Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with game composer Phill Boucher, a prolific composer across many mediums, including work on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the brilliant DuckTales TV reboot, as well as some pretty noteworthy games like Civilization VI, XCOM: Chimera Squad, and oh yeah, a little game called Fortnite. Join us as we discuss the different processes from medium to medium, editing audio cues on the fly, and how luck brought Phill to the "instrument of 1,000 voices".
Push Square: As a video game composer, how would you say your various game scoring opportunities compare to one another? You’ve worked on some absolutely massive titles, like Civilization VI or Chimera Squad, and of course, Fortnite.
Phill Boucher: I'd say there are more similarities than differences. The thing about every different studio you work with is you have to kind of learn the dynamics of the studio at large, but in particular, the audio team. So usually, the person that signs off on anything I do and gives me direction is the audio director on a project. And some of them are much more musically inclined than others. I'd say in general, audio departments tend to be full of musicians, but some people sort of put that aside. And some people like to be more involved with the music side of things. So you know, [Epic Games] in particular, everyone at Epic is a great musician. Like, they do all the emotes in the game, and they do a lot of the scoring themselves. So they'll talk about things in really musical terms, but then I'll work with some other people that are much more hands off — almost more like a film director — where they're talking about emotions, and they're talking in colour. And there are pluses and minuses to both. There's something nice about getting specific, but a little knowledge is a bad thing. So if someone knows just enough to say "Oh, I think this chord should be major," that's not helpful.
It's all relative. And it all comes from a good place. And where it's really helpful is when you have an audio director — because they go and present things to producers or studio heads or whoever, whatever the hierarchy of the company is. And for them to come back to me and be able to interpret whatever weird thing they just heard into musical terms can be really handy. So I'll turn in a cue and then they'll come back and instead of saying “the director thought this, this cue was too aggressive,” they'll come back and say “They thought it was too aggressive, but we talked about and I think what that means is just take out that low synth that you did.” So suddenly, my job just got a lot easier.
Games have a worldwide appeal. Just about everyone on the planet plays games in some capacity. What challenges would you say that poses musically? Music, just like games, has this universal appeal.
I can't say it's something that I really consciously think about. I mean, same goes with film or TV, a lot of it is worldwide at this point. So I think that it's sort of built into the zeitgeist what a common musical language is for media. And sure, you can go outside of these things anytime you want. I'd say the only time that it factors in — I think it's especially come to light in the last few years — just with everything going on in the world is to be respectful. And so, I forget what I was reading, but I was reading a thing and they were talking about, it used to be like the old trope that if you had a villain in a film then they were from the Far East. And you bring out all your sitars, or your Chinese instruments or something. And now you just don't do that. Because, first of all, I'd like to think that we've come a long way. You can look at that in a couple of different ways. But, when it comes to scoring things, it's not about painting them as some particular ethnic group, it's just about finding something that is ominous for everybody. And I think that's across the board, too. In terms of the art design and the voice casting, and it comes from a place of respect now, I think.
To focus on your work on Fortnite for a second, what does the game's fast update cycle mean for you musically? Do you have a lot of breathing room to work with on that? Or is it a breakneck pace?
A little bit of both. There are certainly things that come through at the last minute. Because they work so quickly, a lot of times, they don't know what's happening. Sometimes, there's a larger trajectory where we know, three months, six months from now, this thing is going to happen. They know the general tone of something. But it could be, “Oh, we're finishing this up and players are getting stuck.” I just had something come through today that I shouldn't be very specific about but, “Players are having trouble realising when time runs out, so we need to add something to signify that”. Some kind of sting or some kind of musical way to convey that. And that's nothing that you can find out until you're almost done. And it'll happen on any game. I mean, it happens in film too. Say you have a screening a week before a film comes out. And they say “People aren't understanding this plot point,” so you'll go and you have to rewrite a cue.
Huh, you know I never really thought of that. I always pictured film music as being done a lot more in advance. More meticulous almost.
[Laughing] I wish!
You've certainly heard the horror stories. Say a composer gets fired, and then they rewrite a whole score in two or three days. And at that point, at least you have a locked picture. You only have a couple of weeks left, so they can't change too much. But sometimes composers work on things a year ahead of time, and by the time the film comes out…
I've worked on a couple — one film I worked on, the film got sold to another studio. It was an independent film that was bought out by another studio that then went and re-cut the film to try and beef up the comedy, or something. And they thought certain parts weren’t really working. And then, in the process of that, they said, “Oh, we like this cue, let's just use it like four times.” And instead of the music that was actually written for that scene that had some kind of through-line and had… I mean, whatever. They’re champagne problems when you're talking about getting to work on these things, but at the same time, a lot of thought goes into these decisions.
