Marc Canham Interview: Pursuing Artistic Creativity (April 2011)
Marc Canham is a British composer and producer that has worked on numerous video game and film scores over the last decade. As a composer, he has pioneered novel approaches to video game music with scores for the Driver series, Far Cry 2, Split/Second, and The Secret World. As a producer at Nimrod Productions, he has established the Nimrod Studio Orchestra — an elite team of London musicians — who have recorded the soundtracks for the Killzone series among others.
In this interview, Canham speaks openly about his dual aims as a composer and producer. He reflects how he aims to pursue artistic creativity with his feature scores, while streamlining Nimrod Productions to offer top-notch orchestral recordings and inspired band licensing customised for each project. While doing so, he talks about several career landmarks and some of his upcoming works.
Interview Subject: Marc Canham
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Hello Marc Canham. Many thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. Before we talk about your productions, it would be interesting to hear more about you. First of all, could you tell us about your background, education, and influences?
Marc Canham: My early musical days were spent stealing an eclectic mix of records off various family members and studying the guitar in various genres over 15 years, settling in my teens to an inability to play any one of those genres to a virtuosic standard and instead just enjoy 'noodling' and creating recordings (of varying standards).
I was never that interested in performing other's music so the urge to be purely a performing artist was not particularly great. But I guess my interest in all sorts of styles put me in good stead to create with quite a wide palette of sound. That led to the style of bands I was in — from progressive style bands with a visual theme (buying a dozen cheap TVs and stacking them on stage, playing back ambient/weird video thanks to a drummer strapped to the roof of our tour van videoing the A40 at night, and sprawling sonic landscapes), to punky-electronic vitriolic style bands. Good times!
Chris: You entered the game industry at the turn of the century with titles such as Driver 2, Endgame, and Taz: Wanted. What ultimately led you to enter the industry from your indie band background? As technology was growing increasingly liberating, what were you able to achieve on these titles?
Marc Canham: As with many ventures, a mixture of good luck which I suppose you engineer to some extent, and having something that people were interested in — that being our live approach to our soundtracks. We missed out on the MIDI days of music in games. That was a time when I was in a band or studying music in my very early days. Knowing about how to record all sorts of styles put us in a good position to do those streamed soundtracks, especially Driver. That game really was the turning point for us.
Chris: Coinciding with your breakthrough into interactive scoring, you co-founded the Nimrod Studio Orchestra with Rich Aitken in 1999. Could you explain what did orchestra offers for game and film productions compared with other productions?
Marc Canham: The idea came from hearing some horror stories of recording abroad, and when you have amazing facilities on your doorstep it's a crime not to use them. Also, coming from a live musical background and knowing how fantastic the players we use are, I wanted to support the musicians in the UK. In short, the NSO offers a very hassle free way of a client picking up the phone once and getting the best possible solution from composition and orchestration right through to the delivery of their 5.1 mix.
Chris: The Nimrod Studio Orchestra is a collaborative effort featuring several organisers and performers. How did you select London's best session musicians for this special ensemble?
Marc Canham: I think people sometimes misunderstand what the NSO is — it's a team of core people. Myself, Jonathan (conductor), Rich Aitken (producer/mix engineer), Stacey Watton (fixer), and a core of 30 players. From this core we expand it out or contract it depending on the musical requirements. As a result of so many people knowing each other on the recording days, the atmosphere is great in the room — allowing for a very productive and enthusiastic recording session.
This is vital when a lot of money is at stake on these recording days... They are not cheap, but the end result is always first class and competes with anything you hear in film world. I think that quality reassurance is vital if you are keen in maintaning the highest standards throughout the project; that attitude should apply to all facets of game making of course.
Chris: In addition to collaborating with virtuoso musicians, you work with various other specialists at your music production company Nimrod Productions, including aforementioned orchestrator/conductor Jonathan Williams from the University of Oxford and recording engineer and licenser Edward Scroggie at Abbey Road Studios. What do you think each member of Nimrod Productions brings to your scores and how do you collaborate to ensure a streamlined and high quality production process?
Marc Canham: Having Jonathan Williams on board has been vital. His experience and knowledge allowed us to develop the Nimrod Studio Orchestra very quickly. Rich Aitken is a high class mix engineer and producer with a really distinct style that shines through all our soundtracks.
In fact, music supervisor Sergio Pimentel has just joined as director of music supervision too. He takes care of the licensing side of things and is a bit of a legend in this field, having headed up music licensing departments at both SCEE and Activision.
