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Monday, Jun 5, 2023

e-Music Man

Inon Zur is one of the top scorers in the world of video games, but he’s no basement dweller. Since the mid-1990s, the composer has crafted music for many of the industry’s top franchises, including “Fallout,” “Men of Valor” and “Prince of Persia.” He has also created the soundtracks for games based on such blockbuster movie franchises as James Cameron’s “Avatar,” Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Marvel Entertainment’s “Thor.” Zur started out scoring episodic television and independent films before segueing into video games. Since making his debut on Interplay Entertainment’s “Star Trek: Klingon Academy” in 1997, Zur has worked for industry heavyweights like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft Montreal and Gameloft, providing the sound for action-packed fantasy and science-fiction games. Among his most recognized soundtracks — the scores for “Star Trek: New Worlds” (2000), “Men of Valor” (2004), “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow” (2006), “Prince of Persia” (2008), “Dragon Age: Origins” (2009), “Ace Combat: Joint Assault” (2010) and “Eagle Flight” (2016). One constant throughout his career has been the San Fernando Valley. In an interview conducted at his Encino home studio, he told the Business Journal that ever since he and wife Osnat emigrated from Israel in the 1990s, they have called the Valley home. Question: How has your Jewish culture influenced your music? Answer: In Israel, I grew up on Russian folk songs, so working on music for “Syberia II” and “(Syberia) III” or “Shadow Ops” (subtitle: “Red Mercury”), even “Prince of Persia” (subtitles: “The Warrior Within” and “The Two Thrones”), I (drew on this music for inspiration). In “Dragon Age II,” some of it happens in Turkey so I worked with (Israeli singer-songwriter) Idan Raichel on some of the songs and Florence + the Machine on another. At what age did you know that you wanted to become a composer? I knew since I was 3. I was singing all the time. I loved listening to classical music. I started playing piano when I was 8, I loved writing melodies. My teacher, she understood that, so she gave me an empty notebook and I started composing. I tried it all: I played in bands, played in orchestras. Did you move from Israel to Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a movie and TV composer? I did not think about movies. I wanted to be a composer. When I was 18 and 19, I wrote lots of songs. I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. But I also was drawn to modern classical music; later on, I got deep into jazz. Jazz is what brought me to the U.S. I started here at the Grove School of Music. Only then, I understood that writing for media is a great combination of what I like to do. Can you describe one of your more memorable assignments? My first experience stands out. I had composed a lot of music for TV children’s programming — “Power Rangers,” “Big Bad Beetleborgs” — when I was invited to do the music for my first video game, “Star Trek: Klingon Academy.” Back then, you couldn’t send an audio file over the internet so every day, I would compose something and FedEx it to the audio director and he’d get it the next day. I worked on the main theme and sent it. And I waited. So, finally I heard from Charles (Deenen, audio director) and I said, “So how was it?” and Charles said, “Well, I hate it.” That was my first video game. Titles: Composer Company: Inon Zur Inc. Born: 1965, Afula, Israel Education: Music Academy of Tel Aviv, Dick Grove School of Music, UCLA Film Scoring Program Personal: Married 28 years, three children Hobbies: Basketball, travel How did that resolve itself? I basically thought about it and said, “So let me give you something else.” And he liked it. But it was definitely not a smooth start, shall we say. Until today, we’re friends. He’s one of my first friends in the industry. Is there a big community of video game composers? The actual community for video game composers has not grown for years. However, many of them have been joined by movie composers. (Sales of) video games gross two times that of TV and movies combined, so it is quite robust. You started out composing features and TV episodes, including “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” and “Digimon.” How did you veer into video games? It began with “Star Trek: Klingon Academy.” It all came down to a simple phone call. Now we’re talking 1996, so there was no YouTube, no cell phones, barely an internet. I was not a gamer at all. An agent called and offered me a video game assignment. Initially, I turned it down. But I was looking more and more for opportunities to record with orchestras. Once I scored my first game, I never looked back. When do you decide whether to compose a score electronically or with a full orchestra? It depends on the budget. Some use synthesizers or only orchestra. The composing fee is always the same, but the extra production budget is where things are very different. With so much experience in the industry, are you now a gamer? Usually, I play the video game before I start a project. Before “Men of Valor” with Universal, I had tens of hours to play this game. I became so good at it, they had to build new levels. How has composing for video games changed? Think about the computer. How have computers changed? How has technology changed? PlayStation 1 is not PlayStation 2 is not PlayStation 3 is not PlayStation 4. It used to be a piece of music in a loop; now you have practically unlimited amounts of memory. What is your process when creating music that will play during a game’s different fields and levels? You compose the entire song and you can break it up into pieces. The right way is starting out with more. You start with the macro, then go down to the micro. You can take it and break it into many different pieces and (separate and re-arrange elements, isolate sections of the score). All from a (single) musical idea or melodic or rhythmic or