and engineer to engineer the live sessions, and mix and master the tracks. While I composed all the music and spearheaded the production, Hans worked very closely with me on creative approaches and techniques. Much of the score was improvised in live session, giving the music a realness and nostalgic aura of the 60s.  Hans brought his incredible engineering talents to the table, making for a great sounding record.

Outlaws got a lot of critical praise, and even some "best soundtrack of the year" awards. Did you expect such a positive response?

When the project team specified "redbook tracks" as the technical format of the score (standard CD audio tracks are inherently limited in their ability to respond interactively to dramatic shifts in gameplay), I immediately realized the potential to essentially make an album to play behind the games, as it were. I approached the soundtrack as the "soundtrack to the movie, "Outlaws", which of course never existed. Forgoing the high demands we normally placed on the interactivity of our scores, I maximized the music's own intrinsic quality. Being able to really cut loose and create fifteen tracks, roughly 75 minutes of music, led to a product that I had a pretty good idea would make a big impression on the gaming community.

About a year ago you left LucasArts in order to start your own company, C.B. Studios. How did you come to that decision?

Michael Land, Peter McConnell and I were the original three members of the LucasArts sound department and had almost thirty years collective experience at LucasArts at the time of our departures in May 2000. There comes a time for everyone to move on to something new - even when it means leaving something as great as a job at LucasArts. When Michael and Peter decided to leave and form their own company creating authoring software for the internet, I was faced with an important decision whether to increase my responsibility in the LucasArts sound department, or to move out and create my own music and sound production company serving the industry and related industries overall. As my new position would have meant a great deal more management, which I also enjoy, it would have constrained my ability to maintain a meaningful amount of sound and music work.  Thus I made the decision that would allow for even more production work than I had before as Sound Design Supervisor, when I had co-managed the department with Michael and Peter.

Even so, LucasArts decided to contract C.B. Studios for the production of the Escape from Monkey Island music. How did Michael Land and Peter McConnell get involved with the project?

Originally the plan was for Michael to spearhead the score and have Peter McConnell and myself as co-composers as we did on Monkey Island2. When they left, the responsibility as lead composer fell to me. If I were to have stayed at LucasArts, the demands of my new position coupled with four scores that were at that point in early production, (Escape from Monkey Island being one of them) would have overwhelmed me, especially given that I have a family who expects me home each evening! I considered the threat to the quality of the score if I were to compose it under such enormous pressure. I felt that it would receive the best attention if I went independent to contract the score.  Naturally, we all wanted Michael Land, who originated the musical style for Money Island series in the beginning, to have a prominent role in the score. Thus I subcontracted Michael and Peter who, despite the new responsibilities to their new start up company, found the time to make a meaningful contribution after all.

Who are Anna Karney and Michael Lande, who worked as co-composers on EMI? Is the similarity of Michael Land's and Michael Lande's names really a pure coincidence or is there a threatening intrigue behind that?  ;-)

Anna Karney and Michael Lande are both free-lance composers in the San Francisco Bay Area. They're both extremely talented and made remarkable contributions to the score. The experience I gained from coordinating five composers (including myself) was invaluable. I would say my management skill learned at LucasArts paid off here. I served as the creative lead and interacted most directly with Sean Clark and Michael Stemmle, the project leaders. It is entirely a coincidence that the two last names for Michael and Michael are so similar - they had never even met before!  They are indeed two different people.

Escape from Monkey Island is the fourth installment in a well-established game series with its specific traditions. Was it difficult to use the old themes and stay true to the settled styles yet still come up with something new?

I think of the music for the Monkey Island series to be as traditional as the license itself, so it must be treated carefully. I wanted to strike a good balance between originating new tunes and feels, and recasting older approaches that remained tried and true to the series. I think going too far in either direction would have been a mistake. How could I have cut ties with the music world Michael had created and nurtured for three titles? Simultaneously, now it was my turn to breathe a new outlook into the series. So I did my best to cover both sides. Certain themes were revamped - the LeChuck theme being the most prominent, and certain themes and styles were newly introduced as well.

The music in Escape from Monkey Island sounds very authentic. Did you use a lot of live players?

Many live players came through the recording studio at LucasArts. Larry the O did a great job recording these folks. His recordings are always clean and natural. The overall approach was similar to that taken by Peter on Grim Fandango or Michael on The Curse of Monkey Island, that is, selectively layering live playing over a MIDI sampled foundation to get an authentic sound while staying within schedule and budgetary constraints.

What cue in Escape from Monkey Island are you most proud of?

I really like the score I wrote for the huge seven-minute cutscene in the end in which Ozzie rides a giant LeChuck statue in combat against a giant monkey robot driven by Guybrush and friends. The score is predominantly orchestral but passes through popular 'island-y' feels from time to time. It gets intense and helps drive the drama.

Are there any major differences between composing music for an action game (e.g. Outlaws, Infernal Machine) and an adventure game (e.g. Monkey 4, Fate of Atlantis)?

There is a big difference between composing for an action game versus an adventure or strategy game. In an action game, your goal is to "get the player's blood pumping", to enhance the excitement of game play, or at least to create a suspenseful mood that doesn't let up, only gets more intense from time to time. Music for a game like Monkey Island needs to be memorable and tuneful, but also pleasant and laid back. It needs to stay out of the way of the player so he/she can settle in for a long term of game play, relax and concentrate on what needs to be done to further the story. In an action game, the player is specifically not meant to settle in, but rather to clench his teeth and get into the rapid challenges he/she faces. Music for this experience should be suspenseful or downright intense.

In our forum, many people have wondered which composer wrote which tune in Escape from Monkey Island. Could you give us an example or two?

