The Shield Hero Composer talks about anime, video games, and Smash Bros. Melee
The Rising of the Shield Hero is one of the most popular anime of both the previous and the current seasons (see the multitude of fan reactions to each new episode), and as Naofumi and Raphtalia's journey nears its end, we wanted to take readers on a journey behind the scenes of this fan favorite series.
The music composer of the anime adaptation of The Rising of the Shield Hero, Kevin Penkin, was one of the headlining guests at Anime Central 2019 and we were able to catch up with him for a conversation about composing for anime vs. games, the huge amount of music he wrote for Shield Hero, and how the music in Super Smash Bros. Melee rules.
Kevin, thank you so much for joining us.
For our first question, when did you start writing music, how long has it been a passion for you?
It’s been a passion for a while. I started out performing music–playing music–I played flute before I wrote music. A bit later, when I was playing some Gamecube games–that’s when I became keen to gradually make the shift into writing [music–ed.] for games, and then that developed into writing for anime. And, just through a few fortunate circumstances along the way, I fell into the anime industry. There is some overlap with–not just the culture–but I had someone at the time who was involved in both anime and games.
As a result of that, I met Kinema Cirtus [the anime studio behind Made in Abyss and The Rising of the Shield Hero–ed.] and that’s where it all kicked off with shows like Norn9, which Abo-san [Takao Abo, director of The Rising of the Shield Hero–ed.] actually directed, and Under the Dog, which Kinema Citrus animated. So yeah, it’s one big happy family.
You mentioned Gamecube games–Are there any games in particular that sparked your passion for wanting to write instead of perform?
In terms of games that I found creatively very interesting, it was Metroid Prime, Windwaker–those two were pretty key in terms of artistic achievement and what I wanted to try to achieve with my music–but I was also just really into Smash Brothers, so, you know, I come from that cloth.
That one Kirby stage in Melee does have legendary music.
And the AI’s so good. But yeah, "Fountain of Dreams." It’s so good, yeah, it’s a good piece of music. Final Fantasy, as well, of course.
So, since you’ve composed for both anime and video games, could you talk a bit to some of the challenges or benefits inherent to composing for either?
I mean it really depends on the project. Sometimes you’re presented, essentially, with a grid of music that you need to write for. So you have a big list of track one to twenty or whatever it is, where you just sort of need to fill that, so it can be quite open, especially at the initial stages where you’re trying to find a unique musical thing to say.
And then depending on the project and depending on the medium, you’ll then start diverging and start trying to accurately match up with whatever that particular project needs in terms of either practical or emotional needs. So for example, the game Florence featured very small loops of music that would be able to go from one point to another and they would be sometimes as short as four seconds long.
Made in Abyss was very free-reign, and same with Shield Hero, where we would just have a lot of music to cover and there would be some descriptions of the music, like, it’s a battle track so it has to do a certain thing here or it’s a certain type of battle or certain type of sadness–alone sadness versus angry sadness for example–that could be two different tracks and they’re very, very vague in nature, so you can just kind of put a lot of interesting things in, you can vary it a lot.
Some anime that I’m working on now is synchronized picture–that means that you’re writing it more like a traditional film score–which is an interesting challenge. They all have pros and cons, and you just work as much as possible to fit it into whatever context it’s going to be.
Could you go a little bit more into synchronized picture, and what exactly the process is there?
Sure. So there’s a very important part of the synchronized music writing process called “spotting,” which is where, at the basic level, you go and decide when music’s going to start, when music’s going to end and what it’s going to do between start and finish. You essentially map out or blueprint the entire piece, whether it’s a series or movie or whatever it is, so that you have a clear blueprint moving forward as to where everything’s going to be, how it's related to each other, or where it’s going to be a new piece of music or a new theme or something like that. At the end of the day it all ends up on an Excel file saying “this is what you need to write.” So think of it almost like preparation, sort of like once you have this blueprint in place, it’s a lot simpler to execute, the idea being that once you’ve done the majority of the non-music writing work, you can just go in and almost surgically write music to whatever you want or need to. It’s a very very practical measure and it means that you can start and you know exactly what you need to do, it’s a very diligent form of preparation.
Has composing for Shield Hero been different than composing for other anime in any meaningful way?
It’s the largest amount of music I’ve ever written. The analogy is that you’re running a marathon versus you’re sprinting, and this is the biggest marathon, so to speak, that I’ve ever done. We were working on Shield Hero since about July of 2017 and we didn’t finish the music, including mixing and etcetera, until probably around November of 2018.
There were quite a few submissions along the way, but the general thing was that it was a very intense period of time where we had to get... I think it’s around two hours and forty minutes of music total. That’s a lot, because I hadn’t done a 24-episode series before. So that was interesting, and that was definitely the key change, just the length and the mental space you have to commit to a project that you’re sometimes only writing a couple of tracks per month for, or sometimes you’re writing a couple of tracks per week, and that schedule was constantly changing and adapting to the needs of everyone involved. It was tough in that sense, but it was a fun project because Shield Hero’s an isekai, so it deals with things in a certain way that’s almost like an RPG at times, so it was almost like writing RPG music. It was very different to Abyss in that sense.
