The Music of Death Knight Lovestory (A Guest Post by Hugh Hancock)

It’s been a good while since we’ve had any news from Hugh over at MMO Melting Pot. In recent months the pot has quieted down rather noticeably and many bloggers, myself included, have been wondering about what happened or what secret projects may be afoot there. Well, a secret no longer.

I am very happy to feature a new guest post on MMO Gypsy. Having always considered this place a space not just for my own writing but also for my commenters thoughts, for blogosphere interaction and for supporting fellow bloggers’ creative ventures, I was excited to hear about Death Knight Love Story – an ambitious WoW machinima project only revealed today. Due to my interest in videogame soundtrack, Hugh has decided to focus on the creative process of creating the music, the challenges involved and his different MMO and movie influences. From here, all words are his own. (Syl)

The Music of Death Knight Lovestory by Hugh Hancock

What’s the only thing scarier than trying to create something great? Trying to follow something great. That was the problem I bit off with Death Knight Love Story.

If you haven’t heard about it yet, Death Knight Love Story is my crazily ambitious Machinima fan-film, the first part of which was released about 8 hours ago. It’s voiced by Hollywood actors Anna Chancellor, Joanna Lumley, Jack Davenport and Brian Blessed. It’s not Machinima animated in the standard way, instead being fully motion captured and rendered using the same software WETA were using at the time I picked it up. And it tells a pretty ambitious story: the story of two Death Knights who fall in love whilst under the Lich King’s sway – but only one of them escapes his power, and they end up on opposite sides of the battle…

Obviously, even more than a game, a film needs music. And with Death Knight Love Story, I had not just one but three great touchstones to follow. My cinematography had been heavily inspired by Lord of the Rings, and Howard Shore’s shadow falls long over the entire fantasy genre. Meanwhile, the purity of the romance was inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge – not a low bar for music there. And finally, of course, there was the music of World of Warcraft, which I personally think is almost the equal of Shore’s work in places.

If it had just been me and Garageband, I cannot stress how very screwed I would have been. Fortunately, I made the best – and scariest – call I could…

So here’s the tale of how we ended up composing an alternate musical take on the World of Warcraft and the fresh new takes on fantasy we found as a result, which I hope might make their way into other games’ scores in future! But first, here’s a quick trailer for you:

A New Fantastic Influence

The music for Death Knight Love Story was composed by Ross Campbell, one of Scotland’s best-known composers for screen, TV, opera, and even house music. I took the same approach to finding a composer that I took to finding a casting director, and subsequently actors: I pulled up a list of Scottish TV composers and started with the person who sounded the most dramatically overqualified to work on my movie. I was expecting nothing more than a rather curt “no” – but was astonished when Ross agreed to work on Death Knight Love Story!

On our first meeting, Ross immediately and dramatically changed the way I was thinking about the film’s score for the better. I’d had Shore and the WoW music in my mind – classic Western orchestral soundtracks. Frankly, rather cliche. But Ross’s first thought on watching the film was much more interesting. He felt it was an obvious reference, but it had never occurred to me as a lifelong cinephile and fantasy fan: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

Kurosawa was one of the most influential film directors of all time, a recipient of the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement and the director of films like Seven Samurai – yes, the original. Ran was one of his later works – based on King Lear, it’s an incredibly dark film, focused on themes of chaos, nihilism, and death.

It’s also set in medieval Japan, and in many ways feels a lot like a mid-eighties, Japanese Game of Thrones. And its music, composed by Toru Takemitsu, fit astonishingly well with the themes of Death Knight Love Story and the Death Knights of WoW in general. The chaos, darkness and violence of a Death Knight’s life is almost eerily similar to the themes explored in Ran’s tale of the collapse of a kingdom led by a ruthless warlord.

(Interesting trivia fact: Brian Blessed, who plays Arthas, the Lich King, is also well known for his portrayal of King Lear – and Ran’s story, and its ruthless king, is based on Lear.)


The Problem Of Orchestral Sound

I did consider hiring an orchestra to record the score for Death Knight Love Story. It’s actually cheaper than you might think, semi-affordable for an indie film, if you work with an Eastern European orchestra. But in the end, I concluded we couldn’t afford it.

That left us with a problem: how did we avoid the problem of tinny-sounding fake orchestration?

Indie games, indie films, and essentially anyone without a big budget hit this problem over and over again. Whilst modern electronic composition can do pretty remarkable things, one of the things it still can’t do is accurately recreate the sound of an orchestra. Usually, game or film composers will try to create an orchestra as best they can anyway, leading to the soundtrack sounding, well, cheap.

Ross, however, had a different solution. Drawing on the work of another Scottish composer, Paul Leonard-Morgan, he suggested that if we didn’t have an orchestra, we shouldn’t apologise for that. We should go for the “sweep” of an orchestral soundtrack, and the feel of orchestration, but without attempting to use orchestral instruments – instead, proudly using the electronic music and sounds that we had. In essence, he would create a new set of instruments for our orchestra.

