Interview with Winifred Phillips, composer of Speed Racer: The Videogame

[Editor’s Note: Japanator Guest Editor Jayson Napolitano conducted this awesome interview with the composer of Speed Racer: The Videogame, Winifred Phillips. Check it out!]

With the recent revival of the classic Speed Racer series both in film and in gaming, I was driven by nostalgia to watch, play, and relive the greatest moments from the 1960s cartoon. My inner-nerd couldn’t help but be giddy about the prospect of racing alongside the totally awesome Racer X.

After playing SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME, I immediately took notice of the catchy, futuristic electro-Hollywood soundscape that dominates the game. Composed by game audio veteran Winifred Phillips (God of War, DaVinci Code), the score effectively conveys the speed and excitement of the fast-paced racer, and Japanator was recently able to sit down with her to discuss the project. Join us as we discuss her inspiration for the music in SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME, including the meshing of different genres and the use of her signature vocal manipulations in the game.

Japanator: The Speed Racer franchise has a long history behind it, and with the film coming out this week, there’s a lot of pressure for the film and the game to live up to our fondest memories of the classic cartoon. Given this history, what was your approach to the music?

Winifred Phillips: When I was hired by Warner Bros. Interactive and Sidhe Interactive to write the original music for SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME, I was very much aware of the enthusiasm and nostalgia that people felt about the original cartoon. Growing up, I’d seen the cartoon, and I was familiar with the aesthetic and energy of the animation. The Speed Racer television show had a unique pacing and momentum unlike anything else on TV. I wanted to capture the essence of the 1960s cartoon, while at the same time I wanted to introduce a contemporary spin to the music that would bring Speed Racer into the modern world. In doing research for the video game project, I went back to the original manga by Tatsuo Yoshida, and I also did a little digging on what his inspirations had been.

When I read that he’d been inspired by the James Bond car, I focused on that concept. Since the video game would be a pure racing experience, it made sense to narrow my focus to Speed’s amazing race car. I created musical themes that were meant to exude the kind of confidence and swagger that only a true muscle car could inspire. Also, my music producer on SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME was Winnie Waldron, and early in the music creation process she suggested that I use sound design elements in the music to create the sensation of roaring engines and whipping speed, without actually using any real car sounds. That way, I could weave those elements into the fabric of the music without interfering with the sound effects in the game. I think the technique worked very well.

From what I’ve heard in-game, the score combines rock, electronic, and orchestral elements into something that is futuristic and hip. While you have extensive experience with orchestral music, what went into the decision to include it in this futuristic title alongside pumping electronic beats and wailing guitars?

SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME was a great opportunity for me to blend different musical genres into unusual combinations. The orchestral palette gave me access to the kind of cinematic effects, surges and swells which could create tension in the races. However, it wouldn’t have made sense to take a purely orchestral approach with the score for this videogame. While Speed Racer has a long aesthetic tradition, so does the genre of racing games in general. Gamers have high expectations for the music in their racing games. A strong tempo and rhythm are absolute requirements, along with synth textures and effects that give the music a very contemporary vibe. Also, the Speed Racer film is loaded with retro influences in its art design, so that became another element to incorporate into the music for the videogame. To achieve all these goals, I threw very dissimilar musical genres together and experimented with ways in which they could interact. I crossed electronica with ragtime, mixed speed metal with symphonic, merged old-school funk with grunge rock. It was an incredible experience for me, and a lot of fun.

I noticed that the songs change frequently, and are not designated to specific race courses. Did the fact that the music wasn’t going to be matched to the same backdrop each time factor into how you created the music?

Absolutely. Much of the music in the game was created to be “all-purpose”, so I couldn’t rely on any particular setting or situation for inspiration. The music had to be created ‘in a vacuum’, so to speak. It was difficult at times! Fortunately, the experience of playing a racing game is very rich and compelling, so I could simply explore all sorts of emotions, such as the attitude you feel when you’re racing a friend… the rush you get when you select a great car and it responds perfectly during a race… the angry determination you feel when you’ve been losing and you don’t want to lose again… and the sheer exhilaration of playing a futuristic racer and defying all the laws of physics. I focused on those states-of-mind, and they became the foundation for the music I wrote for the game.

I’ve heard a number of different tracks thus far. How many minutes of music did you create for SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME?

I wrote over 75 minutes of music for SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME, which was a lot of very complex music to create! I owe a huge debt to my music producer Winnie Waldron on this project. She kept me on schedule and made sure that every track was up to the high standards that the game demanded.

Some of the music in the game is very laid back, and I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. The menu music in particular is sort of a pulsating, psychedelic journey in itself. Tell us a little about this piece.

 Thanks for saying that about the menu music! I really appreciate that. I tried very hard to write a piece that would maintain the mood of the game while not interfering with the player’s concentration as he or she navigated the menu. I don’t know if anyone will notice it, but the main musical theme for the game forms the basis of that menu music. I rewrote the main theme you hear at the beginning of the game so that all of the chord progressions could be layered over a single constant pulsing bass note that never moved. It took awhile to make all those progressions feel natural – the bass of the main game theme moves a lot! But I wanted the menu music to feel a little trance-like, with a sort of stillness at the center. I’m very glad you liked it.

You’ve been known to do crazy things with vocals in the past, recording your own voice for use in your projects. Did that happen this time around?

It did. I overdubbed my own singing voice into a full choir (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), as I’ve done before on previous projects. I sing each of the vocal parts over and over again, until I have recorded all the members of each vocal section. For the male parts I sing three semitones higher than the parts as written, and then I pitch shift the recordings three semitones down, so that I can reach the lowest notes.

For this game I also recorded myself shouting phrases like “Watch it!”, “Hold tight!” and “Drive!”. I overdubbed my voice countless times, shouting the same words with different attitudes and in different vocal ranges, until it sounded like a stadium crowd shouting in unison. Then I spread those phrases across my keyboard and used them in the music.

Tell us about the Generations Production Choir. Who are they, and what was their role on the project?

Well, they’re very easy to work with, and really fast learners. Best of all, they’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And that’s because they’re all… me. All kidding aside, the truth is that lately when I overdub my own voice into a choir, I just call it the Generations Productions Choir in the credits. Generations Productions LLC is the name of my company. It wasn’t making sense when I credited myself for the ‘choir vocals’ – nobody knew what that meant, and there certainly wasn’t room in the credits to explain it. This just seemed easier.

How much freedom were you given on this project? Again, as a game that’s being released alongside a feature film, I imagine they were aiming for consistency between the game and the film.

Yes, you would think that the video game tie-in to a feature film would want to maintain consistency with the movie score. It’s logical. But in the projects I’ve worked on, it’s been impossible to do that. I’ve worked on four movie tie-in games now – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Da Vinci Code, Shrek the Third and SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME, and my experience has always been the same with regard to this issue. For all my tie-in projects, the music for the game was written well before the music for the movie was written. So in my experience the movie company isn’t really involved in the game music, other than in the approvals process. I’ve had my music personally approved by Tim Burton himself, which was a real thrill! But that came after all the music for the game was pretty much finished, and the recording process for the movie music hadn’t even begun. I think it’s just the nature of video game development that the game music has to be complete much earlier than the film music. I’ve never had any way of knowing what the film composers would do with their movie scores, which meant that I’ve had a wide latitude to create my own musical soundscapes for the tie-in games. It was a privilege to create music for a world as rich and vibrant as the one created by the Wachowski brothers for the Speed Racer film. I really enjoyed my work.

People have already been comparing SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME to Nintendo’s F-Zero franchise, and I definitely see the parallels in terms of gameplay and music. Have you had any experience with the F-Zero franchise, or do you know if any of the staff were fans of the franchise?

I know that Andy Satterthwaite, the producer of SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME, has a distinguished track record when it comes to futuristic racing games, including Wipeout XL, Quantum Redshift, and Gripshift. There are quite a few members of the development team at Sidhe Interactive who have worked on great racing games before, including the Wipeout franchise. I personally haven’t played any of the F-Zero games, but yes, I’ve heard the comparisons that have been made to F-Zero’s gameplay.

Will there be a soundtrack release for the game? Perhaps through iTunes?

I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Warner Bros. about that.

While I obviously haven’t seen the film yet, I was disappointed when I didn’t hear the classic Speed Racer theme from the cartoon. I think you could have had fun recording the whole “Go Speed Racer, go Speed Racer, go Speed Racer go!” theme. Is the theme that you created for the game similar to the music that was written for the film?

I hadn’t heard any of the film music when I created the theme for the game, and the rights to the Speed Racer theme weren’t available for the videogame version, so by necessity I went with an original approach. I wrote a piece of music that was in the style of a cartoon theme song, while also touching on the genre-fusion and retro-futuristic elements that were present in the rest of the music in the game. An instrumental version of the game theme is played at the beginning of the game. That same game theme comes back again during the end credits, but this time it features a lead vocal and a back-up choir. For that version of the track, I got to create a full-fledged theme song, complete with lyrics that my music producer Winnie Waldron and I wrote together. Writing the vocal version of the theme song was a lot of fun to do, and I was so pleased to see the way it was used at the end of the game. The credits are a real treat to watch – Sidhe Interactive created a montage of concept art that they put together very creatively and presented in sync to the music.

What are your final thoughts on your work on SPEED RACER: THE VIDEOGAME?

I’m very proud to have been chosen to create the music for this game. It’s a great futuristic racer, and I hope everyone enjoys it!

What can we expect to hear from you in the remainder of 2008? Is there anything you’re working on that you can tell us about?

I just finished the music for a game project that will be released later this summer, but I can’t reveal what it is just yet. I had a wonderful time working on it! Also, I have just started another project, which is very large scale and incredibly ambitious in scope. I’m very excited about this project, but I can’t say anything at the moment. I’m looking forward to when I’ll be able to tell you about it.

Dale North