Interview: Assassin's Creed III: Liberation composer Winifred Phillips
Video game music composers are on the rise, creating some compelling projects that go hand-in-hand with developers' work. (After all, there's a reason that shows like The Legend of Zelda Symphony tour and Video Games Live are so popular.) Among them are Winifred Phillips, who got her start working on the Radio Tales series before moving into video games, working on music for such games as God of War and LittleBigPlanet for PlayStation Vita.
Recently, Phillips contributed one of her most creative soundtracks to date, putting together the inspired tunes for Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed III: Liberation for PS Vita. We recently had a chance to interview with her, seeing how she got involved with the soundtrack, and what went into putting it together.
First off, just as a general overview, you've produced some great soundtracks in video games, but it didn't always start out that way, did it? You actually got your start with Radio Tales?
That’s right, I was hired to compose the music for Radio Tales. Award-winning music producer Winnie Waldron created the series for National Public Radio. She was the on-air host and script editor for the series, and part of her job entailed adapting classic novels and short stories for the radio drama format. She needed someone to compose music and create sound design for the series, so she brought me into the project. It was a great way to learn the craft, because each program required music for its entire length. I got to write music for stories like “The Invisible Man,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” and it was a lot of fun.
How did your switch to video games come about? Did you just want to work on a different medium or was it something else?
I’d always been a gamer. I suppose anyone who loves games has thought about what it would be like to be a part of the development team and create a video game. I’d thought about that in a sort of casual way, but it hadn’t seriously occurred to me that I could earn a living composing music for games until one day when I was playing Tomb Raider, and the music caught my attention in a way it hadn’t before. I remember thinking that I could make game music composition my profession, and it was a bit of a revelation for me. After that, I kept my eyes open for opportunities in the game industry, and sent out a few demos until I attracted the attention of a music supervisor at Sony Computer Entertainment America. One thing led to another, and I ended up joining the music composition team for God of War. When that happened, I asked Winnie to produce my music for the God of War project, and she’s produced my music for all my video game projects since then.
Shifting to Assassin's Creed III Liberation, how did you get paired up with Ubisoft? Did you have to send a sample piece that was Assassin's Creed related or...?
I’d had a good ongoing relationship with the music department at Ubisoft, and we’d talked a few times about possible projects for which I could create music, but nothing had clicked until the Assassin’s Creed III Liberation project came along. I was available at the right time, and was able to participate in the competitive bid for the project. I sent Ubisoft a few tracks I’d composed for other projects. The tracks demonstrated my composition skills, and they hired me based on that.
What would you say is the toughest part of putting a game soundtrack together? Or perhaps the most surprising?
With any game project, I’m never sure what the toughest part is going to be. It’s always different. For Assassin’s Creed III Liberation, it was reconciling all the musical styles and cultural influences that would have to be represented, from African to Baroque to Mexican, with a healthy dose of contemporary rhythm and hi-tech synths. Contrasting musical elements can actually compliment each other very well, in surprising ways. I found that African rhythm and energetic Baroque strings worked together very effectively, and I wouldn’t have predicted that!
Did you have to limit anything in the process so that the music would fit onto the PS Vita? Or did you have no limits?
For the most part, I didn’t have limits in the composition and recording of the music. On a few rare occasions, I had to limit the stereo positioning of an instrument or two in order to compensate for the Vita’s speakers, but otherwise I didn’t have to concern myself with the Vita’s hardware.
How enjoyable was it composing themes that fit in with the 18th century New Orleans setting? Did you get to fiddle (mind the term) around with any particular instruments?
Yes, I did get to fiddle (pun intended) with fiddles, as well as cajon, balafon, kalimba, udu, djembe, bamboo flutes, and all sorts of exotic hand percussion. I also was able to work extensively with the elements of the Baroque chamber orchestra, including the harpsichord, strings and woodwind ensemble. From my perspective as a composer, 18th century New Orleans was like a melting pot of musical influences. I found it very inspiring.
Did you find a connection with Aveline so that it felt more like something that would fit her story, rather than just a usual Assassin?
Aveline is a compelling character, both immensely strong and quite approachable and likable at the same time. She’s able to preserve her humanity and compassion, even while maintaining her devotion to the Brotherhood and carrying out assassinations on their behalf. I wanted to balance the warmth and the violence, reflect it in the music as much as possible.
How exciting is it to see a game soundtrack released alongside the game on the same day of release? I personally think it's a great soundtrack.
Thanks!! I’m glad you enjoyed the music. It’s tremendously exciting to see one of my game soundtracks released on the same day as the game. Listening to a game soundtrack is a completely different way to experience the same music. While playing a game, our attention is necessarily divided, but when listening to a soundtrack we have the ability to notice all sorts of musical details that our mental bandwidth simply couldn’t accommodate while we were playing the game. I am always very excited to see what people think of my music, both inside the game and when listened to as a stand-alone soundtrack.
I know you can't tell us what you're working on next just yet, but how psyched are you for the next few months that lie ahead?
Very psyched! My latest (unannounced) project was a lot of fun for me. I can’t wait until it’s released… which will be quite soon!
Finally, how would you react if you were asked to be part of a video game performance show like Video Games Live? Always curious to see how composers would feel to have their work performed in front of a live audience.
Of course, it would be an absolute thrill to see my music performed at any of the live touring shows. With Assassin’s Creed III Liberation, since there is so much exotic percussion, I imagine it would be a lot of fun to watch. It’s possible that pushing the percussion section center stage for a performance of the Assassin’s Creed III Liberation Main Theme would make for a great show!
You can download Winifred's Assassin's Creed III: Liberation soundtrack on iTunes now!