Borislav Slavov & Tilman Sillescu Interview: Creation of a Blockbuster-Sized Project (May 2011)
Interview Subject: Borislav Slavov, Tilman Sillescu
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: Greetings Borislav & Tilman. First of all, tell us a bit about yourself.
Borislav Slavov: Hi Michael and thank you for inviting us to this interview! We’ve been following the news and articles on Game-OST with great interest during the last months and it is a pleasure talking to you.
Apart from being a music director and composer, I am also a veteran gamer who would rather die than stop playing computer games. My colleague Tilman is wondering how I manage to survive this rhythm, making music during the day and playing games at night, but the truth is that this is the only way for me to save my lost and confused soul of a half-grown kid. Fortunately, my friend and colleague, Victor Stoyanov, is sharing my madness for playing games and I don’t feel alone.
Tilman Sillescu: My name is Tilman Sillescu, I'm a composer for games and films and I normally tend to sleep at night ;) I'm co-founder and creative director of Dynamedion, a company that has specialized in game and movie soundtracks.
Michael: What is your first musical recollection?
Borislav Slavov: Nice question. I don’t really remember my first musical recollection, but I do remember my first soundtrack. The very first movie soundtrack that hugely impressed me was the score for Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart. I was speechless after I watched that movie. I still have vivid memories of how deeply amazed I was by James Horner's score. Even15 years later I can start humming it right away :) The very first game I scored, Knights of Honor, was greatly influenced by it.
Tilman Sillescu: Well, concerning film music, I had a strong childhood experience: I watched Sergio Leones Once Upon a Time in the West in the cinema and there was this unbelievable soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, with the harmonica echoes and the epic orchestral music. I was so empotionally touched that I immediately bought the record and tried to play the music by ear on the piano.
Michael: Have you had a formal music education?
Tilman Sillescu: Yes, I had music lessons as a child and later I studied classical and popular music at universities in Mainz and Frankfurt, Germany.
Borislav Slavov: I haven’t studied at a music academy. I got all my music knowledge through private lessons and experience. I've got a Master of Computer Science and the funny thing is that shortly after I finished university, I realized that the real passion of my life was actually soundtrack music. However, I have never regretted that I studied IT because this knowledge greatly helped me on my way to becoming a music professional. More than ever before, music production is based on computer software and hardware, and sometimes this gives me a pinch of advantage.
Michael: Borislav, we've heard that you have an extensive collection of music instruments - could you tell us more about this? Also, what instruments do you play?
Borislav Slavov: I have always been keen on stringed ethnic instruments, but I actually started to play and collect different types when I was working on Knights of Honor. When I started to compose the music, I was not satisfied with the MIDI samples. It did not feel the way I wanted it to. The charm of the live sound was not there. The magic of the live stringed instruments is hidden in the passion of the performance. After that, my collection started to grow and now I have a dozen different instruments. Some of my favorites are the mandolin, the tamboura, the cello tamboura and the baglama.
One of the latest instruments I got is from the guitar family, yet it looks and sounds quite different. Its name is cümbüş [dʒym’byʃ]. It comes from Turkey and it looks a bit like the American banjo, but it has no bars on the fingerboard and the playing style is similar to the Arabic 'ud. Another interesting instrument is an Indian one called Sarod. It is a fretless stringed instrument often used to perform continuous slides between notes, typical for Indian folk music. It has both playing strings, like the guitar, and drone strings. What is really cool about it is that apart from the main wooden sound box, the Sarod has a second one made of brass! It is attached to the top end of the neck and makes the sound unique.
Michael: Tilman, what instruments are you able to play?
Tilman Sillescu: I play guitar and a tiny little bit of piano and clarinet. And I am trying my best to play simple tunes on the flute as well – but I'm afraid you might run away if you ever heard me playing ;)
Michael: And what about your studio gear?
Tilman Sillescu: I am working with a Mac Pro and I am using Logic Audio for a music program. I've also bought almost all of the great sample libraries around - but I still think nothing can compete with a real orchestra :)
Borislav Slavov: My gear is modest, believe it or not, and it is entirely based on Yamaha gear and PC hardware and software. Although it is known to be not as stable as the Mac stations, I feel more comfortable with the PC platform, which is more open and I guess it provides a wider range of music software. You would be surprised how useful even the freeware plug-ins can be sometimes.
Michael: How and when did you get into the gaming industry?
