Interview: Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV Music Composer John Graham


Gamer Professionals was provided an opportunity to interview one of the composers on Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, John Graham. The publication thanks Mr. Graham for taking time to answer questions through an email interview. 

Hi Mr. Graham, can you explain to the readers who you are, and your role in the Kingsglaive film?

I’ve been singing and coming up with music since I was a boy, studying music at A-level and earned a degree at university level.  About a year ago, I worked on a different project with the Square Enix team and, in a hugely exciting development, was invited to score “Kingsglaive.”  Previously, I’ve written for games, over a dozen films, television and many movie trailers.

What kind of instrumentation took a highlighted focus in the production of the music?

We used EVERYTHING!  The story turns not only on military conflict between two powers but a clash of ideologies and cultures that in many ways are each others’ opposites.  There is tremendous loss and destruction, and powerful turmoil within the characters about loyalty, duty, and honour.  So, to support the scale of the story, we used a wide range of instrumentation, and used a lot of resources. There’s a full orchestra throughout the score with an extra-large brass contingent, a huge range of percussion, synthetic and warped acoustic sounds, guitars and other fretted instruments, piano, and the human voice.

Did you take inspiration from any musical elements from previous titles in Final Fantasy?

While the characters inhabit part of the world of Final Fantasy, its story is complete in and of itself — you don’t have to know anything about FF to understand and enjoy the story in the film.  As a result, from the start the direction was to write for this particular story and give it the music it asked for, rather than allude to other parts of the FF universe.

What were some of the challenges you and your team encountered while developing the music for Kingsglaive?

I am really more of a “story” and visual guy than a composer in many ways; the music just kind of comes out of me when I see something interesting or provocative.  One of the challenges of scoring “Kingsglaive” was that, as is typical with an effects-heavy CGI film, the animation was in some cases at an early stage, not all the scenes were complete when we had to start scoring, and the editing changed many times as well.  To get over that, the Square Enix team sent me interim sketches of costumes, characters, and even monsters, so I could have a clearer idea of what the final version was going to look like.

In some cases, it wasn’t completely clear at the start how big the physical space in which the action was taking place would be.  I could see we were in a large hall, for instance, but not always how large.  For me, that’s a key issue; are we on a big battlefield? A huge city-scape? How big is the hall where the king is meeting his counsellors? Just how dark and menacing is the space?  As I turned to scenes that weren’t fully completed, it was enormously helpful to get interim sketches in real time to dial in the feelings and check my responses and orchestral colour choices.  And the final animations you seen in the picture are dazzling.

How did you address the distinctions between providing music for a standalone original movie and for fans of Final Fantasy as a franchise? 

I guess I don’t see a conflict there, since one of the elements that people enjoy about Final Fantasy is a kind of authenticity of emotion and character.  Unlike many established worlds of this kind where there are simple good guys and bad guys, Final Fantasy differentiates among characters — the good guys are not always acting correctly; there are mistakes and even betrayals.  Similarly, the bad guys’ actions are motivated by philosophy that, while it might be repugnant, is nevertheless a genuine, honestly-held point of view about the world rather than just cruelty or wanton destructiveness.  There are serious disagreements and conflicts even between characters on the same side.  So for me, that means the music has to aim at integrity and expressing the characters’ full range of torn loyalties and conflicts in real time, rather than alluding to another part of the FF world.

Were you involved with Director Nozue-san in any way, and if so, what guidance did he provide in crafting the music?

Absolutely!  Takeshi reviewed all the music, we spoke over video conference at times, and we exchanged detailed emails about many scenes.  When I write music I have an elaborate, intricate idea in my head of what the music is doing all the time — I certainly write intuitively, but when you express in words what is happening in the score even for a single minute, it ends up being many paragraphs!  Takeshi was very clear on what he wanted and also what he wanted to avoid.  For example, there are thousands of electronic elements in the score, but he very clearly wanted to avoid anything that sounded like electronica or dance music as such.  He also was very supportive of aiming for monumental scale, and of using the orchestra as the backbone of the score.

Did you receive any inputs that helped the music creation process from the voice actors, who provided the personality and voices of the characters on-screen?

Well, I didn’t directly get direction from the actors, but I knew early on who would voice the main characters, and — come on!  — when you have actors like that whom you admire and whose work is everywhere, you can’t help getting excited to hear the final version of their work, and it really enhances the movie.

What kind of processes are involved in putting everything together, from the on-screen action to syncing up all of the music? I’ve always been fascinated by the behind-the-scenes work. 

In working on the film, I took a “response” approach, staying as long as possible in a kind of reactive, open-minded mode for as long as possible.  I would look at a scene and jot down a rhythmic or melodic idea, sometimes a harmonic movement, or some other fragment, and keep doing that at first.  After a while, I turn to my analytical and “trained musician” side to start digging in to what I’ve come up with and begin to think about how that makes sense for the film as a whole or for a particular character.  So it’s slow — glacial — at first, and then it accelerates as I go along.  Sometimes I’ll go back and re-write earlier moments if I get another idea later in the film that I think should be an echo, a quotation, so that there is some kind of tie between a character’s feelings of loss later and earlier in the film, for instance.

The other thing that can happen is that a performer brings out a section of the music in a way that exceeds what you’d hoped for — that is of course really exciting for any composer.

Have you tried the demo for Final Fantasy XV? If so, what did you think of it? 

Not yet!

And of course, what did you think of the film itself? 

The most exciting thing for me in the final film was to see and hear the culmination of thousands of contributors’ work.  The art work and animation is really just jaw-dropping, and the sound effects, the lighting changes — very moody and dark in places — to experience all that after months of anticipation is so exciting.  We had a brilliant orchestra led by Allan Umstead in Nashville, a world-class recording engineer in Daniel Kresco, and a creative (and inexhaustible) score producer, Koyo Sonae, so it ends up being this collaboration with those on the music side, but also the thousands of other artists and contributors.  Sure, I thought very hard about how to use music to enhance some of the peaks in the movie, emotionally and dramatically, but the fun of film is to be working alongside so many other people.  I think that’s one of the most gratifying parts of movies.

Editor’s Note: You can read our initial interview which took place at San Diego Comic Con 2016, with Director Takeshi Nozue and some of the voice talents in the Kingsglaive, Liam Mulvey (Libertus Ostium) and Andrea Tivadar (Crowe Altius), here