Talking Potionomics With Composer Greg Nicolett

Recently I spoke with composer Greg Nicolett. Greg’s television work includes the Disney animated series T.O.T.S, Puppy Dog Pals, and Goldie and Bear. His video game work includes Voracious Games’ recently released “Potionomics,” additional music for Kinect Disney Adventures, and orchestrations for Star Wars: First Assault.

How did you get into composing?


I’ve actually always been into film music, even as a young kid. I remember when I was about 11 years old replacing all of the notification sounds on my dad’s computer with Khan’s villain theme from Star Trek II. But I think what was really happening was that I was falling in love with movies, and also some video games that were particularly narrative-driven. I realized that by listening to the soundtrack I could re-capture all the emotions I felt when I first experienced something.


I was also getting more and more into performing music – mostly thanks to an amazing public school music program. My first “gig” was writing music for a feature-length parody of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that my friend Garrett Gilchrist made in high school. It was our way of processing how disappointed we were with the film, but also gave me a taste of what it could be like to score movies.


Where do you find your inspiration when composing?


One of the best parts about composing for film or tv is that we get inspiration served up to us on a platter. For “Potionomics,” my last video game score, I had access to a wealth of gorgeous concept art by Hope Lee, as well as all the backstory I could ask for from Jati Darmawan, the lead developer, and Nick Eliopulos, our narrative designer. On my Disney projects, I usually get access to the show creators as well as to the animatics, the “bible” for the show, and character write-ups. So all that’s left for me to do is find my own entry point into the project. How easy this is can vary based on my own “built-in” interest in a particular project. Sometimes I connect instantly with the material, other times I may need to do a lot of creative ‘soul-searching before I figure out how to fall in love with a project. At the end of the day, if I don’t fall in love with it, I probably won’t compose very good music.


What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers, in particular, you listen to when preparing for a project?


It definitely depends on the project. Many composers inspire me, but the strongest voices often animate totally different aspects of my musical personality. John Williams and Nobuo Uematsu call up the child in me who loved playing in orchestras and found endless wonder in memorable themes and orchestral color. Trent Reznor, Nathan Johnson, and Akira Yamaoka speak to my darker side, my interest in more conceptual projects, my love of slow-burn science fiction, and the thrill of creating a unique set of sounds to compose with.


What would you say is your favorite part of your score for the game and why?


For this game, it’s definitely the orchestral tracks. I don’t often get to write orchestral music that’s so bold and colorful, nor do I always have the budget to use live musicians. If I went by Twitter my favorite track SHOULD be the Cat Pirates theme, but I think my personal favorites would be “Rafta In Moonlight” and “Sylvia vs. Boss Finn.” The former is a quiet, meditative, expressionistic track that at first seemed a little too minimalistic for our game, but in context ends up giving the player a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of regular gameplay. “Boss Finn” on the other hand is probably the most difficult piece of music I’ve ever written. I drew a lot of inspiration from John William’s “The Knight Bus” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It was by far the hardest track to record, but in the end, we got it done!


Were there particular areas of the score that were more difficult to compose for than others?


My biggest challenge was squaring Jati’s interest in having strong, memorable themes with the need for the music to dynamically react to player input. Jati didn’t want to take away player agency, ever. This meant that even during cinematics a given music track would have to be able to switch, on a dime, to another track. This is fairly easy to do when writing more ambient music, but no one wants a memorable melody cut off in the middle, right? It feels very jarring.


We also don’t have voice acting in the game, which means I couldn’t time my music out to the actors’ performances. In order for me to write music that was both melodic AND nimble, I had to predict how long the fastest player might take to read through a given section of dialogue and make sure the music in that section reached a “hold” point before they finished. Then, I could loop something more ambient before moving on to the next melodic section, and so on. It isn’t perfect, but it worked well enough.


What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced and what have been your greatest triumphs?


When I moved to LA every possible door seemed closed to me. Agents weren’t interested, I had no professional contacts to speak of, and the composing gigs I did get either paid nothing or nowhere near enough to live on. I eventually found myself neck-deep in credit card debt with no real path out of it.

One of my greatest triumphs was admitting to myself that I had to step away from music for a while. Rather than moving back home though, I pivoted to a related career – video editing. I found work much more easily, paid off my credit card debt, and only took on music projects I really cared about. One of those projects, “Muted,” ended up winning the American Black Film Festival award and screening on HBO. Another was a viral video called “Shia LaBeouf Live,” which jump-started a long-term relationship with songwriter Rob Cantor and, through him, over 6 years of steady work in animation.


Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing?


The main thing is I need to establish where the walls of the sandbox are. How I do that can vary though. Sometimes I like to think conceptually and see where that takes me. For example, in a biopic I did called “The Lady Edison,” I decided I wanted the score to sound a bit like the industrial machines invented by the film’s protagonist, Margaret Knight. This concept informed a lot of the musical decisions I made. Other times, the genre or instrumentation is dictated by the character’s backstory, which is illustrated in the diverse array of styles I employ for the characters in “Potionomics.” Still other times, it can be as vague as me wanting the music to feel “blue” for a certain scene and finding sounds that evoke that color in my head.


Can you compare/contrast composing for a movie vs a tv show or game and do you have a preference?


I like them all. I’ve done less composing for games so, at the moment, that field interests me a little more, but they all speak to me in different ways. Television gives such a broad canvas. You can work with and develop musical material over much longer time frames. Movies use time quite differently, and music often has an opportunity to build to bigger climaxes than in television. Games differ VASTLY from both film and TV in that they’re not linear. You’re still world-building with your music, but you’re taking so many other considerations into account. Will the music change when the player moves from one area to the other? If so, how will it transition? What if they decide to immediately go back to an area you didn’t expect them to – how do you handle that? How long will a player be in this area of the game, and how long should this piece of music be to accommodate that? It’s a lot of fun thinking all that through.


What do you like to do when you’re not composing?


Well, honestly, my son was just born four months ago and most of my free time goes to him and supporting my wife Jessica. In our previous life, though, we enjoyed swing dancing, hiking, and board games. Recently I’ve been having a lot of fun with the Steam Deck, especially emulating old titles I played as a kid!


What else do you have coming up that the readers can look forward to?

My latest gig is scoring the Disney Animated Series “Pupstruction,” which is another collaboration with songwriter Rob Cantor and showrunner Travis Braun. The release date is TBD, but it’s gonna be a lot of fun. I’d also like to put it out in the world that I’d love to score a science fiction, horror, or dark fantasy project, so if you’re out there please reach out! But I’m happy to work with anyone who enjoys my music and needs a collaborator.