Beware of SPOILERS for the Stargate Atlantis Season Five episode “The Lost Tribe” in the interview below.
Depending on where you live and how the network on which you have watched Atlantis handles the end credits, you may not have been able to catch the “Additional Music by Neal Acree” tile.
Since Season Eight of Stargate SG-1 and midway through Season Three of Atlantis Neal has been composing additional music for Stargate alongside the legendary Joel Goldsmith. GateWorld is proud to bring you an interview with this young composer, who shares not only his insight into how he creates for the franchise, but has graciously shared unreleased samples of his Stargate work in the audio version!
Neal discusses musical selections which originally made him fall in love with the art, his journey to composing for the franchise and, of course, some of his favorite pieces. We also discuss the growing influence of the gaming industry and what the future may have in store for new entertainment mediums.
GateWorld’s interview with Neal Acree runs a little under 40 minutes. Listen online at your leisure, download it to your MP3 player, or subscribe now to the iTunes podcast! The full interview is also transcribed below.
GateWorld: I’ve been reading your biography on your Web site. You’ve worked with a number of composers. Tell us about your origins with music. What really sparked this as a passion for you?
Neal Acree: I would have to say growing up in the era of Star Wars and Superman, and ET, Indiana Jones — all of which were scored by John Williams. I think that planted the seed early on. It was pretty much my earliest memories were going to the drive-in.
That was the beginning of the blockbuster, and the big Hollywood score. The big pay-off moments with the big theme blaring and everything. It was just an exciting time for music and John Williams was, and is, and will always be, the king of film music.
I was 3 years old when Star Wars came out so I didn’t exactly know what was going on musically but I knew that when the themes were playing I knew that that was something special.
GW: Well they were resonating for you on a personal level.
NA: Definitely. I always wanted to be involved with movies on some level, whether it was artistically or doing special effects or something, but at some point being involved with music that became the most obvious option.
GW: What colors do you like to play with when it comes to music? What are you more interested in working on? A more classical sounding? If you had your choice. Would you go for a more classical sounding project or would you go for something more mechanical, more industrial, more techno, more 21st century? If you had your pick of any project what would you really go after?
NA: When you said colors I was going to say fuchsia, but I think I might have missed … [Laughter] I like the idea of variety, so it’s hard to say that there is any one thing I’d love to do.
I also love the idea of doing a mixture of things in projects. Orchestral mixed with electronic, mixed with sounds that I’ve created from nothing or from manipulating real world sounds. That kind of thing’s exciting for me. I think every composer wants to do something that’s never been heard before, and that’s the absolute hardest thing for any of us to do.
GW: Yeah, that magic formula is really far out there, isn’t it? “Do something completely original!”
NA: Exactly. Every once in a while something will just pop out of nowhere and everyone will be like, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It happens every once in a while and I guess we all want to have our own stab at that kind of thing.
GW: But isn’t every musician influenced by any other musician that they listen to? Doesn’t it all seep into your subconscious?
NA: Absolutely. All we are as creative people — we take in everything that we see and hear. We process it in our own way and then come up with something that’s sort of a conglomeration of all those things and we hope that it’s at least worthy of being heard in the same context as some of the influences we have.
GW: Do you ever create a piece and then a few days later say, “Oh man, that sounds like something that I’ve heard before.” I have a friend who’s doing the Stargate Worlds score and he had been writing a piece for several days, and he played it back and it dawned on him that he had basically ripped off the entire dungeon theme for the classic Legend of Zelda. [Laughter]
NA: Sure! That does happen. Sometimes it happens while I’m writing it. It’s usually better if it happens while I’m writing it. “Oh this sounds a lot like that. I’d better go get away from that while I can.”
GW: Is that a constant scare of a composer, that you’re ripping off someone else’s work, or at some point do you just have to give up and say, “I’m doing the best I can with this, and I’m trying not to rip anyone off, but I’m only human.”
NA: Every time you sign a contract you sign a certificate of authorship saying, “I wrote this and if the company gets sued for copyright infringement I’m taking full responsibility for that.” So there’s a legal fear of that. But more importantly nobody wants to be known as the guy who rips everyone off. There’s that personal, professional feeling.
But at the same time film music is a language in a sense because every film score ever written sounds a little bit like the other ones, and there are certain musical phrases, chords, progressions that all sound slightly similar. You can’t really do a sci-fi score or a horror score or an action score without borrowing from other people.
And if you don’t you’re going to end up with something that completely alienates the audience. Or if you’re lucky you’ll come up with a whole brand new approach. But you have to throw in a little bit of influence with other things.
