Fortnite News – Phill Boucher Interview: Video Game Composer
Video game composer Phill Boucher shares an insight into working on major projects such as Fortnite and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Composer Phill Boucher has graced the gaming world with his magnificent scores with work including Epic Games’ Fortnite, Firaxis’ Civilization VI and XCOM: Chimera Squad, and Robot Entertainment’s Orcs Must Die! 3 and ReadySet Heroes. Boucher’s talents extend beyond game scoring as he has also contributed to multiple Disney projects, such as Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Boucher spoke to Screen Rant about the musical evolution of Fortnite along with his journey as a composer, the difference between writing for games compared to screen and a brand new Fortnite character for whom he had the honor of writing a musical theme.
You have been involved with Fortnite since Season 8 of Chapter 1 and we are now at Season 6 of Chapter 2 (which began March 16th). From your perspective, how has the music evolved with the game? What’s been the most important aspect of change and development for you personally?
When I first got involved with Fortnite, there was virtually no in-game music in Battle Royale, aside from the Emotes. So in the beginning, I was mostly involved in the season-opening cinematics. Over time, we’ve experimented with adding more and more music to add atmosphere and character to different locations, bosses, and other NPCs. A really exciting thing to see is how much bigger, and more complex, the live events have gotten. Between the cinematics and larger role of music in-game and in the events, we can now really start to develop musical throughlines to help with the overall storytelling. It’s become such a huge sandbox to play in, and the team is always trying to outdo what we did last time, so I always feel a push to be creative and experiment.
Could you tell us about the new theme you have written for the new character The Foundation? Did you take any inspiration from previous motifs/themes– either with timbre or melodic ideas?
Well I can’t give too much away, but we’re first introduced to The Foundation during the Season 6 cinematic. He has a major role in the event that follows and I needed something succinct but malleable enough to carry us through all that happens in those few minutes, while still remaining instantly recognizable. The unique sonic identity of his theme comes mainly from the guitarviol, recorded acoustically and then heavily processed. It creates a great sense of other-ness while still feeling organic and grounded.
Fortnite’s score typically involves live musicians and orchestra, and Season 6 is no different. How did you manage to get this done safely during the pandemic? Where did the recording mainly take place?
I’m a big advocate for working with live musicians on any project I do. Thankfully, Epic [Games] is the same way so there was never a question of “if,” just “how.” In the first few months of the pandemic, something of this scale would have been much harder to achieve. Thankfully, as time has gone on, we’ve all learned how to adapt. Season 6 opens with a massive action set piece and we needed a big orchestra to match. We recorded this score with the wonderful musicians in Vienna at the Synchron Stage. Their restrictions are a little different than here in the states, and we were able to accommodate an 81 piece orchestra while still adhering to all safety protocols. I listened in and communicated with the orchestra from my studio in Los Angeles and it almost felt like being there.
For some of the more unusual “primal” instrumentation, I worked with an amazing percussionist with a very esoteric collection of instruments. He has his own studio and engineer and could safely record himself. With Epic [Games] based in North Carolina and me in LA, meetings over Zoom were the established practice long before the pandemic hit, so much of our process felt like business as usual. I know we’re all eager to be in the same room with musicians again though!
You have composed for both games and film, such as Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. What is the biggest difference for you – which do you prefer and why?
A lot of composers in games like to talk about interactivity vs linear media – you can’t perfectly craft your music to line up with events in time because you can’t predict how fast or slow a player will progress. While that’s certainly true, for me the biggest difference is how much more imagination is needed in game scoring. Often, when I begin working on a game, there’s only concept art or very rough gameplay with little to no environments, colors, or even dialogue. There may only be a partial script, or general outline of the plot. We have lengthy conversations about how an environment should feel, what the backstory of a character is, etc., but I might be done with the score before it’s all fleshed out. In film, even with green screens and unfinished VFX, generally you at least have an actor’s performance to work from.
Another significant difference between the two is point of view. In film, the job is generally to support the performances of the cast and try to invite the audience into an emotional experience where they can connect with the characters. In games, it’s a bit more psychological – the player IS the character, and I need to try to musically explain to them how they themselves feel and what their relationship is to the world around them. It’s a subtle, but significant difference. I can’t say that one is inherently better than the other and if anything, bouncing between the mediums keeps me fresh.
You’ve worked on many great projects, including games such as Civilization VI, Orcs Must Die! 3, ReadySet Heroes and XCOM: Chimera Squad. What did each of these projects offer you in terms of experience or allowing you to try out something a bit different? What’s been your most memorable experience?
Civilization VI holds a special place in my heart. Being part of the team led by Geoff Knorr, who’s a brilliant composer and practically an ethnomusicologist, exposed me to a whole host of musical traditions and instruments that I had never heard before. Being responsible for the modern iterations of these pieces, it has sometimes been a unique challenge to work with melodies that don’t translate easily to electronics and more rigid percussive grooves. There have been so many wonderful moments between the base game and DLC scores, but I have a particular fondness for when we get to incorporate vocalists – For example, I can still remember the chills I felt the first time I heard the Poundmakers Singers for the Cree, or the Te Tini a Maui Kapa Haka Group that performed on the Maori tracks.
XCOM: Chimera Squad was a chance for me to experiment with a very electronic-based palette. Quite often, I find all-synth scores to feel flat and lifeless, so the challenge for me was finding places to inject life and humanity into the score. For starters, I processed a great deal of the sounds through outboard analog gear to introduce a bit of randomness and warmth into it and get it out of the digital realm. I also used guitars where it felt appropriate, for instance with the main Chimera Squad theme that plays at the base, being essentially the only “real” instrument in the score.
It’s no secret that you like to experiment with different sounds/instruments. What’s been your most exciting find over the past few years? And what is your process for finding the perfect sound for your vision?
Nothing has opened up a world of new possibilities for me as much as the guitarviol. If you’ve never seen one, it’s based on a 19th century instrument called an arpeggione, which is sort of in between a cello and a guitar. It’s acoustic, but also has pickup so you can plug it in. When I had the opportunity to demo for Orcs Must Die! 3, I mentioned the idea of this Victorian-era string/guitar hybrid as an interesting way to mix an older aesthetic with the heavy-metal guitars. They loved the idea, but I had dug myself a hole as I didn’t own one, and the wait time for one can be over a year. The only thing to do at that point was to contact Jonathan Wilson, the only guy in the world who makes them, and hope that the line might be short enough that I could get it before the game wrapped up, should I get the gig.
What happened next was total serendipity – He happened to have an extra model at the shop that was originally meant for someone in a big rock band. For whatever reason that fell through, and I was able to skip the line and pick it up in time for my initial demo. To put icing on the cake, it was the only all-black model in existence at the time!
Since you are a video game nerd yourself, are there any games you are particularly looking forward to that will be launching sometime soon?
Yes! Now that I’ve finished the first installment of Final Fantasy VII Remake, I cannot wait until the next one. I was a huge fan of Horizon Zero Dawn, so I’ll be picking up the sequel on day one. There are a ton of other games coming out that I’m interested in too – Far Cry 6, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, Oddworld… finding the time to play them all is a different story!
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Fortnite News – Phill Boucher Interview: Video Game Composer
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