It worked phenomenally well. Death Knight Love Story’s music sounds epic, appropriately dark or heroic, but it never has the false note of cheap string or brass samples pretending to be what they’re not. Even in Wintergarde, where we’re closest to the major-key majesty and triumphalism of the WoW alliance theme, we’re still proudly digital.

Given how successful it was for us, and how tremendously well a similar approach worked the soundtrack for “Dredd” (the work of Paul Leonard-Morgan), this is a style of composing that I hope we’ll see a lot more of.

We’ve got amazing musical tools these days, but so much effort is devoted toward making them sound like analogue, offline instruments. I think there’s real potential for soundtrack designers, particularly indie game and film composers, to break genuinely new ground.

A Nod To Lord of the Rings: Leitmotifs

I’d indicated to Ross that I’d been heavily inspired by the Lord of the Rings film adaptions, and one technique that we used very clearly is shared with Shore’s inspiration in Wagner: our use of leitmotifs.

A leitmotif is a short, repeated musical phrase associated with a person, a place, or an idea. It was brought to prominence by Wagner in Der Ring des Nibelungen, which hugely influenced Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings.

In the Death Knight Love Story score, leitmotifs proved invaluable, particularly in introducing and linking the appearances of our heroes. Thanks to DKLS’s rather complex structure, starting with a flashback and then going back into a series of historical events, we found that it was easy to get confused as to exactly where in the story we were, and whom we were following. The various leitmotifs Ross put into the score, notably the phrases which could be considered “Miria and Zelieck’s theme” really draw the entire film together. I was amazed at how much of a difference it made to not just the emotions behind the film, but even the simple ability to follow the story!

I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more use of leitmotif techniques in games. Whilst most games have the idea of a musical theme for an area, there’s never any attempt to mix in music representing principle characters, let alone the ideas behind the fiction of the world. The only exception I can think of is the Dhovakin theme in Skyrim.

Having now seen first-hand just how powerful leitmotifs can be, I can’t help but think that games composers are really missing out on an opportunity to deepen their worlds here.

(Note: this last section of the article includes spoilers for the film! Definitely watch DKLS before reading this bit!)


The Hidden Message of Games?

We struggled with one section of the score above all: the battle between Miria and Zelieck.

Ross’s initial inclination was to score this as an extremely dark, twisted moment. Whilst I didn’t disagree about the darkness – after all, this is two people falling in love through the expression of lethal, unbridled violence – I really wanted to get across something that I felt was key, both to the roots of much of WoW’s joy.

World of Warcraft, like almost all computer games, is significantly about violence, and the joy of destruction. And that’s what Death Knight Love Story is expressing in part – the idea that a meeting of minds might come through battle, and anger, skill, and archetype of the Warrior. And that is still as true an expression of love as any other. (If we’re going to get really Jungian about it, Death Knight Love Story is a story about two Warriors who become Lovers, trapped under the rule of a twisted King.)

I’d penciled in music like the Dropkick Murphys here – Shipping Up To Boston, most notable from the soundtrack of “The Departed” – and possibly the quintessential expression of rage and the joy of conflict in cinema, “After The Flesh” from the soundtrack of The Crow. But for some reason, Ross and I weren’t quite able to meet in the middle on this one.

Until one day I remembered a particularly impressive show I’d seen at the Edinburgh Festival some years back: a performance by Tao, the Japanese drumming ensemble who mix traditional Japanese drumming with martial arts to produce one of the most electrifying musical performances I’ve ever heard. It’s like angry, uproarious thunder.

I suggested Taiko drumming to Ross, and he immediately got where I was going – and that’s the reason the fight sequence ended up with such a unique soundtrack.

Hugh Hancock

Artistic Director, Strange Company


  1. The thing is, Hugh, DKLS’s score in fact *does* come off as tinny/fake orchestration in many places. I can hear that there are some really REALLY nice things going on musically, but the instrumentation for the most part does fall squarely in that category. The comparison to Dredd in terms of intent may hold, but it doesn’t in terms of outcome. Dredd’s soundtrack worked because it sounded like they were going electronic on purpose; the instrumentation was unashamedly electronic in nature. DKLS’s soundtrack sounds like orchestral was the intent, but an inexpensive orchestral VST was employed. It actually sounds precisely like what you’re saying here you are glad you avoided.

    Fake orchestration is actually capable of sounding absolutely incredible. It takes a high end VST set, and knowledge of how the instruments being emulated work to get the right playing technique. But it can sound incredible.

    Unfortunately, DKLS doesn’t. It doesn’t have a high end VST emulation sound, but neither does it make use of brazenly electronic sounds and synths a la Dredd. A shift in either of those directions – along with an improved overall sound mix – would sit a lot better on the ear.

    You know me, Hugh. I’m not saying this to be cruel or contrarian, I love you like a brother. Just keeping it real.

  2. Thanks very much for posting this! As always, very learned, and equally useful.

    (For those reading who aren’t familiar with Phil – he’s a Machinima veteran and sound expert who seriously Knows This Stuff.)

    I’m going to have a think about what you say, and probably talk it over with Ross. Are there any resources / packages you’d recommend on the orchestral end of things? If the possibility exists to push the orchestral quality higher, that’s very interesting.

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