Abyss was a focused output of–I’ll put it this way: Abyss was a very difficult soundtrack to write in the sense of I was trying to do something that I hadn’t personally attempted before. Shield Hero felt like I was going back to my roots in games a little bit, writing that sort of JRPG music that I actually grew up listening to and wanting to imitate and wanting to write as a kid. So it was a very different experience but both of them were really fun for different reasons.
So could you talk a little bit about how the collaborative aspects of you within the greater team of Shield Hero How much input does Abo-san, the director, have and how do you work together with the rest of the staff?
Well I very regularly talk with Hiromitsu Iijima [the music producer for the series] We talk every day, and we’ll discuss what needs to be done next, so there’s a lot of practical conversations we’ll have. Then we’ll get into creative things if there’s a certain track that needs some editing or something like that–or something that isn’t hitting the mark, then we’ll go back and edit or redo whatever we need to. Then we’ll take big batches of music and we’ll give it to Abo-san and the team in Japan, and then we’ll have a Skype conversation or something like that to discuss the general direction to make sure that everyone in Japan’s comfortable with the music as well and everything’s coming in on time. It’s fun, it’s good times.
The insert song in episode 4, “Falling Through Starlight,” it has different vocals for the Japanese subtitled episode and the English dubbed episode. Could you talk a little about the process for recording two separate vocal tracks?
Yeah, that was really interesting. The Japanese vocals were done by Asami Seto, who voices Raphtalia in the Japanese dub of the show. The English version of the song is done by my good friend Amelia Jones, who I worked with on both Norn9 and Made in Abyss–she sang on both of those previous soundtracks as well.
I thought it was really interesting. I had never done a dual language track before, and it was interesting because we wanted to make sure that the nuances worked in both versions of the track, so Iijima-san was working with Asami Seto quite closely–he was there at the recording in Japan. I was working quite closely with Millie as well–we coordinated together to make sure that they matched up in the end and so it was really interesting. And of course their voices are very different to each other, so it almost gave the track a completely different flavor depending on which version you were listening to.
Having watched both versions of the episode, I have to agree. It almost felt like I was playing a level in Nier when I was listening to the English version!
Fans of Shield Hero often talk about how the music swells and that tends to match up with the dramatic action happening on screen really really well, it underlies the drama of what’s going on. How much of that is your input, and how much of it is Abo-san’s decision?
Well, Iijima-san and I always put together what’s called a music liner, basically a suggestion of tracks that we think will work well and Iijima’s really good at that. So Iijima's really good at picking what we should suggest in terms of which track goes where, and there’ll be discussions between him and the Sound Director and the Director to come to a conclusion on basically where the music’ll start, where the music’ll finish and where it should be.
You talked a little bit to this before, but Shield Hero’s soundtrack is significantly different from the spacious and airy music of Made in Abyss or the really intimate and heartfelt music of Florence. Can you talk about how you came up with each title’s distinct identity for audio?
It comes from the idea that I’m pulling musical parameters from visual aesthetics or art style or character design, things like that. I’ve been really interested in this idea that the process for each soundtrack is the same, but the result is inherently different because you’re pulling different characteristics from the show. So for example, Made in Abyss is all about small characters in a big space. Shield Hero, for me, it was a combination of–well Abo-san was really interested in the flamenco guitar and a Spanish influence, so that came in along with the idea of symphonic rock and JRPG music and a little bit of church music as well–there are some nods to spiritual music.
Just a nod in the sense that the story of Shield Hero does revolve around a lot of religion at times–there’s a lot of cathedrals, the idea that there are the four cardinal heroes–that gives enough of a nod to have the music lean towards spiritual music, either in instrument choice. For examples organ, or using counter tenor for example, or maybe using some influence from baroque music–which, a lot of baroque music was either secular or spiritual, but there is a lot of spiritual baroque music–so the idea that there’s a nod to baroque-era music just in terms of the contrapuntal writing has been an interesting challenge.
And the baroque motifs that come up weirdly echo the theme of corrupt royalty and this corrupt regal society.
Yes, yes, yes. So the idea that we could reflect some of those values in the music was really appealing. I know that moving forward, with some other projects, some have been announced, some have not, the idea that you could use that basic formula and distill different musical styles and approaches and instrument choices from visual aesthetic, story, etcetera, I think is really interesting.
So that was the approach for Abyss and Shield Hero, and moving forward there’ll be some other approaches, as well. So hopefully it should change, but not in a bad way, hopefully... Hopefully it doesn’t suck.
Knowing your music, it won’t!
Penkin: [He wraps his knuckles against the table] Knock on wood.
We're at our final question: do you have anything you’d like to say to Western fans of Shield Hero or fans of your music in general?
Obviously, I’m very, very appreciative of anyone who listens to my music. We try and work hard on every project and it’s very rewarding to see people getting a positive kick out of the music, so I appreciate everyone continuing to watch Shield Hero. I think we’re up to episode 19 as of the taping of this conversation, so it’s on the final stages now–no pun intended to the JRPG thing–but keep on enjoying it, I hope you do, and we’ll keep on trying our best.
This week, to celebrate The Rising of the Shield Hero, we have a new Shield Hero article coming out every day! Check out the other articles below (grey articles are not published yet):
Cayla Coats is the Editor-in-Chief of Crunchyroll News. She tweets @ceicocat