So they just up and reused it? The same cue?
Yeah. I have to remember over the course, this conversation, there's a famous film…Oh! Aliens! James Horner’s score. A lot of what he wrote was not used and in place, they just stuck the same cue all over the film in different places.
You know, I think I know which one it might be just from you saying that! There's one that comes up a lot. Even more in the director's cut.
And they don't ask. But if they bring you into the conversation, you can help. You can do a lot to help if they say, “Okay, this cue isn't working, but we really like this, can you do a variation of this?” But again, a lot of times, there's no time to go in and do that anyways.
Have projects you've worked on been receptive or inclusive for bringing you into the fold in those emergency situations? Just once in a while even?
It really depends. Those things just sort of happen. If I have a good relationship with them, they might let me know that it's happening and say “Oh, we had to make these changes. I cut your music,” or, “I went into the stems and had to do this.” And if you trust the person — which, you surround yourself with good people, you know — then you trust the person to handle it. Pirates of the Caribbean is an example. Visual effects were still coming in while we were scoring. Once those visual effects come in, it changes the length of shots. So when you're doing an action scene, suddenly nothing lines up anymore. I was literally sitting on the stage with the music editor, and he said “Oh, this picture came in,” which was not what we were scoring. And he said, “I can make most things work, but this [cue] isn't going to work.” So we had to add an extra five beats to one section just on the fly. Just so that later he could go and edit it where it needed to go.
I guess having that prepared, or being able to do that on the fly, is better than not having a solution at all.
It's terrifying. You have 30 seconds to come up with some solution. You're flying blind, but after you do it a few times, you just sort of get used to it. You figure out how to make your way through and you know that, one way or another, it'll be okay in the end.
I would imagine most people in that audience, even if something like that were to be poorly implemented — which I wouldn't say is terribly frequent — a lot of people in the audience might not even notice. Even more so when it’s done well.
It's sort of the sad thing to think about. But yes, absolutely. And especially if you're talking about action, you put a cymbal swell or some big crash in front of it. And no one’s gonna know anyway.
Usually, I notice editing inconsistencies a lot more. But musical inconsistencies, I can’t really think of any. Where something stands way out, like “Oh, that was really awkward.”
Yeah, don't start looking for it, or it'll drive you crazy once you find them.
Like some movies where it's a few rapid cuts and one of them's clearly out of order is just like, “I love this, but I can’t unsee this ever again.”
And see that stuff usually wouldn't bother me. Because I'm not looking at it with that eye.
How would you say that your process differs from when you’re first brought on for a project compared to when you finish? Does it change? Is it just more streamlined? Or is more of a skin of your teeth type scenario the whole way?
A lot of that depends on how early I get brought on. So I've actually been fortunate with some of the games that I've worked on, where — I say fortunate, but I demo to get the project. So when you demo they say, “Here's the tone of what we're after”. They might give you a few musical references or show you a scene and say, “Score this cinematic” or, I mean, demos come in all shapes and forms. But in multiple cases, what I wrote for the demo ended up being the theme of the game. So it just sort of meant that we already had a rapport and we had a jumping off point when we got into cues. I don't get hired and then spend the first month just in the sandbox of trying things because they latched onto it. Sometimes I’ll throw out my own theme, because I'll start working on something and realise it doesn't work. Or the theme that I thought was the main theme of the game actually is some ancillary thing. We need something more heroic, or whatever the tone is that we're going for.
Before I started doing these interviews, I wouldn't really have expected how often the demo themes get used. If you look at some regular rock band, and you listen to a demo of a popular song that they end up with, it sounds almost unrecognisable in many cases. But with games, it feels like the melody was defined really early, and then that carries through.
I can give another example with Orcs Must Die! 3. The demo that I wrote had the new theme that was in the game. Actually, it had a couple of themes. I had a theme for the main new characters, and then also the villain. But it's not in the form that it showed up as in the final game. The instrumentation sort of changed. That score was sort of a hybrid of heavy metal and orchestra, and some medieval instruments and different weird things. And I was going down a path with the demo, but I hadn't quite found the line of how much band versus how much orchestra yet. So there was a lot of back and forth on that particular one, even though the theme was established. Which is still, you're off to a good start anytime you have a few notes, right?
