Winifred Phillips

Credits:
- Legend of the Guardians
- Spore Hero
- SimAnimals

Official website

 

Winifred Phillips is a composer for games, televsion and film. She has recently won the Hollywood Music in Media Award for the Legend of the Guardians video game. In this interview, she talks about composing music for games, the creative challenges and rewards in scoring interactive media as well as the future of video game music.

Hi Winifred, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get into the video game music business?

I started off as the composer for the Radio Tales series for National Public Radio. The series adapted classic science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction for the radio. Winnie Waldron was the producer of that series, as well as its script editor and on-air host. It was the first chance we had to work together. For me, it was very interesting work, because the series had a focused musical approach. Due to the nature of the medium, there were no visuals to rely on, and so the music was tasked with creating the kinesthetic momentum and environmental atmosphere that would normally be conveyed visually in any other medium. Winnie gave me wide latitude to tell the story musically, so it was a fantastic way to grow as an artist. The series won a bunch of awards, including a New York Festivals WorldMedal and several Gracie Awards. Radio Tales is airing in reruns weekly on Sirius XM radio. Towards the end of our work on that series, I was approached by Victor Rodriguez at Sony Computer Entertainment America, regarding contributing some music to the video game they were working on, God of War. I asked Winnie to produce my music for God of War, and that became our first videogame project together. Now, over ten games later, we’re very happy to be working in the field of videogames.

 

Let’s get started by talking about The Legend of the Guardians. When and how did you get involved in that project?

In June 2009, Winnie and I met with Jeff Nachbaur, a producer at Warner Bros. Interactive, and we talked about a new fantasy-themed project that was going to require a large-scale epic musical score. The game would be based on a series of fantasy novels by Kathryn Lasky, and would also be a tie-in to a major motion picture directed by Zack Snyder, best known for his direction of 300 and The Watchmen. A composer for the film had not been chosen yet, but Zack was working closely with Warner Bros. Interactive to choose a composer for the game. In October of 2009 I submitted some samples of my music from other projects that seemed to fit the fantasy theme of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole videogame, and Zack personally chose me from the group of composers who auditioned for the game. Jeff told me later that Zack thought my music had the right “gravitas” for the project.

 

How did you approach the score musically and how much creative freedom were you given by the developers to find a unique and creative soundscape for the game?

I had an enormous amount of freedom for this game. The film composer had not been chosen yet, and would not be chosen until after I had completely finished my work on the project, so there were no established musical influences or stylistic choices to consider. Robin Smith was the producer of the project at the development company, Krome Studios, and he gave me enormous latitude to define the musical style of the game. I enjoyed exploring the fantasy setting and making musical choices for such an epic project as Legend of the Guardians.

 

You created a wealth of themes for The Legend of the Guardians. Could you talk a bit about the importance of themes in the construction of a score?

For an epic fantasy, I think themes are very important. The structure of the epic fantasy story is full of timeless ideological themes that hearken back to the basic premise of good versus evil. Noble warriors, supernatural perils, ultimate evil, sacrifice and redemption, all of these things are common among fantasy stories and form a framework upon which the authors create new and compelling stories. The ideological themes recur within the body of the work and give it a shape that goes beyond the incidental events, making everything feel larger and more significant. I think that if the underlying works of fiction are resonating with these sorts of recurring ideas, the music should do so as well. I wrote over twenty musical themes, or “motifs”, for Legend of the Guardians. I introduce a new theme when a new and important element is introduced into the story, such as a noteworthy location, a significant character or a momentous event. These themes then become symbolic of that idea, and introduce an emotional resonance when they are used again, sometimes in combination with each other, and sometimes alone. It is another way to allow the music to be more supportive of the story that is being told by the game.

 

Are there any cues/musical passages/themes that are stand-outs or favorites of yours in the score?

It’s hard to choose a favorite, because my perception of the music is colored by the experiences I had creating it. Writing the music for the Legend of the Guardians game was intense work. There are some tracks I have a special feeling about solely because the challenges they posed were so difficult that completing them formed the basis of a growth experience for which I’m grateful. That would make those tracks special to me, but I would hesitate to call them favorites. I have a special feeling about the “With Hearts Sublime” track because it won a Hollywood Music in Media Award just a few weeks ago, which was a lovely and unexpected honor. The track itself is gentle and unassuming, because it was meant to be used as menu music within the game, but it is also very symbolic, because it was the first introduction of the “Guardians” theme. Winnie and I were very happy to have been recognized for our work on the music for the Legend of the Guardians game.

