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Composer Interview: James Hannigan

posted Apr 15, 2013, 8:29 PM by Kaya Savas

James Hannigan is a BAFTA-winning composer whose work has spanned TV and many hit video games including the recent Dead Space 3, which he co-composed with Jason Graves. James also tackled Transformers Universe, which is an MMO (massively multiplayer online) game. His work continually fuels the projects he takes on and his music definitely speaks for itself in establishing James as a constantly fresh yet styled voice in the composing world.

Thank you so much for taking some time to chat about your work!
To start, how did you get involved in music and why did you pursue composing as a career path?

I think, like a lot of people who end up doing this kind of work for a living, making music was part of my life from the very beginning. I was fortunate enough to have access to a piano as a child and similarly fortunate enough to feel uninhibited when it came to playing and experimenting with music, often encouraged by my parents. Things like that can make all the difference when it comes to getting kids interested in music and in forming a creative personality, so I’m grateful I didn’t have the kind of parents who only allowed me to play other people’s music, although a bit of that obviously helps as well! I had music lessons from an early age and, luckily, my teacher was also encouraging of me when it came to improvisation and creating my own music, and we’d occasionally jam together. In my teens, I started getting my music down and recording it, after putting together a very basic recording studio. It was around 20 years ago I first sold some of my music, and that was to a Sony-owned music library. Around a year after that I had forty tracks in it and things just went from there, with just a few breaks for study and also a job in-house at EA for a couple of years in the 90s. 

You’ve become such a respectable voice in the video game community with your work, what appeals to you most about scoring video games?

Thank you; it’s very kind of you to suggest that! I’m simply fascinated by the musical and creative opportunities games present, and there’s still so much unexplored territory composing for the medium, particularly where technology and music intersect. I’m not even sure the industry itself fully understands the potential or function of music in games yet, which could be one reason it tends to look towards other media forms for inspiration and ‘borrows’ existing musical languages, such as those of film. Not that there’s any harm in doing that, but there’s still a lot left to invent in games and that continues to excite me. I strongly believe games can only grow in cultural significance, and that some of the biggest innovations are yet to come. But I also feel that the mainstream games industry has to be ready for that sort of ongoing innovation and allow it to happen as well, perhaps by giving composers a little more free reign than they presently do. Unfortunately, what could happen - in theory - doesn’t always come to pass when market economics enter the equation, and that’s something that all composers working in a commercial context have to deal with, whether they work on big games, Hollywood movies or anything else. I’m particularly excited, however, about the evolution of the indie sector right now, as there’s an openness there when it comes to aesthetics and what games can ultimately achieve, not unlike there used to be in the mainstream games industry, in fact.

Now, games differ based on the genre and type of game it is. Do you have to approach a more linear game differently than say a MMORPG?

Yes, I think there are often wildly different approaches taken to music in games, as in Film and TV. Just as you may have a romantic, emotionally motivated score for an action adventure movie or a filmic game belonging to the action-adventure genre, at other times you may want something less manipulative and showing more restraint in something like a TV documentary or a realistic sim-based game. What music says in games can vary considerably depending on the role players take in them and whether it exists to support a narrative, provide atmosphere or is part of an essentially linear or open-ended experience. At times, games attempt to treat players as fully immersed participants in the game world – for example in a flight sim, where realism is key, and a lot of added emotion through the use of music just wouldn’t fit so well with a necessarily cold virtual reality. But some more manipulative games, particularly ones inspired by films, may need music that partly treats players as an audience as well as participants in them. In other words, there’s a sense of both watching the spectacle of the game from the outside, as a piece of entertainment, and actually feeling a part of it at the same time with games like that. There’s a fine line to walk there, I feel, as you don’t want to say so much with music that you completely push the player out of the experience, but you also don’t want the game world to be emotionally sterile and un-engaging. To some extent, the degree of control the player has over the outcome of a story can affect music as well. For example, if there’s a linear story the player is progressing through, then it’s easier to help tell this story through music than it is to, say, tell a story through music in a more open-ended game such as a sim or strategy title where the player is deciding what will happen next or effectively creating their own personalized world or story. In the latter case, music often needs to stand back from that narrative and create a sense of place or merely provide an atmosphere, allowing them to effectively live that story rather than be told it. So, all in all, it’s actually quite easy to say too much with music in games or provide a lot of redundant information for the player if you’re not careful, and that could explain why, in the past, a lot of music ended up switched off! It may have sounded nice in itself, but it didn’t always give the player information they needed to play the game, or simply grew irritating over time.

You co-composed Dead Space 3 with Jason Graves who has been with the franchise since the beginning. What was collaborating with Jason like? Did you guys work closely together or was the workload divvied up?

It was divvied up, but we kept our eye on the bigger picture. Of course, it’s always great to be working alongside Jason because he’s such a pro and we share a huge passion for music and this type of project.

As a composer with your own unique voice coming into an established franchise with the original composer, what was your goal musically for Dead Space 3? What did you want to add while working in an established soundscape?