To build off what you were saying with your demos, I was curious about basically your whole process. Demo through to completion. Do you always start with a main theme? How often does a prompt you’re given define the approaches you take?
I would say the way I get into each project ends up being a little bit different, by virtue of every project is in a different state when I start. If they send over anything, if they send over a script, if they send over some visuals or something, I try not to write anything until I actually have a conversation. I'll start thinking about things and maybe I'll start pulling ideas and make a little Spotify playlist or something of just, “Oh, yeah, that would be a cool instrument.” Or, “That's a cool rhythmic texture to explore.” But you don't really know until you get in a room — or on Zoom — with somebody. Then you can say, “Alright, so we're making a space game. We're making a medieval game, we're making a film about pirates.” Whatever it is, until you find out what the deeper meaning is, it's hard to get started. Because it's not about being in space. It's about... Why are they there? You already have visuals, you already have the dialogue, you have story that's telling you these things. What do you want the music to bring? Because you don't need me to tell you something that you already know, right?
Does that apply when you’re trying to make demos too? Having that conversation?
Demos, I'll say 50/50. Sometimes you have to be a little careful with how many questions you ask when you're writing. Because you want to seem eager and you want to seem like you're invested in the project. But at the same time, they're coming to you because they want to know what your perspective is. So in that case, I might just take a shot. And if I get a demo and there's some prompt, I'll have my own internal conversation about where I think this should go and what would make this compelling. And what do I think that other people won't be doing? If they get five demos that all sound like loud drums in a band playing a melody, they're just going to pick the one with the best IMDB page instead of what's actually right for the story.
You mentioned "texture" when you brought up those Spotify playlists. And that perfectly leads into my next question that I was gonna ask. One of the emails we exchanged when setting this up mentioned that you view each new project as an excuse to try out a new instrument or a new sound. What's that process? How do you arrive at a given instrument to try out?
I can't say that every single time, I get a new instrument. But more often than not, when I'm going through the process of writing a demo I think, “What's going to inspire me? What's going to be interesting? What haven't I heard?” So when we're all stuck using our [Digital Audio Workstation] and samples, everyone in the world has access to the same samples now. So if I write exclusively with what's in there, everyone else can do that same thing. So I've gone and made my own samples to at least have my own palette of say, percussion and some [other] typical sounds. Then it circles back to, “What can I bring?” I'm a mediocre guitar player, but I can fake my way through a lot of things. So if I have an instrument that kind of looks like a guitar, I'll figure out how to play it just enough to do something. And sometimes it's not knowing how to play an instrument that leads to something compelling. You pick it up and your fingers just start messing around until something sounds like music. And that might be a little jumping off point even if, in the end, that instrument isn't in the mix. Something about that combination of tuning the strings and playing it with a bow or whatever you were doing led you to this place.
Can you think of any examples where that kind of experimentation worked really well in a particular moment? And then the flip side of that, where you thought something might work, and it just didn’t.
I don't know how unexpected it was, but this sort of ties into that last question. When I was doing Orcs Must Die! 3, I had an idea. Okay, they want heavy metal, and they want orchestra, but it's medieval. How do I do this without just sounding like a cheesy metal band? Which, I grew up with that stuff, I love that stuff. I just felt like there had to be a way to elevate it and do something interesting. And so there's this instrument called the guitarviol, which is based on a 19th century instrument called the arpeggione. It’s sort of a hybrid between a guitar and a cello. So you play it with a bow like a cello, but it sort of has frets, so you can still sort of glide between things. And it's an acoustic instrument, but you can also plug it in. I call it the instrument of 1,000 voices, because it can just sort of do anything. I knew about this instrument, because Tyler Bates is famous for, he played it on 300, and [Ramin Djawadi] used it on Game of Thrones. It does a lot of things. But the problem with that instrument is there's one guy in the world that makes them.
