PIXEL SOLDIER – Alex Ball & Scott Hazell

Original Review by Alan RogersPixel

Pixel Soldier is an excellent short animated film written, directed and produced by Chris Landy. The movie follows a group of video game characters as they are sent behind enemy lines to take and hold a building of strategic importance. Senseless killing on both sides ensues as the troops fight for survival. Landy shifts between a number of different perspectives to tell the story and skilfully moves between 2-D and 3-D animation as these viewpoints change. British composer Alex Ball was tasked with writing the score for Pixel Soldier, beginning to write music for the project when still at an early stage back in 2012 and being responsible for the overall approach to the music. Fellow composer Scott Hazell joined the team later and provided additional music for several scenes.

Ball and Hazell have created a top-drawer score in support of Pixel Soldier and it is a very entertaining listen on its own. The album opens with “Strike Force Delta” where we hear the main theme that is associated with the band of soldiers. It’s a muscular and gutsy theme with strong percussion rhythms and low ostinato strings dusted with subtle 8-bit elements, adding an additional dimension (no pun intended) to the scene as the troops head off on their mission. This opening track highlights a major concept of the music and how it is used in the film; that different types of music mirrors the different perspectives of the film. Before we hear the main theme heard as described above, Ball opens the track with an 8-bit chiptune rendition of the theme (created from samples from Nintendo, Atari and Commodore consoles). Written to support the 2-D (8-bit) perspective of the game, the music then transforms into the hybrid score of electronics and orchestra as we move from at 2-D platform perspective into the 3-D animation. It’s a transition that’s very well executed. Tracks such as “Have You Ever Seen Anyone Die?” and “Ten Minutes” also feature short sequences of 8-bit chiptune within the electronic/orchestral action scoring as the shifts in viewer perspective occur. In these cases (quite early on in the movie), the transitions between the two musical forms are quite distinct but, as the score progresses, there is a blurring of both music types as the line between the various perspectives becomes more indistinct: “This Is What We Do” is a good example, where hints of 8-bit chiptune mix with percussion, electronics and real (rather than sampled) instruments.

“This Is What We Do” is the culmination of the musical ideas in the score as well as underscoring the climax of the movie itself. All the elements of the film – visuals and music – have been moving towards this moment where real life and gaming becomes blurred, where the boundaries between the two worlds are indistinct. Mixing the various styles of music – 8-bit, hybrid electronic/orchestra and real instruments (piano, guitar and the human voice) – acts as a musical presentation of the desensitisation to war and the human costs. Landy’s film is a thought-provoking film by this point having earlier being a humorous and gritty buddy movie. It’s very well done.

With Pixel Soldier essentially being a war movie (though set in the world of video games) the action scoring is a major element of Ball and Hazell’s score. After the opening “Strike Force Delta” (where the masculine tone of the score is set), and once a number of textural tracks play where the company reach their objective (“The Jungle” and “The Temple”), a sequence of action tracks are heard as all hell breaks loose for the group. Following on from the sudden ramping-up of the music at the end of the otherwise textural “Have You Ever Seen Anyone Die?”, “Ten Minutes” is a frenzy of action scoring with powerful, pounding percussion rhythms driving the action onwards. String ostinato patterns and electronic flourishes embellish the relentless beats and we also hear the score’s main theme and some 8-bit chiptune sequences added at the appropriate moments. It’s a wonderfully entertaining 3 minutes and is one of my highlight tracks of 2016 so far. “Concentrated Fire” and “Requiem” continue with the action scoring but Ball (and Hazell) increase the fury of the music by adding a level of distortion to the music; almost a crackling feel to compliment the inferno seen on-screen.

In the aforementioned “This Is What We Do”, a subtle heartbeat ostinato, a dreamy slow-tempo statement of a main theme motif on piano and a solo female voice provide a reflective tone to the music that is at the same time noble and honourable. Together with martial snare drum patterns, the music for the climax of the film emphasises the duty the soldiers follow despite what’s asked of them and the score closes with a determined resolution to carry on despite the odds. The “End Credits” is pure 8-bit chiptune and we hear the main theme as the game-style credits roll. The album closes with a couple of worthwhile bonus tracks from scenes that, I presume, were removed from the film and a remix version of “This Is What We Do” by Avon Bosco.

Alex Ball, along with Scott Hazell, has written a thoroughly enjoyable score for Chris Landy’s film and it sits well as part of what is a very accomplished project overall. It’s amazing to think that Landy created this film on his laptop; it’s no wonder that the project took 4 years to get to this point. I think that the involvement of Ball early on can be seen in the finished film as the music is very much an integral part of the film. I believe that director and composer worked together closely, with the final form of the film being influenced to some extent by the musical ideas as they developed. The score itself isn’t ground-breaking in the sense that it offers a new way of doing things – there’s a definite feel of Hans Zimmer’s early action scoring with the composers’ use of brass and synth vocals (e.g., “Concentrated Fire”), there’s an electronic/mechanical transition motif that reminds me of the Transformers scores (e.g., “Have You Ever Seen Anyone Die?”) and the switching between perspectives reminds me of what Olivier Deriviere did in the excellent score for the video game Remember Me. But what’s impressive is that it’s done so well for, what I would imagine, were very tight budgets. The film recently premiered at the London Short Film Festival and is awaiting a wider release. I certainly recommend catching Pixel Soldier if you can when it is released. But, in the meantime, I very much urge you to check out the score; it’s a great listen. It is bound to feature in my favourites list at the end of the year.

Pixel Soldier is available to buy at the usual online digital stores and can be streamed on Spotify.

Rating: ****

  1. Strike Force Delta (3:33)*
  2. The Jungle (0:32)**
  3. The Temple (1:31)*
  4. Have You Ever Seen Anyone Die? (2:16)*
  5. Ten Minutes (2:57)*
  6. Concentrated Fire (1:59)**
  7. Requiem (1:40)**
  8. This Is What We Do (2:49)**
  9. End Credits (1:36)*
  10. Fallen (Bonus Track) (2:53)**
  11. Convoy (Bonus Track) (2:39)*
  12. This Is What We Do (Avon Bosco Remix) (3:23)**

*Composed by Alex Ball

**Composed by Alex Hall & Scott Hazell

Running Time: 27:55

Alex Ball & Scott Hazell (2016)

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