GW: So what point in your youth, or post youth, did you decide that physical art, drawings and things like that, was not the direction that you wanted to go in and you wanted to go with music?
NA: Something about drawing — art and music for me are both very interesting creative outlets but something about music, the fact that you can experience it. I’d rather listen to a piece of music for three minutes than stare at a piece of art for three minutes. Not to say that there isn’t a lot to be gained from viewing a painting.
GW: No, that’s your preference.
NA: Yeah. But also even better I’d love to listen to a piece of music combined with an image or series of images. I started to see how music, when combined with art or with pictures, became so much more powerful than a piece of music could be on its own.
It took on a whole new level of emotional and intellectual influence and just seemed so exciting, the idea of doing that kind of thing. The snowball started rolling and I really started to see how exciting music and especially music-to-picture would be.
GW: Tell us about the path that led you to Stargate. How’d that ball start to get rolling?
NA: A friend introduced me to Joel back in the day when I was setting up equipment and helping out other composers.
GW: What season of Stargate was this in when you were first introduced to Joel?
NA: I started right before Season Three [of SG-1]. He had just wrapped Season Two. He was moving to a new house and a new studio. I helped him move and get set up in his new studio and stayed on as his assistant, and over the years did everything from mixing to orchestrating to helping manage his sample library. Eventually ended up getting to write on the show which was a great opportunity.
GW: And when did that happen?
NA: Around Season Eight, I started on SG-1. And then for Atlantis I started about half way through Season Three.
GW: Now for writing on Stargate, how does this work? Do you pick up Joel’s scraps where he didn’t have a chance to get to, or does he say, “I’d like Neal to take a stab at this scene, either because I don’t think it suits what I like to focus on or I don’t have time for it or I think his tastes are perfect for this.” How does this work?
NA: We have a finely tuned machine at this point. Rick Chaddock — the music editor — and Joel will spot the show and decide where the music’s going to go and will come up with a list of cues.
Basically Joel will usually see what kind of direction the show’s going to go and if it involves a new character or a new vibe, or something that involves a new theme he’ll develop that. And then based on that we’ll see where our individual strengths or just what makes the best sense time-wise. I’ll go in and basically fill in the gaps a lot of the time. Sometimes I’ll get a chance to do something really exciting.
What’s always fun for me is staying true to the themes that [Joel’s] established over the years and finding a good payoff moment to bring in this persons’ theme or that person’s theme. The fact that the fans really are very keen on that kind of thing — it’s great inspiration knowing that they pay attention to that stuff and it’s not lost on the audience.
GW: Obviously Joel’s sound is signature Stargate sound. He’s been working on this since “Children of the Gods” and all the way up through “Enemy at the Gate.” The SG-1 movies, and now of course Universe. Do you find yourself in conflict when you’re creating music for Stargate that you have to go more with Joel’s signature sound and not your own signature sound. How similar and different are they when you compare the two together? How do you handle a situation like this? Because you want to obviously be your own musician yet you have to service a very specific sound on a show.
NA: Over the years I’ve gotten so comfortable with the sound that Joel established that it’s a really seamless kind of thing. There’s been times where we’ve looked back at old shows and heard something and been like, “Did I write that or did Joel write that?” And we couldn’t even tell.
Me as a composer, myself, we do have differences in our individual styles, but I think they complement each other well. And especially in the case of Stargate shows we’re all going for the same sound that’s been established. We work pretty seamlessly, I think.
GW: Well you’re working from the same palette of colors, so I would imagine that anything comes out — not only does it have to sound reasonably seamless but it should by nature of how you’ve set yourselves up.
NA: Yeah. Even on a technical level we use the same samples and we have the same software. We talk frequently about, “Let’s use this kind of instrument or that kind of instrument.” So yeah, on a technical level we’re very much in sync. On a musical level we’re both also influenced by a lot of the same people. The precedent has been set for science fiction music in the past and we borrow from that as much as Joel’s established the specific sound of Stargate.
GW: Now each episode is not scored in a vacuum. I would imagine you guys are working on numerous episodes simultaneously or do you take it one at a time?
NA: It’s usually one at a time. But occasionally for one reason or another we’ll have to jump back and forth. It’s usually because the episodes get mixed about once a week or a little less frequently than that. So usually we would focus on one episode and then the next. You see the light at the end of the tunnel, that light is the next show coming at you.
GW: If we’re at the beginning of the season and these episodes that have been shot are just now airing, how long do you guys have to score it before we see it on air? How much time has passed? Because you guys are usually near the butt end of post, right?
NA: Yes. I’m trying to think. Usually we’re scoring the episodes a week before they mix, and I would say another two or three weeks after that they do a second mix and finalize everything, and then it’s pretty much ready for broadcast.
I’m trying to think in the past how things have gone. We maybe started working on them in April and they’ve ended up airing in July. Something like that. It depends a great deal. So we’re not scoring them a week before they air or anything like that.
GW: Right. You’re not like Law and Order or CSI. “They were filmed a month ago and here they are!”
NA: No, not like that.
GW: About how much of an episode, percentage wise, will contain original music? How do you allocate this time? I’m sure when there were 40 episodes a year it had to have been hell, and now there are 20 and I’m sure it gives you a little more breathing room to dedicate to each episode.
When you get an episode in do you typically watch the episode and find the places where there are music or do you say, “OK, each episode generally will start off with 15 minutes of music and then we’ll add or subtract depending on the content of the episode.” How does that work when you get an episode?
NA: Every episode’s different. We treat each one like a little movie in itself. They range from, [at] the minimum 12 minutes, is one of the lightest shows we’ve done. They’ve gone all the way up to 33 minutes out of a 44 minute episode. They kind of hover around 22 to 26 minutes, maybe.
Some of the episodes that tend to be more driven more by exposition and some of the very strong acting episodes like “The Shrine,” for example with Rodney decaying and his mental state, the acting really drove that episode and there wasn’t a lot of need for music. On the other end of things you get some of the season finales, or the mid-season finale like —
NA: Exactly. That kind of show, it’s very action driven. You’ve got a lot of space battles. Those will be heavier shows. You take it episode by episode.
GW: I really love “First Contact” and “Lost Tribe.” In “First Contact” we had a very mechanical, very abrupt sound for this new enemy when they invade Atlantis base. Did you have any part in creating that sound?
NA: No, Joel did that one. Joel did the cue for when they actually attack the base and as well as kind of a theme for them. And then basically a two-part theme. We’re able to develop that over the course of two shows. Because they ended up being the Asgard, we worked on the Asgard theme as well and did a darker version of it.
GW: Yeah, it was minor! When the Asgard revealed himself you guys switched from the happy-go-lucky Asgard music to a dark Asgard, just with that chord change.
NA: That might have been me. Again, I was very keen to do the original theme. I think the great part about those two episodes was it’s like a movie. In a sense you have a story arc that goes over two hours and is a great opportunity to introduce a theme and build it overtime. So by the end of the two episodes you really have a musical identity. Every time the theme comes in for the bad guys it ties everything together really well.
GW: Well it’s pulling on our emotions and it’s establishing if not only on the screen, if it’s not happening on the screen at that moment, that something involving them is going on.
GW: It does a really good job of tying things together. That’s one of the great things about your guys’ music. It makes us remember that things can be going on that are not necessarily on the screen at that moment that we should be recognizing in our hearts.
NA: Exactly. Sometimes you score what’s on screen, sometimes you score what’s not going on on screen.
GW: Well there’s so much more that’s happening on these shows that’s not going on on screen. “Music is the language of emotion” — I can’t remember who said that. And you have to speak to that for such a character driven show as these.
What are some of the moments with your time on Stargate that you are most proud of in terms of what was put out in the final cuts? Are there any cues that you are particularly fond of that we can discuss?
NA: There’s been so many, but I would say Season Nine of SG-1, especially musically for us, was an immense challenge. We had so many new characters and themes and storylines to come up with to kick things off strong.
But one fun thing I remember doing was the duel between Mitchell — in “Avalon, Part 2” — the knight and Mitchell’s duel was a lot of fun. We wanted to do something very swashbuckling and exciting.
Another from that season was “The Powers That Be.” I wrote a theme to that one that was kind of the counterpoint to the Ori invasion theme. So it’s kind of a more somber, Lawrence of Arabia-esque theme that went with the villagers getting sick from the Ori disease.
Another favorite was in Season Four of Atlantis, in “Quarantine,” when Sheppard has to climb to the top of the tower. That was a fun scene. That big shot of the camera panning around the top of the tower. That was a good opportunity to bring in a variation of the Atlantis theme.
In “First Strike,” speaking of scenes that involve a lot of sound effects, a lot of CGI, there was the scene where the nuke gets deployed, and there’s that long tracking shot that follows it down to the Replicator planet.
It was challenging — it was also very exciting. But one thing I’m not sure if you realize, when we first get those scenes it usually is like a minute-long white text on black saying “missile goes down.” We usually wait on those for as long as we can until we get some rough footage, and they tend to give us wire frame or things like that, but it involves a lot of imagination.
