James Hannigan

Credits:
- HP and the Order of the Phoenix
- Republic
- Evil Genius
- Freelancer

Official website

 

James Hannigan has been in-house composer at Electronic Arts for a number of years working on Sports titles and Privateer 2: The Darkening. Other credits include Republic: The Revolution and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In this interview, he talks about his perspective on game scoring, his current and future projects as well as the challenges of writing music for Harry Potter.

Hi James, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?

I was in-house composer at Electronic Arts Europe in the UK from 1995 to 1997, although I had done some work in games and tv before that (e.g. such as for the first Playstation Warhammer title). At EA I worked on various games, including Privateer: The Darkening, some EA Sports titles and others passing through the studio. EA had one of the first and best purpose-built recording studios in the industry, and it was good experience working in that kind of environment. After going freelance again, I continued to work on games.

 

Let’s talk about your score to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. How and when did you get involved in that project?

I've had a long working relationship with the audio team at EA in the UK, some of whom are good friends. During the time of the first few Harry Potter games, I was working on a number of other titles for them – so I think that is one reason I got called in when they were looking for another composer for the series. After they asked, I pitched for the game like everyone else involved.

 

Harry Potter is of course a huge phenomenon and has a great legacy of game and movie soundtracks. Over the years, many composers have contributed to the franchise. How daunting is it to start working on a Harry Potter game?

It is daunting because of the sheer quality of the preceding film (and game) music associated with it, but it's also very exciting and presents many opportunities. The subject matter is fun, magical and enthralling so there is plenty to get excited about. Although I've worked with orchestras on numerous occasions, there are still very few projects in this industry offering composers an opportunity to work with a top orchestra in a location such as London.

 

Jeremy Soule was the composer of the four previous Harry Potter instalments. How does it feel to be chosen as the replacement composer? How did Soule’s music influence you when you started out writing music for the game?

I very much respect Jeremy and I think he's a fantastic composer. To answer the question of influence, I came to HP with a fairly fresh view of it, I believe. There was also the opportunity to refer to Hedwig's Theme this time, which altered the direction very slightly.

 

As you said, it’s the first time publisher EA was able to license John Williams’ famous “Hedwig’s Theme” from the films. Did you enjoy working the theme into your score and how extensively did you make use of it?

It isn't a huge part of the score – or at least not as big a part as the game itself may imply. With it being the first time of use in the series, I think there was some desire to have it clearly expressed and showcased in the game – especially at the start. But, yes, of course it's a wonderful theme and I enjoyed referring to it very much. It's magical, versatile and, above all, it cries out Harry Potter!

 

Could you describe some of your own themes that you wrote and what effects you were aiming for with them?

A number of characters have themes associated with them. There's a Cho and Harry love theme, which comes in during various parts of the game (such as when Harry attempts to catch Cho's owl and in the opening collage). Professor Umbridge has a theme, as does Filch.

 

How did you deal with the interactive side of game scoring in Harry Potter 5?

There is a lot of proprietary audio technology in use and there are people employed to implement sound and music at EA. Working with them on distributing the music across the game I think helps add to the experience considerably, and I just wish every games company would similarly invest in 'implementation'. Some do, but an alarming number are still in the dark ages.

 

What were your specific goals with the score? Are there any musical moments in the score that stand out for you?

I hope it hangs together well and covers the right bases. It's fairly romantic, but it's also quite cheeky and fun in places. I feel the Cho and Harry love theme worked well and proved to be quite versatile as a theme. For me, the opening collage of the game gave the right sense of joy and excitement, but appropriately gave way to something more sinister and ominous - suggesting the presence of Voldemort.

 

You’ve also worked on a number of sci-fi titles including Conquest: Frontier Wars. How would you describe the score and what aspect of it are you most proud of?

That's quite a long time ago now. At the time, I just hoped that the music was appropriate and functioned well within the game. As it happens, I also worked with Martin Galway/Digital Anvil on two other games – Freelancer and Brute Force. My approach to music has changed considerably since then and I was quite 'remote' on those projects, partly due to the distance between us and because the latter two games had several composers dotted all over the place.

 

Are there any other works in your oeuvre that stand out for you and for what reasons?

I was quite pleased with Republic and Evil Genius, because I had quite a lot of free reign with those and Elixir were trying to do something new and interesting. The music isn't hugely complex, but there's a uniqueness about it that I think helps identify the games.

 

You’ve scored a wide palette of different game genres in the past ranging from strategy to sports and action. How do you approach each genre musically? Are there any particular Hannigan-techniques that you apply to every genre?

