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Six Strings with James Hannigan

Great chat with composer James, he is a cool great insightful guy, it's a great honor to talk with him.
-Jeremy [Retro-Z]
-Please tell us your involvement on "Dead Space III" and working with Jason Graves, did you get to work together or just share finished works?

James Hannigan: We were mostly working on separate areas and aspects of the game, but kept in touch about the bigger picture. There are times when our tracks are back to back or in a similar direction, but on the whole we were able to bring our own game as well, so to speak. And we also had the Audio Director and team at Visceral helping to unify everything and keep everything coherent and balanced across the game.

-Working with titles that have recognizable names such as "Transformers", "Harry Potter", "Lord of the Rings" do you sense a feel of what the music should sound like or even be? Do you get to step outside the box to make it more yours then tying in the more familiar themes?

James Hannigan: I definitely try to put my own stamp on things when I can. With these franchises it is true that there are a range of styles associated with them, so to some extent you try to work within them so as not to be completely inappropriate or alienating. There’s a fine line that you walk between creating music that is in some sense familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. In general, you find that there are usually opportunities to be yourself and to break a few rules as well, especially when it comes to creating themes for locations and characters, and you often find a way to put a spin on things. It’s also about how you go about interpreting the source material and injecting your own kind of musicality. As it happens, it’s fairly unusual to actually make use of existing themes or music in these games, unless it’s specifically called for and licensed - as in the case of, say, the Lego movie tie-ins.

Another way of leaving your own mark on something I think is in the choosing of when you actually have music in the game and in determining what it signifies. There are any number of ways of reading a situation and applying music, and not always an obviously right one. It’s highly subjective, really. It’s easy to forget in this era of standalone soundtracks and YouTube clips that part of the art of writing music to picture – in games, film or tv – can be about the application of music in context as well as creating tracks that sound satisfying in isolation. I tend to think that the process should be about how everything fits together as a whole in the game, and I try hard not to take an episodic view of things, but more of a symphonic one when possible. You find also that the music you are creating becomes tied in with the narrative and atmosphere of the game as well, and this is another thing that makes a soundtrack distinct when taken as a whole.

-How much creative control do you have working on any of your projects and where do you find inspiration?

James Hannigan: I try to offer my opinion to developers when it comes to music, and I feel that most expect and welcome this from a composer. A dialogue of some sort can be really important in arriving at the right musical direction, to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to what the game and its music are setting out to do. The last thing you want to feel is that you are a mere composing machine entirely implementing someone else’s musical vision for a project without bringing much of yourself to the table, but in my experience that rarely happens. At the same time, however, you do of course have to find some middle-ground with the people who are kind enough to ask for your services. Ideally speaking, everyone needs to stay pretty open and flexible to get the best results, as making a game is a highly iterative process and things change all the time. From a personal perspective though, I think you do have to feel you have some kind of influence over the music and its emotional content to really enjoy doing this work, as without that music can become a little clinical and empty, as if merely ticking a box. Listeners can usually tell when a composer’s heart isn’t in a piece of music, as it tends to lack emotional authenticity.

I get inspiration out of the initial excitement that I have when coming on board a project and thinking about what I can add to it, and after hearing about the goals the development team have. I get most of my ideas – particularly for themes – when I’m out walking rather than when I’m sitting down actually trying to write, which I’ve always found quite interesting. I don’t know about the creative process of others, but for me the process is about learning to listen to the music emerging in my mind rather than seeing myself as someone directly acting on the music. Although I guess it’s a bit of both in reality!

-A game can run for hours from start to the end, how do you find you write each track to fit…do you get to play the games in advance?

James Hannigan: Unless you live close to the developer, it’s generally hard to get hold of the game itself to play it, so a lot of the material you get from them – initially at least – takes the form of written documents, cue lists , game-play footage, cut-scenes and so on. And you glean as much as you can through conversations as well. Depending on how the team works, there may be storyboards and art to see as well which, given the quality of artwork in games these days, can be truly inspiring to look at. You also need to have a handle on interactive music and how to go about composing and editing music to comply with the system in use for the game. So you’re looking for ways of musically binding things together but also thinking about the seams and how music will flow in more of a technical, audio-related way as well. And very often music will be stemmed or layered and essentially remixed by the game. There’s definitely an art to composing for games in the sense that the compositional techniques you employ and the way you organize music need to be in recognition of the fact that your music could, among other things, play indefinitely or be repeated quite often.

-Game music is much more of an art than just music, do you feel that vintage gaming should be remembered in modern gaming and do you have a favorite game modern/vintage/both?

James Hannigan: Absolutely I think vintage game music should be remembered. It’s part of the medium’s cultural heritage - but, more to the point, I think a lot of it was very good and should simply not be forgotten for that reason. What I particularly like about it is that it had a sonic identity making it absolutely recognizable as game music, and that makes it truly unique and much more distinctive if you want to talk about games being an art form. Early game music used the actual onboard gaming hardware to generate sounds, so music production, if you can call it that, was absolutely integral to the underlying technology of the day, and just getting music – any music – out of that hardware was an achievement in itself. For me, knowing how well the composers of that era worked within the technical constraints they were faced with makes the music even more dazzling, and also harder to take at face value. It may be just bleeps and bloops to a lot of people, but those bleeps and bloops were very difficult to make at the time!

The most distinctive sounds for me in early arcade games would have to be in games like Space Invaders and Defender. Without looking, you only need to hear a split second of those games to know exactly what they are, and that’s really saying something.

-Do you ever get the chance to see people play [like a convention] the games you score and feel a great sense of satisfaction?

James Hannigan: Yes, it’s a real thrill. And, naturally, you hope that it’s enjoyed as well and has the desired effect. Unless they take an active interest in music though, I doubt the majority of gamers consciously acknowledge the existence of music in games, as it tends to work subconsciously, but they probably would notice if it was absent. So, all in all, it is a nice feeling to have your music disseminated in this way, regardless of how many people actually acknowledge it directly.

James Hannigan Bio:
Widely recognized as a leading composer for interactive entertainment, James Hannigan's scoring career encompasses an array of genres including popular sci-fi titles such as Command & Conquer: Tiberium Twilight, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, Chris Roberts' space combat simulation, Freelancer, and several entries in the Harry Potter series. Most recently James Hannigan composed original music for Visceral Games / Electronic Arts' blockbuster sci-fi horror sequel Dead Space 3, winner of more than 15 critic awards at E3 2012, as well as new and updated themes for Jagex Games Studio's massively multiplayer online role-playing fantasy game Runescape, recognized by Guinness World Records as the world's most popular free MMORPG. In addition to scoring video games, James composes for film and television, contributing to TV series such as BBC America's Primeval. 


Unknown said...

Really terrific interview. I never knew very much at all about the music for games. I'm going to pay far more attention when I play BioShock, etc with my nephew.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That must be difficult to compose music for a game when all you have are storyboards and such. Takes quite a talent!