" I TRY TO BEGIN EACH PROJECT WITH A CONVERSATION WITH THE DIRECTORS OR DESIGNERS. THAT’S THE BEST OPPORTUNITY TO HEAR THE STORY FROM THEIR POINT OF VIEW, WHAT THEIR VISION IS."
- Phill Boucher
In this exclusive interview, we unpack the fascinating journey of the renowned composer Phill Boucher. With collaborations with industry giants like Epic Games and Firaxis Games, Phill's unique approach emphasizes deep collaboration with directors and designers from the outset. Beyond his extensive portfolio, including notable contributions to Fortnite and Civilization VI, Phill stands out as one of the most genuine and affable personalities in the industry. His journey, marked by mentorships, memorable collaborations, and an unwavering passion for storytelling through music, makes him one of the most respected figures in music composition.
You've had a diverse career so far, working on everything from video games to films and TV series. How does your composing process change when you switch between these different mediums?
As much as possible, regardless of medium, I try to begin each project with a conversation with the directors or designers. That’s the best opportunity to hear the story from their point of view, what their vision is. These conversations are what drive decisions about themes, the project’s sonic palette, and music spotting. If I’m scoring a game, I like to get involved early and help brainstorm a music system that will best suit that games’ needs. No two projects are the same and generic music systems often fall flat of what could be achieved with a bit of planning and time.
Composing for media involves a great deal of structural planning. I want to get as complete of a high-level picture as possible so I can plan things like what kinds of themes or motifs might be needed, how they will develop, and map out dramatic high points. Once I’m into the weeds of writing, the composition process is largely the same, but I will be working with technical considerations in mind, like interactive layers, act breaks, etc. that will affect structure and arrangement.
You've collaborated with some big names in the gaming industry, like Epic Games and Firaxis Games. Could you share some memorable moments from these collaborations?
I could talk endlessly about all of the pinch-me moments I’ve had in my career so far. But to be honest, the things that really stick with me are the people I’ve had the chance to work alongside. I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with some of the kindest people I’ve ever met who also happen to be at the top of their fields. I could talk about how demoing for Orcs Must Die! 3 led me to meeting Jonathan Wilson and learning about the guitarviol. Or how the arrangements on Civ VI led to meeting Griffin Cohen, which turned into an opportunity to score XCOM: Chimera Squad.
A real highlight for me was when I got the call to score Fortnite’s Chapter 1 End Event. I wasn’t originally supposed to do it due to schedule conflicts, and was disappointed that my time with Fortnite might have already been over. Then, with only a few days left before their deadline, I received a message asking if I could fit it in. I was in the middle of moving studios, plus I was out of town at the time, but something told me I had to say yes. When I got back, I had maybe two days to score the event, on a half-setup system in an unfamiliar room, bouncing between headphones and speakers. But it was exhilarating and a lot of fun. When I said yes, I had no idea it would be as massive as it was. It was life-changing. And I’m forever grateful that they called me back to score it.
How has your mentorship with Geoff Zanelli shaped your career and your approach to music?
I learned so much from my time with Geoff and at RCP. Everything I learned about programming and how to really use a DAW came from Geoff. He gave me opportunities to write on the scores for his films, produce sessions, and taught me countless lessons about scoring for major studio films. I’d say he taught me as much or more about how to navigate a career in this industry as he did about music.
Your work on Fortnite and Civilization VI is well-known. Can you share some insights into the creative process behind scoring for these popular games?
Most of the credit goes to Geoff Knorr and Roland Rizzo on Civ. I was brought in to do the “Atomic” era versions. Geoff and Roland had already done extensive research into which songs would be featured and arranged them for the other time periods. I took their orchestral arrangements and altered them to “modernize” them, adding production elements like non-orchestral percussion and synths where appropriate.
Fortnite is such a unique experience. I am fortunate to work with many different people there, depending on what I’m writing, and everyone has their own ideas. I take a lot of care with the through-line and continuity of themes. We touch on so many game modes, IPs, storylines and genres that I want to make sure that the right themes get used in the right places. And try to tie things together, especially with the narrative side of things. I’ve been lucky to have been writing music for Fortnite for more than four years now, but the process is always evolving.
" I’ll take as much time in the sandbox as I can, playing with any idea that arises and seeing what’s worth pursuing."
With such a wide range of projects under your belt, how do you ensure each score is unique and fits the project’s theme?
Thankfully, I’m not in it alone. Those early conversations I mentioned are crucial. I’m looking for a way into the project. Sometimes, it’s finding a good tune. Often, it’s some instrument or combination of instruments that seem to evoke the nature of the project. I love to experiment with new colors and enjoy the time discovering what the right concept is.
For each project, I also want to explore a harmonic language that feels appropriate. It’s an underutilized tool, in my opinion. Even within one project, it’s a great way to give different characters or locales an identity. With HEROish, for example, the Imperial music was based on a lot of parallel fourths and fifths. The Ferals were mostly written in a dorian mode. In Fortnite, there are all sorts of things like that. One thing in particular that I enjoy playing with in that score is the use of parallel major and minor chords. The Foundation’s music is one example of that, as is the Chapter 3 theme, “Flipped.”
When faced with a blank slate for a new game or project, how do you kickstart your creative process?
Does procrastination count? Truth be told, I don’t really know. I keep a lot of instruments in the studio, and I’ll start plucking out tunes or chords until something grabs me. I’ll take as much time in the sandbox as I can, playing with any idea that arises and seeing what’s worth pursuing. I want to quickly prove out ideas to see if they have legs. A lot ends up in the discard pile on the way to the right notes, but I find it easier to discern what’s working after spending a bit of time giving it a real shot.
Can you share any early childhood experiences or influences that sparked your interest in music and set you on the path to becoming a composer?
As far back as I can remember, I always gravitated towards music. I was the guitarist and primary songwriter of a band in high school and loved it. I would program these complex extreme metal songs with general MIDI and show them to my bandmates who, rather than laugh at how ridiculously awful they sounded, dove in and turned those MIDI notes into music. I’ve never really thought about it, but I guess I’ve always written music that way, even though I have no problem writing by hand. I’ve always loved a good story and composing for media has felt like a natural place for me to be, but I never expected to be able to pull from those metal roots as often as I do!
How do you strike a balance between crafting a unique sound for each project and staying true to your personal style as a composer?
If I have a style, I certainly don’t know what it is. I’m sure I have my preferences for certain things, but I really try to approach each project as a blank slate. I’ve never worked on two projects that had identical visions, so there is little worry that I’ll write the same music twice.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers who want to break into the video game industry?
The industry, and the world, is a different place than it was when I was getting started. It’s different than it was even a couple of years ago, so I’m not sure how much advice that I have to give still applies. But here are a few things that I believe remain true:
I think that there’s tremendous value in working as an assistant. One can gain visibility into big budget projects and see how things really work from the inside. Writing music is just one part of the job. Seeing the pace at which high-level work gets done in the midst of long meetings, navigating personalities, and picture conforms was eye-opening to me as an assistant. It’s also a great opportunity to be part of a big team and grow with the support of the people around you.
Second, consider the source of the information you take in. There is so much noise on Youtube and TikTok, etc., teaching 5 tricks to better orchestration, or how to score a blockbuster action scene, etc. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these so-called authorities have little to no real world experience. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned there, but take it with a grain of salt. There are truly awful tips on mixing and orchestrating out there and it can set people back a lot.
Since you asked about video games specifically, as far as actually breaking in, one needs to get noticed by people that need music. Become friends with people that make games. Meet aspiring, up-and-coming developers that don’t already know 500 composers and offer to help them on their game. The early years of building credits and chops aren’t usually particularly great financially, so one might need a day job to support their long-term goals. And there is zero wrong with that.
Are there any exciting projects on the horizon that you can give us a share about?
As you know, it’s hard to talk about anything that hasn’t been announced yet. But I will say there are some exciting things in the works with Epic. I’m also really proud to have scored the just-released Hello Kitty Island Adventure for Sunblink Entertainment. It’s a big departure from what I normally write, and it was a ton of fun crafting a more intimate, tactile score with a lot of colors.
Finally, when you're not composing or producing, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music?
I love being in nature. Traveling. Cooking and baking. Reading. Having interests is the easy part, having time for them is a different story!