I think there are certain kinds of chord progression I like, and certain scales I go back to (e.g. Octatonic for action music). I also like music that has unexpected key modulation, the occasional leaping interval or rapid change of mood and pace. I like music that starts out sounding fairly conventional but develops a slightly warped edge. I'm a fan of John Barry's film music for similar reasons. You don't really know why his Bond-like key modulation moves you so much, but it works incredibly well and has a bittersweet quality about underlining the earlier Bond films. Same goes for Bernard Herrmann. With such music, it's not just a case of doing what it says on the tin (E.G. creating a 'sad', 'happy' or 'action' piece) but seems to be about being ambiguous and delivering messages on several levels. There are no rules for doing it, as it involves some kind of personal interpretation of events. Take Bernard Herrmann and the way he interprets a scene and makes a musical statement, adding an emotional dimension. Too often in games I feel music is stating the obvious (e.g. Combat music simply because you're in combat) – when I think really adding something might entail commenting on something for which there are no visual cues (e.g. how you are supposed to be feeling during such combat). So, I don't know if I have any particular technique with regard to music itself, but I do like the idea of music not simply stating the obvious or being categorised in some banal way (E.G. Classical, jazz, techno – etc.) Moving forward, I think I'm as interested in why you hear music in games as I am in actually making music.

 

Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?

I think one explanation for that is simply that film composers, on the whole, are very talented and the standard of music expected in films has historically been higher than that of games. There are clearly good game scores – plus there's the whole question of interactive music setting them a part – but I still feel it's mostly true to say that the action, adventure, horror and fantasy genres of game borrow heavily from a film language when it comes to music. The belief, I guess, is that by importing the 'real thing' (ie. using film people or film music) you are adding value to games seeking to be authentically filmic. I can understand this – as almost everybody on the planet understands films and film has been the major popular art form for decades – and easily the one with the most cultural significance. Games are largely a business and brands sell products. Film composers are more established as brands at the moment, so using them does import some value into games. But that may change over time if the status of games composers improves and there is some recognition of the job being more specialised than it currently is seen to be.

I suppose there's no real reason why there can't be such crossing over, and I'm all for it, but for this to happen in general does rather imply that music is 'just the same' no matter what the application. If you're talking a big front-end theme that may well be true, but over time I think it will become apparent that more than this is required to really make an impact.

It's also a matter of self-respect. Just five years ago, the games industry probably considered itself the poor relation of film and tv – and that meant it valued outsiders more. Now that games are becoming mainstream and achieving their own success (artistically as well as financially) I think the industry is prouder of itself and more confident of celebrating its own people – be they designers, writers, artists, coders or composers. With so many gamers following the careers of games composers now, I think it'll become less significant in the marketplace whether such and such a 'name' film composer is getting involved in games or not. I think that, if the industry really wants to work with film composers in general in future, it would be far better for them to hire them for the whole job instead of just having them do a token 'main theme' or something such as that. Doing that actually just sends out the message developers won't pay enough for the full thing it seems to me.

 

Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?

I'd like to see more thought going into music as part of the overall design of games, more investment in music production and more resources given over to implementation. Ultimately, I suppose it's the market that will determine where things go.

 

What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?

One challenge I believe is to do with how 'musical' music needs to be for games. Increasingly, I feel there is a need for sound and music to work together to support games, and that necessarily means being musical and conveying emotion - but not to the extent that the player feels aware of the music stem of the soundtrack (I mean as something distinct, as it might be for a film). Games seem to force players into the role of being an audience and participant, which I think is where the answer to the problems around games music may lie. We are not composing music for a passive film audience, but are starting to think of the player as belonging to an emotional reality. They are watching AND being in games.

 

What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?

Generally speaking, I am interested in emotionally motivated music more than I am intellectually motivated music. E.G. I want it to bring about feelings, accessible to everyone and I'm not interested in how overtly clever it appears to be. There are too many great composers to list!

 

What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?

I would have to say FA Premier League Manager and one of the early FIFA games I worked on, Republic: The Revolution and the last Harry Potter game. The first one(s) because the use of music was ironic (it was 'operatic' and unexpected in the context of a sports title; not sure how we got away with that one); the second one because I had a chance to briefly be 'myself' when it came to choosing the direction for music and I love to create soft, textural music in any case. And HP gives me a chance to write romantic, magical orchestral music and fully realise it with an orchestra - and have it heard within a best-selling game.

 

What would be your dream project?

I'm very much enjoying the games I'm working on right now. One thing I would like to do more of though is science-fiction based projects, with more of a fusion of acoustic and electronic textures.

 

What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a game for EA at the moment, and have two others scheduled for 2008 – plus I'm scheduled to work on a major series for UK television in 2008.

 

Do you play PC or console games yourself?

I do, but I'm really picky and like a certain kind of thing. I'm a huge fan of the Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid series in particular because I like the aesthetic side of those games, plus the sense of involvement you get from them. I'm a sucker of action/adventure games in general.

 

Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.