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Interview With James Hannigan

By Vivo - 15th January 2012 - 18:46 PM

James Hannigan is an award winning Composer, well known for his work with various video game titles, such as Command and Conquer, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Hannigan has also composed music for films and television shows, as well as being nominated for BAFTA more than five times, and in 2000 winning one. GameReplays.Org's Jani Vivolin had the pleasure to talk with him recently.

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GameReplays: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Would you like to start by telling us about your first experience with video games and some of the projects you have worked on?

James Hannigan: When starting out I was writing bits and pieces for TV, contributing to music libraries and the like and I became very interested in the musical possibilities games presented. Around then, EA offered me a job as in-house composer, and it was at that point I became quite heavily involved in games. Prior to that, I'd only worked on a few games - ones such as Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat. At EA I got to grips with studio technology (they had a great studio for the time, purpose-built and on-site), and I learnt a bit about how games are put together, seeing music and audio move from the era of chip music, soundcards and so on to the digital era of streamed music, use of sampled sounds, etc. - and interactive music systems used today. Those changes, for better or for worse, meant composers and sound designers could not only create electronic scores using pc/console hardware as a sound source but could also start using recorded music and sounds, adding any live elements if needed, and this somewhat levelled the playing field with other entertainment industries. Some of the games I got to compose for at EA included Privateer: The Darkening (linked with the Wing Commander universe), Space Hulk and various EA Sports titles of the time. I think my first live recording for a game was for a little known title on the Bullfrog label called Beasts and Bumpkins, which had various mediaeval musicians and instruments in it, and that was a lot of fun and quite a novelty at the time. It made me realise that pretty much anything possible in the wider world of recorded music for any medium was now possible for games as well. After being in-house at EA a few years, I went freelance again and based myself at Pinewood Studios - which is a film studio complex near London where movies such as those in the 007 series are made. From there, I carried on working with EA and others on a few EA Sports titles, some games in the Theme Park series, Digital Anvil titles like Freelancer, Conquest: Frontier Wars, Brute Force and others. In recent years, I've worked on titles such as Red Alert 3, Uprising and C&C4, the Harry Potter series, TV shows such as BBC America's Primeval and various other projects.

GR: Have you played any video games recently? If yes, do you have any favorite game or game franchise?

JH: I'm a little behind on the latest releases, and find it hard to get time to sit down and play for long sessions these days. But if I do, I tend to go for ones I can dip in and out of easily. I'll usually pick the 'campaign mode' now more often than play anything online. I've enjoyed the recent CoD and Battlefield titles, but going further back love the Resident Evil, Dead Space and Metal Gear Solid series, which ooze style and offer very engaging, visceral experiences. I'm looking forward to finally getting around to playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution soon. I like games rich in atmosphere, successfully creating a believable world. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were great in that way, having a real sense of pathos about them. On the RTS front, I've long liked the C&C series, along with other strategy titles, such as those in the Total War series. On the purely fun side, I never fail to get hold of the latest Mario or Zelda games, which always have such exemplary design.

GR: What has been the most demanding soundtrack you've worked on so far? Is there a soundtrack or song you're particularly proud of?

JH: It wasn't really my proven style of music at the time I started on them, but I feel quite proud of the music for the last four Harry Potter games. It was a satisfying and pretty mind-expanding experience, working on those, from a compositional point of view. The downside, if there is one, is that there tends to be an assumption made by many that the music in them is derived from the film counterpart's music, which isn't really the case. Film licenses are fun to work on, but your music will always be overshadowed by the film's score - regardless of how accomplished or otherwise it may be.

There are certain tracks in the C&C games I've worked on that I'm proud of, such as Soviet March, Yuriko's Theme (the theme from Uprising), Enter the Shogun Executioner and a few others. Soviet March was quite a challenge in that I wanted the arrangement to be very like an authentic Soviet-era March. With Yuriko's theme, getting the vocals and textures right took a surprisingly long time, and there were around 9 iterations of the track.

Red Alert 3 - Soviet March

GR: What is your favorite subject material?

JH: I'd like to do more in the way of sci-fi, high-tech or futuristic music. I've done things I'm reasonably proud of, especially in the area of acoustic/orchestral music, but there's so much other stuff I like doing outside of that realm. It's easy to be pigeonholed in this business, and also easy to forget composers are often asked or even directed to work in a certain style for a given project. For example, if an audio director decides that a score will be orchestral or rock-based, then that's largely the way it's likely to end up being.

GR: How did your initial ties to C&C come about?

JH: I'd been working on and off for EA since about 1995 but had not done anything with EA LA until audio director Nick Laviers invited me to pitch for Red Alert 3. I'd worked on a few RTS games and sims before, and loved the subject matter and the C&C games in general. So it went from there.

GR: How is writing music for games challenging versus other types of composing?

JH: In a nutshell, writing for games can be similar to writing for film and TV when composing for linear sequences or cutscenes, but different when writing for relatively open-ended situations and interactive music systems. You're usually composing music to go with certain blanket game states, rather than specific visual events moment by moment, unless scripted, and you sometimes have to compose and organise the music in a way enabling the system to manage the flow of music and changes of state as seamlessly as possible. Even if you know what is going to happen next in a linear game, you rarely know exactly when it will, so music has to be kept fairly elastic and flexible. There can actually be a bit of a trade-off between musicality and interactivity in games in this way, and it can sometimes be the case that a good, engaging linear track takes priority over some cleverly implemented but dull interactive music - or at least I hope so! But every game has different needs in this respect, I think. For C&C, I personally favour the music that exists to heighten the excitement and is a little bit OTT. At the same time though, I think it helps to add a dimension to a game with music that wouldn't exist without it, meaning that you don't always comment on what you see going on in front of you or take a literal view of everything happening in games. For example, using music to inform the player of something they need to know or to build tension before some action actually kicks in on screen.

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GR: Do you have a favorite instrument? Is there an instrument you'd like learn to play?

JH: I try not to link my music to a specific instrument, as I feel the physical relationship you have with it can actually lead you to compose in a certain way. But, of course, if you're doing something very western, maybe orchestral, then the piano is great tool for composing and working things through. But I like try my hand at lots of instruments, ranging from African percussion through to the koto. If given the choice, I'm naturally quite a sound-based composer in that I think of music as being made up of sounds and textures at least as much as 'notes and harmonies' or conventional arrangement, orchestration and structure. So for me, synths, processors and so on are just as valid as instruments as are any acoustic ones.

GR: Thank you for your time, is there anything you'd like to say in closing; maybe shed some light to your current or upcoming projects?

JH: I'd like to thank anyone in the C&C community who has enjoyed my input on the last few games for their support. I know how special the series is to C&C fans, along with the music of the earlier titles, so it's been a real honor for me getting involved!