Everyone of the core people at Nimrod focus on what they are good at. In this respect we follow what has been established in the film world. But this approach is fortunately establishing itself in games, and in my opinion this is the route to a truly exceptional product. Of course there is occasional overlap as is the nature of collaboration, but the general rule is we stick to what we are good at.
Chris: The Nimrod Studio Orchestra has since been featured in several other major scores, including Joris de Man's Killzone 2 and Killzone 3, Ola Strandh's Ground Control II, and even 24: The Game. Having coordinated and attended many of these sessions, what did you feel the performances brought to the scores? Do you think the orchestra is becoming the standard for British-developed game scores?
Marc Canham: Actually, big orchestra scores are becoming overused rather than standard. But at least they are live with the NSO — and that's a good thing. Sampled orchestral scores as final products just don't cut it! All the millions micro-movements a human makes during a take adds a level or performance that a sample just can't achieve.
Chris: Nevertheless, one of your earliest projects was the big filmic score for Act of War: Direct Action. Given it was one of the first scores to feature the Nimrod Studio Orchestra, do you consider it a defining point for you?
Marc Canham: I co-wrote this score with Jonathan. It was a bold brash orchestral affair and worked well. Nowadays though, I prefer the more modernist approach to composition — influences such as Steve Reich, Max Richter and Philip Glass spring to mind. That's not to say I'm done with big scores, but I'm in to more unique sounding scores nowadays and I personally feel the big blockbuster sound is often uninspiring in games and films alike. It doesn't make my ears prick up, but I do go through phases.
Chris: As an artist, you're also known for hybridising orchestral recordings with other elements, such as electronic forces on Driv3r and ethnic instruments on Far Cry 2. From a compositional perspective, what are the unique demands of creating fusion scores? How do you record and mix the various elements to ensure a cohesive overall sound?
Marc Canham: It's a big challenge but one I love. For me, the orchestra is as important as a synth sound, or weird sound I create. It's another equally important voice and that's how a treat it. Some hybrid scores clearly have the orchestra sitting on top of the other elements — I try to make them all blend — hence my fascination with smaller ensembles. My last two games and two film scores have all featured small ensembles and I find this a very satisfying way to achieve that hybrid or fusion sound.
I hope I am creating something unique as, for me, I think it is really important to have 'your sound' and be identifiable by that. It's a shame when composers just sound like the next person and you can't identify them at all in the crowd. That's not what being an artist is about. If you've got nothing new to say, then maybe you shouldn't say it.
I know in the past I have been ruled by the temp track and the client wants me to essentially emulate someone else and I've done it. But nowadays I get hired to put my spin on things which is probably the most fulfilling thing about what I do.
Chris: Focusing on two of your fusion scores in more detail, the soundtracks for Driv3r and Driver: Parallel Lines are among the most impressive racing scores of recent years. How did you ensure the game featured a suitable mixture of original and licensed music? In addition, what were you main considerations when creating compositions to match the dynamic and dangerous nature of the gameplay?
Marc Canham: I love these projects — I get to play god a bit. "Here's the music I write and here's other peoples music that goes with it." What a privilege that is. As a result you get a huge melting pot of styles that inevitably keeps things fresh.
These projects also give me chance to speak to the great labels and publishers out there — finding all sorts of new and upcoming bands. That's my main motivation for these types of soundtracks I do to be honest — games are becoming a great way to expose a band and help on their journey. I know that many of these bands will disappear through band break-ups, various narcotic self-implosions, or being dropped by a label, but the odd few go on to big things. It's nice to have been a small cog in that machinery to assist this. I'm by no means the deciding factor, but every little helps, especially nowadays.
Chris: The recently released Split/Second also featured very impressive electro-orchestral soundscapes. How did you ensure the score was still compelling and catchy, while maintaining an explosive feel throughout? Did you intend the score for stand-alone listening or was it primarily composed with the context in mind?
Marc Canham: I found this score very tough, and collaborated with Rich a lot more with regards to the programming elements on Split/Second. I started out down one avenue at the beginning that we all creatively liked, but it soon became apparent the score needed to be far more 'in your face' than what I was creating. The orchestration had to be simplified a lot to allow for the amount of programmed elements to take the lead and deliver the wallop that SS needed. So what was once a very orchestrally lyrical score became an onslaught of drum machines, meaty guitars, and some basic lead lines with the orchestra.
