When composing music for video games based on movies, do you make a point of watching the movie first?
Typically, the movie is in production while I’m working on the music for the game, so it isn’t possible for me to see the movie first. However, the game developers give me lots of information about the movie, including the way it will look and the details of the story and characters. By the time I sit down to compose, I’ve been supplied with tons of reference materials, artwork and documentation. I’ve worked on three movie-based games so far – “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “The Da Vinci Code”, and most recently “Shrek the Third” – and it has been great fun getting an inside peek at the movie-making process while creating music for the games. Since Shrek the Third was a sequel in a series of movies, I had the advantage of being able to watch the previous two films for inspiration while creating the music. The world of Shrek has a unique and defining flavor that remains a constant from one film to the next. Everyone involved in the creation of the game worked hard to create a game world that was faithful to the magical atmosphere of the Shrek universe.
Did you work with the actors of Shrek 3 to help come up with the music for the video game?
One of the fantastic aspects of the Shrek movies are the wonderful actors who portray the central characters of Fiona, Puss in Boots, Donkey and Shrek himself. These actors have created characters so thoroughly unique and enjoyable that they have transcended the films and become comedic icons. While I wasn’t able to work directly with the actors, I found their performances tremendously inspiring. The nuances and subtle shadings of emotion in their voices helped me when I was creating the music. I could listen to their voices and tap into the underlying sentiments, then weave those feelings into the music. Plus, John Cleese supplied the narration for the game, so I got to write music that played underneath his inimitable voice. His performance in the game is hilarious! Working on the music for Shrek was a fantastic experience.
Explain to the readers how you take one scene and come up with the music.
A scene in a game starts with the design document. This is where the game designers lay out their plans for how the scene will play out, what the objectives of the player will be, and what obstacles will stand in the way. I’m usually able to read over the design document for the scene to get a sense of how everything will work in the final game. Then, I’m supplied either with a video file showing gameplay for that scene, or an early version of that portion of the game so that I can play it myself. For the “Shrek the Third” game I worked with award-winning music producer Winnie Waldron, and together we studied the supplied materials very closely before we started working on the music. Every scene in a game has its own energy level, which depends on what is going on at the time. I try hard to write music that will enhance the momentum of gameplay and make the game more involving for the player.
Is the music done before the video or is it all done at the same time?
The development of a video game is a constantly evolving process. While I’m writing music for one part of a game, the developers are tweaking and refining that portion of the game to make it even better than it was before. With a movie tie-in game, the process becomes even more collaborative, as the movie production studio gets involved and adds their considerable talents to the process. For the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” game, Warner Brothers was very interested in making sure that the game echoed the spirit of the film starring Johnny Depp, and the film’s director Tim Burton was very hands on. He even personally approved all my music for the game, which was a real thrill for me. Sony Pictures was heavily involved in the development of “The Da Vinci Code” game, which was released at the same time as their movie starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard. For “Shrek the Third”, Dreamworks took a very active role in the game’s development. The stakes are quite high for movie-based games, and the games themselves are in a constant state of revision as everyone involved works to make them as much fun for the players as possible. So that means that while I’ll have video and sometimes early playable versions of a particular scene in a game while I’m working, the final versions of that scene will often be quite different! I thoroughly enjoy seeing what the developers create, and I always hope that the music I write for a scene inspires them as they continue to mold and adjust that scene, refining it meticulously until it is the best it can be.
Besides Shrek 3, what are some of your upcoming projects?
I wish I could say! I have several projects coming up. Some of them are extremely exciting! But I’m not allowed to say anything about them yet.
How long does it take you to come up with the sounds and music for video games?
That depends on how much music will be in the final game, and it also depends on what the production schedule of the game is like. I have composed music for projects that were on really tight schedules, which meant that I worked very long hours every day of the week, straight through weekends and holidays in order to meet the deadlines. As demanding as those schedules can be, I must admit, the intensity can be exciting too!
Do you find it difficult being one of the few women in the video game industry?
Not really, because I work with a woman on a day-to-day basis. Winnie Waldron and I support each other, and that helps us feel less isolated in a predominantly male industry. Also, I’m a member of the Women in Game Development special interest group of the Independent Game Developers Association, which is a great community for women in the industry. There are comparatively few women working in game development, but our numbers are growing. The industry has become more aware in recent years of the untapped market represented by women gamers. With new game systems like the Nintendo Wii aggressively marketing to women, the value of women working as developers in this industry has increased substantially. Game development companies and game publishers want to hire people who understand female gamers. Like myself, most women in the industry are also gamers, so our perspective has become a unique and valuable resource.
Have you faced any challenges since deciding on this career path?
Every new project is a challenge. Being a game composer is similar in ways to being an athlete. You have to keep training yourself to stay fit. Half of the equation is comprised of your own innate talent and the skills you acquire, and the other half is stamina – maintaining top-notch quality while producing large amounts of triple-A music under tight deadlines. As my music producer, Winnie ensures that the music I create remains at the highest possible level of quality while also making sure that we stay on schedule. There is also the matter of advancing technology. As a game composer, I maintain a state-of-the-art music production studio, and it is my constant responsibility to stay informed regarding new tools and technologies in the music field. It is all very challenging, but I enjoy being challenged by my work.
What kind of background should a person have in order to get their foot in the door?
A musical education is key, either in the university setting or through private instruction. Almost equally important is a solid understanding of computers and music hardware. A background in writing can be very helpful in communicating with developers and publishers effectively, which is important during the game development process. Also, verbal communication skills are essential for those crucial meetings with developers and publishing reps. Above all else, an aspiring game composer needs to have experience in the creation of music. Game composition is highly demanding. Ideally, an aspiring game composer should have experience creating music in another field first before crossing over into games. Before we were hired for our first game, my music producer Winnie Waldron and I worked on a series called “Radio Tales” for National Public Radio. The series adapted classic stories like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The War of the Worlds” for the radio. As composer for the series, I created wall-to-wall music for over one hundred programs. So when the series ceased original production and transitioned to XM Satellite Radio’s channel 163, Winnie and I had plenty of experience behind us. Once we got our first job writing music for the smash-hit game “God of War”, we were ready for the challenge. If I were to give any advice, it would be to look for opportunities to exercise your craft. There is no better way to learn than by doing.
When you're not composing music, how do you spend your time?
I love long walks on a sunny day. Fresh air, rustling leaves, chirping birds… for me, those walks are one of life’s true pleasures. Also, twice a year I go to industry conferences, and it’s great to see colleagues and trade stories. Working in the video game industry is a unique way of life. It can be very demanding, but very rewarding too. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this fantastic community of creative people. There’s no other job like it!
Be sure to stop by Winifred Phillips website by clicking on the link below. Shrek the Third video game is in stores now. Shrek the Third the movie hit theaters on May 18th.
Interview by Shelia M Goss, an entertainment writer and author of My Invisible Husband, Roses are thorns, Violets are true and Paige's Web. For more information, visit www.sheliagoss.com.