James Hannigan

BAFTA winning video game composer James Hannigan gives M the low down on his career and his Game Music Connect conference…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 16 Apr 2014
  • min read
As a BAFTA winning composer and co-founder of Game Music Connect, James Hannigan is an important figure in the video game music industry.

His sounds have adorned a huge range of games including Transformers Universe, RuneScape, Dead Space 3, Command and Conquer series and the Harry Potter series. James has built up plenty of experience and industry contacts over a colourful 20 year career, enough to see him successfully launch the Game Music Connect event last year.

2014’s conference will see some of the great and the good from across the industry come together to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the business for composers and music writers. M quizzed James on his career and how the event came about…

When did you first start composing for the screen?

I had an interest in music for film and a definite sense of its power from quite an early age. It was triggered by watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The urgency and directness of Bernard Herrmann’s style and the unique identity it bestowed upon Hitchcock’s film really captivated me. I particularly enjoy the way his music reflects tension within characters, even in the absence of visual cues or dialogue. You seem to ‘see’ much more in Psycho as a result of the music. I find that marriage of music and image fascinating.

How did you get your break in the world of screen composition?

Getting the job of in-house composer at Electronic Arts (EA) in 1994 at the age of 23 was probably the moment my career path took an interesting turn. I worked at EA for around three years before going freelance. Without taking the job, I probably would have pursued more of a career as a TV or film composer, but I was no stranger to games and felt pretty excited about the medium and its future.

Pre-recorded music had just come in when I started at EA. It meant that anything you could record digitally could go into games. It was a change that would eventually level the playing field with other entertainment industries and lead to where things are today. But it was also the moment many games began sounding like ‘everything else’ as well, losing a little of their uniqueness as time went on.

At EA, I got the chance to work on projects as diverse as EA Sports titles, entries in the Theme Park series and interesting sci-fi games like Privateer: The Darkening, which was one of those games of the 1990s with a complete live action ‘movie’ embedded in it (in this case featuring Christopher Walken, John Hurt and Clive Owen, no less.) They were very interesting but perhaps confusing times in games. It was also around then that some of today’s widely used techniques for delivering interactive music began emerging.

You’ve worked on some very high profile projects - Transformers Universe, Dead Space 3, Harry Potter - what do you regard as your most satisfying work?

Purely in terms of music and what might be listenable outside the game, I’d say I’m most pleased with the Harry Potter music. But in terms of integration with the game and ‘interactive music’ I feel the music of Republic: The Revolution and Freelancer worked quite well. For me at least, it broke some new ground in interactive music at the time. But I really love writing a catchy theme, and I’m fairly proud of Soviet March from Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 and the Evil Genius and Dead Space 3 themes, to name a few.

Can you explain the ethos behind Game Music Connect?

Game Music Connect is an event I set up with industry commentator and fellow composer, John Broomhall (who also acts as host) taking a broad look at music for the games medium. It provides an opportunity to hear some of the world’s most established composers, music managers and audio directors from the field share anecdotes and discuss their personal approaches to music in a relaxed and informal atmosphere. In that sense, the aim is to get up-close and personal with them, rather than provide a formal ‘how to’ on game music or merely talk about technology. We hope Game Music Connect will not only attract composers but also anyone else with an interest in the medium, from both inside and outside the industry.

Last year, there was quite an emphasis on the music of blockbuster ‘AAA’ games whereas this year, although we’re still very much covering that end of the spectrum, we’re taking more of a look at the independent sector as well. Along with AAA and indie games, this year we have plans to take a closer look at orchestral recording and contracting, composer representation and interactive music.

What are your thoughts on the screen composing industry - are there plenty of opportunities out there?

I think all platforms offer a chance to be creative but, much like Hollywood, the mainstream games industry has recently become a little trapped by its own conventions. Whenever big business plays a role, and therefore big risk, there’s a tendency to try to repeat earlier successes and essentially recreate and repackage the same experiences over and over again, as they are proven to work in the marketplace. This, I imagine, is why so many games and films are sequels, remakes and ‘reboots’ these days.

But the independent sector is always a hotbed of creativity and imagination, in any industry, if only because there is greater creative freedom afforded to those working in it.

Is the video game music industry in good health at the minute?

Yes and no, in my opinion. Yes in the sense that there is great interest in the games medium right now and a growing acceptance that games are an emerging art form with great cultural significance, but the business side doesn’t appear all that healthy across the board.

Even though the industry grosses billions each year, that’s largely down to the success of a handful of blockbuster games and sequels. In that respect, games have become a little bit like the film industry, polarised between many smaller productions and just a handful of Hollywood blockbusters. But, unlike Hollywood, in games I think blockbuster successes are less counterbalanced and informed by a healthy independent sector. Hopefully that will change in future. For example, a very successful indie film can influence Hollywood values and even change the course of the industry, and I think we’re moving into an era of game development that will see a similar kind of relationship emerge between the indie and ‘traditional’ game sectors; One which enables them to co-exist and allows for more cross-fertilisation.

What advice would you give to a new and emerging screen composer?

Form strong relationships with the kind of people you’d like to go on working with as their careers progress alongside yours and learn about the history of music for your chosen medium, but try also to take in a wide variety of other influences as well. Networking, relationships and ‘repeat business’ are probably just as important as music itself. Try to develop your communication skills, work to a brief and, if you can possibly manage it, try not to work for free - as doing so can set a precedent. My view has always been that if you don’t value yourself and your own work, you can hardly expect others to.

Visit www.gamemusicconnect.com to find out more about Game Music Connect.