At the end of the day, I totally think that was the best approach and was the right call from the developer for the type of game SS is, but it was a challenge. It was purely made to work with car engines and create lots of adrenaline, but if it works standalone then great. Not all soundtracks do stand up on their own of course!
Chris: On Far Cry 2, you reunited with the Nimrod Studio Orchestra to offer a unique blend of orchestral and ethnic forces. How did you ensure the music for this title fitted the concept of the series while still taking it in new directions?
Marc Canham: I ignored what had been done before on Far Cry purely because I didn't want to be led in a direction, and the guys at Ubisoft wanted me to experiment. We had a lot of interesting recording techniques at play on this score.
I can honestly note the Far Cry 2 score as the point in which I consciously decided to try out a lot of the ideas I had as a composer and see if games could handle a more cerebral approach. The answer is that they can handle a versatile approach. However, it is only now I am seeing games where combat is not accompanied by music — something films do all the time — and it makes everything all so much more personal and 'real'.
Chris: The soundtrack release for Far Cry 2 headlined by a beautiful vocal theme. Could you elaborate on how you created this defining theme for the title?
Marc Canham: The theme was one of those rare occasions where something you do at the very beginning sticks all the way through. The personal nature of the sextet, the very closely recorded percussion, and the amazing vocal talents of Baaba Maal combined to create a very atmospheric sound. I'm proud of that track, as well as its second part in "Speak to the Dead". I'm very happy you like it.
Chris: While you are primarily known for creating serious and cutting-edge scores, you and your company have nevertheless participated in some light-hearted productions, notably handling the music of Super Mario Pinball, the localisation of Wii Fit, and even the cartoon-style spinoff Battlefield: Heroes. How did you adapt your approach for such titles? How did you find working with technological and budget limitations on these projects?
Marc Canham: Those types of jobs you mention are great production jobs where you have a strict brief and you fulfill that brief with a creative and efficient air about it. Nimrod has a great reputation for doing just that.
Nimrod Productions is its own thing nowadays from 'Marc Canham' the composer. It's a thriving production company that can take care of every area of audio in games. I just concentrate on the writing now — it's what I've wanted to do for many years and now I have the chance to do that. I'm obviously involved with the business decisions of Nimrod as I'm one of the directors, but there's people involved in the running of the separate areas that are better than me at those other jobs, so let them get on with it.
I liken Nimrod to a miniature Remote Control Productions, Hans Zimmer's production company. You've got to aim high. As a business he has 'churned' out musical solution after musical solution for big films, so I admire and respect what he has achieved for his business — I get the impression he's a good businessman.
Chris: In 2009, you made your debut on a feature film on The Disappearance of Alice Creed and are currently scoring Speak No Evil too. Could you elaborate on how you developed suitably haunting scores for these titles? Were there major differences to the production approach of this work compared with your game scores?
Marc Canham: Yes, it's a damn sight easier being in 30 days of film mayhem than 12 months of game shenanigans. There is no doubt in my mind the linear medium of film is more straightforward. That's not to say it doesn't have it's challenges — it's high pressure. But I like that and I think it brings out the best in me.
Sometimes game scores can drag out, and you often have very few visual pointers as accurate as film. Film guides you, whereas the interactive nature of games can distract you. But the flip side of that is when you 'nail' a set of interactive cues its immensely satisfying seeing the game play out. They both have there pros and cons — I don't prefer one over the other.
Chris: Finally, you are currently working on several major scores, including the new racing title Driver: San Francisco and Funcom's MMORPG The Secret World. Could you tell us any details about how you are approaching these projects? What styles and themes will define these scores?
Marc Canham: Driver: San Francisco has some great surprises in store — I'm really pleased with how the music has turned out. I'm not sure I can say too much on this right now, though.
The Secret World is an amazing concept — very bold and out there. Simon Poole, the audio director at FunCom, has impeccable taste. We both like the avant garde composers of the last 40 years and, as a result, a lot of the score is really experimenting with the modernist approach I have toyed with for many years. It's turning out to be quite an infectious score, but we have a few months to go.
Also this year, I'm contributing to the charity album OneBigAlbum, organised by the company OneBigGame. I've been music supervisor on Chime and WINtA, so it's an organisation I'm very fond of. The album is for a great cause and should be a worthwhile listen.
Chris: Many thanks for talking to us today, Marc Canham. Is there anything else you would like to say about your life and works? In addition, is there any message you'd like to leave to fans of your music and Nimrod Productions around the world?
Marc Canham: Just a big thanks for the opportunity to rant on... And thanks to the fans — that goes without saying.