The highly competitive film and video game industry is not for the faint of heart. Music composition and production is a critical part of the creative process that requires individuals who have both the background and unique skills to perform at the highest level. We recently caught up with an established music composer and producer, Ben Li, who helped create some of the music behind Devil May Cry 5 and Dollhouse earlier this year, and recently spoke with a group of composers at Columbia College Chicago. Some of his accomplishments as a composer includes Triad (Winner of 2014 indie gathering: best short-crime genre), i-Nfected and Music producer credit includes Devil May Cry 5 (Winner of Best Game at Game Awards), Resident Evil 2 (Winner of Best of Show award at Game Critics Award), Dollhouse (Winner of Best Showcase at ConBravo), Urination Complication (2nd running up for Filmaka Competition).
Please introduce yourself to the readers and how you first got into this field of work. Also, who were some of your influences growing up?
Rock music definitely, that’s how I got into writing. X-Japan was my favorite band growing up, along with the Eagles. As a kid, I still remember doing almost every cover of their songs at one point. That’s how I got into writing music when I was 16. I would play all their songs on piano and figure out the chord progressions, how the chords were played, what kind of voicing they used, how the melody sounded, which instruments played what. It was a bit of a challenge getting scores for X-Japan so for those it really tested my listening skills if I wanted to transcribe the score. For film music, Hans Zimmer was definitely one of my early influences when Gladiator came out… I mean Pirates of the Caribbean was one of the most entertaining movies when I was a teenager!
What kind of training have you had, if any?
I was trained classically. I grew up playing piano from the age of 8. I passed my level 8 piano exam in Canada with the Royal Conservatory of Music. I finished all my theory courses and moved onto harmony and history, which I was given honors for. I played music all through junior high and high school, from violin to double bass, to the choir. I even got a solo part as a bassist in my senior year in choir… all my friends were like “oh my god, you can sing”. Fast forward to 2013, I got into Columbia College Chicago in the Masters for Music Composition for the Screens program. It’s a very competitive program and they only accept 12 students a year with hundreds of applicants applying each time. I learned how to produce, write, record, orchestrate for all genres, with its main focus on film music. I also learned a bit about the business side of things.
As a film composer, what has been your favorite project to work on so far?
This actually goes back to a graduate thesis film I did while I was in college back in 2013. I think it’s because it was one of the first films I really enjoyed scoring and I remember taking about an hour just to record 30 seconds of piano — I wanted to make sure it was perfect. In general, I’d want to say I’m very grateful for all the projects where a live orchestra is involved — I get to step into a recording stage and see the live musicians play. That experience never changes and every time you walk into a session, it’s as mind-blowing as the first time. In LA, I’ve had the opportunity to hear such incredible music being recorded at The Bridge, the Eastwood scoring stage at Warner Brothers, The Village, and the Fox scoring stage. They all sound amazing acoustically in their own way.
What has been one of the biggest highlights/achievements of your career?
Devil May Cry 5 and Resident Evil 2. These two games just blew up and the music aspect got a lot of attention and became a huge commercial success. Working on a team of really established music composers and producers on these Triple-A titles was such an incredible experience. I want to also mention that Dollhouse will always be that special project in my career. This is what really launched my career in the video game music industry — this was my first video game project that I started in 2013. When everything came together — we were able to get the team into really great press like a deal with PlayStation and release with a major publisher SOEDESCO. And of course, the rest is history — Devil May Cry 5 and Resident Evil 2 came shortly after.
If you had a chance to work alongside anybody who would that be?
Despite being a film buff, I love Electronic music a lot. Armin Van Buuren is one of my favorite producers of all time. I love trance music, and I love Armin’s music — he seems like such a genuine person also. Thomas Newman — he’s my favorite film composer definitely… I love his tone and musical style, it’s just amazing. I can never get enough of his “Awww” moments.
What have you learned most about this business?
Work your ass off. I’m probably going to say this somewhere else in this interview. But incredible work ethics and a kind, the genuine heart will get you far — not just in this business, but in life in general. Always be grateful for all the opportunities but when you seem to be running out of time (in most cases, this is a blessing), you really have to start prioritizing which projects are more important. Planning out how your career will end up is a huge part of succeeding.
What projects do you have coming up?
I’m currently working on a high profile video game, but of course, I can’t disclose any information at the moment (NDA). We’re in the phase of finding a vocalist to record for the final track. There are some big artistic decisions to be made here because it’s the last trilogy of a big franchised game so the ending song is very important and plays a huge role for the entire series.
What is your best piece of advice for aspiring artists?
Work your ass off!! And attitude goes a LONG WAY. Be open-minded and take every project like your passion project initially (even if it’s not really something you’re crazy passionate about, you never know where any project will lead you, whom you will meet, and how far it’ll go). Now that I’m in a position where I have really awesome projects coming in, and I can make the call on whom I can work with — I naturally remember the people who are great to work with and are super talented. Those with talent but are hard to work with, we usually pass on. All talent does is show others that you’re a great artist… Being personable and keeping great relationships are the reasons that will lead you to projects and can make or break your career.