I probably tend to overcompensate, not knowing what it is, I’d better go all out on this because chances are it’s going to be a huge grand shot, because they always deliver on those.
GW: Does your music end up being more grandiose than it should be, often, in that case?
NA: I think basically whenever they go to an effects shot it’s usually something pretty grand. It’s hard to overdo something for those. My first thought on that was, “If this is going to be a minute long tracking shot it’s going to be something pretty spectacular.” I didn’t really end up seeing the final visuals until I saw it on the air and was very impressed with what they came up with for that.
When Atlantis is submerging for the first time — they’re submerging to get away from the beam. My first instinct was I pulled out the CD from “Rising” and thought OK, what did Joel do when Atlantis was rising? Why don’t I do something like that?
GW: Do it backwards! [Laughter]
NA: I didn’t literally do it backwards. I tried to create a sense of “Hey, we’re back to the beginning.” We’re full circle. I brought it back musically. Again recreating the feeling that I got when I first heard Joel’s rising cue, which is one of my favorite things he’s ever written. Trying to evoke that same kind of feeling but differently knowing that it’s a darker moment. I’m very proud of that moment, and being able to tie it all in with the previously established stuff.
I’ve done a lot of the space battle things that ended up getting buried behind the sound of lasers. But that doesn’t mean that I cut any corners or anything. I’ll go in and do the most intricately layered, bombastic thing I can possibly come up with, just for the fun of it, knowing once it gets into the show behind the F-302s you’re probably not going to hear all that detail. There’s that scene in “Enemy at the Gate” when they’re flying over Area 51 and the darts are attacking, that was one of those cases I had a lot of fun with hat. I love writing that big, grand, very intense action stuff. In the final broadcast you can kind of hear it poking through behind the lasers.
GW: “You can ‘kind of’ hear it.”
NA: Not that I would expect them to go all music with that or anything.
GW: But still, is it heartbreaking when there was a specific moment that you thought the music shined in and it gets drowned?
NA: I’ve come to accept the fact that it’s in the best interests of the show at any given time, if the moment is about the sound effects and about the space battle than that’s what you should be hearing. It’s a little tough sometimes to watch it on TV. The TV signal is actually very compressed. The sound tends to get very — it’s not very dynamic. You don’t really hear a lot of the detail. On the DVDs there’s a lot more subtlety to the sound. You get to hear a lot more of the details.
GW: In terms of that respect, what do you think about the movement towards HD television? Is it about damn time, or is it not close enough?
NA: It’s definitely about time. I have a Blu-Ray player and I wish they had more movies for it. I understand they’re waiting for the market to get saturated before they put out stuff like “Star Wars” and the like.
GW: So that we can buy it for the 17th time.
NA: Exactly. And then we’ll wait for HD Blu-Ray and then buy it again. HD-HD DVD. [Laughter]
GW: Just plug into our brains why don’t you? Get it over with!
NA: I know. I saw Coraline last night in 3D and I was so blown away by the visuals on that. I can’t wait until regular television on TV is in 3D and we have implants in our eyes. We don’t even need glasses.
GW: I saw you on the Midway in San Diego [last] year. What was it like to finally sit with a group of fans who are fans of your music and your work? What was it like to be saturated by Stargate: Continuum with the rest of them?
NA: A lot more exciting than sitting in my living room and watching it on TV. I’ll definitely say that. It was tremendously exciting. I got very emotional watching in on the big screen. Just the excitement that not only the fans had for it, but the crew and everyone was just really excited about how well it came out and excited to have been involved with it. I’m really proud of that movie. It really came out wonderful. Seeing it with the fans was definitely an added bonus to it.
GW: Except when the kawoosh blew out the speakers.
NA: Yes! Yes.
GW: I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to repair those. “Oh, my God.”
NA: I’m not sure everyone had even realized that the front speakers were out because you could still hear the music and the sounds. Because the dialogue comes from the front we’re just hearing music coming from behind us and no sound effects and no dialogue.
GW: Someone turn on captions!
NA: They went a little artier than this than I was expecting.
GW: So Stargate Universe. Obviously we can’t talk very much about it, nor do I want us to talk a lot about it. But we’re going for a darker show, and a show that’s more akin to a scale and grandeur of Lost meets Battlestar Galactica with Stargate on a ship. We’re on the edge of the universe. Things are dark. Power is scarce. Energy is scarce. What kinds of palettes do you anticipate playing with this show?
NA: At the moment I believe Joel is working on establishing that palette of colors and themes and that kind of thing. I’m anxious as everyone is to hear what he comes up with.
GW: You haven’t heard anything yet?
NA: No. Pretty much everything I know about the show I know from GateWorld. I get all my Stargate news from GateWorld because you guys get it first. At first I was paying attention to all the news about the show and seeing what they were doing casting-wise.
At some point I decided to sit back and, “I’m just going to wait until I see an edited episode, see how it all cuts together. See how the dynamics are of the cast. See how it all plays. I’m sure by that point Joel and I will have discussed where he wants to take things musically and let’s go from there because until I see the show I don’t want to make any preconceptions about it.
GW: When do you anticipate receiving the first cut of “Air?”
NA: No idea. I really don’t know.
GW: Is it random when it comes in or is there a date when you can expect it?
NA: I think they have a schedule that at this point is changing constantly.
GW: Of course. Yeah, it’s a brand new series.
NA: So there’s no way to know for sure. So rather than stress out about it I’m going to sit back and wait until things get a little more finalized.
GW: Do you ever get writer’s block when it comes to scoring your music? Do you ever get yourself into a situation where, “I do not know what to put here.”
NA: We don’t generally have the luxury of writer’s block. We can’t sit around and go, “Well, I can’t think of anything today so I’ll take the day off.”
GW: Do you just put any old thing in there if that’s the case?
NA: At some point when inspiration doesn’t show up you have to rely on craft. You go with the techniques you’ve learned and the things you know have worked in the past. Sometimes I can be beating my head all day trying to write one minute of music and by the end of the day hate it, and then some days I’ll write six minutes of music and it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and it was the easiest thing in the world. It really depends on some unseen factor.
The deadline basically makes things …
GW: Is it kind of freeing that way?
NA: It can be. If I’m really stuck on something I’ll be like, “I can struggle with this for days but it has to be done so you let it go. I often will listen back to things and go “I don’t know what I was so stressed out about.”
Joel and I especially, we want at any given time to write better than we’ve ever written before and we hold ourselves to such high standards that sometimes that will drive you a little crazy. You’re second-guessing yourself over and over again. You’re trying to force something to happen that has to happen naturally and usually the times you’re not trying to write a masterpiece. Other times you write the masterpiece.
GW: Have you guys ever missed a deadline?
GW: Wow. Now you did the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King opening themes for the cinematics in the World of Warcraft MMO series. Tell us about that experience. They’re much more fantasy driven in terms of sound where Stargate is. Where do you go for inspiration for that? Do you play?
NA: I don’t. To be honest. I don’t play Warcraft but I’ve played Starcraft in the past. I love first-person shooter games and that kind of thing. But I haven’t actually played Warcraft. I familiarized myself with the lore and they’ve written languages for the game that I’ve actually written lyrics.
In both of those cinematics I had to write lyrics for the choir, and I used a combination of Latin as well as languages that they had written for the in-game play. And they have all kinds of history and there’s so much depth to the world they’ve created, even beyond the game that they draw from creatively as a company.
GW: There’s more there than a lot of people give it credit for in terms of content.
NA: Yeah, to the extent that they’ve written novels and stuff based on that. It’s really its own universe in so many ways. Its own world. Of Warcraft.
GW: Do you have anything on the horizon besides Stargate that we should be looking out for in the future?
NA: I’m doing a little more work in games at the moment on a couple things that I can’t really talk about yet. But I’m hoping to be able to post information about it on my Web site soon. UUniverse is on the horizon and looking forward to getting started on that.
GW: Are you satisfied with where your career is at this point? Where do you want to find yourself in, say, ten years?
NA: Retired with hundreds of millions of dollars. No, I would never retire. No fun to that.
GW: Yeah. Retiring is death.
NA: Pretty much. You know, I love writing for film. I love the opportunity that film gives you to develop at theme and develop a score that has an arc to it, a beginning, a middle and end. Games are a lot of fun to. You get to write free of picture.
The music that’s being done in games is very exciting right now. It’s a very young industry, the music for games. It’s an exciting time to be involved with that. I think a lot of film composers are looking to games now as new outlets for music and for experimentation. Music in games now involves a lot of just saying, “Hey, what would happen if I did this?” You can’t really get away with that in a big Hollywood movie.
GW: Yeah. Do you think it’s one of the new frontiers for musicians to stretch their legs? Do you think it’s a direction that’s going to be more and more prominent in the future?
NA: To some degree. On the other side of things you have your independent Sundance kind of film. There’s not a lot of games right now where you can score the whole thing with a Ronroco or some kind of an ethnic instrument like that.
I think the two things are both very exciting for me. I love the idea of experimenting with music and trying new things. Trying new ways to move people emotionally through music so independent film is a great avenue for that and games is as well.