Christophe Héral Interview: Composing for Rayman and Tintin (November 2011)
Christophe Héral is a French composer who has extensively worked in television and film. To overseas audiences, he is better known as the composer behind the breathtaking organic score to Ubisoft's Beyond Good & Evil — one of the most acclaimed game scores ever created. After close to a decade away from video games, the maestro returned this year to score two projects: Rayman Origins and The Adventures of Tintin: The Game.
In this interview, Héral discusses his experiences working in the games industry. He gives insight into his inspirations and approaches for his Rayman and Tintin scores, recalls some highlight film projects, and discusses his ambitions for the upcoming Beyond Good & Evil 2.
Interview Subject: Christophe Héral
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Christophe Héral, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us today about your work on video games. First of all, could you tell us about your musical background and influences? What led you to become a composer for visual media?
Christophe Héral: Music has always been a central part of my family — my grandfather was an operatic baritone. I always listened to music when I was young and I began studying piano at age six. But like many children, I stopped my studies a year later — after all, I wanted to be a skier, not a pianist! It was much later in my life — around 11 years — that I started to study music properly and since then I never stopped.
During my youth, composers such as Mozart and Bach were important to me. But of course, so were Puccini, Verdi, and Bizet because of my grandfather. As a teenager, there was Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Varese too — a real upheaval!
Chris: While you are widely known for your video game roles, you have scored a wide range of French projects, spanning The Little Girl in Paris to The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne. How did such roles allow you to explore your musicianship and emphasise the connection between music and visuals?
Christophe Héral: I started working on my first short film when I was 26. I realized that music could play an incredible role in coloring a picture — with an invisible palette.
More than the projects, it is the human relationships that interest me. Working with the director is essential. I was lucky to be given the opportunity to work with exciting directors. It is they who have advanced, and I enrich their images and history with invisible content.
Chris: You made your debut as a video game composer with 2003's Beyond Good & Evil. Given that you were previously used to scoring film and television projects, what was it like to switch to interactive scoring? Were you experiences considerably different or were there common elements?
Christophe Héral: When I met Michel Ancel, I had to tell him that I was not a gamer. At first, I was surprised when he told me about the realization of the sound and music in Beyond Good & Evil.
Then I realized he was looking for someone to first blank — someone who was not applying their grandmother's recipes, but could engage in molecular cuisine! So it was my duty to understand what could be done with interactivity, and I must admit, it's still open to me — this incredible field gives me a freedom that I had not known with cinema.
Chris: The soundtrack for Beyond Good & Evil received a large amount of popular press, in contrast to most other Western-developed soundtracks at the time. What features of the soundtrack do you think made it appeal to gamers? Did you create it with the stand-alone experience in mind?
Christophe Héral: I was very pleasantly surprised by the welcome that gamers reserved to the music of Beyond Good & Evil. I did write the music that I wanted to hear.
Music accompanies the player throughout the experience of gameplay. This may take dozens of hours — a big difference with cinema — but it is also a problem for composers. How can a composer not tire listeners after ten minutes of repeats? This is a very big issue to overcome, but on succeeding, the music will remain in the hearts of gamers forever. It's very moving to know that you can touch people's hearts. :)
Chris: You also adapted Beyond Good & Evil for its appearances at Video Games Live. What did you emphasise with your arrangement? What was it like to experience the music live?
Christophe Héral: Video Games Live is an incredible experience. I find the work of Jack Wall and Tommy Tallarico remarkable. When I listened to the Hollywood Bowl — where the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra interpreted my music — there were some pre-recorded orchestra and choir parts. This included the voice of my daughter, who had sung in choirs superbly orchestrated by Laetetia Pansanel. Hearing this was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Chris: This year, you will make your long-awaited return to the video game industry to score Rayman Origins. Can you tell us how you became involved in the score?
Christophe Héral: First, you need to know that there were two composers that created the music for Rayman Origins. I composed the music for The Adventures of Tintin: The Game until July, so it would have been superhuman of me to compose the soundtrack of Rayman Origins in less than three months. Billy Martin therefore came onboard to help us make the music and he created some very funny tracks — very much in the spirit of Rayman.
Chris: It's been eight years between the releases of Beyond Good & Evil and your latest game projects. During this time, how do you think the industry has changed? Are there any demands with these projects that weren't important in 2003?
Christophe Héral: I don't know if the industry has changed. Yes, perhaps, with the arrival of games on Facebook and other social networks. I must admit that we are a bit protected by the incredible working conditions that Ubisoft gives us — they trust us to make games, and we try to give our best. Working with Michel ten years after Beyond Good & Evil is exactly the same as before — in the same creative spirit, with the same freedom.
Chris: Rayman is an established franchise that is returning at last to its platforming roots. How did you portray the eccentric main character and the colourful featured worlds? Was the series' history and past scores important to you, or were you aiming for a fresh new direction?
Christophe Héral: The story of the game occurs before the original Rayman and focuses on the origins of the character. There are many worlds in which Rayman, Globox, and his friends the Teensies change, and as the story is the first, we were able to free themselves of the themes of the first Rayman that everyone knows.
