Leon Willett

Credits:
- Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
- Lost Eden

 

Official website

 

In this interview, we talk to composer Leon Willett about starting out in the industry, scoring Dreamfall and Lost Eden as well as his perspective on scoring games in general.

Hi Leon, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?

Hi! And thanks to you for your work supporting and disseminating game music. I started out playing jazz, and went to Salford University to study music. I majored in composition and then relocated to Barcelona, where I continued to study music – the whole classical side of things. When I figured I could compose and orchestrate film music I did a few shorts for film school students. I had always been interested in film music since I saw films with amazing scores like Star Wars and Jurassic Park. Then I bought a WWII game called Medal of Honor, with music by Michael Giacchino. I was like “Hang on a minute! That’s an orchestra!”. Suddenly I thought hey, I would love to do some games. Until then I hadn’t really realized how great some game music was.

 

Let’s talk about Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. How did you get involved in that project?

Well, as I say, at that time I was looking for interesting games to score – particularly games that seemed to have a movie-like approach. I contacted quite a few developers and Funcom showed a really special interest. They arranged for me to fly over to Oslo to meet the team and see if I was right for the project, and we took it from there.

 

What were your first steps when you started out writing music for Dreamfall? How did you prepare yourself for the project? Did you play The Longest Journey or listen to its original score by Bjorn Arve Lagim?

Yes, that’s exactly what I did! I played through the whole longest journey – what a great game! It was great to tell my friends I was working when I was glued to the screen for hours on end, trying to work out the hardest adventure puzzles I’ve ever seen in my life. To those that have played the game, two words: rubber duckie :) (PS: no I didn’t get through the whole game without a walkthrough).

 

The game is a mixture of sci-fi and fantasy. How did you approach this contrast musically?

That was the most challenging thing actually, as there was the danger of it turning into two separate scores. What I did in the end was make sure there was some overlap stylistically, so even when you are running around cold, grey WatiCorp, you can still hear some magic in the music, almost as if you could feel how your actions in Stark where affecting the other world, Marcuria. In the end I’m happy how it turned out – I think the music really helps glue all the complex plot turns up a little.

 

How did you deal with the interactive side of game scoring?

Well that was tough! You had to make sure the music would feel seamless when changing from one piece to another. The way I write music, the tonal centre keeps on changing, so what you have to do sometimes is just use a sustained pedal note in the piece that will get faded in, and you have to choose a note that will work no matter where it’s faded in. In the end, orchestral music works quite nicely for that, because it’s kind of stretchy – it’s not like techno or rock where if you disturb the tempo it sounds terrible… If you’re careful you can edit orchestral music quite nicely!

 

You’ve also written music for the Anarchy Online add-on called Lost Eden. What can you tell us about that score? What aspect of it are you most proud of?

For Lost Eden, they were looking for battle music for the Battle Stations and also the Alien Mothership gaming areas. It was pretty good fun actually, because Simon Poole, who directed the audio for Lost Eden had this idea of using mechanical slams (the noise Battle Mechs make when they walk) in the music. So we had the orchestra mixed in with these massive metallic slams.

 

Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?

I think games are now very appealing to many composers, whether they cut their teeth in TV, films, concert music… it doesn’t really matter. I guess it’s happening because the games are getting better and better all the time, so naturally people are drawn to participate in quality games. It’s not just composers – animators, artists, writers and all kinds of professionals that used to only work in films and TV, are now working in games too. Motion capture is one of the recent areas of film techniques making it into games.

 

Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?

I think things will get even better! Developers are taking note of how important the music is in a game – immersion, marketing, shelf life, identity – the music affects all major aspects of any video game. The budgets for the music need to go up, so that a game soundtrack’s potential can be fully realized – but I don’t see that being a huge problem, as you can make a produce Hollywood-quality soundtrack with a really small fraction of what developers spend on any other facet of their game (like animation or artwork).

 

What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?

The hardest thing for me is taking that step back and really deciding what the game needs. It’s easy to get caught up in a scene and start looking at things under the microscope, but that’s not how the gamer experiences the game – somebody plays the thing from start to finish, so the whole experience needs a cohesive, compelling soundtrack. Ideally, game and film composers aspire to create something that’s kind of like a modern opera, or a ballet. It’s really not that different, weird as that may sound. The best film music is like that, and I hope to learn to do that too.

The most enjoyable thing is when you get an updated build of the game, with the stuff you wrote last week actually implemented in the game, and it feels right :)

 

What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?

Well I think everybody can tell I like John Williams rather too much :). I haven’t listened to film music in a while though – these days I’ve been listening to a Valeri Gergiev interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s 4 th – I love Valeri Gergiev, I want to conduct like him! He’s like a wild animal, completely raw and completely absorbed in what he’s doing… He conducts without a score, everything from memory. And without a batton sometimes.

 

What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?

Hmm… actually the highlight for me is always when I have my work performed by a live orchestra. Last summer I had a piece premiered in Leipzig by the Prague Philharmonic, and last week the same thing happened in Oslo, as part of the PLAY! concert series. It was a suite of themes from Dreamfall, including the “Hospital Scene” music, which was sung by Ingvild Hasund, a really great soprano. So basically, anything involving a live orchestra really does it for me – it’s what I (and many other composers) live for!

 

What would be your dream project?

I’d like to do some feature film work. I don’t really have a dream project, basically when the story is good and the characters are good… then the music comes out good!

 

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m taking some time to study conducting and write some concert music. Commercial composing is nice, but it can also turn into a rat race, so it’s good to take a step back and make sure you’re also contributing artistically. I want to make a real contribution to film and game music, so I’m going to make sure I grow artistically and develop my own voice, and at the moment that means taking a break :)

 

Do you play PC or console games yourself?

I play PC games – I’m not into console controllers – I much prefer the mouse! That’s probably because I enjoy a good shooter every once in a while, and playing shooters on a console is just not happening :) Mind you, I tried a Wii last week and it was actually pretty cool.

 

Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?

Yes! Any developers reading this please note: every time a game is released with the option to turn the music off, some place, somewhere, a baby kitten gets eaten by a rabid vampire-orc. Think of the kittens.

 

Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.