Headliner catches up with award-winning production duo, Finishing Move, who compose music and handle sound design for television, film, ad campaigns and popular games such as Borderlands 3, Halo and Halo Wars 2. For Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White, it’s all about triggering different parts of the brain, getting the mind fully juiced, and turning the mix a little bit roasty. Confused? You won’t be.
“The very first gaming project that we worked on got cancelled,” admits Trifon, one half of production duo, Finishing Move. “So we thought we were going to be working on a really big game franchise, and it got cancelled! I thought, ‘Oh shit, I guess this is our career over!”
However, fate (in the guise of the very same gaming company that cancelled their first project) stepped in, offering the duo work on an anniversary edition of Halo – a remastered version of the game that featured extra content, high-definition resolution, and remastered audio and graphics.
No small feat considering since launching in 2001, the gaming series has gone on to become one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time, not to mention one of the highest grossing video game franchises – the term ‘Halo killer’ being used to describe console games that aspire - or are considered to be - better than Halo.
“This meant that the work that we had done on the previous cancelled project didn't go to waste, because we were already trusted individuals. So everything worked out for a reason, although it was a little bit of a rocky start there on our first project,” he laughs.
Founded with White, Finishing Move has a deep knowledge of the game development process and the role of interactive music in a superior gaming experience. Meeting 10 years ago in San Francisco, the pair have a background in marketing and advertising, later progressing to writing jingles and collaborating on projects, which brought them to their first computer game project.
“What was really great about that was that it was an opportunity to jump into the deep end of the pool,” White reflects. “So not only were we composing the music, going back to the original stuff, transcribing it and then figuring out a new way to make it sound great for the 10 year anniversary, but also managing the budget on the project. We really kicked things off by getting thrown into the fire...and surviving!”
“We decided to make this an official thing because we work really well together,” says Trifon. “We have complementary skill sets, and we just really enjoy it. Halo boosted our career quite a bit. Here we are in 2019 – we've gone on to work on some really sweet franchises, and have made some really cool music.”
The sweet franchises in question include Halo Wars 2, Crackdown 3, and Borderlands 3 - to name a few. Headliner is speaking to the duo on a typical day, which usually sees them divvying up their time working on interactive music, establishing an aesthetic for the visuals they are working on, testing what they’ve done, and getting valuable feedback.
White explains that the duo are usually given a version of the game that isn’t playable yet, with minimal game capture:
“We’re not scoring for a movie or TV where it happens the same way each time - it's more like concept art, so we have a lot of discussions about what we're trying to accomplish stylistically. For Borderlands 3, which is a massive game, they needed a number of composers. So as we were writing music, we would test and make sure how it worked, and then adjusted our writing to that.”
“I think the big, broad brush of the process is that with most of the music in games, we have to picture it as interactive – you have to plan around how the players are going to experience that music,” Trifon offers.
“The big differentiator between games and film or TV is that you're not working to picture almost all of the time. You have to create something for the game and then put it in and play with how it interacts with the player’s approach to the game, and really test it and see how it makes you feel. The other thing is that a game is triggering different parts of the brain – when you're watching a film, it's a pretty passive experience, but when you're in a game, your mind is fully juiced, and you're working. So the types of music and how you feel and perceive music totally changes in that context.”
This requires a different approach to composition, and lots of iterations. Usually, Finishing Move are the last people to add their skillset to a game in terms of sonics and mastering:
“We're often putting assets directly into the build and testing them,” Trifon reveals. “Sometimes we're actually placing in assets we've composed, and testing them. A big part of our process and something we really pride ourselves on is having a really great mix space and deep knowledge of the sonic process to make stuff sound good.”
Helping aid the duo’s workflow is an SSL Fusion all-analogue 2U stereo outboard processor, utilising its five analogue colouration tools designed to bring the perfect combination of added tonal character, weight, and space to a mix bus or stereo stems, complete with that signature SSL analogue sound.