Detroit
Interview

Bringing Androids to Life in Detroit: Become Human – An Interview With Philip Sheppard

Detroit: Become Human is a unique game in a few ways, and one of those is the way in which David Cage, the mind behind the game, opted to use music. Instead of hiring one composer to score the entire game, Cage decided to hire three: Nima Fakhrara, Philip Sheppard and John Paesano—one for each main character. This approach gave each character their own unique texture and sound, but also meant that all three scores had to be put together to make a coherent whole. OnlySP previously spoke to Nima Fakhrara about his work scoring Connor’s soundtrack for the game, and recently had the chance to follow that up by speaking to his colleague Philip Sheppard on his work for Kara, and how he came to be involved in the ambitious project, as well as his personal take on the themes of the game.

Sheppard began his musical career as a cellist, and initially intended on a different career path. “I started playing when I was very young, about three-and-a-half years old. I was going very much down the route of being a classical performer, and at the same time I was teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, for a long time actually. I loved it there. But I realised that there was something that wasn’t quite fulfilling about it.” A passion for film married with the love of music, and a new avenue appeared, away from the world of classical music.

“I’ve always been obsessed with soundtracks and I was working with a lot of composers myself as a player. I kind of wanted to get my hands dirty and do that myself. On the first movie I worked on, we were very lucky. None of us had made a film for cinema before, and we took it to Sundance and won the audience award which is kind of nuts. That was about 10 years ago, and since then I’ve done about 60 projects to picture in total, and kind of love it. It’s generally been around the documentary world, because Sundance is very much my stomping ground in terms of my normal work.”

Philip Sheppard

DISCOVERING DETROIT

Sheppard’s diverse range of work had not really stretched to video games until Detroit: Become Human, but his previous work had led him to collaborate with the band Unkle, as well as a collaboration with David Bowie. His willingness to experiment and find new avenues for his work led him to video games, and to this project.

“Like every composer, you’re looking at some point to maybe dabble with other things, particularly with narrative, whether it’s multi-part, a Netflix style thing, or whether it’s an on screen drama,” Sheppard explained. “Funnily enough, gaming is very much something that I wanted to experiment with because it’s not linear. I think there comes a point when you’ve done a lot of soundtracks that the left to right narrative of ‘this is how it’s going to sound how ever many times you watch it’ starts to become a little boring. There’s an in built frustration that comes about from the fact that these days it’s possible to have a different experience with the same material arranged in a different way. So coming in to the games world it’s really satisfied two things for me. One is the compositional challenge since this was something I didn’t know how to do. Hopefully you hide that fact and never tell anyone! The other side is the technological challenge. I’ve always been a bit of a tech head, whether it’s the way that an instrument’s made or how software works, I have found that in the game world it’s very close to the surface, that stuff. It’s exciting to work in a field where actually it’s not fully fixed and set.”

As someone who has worked on plenty of different forms of media, Sheppard’s perspective on the differences in the game world started with the difference in time available to a composer. “The sheer amount of time that you have to work on a game is definitely one of the challenges, and is so much longer than it is for a Hollywood movie,” he said. “I’ve come in and improvised on some quite well known films, and it’s been two weeks before they’re released. Really close to the edge. Indeed, with some of the documentaries I’ve worked on, my record was a 12 day turn around from getting the commission to then writing it, going in the studio and mixing it, and delivering it. But that’s not particularly unusual. So the challenge was the time in as much as everyone has a lot of time to consider and change their mind. Forcing a binary decision from the people that you’re writing for is actually quite difficult when it feels like there’s a whole 11 months of luxury to play with.”

In reality though, that time is not a luxury, and Sheppard also came to understand that. “Because of the sheer amount of cues you’ve got to write, you’ve actually got to get to decisions quite quickly. I think all of us probably found that to be a challenge. I think Nima did as well, you can spend a long time looking for the perfect start for what you’re writing when sometimes it’s better just to kind of weigh in at the end and reverse engineer the whole thing. Also, the emotion in the characterisation comes in right at the last moment. There’s little tells in the character’s faces. They’re not there when you’re dealing with an animatic, or stick figures, or mo-cap. So in a weird kind of way, you can inform that as a composer more than if you’re in an accompanying role for Hollywood.”

