by Rafael Ruiz
Composer Winifred Philips may not be a household name for film score fans, but she has garnered an impressive resume of multimedia work, including a number of videogame scores and work for National Public Radio (NPR). Rafael Ruiz had a chance to discuss her composing influences and styles with writing for several of her projects, including her most recent, the Wachowski Brothers' frenetic Speed Racer, as well as some of her upcoming work.
You wrote the 75 minutes of music on 4 months. Is that the average for you?
There is a fairly broad range in terms of scheduling for music creation in the video game industry. That being said, I've worked on four movie tie-in games now, and the production schedules tend to be pretty tight for those projects… mostly because the release dates can't be shifted. The games have to hit retail shelves when the movies hits theaters, so the kind of delays that have become prevalent for other triple-A games just can't happen for tie-in projects. I can't go into specifics, but generally speaking, 4 months is a generous window of time for a tie-in game. I've worked on game projects that have required me to deliver over 70 minutes of music in far less time. Since I've never been able to scale back my ambitions musically, that meant I had to work incredibly long hours non-stop until the projects were complete. Of course, it's a huge privilege to create music for games based on movies like The Da Vinci Code, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Shrek the Third and now Speed Racer. There's a ton of inspiration to be had from those stories, so in the end it all balances out.
Do you wish you had more time or do you find the time constraints work out just right?
It would always be nice to have more time, but the pressure to deliver can often make the entire music creation process more intense and exciting. Tight schedules force me to make decisions from the gut, and I've found that these kind of musical choices tend to be the best. Since I have award-winning music producer Winnie Waldron overseeing the music composition schedule and ensuring that our time is always well budgeted, I've never missed a single deadline, despite the time constraints. Nevertheless, I'm not about to eschew a longer music production schedule! It's always fun to have the time to experiment with musical ideas and possibilities… but in my experience, time isn't necessarily a prerequisite to quality.
Are you ever given temp music as reference?
The use of temp music has become pretty standard practice in the video game industry, just as it has in television and film. I've been given my share of temp tracks, but I've also been lucky in that there's never been an absolute requirement that I stick to the musical style in the temps. Video games are an interactive, non-linear form of entertainment that create fundamentally different experiences than those found in more passive media like film and TV. As such, video games are entirely unique in their musical requirements, which makes it pretty perilous to lean too heavily on temps (most of which are drawn from film and television scores). Games require an extra amount of flexibility in their soundtracks. The musical language used by TV and film just doesn't cut it. Temps definitely serve a purpose in helping the game developers communicate their general music preferences to the composer, but as soon as everyone involved begins delving into the real technical and artistic demands of the video game itself, the music evolves into its own distinctive sound.
What was the first piece of music you wrote for the score? Were there any hurdles for you to overcome?
The first track I wrote was a shorter version of "Thunderhead" – which is one of the earliest race tracks featured in both the movie and the game. I'd been asked to create music that honored the hard-driving electronica dominating the futuristic-racer game genre, while at the same time introducing both cinematic orchestral instrumentation and wild, over-the-top retro elements. It was a tall order! My experience up to that point had been dominated by orchestral composition for projects like God of War and The Da Vinci Code, so it was a really refreshing challenge to tackle a contemporary score that mixed popular music styles with the classic techniques of dramatic underscore. Getting it all to mesh – that was the challenge. The producer of the game, Andy Satterthwaite of Sidhe Interactive, provided me with musical examples from a wide variety of dissimilar artists and musical genres. These materials were helpful as a starting point. There was, however, no hint of how all of these influences could be combined into a cohesive whole. So I took the basic musical vocabularies from all these styles and started combining them in ways that I hoped would feel fresh and unexpected. The "Thunderhead" track is dominated by aggressive orchestral punches using tight brass cluster chords set over a very grungy rock backdrop with old-school analog synth, surreal sound design, stadium stomps, and a whole plethora of other weird instruments and effects zipping through. Getting that track to the point where all the elements complemented each other was very difficult, but it certainly defined the general stylistic principles that would be carried through the rest of the game.
What would you say are your Electronica influences?
For this project, I think my strongest influences were in the Big Beat subgenre. I listened to a lot of music from Prodigy, Chemical Bros., Propellerheads, and Crystal Method. I liked the visceral qualities, and the music has a lot of flexibility in terms of its rhythmic structure. There are a lot of funk and jazz influences in the soundtrack too, and I think they complemented the electronica surprisingly well.
When you wrote "End Credits", what caused you to channel your inner Freddie Mercury?
Wow, I hadn't realized! I wrote that track to have a broad, rock-anthem vibe to it… I wasn't thinking of any particular artist or style… but listening to it now, I can definitely see how someone might think of Queen when they heard it! Since Sidhe Interactive didn't have the rights to use the original theme from the Speed Racer cartoon in their game, I wanted to include something with a brash, thematic quality in the score. The melody in that track serves as a motif that appears in other tracks, such as "Cosmopolis Grand Prix" and "Rev It Up".
How did you decide what styles to apply for the various races?
Some of the tracks were written for specific racing stadiums, so I had the opportunity to structure the music around the feel of the location. My music producer Winnie Waldron suggested the use of location-specific sound effects as a part of the music, which was a great idea that worked really well to establish an atmosphere and lend unique character to the individual race tracks. The "Onuris" stadium is located right on the beach, and the race course runs alongside (and sometimes over) the ocean… so I wrote the music to mix a ‘beachy' atmosphere (including the sound of ocean waves and sea gulls) with the harder edges of rock and electronica. The "Fuji Helexicon" track winds around a volcano on a tropical island, so the music incorporates island drums, conch shells, and tribal chanting. "Aurora Cryopticon" is an icy racecourse, and to create the feel of that atmosphere I used a lot of winter sound effects as percussion elements, including howling wind and the sound of skiers and skaters. But there were other pieces of music which were each going to be used in several locations throughout the game, and those were harder to define stylistically. I didn't have any way of knowing what emotion I should convey to the player through the music, because of the unpredictability of the races and the fact that these tracks would be triggered multiple times over the course of the game. So I concentrated on a few universal emotional constants, including the exhilarating sensation of speed, the alternating determination and frustration that can be felt during a race, the trash-talking attitude that a game like this inevitably inspires, and the untarnished pride of racing a tricked-out muscle car. I mixed these with the stylistic fusion of bigbeat / funk / rock / symphonic / retro … and unique things emerged. Experimenting with musical styles can be tremendous fun.
Can you describe your working relationship with your music producer, Winnie Waldron?
I'm extremely fortunate as a media composer – I work with a music producer for all my projects. Not a music producer in the sense that the music industry understands it, but one whose tasks are well understood by producers in the game industry (not to mention the television and film world). In these fields, there are producers tasked with seeing the ‘big picture' and making sure that the ship stays on course. These people oversee the day-to-day operations, making sure everyone is working to the highest standards possible, all deadlines are being met and that everyone has the resources they need to get the job done. They're also the ‘idea' people – they leap in when the production machine grinds to a halt, offering up the crucial solution that gets everything moving again. Essentially, these people are the glue that holds everything together. That's what Winnie Waldron does for me. She's a brilliant, extraordinarily talented woman with keen insight into the process of modern storytelling, whether it be in the videogame industry or in more traditional, linear media like film and TV. She has a set of 'golden ears', and her judgment for musical quality is impeccable. Winnie and I have been working together since we first collaborated on an anthology series called "Radio Tales" for National Public Radio. I am well aware of how lucky I am to work with her on a daily basis.
Do you think of the music as a stand-alone listening experience beyond game?
For every project, I try to write music that has value as a stand-alone listening experience… even though sometimes the logistics make it difficult for the music to be presented that way. The interactive nature of the medium sometimes translates into music that has to be written in lots of short segments which the game engine manipulates on the fly. After the project is over I'll compile these short pieces into full-length tracks which reflect the spirit of the in-game listening experience. However, for this project I had the rare and welcome opportunity to write complete, full-length songs. This allowed me to explore musical variations, experiment with song structure and create cohesive musical stories that each had a beginning, middle and end. It was a very fulfilling experience, and I hope that the end result is a musical score that has value when heard beyond the game.
What do you think you've learned musically speaking in the last 4 years of intensive work?
As a media composer, the learning process is endless. I can't even begin to tally the amount of time I've spent over the past four years studying the technological advances in music production and continuing developments in the videogame industry. But in terms of what I've learned musically… that's a process that has happened entirely on-the-job. The past four years have been completely absorbed in music for video games. In my opinion, no field is more challenging for a composer. God of War was my first game project, and my first opportunity to experiment with a technique for creating recordings of a symphonic choir by overdubbing my own voice into a large number of tracks. I'd dabbled with the technique for earlier scores, but the chance to put it into practice more fully was invaluable. Working with Mediterranean musical styles was also fantastically enriching. My next project, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory game, allowed me to adapt this technique to a much more whimsical score, while also stretching my boundaries in the areas of contrapuntal lines and gestural composition. After that, The Da Vinci Code game gave me a chance to work with a big, muscled orchestral sound, and also indulged a life-long fascination with liturgical techniques and the medieval vocal motet. The harmonic complexity gave my brain a very hard workout – it was a tremendous growth experience for me. From there, I moved on to Shrek the Third, which further enhanced my understanding of orchestral techniques, tone colors and contrasts. And then, with Speed Racer: The Video Game, I got to jump head first into a whirlpool of popular music styles, synthetic instruments and hard-hitting beats. It was great to put my brain into an entirely different place, musically speaking, and it gave me a new perspective… not to mention all the new skills I learned in the process. Vocoder, anyone?
Do you get responses from the filmmakers about your work after the fact?
While I've never heard directly from any of the filmmakers, I did find out that Tim Burton approved of my work for the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory game. He is very hands-on as a director, and listened to all my music personally. Later, the game developers told me that he'd approved everything… which was immensely gratifying for me. With a movie tie-in, the film director's vision is always the foremost guiding principle for everyone involved in the game, so it made me very happy to know that Tim Burton liked what I did. Also, while I was working on the "Shrek the Third" game I heard that Harry Gregson-Williams listened to some of my music from the game and liked it, saying that I have 'chops'. Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear that he'd said that.
Any new updates on your big summer project?
I really wish I could tell you something about it! Unfortunately, the game is being kept very strictly under wraps. However, recently I've been brought in on several additional game projects. This is a pretty exciting time for me! One of these games is part of an extremely high-profile game franchise. I'm sorry that I can't say anything more.
What is the one question you wished people asked but didn't?
Here's one –
What do I think of people using your music for their ringtones?
The answer – I love that! I'm told that a large percentage of the development team at Sidhe Interactive has been using an excerpt from my ‘End Credits' theme as their ringtone. Also, I was attending GDC this year and a developer told me that he uses my cover version of the Super Mario Bros. theme as his ringtone, then proceeded to pull out his cell and play the ringtone for me. I recorded the vocal cover version of the theme last year, using my voice to carry the melody and harmonies, and accenting that with sound effects and old-school bleeps and bloops. The track was recorded for an album called 'Best of the Best: A Tribute to Game Music'. I had great fun recording it, and it was very cool to hear my voice coming out of someone's cell phone. I love knowing I've had the chance to entertain people, and its gratifying when they want to make my work a part of their day-to-day lives. I can't ask for a better reward than that.
Special thanks to Winifred Philips.