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Composer interview: Winifred Phillips talks ‘Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation'

It is very apparent that video game composer Winifred Phillips is a favorite in the world of gaming music. In just a few short years, with less than a dozen titles to her credit, she has achieved a wealth of acclaim for nearly every project. For her most recent, the PlayStation Vita’s “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation,” she has racked up accolades and awards from GameFocus, GameMusic.net, GameZone Game of the Year Awards, IGN Best of 2012 Awards, G4TV’s X-Play Awards, and Hollywood Music in Media.

Winifred Phillips
Winifred Phillips

Read on, as we spend some time with Winifred Phillips and discover why gaming fans are practically salivating over her work for the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise!

Has it surprised you how many accolades this soundtrack received so quickly upon release?

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised, yes. It’s gratifying that my efforts in this project have been met with so much enthusiasm. Creating music for the “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation” video game was a thoroughly inspiring experience for me as a composer. I was very excited to work with Ubisoft, and it was great to explore the musical possibilities created by the new colonial American setting of the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise. Having the music received so warmly by the “Assassin’s Creed” fan base and the critical press has been unexpected and very fulfilling.

Does having so much praise for a project make the next one THAT much more challenging, or does it not affect you?

It certainly makes me want to keep growing as an artist. Knowing that my music has found an audience makes me keenly aware of my own desire to entertain that audience, to meet their expectations and hopefully exceed them.

How did you get brought into the “Assassin’s Creed” world?

Ubisoft emailed me to let me know that they were interested in me for the music needs of the game. I was pretty stunned. “Assassin’s Creed” is an extraordinary IP, and it’s certainly a dream job for any composer. I had to submit some samples of my music from previous projects to demonstrate my skills, and then I signed the contract for the “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation” project.

When writing the score, did you confer with Lorne Balfe at all, since he was doing “Assassin’s Creed III” at the same time? As well, did you look to the path laid by Jesper Kyd, as the progenitor of the series’ sound?

I knew that music production was ongoing for “Assassin’s Creed III” at the same time that I was working on “Liberation,” but the two games are very different, so there wasn’t any collaboration or communication going on. My score focused on the cultural influences that would impact the life of the game’s main character, a woman of mixed African/French heritage. I was also very concerned with the game’s setting of 18th century New Orleans.

The “Assassin’s Creed III” game didn’t focus on any of those things, so it wouldn’t make sense for the music from the two games to have anything in common. However, both games are continuing a franchise whose previous installments contained iconic musical elements. I was very concerned with understanding what the fans might expect of the music in an “Assassin’s Creed” game, so that they wouldn’t be disappointed with the music I created for “Liberation.”

What made this project different from your work on “God of War” and other franchises?

The setting was the biggest difference. “God of War” took its inspiration from Ancient Greece, so that immediately sets it apart from the 18th century New Orleans setting of the “Assassin’s Creed” project. As another example, my work on the music of “LittleBigPlanet” was strongly influenced by the whimsy and humor of the “Craftworld” setting, which bears nothing in common with the edgy, real-world locations that inspired the music I wrote for “The Da Vinci Code” game. For every project, I’m most strongly influenced by the world in which the game is set.

Did the prospect of being the first game of the series for a new gaming platform increase the stakes for you to create a higher-quality product?

I’m always very concerned with creating high quality music. For this project, I was determined that the music I created for “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation” would be a worthy addition to the musical legacy of the series, so I wasn’t intimidated by the idea that “Liberation” would be the first “Assassin’s Creed” game for the PS Vita. However, it did make the experience more exciting. It’s always fun to work on something that’s breaking new creative ground.

Since “Assassin’s Creed” is known for weaving in and out of timelines, what were the challenges for you to connect the dots, so to speak? And did that idea of connecting make the use of cultural and ethnic sound palettes more challenging?

“Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation” is unique in the series, because there is no modern-day character involved in the actual game. In all the other games (including “Assassin’s Creed III”), the story revolves around a modern-day person who is using an Animus device to relive the lives of his ancestors. For “Liberation,” the modern-day person is assumed to be the player, and the PS Vita represents the Animus, so when playing the game, the action remains rooted in the past, rather than moving back and forth between historical events and modern times.

With this in mind, I knew that it would be even more important to create a musical score that strongly evoked the culture and society of 18th century New Orleans. At the same time, the science-fiction concept of the Animus does shape the gameplay experience, and there are other high-tech elements that weave themselves through the game. I made sure that modern rhythms and instruments were present in many of the tracks, to keep that element a consistent part of the musical score.

Did you use any live instrumentation in this score, or was it all created synthetically? How were you able to bring authenticity to the ethnic sounds?

The “Liberation” musical score included location recordings of authentic African drum performances, as well as studio recordings of African rhythm instruments, Mexican clay flutes and other acoustic instruments. The score also included live vocal performances. Mixing both synthetic and acoustic instrumentation can be a very effective combination.

Regarding action and emotion; how were you able to amplify both in a single cue, as “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation” is littered with this vibe? Or was this something you’ve simply been able to develop as part of your personal style over the years?

I think the best action music is also emotional, because when you’re fighting for your life or running from your enemies, you’re likely to be feeling some intense emotions. For “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation,” the emotional component might have been heightened by the poignant backstory of the main character. Aveline de Grandpré has suffered devastating personal loss, and is surrounded by a culture that treats African men and women very harshly, yet has elevated her to an elite class. These circumstances might make anyone feel emotionally conflicted. I wanted to give the musical score a sense of the undercurrent of empathy, determination and sadness that seemed to be a part of Aveline’s character.

Which projects do you enjoy more, the fun and light family fare, or the intense nail-biters? And would it bother you if you became “known” for one more than the other?

It wouldn’t bother me if I became known for projects like “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation,” but I enjoy working on the artistically whimsical projects just as much as the intense nail-biters. I like being continually challenged by my job, and switching from one musical genre to another from project to project keeps me sharp.

What kind of game have you not been involved with but would like to, and what do you think you can bring to the table that would make it stand out from others in the genre?

My career has been pretty eclectic so far, so I imagine that I’ll continue to work on lots of different types of games. I haven’t scored an RPG yet, and that’s something I’d like to do eventually, but I’m very happy working on lots of different genres like adventure, platforming, action, strategy, simulation, stealth, etc.

What I always try to bring to the table is a consistent level of quality and artistry, conscientiously directed towards meeting the music needs of the project and realizing the creative vision of the development team. Apart from that, the most unique quality I can bring to the table is my own personality and creative drive. As a composer, I pour myself into my music, and in the end, the music speaks for itself.

Keep up with Winifred Phillips on Facebook, Twitter, and at her official website.

The soundtrack for “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation” is currently available at iTunes and Amazon Digital.

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