I was conscious of not wanting to get too much into Jason’s territory or into recording aleatoric music, as that would have been pretty pointless under the circumstances, nor was that really expected of me. Although, there are a few moments when I stray into something more familiarly Dead Space. What I was looking to add was some kind of emotional dimension specifically suited to Dead Space 3, through the use of themes, atmospheres and music for specific events and characters. There was undoubtedly a shift in tone in some parts of the game, when compared with earlier entries in the series, but the music is nonetheless still pretty dark despite that. We wanted to create a sense of tragic heroism for Isaac with his theme; nothing too bombastic or to suggest Isaac is some kind of reinvented superhero, but more the theme of a human hero up against impossible odds in a hostile environment. A lot of the other music is quite tied into the relationships existing between the characters in the game. For instance, highlighting the tension existing between Isaac and Norton or Isaac’s relationship with Ellie, and there a number of action tracks in there as well, which are always good fun to write.

You’ve also done many video game tie-ins with huge blockbuster film franchises such as the Harry Potter games, Lord Of The Rings: Aragons Quest and now Transformers Universe. All of these have such iconic film score counterparts. How do you even begin to approach scoring a game like that to make it your own while still respecting what the composer did in the film?

The irony is, most of the time when you’re working on a movie license you don’t even get to hear the music of the corresponding film at the point you start composing for it, so you may not be able to derive music from the film score even if you want to! Depending on the setup though, there may or may not be a desire to refer to the music of the film directly, but there is in general a requirement to be stylistically on the same page when possible, for obvious reasons. But it’s generally quite rare to directly refer to film music in games of this kind, for legal reasons, although very occasionally you may find that the actual recordings from certain films are licensed for use. The Lego games are a good example of that. But the Harry Potter movie tie-ins featured new music, with only the occasional reference to John Williams’ Hedwig’s Theme in some of the later entries. All in all, in working on these games I didn’t feel particularly inhibited when it came to writing music for them, and felt able to put my own spin on the music, often creating new themes in the process. What you’re looking to do with games of this kind is to create something stylistically appropriate for them but at the same time make the music your own as well. It’s more or less the same process as for a new composer joining a film series someone else has started, I imagine. They will be conscious of what has gone before, but will also want to take things in their own direction where they can, in a way that doesn’t alienate the audience or go wildly off base when it comes to the established style for the series.

How challenging is it to create pacing and timing for in-game music when everything is dictated by the player, and in reality you have no idea how different people will play the game? How has the growing technology changed your approach to game scoring?

It’s difficult and there is, it seems, a bit of paradox at the heart of the process – especially when it comes to creating music for narrative support, as I mentioned earlier. The player is both audience to and a participant in games. So the question is, just whose story are you telling with the music, and who are you telling it to? I feel that the ground rules are still being created for music in games, no matter what anyone says claiming to fully understand music for this medium. It’s very easy to dismiss the problem or simply treat games as interactive films, but I think most composers in games know the problem runs a little deeper than that, especially the ones who have been doing this for a while and haven’t been drafted in from other industries. Aside from the function of music being somewhat different from other forms of music to picture, a fundamental tension exists between the idea of music being something you fully compose and realise before the point of application and the very interactive and often open-ended nature of games. Music happens over time and time itself is elastic in games in a way that it isn’t in film or tv, where you have music that can be cut to picture with absolute precision. Even a linear game with a set outcome can be played in different ways and players will all take a different amount of time to play through sequences. So various techniques have evolved in games to try to tackle this problem and make music suitably elastic and adaptive to the game in real-time, and that has necessarily had a knock-on effect on the composition process itself, as well as the playback technology.

Increasingly, there’s a line being walked between what makes interesting music in its own right and what actually works as interactive music in games, I find, and getting the balance right between those two things could be at the heart of what this emerging art form is all about, I feel. It could also explain why, in part at least, so much music in games has become textural and atmospheric in essence, as it’s simply a lot easier to edit this kind of music and move, often rather abruptly, between one track and another without creating much disruption. The same is true of rhythm or cell-based music, or music with a lot of unpitched effects or, crudely speaking, made up of a lot of short notes that make it easier to chop up and segmentalize for use in games. But when you try chopping up music that has more of a narrative in it, or abruptly exit a track in the middle of a long phrase or melody, you start to see why games and music of this kind are not easy bedfellows. To a large extent as well, technology is increasingly determining content in games, for better or for worse. If it can be done with interactive music, many will try to do it. The jury is still out though, I feel, about where to draw the line between musicality and interactivity in games, as sometimes there’s nothing like a good tune in a game, regardless of how interactive it is. Again, this could be what the art of composing for games is ultimately about, and the best composers in future could be ones who somehow manage to transcend the constraints of the technology to deliver something both meaningful and fully interactive at the same time. I’m sure it can be done, if it hasn’t already, but to make it the norm it’s probably necessary to see games as a distinct form first, and not just an extension of film, for example.

Well, to wrap up I always like to ask composers this question. If you had the opportunity to score any film ever made, with no disrespect to the original composer, which film would you choose?

Like many, I’m a huge fan of John Williams, and I consider him to be just about the most naturally talented and musical person working in film; at least that I know of. But I find the work of Jerry Goldsmith hugely inspiring as well in a slightly different and more conceptual sort of way. I particularly love the way Jerry combined synths with acoustic instruments and how biting his music could be, full of interesting effects and textures, not to mention hugely memorable, powerful themes. If I had the chance, I’d love to go back in time and score films such as Logan’s Run, the original Total Recall or Blade Runner, although I very much doubt the results would be anywhere near as good as the scores these films presently have!

Thanks, James so much for your time! 

It’s a pleasure!

Interview Conducted By:
Kaya Savas

Special Thanks:
James Hannigan
Greg O'Connor-Read
Top Dollar PR