So how did Sheppard get involved with Detroit? His young son, funnily enough, played a big role.

“I think my 10 year old was the one who clinched it. The last time I touched a console was probably before my first kid was born when I had the first PlayStation. She’s now in the second year of university so it really has been 19 years! So there was a challenge in as much as to write music for a game you have to play it over and over. To get past that, my 10 year old made me pay him to sit next to me while I wrote. He sat and happily played an R-rated game next to me! That was a really great way to bond actually, and suddenly I had a job that is actually cool to your kids; that’s the best thing in the world, even though they’d never admit it.”

The process itself started through LinkedIn, and when David Cage got in touch, Sheppard was simply asked if he wanted to be involved in the project. After accepting, Sheppard asked what he should aim for in his score.

“I asked him what style he wanted me to write in, and he said that he wanted it to sound like Philip Sheppard! Then the next thing is actually sitting there and wondering, ‘what do I sound like?’ I don’t know!” he exclaimed, exasperated. “It’s a short road to madness, because you hope that each project sounds different, but clearly not. It was very surreal, and the most non-pitch like pitch situation I’ve ever been in for a project. There was literally no pitch. They just had me start writing straight away once I said yes. It really was like that, and as with any project I try and get deeply immersed in it so you have to send me every single version of the script, all 2,500 pages, and I want all the conceptual artwork as well, and all the backstories and everything.”

UNDERSTANDING AND BUILDING KARA

Following the approach, Sheppard got to know Kara’s story, and discussed his first impressions of the trajectory of her tale and what he felt he could bring to it. “I think I knew from reading it, what it should sound like instantly, and I was completely wrong. I thought, in as much as it’s an android that gains sentience, that’s not a new concept. I love making mechanical music, whether it’s based around clockwork or anything else. I thought that I’d do it as a little clockwork fantasy, and that kind of style would dictate the instruments that I use and then expand out to orchestra. Actually, that totally didn’t work at all. I was playing around with Speak & Spell machines, I was doing everything I could to distort circuitry, but actually the thing that really worked was being hyper organic with it, and very analogue. It ended up that her tune was a very fragile little cello thing. The demo that I recorded for it, I must have recorded at about three in the morning. I was off my head on coffee, in a different place. I had hallucinated it pretty much…I go to Montana to write, because you can be away from everything, apart from bears, and the thing sort of sprung fully formed in to my head. I came back and recorded it and because I was quite tired when I did it, the cello line sounds fragile and slightly broken. I thought I could re-record it nearer the time and I kept not re-recording it. I realised that actually, the slightly shonky nature of the way it had been played was really important because it doesn’t sound polished.”

He also had a vested interest in Kara’s story, through an amazing connection. “The world of androids is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. I had a great friend who was the godfather of it really. He was called Marvin Minsky, and he really invented the terminology for it and ended up designing HAL for Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Marvin was a wonderful piano player and his daughter gave me access to a lot of his archives just after he died, and we ended up working one of Marvin’s piano pieces in to the score as an unlockable item. David Cage was delighted because he’d named one of the character subconsciously after Marvin Minsky and was rather shocked that he’d been a friend of mine! But it all came full circle, and rather than unlocking a weapon you unlock Marvin Minsky, and I love the idea of some 15 year old being like ‘who’s that?’ As far as Easter Eggs go that was a fun one because I took his piano recording in to Abbey Road and we framed it with an orchestra and gave it back to his widow who was quite surprised! She’s an avid gamer herself, a 92 year old who is in to this kind of thing, which is great.”

Since he knew that his focus was purely on her, Sheppard did his best not to interact with the other story lines. “I thought that I needed to track the same pathway she does, which is to not necessarily know what is going on in that game universe. That isn’t lazy on my part, it’s more…it’s extremely unusual if you think about it to have the opportunity to write a single character within a project. If you’re doing a movie or an opera or whatever, you are constantly doing all of the characters, the landscape, you’re doing the furniture and you’re doing the moods and even the lighting. With this you are literally just doing the inside of that character’s head. That’s your role and everything that you’re trying to represent in the music I suppose is their outward view. I wasn’t even describing the environment around her, I was literally trying to write about what is inside her head. I’ve realised that I never had to do that before, and I think the only time as a composer that you do that is when you’re writing concert music about something that may be personal to you. Often in a movie project, you learn not to write about yourself so much, it’s more about what’s happening outside of you, so this was really different.