harmonic idea. How does the music affect gameplay? You used to have to turn it off because the music was so repetitive. You have to ask, How can we enhance the drama in the play and make it tailor-made for what he or she is doing? The music is very interactive. About what year did that turning point of sophistication happen? It was very gradual. People just kept pushing the envelope. When I started, the orchestral style was starting to emerge. I was the first to do a lot of things, such as record with the Seattle Symphony, record opera-style vocals on “Klingon Academy,” introduce organic elements and using the synthesizer for “Fallout Tactics” (subtitle: “Brotherhood of Steel”). I was one of the first to record in Hollywood when I recorded at Warner Bros. studios for “Prince of Persia” and “Men of Valor.” I’ve been creating my own sound libraries. You’ve worked with the Seattle Symphony and recorded with a full orchestra at Warner Bros. studio. As a composer, what is your process when you work with an orchestra? Basically, I’m conducting the orchestra but I’m also monitoring the recording. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the details. The small details are important. I do the arrangement and I have an orchestrator who translates it. I also work on the producing and mixing of the music with a professional mixer. Was your first time working with an orchestra intimidating? It definitely was intimidating the first time, but when you do it more and more, you become more comfortable and you dive into it. What about typecasting? Are there certain genres that you’re more associated with? Early on, I did RPG (role-playing games), I did sci-fi and post-apocalyptic and war games. In each of them, I made an impact. Today, the two main styles I work with is fantasy and sci-fi/post-apocalyptic. Right now, I’m working on (something different) that (incorporates) hard rock. I really like to venture off. I like a lot of jazz. For me, it’s fresh air. How many assignments a year do you juggle? I’m always working on a few titles at a time. I might work on up to seven or eight titles a year. At least six. Sometimes I’m working on a game and there’s a delay as I wait for the gamers to create new levels, so I work on another assignment. Do you have a lot of fans? The fanbase is really from older adults to kids. I’m trying to be responsive to emails. What do most of your fans best know you for? The largest is “Fallout.” People are crazy for the big franchises: “Dragon Age,” “Prince of Persia,” “EverQuest.” Do you connect with fans at conventions? I just spent two days at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo). I do appearances, panels. It’s good for PR but it’s also good to teach and to interact with the fans. What are your favorite conventions? E3 was a trade show, only up until two years ago. I like GDC (Game Developers Conference, held back in March in San Francisco) and PAX (held in Seattle and in Boston). GDC is always for game developers, PAX is for fans. What about popular music? I’m very familiar with the Beatles, the Police, Genesis, U2, Queen. Any other groups? Daft Punk. There are also the scores of Jóhann Jóhannsson. I really loved his work, just to get inspired by what he did in (movies such as) “Sicario,” “Arrival.” (Editor’s note: Icelandic movie composer Jóhannsson, who also scored “The Theory of Everything,” died in February at the age of 48.) How early or late in the process of a game’s creation do you get involved? The whole process of writing for each company is different. They send over art concepts. The computer game industry is very secretive. For high-profile companies, the games I’m working on are hush-hush until they’re out. Sometimes I come in six months before it’s done. They give me just what I need to know. How do you acclimate yourself to a company? Each company has its own thing. They’re very different. That’s the most challenging part. You have to get to know the producers. The process is so long, you’re being injected into an existing team, you’re growing into a team player. Do you participate in meetings at the game companies’ offices? Absolutely. I am meeting these people face to face. The producer, the audio team, the coders. For “World of Tanks,” I went to the studios in Paris. I like people to know me. Do you have absolute creative freedom on assignments? Have you ever been disappointed by how one of your compositions turned out on a game? Usually, I have control, but sometimes there’s a glitch. Perhaps the music comes in at the wrong time or too low. It’s not only what music, but how will they use the music. It’s not like in the movies – we want to make it interactive. Is there a heightened pressure working on games based on a studio movie property? Everything with Hollywood is magnified. However, I’m usually dealing with a video game company (creating the game for the studio), not the studio. (With video games based on major motion pictures), it’s finding the balance, not imitating the previous work. It’s about finding new ways and thematic ideas. (In the case of the game “The Lord of the Rings: War in the North”), this is Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s world. Is there a score that you thought came out very well but was overlooked because it wasn’t for a high-profile project? “Syberia” was a really small game. I’m really proud of the smaller franchises: “Syberia,” “Rift.” What’s the most rewarding part of your profession? The fans are great. I love interacting with fans, but overall the drive is coming from inside. As long as you create something meaningful and can touch people, it’s almost enough. Do you still do movie and TV work? I’m working on a studio film for next year. I worked on the documentary “Saber Rock” last year and I was nominated for an Emmy. But it doesn’t really matter if it’s movies or games, what matters is what we’re going to say with (the music); the rest is more a technicality.

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.

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