Harry Gregson-Williams Talks Video Games

Celebrated Hollywood film composer Harry Gregson-Williams spoke with the New American Filmmakers program in a fascinating YouTube interview that included a fairly lengthy discussion of video game music.  I thought I’d share this interview, because it’s particularly interesting to those of us who create game music.

At the 2012 premiere of one of his most recent projects, Total Recall, Harry Gregson-Williams was photographed with Bryan Cranston, the actor best known for his role on Breaking Bad, who played the villain in the Total Recall movie.

At the 2012 premiere of one of his most recent projects, Total Recall, Harry Gregson-Williams was photographed with Bryan Cranston, the actor best known for his role on Breaking Bad, who played the villain in the Total Recall movie.

As the composer of music for numerous blockbuster films, including the Shrek and Narnia movies, Harry Gregson-Williams has a unique perspective on the process of creating game music (having composed for multiple entries in the Metal Gear Solid series).

I’ve embedded the YouTube video at the end of this blog entry – and I’ve also transcribed the portion about game music below.  Harry Gregson-Williams’ perspective allows us to see what the game composition process is like for a Hollywood composer, including the fundamental differences in the mediums and how this alters the composer’s creative process:

“I’ve composed the music for a couple of video games, mainly a series called the Metal Gear Solid series – which probably sounds very weird if you don’t know anything about the gaming world, which (by the way) I don’t really.  However, I was asked to do this series.  Over the course of about eight years I’ve done three of these games and to begin with, it was quite a primitive process.  I think I was one of the first Hollywood film composers to do the music for a game – and that was what the director of the game really wanted – his game to sound like it was a Hollywood movie, an action movie.  And that’s why he came to me, but to begin with it was quite primitive.  Because it’s not a film, he wasn’t able to send me the film, and that’s my normal working process, would be to start with… hello!… the film.  So, if ever I’m stuck with my work, I go to look up at the screen and learn something, and bounce off that.

“But with a video game, they weren’t able to give me footage, per se.  So, more than that, when I first started doing video games, I would be sent little descriptions – adjectives – by the director.  You know.  Sneaky.  (laughs)  Thrilling.  Nerve-wracking.  Something like that.  And I’d have to write 30 seconds or a minute of music in that vein, but without any guidance from pictures, so it was kind of difficult for me, and different.  But I liked it.  And actually, as things have progressed, more and more film composers have become involved in making music for games, I think the game makers themselves have developed better methods of getting the best out of us.  So they’ll send us, for instance, what’s known as Cut Scenes.  So the actual scenes that, however you play the game, do happen.  They know they’re going to happen like that.  Doesn’t matter whether you’re very good at playing the game or very bad, there are various cut scenes that are going to happen. So they’re like a scene in a movie, so that they’re presented as that.  And those can be sent to the composer, and he can compose the music very much like he would to a film in that case.  But, at the end of the day, one’s just making music, so it’s pretty much the same thing.”

Here’s the YouTube video of that interview with Harry Gregson-Williams, conducted by the New American Filmmakers program and the Vilcek Foundation.  The portion about video game music begins at the 6 minute 30 second mark:

Assassin’s Creed Flag Team of Taiwan (UPDATED 2/5/14)

(Breaking news: the popular gamers blog Kotaku shared the content of this blog post with their readers, and also added some great information that I didn’t know.  I’m updating the post now, so you’ll see the new info from Kotaku in bold below)

Sometimes I run across something on the interwebz that blows my mind.  Recently, I stumbled across a video on YouTube – the title is in Chinese, and the video shows some amazing junior high school middle school gymnasts and dancers, executing a precisely synchronized flag team / drill team performance that made my jaw drop… because they were doing it to a medley of my tracks from Assassin’s Creed Liberation.


Okay, I’ll admit that composing music for a dance performance has been one of the items on my bucket list – I find the visual realization of music through synchronized movement by superhuman artists/athletes to be a tremendous rush.  And these kids from Taiwan are awesome.  They perform huge leaps, whip across the stage in tumbling passes, stop on a dime in beautiful tableaus.  Large groups of them simultaneously throw drill team rifles and huge fiery-colored flags spinning into the air and then catch them precisely in time with the music. I don’t remember my junior high school flag team looking like this:

I had so many questions – who were these kids?  Where were they from?  What was this performance about?  Thankfully, Google Translate was ready to help me find out. After wading through lots of Chinese-language web sites, I learned that these kids were the “East Stone Achievement in Music Flag Team” from the fishing port of East Stone in Chiayi County, Taiwan.

