Interview with Winifred Phillips

Could you give us a brief background on your beginnings in the game industry?

I’ve been writing music for games since my first project, God of War, which was released in 2005. Victor Rodriguez was music supervisor for God of War at Sony, and he invited me to join the project after hearing some of my work. I’ve been composing game music now for over six years. Before that, I was the composer for the Radio Tales series that Winnie Waldron was producing for National Public Radio. Winnie script-edited and hosted the series, which dramatized classic works of speculative fiction for the radio, including War of the Worlds, Homer’s Odyssey, Frankenstein, Beowulf, and The Tell-Tale Heart, among many others. For each program I composed music from beginning to end, and Winnie structured the scripts for the programs in such a way that the music would often move to the forefront and take over for a while, then the voice track would resume. It was very challenging work, so we were very proud when we won an International Radio Festivals WorldMedal and three Gracie Awards from the AWRT for our work on the series. I composed the music for over 100 Radio Tales programs (which are still airing weekly on Sirius XM Satellite Radio). Radio Tales was my first gig as a composer. When the God of War project came along, I asked Winnie to come produce my music for it, and we’ve been working together in the game industry ever since. By the way, Winnie and I have been GANG members since 2005, and we’re proud of the initiatives that GANG has been making on behalf of audio professionals in the videogame industry.

Some tech questions about yer rig! What software do you like to use (DAW etc)?

I’ve used a lot of different software packages over the years. Right now I use Pro Tools as my main DAW. I can’t point to one instrument library as my favorite – they all have their strengths and weaknesses. When using instrument libraries, I’m a big proponent of mixing and matching library elements based on their strengths. When doing this sort of mixing and matching, it becomes important to match the ambiences of the various recording spaces as much as possible. I don’t want to lock myself into a set of orchestral templates because that would encourage me to keep doing things the same way. With each project, I learn some new technique or come across a new working method that I like, and I want to make my environment very innovation-friendly. However, I’ll sometimes use a few set-ups from a recent project as a starting point, and then customize things to the needs of the current gig. For live recording, I work with Winnie in the main studio at Generations Productions (although we’ve done some location recording for projects that had a heavy sound-design emphasis). Given the option, Winnie and I prefer to be in an environment that we can closely control.

Can you name the top 3 qualities a person should have to be a successful composer in the industry today?

That’s a tough question to answer. Artistic qualities that might propel an orchestrally-minded composer to success might not help someone with a talent for techno. Business qualities are a more clear-cut situation. I think it is important that a composer communicate well, create music that has consistent quality, and submit all deliverables on-time. As composers, we want our employers to rely on us for a hassle-free, quality product that meets the needs of their game every time.

I find communication is a key component in working on a project. When you are working on a project, say with an audio director or maybe the game designer, what is the most useful sort of feedback you like to get from them in order to create something that they are already hearing in their heads?

Ideally, I’d like to present the audio director or game designer with something that enhances the impact of the gameplay or the emotional connection to the story, while exceeding their expectations – going beyond what they may already be hearing in their heads. I love to share in the enthusiasm of the developers for their game, and be as involved in the team effort as possible. The more connected I can be to their creative process, the better my music will fit into their vision. There are lots of materials that can help me immerse myself in the world that the team is creating – design documents, concept art, gameplay capture, and sometimes builds of the game (when that’s possible). I enjoy talking about musical style with the team, and exchanging ideas about what might best work for the game. One of my favorite working relationships has been with Steve Schnur at Electronic Arts. Steve summed things up very well – he said that the job of music in a game is to “fit the game’s energy, trigger an emotional response and take gameplay to another level.” That’s my goal – I want to do more than create something that matches what the development team is already hearing in their heads – I want to bring something to the process that might inspire them, in the way that their work inspires me, so that we can take the gameplay to another level.

I know you’ve done several games that are tied to movies. Do you ever get a chance to hear the movie soundtrack when working on these so you have an idea of where to go with the music? Are the game publishers even concerned with making this connection? If not, what sort of methods/techniques do you use to find the best approach for these titles?

This is a complex question, and which that I can answer only from my personal experiences on my own projects. Other composers may have had different experiences with movie tie-in games, so I hope you won’t consider my answers to be definitive. I’ve done five movie tie-in games now (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Da Vinci Code, Legend of the Guardians, Shrek the Third and Speed Racer). For all five projects, I’ve composed all of music for the games without hearing a note of music composed for the tie-in films.

For example, during the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory videogame project, the audio director D. Chadd Portwine (who was working at High Voltage at the time) would pass my music along to the film’s director Tim Burton while I was creating it. The director would review all the tracks with the option to approve or request rewrites (which he never did – he approved everything personally) but during all that time I never heard any of the film’s music, nor was I asked to emulate any musical style that might have been projected for the film. When the movie was released I went to see it, and was really surprised by how different the music was from what I’d created for the game.

For the Legend of the Guardians videogame, the situation was a little different. During the composer audition for that game, the film’s director Zack Snyder personally chose me from the group of competing composers, saying that my style had the right ‘gravitas’ for the project, so he must have had a concept of what the music should be for his film. However, at that time the film’s composer hadn’t been hired, nor would the film composer be hired until after I had completely finished my work on the music for the game. I was never influenced by the choices that the film composer would eventually make, because I had no way of knowing what those choices might be.

For Shrek the Third, the film composer Harry Gregson-Williams oversaw some of the music composition for the game, which was exciting for me. In meetings with Activision, he commented on my music, saying that I have “chops”. I really appreciated his encouragement. While I was composing, I never heard any of his music for the tie-in film, but in this case the situation differed even further, because it was clear to everyone involved that the music needs of the game would be drastically different from the music needs of the film. I was encouraged to take a different approach than the one that had been taken for previous Shrek films, because the needs of the game demanded it.

I should mention that, at least in my experience, the schedule for the development of a movie tie-in game requires the game music to be created much earlier in the process – perhaps because game developers implement music as they go along, whereas a film usually incorporates its music as one of the final steps prior to release. Because of this, I’ve always had a good deal of creative freedom in terms of defining the musical style of the game. Videogames have unique needs, and offer unique experiences. In the end, the music of the game should serve the needs of the game, to maximize the enjoyment of the player.

Do you have a favorite game project you’ve worked on in recent memory? If so, what made it special

I don’t think I can single out a single project as my absolute favorite, but many of my projects occupy a special place in my heart, for different reasons. I loved creating music for The Da Vinci Code, because it allowed me to work with classical, medieval and liturgical structures from within the requirements of a game music composition – that was a fascinating process for me. The Speed Racer project was great fun, and gave me the chance to blend a lot of different genres, from Big Beat to Ragtime. Also, being exposed to early Speed Racer previsualization sequences from the Wachowskis’ film was tremendously inspirational. Spore Hero was a welcome chance to employ World Music rhythms and structure, and the SimAnimals game gave me the opportunity to delve into postminimalism and explore the textural possibilities of the form. Working on those two projects carried with them an added bonus, because the music I wrote for them was included in the E.A.R.S. EA Recordings initiative and released as soundtrack albums. Plus, it was a real privilege to write music for two games from Maxis, and I especially appreciated how much they actively involved me in their process. It was an extremely creative environment in which to work.

If one is getting started in a career in game audio, do you feel it’s important to really focus tightly on one skill, and try to always get called for that, or is it smarter to try to learn many skills so you can get called for sound design, music, editing, implementation etc?

Winnie and I recently had the opportunity to design the implementation of the music that I had written for The Maw, which was something that we both thoroughly enjoyed. However, my focus is on music composition, and my interest is in growing as an artist in that field. For me it makes sense to stay specialized in composition, because I’m an outside contractor, and duties such as implementation are handled in-house much of the time. I’m lucky, because I work with an award-winning producer who can apply a set of golden-ears to the quality needs of each production, and also apply script and story-editing experience to each project, making sure the music serves the story and that the pacing works well within the game. Winnie takes some of the load off my shoulders so that I can become even further specialized in music composition, and I realize how fortunate I am to have such a talented producer.

I think if you are just getting started in game audio, and you are not already in-house at a development studio, you should focus on one skill, whether that skill is music, sound design, or implementation. If you are already in-house at a low budget start-up company or a small development studio when you start your career, then you may be called upon to do lots of different things, so you’ll need to become as proficient as possible in multiple disciplines.

Being a freelance composer, how do you find the next gig? There’s always the dreaded ‘boom/bust’ cycle that freelancers have to contend with…you’ve been hard at work, slaving away for 6 months, you’ve delivered your final files only to realize you never set up the next gig! Have you found any good strategies to deal with that?

It’s actually been a while since I’ve had to deal with the boom bust cycle. I have relationships with developers and publishers who now come to me repeatedly when they need music. I’ve done multiple projects for Warner Bros, Electronic Arts, 2K Games and Sony, so I know that having long-term relationships is the most valuable resource you can possess as a freelancer. In the past, looking for work was always a matter of researching current activities in the industry and trying to locate companies in need of what I could provide. Information is an important resource, and fortunately we live in an age when the internet provides great research tools. Also, there is no substitute for the face-to-face meeting, so going to industry conventions is a definite plus – it is a great opportunity to see the right people and introduce yourself. I got my first two gigs after having two terrific meetings during E3.

Any exciting projects coming up that you can talk about? Or that you’ve recently finished?

I composed music for LittleBigPlanet 2, which was great fun. You can hear my music in the ‘Victoria’s Lab’ and ‘Eve’s Asylum’ levels. Also, the soundtrack album to the Legend of the Guardians videogame was recently released by WaterTower Music, which is the record label formerly known as New Line Records. Music from the soundtrack won a 2010 Hollywood Music in Media Award. That was very exciting!

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald exclusively for