In the first world, the Jibberish Jungle, Michel really wanted to focus on primitive acoustic instruments such as the didgeridoo, drums, flutes, and... the Jew's harp. In fact, the Jew's harp emerges throughout the game — the soundtrack is a kind of concerto for Jew's harp and orchestra! You can also discover the underwater world, the Sea of Serendipity, where the music is a kind of homage to the musicals of Esther Williams. The different worlds are colorful, and the music complements this too!
On Rayman Origins, we were also able — thanks to Mathieu Pavageau, Alexandre Dumas and Francois Carlotti — to integrate GPE in music, for example when hitting a bird in a specific world.
Chris: There will be a soundtrack release for Rayman Origins courtesy of Ubisoft's label. How did you adapt the in-game score for a stand-alone release?
Christophe Héral: In CD enclosed with the collector's edition, we have slipped in a few surprises. But if I tell you, they will no longer be surprises. Nevertheless, there is almost all the music featured in the game's worlds and a few more goodies.
Chris: You were also responsible for scoring the game adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn. Given your French heritage, is it safe to assume you previously enjoyed the Tintin franchise? Was it enjoyable to work on a video game based on the character?
Christophe Héral: Tintin is part of our history, our culture — he like a distant cousin to me. I was very proud that Ubisoft confided this task for me, and once again they gave me complete artistic freedom. You should be aware that this is the video game version of the film directed by Steven Spielberg, and if I have to tell you a little secret, I found the character of Captain Haddock more interesting than Tintin. I was very happy to create the music for this game.
Chris: The Adventures of Tintin straddles between genres and features youthful, epic, suspenseful, and comical moments. What sort of approach did you feel was most suitable for this personal adventure? Are there any central themes to represent the titular character?
Christophe Héral: I composed the main theme to portray a quest for the treasure and the story of the rehabilitation of Captain Haddock. I wanted to give plenty of orchestral color for the sequences in the ship, the Unicorn. I decided to refer to old Hollywood movies centred on piracy (Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, etc.). These scores were often composed by Korngold — one of the founders of John Williams. We recorded the music in this spirit and, when orchestrating the galleon themes, orchestrator Mathieu Alvado kept in mind Korngold.
There is also a theme for a character that everyone loves to play — Snowy! The music is the type that one could listen at the time of Hergé's Comics — jazz "gypsy" music that was played by Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt with the Hot Club of France. Radio is also an important braodcaster of music in the game, and Timothée Paulevé and I wanted to integrate a variety of suitable music for this purpose.
Chris: The film adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin was scored by the legendary John Williams. Did you receive any opportunity to draw thematic or stylistic inspirations from his film score? Was it ever intimidating to create a score that will inevitably be compared to Williams' work?
Christophe Héral: John Williams is a great theme maker, and he is an important composer for me, so for us to work on productions with the same basic premise and story was something exciting for me.
I received three pieces of Paramount by John Williams during April or May, but there was no question whether we could build a bridge between his music and my own. Because of a rights issues, everything had to be completely separate. Of course, the soundtracks will be compared, but we must keep in mind that there are light differences in budget between the two soundtracks. But beyond the money, music is music, a theme is a theme, and it doesn't cost anything to whistle a theme.
Chris: You also continue to be active as a cinematic composer, recently scoring titles such as Chienne d'Histoire: Barking Island and Kérity: La Maison des Contes. Could you tell us more about such recent activities? Do you continue to find such projects satisfying?
Christophe Héral: For Chienne d'Histoire, I didn't actually compose the music — I did the sound editing, foleys, and mixing. I am very proud of the project, because the film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival 2010.
I also composed the music for Kérity: La Maison des Contesthat received a mention in the Annecy Animation Festival. I love to compose for the animation — this is also an area that gives incredible freedom. My next short film is directed by Helen Frieren, and I have to write the music before she makes the movie.
Chris: It would be interesting to hear about the highlights of your career. Out of all your projects — game, film, or otherwise — which would you state as the most memorable to you and why?
Christophe Héral: I have been fortunate to work on my projects and they are all memorable to me. I must admit that the experience of live performances of my video game works was very important to me, as was the exchange with Mithylli Mahendran on Beyond Good & Evil. Mithylli has become a friend — like someone in the family to me!
Chris: Finally, it has been announced that you will be scoring the long-awaited Beyond Good & Evil 2. Are you looking forward to returning to the franchise? What features would you like to emphasise in the future score?
Christophe Héral: We worked on Beyond Good & Evil 2, but we realized that the consoles were not powerful enough to display the resolution that Michel wanted. Once we know the characteristics of next-gen consoles, hopefully we can continue the great work that has been started.
In terms of the sound features of the game, I'd love to keep a focus on acoustic music. I'd also like to incorporate linear changes of tempo, depending on the gameplay — the adaptive changes of Rayman Origins music was very interesting to me.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Christophe Héral. Is there anything else you'd like to say? In addition, do you have any message to your fans around the world?
Christophe Héral: I would add that I worked on Tintin with incredible freedom, and I would like to thank Ubisoft's CEO Yves Guillemot for giving their teams this artistic freedom. It's rare enough to be notable. I hope people will take pleasure in listening to my music for Tintin and Rayman. Stay tuned for more from me.