Composers Find New Playgrounds In Video Games : The Record Jim Dooley says scoring Disney's game 'Epic Mickey' was challenging in a whole new way.

Composers Find New Playgrounds In Video Games

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, host:

And I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of "Pac-Man")

RAZ: The sounds from "Pac-Man," the classic 1980s video game. The object was simple: have the Pac-Man eat the dots and avoid getting eaten himself.

(Soundbite of "Pac-Man")

RAZ: Now, the music behind "Pac-Man," if you want to call it that, was probably not a main priority for the developers at the time. But today, the video game's score is as essential to its success as the story and the graphics.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: This is the soundtrack to a new video game by Disney. It's called "Epic Mickey." And it's just been released for the Nintendo Wii. And the man who wrote the music, Jim Dooley, has worked on some of the biggest TV and movie projects in the past decade. And Jim Dooley joins me now from our studios at NPR West.

Jim, welcome.

Mr. JIM DOOLEY (Composer): Thank you so much, Guy.

RAZ: So we heard that clip from "Pac-Man." It almost sounds like music was an afterthought in video games back then.

Mr. DOOLEY: Actually, that music reminds me of writing old music code for the Commodore in the '80s. It's kind of...

RAZ: Sort of waah-waah.

Mr. DOOLEY: It is. It's like writing music with an abacus.

RAZ: Right. I mean, you've worked on huge films like "The Da Vinci Code." You won an Emmy for the ABC series "Pushing Daisies." And actually, let me just - let's just hear some of the music from that for a moment.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: So this has a kind of this bright, magical, whimsical sound, which obviously is reflective of that series. How is composing music for video games different than doing it for film and TV?

Mr. DOOLEY: The most direct way to say this is - and the difference between them is something like TV and film has a fixed timeline. In TV, knowing that it's like, okay, this is where the love moment comes on, or like, okay, the music is going to swell as they kiss and they embrace. We know when it's coming. And we can set you up for that, having this emotional experience by taking you through it.

Video games do not have a fixed timeline. So if you're an experienced gamer, you might play through the game much faster. We don't know if you're going to play it in 20 hours, 30 hours or 40 hours. And that's a huge difference. And to make that adaptive to the player so they actually do have an emotional experience is what makes it the most challenging. And that's why the music has to be adaptive.

RAZ: So let me - I guess, as you described the premise of this video game, Jim, this is Mickey Mouse. He is trapped in a world of sort of disused cartoon characters. And basically, he's got to get out. And his weapons are not a gun, but a paint brush and paint thinner.

Mr. DOOLEY: How elegant.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. DOOLEY: You get to fight van Gogh style.

RAZ: And I guess I should explain that the music changes based on what you have Mickey do and what happens to Mickey. So let's actually listen to it, and can you sort of describe how it works?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DOOLEY: What happens is if you start creating in this world...

RAZ: Like painting things, right?

Mr. DOOLEY: Yes. If you start adding to this world and start following missions that are, like, helping people in this game, it's like, well, then we have a part of the music, which is perfectly complementary, which gets faded up gradually, so it becomes more magical and more heroic.

RAZ: And we start hearing what kind of instruments?

Mr. DOOLEY: Oh, you start hearing a lot more of brightness, lots of woodwinds, a lot more ornate runs and celeste and cymbals and bells and kinds of things that are added to this.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: When Mickey starts to, I guess, destroy things, the music changes again. I mean, then it becomes maybe darker, sometimes disorienting?

Mr. DOOLEY: Absolutely. I'd say it's like, you know, we're talking about steroids, that there's this kind of a twisted and more adventurous and mischievous layer that comes into this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DOOLEY: You'll hear lots of bass clarinets, bassoons of essentially like the wrong notes. If it was major on one side, it's going to be minor on this side. So the choices in your neutral track have to be such that this piece can be perfectly complementary to that track.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DOOLEY: And it's actually quite a tricky thing. It's got - I'm telling you, it's probably the hardest part of this job is to do dynamic music, which feels natural and it's - as you start playing and it adapts to your game style.

RAZ: And probably 10 years ago, composers were sort of like, you know, oh, yeah, forget this stuff.

Mr. DOOLEY: It's true that the composers were, you know, it's like you'd be frowned upon. And 10 years ago being like, oh, I write for video games, it's like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOOLEY: Well, I write for film, you know? But now it's really on par, if not more so, that the - I get more orchestras in the world with video game music than I do with film and TV these days.

RAZ: And now the best composers in the world are competing for these jobs.

Mr. DOOLEY: Absolutely. It's like I found I'm like, oh, I was pitching on this gig. Who took it? Well, John Debney. I'm like, okay. Well, he's pretty good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Yeah. He did "The Passion of the Christ."

Mr. DOOLEY: Sure. He did "Passion of the Christ." It's like, you know, he's a fantastic composer. You know, I studied his work and it's like I'm - get to pitch up against these guys now for video games.

(Soundbite of music, "It's a Small World")

RAZ: Jim, this is a variation on one of the most iconic pieces of Disney music, "It's a Small World." I mean, anyone who's been to Disneyland or Disney World has been through that ride. They gave it to you. Disney gave it to you and said, here you go. You can tinker with this.

Mr. DOOLEY: Richard and Bob Sherman are still pleasantly alive, and I would hate to do anything to be the guy (unintelligible) who's like -one of the most beloved tunes of all time.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. DOOLEY: One of the most infectious ear worms in the history of man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOOLEY: And if you think it's tough to get out of your head after the ride, try working on it for a week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: I can imagine. You probably drove everyone nuts around you. Did you...

Mr. DOOLEY: I got a lot of knocks on my studio door that week, I can certainly tell you.

RAZ: I read that you actually found, like, old toys and old organ sounds and wine glasses in some of these pieces that you did.

Mr. DOOLEY: Yeah. I think what some people don't realize, you know, with something like a video game project, you think that this would be reserved only for, you know, very cinematic productions or, you know, high-end TV, but there's a huge research component that goes into this work.

The best part of this gig - I mean, besides working with a wonderful team - was that I got access to the Disney archives.

RAZ: You got to open it up and listen to all the old stuff.

Mr. DOOLEY: They sent me - thank God for them. I love them so much that I got to work on the 1939 orchestrations of "Pinocchio."

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. DOOLEY: And the 1961 recording of "Mary Poppins," the rehearsal piano charts, the full orchestral charts, which is so amazing. It's hard to appreciate the level of talent involved in all of these scores. When you really get to see it on the page, it's pretty breathtaking.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: That's Jim Dooley. He composed the music to "Epic Mickey." It's a new game out today for the Nintendo Wii. He's also worked on a score for dozens of films and television shows, including the ABC series "Pushing Daisies," which won him an Emmy.

Jim Dooley, thank you so much.

Mr. DOOLEY: Thank you, Guy.

(Soundbite of music)

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