Exclusive Interview: Composer Winifred Phillips of 'Assassins Creed III: Liberation'



In the world of video game music, the name of Winifred Phillips is one you'll hear popping up again and again... and not just because she's got a ton of awesome games to her credit, from children's fare to ultra-violent fantasy adventures; she's also picked up more awards than just about any other game composer in the business. Her latest project, the latest entry in the Assassin's Creed game series (and the first to center on a female protagonist) is not only one of her most ambitious undertakings, but it's already garnered her a Hollywood Music in Media Award, which she received just last week in a ceremony at LA's Fonda Theater. I had a chance to chat with Winifred after being stunned by the scope of this music, which incorporates a wide spectrum of period musical styles: the harpsichords of 18th-century European aristocracy; the rustic instruments of the Louisiana bayou; even the jungle rhythms of the ancient Mayans... and it's all in service of the game's complex historically based plot. During our chat I also found out more about Winifred's background in radio drama, particularly spooky interpretations of classic horror literature. The interview begins after this sample medley from the game soundtrack (which is now available on iTunes and Amazon).



FEARnet: First of all, congratulations on winning your latest award!


WINIFRED: Thanks! It was a very exciting night. I'm so pleased and happy that so many game reviewers and music critics are enjoying this music, and receiving the Hollywood Music in Media Award was tremendously gratifying. It's a privilege to create music for fantastic games such as Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, and I'm proud to have been part of such a stellar development team at Ubisoft.


You've definitely brought home a lion's share of awards for your work.


I've been fortunate to be a part of a lot of great game projects that were inspiring for me as a composer, and that allowed me to create music that was honored by such organizations as the Game Audio Network Guild, the International Film Music Critics Awards and the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. With Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, I had the opportunity to work with a tremendously creative team and attempt to create a musical score that complimented their vision.


One thing that characterizes your scores for me is how seamlessly the music is woven into the sound design and effects. Is there a specific creative process you use to achieve that?


I'm always experimenting with new ways to create musical textures that compliment the overall sonic environment of the game. I think that the most important thing is to listen carefully to what the development team tells you about their vision for the game, read all the design documents and pore over the concept art, experience the game in action and then compose music with the intention of reflecting and amplifying all these elements. With every project, I approach my work with the hope that I'll be able to create a score that fits the game like a glove.


Would you say your game scores are a natural extension of your background in radio drama, where the music is so closely integrated into the narration and performances?


Yes, you make a great point. The music in radio drama has a core functionality: it acts to create mental imagery that will bring to life the actions of the characters. Radio drama music can indicate physical motions as minuscule as hand gestures and as blatant as hand-to-hand combat. When composed in a subtle and thoughtful way, radio drama music can substitute for the missing visual information, without ever feeling too overt or over-the-top. It was a difficult technique to learn, and I think it's helped me as a game composer. When I create music for video game action, I'm never quite sure what the gamer will be doing at any given moment. With this in mind, I try to weave through the musical texture a hint of generalized activity. Hopefully, the actions of the player will then feel complimentary to the music most of the time, regardless of what the player might be doing. When using this approach in concert with other techniques of music interactivity, it becomes possible to create a musical score that feels nicely in sync with the action.



In Liberation there's such a variety of musical textures, especially in the percussion, and the contrast of cultures, like the European aristocrats, the bayou dwellers, etc. Did you seek out specific instruments and/or session players to create that atmosphere?


I definitely needed specific instruments and performances for this project. It required African, Baroque, Mexican, folk and contemporary musical styles. The score includes tribal drum and vocal performances recorded on location in Africa, as well as authentic Mexican clay flute performances, loads of unique and rare hand percussion from around the world, and of course the traditional Baroque instruments, including harpsichord, string orchestra and solo woodwinds and strings. Apart from these, I worked with synthesizers and modern drums to give some of the tracks a contemporary edge.


Would you say this was your most challenging game project to date?


I think I could say it was, but it was also one of the most rewarding experiences I've had as a game composer. I enjoyed the chance to define the musical style of this game, and to create a score that helped to enhance the impact of the game's epic story.


But then again you started out on God of War, and I imagine that was a huge arena to work in too.


True, God of War was a massive project, but then that franchise has always used a team of composers for every game. I was one of a group of composers, and I was tasked with composing a portion of the score, not the whole thing. That made that project a great introduction to the game industry for me, because I didn't have to write the entire score. Since then I've served as sole composer for most of my game projects, including Liberation.


You've worked in many different game genres; do you have a favorite? My guess would be fantasy, since you've also written fantasy fiction.


Yes, you're right. I have a warm place in my heart for any fantasy story or fantasy game. I love the sense of elevated reality that one finds in a fantasy environment, and the mythical symbolism that gives the stories their impact. I also enjoy other genres, from sci-fi and horror, to stories filled with light-hearted whimsy and creativity, to straight-up action adventures.


You've had a long creative partnership with Winnie Waldron... did you both transition from radio to games at the same time?


Yes we did. I actually got my first job as a composer when Winnie hired me to create music for a National Public Radio series called Radio Tales. She was producing the series, serving as the on-air host and editing the scripts. She needed me to compose the music and create the sound design elements. The series consisted of world-famous stories and novels adapted for the radio, with full musical scores. Some of the episodes of the series included Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, H.G. Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau, and Charles Dickens' Ghost Story. I learned a lot from that experience; it honed my skills as a composer and taught me to be disciplined in my daily work. When the opportunity came along to join the God of War music team, I asked Winnie to come with me and produce my music for video games. Since then, we've worked together on every game project, including this one.


Have you scored for feature films or television, or are there any in the works? I can easily imagine your music in a big-budget fantasy or adventure film.


Thanks! I have a few television and film credits, but my focus has been primarily on video games. That's what I love to do.


I think our readers would appreciate all the horror classics you've brought to life on Radio Tales. Can you describe the process of scoring and enacting those stories?


I think horror can be at its most fearsomely scary on the radio. In some of the best horror films, the scariest moments are when you can't see the monster, or the killer, or the evil presence... you just hear terrible sounds... the music twists in a gut-wrenching way that lets you know things are about to get nasty... suddenly you hear screaming, gnashing, and such inhuman sounds as chill you to the marrow of your bones. Sounds can be much scarier than visuals. For instance, with a program like Edgar Allan Poe's Pit and the Pendulum, as a composer I have to thoroughly live in the horrifying world that Poe has created, so that I can compose a sufficiently disturbing musical texture to enhance the atmosphere. From the gaping pit with its unnamed horrors, to the swinging razor-sharp scythe ready to slice its hapless victim slowly in half, to the swarming rats chewing away at the prisoner's bonds, and finally the scalding hot prison walls closing in mercilessly from every side... it's all a grotesque nightmare that has to be communicated through a surreal and terrifying musical language. I try to live in the horror, to be emotionally moved by it so that my music will resonate with those emotions. I also experiment with instrumental combinations that create weird and unexpected effects. Sometimes, horror hinges on the surprise element, and I think a truly effective horror score strives to keep things very fresh and original, so that it has the ability to surprise the listener.