There's one guy, this guy named Jonathan Wilson. And they're incredibly expensive, but there's also a wait list of at least six months, usually a year or more. So I got a call to demo for a project and I thought this instrument would be perfect for this demo. So I was talking with the audio director who was a friend of mine, and I kind of sold him on this idea. I figured if I could sell him on the idea of the instrument, even if I couldn't get my hands on one in time, maybe that concept would be enough to push me over the top. So I just happened to reach out to Jonathan Wilson. I was like, “Hey, what's your wait time these days? I'm demoing for a project. I think this thing could be really cool for it.” And he said typically the wait time these days is around eight or nine months, but I've got one lying in the shop that I made for a famous rock band and they don't want it. So I thought I wanted an electric one, because I was just playing to plug it in and play it kind of like an electric guitar. But he said the one that he had is an acoustic, but it has a pickup in it. So it's basically the best of both worlds. So it sort of became a happy accident, aside from just the fact that he had it, and I was able to get my hands on it. Then I had to fake my way through playing it for this like… So, it's not an instant easy instrument to pick up and play. Just imagine just picking up a cello and being expected to play something great on it. But the acoustic side of it — which I did not have in my mind at all — sort of became an important part of the sound of that score. In addition to using the electric sound, which became the sound of the bad guy. And then I used the acoustic more for some of the heroic parts of it.
And that thing has shown up in I think every score that I've done since. It can do anything.
So that was a happy accident. What about something less than happy? Something you thought might work, and then hearing it in practice or implementation, it just didn't feel right.
Nothing’s really stuck with me that I remember as being some terrible catastrophe. What tends to happen is I'll pick up an instrument, I'll have an idea. And I'll just sort of try to shoehorn it into the concept in my head. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. A lot of times, what happens is you think something is going to be really cool. And you listen to it, and it just doesn't sound like what you think it's going to. So then you have to go back to the drawing board of how to get there. Like an anvil, an orchestral anvil. You think you know what an anvil sounds like in a score. It's this big, massive thing. I went and I sampled one and it sounds like you just dropped a fork on the ground. It's the smallest sound in the world.
Thanks in large part to movies, you would expect like this sonorous, huge sound for it.
It's Hollywood, right? There is how things work, and then how you expect things to work because of how Hollywood has told you. And sound design is such a big case of that. You picture Conan or something, the blacksmith scene and he's smashing the sword. That's not what that would sound like. Well, you wouldn't do that in real life. But that's not what it would sound like even if you did.
So I like to conclude every first interview that I do with this question, because I really like hearing the stories, but I was just curious how you found yourself scoring games? How’d you find yourself in the industry?
I grew up playing games. Up through college, I was playing games a lot. And then I sort of stopped when I was focusing more on film and TV. There's just not enough hours in the day; being an assistant to a composer, trying to launch your career and learning how to write music. And then after working 15 hours, you come home and then play a game? You want to sleep and then get back to the studio. So I was always passionate about it. But I kind of took a little detour. But then my best friend from college became a sound designer. He's worked at a couple different studios and he worked at a place down in San Diego. And they would have these “beer hangs,” because there's a few different game studios down there, and a ton of breweries. So all of the audio guys like once a month, they'd all get together. He's like, “You should come down.” Oh, no, it's kind of far from LA. I was an assistant to a composer at the time and you know, I have no business talking to these people. I'm not going to go there and start hocking my demos on these people.
So he's like, “No, they're all just nice guys. Just come down and hang out.” So I did. And I got to become friends with a few of them. And, it really was just, we liked the same music. We liked the same games. And they were just friendly, nerdy people to talk to. And then fast forward, like four or five years. One of them just called me out of the blue and he said, “Hey, I want you to demo for this game.” I was like, okay, but you've never heard a note of music that I've written. And he said “Yeah, but, you know, I've been trying to get you on a project for a couple years now. And we finally have one that I think would be a good fit.” And it just kind of made no sense at the time. This random guy took a chance on me. Obviously, it was a demo, so he had the ability to back out if it didn't work. That ended up being PlanetSide Arena for Daybreak Games. And that core group of guys, what tends to happen in the game industry is, after a big game comes out, it all kind of fractures. And they, unfortunately, lay off a lot of their staff, and then they go off to other studios. So it went from me knowing four or five sound designers at one studio — this is before Daybreak — to suddenly I know one sound designer at four different studios.
And then over the next couple years, fortunately, a few of them decided to give me a chance. So that's how I got hooked up with Robot Entertainment when I did ReadySet Heroes. And when I got involved with Civilization VI. The only one that didn't come about from that same group was Fortnite, which was just sort of a random freak occurrence. But yeah, it just sort of happened from this group of guys that I got along with. Connections that just organically happened. There was no networking. I never tried to get them to listen to my music. I never tried to get my foot in the door. It was just, we like the same things and we got along.
And there you have it! We'd like to thank Phill for taking the time to sit down and talk to us. And keep your eyes (ears?) out for Phill's music across his myriad projects!