A Double Dose of Dark Knight: An Interview with Batman Composer Christopher Drake
Most film composers are happy to get even a single chance to score one of DC Comics’ iconic comic book characters, let alone Batman. But Christopher Drake has composed music for not just one Batman project this month, but two. Released earlier this month, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Original Motion Picture Soundtrack presents the score from the acclaimed two-part animated adaptation, while Batman: Arkham Origins – Original Video Game Score, which as the title suggests is the official companion album to the soon-to-be-released prequel videogame, is in stores today. Both soundtracks feature the work of Drake, who’s quietly become one of the Dark Knight’s most effective weapons.
We couldn’t let a milestone like this pass without asking this Dark Knight dynamo to answer a few burning questions. In doing so, we learned that he’s not just an accomplished composer, but a big comic book buff as well.
Photo by Aron Ives
You have two really fun DC Comics projects coming out within the same month. Even better, they’re both Batman related! This isn’t your first time scoring the Dark Knight, though, is it?
I have spent some considerable time in Gotham City! My first Batman score was for two segments in the anthology Batman: Gotham Knight, followed by Public Enemies, Under the Red Hood and Batman: Year One, as well as two Justice League movies.
Batman: Under the Red Hood is one of the most popular DC Universe Animated Movies and you’d think working on that would be hard to top, but then you went and composed the score for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which is based on arguably the most acclaimed, influential Batman story ever. Was that intimidating?
Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns is sacred text to me. I remember the thrill of reading it in junior high when it came out. Along with Watchmen, it changed the medium forever, and was a groundbreaking event.
I told Bruce Timm that I would cage match and kill any other composer with my bare hands to score it. (He just hired me…no one was killed!) It was THE HOLY GRAIL project. But the elation of signing the contract for the movie quickly slid in to the panic of…how can I possible do this adaptation of a masterwork justice?
Eventually I just dove into the spirit of the book and the period 1986 setting for inspiration. It's a true honor and dream come true to have contributed music to that story.
Are there recurring themes in your Batman Animated Movie scores, or is each one entirely different?
All the great Bat-Composers—Danny Elfman, Shirley Walker, Hans Zimmer—wrote amazing thematic music for their individual film series.
I have the unique position of being a composer that has scored multiple Batman films that have NO continuity to each other. Completely different actors, animation design styles, etc. I haven't had the luxury of being able to build and expand off of "one" Batman theme. I have to throw everything away, and re-invent the wheel each time.
It gets a bit tricky. Sometimes I feel like I have run out of minor chords to play! But in the end, I am writing music for the seven-year-old me, who used to bound from living room sofas in a makeshift cape made from safety pinning blue towels to the back of my t-shirt. I tap into the rich history of what has come before and filter it though my musical sensibilities to make something new, but also hopefully honor the great legacy of the character.
Is it different scoring Batman in a video game compared to film? Have you scored games before?
Technically the music in Batman: Arkham Origins is integrated into the game in two formats.
The first format is for a "cinematic" scene. Cinematics are the short storytelling scenes where the player is watching a mini movie between fights that shows the narrative game story. This is scored to picture in a pretty traditional way, no different from how I would write the music for a movie.
The second format is for the actual gameplay music in the various levels. This music is written as music track layers. The first layer is the moody layer of Batman walking into a room. The second would be Batman being stealthy. Then, if you start fighting thugs, there's a third fight layer with combat drums and percussion that gets added. The fourth layer is an all-out combat layer with full “balls to the wall” orchestra. Each layer can all be turned on or off depending on how “hot” the action is.
Are you incorporating the themes established in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City? Or have you started fresh?
This game is a prequel set years before the events in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. This is set roughly around year two of Batman donning the cape. As such, this Batman is younger, not quite as refined in skill, and hasn't got a handle on harnessing the anger and vengeance.
Our game director, Eric Holmes, wanted the music to reflect this. I think of Nick Arundel's scores as very elegant and traditional, representing a fully formed, older Batman who has earned the title of "master detective." My score represents a younger Batman, faster, rough around the edges and violent. The music progresses from the beginning of the game as more electronic to more traditional orchestral toward the end as Batman needs to learn and earn the title of "World’s Greatest Detective."
Is there any song from the Batman: Arkham Origins score that you’re particularly proud of?
I think “Assassins” is a fun track that captures the high intensity of what Batman is up against in this game. “Firefly” was a lot of fun to hear the orchestra play, “Killer Croc” has this brutal Stravinsky "Rite of Spring" vibe to it, and if you listen there are some weird alligator/croc hissing sounds that we processed through electronic fx that are mixed into that track. “Copperhead” is straight up horror, nightmare music, which I enjoy writing. And I really loved making "dark" and creepy Christmas-themed music.
Finally, you’ve worked a lot with Batman. Would you ever want to work on a different DC Comics super hero, or are you strictly a Batman guy?
Batman is and always will be my favorite, but I am fortunate to say that I have worked with practically the entire Justice League in various animated movies.
I have always been drawn to the dark, supernatural and mysterious. I love DC and Vertigo's rich catalog of characters like The Spectre, The Demon, Deadman, Constantine, Swamp Thing, and of course The Sandman. It would be a lot of fun to write music for any of those characters, or a Justice League Dark story!
As an added treat, enjoy this exclusive stream of "GCPD" from Batman: Arkham Origins - Original Video Game Score.
Both Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Batman: Arkham Origins - Original Video Game Score are available now in stores and online. You can find links to download both albums or any of their tracks below: