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Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn - Composer Interview

By bs angel -

The digital soundtrack for Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn has now been released globally on all major digital platforms. The new soundtrack contains 21 complete songs composed by musician and producer Nathan Lanier. To celebrate the release, enjoy our chat with Nathan on making the score for Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. Go get your copy now!

How did you prepare for creating the score for Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn?

Thankfully I had already spent many hours playing the Halo games over the years, so I was already quite familiar with the Halo universe. When working with director Stewart Hendler, he likes to bring me on at the script level so I can start formulating themes, motifs, iconic soundscapes, and colors based on my emotional response to the story. The most important element of my preparation is getting inspired –reading the script, discussions about the characters, the drama of the story, and seeing the early visual sketches and edits. I also watched some of the live action Halo commercials that had been done in the past to get an idea of what a live action Halo series might look like.

What was it about the story of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn that drew you to the project?

What I loved about the story is the emotional depth of the character development. A terrifying Covenant invasion, battle cruisers, a killer Warthog vehicle, explosions, and a real live Master Chief are all awesome (and we would expect nothing less from Halo), but what really got me excited was the emotional honesty and gritty reality of what is basically a coming of age drama. The core of a great sci-fi story has to be rooted in the profundity of the human condition and the universal struggles therein. That, combined with the spectacular world of Halo is what made the project irresistible. I think this was achieved beautifully in FUD and is what got me the most excited about the project.

How was creating a score for this project different from your other projects?

One of the things Stewart and I talked about really wanting the music to achieve was to blend with the sound design – not just a traditional underscore. When it came to the “alien” music in particular, we wanted to disguise where the music ended and the sound fx began - a seamless blend of humanity and technology as much as possible. I think of it as “organic technology” in which nothing stands out as either too electronic or too traditionally orchestral. One of the first things Stewart wanted me to create was a signature sound for the invasion. A haunting, foreboding, alien calling card throughout the story that keeps reminding us something not-of-this-world is coming…functioning as war drums, but not “our” drums, rather, an unearthly low metallic flutter.

What kind of music influences or inspiration did you draw from when creating this film score?

There are obviously hours and hours of amazing music that has been written for Halo over the years that one could draw inspiration from, but I felt it was important FUD have a unique and dramatic sonic impression, all the while making sure it felt familiar and belonged in Halo. After reading the script, one of the first challenges was to come up with a theme for the main character, UNSC Cadet Lasky. It needed to convey an isolated, reluctant hero who loses everyone he loves and needs to overcome his own internal struggles so he can answer the haunting call of destiny in his life. The first thing that came to mind was Tchaikovsky’s “Fantasy Overture” from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. There is something so foreboding and haunting about the opening woodwind chord progression in this piece that really spoke to me. Now obviously, the piece’s late 19th century romantic orchestration wouldn’t be right for a Halo score, but there was something about the essence of it that was timeless and really inspired me. So basically a modernized version of that progression became the jumping off point for what would eventually evolve into Lasky’s “destiny theme”. At first the audience just gets a little 4 note hint of the theme sprinkled throughout the score. When Lasky’s moment arrives, the theme fully blossoms into the entire version heard at the end of 'Axios' on the soundtrack.

Have you ever created a score for other video game-themed projects?

I have scored many films, series, and a couple of games, but never a narrative project based on a game. It was an interesting process, because on one hand I wanted to stay true to the music traditions of the Halo universe, but still create something that was unique to the dramatic needs of the story. One of the important things about working on a project that is part of a franchise with a large fan base is making sure you stay true to the essence of what the fans love about that world. There are certain existing expectations that you have to meet, so it has been exciting to see such an enthusiastic positive response to the series from Halo fans.

Which song from the soundtrack is your favorite?

There are a lot of great moments in the series that were a real treat to score. The big bombastic action cues are fun, but I think some of my favorite music are the more emotional intimate cues. I like how in 'Volcano' the music really gets in Lasky’s head as he struggles to reconcile so many conflicting ideologies. And while working through the loss of his brother and his overwhelming sense of isolation in the world, there is a haunting call of destiny represented by the awesome female vocal talents of Karen Whipple. The track 'Sleep' also is one of my favorite moments in the series, where Chyler and Lasky are preparing to turn in for the night and the interaction they have. Another one of my favorite cues is the training montage sequence where throughout the scene, we hear the cadets chanting a cadence call. After I had already scored an earlier version of this scene, the director (Stewart Hendler) and editor (Michael Louis Hill) came to me with a brilliant idea: they thought it would be cool--although we would have to start over from scratch--to have the cadence call play continuously through the entire scene and have the C.A.M.S theme written to work in tandem with it. Although it was a lot of last minute work, it was well worth it, as it made for one of those moments where music and picture come together to create something really magical.

Who are some of your favorite classical or contemporary composers?

This is a question I always find so hard to answer because I like so many. I have such diverse tastes, I find that instead of having all-time favorite composers I always go to, I tend to have specific pieces. One of my favorite classical pieces that moves me to the core every time is Vaughn Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”. As a violinst, another favorite is Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto”. I love music that is not just well crafted but moves me emotionally. But if I had to name a few off the top of my head I would say, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Gershwin, and in the film world - Jerry Goldsmith, Basil Poledouris, James Newton Howard, and John Williams.

What kind of music do you typically enjoy?

I love listening to all genres of music! When I was younger I used to listen to movie soundtracks all the time. But when I am busy scoring a project, I find the last thing I want to listen to is more film music--especially if it is in the same genre I am currently writing. When I just want to kick back, relax, and clear my head I usually put on some big band standards, Michael Jackson, or some Aerosmith.

How does it feel to be submitted for an Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series?

I was very excited and honored! I am proud to have been a part of this amazing project and so grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute music to such an incredible franchise. Everyone involved was so awesome to work with and ridiculously talented!