In order to best suit the dramatic styles for each area in the game, to have as sensible a production process as possible and to ultimately create a varied but cohesive score, the score was broken up essentially along geographical boundaries in the game. The fact that there were separate islands and distinct areas within those islands made it very feasible to approach it this way. As I was lead composer, I composed music across all areas, but in general the break down is as follows. Michael Land handled most of Melee Island, Peter McConnell the "back side" of Lucre Island, myself the "front side, or town" of Lucre, Michael Lande, Jambalaya Island (of course, Peter did Stan!) and Anna Karney, Monkey Island. I wrote all the cutscene music except Toothrot's 'Ozzie story' which Anna composed.

What was your role as a lead composer? Was it hard to coordinate the work of five composers in order to make things fit together in terms of style?

One thing EMI called for was tremendous variety, this was helpful to the process of managing five different composers - I broke out the work essentially along geographical boundaries in the game as each geographical area tended to call for its own sound. It was quite a happy coincidence that the game called for such variety and contained such distinctly different locations (I mean, "Islands", how separate can you get!?) It's also worth saying that the composers I worked with are so talented that with just a moderate amount of creative direction from me, they "got it" and ran with it. They all hit the target with flying colors, so I'm proud to say that the degree of cohesiveness with its striking variety was intentional. Another important thing to point out is that Michael, Peter and I did have preliminary meetings in which we did put our heads together (something we perfected over ten years at LucasArts!) so I had a great strategic starting point.

Did you get a lot of input from Sean Clark and Mike Stemmle?

Absolutely, Sean and Mike were involved in the score every step of the way. We composers had a practice of emailing them MP3s of sketches so we could get their feedback and tune pieces where desired. I was able to get into LucasArts in person, especially during the recording session weeks, so there was ample time to go over to Mike and Sean's shared office to bother them and have some fun .  I would say that the laughs we had were as vital to the score as the serious discussions! Mike, Sean and I go back ten years as well - I was the composer on their joint project Sam and Max Hit the Road. We also worked closely on Indy Fate of Atlantis and The Dig, (I did sound design on The Dig for Sean).

Now comes a very important question: Do you think LucasArts will hire C.B. Studios again for future projects? And would you like to work with them again?

I love working with LucasArts - I always enjoyed my job there tremendously. I sincerely hope they occasionally have a project for which my music would be suitable. I live and work very nearby and am able to maintain a real hands-on presence while working with them on a project. Not to mention that when I walk the halls, I stop to talk with everyone - I know everyone there!

What other projects have you been working on since you founded C.B. Studios? What are your future plans? Will we hear your music in movies, for instance?

In addition to four titles C. B. Studios handled for Lucas companies last fall (including Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing composed by Peter McConnell), I did sound effects for a Simpsons Wrestling game developed by Big Ape Productions for FOX Interactive. That was a blast to work on - truly hilarious.  I also composed a twelve-minute orchestral score for a short film produced by The Orphanage and directed by Bill Robinson starring Minnie Driver. The film has won some critical acclaim and been featured in a number of film festivals. I'm currently working on two titles, one for PC and one for XBox.

Michael Land and Peter McConnell have started a software development company. Isn't that a strange thing for such professional musicians to do? Won't they miss composing music?

They both play in bands (more than one, even!) and maintain music as a crucial element of their lives. The software they are creating with Michael McMahon (also a LucasArts veteran) is designed to give great creative power to the user in both graphic and audio realms, so they're still connected somewhat in that way. I wouldn't be surprised if you began seeing scores from them again too - perhaps relatively soon! I know them, they can't stay away from it too long!

Do you think there are chances you would team up again with Michael and Peter for some project in future?

Absolutely, I would team up with those blokes anytime. I've known Michael for twenty-five years, he was in my wedding! I've known Peter for twenty-one years! The three of us played in the same bands in ages past. Those guys are like brothers - we developed a very strong working style over the many, intense years at LucasArts. We will always be associated socially and professionally, and it's only a matter of time before we cook up some other way of collaborating on something.

LucasArts has produced some really amazing game music. Why have only so few soundtrack CDs been released so far?

I wouldn't want to comment on LucasArts internal strategy surrounding CD soundtracks. The only thing I would say is that CD soundtracks could be seen as being more valuable as a marketing tool than a revenue generator. One thing we do know about LucasArts is that its marketing and PR is extremely active and effective already.  It's also true that no company could expect that much revenue from a CD soundtrack release, so I think it's a decision based on bang for the buck, like every decision should be in business. I've noticed some fan outcries for CD soundtrack releases, maybe that will make soundtrack CDs more common...

Do you know if the existing soundtracks (e.g. The Dig, Grim Fandango...) have been selling well?

Reasonably well, from my understanding.

Any amusing behind the scenes anecdote?

I suppose that now, in retrospect, a turning point came when Michael and Peter came into my office and suggested that I take on the lead for Escape from Monkey Island composition and when I asked incredulously why, they said, "we're leaving to form an Internet start-up". While slightly surprising at the time, the score turned out to be great fun, we've all come a long way since then, the LucasArts sound department is in great hands with Jeff Kliment.  Michael, Peter and I are onto new vistas and having a good time. We still see each other pretty frequently.

Any last words to the fans?

Many thanks to all the fans - to all those who notice the quality we work so hard to achieve. We place a lot of emphasis on quality that isn't just confined to audio quality, or "polish", but one that is well-rounded, includes lots of different features like having themes throughout a score interrelate, composing cross references to past game scores, quoting famous composers like Wagner, (which fans have noticed), using a particular instrument to accompany a character, or playing games with harmonic key areas - a lot of these subtleties I've seen fans talking about, and that is very rewarding - someone out there gets it! Beyond that, thanks for listening!

Thank you for taking the time to answer this long interview!

My pleasure, great questions!
 

Luc Gilbertz

 
 

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