Update: Kotaku’s Eric Jou clarified the name of the school and where it is located:

…students from Taipei’s Dongshi Middle School used the music for their flag-twirling performance.

Dongshi Middle School’s Flag Team has won awards and competitions in Taiwan. The team has represented Chiayi county in all city events as well as Taipei and Taiwan in competitions and shows in Hong Kong and China. 

Just for some perspective, here’s the Google Map showing how long it would take to fly from the east coast of the USA (where I am) to where these kids live:


There’s a vibrant video game culture in Taiwan (as documented by Kotaku writer Eric Jou) so that must be how the choreographer of this flag team performance came across my music from Liberation.  All I was able to find out about the performance came from the awkward Google-translation of an article describing how “Magistrate Zhang Corolla” attended the presentation of the East Stone Dongshi Middle School’s music flag team, which is the only team that performs both indoors and outdoors.  For what it’s worth, the article said that it was an “exciting dance team flag, with stirring percussion playing, so that the audience wander in the Band music feast.  In addition, the flag dance team brings live performances “by” showing the flag fluttering in addition to the power and beauty, but also modern dance show jumping the gun and playing heroic, visual polish every audience.”  Okay…

The world just keeps getting smaller and smaller, folks.  It boggles my mind.  So, congratulations, East Stone Dongshi Middle School’s Achievement in Music Flag Team!  If you’re reading this (in an awkward automated translation), know that I did a vigorous fist pump when you caught those flags, and sometimes said, “Oh yeah!”  Or as you might say, 噢是啊! 🙂

Update Feb. 5 2014: By the way, this is my favorite comment so far from readers of the Kotaku blog:


Jumping the Velvet Rope: Assassin’s Creed Liberation HD

Assassin's Creed Liberation HD

Today, Assassin’s Creed Liberation HD was released as a $19.99 DLC game for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC – giving gamers the chance to experience the story of 18th century freedom-fighter Aveline de Grandpré in beautiful high definition picture and sound.  When the game was released for the PS Vita, it was an ambitious attempt to translate the full Assassin’s Creed experience to a handheld console (read the great review of the game from Machinima).  While the PS Vita version succeeded in putting the full Assassin’s Creed experience in the palm of your hand, it also had to make some concessions to the smaller screen size and technical limitations of the portable hardware. With the HD version, those limitations have disappeared, giving the developers the chance to improve nearly every aspect of the game. I’m very excited to have written the music for this game, and I’m thrilled that “particular attention was given to the audio with re-mastered music and all-new sound effects.”  The game sounds fantastic, and I’m excited that a whole new audience of console and PC gamers will experience it.

Here’s a walkthrough video of about 20 minutes of gameplay from the beginning of the newly released game:

Also, I really enjoyed this video of a fascinating interview with associate producer Momchil Gindyanov from Ubisoft Sofia, talking about the high-definition version of Assassin’s Creed Liberation – which included improvements in lighting, animations and camera work, as well as entirely new facial animations created from scratch for the HD version of the game:

If you’d like to see my talk from the Montreal International Game Summit about the music of Assassin’s Creed Liberation, you can view it here:

The release of Assassin’s Creed Liberation HD brings to mind a story I heard once.  In a museum gallery, a security guard walked his beat, ensuring that all the works of art were safe and secure. Suddenly, he notices that a man has jumped over the velvet rope separating the admiring crowd from the valuable painting.  Worse, this vandal has produced a paint brush and several tubes of paint, and has started defacing the painting!  The security guard rushes toward the criminal, shouting “Stop!”  When he gets close enough, he stumbles to a halt, confused as he recognizes the vandal as the original painter who had created the work of art he is currently “defacing.”  The painter, looking frantic and sheepish at the same time, stammers, “I only wanted to… there’s just this one thing I wanted to fix… just this one thing, and then it will be perfect!”

I think, as artists, we’ve all had the desire to “jump the velvet rope” and fix something that we only notice after a work of art has left our hands. With Assassin’s Creed Liberation HD, the team at Ubisoft Sofia had the rare opportunity to jump the velvet rope, and it’s very exciting to see the results.  They did a beautiful job!

Breaking Bad


Just a quick note – I was pleased and surprised to ring in the New Year by stumbling on my music being used in the television commercials for the Breaking Bad New Years marathon on AMC.  I had no idea that Breaking Bad had incorporated some of the music from my Christmas album into this promo, which aired in heavy rotation prior to the marathan and also many, many times over the course of the four-day marathon event.  Sometimes, life decides to surprise you. I’ve had a brush with Breaking Bad – Happy 2014, everyone!!  Here’s a video of the promo: