BWW Interview: Call of Duty: Black Ops III, behind the Soundtrack with Jack Wall & Cindy Shapiro
Gamers clearly awaited Call of Duty: Black Ops III and its November release immediately vaulted the game to Top 5 status. Ratings on the shooter game are high for developer Treyarch's "momentum-based, chained movement" system. The Activision game is available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
The storyline moves into the future and past, depending on mode: the player is thrust into 2065, and a world changed by global warming and technology. Fighting is largely done by robots and cyborg "super-soldiers," and the numerous plot twists will keep the player on edge and active. There are also two "Zombie" modes.
"The interesting thing about COD is that music is not the first thing you think of," says Jack Wall, the composer of much of Black Ops III's soundtrack. "It's all about the experience of playing with your friends."
But how about the music? Players of Mass Effect, Myst and Black Ops II will be familiar with Wall's work. Catching up with Wall and his wife/partner Cindy Shapiro at his Los Angeles studio, we immediately get Jack's enthusiasm for music, but also the application of skills that one might not realize fits into, of all things, video games.
Black Ops II was an extension of the first game, with most of the original characters. "In Black Ops III everything is completely new," Wall explains, "it's set in a different place in the future, and a completely different cast of characters. I brought nothing of Black Ops II to Black Ops III, it's all new stuff."
The business of music for games long ago became a serious one, and action aside, the music evokes the necessary moods in war and the drama that surrounds it. The application, Jack says is not that much different. "I think writing for games is pretty much the same in terms of how we produce music," he explains. "We have to think more (about) what the player is going to do and have to come up with more solutions musically for that. We can't write 40 hours of music for a 40-hour experience; we have to write maybe two or three hours of music and make that work in the context of what the player's going to do. So it's just a little bit more technical; sometimes my brain hurts a little bit (laughs) from trying to figure out all the different ramifications of what the player might do, it has its own set of challenges separate from film and TV."
He explains further: "There's actually three modes of gameplay with Call of Duty. One is the single player campaign, and that's by and large what I'm writing for. Their bread and butter is the multi-player, which is why it's such a very popular game. People get to play together; it's sort of like capture the flag, the doppelganger equivalent to going out and playing paintball, it's sort of like that social experience."
"The third mode is called Zombie Mode. This is proprietary to the developer I work for, Treyarch. They thought it would be fun to take their engine and attach more of a cartoony, zombie world to it, so I ended up writing some big band jazz for it."
So how did this all happen for Jack? "I never thought I'd be writing music for anything," he admits. "I've always loved music, I was always a performer, always played in bands, very influenced by sixties, seventies, eighties prog rock; Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, so my influences are more melodic in a way."
His entry into the game industry was the woman who later became his wife, Cindy Shapiro. A software designer, Shapiro fronted the prog-influenced band 2.5D, and staged her rock opera, Psyche. "We met because I was a recording engineer, and I was very interested in what she was up to. She introduced me to the game Myst. I played that game; she and I ended up scoring (on another project).
Cindy takes up the tale: "He was really interested in (the band), and he took me out for a drink to pick my brain. I thought I was on a date, and he thought he was on a business drink, and it turned out to be kind of both. He was really great in the studio," she goes on. "We were all very demanding and had ideas of what to sound like, and he was just so amazing."
She also drops a little insight into how Jack's mind works: "We were just really impressed with his sonic ability," Cindy recalls, "everything sounded amazing to us when he came in and started working with us. Then, we started working in games, Jack is a very determined person, and he just decided he was going to decode how you do scores. So he went out and bought a stack of movie scores, and just sat and listened to them all and figured it all out and was able to write orchestral music. Jack as a degree in civil engineering, which is kind of crazy when you think about it, we were all just impressed from the very beginning."
