Earlier this week I was thrilled to get the opportunity to speak with composer Sean Callery about his work on the upcoming Halo TV series, which premieres March 24 on Paramount+.
Sean Callery has composed for a number of television shows, including (but not limited to): La Femme Nikita, 24, Jessica Jones, Designated Survivor and Bull. We talked about a little bit of everything related to the upcoming series and I hope you enjoy the conversation we had about Halo!
How did you get started with composing?
I was a classical piano major in college. I went to college in Boston, at a place called the New England Conservatory. I always had a love of film and television music when I was very, very young. I got a job in Los Angeles working for a music product company and I got to meet composers out here. One of the people I met was the composer of The X Files, And that person’s name is Mark Snow. He was my mentor in the early 90s and he helped me get my very first TV show, which was called La Femme Nikita, which was on the USA Network.
I’m actually a really big fan of that show.
Thank you. It was my first series, so it was a really big thing for me as well. But I’ve seen episodes over the years. And I think the show, oddly enough, holds up very well. It was a bunch of people that came together at various points in their career. And it was just such a great experience working on that show. From there, I got into 24 and and other things, but that was my first arrival into composing for a television show.
Do you have any personal experience with Halo?
Now I do. Because I had to go learn about the entire [Halo] universe. I’d seen the game played and I knew the scores and some of the music from from the last 20 years. And again, I saw my nephew’s play it and I was just so impressed with the immersiveness of the game. I was honest, when I was interviewing, I said I’m not an active player of the game. But I’m kind of more interested in getting back getting into it because of my experience on the show.
How did you get connected with the Halo TV series? How did that all start?
Well, my agent got a call from some of the producers, and they were looking for composers to take on the series. And my agent threw my name out there because I’ve worked on a couple of Marvel series and he thought this might be something I could interview for. And I had a great interest in it, because I’d heard about the series. It’s really one of the grandest projects I’ve ever worked on. I’d had a feeling it was going to be quite a challenge, and also quite exciting if I could be a part of it. So I interviewed and they let me read the first script and let me watch a rough cut of the first episode. Production had sort of closed down because of COVID and there was a lot of missing scenes and so forth. But I got a sense of what was going on.
Then we had an interview with six people, it was a director, two executive producers, representatives from Microsoft, a Toronto company called Take Five, and DreamWorks. Everyone had their own questions about what I thought of the story and what my take on it was. When I interviewed, I was so struck by the characters, you know, there’s many characters in this story. And by the way, you most likely already know this, but this is a separate [story] thread, a separate canon off the main storyline of the gaming platform.
I actually didn’t know that. But that’s interesting. I know the Halo canon is a pretty complex thing. So that doesn’t completely surprise me.
It’s sort of like how Star Wars has its own nine movies, but then they have the Mandalorian and the Han Solo [film] and Boba Fett [story], and different kinds of side tales. This is a unique chapter that’s connected to the main canon of Halo, but it’s functioning in its own little storyline. But it is very connected to Halo, because it’s about the Master Chief and Halsey and the founders. I mean the whole ecosystem of Halo is alive and well in this universe. And when they asked me what I thought about that I was really thinking of the central character, the Master Chief John. And I was thinking, this is a story about a man who’s awakening to himself, he’s waking up to some things that he never knew about himself, his memories and discovery. And he’s sort of asking a fundamental question, which is: who am I, what am I doing? What am I supposed to be doing?
When I interviewed for this, we were entering into the second year of the pandemic. I just thought, how many of us are asking the question: What are we all about? Our lives are shut down. All the things we take for granted are stripped aside, and we’re starting to question the things about what we want to do and what makes us happy. I thought the cool part about Halo was that it was speaking to very timely issues about us as human beings and humanity. I think that’s why this game is so successful and why it’s been around for two decades, because it continues to be resonant in those kinds of things. Because that’s how I thought about it. Yeah. And I love it, the action and all the adventure. At the core of it, I thought the characters were really the the main thing, you have to care about the characters and where they’re going. And I, I really did it. I do. And I’m working on the last episode right now. It’s gonna be an intense conclusion, I’d say that beautiful things are going on.
How many episodes are there?
It sounds like the the show’s premise really stuck with you?
Yeah, it did. There was a lot of a lot of opinions about how we treat the [Halo] universe and the story and all that. I’m very respectful of the property. There’s a whole language and an entire world that the foundational origin of this, of this show is based on the game, which has a tremendous amount of a story and music and execution, and we want it to be honoring and respecting that while we were creating this new chapter.
Did they mention where in the grand scheme of things this particular story falls? Is it before Halo Infinite? Or does it not connect that closely to the game’s storyline?
You know, it’s a great question. I don’t know that answer. They told me at one point where in the timeline, it was, in the very beginning. But they definitely had a point of view as to where in the timeline it was. That’s a very good question.
Were there any specific moments from the Halo franchise that you drew influence from as you created the score?
