Composer Harry Gregson-Williams Interview

Music4Games: Congratulations on a great game soundtrack, and for your BAFTA nomination for Shrek.

Harry Gregson-Williams: Thanks; now that was a great party, worth flying half way round the world for.

M4G: Can you tell us how you got involved with MGS2?

HGW: Well I've found out since that Hideo Kojima, the games creator and director, who was in the very early stages of development was thinking about the games music and knew he wanted it to be as much like a film soundtrack as possible. He decided early on that he wanted to use a film composer for this reason, but didn't know which one. Apparently, one evening he went to the cinema with another member of his team to see a film called "The Replacement Killers", for which I had written the music, and he decided it was what he was looking for. The first I knew about it was when this rather intriguing package from Japan containing a CD of various pieces of my work arrived at my studio in California. I was curious, so I replied and it all happened from there.

M4G: Hans Zimmer and Media Ventures are renowned for embracing new technology, would you say that this was an influential factor in your decision to get involved with a game soundtrack?

HGW: Yeah absolutely, it is. It constantly gets battered by critics who see it as a factory and see people like myself as a Zimmer clone, but I can assure you if you hear my last 4 years work you'd find it difficult to support a theory that my music sounds anything like Hans'. I'm the sort of guy that if I was going to play a game of golf or tennis, I would rather play against someone that was a little bit better than me, that pushed me, and that's how I feel about Hans. I find it a very lonely job, being stuck in a studio by yourself for many hours of the day, so this concept of having an open forum is great. At 2am on any given night I might pop out to the corridor behind the studios at Media Ventures for a cigarette and I'll probably see some lonely figure about 400 yards away, and that's Hans, probably worrying about a melody or a rhythm he's got going and he might ask me to come into his studio and hear something to get my interpretation on what he's doing, and it would work the other way round as well, and that's always appealed to me. The reality is, although he's been a very good influence on me and I've learnt a lot from him, we both work and approach music in very different ways and I think variety's the spice of life.

M4G: Do you and Media Ventures plan to get more involved in the gaming industry?

HGW: I can't speak for Media Ventures 'cos I just have my studio there, but I've been approached since doing Metal Gear Solid by some other games and nothing really appeals to me I have to say. Someone asked me if there was going to be a Metal Gear Solid 3 would I do it, and the answer is, if it's set on an oil rig outside New York then no, but if it's set in the Amazon, then maybe.

M4G: Do you think that other big name Hollywood composers might now be more drawn to doing game soundtracks following your success, and would you encourage this?

HGW: Yeah. Yeah, why not? I don't know how some of them would get on with the budgetary constraints, but for me, I didn't do this to increase the balance of my bank account, I did it for the experience. I didn't do this for any other reason than to have an experience outside of my usual experience, which is doing films.

M4G: So how closely do you think that game soundtracks can emulate film soundtracks, bearing in mind the restrictions of the budget etc?

HGW: Well, if the technology moves on there's no reason why they shouldn't. When I first saw the moving pictures of what this game was going to look like, it looked nearly like a movie, so I don't see why the soundtracks can't as well. I've done some very high budget movies over the last few years and some very low budget ones as well, and some of the best films I've done have had a very small music budget. This doesn't affect the way I write the music, it may affect the way the music comes out sonically, but I'm still going to write the same theme I hope. You can't really do anything else as a composer; you have to go for it.

M4G: So, as a composer of film soundtracks, where the future events are fixed and known to you, how difficult or limiting did you find writing music for a game where the events are interactive and changeable, depending on the player?

HGW: Well that's a good question, but actually what you're suggesting didn't really happen because I wasn't responsible for tying in the music with the games' visuals. A lot of the music was written in the very early stages of the games development before there was anything much to see. I was often writing to a description, or a drawing, or certain scenarios that were sent, or explained to me by Hideo Kojima and his team, such as "being watched without knowing", or "secretly watching somebody else", or "being sneaky", so I didn't have to worry about fitting it to a specific scene. Somebody else at Konami did all that later.

M4G: Was composing "blind", without the use of visual images, a liberating or a daunting experience?

HGW: It was a bit of both, but I did have some visual aids as they sent me a lot of drawings and scenarios and lots of words to describe and give me some mental image of what I was trying to do.

M4G: But that must be vastly different to your usual experience?

HGW: Very, but that was part of the appeal. It was a little bit scary because if I go to the premiere of Shrek or Spy Game, or any film I've done, I don't get any surprises, I know exactly what I wrote for each second of whenever there's music in that film. Playing this game for the first time was very different; obviously I was in control of what music I gave them, but I had no idea of what sequence it would come in, or the eventual outcome of it, so in a way it was unusually risky.