For most of Wall's work, it begins with his studio in LA, tricked out with niceties such as a keyboard built into the desk, surround sound speakers, computers, and servers with all manner of digital instruments. Cubase and Pro Tools are the primary recording/mixing weapons. "If I need to score anything," he explains, "soloists still just come here to my studio, record them over on top."
Much of Black Ops III was recorded in Nashville, which has long shed its image as being no more than the Grand Ole Opry and country music.
"They just have amazing musicians there," Jack says. "Over the last five years or so, they've sort of said, 'Hey, we're here, we have the best musicians in the world.' Nobody really understood that they have such a great legacy of time spent in studio. A lot of country musicians have orchestras to back them up, so these guys play enormous amounts of sessions. It surprised me how good they were. I've recorded all over the world, Seattle, London, Bratislava places like that but I would say the top two places are LA and London."
"For union reasons it's hard to record our scores in LA," he continues, "so we have to go elsewhere. And Nashville's become this other place to go. The musicians are very close to London (on par with)."
Among those who applied their talents is Judd Miller. I've been working with him about 15 years or so (including Myst 3)," Jack says. "Judd plays this Electronic Valve Instrument, which looks like a trumpet. It's the same structure as a trumpet, but it's an electronic instrument. He's an instrument designer, so he comes up with these really interesting sonic instruments and he plays them with this EVI, and it sounds very otherworldly, he creates sounds...he's one of my go-to guys."
Singer Azam Ali is another: "Azam is a singer who specializes in what I call movie music singing," he explains. "She was on the soundtrack to 300, (and) has this beautiful sort of alto voice that has a lot of soul to it, and in the game we've got this one level called 'Infection.' In the story, there's an artificial intelligence that's involved, because super-soldiers were created by this company. Rather than just all this dystopian future kind of stuff, what they tried to bring forth in the story is the sense that there's a humanity to these guys, and there's a safe zone called "Frozen Forest," and I had to write a theme for this dream memory place. They would be induced into a sort of vegetative state, and they would go to this place. And sort of like Steve Austin, the Bionic Man, they're hooked into the AI... they can communicate without speaking to one another.
"There's a lot of battling going on, where pieces of earth are moving around, it's very unreal, yet very real to the player, and so I wanted to create this piece with Azam called "Dreams." She sang on it, and she would give me these vocalizations, and I would take them and create this piece of music from that, so that's how we work together."
Cindy granted insight on her approach. "We asked the designers to give a sense of who these characters were," she says, "what their goals were, and I wrote around that. I write from a theatrical point of view, what's happening in the scene, what is the goal of the character and then I create lyrics around that. Jack wrote all the music, but I was writing things out, the structure, we had a great time."
"This is all for Zombie mode," Jack continues. "Zombie mode is taking place in 1930's New Orleans (in a story called "Shadows of Evil"). The femme fatale character is played by Heather Graham; there's another character Jeff Goldblum plays, and another one that Ron Perlman plays."
"They came to me and said we need to write two songs, probably using the songs in trailers, but they'll also be played in the game itself. One of them needs to be the femme fatale character singing something. They only wanted that song, so I said, 'Wait a minute, let's do that but let's also do an up-tempo swing band in the room'."
The result is Rick Riso doing "Snakeskin Boots," the answer song to "Cold Hard Cash," sung by Antonia Bennett. "Antonia killed it," Cindy proclaims, "she was so great. And then Rick came in and sang 'Snakeskin Boots,' and the big band just sounds hot, they were just great. I treated it like a piece of theater," Cindy explains, and the two songs call to each other lyrically. I had a really good time messing with these lyrics, and messing with ideas of sex, that kind of thirties, hidden meaning in the lyrics, it was fun, and then we went in the studio have two great singers deliver those two songs."
"I don't think I've ever had that much fun," Jack says.
And there you have it: the next time you lock and load for Call of Duty: Black Ops III, listen to the music just a little closer. Music, like a good story, takes you somewhere; like the game, the soundtrack does not disappoint.
Photo Credits: Ed Rode