Well, Microsoft asked that I attend a day long seminar, believe it or not, that was just telling me about the origin of Halo. Its existence, what it does. The war, the nature of the conflict that exists in this world, Master Chief’s origin, and Halsey and Cortana, and all the others. And so I just had to get a bearing on I mean, I wasn’t completely clueless as to what the Halo universe was, but I, I needed our contact context and detail so that I could understand the various aliens and different species that were in conflict with the human race and the role of the Spartans and how powerful they were, and all that kind of stuff. Really interesting. I even think I was given a phone number that I could call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, if I ever needed clarification on the pronunciation of a character’s name or if there was some story point I needed clarified. I had a lot of support from the Microsoft team.
Wow. So you literally got a complete crash course in all things Halo.
I did. Yeah, I think they did it with a lot of people. Like, if there was a director coming on to direct an episode, they wanted to give them some perspective. Because we’ve created some new worlds that I don’t think exist in the game, and we wanted to talk about how those worlds will feel and what kind of color they bring, and all that kind of stuff.
Once you got that instruction in the world of Halo, was there anything you learned that then influenced you as you created the music?
Yeah. You know, these stories have characters that begin in a certain place and then they arc over time. And you learn more about these characters and their personalities. And the producers and the creatives will start talking about these characters and sometimes a word will pop out about the heroism of the Master Chief and his humanity and his heart waking up to who he is. He has a bit of compassion, he’s not just a mindless warrior, he really is a deep thinker. These are the kinds of things that helped inform my creation of his theme, for example, or the creation of Kwan, another character in the show who suffers a very big tragedy in the first episode. Her journey is very different but they’re also very intertwined. I would take these kinds of messages and details and try to manifest them into musical form so that they would make some sense. And it was fun to do. Because once you found a theme for someone, and they liked it, you could kind of play with it across the pantheon of episodes where, when he’s fighting, you can hear this theme, when he’s in a more reflective mode, you can also hear his theme, but just play it differently.
So is that how you got started with the music, you just started with the words that would pop out? And that’s you start just putting themes together that way?
Yeah, I started working on things before I was really working with picture. I’d get some ideas going and some thinking and say, here’s what I think. I wrote some pieces that I thought represented this character, I came up with some colors that I thought would represent the same things that I just wanted to have a conversation about. And so it was a good three, four different kinds of themes in the show. There’s maybe five different worlds that they all work in.
I started working that way, just at a piano. Then I started to flesh them out a little bit more. When they kind of thought they were good ideas, we started to put them into the picture a little bit. Right around this time, they were working on the main title. And the main title was a kind of a bridge between the original Halo theme, and the Gregorian chant melody that everyone knows. They were thinking it’d be nice if we could, quote the theme. Not exactly the same as in the game. So I thought of doing it with a cello and a female voice singing at the same time. It’s a very interesting sound.
I was gonna ask, actually, if you quoted the Halo theme somewhere,
Oh yeah, it appears. We wanted to be very respectful because the theme is very iconic. You don’t want to just throw the theme around without having any kind of storytelling meaning. So we were very careful. There was a lot of discussion about how to execute the theme, where to execute the theme, where it’s most effective. And I think we did a good job with that. I mean, there’s so many people that play the game, I’m sure there’ll be some people who wish it was one way or the other. But we wanted to make something that works for this particular kind of Halo story, which is not interactive. It’s not a game that you’re playing. You’re watching a thing and it’ll have a different feel to it. I’ve loved working on it, and I love what they’ve done with it.
Would you say Master Chief’s theme is central next to the main title?
I would say it’s a very important theme. It was one that I worked on very early on. I’d say that was the one I worked the most on because he really is the tentpole, so to speak. He’s pretty much in every episode, although there are storylines that involve other characters, and they’re very cool. His theme is very much present in the show, but sometimes he’s less featured in an episode. He’s always there, but he’s sometimes not front and center depending on certain story points. They didn’t want it to be just all modern rhythm and sound design and stuff. They wanted to have real themes. I was very inspired by that I thought let’s get some themes out there. And so that was fun to work on.
One more question about themes. I’m curious, is there any kind of theme for the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana? Because I know that’s a big part of the story in Halo.
Yeah. Cortana’s not in the first two episodes, but she makes her appearance I think in the second or third episode. What’s interesting about Cortana is in the storyline, when I first saw her, she has a really interesting energy. And some of her energy was kind of, it wasn’t heavy handed, she had a nice innocence. And it was almost, I don’t want to say playful, but she was a little bit more, she’s brighter, she just had a brighter kind of presence. And her interaction with the Master Chief was really interesting, because she speaks to him, you know, internally, and we can hear that conversation. And sometimes he gets a little annoyed at that, at her, or her input, and it’s sort of a neat little flavor to the world of this character. Cortana has an interesting arc as well. I have a little theme for her. And it does sort of work with John’s theme in its own way.
You said at the very beginning that you had some rough footage you saw the first episode. Did they give you more to look at then as the score was being recorded?
Well, what had happened is one of the major battle scenes was never shot because of the COVID outbreak. So I started working on the episode without this battle, which was going to be filmed later. Once I started working full time on the series, they were handing me different cuts of the show, tightened up and with more effects rendered, and so forth, which is very helpful in terms of the pace. And then the last thing that was added to that episode was this enormous eight minute battle. And that went through various editorial changes and adjustments and tweaks. It was the last big piece that just slotted in that I had to score. And that was very intense. Then you start putting the whole episode together and see how it flows. And we made adjustments along the way. So it kind of happened in stages. Then, as the show got more settled, the episodes afterwards were more in a semi locked place. We’d have established certain sounds and worlds. So then it got even more fun to sort of experiment.
So you pretty much got to see anything you needed to.
Yeah, I mean, the episodes would have things missing. Sometimes I’d even see drawings, you know, of something. And that’s going to happen, it wasn’t rendered at all, but they were approximating what it would look like and what it would be like, and I would score leaving that area open so that when we finally got the imagery, we could touch it up and be a little bit more precise about it. But yeah, it was and then then the calendar just simply entered into the picture. We had to get the show finished. So we’re almost done.
So you’ve been working on this a full year
Yeah, because they were filming overseas and in Eastern Europe. The production mixing was in Toronto, Microsoft is in the Pacific Northwest. When we were having meetings, it was across time zones just getting the basic language and the conversation started about tone and music. Music is very subjective, as you know. You can play something and someone feels one way and you play something else and someone feels another. That’s the fun part of what I do, finding that sort of language that everyone kind of connects to. With a with a property like Halo, it’s so rich, and it’s so established, you want to make sure that your contribution is being supported by and being respectful of the previous body of work that came before it.
What kind of instruments did you focus on in the mix? Was there anything notable or unusual given that this is Halo?
Yeah, it’s a great question. Well, there’s an aspect of the music, the language from the game, it can be very orchestral. The orchestra part is so wonderful, and so well done. My feeling was, it was kind of like, I shared this with someone else. Today, I was told recently about a car company Chevrolet that was introducing their new Corvette. And the Corvette design that the engineers gave to Chevrolet was so different from the prior version, that they didn’t accept it. They said you got to give us some of the connection back to the car, the one before it, because if it’s too new, no one’s gonna connect with the Corvette energy that that has been manifesting for 40-50 years. So there was this interesting balance where you’re modifying the car, so that it has a new fresh look to it, but also, it has a real connection to where it comes from. And that was what I wanted to do with Halo. So I knew orchestra was going to be a part of it, and some of the big battle sequences will feature that.
But with regards to some of the newer characters, like this character Kwan, I wanted to come up with a hybrid wind instrument of some sort that combines a live flute with a wind instrument in synthesis that I could modify and make breathe and sort of combine it and make an interesting sound that is something different and otherworldly. It was those kinds of things that I wanted to bring to percussion instruments and to choral moments when there’s more spiritual or historical things going on.
And it’s still a work in progress. There’s still story that we’re discovering and sometimes you arrive at a place and you figure out a new sound. For example, the character Halsey from the game. That was a very interesting character, because she’s very driven by science and wanting the Spartans to succeed and evolve. She especially has her own particular kind of focus. And so these are just the things that sort of fall on me to explore and find the right energy for
I also wanted to ask how did working on Halo compare to other series you’ve composed for? Was it a really big difference working on something that’s based off a video game instead of anything else?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Another great question, because you the only other thing I could really compare this to is when I did Jessica Jones, which was a Marvel comic. Even though it didn’t have a sound associated with it, you had certain dynamics that were present within that character, and where she lived and so forth. Being a private detective and all that. In Halo, you had a much grander history, a richer history. And the balancing act really was you know, honoring that history because it is it is Halo. I mean, this is the Halo universe. We had to balance that along with this new storyline.
And there were some shows, like the Mandalorian, for example, those are those are very unique and they have their own unique sound and I don’t know how much Star Wars themes are quoted in there. I don’t hear very much at all. But it has its own specific sound in there. In Halo, I made a conscious decision that we needed to have some of the textural energy from the game that people know in the new series because you didn’t want it to be so new and, and so unconnected that you don’t want fans to feel completely untethered from the experience they know. It’s been a really great process of trying to find that right balance which is probably the biggest nuance to this project. On shows like 24, or Homeland they were really starting from ground zero, just finding a brand new sound for that series. They were very original. But Halo, you know, had history and it has to be very respected.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m really excited this check the show out now, even more than before.
I hope you enjoy it. I really do. I loved working on it. It’s certainly the the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on. This, in my opinion, has feature film energy to it, because I think I’ve never worked on a show that has such a beauty of establishing worlds and special effects. And just the things that they wanted to really bring out in such a grand and adventurous way. So I’ve really enjoyed it.
It’s already been renewed hasn’t it?
It has, it’s already gonna see another year. It’s really great.
Will you be back for that?
I hope so. In our world, in our business, you never know. The people I’ve worked for have been a joy to work with and we like each other very much. There’s new creatives coming in. So I would hope they’d want to continue but you know, we shall see.
I’d like to say thank you to Sean Callery for taking the time to speak with me about the upcoming Halo TV series. The first episode premieres on March 24, 2022 on Paramount+.