Gameranx Interviews—Anthony Willis (Knack 2)

Since its announcement last December, PlayStation 4 exclusive Knack 2 has been piquing player interest with its eye-catching presentation, revamped combat system, and a drop-in, drop out co-op mode that lets you team up with a friend. Knack 2 stars the iconic, bejewelled hero from the first outing by SIE Japan Studio, who bears more than a slight resemblance to musical virtuoso Ganondorf. Speaking of musically talented individuals, Gameranx recently had the chance to pick the brains of Anthony Willis, who’s best known for his work on How to Train Your Dragon 2Rio 2 and Joe Wright’s Pan. Composing is always challenging, says Willis, but putting together tunes for Knack 2 was nothing short of an exciting exciting debut in the world of videogames.

Gameranx: Tell us about your background. Specifically, what drew you to composing? Where you always musically inclined growing up?

Anthony Willis: I grew up in a music loving household, and my parents were very supportive and encouraging of an early interest in composing. I remember being about six and very inspired by the film ‘Amadeus’ a biopic of Mozart’s life, which first introduced me to notion of what a composer was…I used to proudly show it to friends who would come over after school, which I since realised, left them very confused about why they’d come over..

When I was 10, I became a chorister at  St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, England which gave me the most incredible musical training. The beautiful choral music that I was immersed in at that young age, inspired me to start to write my own music.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but coming to LA, those early experiences absolutely gave me an edge in writing additional music for composers such as John Powell and Henry Jackman. You have a shared instinct and understanding of musical literature that is so valuable.

Gameranx: You’ve lent your talents to a number of films and animations. Is the process different when you compose for video games? What about video games appealed to you?

Willis: With any new project, finding the sound and tone for the score is always a challenge, as it should be! (If composers only looked for their score in the most obvious places, the scope of film and game music would be very limited indeed, yet there are wonderfully imaginative scores being written). And so approaching the score to Knack 2 was no different in that respect.

The development of character themes to support the story telling, and scoring of cinematic sequences was much like the process of scoring an animated film.

“I remember being about six and very inspired by the film ‘Amadeus’…I used to proudly show it to friends who would come over after school, which I since realised, left them very confused about why they’d come over”

However, writing the game play music was something very new and exciting for me. I really like minimal and percussive ‘modular’ music in general, and this format is a great template for game play cues, because it lends itself well to fun grooving exploration, more propulsive combat, and the transition between the two. I grew up loving classic platformers like ‘The Legend of Zelda’ and ‘Mario 64’, and so I’ve always been interested in composing the score for one! The game world is growing so fast, and there are such exciting developments happening that I’m very glad to have had my first experience composing in the gaming world!

Gameranx: What was it like working on something as huge as the Pirates of The Caribbean franchise? Was there more pressure to create something phenomenal?

Yes absolutely! Working on any sequel in a franchise as iconic and prestigious as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ or for that matter ‘How to Train your Dragon’, there’s always a pressure to make sure that your work lives up to the standard set by the originals. But with that said, you have the fortune of coming to the table inspired by that standard, and are usually able to inherit a wealth of musical tricks and tones to draw upon. New characters and plot points present
opportunities to build on this mythology, and that’s definitely the most exciting part, while ensuring that this feels part of the whole.

Gameranx: What were your inspirations for the various pieces in the Knack 2 suite? Were you given complete compositional freedom? Was there a need to keep it thematically similar to the Knack soundtrack?

Actually in the case of Knack, I was brought onto the project to reinvigorate the sound of the franchise. The producers were looking to bring more of an animated film feel to the score, and so I was excited to be asked to draw on my experience in that genre in creating the music for this next installment.

Much of my inspiration for the sound of the score was derived from Knack himself who is a mythical creature built from Relics. He is at times heroic and muscular, and at other times playful and fun, and so that really set the tone for the music which had to balance and modulate between those intensities. I really enjoyed the opportunity to write a full new set of themes to support the characters on their adventures.

“The inspiration for the score was derived from Knack himself who is a mythical creature. He is at times heroic and muscular, and at other times playful and fun, and that set the tone for the music”

I also wanted to honour something of the tone of the original game where it was needed, and so that affected the way I orchestrated the music in certain cues, for example the use of darker brass swells in scoring some of the more intense combat areas.

Gameranx: How long did it take to compose?

Willis: The bulk of the composition took place over the course of about six months, but the process of producing the score with live musicians and implementing it into the game took the best part of a year. The score was created in tandem with the development of the game and so the whole process is quite an undertaking!

Gameranx: Listening to the soundtrack in its entirety, I hear The Mummy, a touch of The Prince of Egypt and mysterious clarinet trills which leads me to the conclusion there are loose Arabian influences. It’s quite beautiful really. How would you describe it? Is there a particular mood you wished to convey to listeners?

Willis: Well thank you very much! I definitely aspire to a lyrical quality in my work when it’s appropriate, and when it comes to Knack specifically, he and his friends journey through a variety of environments and so those very much set a lot of the tone for the music. Much of the players experience takes place in desserts and forests, and so I had really great time creating the palette for those landscapes.

The ‘Order of the Monks’ provided a really interesting aspect to the story, and so I tried to write music that would give a sense of authority to their history. I suppose I would literally describe the score as ‘environment inspired mythical adventure’, not the slickest sounding of genre names, so will have to work on that one…

Gameranx: Atmospheric scores are very popular in blockbuster films. How do you create something fresh for new audiences? What is the secret to creating a melody that will resonate with people long after they’ve switched off their televisions?

Willis: Well as for the secret, I think that every composer wishes they knew that! There certainly isn’t a set formula that I know of. My mentor and friend John Powell is one of the greatest melody writers alive and I think even he would be the first to admit that the really good ones are few and far between!

“Mastering melody writing is a life long quest. There certainly isn’t a set formula”

It think that mastering melody writing is a life long quest, but I do very much try to create melodies that imply interesting harmony, that in turn will enhance the emotional impact of the melody. It’s important to balance repetition (especially rhythmic repetition), variation and development so that you feel as though you are being taken on a journey, rather than being left too static!

Gameranx: How do you ensure flow is maintained across different tracks, when transitioning to different areas, encountering bosses, and so on?

Willis: Sony PlayStation have a fantastic team who are very skilled at implementing the music to react in sync with the changes in the players experience. Because it is more modular in design, it’s possible to overlap a number of different elements over the same groove or tempo. Different layers such as ethnic woodwinds textures/percussion of varying intensity will help to create an evolving experience for the player as they work their way through the levels.

Gameranx: Have you tried out Knack 2 yourself? If so, what was it like hearing your own compositions being played back to you?

Willis: I have! It’s a lot of fun to experience the finished game come together. While I worked closely with assemblies of the game play and cinematics, it’s a whole different ballgame to control Knack in his movements and to take his combat moves for a spin!

Gameranx: Do you have a favourite quote or slice of advice you’d like to share with aspiring video game composers?

Willis: It’s said a lot, but keep writing as much as you can, and definitely be open to musical experiences that will take you outside of your comfort zone. You’ll be surprised how quickly that territory can be useful and become a vital part of your arsenal.  Listen a lot, and when you hear something you love, see if you can really understand what it is that makes you love it, what makes it so special for you. Keep your standards high. I think you have to approach everything you write believing that you can write something as good as your favourite pieces. You’ll fall short in that endeavor…but you will get a little closer each time.

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Gameranx thanks Anthony Willis for his time and making this interview possible.

Knack 2 is out now on PS4. There’s a free demo if you want to get your feet wet.

Update: Those interested can preview the Knack 2 soundtrack through SoundCloud.