Alumnus Paul Leonard-Morgan (BMus Composition, 1995) has a CV as varied as they get, having worked with numerous bands, composed for TV (Spooks, Silent Witness), film (Dredd 3D, Limitless, Walking with Dinosaurs), animation (Despicable Me 2 mini movies) and even written the US Olympic Anthem and Commonwealth Games: BBC Queens Baton Relay Anthem. We caught up with him in a rare free moment and he talked to us about his latest project writing for the game Battlefield Hardline, about developing his craft, and the pitfalls of composing in the modern age.
The video game that I have just finished has been a total eye-opener, everyone has watched a film, but a game… I’ve never even played one. I think if I had a Playstation in my room I just wouldn’t get any work done. I have been working on Battlefield Hardline for about 18 months. EA in San Francisco called me up and said: “We heard your [Judge] Dredd soundtrack, we really liked it. We think that would work really well with the game, come and have a chat.” I was totally honest with them and said I’ve never even played a game before, “I don’t know what I’m doing but if you hold my hand I’ll do it!“
I had to purchase a Playstation 4 for research and then EA sent me just about every single one of their games so I had to do a lot of “gaming research”, you understand! I did play some of the original Battlefield to learn about it. When you are composing for a film, you already have the visuals there, but with the game no two people are going to play it at the same pace or have the same experience. The way that the video game was constructed meant that I had to work in layers. Trying to get your head around it is tricky, it’s not like listening to a CD where there is a start and a stop of a track for three minutes. This soundtrack is permanently going on, the track could last for an hour by the time all the loops have gone on so it’s really complicated.
Battlefield Hardline was released in mid-March but they had a beta version for people to play and give feedback. It had over seven million people sign up for; it has been one of the biggest games in the world. The feedback they got was “normally I switch the music off and go and listen to my own music, but I really missed the music of Battlefield when I didn’t have it on!”
I always say that every single job that you do, you learn something from it and will always take something to your next job. The experience of creating music for a ride that I had done for Disneyworld Epcot Centre (called Test Track), gave me insight into the Battlefield project, because when I was doing that, I’d had to write in a completely different way too.
Imagine you are in a queue for a ride and there are 12 different zones, so you need 12 different tracks in all these different zones, but of course you can hear each of them as the queue is going along so you don’t want 12 random tracks or it’s going to be a total cacophony. This is what is called non-linear writing. So when I came to write for Battlefield Hardline I could transfer all those kind of skills to the game. It’s fascinating to think that Disneyworld and its atmosphere of innocence comes into this world of Battlefield where everyone is murdering each other with guns!
Last year I did The James Plays for the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre; it was brilliant fun. I had never done any theatre before, it was about three months after Battlefield had started when Laurie Sansom got in touch, and again I said: “I don’t know what I am doing, but if you take my hand, I’ll do it!” It was the most incredible experience, my first theatre project, standing in the middle of the Olivier Theatre; this is a fantastic, historic place and everyone is saying: “don’t get used to theatre, it doesn’t pay!”
It sounds stupid, but for me it doesn’t matter how big or small a project is, or how good the pay is, it’s just what is going to give me the biggest buzz. I love collaborations. For example, I am doing this BBC thing at the moment called Murder, it has been phenomenal. There are three different directors including Scottish BAFTA winner Paul Wright (fellow alumnus). It’s a fantastic, really different spectrum of directors. It’s just fascinating when you see different people’s approaches, each programme is very different. I had the time to experiment because I had two and half months to write three one hour pieces, which is great.
Whereas something like Limitless, I had three weeks to score the entire thing! The deadline of a film is such that they have time booked out in a cinema so you work backwards. If they overrun on the shooting schedule the release date doesn’t change, so in the end the composer is the one who is getting less and less sleep until it goes out!
How do I keep learning? It’s by trying to do different stuff the whole time. You are never going to be able to do really avant-garde stuff in Hollywood because if you have spent $150m on a film, you just want your money back and you don’t really want to push the boundaries that much – it’s more of a business. Whereas, something like the BBC Murder project I managed to make a prepared piano with a HAPI drum. You are still writing melodies, so it’s not wacky stuff that will make your 70 year old granny switch off the TV, but you are writing really random stuff while keeping it in the family of the programme melody.
It doesn’t matter what industry you are in because it’s all a challenge. The music industry has been destroyed as far as records are concerned… everything evolves, doesn’t it? Every industry evolves so you either keep up or you are a goner. The speed at which things change now is absolutely crazy. The fact that people now have the ability on a laptop to write a pretty decent track is fantastic, but it’s also a bad thing; if people are just sitting on their laptop they become too focused on looking at the music on screen.
It sounds bizarre that you are looking at music but you think about the times of Mozart or Beethoven and it was about sitting in front of an orchestra. Now no-one is sitting in front of an orchestra: we are all sitting at keyboards and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of samples. You start thinking about it from a technical point of view. I think that is the biggest challenge.