“We were very careful not to listen to each other’s music during the process, it’s kind of important not to, and they did a great job in blending it when it came to laying it together, it’s kind of incredible that it fitted, but I think the thing was that we write in these distinct sound worlds anyway. John [Paesano] has got the epic thing going, Nima has this really lovely quirky, close focus found sound invented instruments, plus all the great analogue stuff, the synth stuff, and then mine is probably somewhere in between the two. I don’t think our sound worlds even trod on each other’s feet in that way.”

This was a similar perspective to Fakhrara, who also did a deep dive in to Connor’s world when working on his score. Sheppard told OnlySP that the experience was deeply affecting. “I think I went slightly mad after about 6 months actually! I went to, not a dark place, but definitely a place where it became quite obsessive. I suppose also, working on the music for so long, you kind of go through phases where you start to like it, then hate it, then like it and so on. It almost becomes too much. It’s funny, when I got to recording the orchestra in Abbey Road, I got to the end, and it was ridiculous, I completely lost it. At the end of the last cue, I burst in to tears. I’ve never done that in a studio, and I wasn’t sad. It was just all the emotion coming out. It sort of becomes like an expurgation, you have to kind of get rid of it. Consequently, I’ve not been able to play the game, and I need to leave quite a lot of distance until I do I think.”

The process was a singular experience—one of absolute involvement, and one that is almost necessary to imbuing the music with believable emotion. “I think you need to get that involved to make it authentic. I know sometimes things are commercial, but a bit like when you perform, you can’t just be functional about it. Particularly if you want the music to cause goosebumps in your average player, a 14 year old sitting in a room in Utah for example, you’ve got to go through quite a lot to get to the point when someone else feels something.”

This aspect was not the only to think about though. Cage was a demanding person to write for, and Sheppard remembered the process for developing Kara’s theme was a bit of a long-winded one. “He was very overt about which character he thought I sounded like. ‘We think you sound like a young woman,’ he said. I was like ‘okay, cool! I’m good with that!’ But I know that I write positive melancholic music for strings, I love doing that, so bring it on. I suppose the only torment that he and I went through together was not settling on a theme. Not being able to find her theme. He won’t mind me saying this but it took eight completely new versions of me saying ‘this is Kara’s theme’ and him rejecting it before in the end I got in a plane and flew over and said ‘this is version eight, let’s listen to it’ and he said that I had it this time. I said ‘David, that was the first theme I wrote!’ It was fine though, because it meant that I knew what I shouldn’t write for the rest of it. The other six were definite noes, which is actually really useful. I find that when you’re working on movies as well and the director says that they absolutely don’t want something, that’s really great to work with, because you can totally avoid it. When they say something is about 60% there, that’s a terrible place to be! It really is. There’s no recovery from there.

“David is binary. He’s very much a love it or hate it person. It’s one or the other and actually that, over a long time period, is actually really healthy for a composer. He’s a musician himself, he knows, and he told me slightly further on in the process the reason that he found me was that one of his previous composers had been David Bowie and I’d worked with Bowie so that was the link. It’s the only work I’ve ever got with that connection, because it’s pretty obscure. You’d have to be a bit of a completionist to know in the first place, but that was quite nice, he knew when to stroke my ego on that one!”

Sheppard mentioned that the trio working on the music never trod on each other’s feet, and the fact that their music blends so well in the final game is one of its more impressive feats. Sheppard attributes the score’s effectiveness to Cage’s ability to piece all the elements together.

“I think that is down to David knowing what he was looking for from a pallet or textural point of view,” he explained. “In a way that’s a little bit like layering the elements of a scene, whether it’s the production design of actual objects within it, or whether it’s the weather, and then the characters. There’s all these distinct levels and layers, and someone like that, that’s really where he’s smart, in knowing where the demarcations are. I think he did the same with the music in that way.”

Looking more specifically at Kara again, Sheppard set about picking out particular aspects of her personality to bring out in the music, and identified one aspect in particular: her developing role as a mother. “I think the strongest feature that I felt directed the way that I wrote was the transition from her being someone who operates by rote through to being a mother. As a parent it was then quite easy because I could write about how I feel, and about my kids. That was the strongest thing that came through, but in terms of the more nuanced stuff, I think I wanted to keep this idea of her having a mechanical core. You’ve kind of always got to question whether she is actually sentient, or is she still enacting algorithms. I buried lots of numerical patterns within it, lots of ostinatos and riffs based around number games. I wanted to leave those unbroken even if they sound wrong, I liked letting them play themselves out. There’s a lot of cross rhythm stuff that is sitting in there more because it’s a machine rather than thinking that it’s going to sound nice.

“I also didn’t want to write any sense of self-sentimentality. I tried to put it in these terms: the character can feel something for another character but can still ultimately feel nothing for themselves. That was a hard one to write but then again you’re overtly writing about external impetus then which is quite fun.”

Since this was Sheppard’s first major project in video games, and even despite the fact that he is not a gamer, he feels he would happily return to the medium in future, and work in a collaborative way like he did on Detroit.

“It’s this weird hybrid of liquid fiction, and we’re getting towards open world gaming really that has this level of characterisation. It’s a great time to be on any side of game authoring. In David’s case, I see him as being a novelist who is using a liquid form of literature, and his tools happen to be graphics and gameplay. He’s got a novelist’s brain, but those are his tools. I’ve also learned that the healthiest work is when you are working with other people, not that I worked directly with the other composers, but there was no negative to it at all, I think the only thing there was a constant sense of is how you are comparing to everyone else in terms of whether you are behind or not. Where am I in my production flow? That kind of thing.

“But that wasn’t really a major concern. Everyone got to the right points at the right times. My day to day work these days is very much more about writing with others, it leads to pieces I wouldn’t have written, and it’s a very healthy place to live as an artist, actually. If I just end up writing my music about myself it’d be a very short career! And a very unhealthy place. So yes, absolutely. Bring it on.”

SCREEN MUSIC CONNECT

Sheppard is attending, and performing “Kara’s Theme”, at an event called Screen Music Connect on Monday, September 24. To conclude the discussion, he told OnlySP a little about what the event is and what he will be talking about there.

“I’m talking on a panel there, and I suppose one of my messages will probably be along the lines of the fact that game music is definitely a progression not a diminution. Coming in to game music with a classical foundation is, for me, really important. You have to be really disciplined in game music. It’s about administration, organisation and structure, and then you can put the feelings in.

“Funnily enough having those rigidities enables you to be much freer. I know it’s cliche, but having those boundaries means that you can write to much more effect. I am playing there as well, I’m gonna show how I built Kara using a cello and a lute. It might be awesome, it might be terrible! You make a mistake on a lute and it comes back to haunt you,” he joked.

Despite his anxiety, Sheppard is excited to play at the event. “I’m looking forward to the concert. It’s in the Purcell room, where I made my solo debut. It’ll be funny going back and playing there in a different context. When I was last there I was playing difficult serial music for an audience who didn’t know they wanted to hear it and after I played probably still didn’t!

“It’ll be a different experience for me, and I’m really looking forward to it. What’s been great about the game is that there’s a massive audience that I never knew was there. I’d heard about it but getting this very gratifying response from quite young players who are finding connections and things they can see in the characters themselves that they can relate to, that’s been really nice. I think they see a lot more in the music than I saw when I was writing it, which is a nice way round! Something is connecting, I think the listening brings a lot to it personally.

“I’m looking forward to also meeting more of those people, because as I say it’s not a natural milieu for me. I’ve been to this event as a listener before so it’s really nice going along and feeling like you’ve worked your way on the stage. That’s kind of nice!”

Screen Music Connect takes place in London on September 24 in the Purcell Room, and features video game composers like Sheppard and Olivier Deriviere, as well as others from across the musical spectrum, on panels discussing the world of screen music and what goes in to it. For more information on the event and how to get tickets, click here.

Detroit: Become Human is out now on PlayStation 4.

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