Tilman Sillescu: Well, after having studied music, I played guitar in several ensembles and bands and was teaching students at Mainz University (Bachelor of Musical Arts, Arranging and Composing). I was not really satisfied with my job situation, but somehow I didn’t have the energy to make a change. One day I had the fortune to meet Pierre Langer, who was a teacher at Mainz University as well at the time. It was Pierre who had the idea to compose music for games. Soon we did some first, very small projects, and later founded Dynamedion.
Borislav Slavov: My first gig in the industry was writing music for the computer strategy game Knights of Honor. When Black Sea Studios (now Crytek Black Sea) announced the development of the title, I immediately applied for the soundtrack production with a couple of tracks. The lead designer and CEO of the development team believed that I would be the right man for the job and I started to work on the project, which ended up being my first game love.
Michael: Let's move on to Crysis 2. Tell us how you landed the job on such a huge project?
Borislav Slavov: Well, it all started in the summer of 2009, when the Senior Audio Director of Crytek, Campbell Askew, visited me in the studio in Sofia and asked me to produce the music for the forthcoming NANOSUIT 2 Trailer (link). A month later, the trailer and its music were warmly welcomed by the public and as a result I was invited to join the project as a Music Director & Composer of the Crytek Music team. At approximately the same time, when I was invited to join, Tilman Sillescu, as the creative lead of Dynamedion, also applied for the Crysis 2 job. We were very happy that the CEO of Crytek, Cevat Yerli, and Campbell Askew liked all our compositions and decided that to achieve a versatile and quality score, both teams should unite their skills and work together!
During a couple of meetings in Frankfurt, Tilman and I discussed the music direction and the interactive music system in Crysis 2. Then we started to work – Tilman and his guys from Dynamedion in Mainz and me with my team mate Victor Stoyanov in Sofia. I am happy to say that this collaboration resulted in an inspired score and a strong friendship between me and Tilman, for which I am very grateful to our senior audio director, Campbell Askew.
Borislav Slavov and Tilman Sillescu during a Crysis 2 soundtrack production meeting
Tilman Sillescu: Yes, the fact that Campbell Askew brought us together was definitely a lucky situation for both of us: we've agreed many times that a huge project like this requires a strong music team instead of just one lonely composer working all night through ;) And the teamwork went incredibly well – it was inspiring and great fun to work together with Borislav and our other team mates. By the way, I would really like to mention that on the Dynamedion side, we were happy to have Marc Rosenberger and Alex Pfeffer as additional music composers, who both did a great job.
Michael: What was the main concept of the soundtrack? What references were you given?
Borislav Slavov: One of the main goals that we had for the music direction from the very beginning was to support not just the action, but ‘action full of drama’(as I like to put it). We wanted to make the players feel not just tension, but for them to experience the full range of human emotions like fear, sadness, loneliness, anger, anticipation and uncertainty. The setting of the game and the story, full of twists, were an excellent foundation for evoking all these emotions. Another important goal set from the start was to make not just high quality music in terms of production values, but a soundtrack - driven and inspired by the game itself. To achieve this we started to produce the music for the game level by level. For the realization of the pieces, we decided to go for orchestral compositions, augmented by modern electronics and programmed percussion.
Tilman Sillescu: I still cannot believe that Campbell gave us absolutely no reference music. He said he wanted us to create our own soundtrack, without any archetypes. I am very grateful that he put so much trust in our composing skills.
Michael: Borislav, did you work together with Hans Zimmer and Tilman Sillescu, or did you work separately?
Borislav Slavov: After I had discussed the musical aproach and direction with Tilman, we went back to our studios and collaborated via the internet. Every single day we discussed and shared ideas and feedback. Many ideas for tracks were born through these on-line meetings, such as "Terminal Escape" and "Morituri". I was quite surprised that Tilman and me managed to tune into each other's wavelength very quickly. Working together was so much fun as well.
When the score was finished with samples, right before we went to do the orchestral recordings in Budapest, we got the biggest surprise – Hans Zimmer joined the team to deliver the main themes for the game. I traveled to Los Angeles with Campbell and Crytek’s CEO, Cevat Yerli, to the legendary Remote Control studios. For a couple of days, we introduced the soundtrack to Hans Zimmer and discussed the themes which Hans was going to produce for the game. Then we went back home and collaborated through the internet until the music was delivered and I finally started to implement it in the game.
Michael: Tell us about your work with Crysis 2's audio director Campbell Askew.
