October 20, 2010 | By

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Winifred Phillips has built up a solid reputation as a composer comfortable in any media format, particularly interactive videogames, where she’s been nominated for and won a number of awards for her work using orchestral, electronic and digital instruments and materials.

In our conversation, Phillips describes the demands of the interactive medium, as well as the creative rewards in scoring narratives with alternate dramatic possibilities.



Mark R. Hasan: You have one of the most diverse scoring backgrounds I’ve ever seen, and I wonder if your entry into multimedia scoring began via film and TV, or whether you found videogames offered a fresh new realm to work, explore, and gain vivid experience?

Winifred Phillips: I’ve always been a videogame fan, so the choice to pursue work as a videogame composer came easily.  Up until that point, I’d been working as a composer for Radio Tales, a radio drama series on National Public Radio that dramatized works like Beowulf and War of the Worlds, so transitioning from such grand subject matter to the equally grandiose world of videogames felt perfectly natural.

Making the leap with my long-time music producer Winnie Waldron was wonderful: I didn’t have to go it alone.  We’d worked together at NPR, and had been looking for new opportunities to grow, so when Sony Computer Entertainment America approached us with the chance to join the music team of their mythological game God of War, we couldn’t have been happier.

Personally, I’m always tremendously inspired by working with people who are experimenting and inventing new ways of creating an entertaining experience for their audience.  The videogame industry is full of that kind of creative energy. It’s an exciting environment in which to work.

MRH: When you’re approached to score an interactive videogame, what are some of the key stages for the composer in writing, recording, and editing music, and are they all that different from film? (I’m thinking in particular of the formal spotting sessions, and whether cues are affected by editorial adjustments when scenes are cut or re-ordered in a movie.)

WF: Videogames differ sharply from film and television because of the fundamental interactivity that defines the videogaming experience.  Essentially, developers are creating a participatory work of art, which is not complete until the player enters into the collaboration.  The entire construct has to be built around the idea of branching possibilities and multiple outcomes, which has a profound effect on the creative process for everyone involved.  I typically write many cues for a single ‘scene’, in order to provide musical solutions to underscore the differing chains of events that might occur.  The cue requests I receive from developers will reflect these various gameplay possibilites.

In terms of editorial adjustments, every project is different.  It really depends on whether the game itself is undergoing development changes, and whether that would impact the game’s musical needs.

MRH: Because there are numerous venues a player can take within a game, I gather it’s no different than a character in a film moving through another scene in a long-form narrative, but is the work more complex for you because you have to provide musical alternatives for specific choices, which in turn can yield different endings in a game session?

WF: Videogame music has to be created to accommodate the unpredictability of the action in the game.  The way in which the music is created is different for every project, because there are always differing models of audio interactivity which have been implemented by the developers.  It can be exceedingly complex for some projects.  Other projects require less interactivity in the music.  Neither approach is superior to the other, in my opinion, as long as it serves the best interests of the game.  Sometimes a lot of interactivity is a great thing, but for other games that same amount of interactivity can be a distraction.  It has to be decided on a case by case basis.

MRH: You’ve also scored games based on novels/films. Are you sometimes required to stay close to a film’s music style?

WF: I haven’t had to stick close to the film’s style, because for all my movie tie-in projects, the music for the film hadn’t been created yet.  Game development moves on a very different timetable from movie development.  For the projects in which I’ve been involved, the music for the game had to be completed well before the music from the movie had even started production.  Nobody knew what the film music was going to sound like, so I was given a lot of freedom to define the musical sound of the tie-in game.

I’ve had some of the most creatively fulfilling experiences on these movie tie-in games.  The Da Vinci Code game was an absolute thrill to score.  The music had so many opportunities to engage the player during puzzle solving sections or intense action sequences.  I also had the opportunity to write a large amount of liturgical choral music in Latin, which was just an amazing experience.  Every one of these projects has been very exciting, from the pounding techno-hybrid momentum of Speed Racer to the lyrical fantasy of Shrek to the zany and poignant themes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to score such amazing projects.

MRH: Perhaps this is too general, but for Da Vinci Code, Speed Racer, and Shrek, how much music must you on average compose for a single game?

WP: It varies.  My projects have ranged from 60 to 90 minutes, generally speaking.

MRH: The Shrek films relied on a mix of score and songs. I’m curious if, for the videogame, whether there was a greater reliance on original score, thereby allowing you to musically deepen characters whose essence were somewhat musically compacted in the movies via traditional song and picture montages?

WP: Yes, there was a greater emphasis on score over songs for the videogame.  In this industry, licensed songs tend to be used more frequently in sports games and music games.  In general, other game genres will use licensed songs far less frequently.

MRH: I gather The Da Vinci Code was a special project, in terms of research, musical styles and budget, but what do you regard as your most complex work?

WP: That would be Spore Hero.  Musically, the score for Spore Hero is the most contrapuntal and intricate work I’ve done on a project to date.  Some of the up tempo tracks were literally loaded with gestural lines, and the rhythmically complicated post-minimal techniques in other action tracks were very difficult to compose.  Some of the gentler tracks were written in an impressionist mode, and the complex subtlety of that style posed a massive challenge.  The entire project required a plethora of exotic instruments and a wide array of ethnic styles.  Creating the music for Spore Hero was a long and difficult journey, and I think it was a tremendous growth experience for me as an artist.

MRH: One aspect that grabbed me in listening to your scores for SimAnimals and Spore Hero is the variety of themes, which might seem quite daunting for other composers. Is it hard to create distinct, vivid themes, or do you find the characters are just as dynamic as filmic counterparts?

WF: The opportunity to create themes was one of the big attractions that lured me into writing music for videogames.  It seems to me that the film community is moving towards subtle musical atmosphere rather than memorable melody and structure.  There’s nothing wrong with this, and sometimes videogames can benefit from a subtle atmospheric approach as well.  But the nature of videogames provides opportunities for a composer to define characters and situations with strong themes and dynamic colors.  This really appeals to me.

MRH: Your writing also reveals a keen interest in creating sharply drawn sounds with very precise orchestrations. Is the refining process for you the hardest, or do you find that with experience, being able to deliver a precisely written cue (for mood, action, theme) for a specific moment is now almost instinctive?

WF: I think the process is pretty instinctive for me now.  I tend to think in terms of big aural contrasts, and I like a sense of clarity and structure in the way the music progresses.  I’ve worked on a lot of projects, and I try to learn new things and grow as I go along, especially as it relates to serving the best interests of the project.

Mood, action and general theme are all important considerations, and I know that the music needs to enhance all of these as much as possible.  I’m always trying to do a better job with each score I write.  The guidance of my music producer Winnie Waldron has been invaluable to me while I’m working.  Having her pair of extremely knowledgeable ears and her objective viewpoint is a luxury that I’m blessed to have on a daily basis.

MRH: Perhaps a more accurate portrait of a contemporary composer is one who is involved in several areas of a career, spanning composition, production, managing, promotion, and keeping the work slate active. Do you find these skills were acquired from necessity, or are they unique to artists who enjoy the creativity of wearing several hats and being in firm control of one’s career?

WF: Personally, I’m happiest when I know what’s going on with my career and I’m connected to the industry in which I work.  Having a sense of control over my career lets me feel more connected to my industry.  I like to meet developers and talk about future projects, and I enjoy getting hands on in the audio production process.  It’s a great contrast to my work as a composer, and I think it fuels my enthusiasm for the work.

MRH: Lastly, is there a particular genre you’d like to score, since genres like action, drama, horror, or documentary in film and videogames equally offer chances to explore a new style, if not a new idiom?

WF: I’d love to create music for one of those epic ‘good versus ultimate evil’ style fantasy projects.  I’ve been lucky to create music for projects that have required a very large breadth of styles and techniques, and I think that heroic fantasy would be a great opportunity to take what I’ve learned and apply it to a broader canvas.  I’m very enthused about exploring those kinds of musical possibilities.


. would like to thank Winifred Phillips for participating in this interview.

Visit the composer’s website HERE.

To read a 2005 interview where Winifred Phillips discusses her work in radio at the NPR, click HERE.

To read a 2009 interview regarding Spore Hero, click HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2010 by Mark R. Hasan


Related links:

MP3s: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010) —  SimAnimals (2008) — Spore Hero (2009)


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