M4G: Was there any point when you thought that this could be an absolute disaster?

HGW: Yeah, absolutely. When I was about half way through it I realised there was a big leap of faith going on here, and I don't know who it was and I should probably find out and thank him and congratulate him, but someone dealt very respectfully with what I gave them, my music tracks, and very skilfully weaved them into the game. Obviously I knew what was going to be the title track and which tracks were going to represent the different characters, but how they were used within the game was up to somebody else.

M4G: Unlike film soundtracks, which are usually heard once or maybe twice, the soundtrack to a game is often listened to for many hours by the player, did this affect the way that you wrote, or the style that you used?

HGW: Oh no I never thought of that. I'm glad I didn't as it might have put me off. I bet it can get really annoying after a while, can't it? Hmmnow I'm glad I wasn't aware of that, as it would have made it even more daunting.

M4G: Are you a video game fan yourself?

HGW: The last game I remember spending any serious time playing is Pong, but I did have someone from one of the American gaming magazines come over and go through Metal Gear Solid 2 in front of me so I could experience it, and yes, I thought it was great. I think it's as relevant as any other form of entertainment and I think Hideo Kojima is a genius in his field.

M4G: Did you find this an enjoyable project to work on?

HGW: Yeah.

M4G: Are you as proud of it as your other film work, and would it appear on your show reel if you still needed to have one?

HGW: I still do need to have one and I've actually just updated my show reel, and no, it's not on there, but that's because it's not really relevant at the moment to getting me into the ballpark of scoring a film I want to do, or where I want to go, but it's nothing to do with whether I'm proud of it or not. Yeah, I'm happy with it.

M4G: I noticed that you use Cubase, could you briefly explain why you choose this software over its rivals such as Logic and Pro Tools?

HGW: I'd like to have an inspirational answer for that, but I don't. I use Cubase because up until five or six years ago I was just using score paper and I didn't even own a computer, so when I moved to America and hooked up with Hans, a hugely steep learning curve had to happen if I wanted to get on in Hollywood, so I guess I chose Cubase because Hans was using it at the time and he assured me that that was the way to go. So now I'm totally down with it I'm not bloody well changing, and it does have it's up sides as well as it's down sides, like anything, and Logic is certainly a very intelligently worked out program, but I'm perfectly happy with Cubase. I use it as a means to an end, it's not everything. You'd be wrong to judge a composer of any substance by what sequencer he uses; judge him by the music that comes out of it.

M4G: I know you trained as a classical musician at the Guildhall in London, what instrument did you play and did you intend to pursue a career in that, or was composing always your goal?

HGW: No, it was never my goal, I didn't even consider being a composer until several years ago. I studied a range of instruments at the Guildhall; I studied singing, piano, violin, a stack of instruments and I guess the intention was to pursue that as a career.

M4G: And finally, as a British composer who's made it in Hollywood, how would you compare the industry between the two countries, and what advice would you give to young, talented composers who want to follow in your footsteps?

HGW: This is how I looked at it; about six years ago I had done a couple of films for Nicholas Roeg, a legendary director here, kind of in the twilight of his career, and I'd done a couple of drama series for the BBC and I was just gently getting a career going. I drove a broken down Triumph Spitfire that leaked like fuck, and I was quite happy, but I knew I really wanted to give myself a shot at scoring films big time. Now, that could have been in the UK or over in Hollywood, but the way I figured it, and I don't whether it was accurate, was that at any given time there were probably seven films being made over here and probably seven hundred being made in Hollywood, so I figured I had a better chance of at least getting a start over there. It seemed to me at the time that the same two or three composers in England were just hoovering up all the work, and over in Hollywood a small number of composers got all the best work, but there were still a lot more opportunities. In terms of advice for others, I can only say that I think it's wise to get some semblance of a career going here first, get a few credits under your belt, and then tackle the issue of immigration, because that is a sticky issue. I'm the proud owner of a green card and I'm quite pleased to call myself an alien, but all those things do need a bit of thought. It's no good just getting on a plane and hoping for the best, it's certainly totally plausible, but it needs a little bit of forethought. Someone said to me earlier that with only six years in America how did I have such a quick progression and I said it certainly doesn't feel quick to me. It doesn't feel slow either, but with over 30 scores completed it's been an awful lot of work, and you have to put the time in.

M4G: Sounds like Metal Gear Solid 2

-- Interview by Alex Hyde-Smith for, 2002

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