AFM Musicians Provide the Score for the Latest Chapter in the Star Wars Epic
This month, a new chapter in the epic Star Wars story will be released. Bridging the gap between
episodes three and four of the popular films, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed introduces a variety
of new characters, revisits a familiar villain, and closely examines the franchise's recurring theme
But The Force Unleashed is not a film, or even a television special. It is the latest video game
from LucasArts. Its heart, a soaring original score that will have players perched on the edge of
their seats, was performed by an orchestra comprised entirely of AFM musicians. And that score is
also a milestone for LucasArts, as it marks the first time the company—which has long used
non-member musicians in its recordings—has come on board for an AFM project.
Recording for The Force Unleashed took place over two days last September at the retreat-like
Skywalker Ranch in the Bay Area of San Francisco, California. Seventy musicians performed roughly
90 minutes of original music composed by Mark Griskey, and a main theme composed by LucasArts' Jesse Harlin, who was the music supervisor on the project. In addition, composer John Williams' music from the original films was used. When it came to finding the right composer for this job, Harlin says
that Griskey, an independent contractor who was once on-staff at LucasArts, was the perfect fit.
"Mark composed the original score for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, a very dark Star
Wars game in its own right," says Harlin. "He has a fantastic sense of John Williams' aesthetic from
both the prequel and original trilogies. When it came time to find a composer who really understands
both writing styles as well as someone with the compositional chops to blend from one into the
other, Mark immediately came to mind."
Once Griskey was in place, he worked closely with Janet Ketchum, a member of Local 6 (San
Francisco, CA), who served as both principal flautist and AFM contractor for the session. The two
discussed Griskey's vision for the project, as well as his budget and orchestral needs, and Ketchum
put out a call for San Francisco-area musicians, culling a list from freelancers and members of the
San Francisco Symphony, Ballet, and Opera.
Says Griskey, "The orchestra that Janet Ketchum contracted for The Force Unleashed was fantastic!
Not only did they sound amazing, they also had a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the project.
It was a real pleasure to work with such high-caliber,world-class professionals. I have never had a
more enjoyable experience."
Leslie Anne Jones, director of music recording and scoring at Skywalker Sound and mixer of The
Force Unleashed, agrees. "I loved the group of musicians we had in here," she says. "Janet really got
the cream of the crop for us. We're very fortunate because the Bay Area has so many excellent
Each day ran for about six hours, and Ketchum was responsible for seeing that musicians were
given adequate breaks and that the session was organized according to AFM guidelines. Both
LucasArts representatives and the musicians— called the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra—considered the project a great success, and hope that it will lead to future collaborations.
Says Darragh O'Farrell, director of audio at Skywalker Sound, "Using AFM musicians was great for
us. The orchestra is brilliant; their energy and passion is amazing. It would be great for us to be able to do more projects right here in our own studio."
Recording for video games has its own unique challenges, both for the musicians and for those on
the other side of the mixing board. For one thing, there is virtually no visual element to follow,
as there often is with film and television projects. "You're not looking at anything as you go
along," explains Jones, "because the action that will eventually go with the music is not set in
stone yet. You don't have the luxury of arranging that balance instrumentally."
In the case of The Force Unleashed, Griskey and Harlin had another obstacle to overcome:how to
make the score original, while still making it sound like the Star Wars theme that we all know and
love. "Our goal with the project was to capture the sound of an orchestral performance,and I think
we achieved just that," says Griskey.
Adds Jones, "I think a lot of video game scores end up sounding like something else that's already
out there, but in our case,that similarity was intentional. There was a style that we were after
from the start."
All of the music was recorded live, with the exception of some sample overlays, and time was at a
premium. "In some ways, recording for a video game is similar to film scoring, because you have to
do large orchestral playing," says Ketchum. "But video games do not have film-sized budgets, so you
have to do a great deal of hard playing over a short period of time. We worked hard to produce a
large quantity of quality music over two days."
Both Griskey and Harlin agree that the musicians' hard work paid off. Of course, it didn't hurt
that, in addition to talent, many of the musicians involved in the recording also possessed a
deep reverence for the score.
"The brass section was a group of closeted Star Wars fans," recalls Harlin. "We had a section of
music that included one of the very recognizable Rebel Alliance themes from the first Star Wars
film. The score lacked specific dynamics markings that the original Williams score used, yet the
very first time our brass section played through the phrase, they played it—in unison—with the
correct dynamics. Everyone in the booth burst out laughing when we heard it."
The AFM continues to work with the video game industry to provide more work for musicians in this
exciting field. It often takes several years for one video game to be developed, even before
scoring is considered, but as LucasArts continues to create new games the AFM hopes for continued
collaboration. It's a desire shared by Harlin. "We do hope we can work with the AFM again in the
future. We had such a good experience on this project," he says.
In the meantime, talks are underway with a number of other video game producers, and work continues
to come in. In San Francisco, where AFM musicians have been involved in a number of large video
game scoring projects, Ketchum says that the outlook is positive. "When I put out a call for
musicians for a video gamescore, people jumpat the chance," she says. "The video game market has
opened up a lot of opportunities for this kind of work."