LeakyNews Exclusive: Interview with James Hannigan


LeakyNews is excited to bring you this exclusive interview with composer James Hannigan. Hannigan has composed the music for video games such as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 and 2), and The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s Quest. He has also composed for several television shows, and has worked with ensembles such as the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of London.

LeakyNews: First of all, thank you so much for talking with us! We’re very happy to have you on LeakyNews. To start, can you tell us about your musical background? How long have you been playing music? Composing?

James Hannigan: I’ve been composing for as long as I can remember, if you count improvising at the piano as a young boy as composing! As far as actually recording music goes, I’ve been doing that since my teen years for fun, but professionally from around the age of 21.

LN: How did you get into the video game business?

JH: In the early ‘90s I was working as a freelance composer in several areas, and I began contacting various games companies to see if they’d be interested in working with me, as I could see the industry was growing all the time and becoming more and more interesting. After notching up a few credits, including some early PlayStation games, I got offered a job as in-house composer at Electronic Arts in 1994. I stayed there for a few years before plunging back into the freelance world in 1997.

LN: What is the procedure for scoring a video game? Do you get to play the game in the process? Can you walk us through that experience a bit?

JH: It varies considerably company to company. There often isn’t much of a game to play when you get involved, but you usually get to see some preliminary artwork, storyboards, animations or even gameplay footage if any is available at that point. There’s usually an initial discussion with either the game’s designers, Audio Director, or both, about the goals of the game and to discuss any broad, sweeping plans for the music. This is usually when you talk about stylistic considerations, what music can add to the game and also delivery dates and any plans for recording live music as well.

The next stage is usually to receive a brief and a list of cues to work through, but it’s often an organic two-way process allowing for a discussion about what’s needed as the game develops. Games can change a lot during development, so writing for them is quite an iterative and unpredictable process. Not unlike playing a game in itself, in fact! You don’t always know what’s going to happen next in the course of a game’s development. For example, sometimes your best work on a project, even a main theme or something like that, can emerge quite late on in the process.

LN:  Do you have different strategies when composing for different types of games – such as first-person shooter or MMORPG? What about different genres such as fantasy or sci-fi?

JH: Definitely. Each type of game can require a different approach to music. First person games generally treat the player as mostly an occupant of the gameworld, rather than as someone playing a character and also more of an audience to the game. First person rather implies that the world is being experienced and perceived through the senses of the character you’re playing, so music can actually be very powerful in terms of positioning you on the inside or outside of an experience or event, even helping define the nature of the game’s reality. So, as with film and tv, composing for games is not only about writing music, but also about helping to decide when and why you have music at all.

If you are playing a character in the third person, and you can see them in front of you, plus you have the luxury of all sorts of carefully chosen camera views available to enhance your experience, then this can imply that the game is creating more of a filmic reality for the player. It’s games like that where I feel something a bit more like a film score may be helpful, manipulating your experience somewhat and helping to move the story along. The Harry Potter games are good examples of this type, I think.

LN: You have also composed for TV series. Is that process different from a video game? If so, how?

JH: Games, TV, and film do involve a similar process when it comes to writing for linear sequences, and scoring cutscenes for games is not unlike scoring to picture in any other context. But music in games can be repeated a lot, whereas a music cue in a tv show passes by once and quite quickly, and this has a bearing on the approach you take. It’s also often unpredictable when events will take place in games, so there are all kinds of techniques you use for making music last longer in games, and to transition to other pieces of music as seamlessly as possible.

There can often be more emotional range packed into a single cue/track for, say, a TV show, when compared with in-game music, as there’s more of a direct link between the way music unfolds to picture, moment by moment, and it therefore tends to have more of an inbuilt narrative. TV and film music can afford more of a dynamic range in that way, with more light and shade packed into a single piece, which is why I think such music for narrative support works very well in soundtrack form. But in-game music can be based around situations and game states, with the game itself (and the player) driving changes in the music – or even the story – and the pace of those changes can vary considerably. Having said that, how music gets written and played back in games is changing all the time and it’s pretty amazing what can now be achieved with careful planning.

LN:  Would you like to tell us about some of your previous projects? Do you have a favorite?

JH: I’ve worked on so many games over the years, it’s hard to single anything out! From a musical perspective, I’m pleased with my work on the Harry Potter series, not only because I like the subject matter, but because it was very nice having the music realized by such a fantastic orchestra and choir on each occasion. It was also possible to create a number of themes for those games, and keep things connected across multiple titles, which is not an opportunity coming up very often for composers. Other games I’ve enjoyed working on include Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s Quest, Freelancer, Sim Theme Park, Conquest, Evil Genius, Republic and others for various reasons, but the list goes on!

LN: Can you share with us a bit of your discussion at your recent BAFTA event: “Conversations with Screen Composers”?

JH: Apparently, this event was about me – so I got to be quite self-indulgent! I’m very grateful to BAFTA for putting it on, as it’s not every day such an opportunity arises. They wanted me to discuss mostly the games I’ve had BAFTA nominations for, which number five [such as Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, Republic: The Revolution, and Sim Theme Park], so those were the projects we talked about most. It was short as well, so I couldn’t cover everything prepared, but I am planning future events – with other composers involved as well.

LN: What’s next on your agenda? Any upcoming projects?

JH: I’m working on a big title for EA, but I can’t disclose what it is just yet. And I’m currently creating new music for MMORPG Runescape, along with music for another exciting MMORPG from the same developer, Jagex Studio. There’s something Harry Potter-related going on as well, which I’m working on with Adele Cutting (Audio Director on several of the Harry Potter games). But I can’t say much about it at present, apart from the fact it’s very exciting and somewhat different!

LN: We are excited to hear about your new projects! Thanks so much for talking with us.

What do you think, Leakies? Is this mysterious Harry Potter project the Book of Spells game? Or something entirely new? Discuss below!