 

You’ve also written music for Spore Hero. What drew you to the project?

Steve Schnur is the Worldwide Executive of Music at Electronic Arts, and he asked me to score the project. My music producer Winnie Waldron and I had worked with EA previously on the score for SimAnimals, so he was familiar with our work, and he thought my music and Winnie’s production savvy would be a good fit with the Spore Hero game.

 

What were your particular goals with the score? Are you pleased with the end result?

My goal was to mesh world-music influences with a more symphonic palette and some post minimalist techniques. Since Spore Hero was a simulation game at heart, the music needed to complement the creative mindset of the player as he or she experimented with the tools and created new creatures. At the same time, the music had to evoke the tribal, science fiction nature of the setting. The Spore Hero score became an amalgam of a lot of influences and techniques, and I’m pleased with how all the elements came together.

 

You’ve also written music for television and film. How would you compare movie and game scoring?

It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Games are interactive. The music for games has to be interactive too. Music for television and film is much more traditional in its execution.

 

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 couldn’t say for sure why film composers are attempting to cross over into games. I know that the game industry has risen to the point now where successful games are making more money than even the biggest blockbuster films, so maybe that’s influencing film composers to try to make the jump into games. Writing game music bears little relationship to writing film music, so I imagine that the transition would be tough, especially for a composer who doesn’t understand how difficult writing music for games can be.

 

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

That depends on how the games themselves develop. At the moment the biggest game genres seem to be first-person shooters and action adventure games. Ten years ago, PC roleplaying games were very popular. Ten years before that, platformers and point-and-click adventure games were big. These are radically disparate game genres, and their musical requirements are also fundamentally divergent. Ten years from now, the most popular game genre might be one that hasn’t even been invented yet. As the technology of videogames continues to advance, I expect that will enable developers to create new game genres, and new ways to enjoy games and interact with them. I don’t know how this will impact game music, and I’m looking forward to seeing how things play out.

 

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

I enjoy contributing to a game’s development, and being included in that process. Video game developers are some of the most interesting and creative people you’d ever have the privilege to meet. I really enjoy collaborating with them towards making the games feel as emotionally involving as possible. The challenge is making sure that my music best serves their vision. That’s always the ultimate goal of my work – to create music that complements the objectives of the developers and helps them achieve their aspirations for their game. I think that creating a work of art can sometimes feel like navigating a maze. The artist has a dream of what the final creation will become, and that dream becomes the destination, but trying to reach the dream can feel like wandering through a maze full of pitfalls and obstacles. The biggest challenge for me is to make sure I understand where they are trying to go, so that I can be of some help as they navigate the maze.

 

What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player / on your mp3 player right now?

I’m influenced by everything I hear, and my mp3 player is stuffed with music that developers have shared with me when they were trying to help me understand what inspires them. I’ve got everything from electronica, thrash metal, math rock, bebop, aleatoric, grunge, motets, impressionism, ragtime, found sound, you name it – plus symphonic works ranging from classic and romantic pieces to post-minimalist and experimental compositions, and all kinds of orchestral film and television scores. I try to be completely objective about music. Inspiration can strike from any direction, and I don’t want to turn a deaf ear to that.

 

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

My favorite project is always, without exception, my last project. That’s because the excitement that I felt while working with the developers is still very fresh in my mind. In this case, I just finished working with Media Molecule on music for LittleBigPlanet 2, so I’m very enthused by that experience. If you’d asked me the same question a few months ago, I would have told you that Legend of the Guardians was my favorite project, because working with Warner Bros. Interactive, Krome Studios and Zack Snyder / Animal Logic was a fantastic experience.

 

What would be your dream project?

I honestly don’t know. Legend of the Guardians was a dream to work on. Then again, most of my projects have been great experiences. I suppose my dream project is always to create music for the dream project of a truly inspired developer, and I’ve been lucky enough to work on projects just like that. There’s nothing like getting caught up in someone else’s whirlwind of inspiration. That’s the kind of work I want to be doing.

 

What are you currently working on?

I’m under orders not to talk about my current project, which hasn’t been made public yet.


Do you play PC or console games yourself?

Yes. I’ve played games for as long as I can remember.


Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.