You might not have heard of Michael Giacchino, but you almost certainly have heard his music. He’s composed the scores to films like MI:3, The Incredibles, and, most recently, Ratatouille. He’s worked on TV shows, including Alias and Lost. He’s worked on videogames — at least a dozen of them. In fact, videogames is where Giacchino (pronounced juh-KEE-no) got his start, and where he just returned, with the soundtrack to EA’s WWII shooter Medal of Honor: Airborne (in stores Aug. 28). We called him a few days ago to talk about writing music to shoot Nazis by, the pressures of TV, and the upcoming Star Trek movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Audiences may know you from your work in TV and film, but you got your start writing music for videogames.
MICHAEL GIACCHINO: Absolutely. The very first game I worked on was for DreamWorks Interactive’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. In those days, Steven Spielberg was producing these games. He was so involved in the creation of these games because he’s a huge gamer himself. So for us — as a group of young guys making games — it was just fun to be working with a guy who we all wanted to be when we were kids. For me in particular, it meant a lot because he was instrumental in making sure that we used a live orchestra for everything we did. And that’s truly all I wanted to do. If he wasn’t there, I doubt [the project] would have gone that way, because videogame music at that time was still just synthesized.
So how did you break into TV?
As far Alias goes, J.J. Abrams and his friends play videogames — they were playing the games I worked on. They must’ve thought my scores were different and bigger than the scores they were used to hearing. J.J. just called me up and said, ”Hey, I like what you do in videogames — do you want to do that with me in TV?” That was literally how it happened; he just called me out of the blue and asked. They had no qualms about working with somebody who came out of videogames. Whereas most other TV producers and film producers certainly did.
How does your work in videogames and TV and film influence each other?
I think it was all my years writing the Medal of Honor stuff that prepared me for Lost. There was a lot of experimentation that went on, because you have a freedom in games that you don’t necessarily have in film. In videogames there’s a much more open and trusting atmosphere. I was able to experiment with different things — and that helped me with Lost. And vice versa: Coming back after few years on Lost, there are certainly ideas and stuff I can bring to Airborne.
What are the differences in composing for games versus TV versus film?
The processes share some similarities. Whether it’s a game, TV show, or movie — it all goes back to finding the emotional current that goes through the storyline. The biggest issues are time and budget. Videogame budgets are not as big as they are on films, but often they can be bigger than what you would get on a TV show. Movies are not that dissimilar from videogames. Schedules for animated movies like Ratatouille are more prolonged, which can be nice, because you have time to think through different thematic material. And likewise, we were able to break Medal of Honor into chunks while they were finishing the game. As opposed to TV, where they throw it at you, and say, ”Please get it done.” On Lost, I write a score and orchestrate it on days one and two; I record it on day three. In animation and film and videogames, you have a little more time to work things through.
I’ve always wondered about musicians recording game soundtracks. As they’re playing an elongated chord fragment from a scene where you’re shooting the hell out of Nazis, do they ever think, ”I went to Juilliard for this?!’‘
Not at all. You’d be surprised. I tend to write very active parts — and they love the challenge. Put something in front of them that is different, something they’ve never seen before — that’s what it’s all about for them. They want a challenge in the same way I want a challenge.
Who are some of your influences? Who is on your musical Must List?
It’s all over the map. I love Glenn Gould. Max Steiner. John Williams. Louis Prima. Benny Goodman. Miles Davis. John Philip Sousa. As a kid, I would listen to anything that had a live orchestra or ensemble playing, so that covered everything from show tunes to eclectic jazz things to film soundtracks to classical music. They’re all inspiring to me.
Was it difficult working on Ratatouille? You worked on The Incredibles videogame, but you’re known for action-heavy fare like the Medal of Honor games and Lost and MI:3.
Yeah, [the Ratatouille score] is very different from scene to scene, because the film is very different from scene to scene. When you go see a movie about rats, you’re thinking it’s going to be funny and slapstick — but this is an extremely emotional movie. [Ratatouille writer/director] Brad Bird is incredible. That he put this thing together in a year and half amazes me. I didn’t want to disappoint him. It was one of those big projects that makes you go, ”Oh God, I don’t want to screw this up!”
You’ve had a hand in the soundtracks for just about every J.J. Abrams project since Alias. So we can assume you’ll be scoring the new Star Trek movie. Were you a fan of the TV series?
Yes! That’s another reason I said yes to the project — there are so many great things that came out of this franchise that I loved while growing up.
Not to scare you, but if you mess this up, people with fake Vulcan ears and bowl cuts might hunt you down.
Am I scared to work on this? Absolutely. But I gotta do it. And while you don’t want to disappoint the fans, you still want to try something new. If J.J. called me up and said, ”Hey, I’m doing a dog-food commercial. Would you do it for me?” I would say yes because I know it would be the best dog-food commercial ever made. And it would be fun.
What else can you say about the movie?
I think the anticipation will end up being worse than me actually sitting down and writing, because [once there’s footage] on screen for me to look at and follow, it just starts happening. As hard as it will be, I think it will be a blast. My son has a picture of me when I was 9 years old and I’m wearing this Star Trek shirt. It’s just so weird: There I am at 9 — and now I’m going to be actually working on a Star Trek movie. It’s very strange.