Interview with Austin Wintory
Austin Wintory is a Grammy nominated American composer - partially known for the highly acclaimed video game scores for flOw and Journey, but also for the 2009 Sundance hit, Grace and the 2008 Sundance Audience Award winning, Captain Abu Raed. In addition Austin is the first composer ever to receive a Grammy nomination for a video game score.
Tell us a little bit about your musical background- and influences?
AW: I discovered music suddenly and unexpectedly when I was 10 and my parents, virtually out of nowhere, got me a piano teacher. At practically that first lesson my teacher introduced me to Jerry Goldsmith, and I was never the same. Once I got to high school I started conducting the orchestra and basically have been single-mindedly obsessed ever since.
How did you make the transition after graduating into the professional world?
AW: Well I supposed my transition came before graduation from college. I went to USC for undergrad and grad programs, and before I was done there I had occasion to meet Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago. That led to working on Jenova’s master’s thesis flOw, which was then immediately bought by Sony to turn into a PS3 title. The game was out by the time I graduated. I also was very lucky to land a film around that time that ended up going to Sundance and winning the Audience Award, and it’s been a pretty steady stream of both films and games since. In the last couple of years my concert music work has already dramatically stepped up.
Journey is gorgeous game, both visually and musically. The game concept was to make the player feel small. You said in an interview that one of the ways you tried to achieve that feeling was by using a Solo Cello. What made you choose that instrument in particular?
AW: First off, thank you so much. It was a dream to work on, unlike anything else I’ve ever done. As for the solo cello, I honestly don’t have a good answer. It’s a color I really love, and my soloist (Tina Guo) is someone who seems to infinitely inspire me. So it just sort of clicked. As much thought as I put into most of my compositional decisions in composing, this one was basically pure instinct!
You had a good amount of time (3 years I believe) to work on the Journey soundtrack. Do you think that that had a major impact on the score?
AW: Without a doubt. I couldn’t have written the score, especially in terms of interactivity, in less time. Also the game evolved a lot in that span, and had very nuanced emotional material. Keeping up with the design and its core ideas were what kept me occupied, as opposed to needing to write endless piles of music, or doing constant rewrites based on feedback, etc.
One of the strong points of the Journey score was that it has a very romantic and overall unique and universal sound. How did you achieve that in the orchestration? Did you favor specific instruments?
AW: I mainly just tried to avoid cultural clichés. There are so many out there, and so to make it universal I just tried to minimize its tilt towards any particular culture. Of course, in the broadest sense, it’s still Western. But the music was very informed by the game, and there’s clearly a lot of Eastern thought in the game as well. The instrumentation was mainly derived at from just exploring the material over those 3 years. Initially I figured it’d be fully orchestral but as time went on I whittled that down to eliminate virtually everybody except the strings.
When you found out that you were nominated for a Grammy (Best Compilation Soundtrack For Visual Media), what was the first thing that popped in your head? And how did you feel when you found out you were nominated alongside artist like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore and Trent Reznor?
AW: Even with the Grammy’s having come and gone, it still feels totally surreal. The first thing that popped into my head was that it was surely a mistake. No game had been nominated before. To be nominated against those guys, especially John Williams, was something for which I have no words at all.
The Hollywood Reporter listed you as on of 17 composers "Primed to take their place on the A-list" (http://www.austinwintory.com/photos/THR-17_composers-2009.pdf), do you feel pressured to live up to the expectations like this?
AW: I suppose so, but honestly the pressure I put on myself just to make the music in front of me turn out halfway decent is so much greater that that stuff ends up feeling like background. It’s a huge honor and very humbling when an article like that gets published, but likewise with awards, it doesn’t actually make tomorrow’s music any easier to write. So still role up your sleeves and sweat and bleed for the work. That’s a much stronger pressure.
You have done music for Film and Video Games now. Which is your personal favorite?
AW: I honestly have none. I genuinely love them equally, and likewise concert music (I’m currently working on a few chamber commissions, a pair of orchestral commissions, and a chamber opera).
What changes do you foresee in the world of Movie/TV/Game Music within the next 10 years? Where are we going stylistically?
AW: Oh I don’t know. I think game music will continue to push new boundaries that are awe inspiring and fully mind blowing, and film will continue to push the nuance of linear narrative. Stylistically though I don’t really put much thought into it, to be honest. That’ll be whatever it is. Trends will come and go. Today’s dubstep will be tomorrow’s new thing like it’s always been.
What platform are you on (specs of your Mac/PC)?
AW: I have a main rig running DP7 (12-core Mac), plus another MacPro for a few older programs (mainly some custom sampling in Mach5), and even a few old GigaStudios (though barely in use anymore). I don’t tend to make huge templates for projects so I almost never bump up against the ceiling of my CPU or RAM limits.
What are your most used 8DIO instruments and why?
AW: You really won me over with Catmosphere! But in all honesty, from 8DIO, I tend to mainly use the percussion libraries (Glass marimba, Alien Drum, Propanium, etc).
How do you integrate samples into your work? I’m asking this in particular as I heard that you are more of a traditional pen and paper composer, like John Williams.
AW: I wouldn’t liken myself to John Williams in that sense (or honestly, any other!). I sketch by hand but I always do mockups. It ends up being a hybrid of the two, and I like to orchestrate in a hybrid approach too. But my rig is certainly a core part of my approach. I am a bit more traditional in that I tend to formulate a musical idea first, then try and develop sounds or templates to achieve that, versus just loading up samples and playing around with them until I find something interesting. That approach can work too, but it’s usually not how my mind works.
I was happy to find out that you are big Grim Fandango fan (one my all time favorite games for sure). What games do you currently play?
AW: I’ve been so busy that I’ve been a bit behind. I played through most of Assassins Creed III, and also blitzed through Telltale’s Walking Dead. I have a sort of giant list of games building up that I need to get caught up on, both in the AAA world and in the indie world.
What’s next for Austin Wintory? What are you currently working on?
AW: I’m currently wrapping up Leisure Suit Larry and also working on a German indie which is a very awesome music-driven adventure platformer called BeatBuddy. Loads of fun. I’m also putting the final touches on Monaco preparing for its release, and chipping away at The Banner Saga. A handful of new films too. Plus some concert works. Very busy time actually!
What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries?
AW: I tend to read a lot, mainly biographies or texts on music or science. I also have a wonderful wife so we’re constantly running around doing things together. Lately I have been traveling a lot as well, speaking at events, festivals, schools, etc, and also attending concerts featuring my music (or conducting them myself). And that always feels like a wonderful vacation, even though technically it’s still very much career-focused.
Any last tips or advice for all the young and upcoming composers out there? How important for example is formal education these days (for example the great film scoring programs at USC, Berklee, etc?
AW: Education is, and always was, whatever you make of it. I went to USC and got a lot out of it. Others didn’t. That never changes. If you resonate with the environment and work hard, you’ll get a lot. For some people that’s not the right fit and there’s nothing wrong with that. Ultimately the best advice I can offer to aspiring composers is to be bold. Don’t be afraid to take risks, and take stands. It’s not a bad thing if you disagree with a developer or director. We live in an era where the great majority of music I hear on a daily basis is basically a derivative of Hans Zimmer / Remote Control. Sounding like RC is hardly bold. When Zimmer first came on the scene in the late ‘80’s, no one sounded like that. And in many ways I think of his scores as utterly defining the ‘90’s. It continues to this day, because he pushes himself and stays out in front. But meanwhile trailing behind are countless thousands of soundalikes. I strongly encourage composers to think like Hans, and be bold; don’t try to sound like him.