Borislav Slavov: First of all, none of this would have been possible without Campbell. He found and invited me, he brought me together with a great guy like Tilman, and removed every single obstacle from our way. Campell has amazing organizational skills, which on top of his 30 years of audio experience in Hollywood are an extremely powerful asset. He is also a very sensitive and emotional person who loves listening to different styles of music and is always capable of appreciating even the smallest achievement we make in our work. This greatly motivated and inspired the music team during the entire soundtrack production process.
Michael: On big budget projects like Crysis 2, there's not always much room for creative freedom. What was your experience in this case?
Borislav Slavov: Well, believe it or not, we were given absolute freedom. Of course we followed the vision of our project leader, Cevat Yerli, and we always did our best to benefit from the invaluable advice of Campbell. When it came to the musical style and instrumentation however, we had the green light to do whatever we thought was best for the project, which is indeed a rare case. We had to be careful of course – this freedom was also a big responsibility :) I hope people will enjoy the final result as much as we enjoyed working on the score.
Tilman Sillescu: As I mentioned before, it was absolutely new for us to have so much creative freedom, especially on a project like this. But it was a great experience: the first tracks were based only on some information about the story and one or two screenshots, so we had the opportunity to find a suitable style on our own.
Michael: What hard- and software did you use to create Crysis 2's soundtrack?
Borislav Slavov: PC hardware and software on my side only – Cakewalk Sonar, Sound Forge as a wave editor, the EWQL Play series, Spectrasonics products and various VST plug-ins. As Tilman mentioned above, he worked with Logic Audio on a Mac Pro station with the Symphobia Orchestra library.
Michael: You also d live recording sessions - could you tell us more about this, for example the size of the ensemble and where the recording sessions took place?
Tilman Sillescu: Yes, we had an epic recording session with the Budapest Orchestra at TomTom studios in Hungary. I guess we recorded about 3 hours of orchestral music in 3 days. The orchestra's size was 65 musicians and the conductor was Peter Pejtsik. Peter did a brilliant job, by the way – with his enthusiasm, he managed to inspire his musicians to deliver a great performance. I am sure you will hear this when listening to the soundtrack. But I mustn't forget to mention our orchestrators: Georgi Andreev and David Christiansen, who both attended the sessions and helped a lot with their experience. After the recording sessions, we edited and mixed all the music with the recording engineers at TomTom for 2 further days. So all in all, we stayed for 6 days in beautiful Budapest :)
Crysis 2 Orchestra Recording Sessions in Budapest, Hungary, June 2010
Michael: Borislav, we know you are a fan of ethnic instruments. Did you use any of these on the Crysis 2 soundtrack?
Borislav Slavov: I use Eastern stringed instruments on every project which allows for this :) Unfortunately, there was no such possibility for me on Crysis 2. Tilman on the other hand used a duduk on some of his tracks to underline the multi-ethnicity of NYC. I was surprised how nicely this instrument blended in with the atmosphere of the ruined city of New York.
Michael: What are some of your personal favorites on Crysis 2's soundtrack, and can you give us some background information on them?
Tilman Sillescu: If I had to point out one of my tracks, it would be "Morituri", because in my opinion it is the most inspired and emotional cue I did. The funny thing was that I planned it to be a very intimate piece, scored only for string quartet. When Borislav listened to "Morituri", he was totally enthusiastic about the idea to make this track big and epic. I liked the idea and orchestrated the piece for full string ensemble; I even added some heavy brass and percussion. However, there is one very intimate passage left with only the solo violin playing the melody, which I really love when I listen to the track.
Borislav Slavov: On some of the tracks, we used classical solo instruments like cello and violin as a representation of the human spirit facing the alien invasion. One of my favorite pieces on which the violin appears is "SOS New York", which was meant to introduce the narrative of the great city, calling out for help. Another favorite piece of mine is "New York - Aftermath", where the deep melancholic cello sound blends with the dark electronics. This piece in particular went through a series of iterations before arriving at its final version. The initial idea was to summarize the story like an overture. The contrast between the piano and the percussion stomps on "New York - Aftermath" had quite an emotional effect on me.
Michael: How are you feeling after having worked on a project with Hans Zimmer? What kind of experience was it for you?
Borislav Slavov: Meeting one of the greatest Hollywood composers was an amazing experience for me. I had the unique chance to walk through his production facilities in the Remote Control studios and I was deeply impressed to see the music workshops of some of today's biggest Hollywood movies. His legendary red cabinet was full of atmosphere and history. This place is like a museum of Hollywood music. He showed me his recording room for classical instruments and I was even allowed to attend a short mixing session of the music for a huge blockbuster movie. I felt deeply inspired after our meetings and I believe this increased the motivation of the entire Crytek Music team in the last phase of the production.
Tilman Sillescu: Well, Zimmer is an iconic composer and a Hollywood legend, and it somehow makes us proud having worked on a project with him. Hans joined the team at a very late stage – almost the entire soundtrack had already been composed at this point and I can imagine that it was not easy for him to dive into this so quickly. But I think he found a very attractive style to complete the soundtrack with his main themes – he added a new colour and yet his themes are somehow coherent with our music.
Michael: On to more general questions. What projects are you working on right now?
Borislav Slavov: Well, at the moment I am working on another gorgeous Crytek game, but unfortunately I am not allowed to reveal any details about it. I believe however that Tilman would be able to share some info with you? :)
Tilman Sillescu: Yes, one of Dynamedion's current projects is Risen 2: Dark Waters. Furthermore, we are working on a big action TV movie right now (for the German TV channel RTL).
Michael: Which albums that you have listed to recently have inspired you the most?
Tilman Sillescu: I've recently listened to Tabula Rasa by classical composer Arvo Pärt, which impressed me very much.
Borislav Slavov: The score for Unstoppable by Harry Gregson-Williams, who is one of my favorite composers of all times.
Michael: Do you play video games? If so, what are you playing right now? What consoles do you own?
Borislav Slavov: I think I already answered this question at the very beginning :) I am a huge gamer. Although I play all types of PC games, I mostly play RPGs. At the moment I am playing several games at the same time – World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles, Drakensang and Tales of Monkey Island. I plan on buying an Xbox360 soon, since several titles I want to play are published exclusively for this platform.
Tilman Sillescu: Absolutely no time at the moment, I am feeling really sorry for myself ;) You know, it can be frustrating sometimes – I want to play all the games I've composed music for and I have no time because when they are released, I have to work on a new project already. When I retire, I will play them all, I swear.
Michael: Do you have any inspirations to score feature length movies?
Borislav Slavov: The short answer would be – yes, I would love to score movies. On the other hand I recently realized that my passion for games actually pushed me to start developing myself as a music composer. I think it is quite a different experience to compose for these two medias and I have the feeling that if I scored a movie, one day it would be easier.
Tilman Sillescu: Well, since last year I have composed several soundtracks for TV movies in Germany, which in fact was a lot of fun - but I guess you are talking about Hollywood, right? Yes, why not, someday – you never know what the future brings :)
Michael: What can you advice to aspiring composers?
Tilman Sillescu: Here is my advice: do not listen to film and game music alone. If you are interested in orchestral music, you will get much more inspiration from classical music – listen to Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Shostakovich (3 Russian composers; they are my favorites!). These guys inspired almost all great film composers. Advice number two is: don’t be lazy; don’t be satisfied too early with your work only because your girlfriend likes it. You have to compete with the best soundtracks on the market, compare your work to them.
Borislav Slavov: I would add - be patient and NEVER give up. Start with small steps and keep your emotions in your music. Production values can be achieved in time, but if your music is without soul, nobody will trully enjoy it. When you start something, always see to its completion. This is my recipe, the rest is pure luck.
Michael: Now, imagine cold snowy Russia before your eyes. You are standing on Red Square in front of thousands of people looking at you. They want you to say something inspiring and encouraging. So, it’s your turn!
Tilman Sillescu: Haha, this is difficult: “Russia rocks! Russia has the greatest classical composers: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Khachaturian, Schnittke, Rachmaninov, and many more! These maestros invented the most soulful classical music that I know of. I am totally honest when I say that Russian composers have always been my favorites since was a young man.” I hope this would have a “warming effect” on the people?
Borislav Slavov: Çäðàâñòâóéòå, ðåáÿòà! ß ðàä âèäåòü ñòðàíó Øîñòàêîâè÷à, AK47, áàëàëàéêè è êîíå÷íà - âîäêà! ß æåëàþ Âàì ìíîãî ñ÷àñòëèâûõ ëåò! Íîçäîðîâå! Óðà! :)
Michael: Borislav, Tilman, many thanks for your time today!
Tilman Sillescu: It was our pleasure :)
Borislav Slavov: Thanks Michael, it was great talking to you!