We chat with Winifred Phillips, one of the composers who worked on the music for LittleBigPlanet 3.
Winifred Phillips is an award-winning composer for video games, television, radio and film. Just recently she added to her tally of Hollywood Music in Media Awards with her work with LittleBigPlanet 3’s highly praised soundtrack.
She has also worked on titles like Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation and God of War; and we were lucky enough to have a chat with her following her win for ‘Best Song in a Video Game’ for LBP3’s "Ziggurat Theme”. As Phillips describes it, the track is "a classically-inspired vocal fugue written for an 18-voice women’s choir."
Thank-you so much for your time Winifred - what time is it where you are, and where are you right now?
I’m sitting in my music studio. It’s 7:30 am. I’m an early bird by nature – I like to get a running start on the day.
Congratulations on your recent win at the Hollywood Music Media Awards for ‘Best Song in a Video Game’ - would you consider that to be the highlight in your career?
It’s definitely a high point! In terms of it being “the highlight of my career,” I wouldn’t know at this point – I’ve got a lot of career ahead of me. I would certainly call it a memorable milestone, though.
Can you tell us about your education and how you got started in this industry?
I’m a classically trained musician and vocalist, and I’ve been composing music for media for a long time. I started out as the composer for a series of dramas that aired on National Public Radio, called Radio Tales. The series consisted of dramatic adaptations of classic stories from the speculative genres – science fiction, fantasy and horror. I got the chance to write music for stories like Beowulf, Homer’s Odyssey, War of the Worlds, Frankenstein, etc. It was a great way to learn the ropes. After that series, I transitioned into video game music with the God of War video game from Sony Computer Entertainment America.
We recently reviewed LittleBigPlanet 3 and loved it - the creativity is limitless in the game, and the entire soundtrack represents that level of fun - was it daunting at all? What challenges did you encounter?
Creating music as a part of the LittleBigPlanet 3 music composition team was a great privilege, and a lot of fun. There were a bunch of us, working independently to compose original tracks for the project, and each of us focused on our strengths to deliver our own pieces of music for the game.
The challenges of the project stemmed from the highly interactive nature of the LittleBigPlanet music system. The music of a LittleBigPlanet game is structured so that each musical composition can be essentially disassembled into its component parts during gameplay. The game engine can activate and deactivate parts of the music – for instance, the rhythm section could be removed and then brought back – and this allows the music to react to what the gamer is doing at any given time. The interactive structure makes the music a lot more fun for the gamer, but it definitely poses serious challenges for a composer.
How is scoring and composing music for video games different to other media?
Music for television and film is composed in a fairly traditional way, because it is essentially created to exist in a fixed state – with a beginning, a middle and an end. It progresses predictably, with one musical idea leading to another in a predetermined sequence that does not change.
Creating music for video games can often be the exact opposite of this approach. The music will have no fixed beginning, middle or end. It will progress in a completely unpredictable manner, with the musical ideas able to shift and morph into several different possible directions (depending on the actions of the player). This makes composing music for games a much more complex task, involving more technical considerations.
You definitely seem to prefer this interactive, video game medium when looking at your history of work. Do you have a natural affinity for gaming?
I’ve always loved video games, ever since I was a kid. I’d played everything from shooters and side-scrollers to sprawling RPGs. To me, games have always been the coolest form of entertainment, allowing me to visit and explore fun worlds I’d never be able to see in real life. It didn’t occur to me right away that I could compose music for games – that happened after I’d been working in radio for a while. I first got the idea while I was playing the original Tomb Raider – it just popped into my head. Soon after that, I started pursuing opportunities as a game composer.
On this note - is there a game franchise, or genre of game that you would love to sink your teeth into musically?
There are plenty of game genres I’d love to explore further – RPGs, survival horror, shooters, puzzle games, adventures – you name it. For me, the passion and creativity of the development team is the most attractive quality of a potential project. I love to work with inspiring people who really believe in what they’re doing. That kind of creative collaboration always leads me to my best work.
Can you describe the process? Do you get to sit down and play games prior to writing, or what are you shown to get the right vibe, or atmosphere for the game?
Sometimes I’ll get to play the game, if development has sufficiently advanced to allow for that. Otherwise, I’ll read design documents, look at concept art, read dialogue scripts, examine storyboards and look over all the existing materials that the development team has created to guide their work.
I always want to make sure that I’m understanding the creative vision of the team, so that my music will reflect it as accurately as possible. Then I’ll do some personal research into musical styles, techniques and instruments - whatever seems to serve the musical needs of the project.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to get involved in this field of work?
Try to learn everything you can about game music composition from the resources that are available. The Internet can be very helpful, and there are lots of online communities that can be great resources. I wrote my book, ‘A Composer’s Guide to Game Music’ (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press 2014), to help aspiring game composers get started and understand the core principles of game music composition, so I hope that my book can also provide guidance and support.
What’s next for you, are you working on any other exciting projects? Gaming related or otherwise?
I’m currently involved in a big PC game that hasn’t been announced yet. Very exciting game! I’m looking forward to talking about it when the timing is right.
We wish you all the best Winifred, let us know all about it when you can!
Thanks very much, Angus! It’s been a pleasure to be interviewed for NZGamer!
Interested in following Winifred’s footsteps? Here are some links, including a way to get your hands on her book: