MARC STRAIGHT INTERVIEW
Interview conducted by Ryan Noble
Wait... Who's this guy? This isn't a HorrorTalk writer. I don't think I like him.
You got me. I'm not. I'm Ryan Noble, and I used to be an editor at Indie Game Magazine (IGM). For today only, I'm a guest writer at HorrorTalk. I'll be gone soon, like little Jason Voorhees trying to swim in Camp Crystal Lake, but first, you'll want to hear about the guy I just interviewed...
Marc Straight: composer and designer of haunted attractions. Doesn't it just sound like the coolest job that's ever existed? Well, as it turns out, it probably is. Read the interview below and find out for yourself.
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Ryan Noble: So, you're a composer and designer for haunted attractions. If I could do either, I'd be incredibly jealous. How did you land that dream job?
Marc Straight: I started out as an actor at age 9. A teacher had a son with a 'haunt' called Igor's Fright Shack that they used to raise money for charity. She asked my class if anyone would want to help and I instantly volunteered. From then I stayed an actor at different haunts until I left music college. When I returned, a haunt I had acted with previously, Rich's Fright Farm, was looking for someone to join their already established creative team and I joined as the composer. This year I am also assisting in scene design.
RN: Wow, so you've been working on haunted attractions since the age of 9. I was probably still watching The Rugrats... For a typical attraction, what's a normal day of work? Take me through every disturbing step.
MS: I don't really have typical days. The only consistent thing that happens is that there's never enough time, but somehow it all gets finished. My music is more structured, flow-wise. I try to take tons of pictures and videos of the scenes I'm writing for so I have reference material... Once I have that, I list out everything I need to do on a giant whiteboard and get cracking. Depending on what the scene needs, my procedure can be different.
For my most exciting project this year, the Headless Horseman in New York, I had to do a ton of sound design. There was lots of live recording with crazy distortions and effects. At one point, I played a creaking door through a mic into guitar distortions and recorded that. Then for their symphony-heavy rooms, I would study the music for the location that they had in mind and write wrote based on that.
RN: It all sounds very impressive, and the Headless Horseman is a classic. You've mostly talked about composition there - what about visually designing an attraction? Is it a similar process?
MS: It's really different. We all work together, but individually on our own projects. Most of my ideas [for the Headless Horseman] were based around lighting systems so I got a lot of freedom. Every room starts out as a group idea. You come up with a room idea based on the central theme together and then one or two people tackle it. The biggest struggle for me was waiting to implement an idea, as the room itself had to be fully realised before I could do so. With set design, you have an alarmingly small window and limited resources. Scene restarts are a luxury.
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RN: Do you have a preference for composing or designing, or have they always come hand-in-hand for you?
MS: I think visual design first interested me because I got to work with amazingly talented people and because it was new to me, however, I know from experience that audio is what I am most passionate about.
RN: Sometimes I think that it's the sound that brings horror to life more than the visuals, so it's a good area to be passionate about. Do you ever have to collaborate with other composers or designers when working on an attraction?
MS: All scenes are collaborations. Musically, I come in once the idea is finished and I talk with the creative designers about what they want to hear. From there I make my interpretation.
RN: How do you find that?
MS: I really like it and I get enough direction to focus, but enough freedom to be creative.
RN: Where do you get your inspiration from?
MS: It comes from being in the scenes and visualising them as real-world scenarios and the emotions I would feel being inside them. From there, I take those emotions and translate them into sound.
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RN: So much deeper than I'd realised. Are there clowns? There better not be any clowns...
MS: Pretty much every haunt has a clown scene. I personally hate everything involving the circus; not out of fear, but out of how annoying the music is.
RN: I'll second that. How do you test what scares people? I assume there's more to it than jumping out from behind doors and yelling — though that's where I'd start.
MS: A lot of it is a combination of film study and sound design. There are certain sounds that are innately unsettling, like a door creaking open. I take things like those as a base and I distort them until they are different, but still have the same level of discomfort.
RN: That makes sense. Certain sounds get your skin crawling no matter how many times you hear them. Is there an element of freedom in your designs/compositions, or do people come to you with a brief of sorts?
MS: I mainly do what I think is scary. Sometimes they give me music references, like making a scary version of a Frank Sinatra song, with a harpsichord, and I'll go from there. And I have to make that happen.
RN: That already sounds like my kind of jam... Since you work in horror every day, do horror films/books/games even touch you anymore?
MS: It depends on the branch of horror. The "uncanny valley" design (the feeling of being unsettled by something that seems almost, but not quite, human) really affects me more than anything else. But that's primarily used in film. Anything else is a tougher sell for me. Especially when it comes to digital effects versus practical effects. You can always tell when an effect is digital and it takes you out of the moment.
As far as video games go, I am a really hard sell. For me, the most important part is atmosphere building. I'm either completely in love [with a game], or I don't like it at all.
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RN: I knew you'd be pretty untouchable. You're becoming like the emotionless AI that scares you the most... *checks Marc for a pulse* Good. Human. Anyway, what's your favourite haunted attraction you've brought to life, and why has it stuck with you?
MS: All the ones I have worked on, I really liked, but I don't think one has really hit my design ideals yet. If I had to pick one right now it would be the new Headless Horseman attraction.
RN: Sounds great. I'll come back to that one. Do you have a favourite haunted attraction that you wish you'd designed?
MS: I work with Rich's Fright Farm regularly and I wish I could design one of their themes. They have a huge location that I have a complete blueprint for.
RN: Do you have any themes in mind, should they ever let you get your blueprint out? Or would that have to be a secret?
MS: I really want to do something inspired by the work of Junji Ito (a Japanese manga author with twisted stories and art). Something focused on body horror, huge contrasts, and something away from the typical themes. I have about 24 rooms conceived, but they'd be a 6-month build at least and would require some serious work with prosthetic moulds and creature design. I have a few other designs finished, but that's the one I'm most interested in doing in the future.
RN: If that ever happens, please let me know. Junji Ito is a... the manga god. Has your process changed from when you first started working in the industry to present day?
MS: When I first started, I moved away from using any orchestra at all, because I wanted to have my own voice. I was really afraid of sounding like my inspiration in the industry, Midnight Syndicate, so I went really heavy with sound design and atmosphere and little by little I have been blending them both to create my own unique sound.
RN: Do you have any examples you can share with us?
MS: I actually have a walkthrough of a haunted house from Rich's Fright farm, which I composed the music for last year. You can listen to it here!
RN: Damn... It started out so beautifully but got dark real quick. And was that Freddy Krueger I saw sitting on a bench? Either way, that looked (and sounded) amazing.
If you had to give one piece of advice for someone that might want to get into a similar industry, what would it be?
MS: Study film, videos games, and go to haunted attractions to see how they are changing. Then find your own way to introduce something new. Next week I will be releasing my first film study in a series on horror films, so that might be something to check into if you're looking for more information.
RN: Sounds like good advice to me. *enrols on film study course*
Finally, tell us a little more about your upcoming Headless Horseman attraction... Where and when is it?
MS: It's currently mid-season in New York and doing really well. I'll be visiting next weekend to see it all in action and I'm so excited to be visiting New York again.
RN: That's got to be the best reason to visit New York I've ever heard. I'm ending this interview before you say anything else that cool. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, and make sure you take a video walkthrough of the Headless Horseman attraction while you're over there.
Marc Straight currently has two albums of darkly haunting music available on iTunes. If you get a chance, click on the covers below and head over there to check him out.
A massive thank you to Marc Straight for taking time out of what must be an insanely busy month to answer my questions, and thanks again to HorrorTalk for allowing me to scuttle the hallways of their horror site for this guest interview. Stay spooky, everyone.
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