Henry Jackman’s 8-bit trek from the Commodore to ‘Wreck-It Ralph’


The 8-bit world of “Wreck-It Ralph” brought English composer Henry Jackman back to his roots. His musical studies began long before his classical training at the University of Oxford and were initially of the more chiptune variety.

Jackman remembers his first-ever paid gig in the music industry was converting audio for games to play on the Commodore 64, a home computing system that rose to prominence in the late ‘80s.

“I was maybe 16,” said Jackman, who at the time was working on the Virgin Interactive game “M.C. Kids,” an early ‘90s tie-in with fast-food chain McDonald’s. It was known in some parts of the world as “McDonaldland.”


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“When I converted ‘M.C. Kids,’ you had to type in 15 lines of code just for it to go boop-boop-beep-beep-boop-boop,” said Jackman. “It would just loop endlessly. If you go back and listen, it’s fascinating how simple the music was. The chips could only hold a few patterns.”

Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” allowed Jackman (“Puss in Boots”) to re-immerse himself in the gaming world of his youth, all while providing the opportunity to lace the sounds of 8-bit nostalgia with more complex cinematic symphonies. The film, released today, follows Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) as he attemps to free himself from his role as the over-sized villain of the vintage-styled arcade game “Fix It Felix,” which bears a more than passing resemblance to “Donkey Kong.”

As Ralph asks himself if there’s more to life -- and gaming -- than destruction, “Wreck-It Ralph” goes on a journey through arcade games past and present. The music goes on a similar adventure, as Jackman’s themes adapt to fit the characters and worlds of retro digital creations and more modern games, including zany “Mario Kart”-like titles and tense, “Halo”-influenced sci-fi actioners.

Rather than worry at first about creating distinct music for each game within the movie, Jackman simplified his approach. After writing initial themes on a piano, he then set about tailoring the music for different scenes.

“In order for this not to be a sonic mess, the real mission was going to come up with a ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ theme -- a long way away from any of the video game stuff,” he said. “As long as I was comfortable in our ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ theme, we could dress it up in 8-bit, we could dress it up with an orchestra.”


The film also explores the relationship between Ralph and the Sarah Silverman-voiced Vanellope von Schweetz, a pint-sized insecure sprite cursed with a technological glitch. Ultimately, characters from Vanellope’s racing game “Sugar Rush,” the expansive war epic “Hero’s Duty” and Ralph’s own “Fix It Felix” coalesce into the same world.

As the story progresses, Jackman pulls back on the video game-influenced music.

“There’s some heavy emotional beats when the relationship between Vanellope and Ralph is developing,” he said. “At that point it’s not quite so important to be referential in terms of video games. By then, you’ve accepted them as three-dimensional characters with motivations and aspirations. You don’t always want to be bleeping your way through that.”

But in a manner of speaking, Jackman did bleep his way through video game history while writing the music for “Wreck-It Ralph.” Before writing some of the film’s main themes and converting them to an 8-bit world, he purchased a vintage “Donkey Kong” arcade game. Then he dismantled it.

“I wanted to get seriously geeky,” he said. “I wanted to check the original Namco chips from 1984 to see what the frequency response was. These machines weren’t capable of making frequencies higher than such-and-such a note. They weren’t able to play more than three sounds at once. I didn’t want anyone to be able to go, ‘But that sound couldn’t have played in those days.’ This film is pretty accurate.”

Jackman did much of the music for “Wreck-It Ralph” but not all of it. Pop songs such as Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive” are heard in the film, and electronic artist Skrillex composed the music for Ralph’s brief foray into the rapid-fire action of “Hero’s Duty.” Jackman said he never had any potential music in mind for the Skrillex-scored scene.

Yet one of the film’s most kinetic pieces -- a mash-up of video games through the racing world of “Sugar Rush” -- presented Jackman with perhaps the film’s biggest challenge: Can his mix of synths and strings reference the spirit of a kid-focused racing game without sounding like a slapped-on orchestra flourish?


“I tried to tread this fine line. It shouldn’t literally sound like the music you hear when you play ‘Mario Kart,’ but it needs enough influence of that world that it’s still supporting the fun of the film,” he said. “If it was too traditional or orchestral it wouldn’t have set in the movie, but if it was a 32-bar loop of game music, then it would be missing the beats you need to support the story.”

Lately many of Jackman’s film composer peers have moved into the video game arena, as the likes ofRamin Djawadi, John Debney and Daniel Licht have all worked on recent titles. Having not worked on games since his “M.C. Kids” days, Jackman conceded that modern game music has reached -- perhaps even surpassed -- the complexity of most film music.

Still, Jackman finds writing music for a more linear film narrative to be a bigger challenge.

“There’s a tiny bit more utility, I think, to music that is open to all users and is going on and on in the background,” he said. “That’s not the same thing as an experience where the director has controlled an 105-minute experience from beginning to end. The fact that someone has made this film -- dictatorial for your enjoyment -- I think that means the level of character complexity, story, subtly and execution of vision can be a little deeper.”


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