A Tale from the Galaxy’s Edge

Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge is an immersive virtual reality experience from ILMxLAB that extends and expands the world of Batuu. We speak to the three composers who created the score for the experience. Emmy-award winner ​Bear McCreary, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Outlander and The Walking Dead​ composed the main adventure; ​Danny Piccione, Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series – Episode III, Arden’s Wake and Chronoblade, scored the original cantina music​; and ​Joseph Trapanese​, The Greatest Showman, Lady and the Tramp, Tron: Uprising, scored for “Temple of Darkness.”


Star Wars has one of the most influential scores of all time so composing for Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge was no mean feat.  An interactive story presents different challenges as compared to film or television. With set narrative timings and audio mix levels, where a film or television show aims to create a singular experience, a interactive experience is about creating an experience shaped by constant input from the player. “The composer needs to create music that supports an emotion” said McCreary.  “However, the technical way this is accomplished is quite different to that of TV and film, because the music must be able to adapt to the player’s input, and yet still feel natural and organic.”


The primary drive behind Trapanese’s musical decisions is always storytelling. “I do a lot of homework in discovering the emotional goals of the story.  That requires a lot of discussion on character perspective, which is what makes VR so interesting to me – usually the character perspective and our own is intertwined in a way that’s feels brand new, and almost impossible in traditional cinema.”


Creating music for a virtual world requires a closer collaboration with a larger number of people compared to a film. “I begin by looking at concept artwork, listening to other music as inspiration, coming up with stylistic points to go after for what type of mood we want to create” said Piccione. “VR always has a plus when you are able to put on the headset and see the 3D world you are creating music for. For me this really helps the music composition process come more naturally.”


“In addition to composition, recording, and mixing, an interactive score must be implemented and integrated into the software” added McCreary. “This often involves stripping the music apart, repurposing layers, moving it to different sections, and making other unexpected edits. The way a score is implemented has a huge impact on the final experience. The audio team is as important as the composer! A good score implemented poorly into an experience will not yield a good experience for the player.”


“With VR we can go one step further by using spatialization and the environment to determine musical sound source location” added Trapanese. “For instance, in the first part of Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge, we felt that the ‘cinematics’ (also known as ‘cut scenes’) felt best with music played as traditional stereo, as if you are listening to music on your normal headphones; but for the interactive moments, score worked best externalised, as a dynamic part of the environment that evolved sonically with the space.”


“Kevin Bolen (Interactive Audio Supervisor at Skywalker Sound) and I keep in constant contact.  He’s just as important to my music as any performer or engineer we work with while scoring, because he is the one implementing the music into the game engine.  In VR, I like to say that the player is the final composer, because the final score the player hears in headset is determined by their actions, so I spend a lot of time with Kevin discussing specifics so I can discover how best to conceive the music for the engine that is being built.  So the virtual world is very much a part of my composition process, even from the very first note.”


It’s an important balance not to distract the player with music that is trying too hard to guide or influence them, you can still utilize traditional scoring techniques but with a greater attention to detail, and a more delicate approach.  “It was always the intention of our creative team to have a very clear homage to that classic John Williams style” added McCreary. “However, it would be detrimental to the player’s experience to be constantly reminded of a film score while they’re trying to be immersed in a virtual world. So, I made an effort to expand the palette of musical colours, and create a score that humbly acknowledges the incredible music of past Star Wars films, and yet creates a little musical space of its own.”


Star Wars fans are used to a very specific palette of sounds, and Trapanese approached this fact head on by using his palette for key moments in the gameplay. “I felt very strongly that we expand the palette to include synthesizers and heavily manipulated audio, like the detuned cellos for the Demlins, or the very refined synthesizers that represent a time before the Empire.  As long as our decisions are always driven by storytelling, I think these bold choices will hold up when looking at the Star Wars universe as a whole.”


So what are the biggest sonic challenges when creating a cinematic score for an immersive experience? One of the biggest challenges is creating a score that feels epic and cinematic, without being so big that it shatters the illusion for the player. “You’re not supposed to feel like you’re in a movie, you’re supposed to feel like you’re in that universe” said McCreary. “The music is like a subtle emotional support that’s put in place to ensure an emotional response without grabbing your attention.”


“In writing music for Seezelslak’s Cantina, we are creating diegetic source music playing from the Cantina’s old Jukebox. So naturally this music is directionally spatialized within the world” said Piccione. “Transitioning to and from non-spatialized music can be a challenge, so we try to come up with clever and non-noticeable ways to move between music cues.”


Trapanese loves the challenge of finding the right perspective for the music.  “Sometimes we have to score from the perspective of the character we see onscreen, or the environment, or the perspective the player themselves, or sometimes even the antagonist.  This can be very fluid and dynamic from moment to moment, and oftentimes you find that something you thought would work well doesn’t work at all.  But that’s also a really fun part of the process, and if I truly do my job right, the score will feel seamless to the player while also providing the right emotional journey and intensity for the experience we are trying to create.”


When composing, it’s important to remember that the environment of the player at that moment factors into the process. “I’m very passionate about using a character’s environment to lay the foundation of the musical palette” added Trapanese. “For instance, if a character is trapped in a closet, it might be odd to hear a full orchestra; or if the character is approaching a beautiful planet, it might be odd to just hear a close-mic’d piano.  That being said, if the story calls for something very personal to be happening as we approach this new planet, maybe that intimate piano is exactly what is needed; or perhaps that orchestra is the key to understanding that character’s inner struggles while they are trapped.  So while on one hand the environment is super important, storytelling always wins.”


But how do you paint the “audio canvas” for non-existent, sci-fi tech, environments and creatures? “Creating music for imagined futuristic worlds is a huge challenge for the science fiction and fantasy genres, in any medium” added McCreary. “The goal is to make players feel like they’re experiencing something new, something completely alien and fantastic. However, ultimately, this is a challenge that can lead to creative frustration and it’s not even what the audience truly desires. Hearing something ‘new’ doesn’t mean it’s the best support for the story at hand. In fact, it often creates music that is distracting and sounds dated quickly. Part of a composer’s job is understanding the societal context for various instruments, colours, styles and sounds, and then restructuring those elements into unexpected combinations can make music that sounds alien and surprising. Look at the original “Cantina Band” music from Star Wars: A New Hope. Williams took musical styles that everyone knew (ragtime, big band, calypso) and smashed them together with some synthesizers to make something that audiences felt they’d never heard before. The results speak for themselves.”


Convincing players that their unique experience is being supported by custom score requires a close collaboration with the audio team doing the technical implementation. “Kevin and I communicate very specifically about two things – goals of the experience designers and the possibilities of the audio engine” said Tapanese. “I try to use these two to inform each other and make sure to drive musical evolution first from the story and intended emotion and then take advantage of the engine specifics in creative ways to help achieve that emotion.”   


McCreary says that everyone has to be on the same page, and understand the emotional goals for the player. “I ask what we want the player to feel at any given moment. Then, I write music that captures that emotion, paying careful attention to make sure technical elements are provided to make implementation possible – intros, outros, loopable sections, mix splits, and so on. With luck, all these elements combine into an experience at the end that is everything we set out to make it.”


Composing music and delivering a final, mixed recording to be implemented into a virtual experience is a bit like building a house. “From seeing the first initial concept art, it was actually fairly easy for me to put myself in Seezelslak’s Cantina and feel what type of music would work” said Piccione. “We wanted a sort of catchy rhythmic EDM vibe with a mix of real acoustic instruments, where you could potentially even imagine some sort of Cantina band playing them.”


McCreary’s nightmare scenario is getting to a mix and suddenly realizing he didn’t record enough, or it sounds ‘flabby’, weak, or like its missing something. “A good mix engineer uses panning and layering to make use of all the space in the soundtrack. So, my job is to make sure the engineer has enough musical bricks to fill that space.”


As for kit, each composer understandably has their own preferences. “I compose, sketch, and record in Cubase” said McCreary. “I run all my samples in surround, which helps me imagine a theatrical experience as I’m writing. I find that Cubase does a great job of ‘disappearing’ as I write. I cease to think about the software and only think about my ideas. A good piece of software is something that you pick up intuitively, almost like picking up a fork to eat. You shouldn’t have to think too much about it. Within Cubase there are dozens and dozens of plug-ins and virtual instruments I use to express my ideas. Once the cues leave my studio, my orchestration team works in Sibelius, and we record, mix, and deliver in Pro Tools.”


Trapanese says “If I can achieve my creative goals in Pro Tools, it makes the rest of the process just a bit easier, which is actually a massive improvement from constantly having to translate back and forth between different pipeline formats, especially when you want to have a creative relationship with the rest of the post team.  While there are certainly specific challenges to using Pro Tools as a composition workstation, I find the benefits have always outweighed the challenges. I use a 2019 Mac Pro, which is a wonderful and solid update to the line; JBL monitoring since I find they most accurately portray real-world speakers; and many old and new synths and other instruments that would take too long to list here.  Also, it would be deceiving to talk too much about them since while I do own a lot of vintage instruments; they really are only a small part of my palette.  Because of the quick pace of our work, most of what I do is ‘in the box,’ and I find that most products being made for us now sound truly incredible.  As long as I made decisions from a place of story and emotion, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from.  I just try to make it sound cool!”


Piccione uses Ableton Live for composing & recording. “This has been my go-to software over the years and I do a lot with Max for Live so I love having all my tools available. I also utilize modular & keyboard synthesizers so you will hear pieces of those added from time to time.”

The score for Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge is built upon a foundation of live orchestral performance, with exciting soloists and vocalists sprinkled throughout. Underneath that rests a solid foundation of killer modern synth work that gives the score a propulsion that is appealing. However, the heart and emotion comes from hearing actual people play actual instruments.


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