July 28, 2008 3:41 AM | Tim W.
Austin Wintory has been a busy man. Our first interview with the composer was over a year ago, and since then he has worked on a number of games and media projects ranging from foreign films to indie MMO titles and more. We're most familiar with his music from flOw, both the free Flash demo and the full-featured PlayStation 3 downloadable game. But did you know he also did the score for Captain Abu Raed, the first true feature film to come from Jordan? Not to mention the awards he's both won and been nominated for. We finally managed to catch up with Austin and get his side of the story on all things musical.
The studio that produced flOw, thatgamecompany, has two titles in the works, one of which is flower. Are you involved with either of those?
TGC's second title "Flower" is being scored by a colleague of mine, with whom Jenova had worked on his popular title before 'flOw,' called 'Cloud.' As of now I have no involvement with the game except that I've played it and all I can say is that it's FANTASTIC! But I have unending respect for, and a great friendship with Kellee, Jenova, the rest of ThatGameCompany and all the guys they work with at Sony Santa Monica. It's a truly wonderful team. Their careers are only going to get bigger and better, so I certainly hope we collaborate again! ;-)
Most people have little idea of what goes on from the musical side of things in a game or film. Could you walk us through the your process, from receiving a project to the final product?
My working method tends to vary a lot from one project to the next one, since inevitably each project (be it a game, movie or whatever else) has such unique circumstances surrounding it. But the most general answer is that the developer or filmmaker or whoever brings me their project usually towards the end of its production cycle. For movies this is especially true; games are somewhat all over the map but still typically much of the game is already in place. We always sit down and have lengthy discussions as to what kind music there should be, and what it specifically will be accomplishing. For example, I recently did an action film called "The Acquirer," and the director really wanted an unconventional score. He would say things like "let's undermine the main character's sense of strength," so in scenes where he's kicking ass, the music would be harsh and dissonant, in essence, totally contradicting what you saw on-screen. That's the sort of approach that only comes through discussion. So after that approach is determined I go write it, we typically do little adjustments here and there, then I'm more or less done!
Art rarely lends itself to a "typical workday", but you've managed to be quite productive. Do you have any sort of routines you follow?
I think the key to my productivity, and whatever quality I feel I'm able to maintain in my work, is in an insistence in ALWAYS working. It's not uncommon that I'll work for a 30-hour stretch. Then other times, I'll work for 6 hours, go nap, wake up, watch a movie, take another nap, then wake up and suddenly start writing and go for 18 hours. I try to avoid putting too much 'schedule' into composing because sometimes you just have to let things simmer in your mind for a while. Of course, there's always reality. Things like meetings, recording sessions, my family, etc etc keep me somewhat on a traditional schedule though.
Has earning the awards/nominations increased your visibility as a composer? Do you find there's a little more pressure to "live up" to a certain standard, now, or is it business as usual?
I think the pressure to 'live up' to any standards is primarily self-imposed, though there's certainly built-in expectation that comes from working on highly visible projects. If you kick ass on a game then someone hears it and decides to hire you for theirs, obviously phoning it in won't be an option. But the truth is, it's never an option! It doesn't matter if it's a student film or a AAA PlayStation title. As an artist there's a certain obligation to always do your best work. I remember as a kid discovering the music of Jerry Goldsmith, and all his famous film scores like "Patton," "Planet of the Apes," "Star Trek," etc etc. Then I dug deeper and found really old recordings of music he'd written for the CBS Production Library in the early '50's. This was music which he was never credited for (at the time), that paid very little and offered no real career momentum. And you know what? He wrote INCREDIBLE music anyway. So obscure and it still just dripped with heart and soul. That for me is the ultimate model of "business as usual."
How did you get involved with the Captain Abu Raed film? That had to be an enormously gratifying project to be involved with!
"Captain Abu Raed" was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime sort of movie. I had been friends with the writer / director Amin Matalqa from working together on his previous film. They initially had some engagements with other composers but for varying reasons those all fell through. So once again he and I were to collaborate. The film is absolutely beautiful. It looks gorgeous, it moves well, and it's incredibly acted, especially on the part of the children of the film. There were 12 of them and they came from orphan centers in the Palestinian Refugee camps in Jordan. For the music, we thought long and hard about what an appropriate style should be. The film is shot in Jordan and featuring Arab actors, speaking exclusively Arabic. But the story is a universal one. I call it a "real world fairy tale." It carries a message which would resonate with anyone in the world, and yet it's also very true to Jordan. So in the end the score was highly orchestral, highly Western, but with sprinkles of Arabic influence here and there. And yes, it was gratifying to no end! The experience working on that film is a career highlight for me, to say the least.
Many of the projects you work on seem to have strong emotional underpinnings and it's obvious you're very connected the work you do. Do you seek out these kinds of projects, or do they seem to find you?
I think all the aspects of your question here are accurate to my career thus far. I haven't exclusively sought out really emotionally charged projects, but at the same time once you do a few, it makes more easier to find. For example, if I score an intense drama, then another filmmaker is interviewing for me their movie and they see something in the previous film which they feel might apply to theirs, I'm more likely to get the job. But if it's someone who's looking for something entirely different they probably will go elsewhere. So it becomes a bit of a cycle I suppose. But the other thing you asked was if I end up loving every project and, for the most part, this is true too. You end up committing a few weeks or months to something, and in that time you sort of fall in love no matter how good or bad it is. Obviously great projects are the best, but I've been amazed at how much I loved a film or game, then a year later re-watched it and realized just how awful it was. I do my best writing when I feel very passionate about something, so I think my brain just trained itself to find something in the project to fall in love with!
So about this horror film project Grace. Talk about a departure from flOw! What about this film drew your interest?
I'm actually just starting work on "Grace" right now. And yes, this was one's powerful! As with "Captain Abu Raed," my involvement with "Grace" started from my friendship with the writer / director. In this case, it's a guy named Paul Solet, who was actually the first person I met when I moved to LA (he lived in the apartment above me!). He and I became great friends, so when he entered into production on his film we set to work right away brainstorming for it. I actually wrote a bunch of music based entirely on the script to send with him to Canada where the filmed the movie, so that the cast and crew could listen and feel inspired. Having read the script repeatedly over the course of several years I had an intimate knowledge of all the film's subtleties, so it was fun to be involved in that way. So now they're editing together the film and I'm starting to compose for it! It's going to be an intense experience when we're done...
We would like to extend a big thanks to Austin Wintory for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us! For more info on his work or to listen to demo tracks and sound samples, visit Austin's website.