Category Archives: Interview

Behind the Music of Action and Comedy: Talking with Atli Örvarsson about ‘The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard’

Recently I had the chance to speak with Atli Örvarsson about his work on The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. Atli’s credits include composing and orchestrating music for some of Hollywood’s biggest projects, including the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Angels & Demons, The Holiday, The Eagle, Vantage Point, Babylon A.D., Thick as Thieves, The Fourth Kind, and Season of the Witch.

Atli’s accolades include winning the HARPA Nordic Film Composer Award for his acclaimed score to Rams, several ASCAP and BMI Film and TV Music Awards, a “Breakthrough of the Year” nomination with the IFMCA Awards in 2009, plus he was nominated for the prestigious World Soundtrack Academy’s “Discovery of the Year Award” for his score for Babylon A.D in 2009 and his score for Ploey: You Never Fly Alone was nominated for a “Public Choice Award” in 2018.

I hope you enjoy the discussion we had about this film!

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me! My first question is, how did you get started as a composer?
I have been writing music since childhood but got “serious” about composition when I was attending Berklee College of Music and found out they had a film music program. I had always been interested in film music, as far back as the first Star Wars film when I was just a little kid, so this field of study really appealed to me and has been my path ever since.

I know you previously composed the music for The Hitman’s Bodyguard in 2017, was it always assumed that you would return to score the music for the sequel?
Yes. Patrick Hughes, the director of these films, started discussing a possible sequel with me right after the first film came out.

Speaking of, what did you think of getting to return to the world of The Hitman’s Bodyguard to create more music for it? Was it easier scoring this film because you’d also written the music for the first film?
I don´t know if easier is the right word but perhaps it was a bit of a luxury to have a lot of themes from the original film to work with and it just made sense to reuse these.

On a similar note, what was the discussion with the director like when it came to putting the score together? Were you building on the first film’s musical themes in the sequel or did you create something wholly new?
A bit of both. There is a new bad guy in this film who needed a new theme, obviously along with some other new characters and storylines. Salma Hayek’s character also plays a bigger role here so that called for some new music. At the same time the two main characters are the same so there is a lot of reusing and reinventing themes from the original film.

Speaking of themes, are there musical themes for specific characters?
Yes.


I know this film is considered an action-comedy. How did you balance the music in the score between action and comedy?
It’s usually pretty clear cut whether a scene is primarily an action scene or a comedy scene but there are certainly scenes in this movie that combine both. In these cases, I usually choose to score the scenes very much like serious action scenes as the comedy sort of speaks for itself but to be honest, there’s no hard and fast rule. It just depends on the scene and what feels right.

How much time did you have to score The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard?
I had quite a bit of time as the Covid pandemic kept interrupting the schedule, but once we got started “for real” it went quite fast. I’d say about 2 months from the start of scoring to recording with the orchestra.

How much did the previous score for The Hitman’s Bodyguard influence the music for the sequel?
Quite a bit! As I mentioned earlier, I did reuse themes from the first movie but perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that there’s more score and less songs in the sequel.

Do you have a favorite musical moment in the score?
It’s hard to say… I really enjoyed writing some of the comedy cues around Bryce’s personal backstory where the music plays very serious over the comedy, e.g. when we first meet his step father and for the flashback about his mom.

Finally, is there any musical detail you hope viewers notice when they go to see this movie in theaters?
There are many places where I geeked out and tried to sneak in my themes in disguises. Hopefully someone picks up on that!

I hope you enjoyed this interview about the music of The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.

See also:

My Thoughts on: The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)

Composer Interviews

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Into the World of Video Game Music: Talking with Composer Gareth Coker about Immortals: Fenyx Rising, ARK: Survival Evolved, Ori and more!

Just last week I had the pleasure of speaking with composer Gareth Coker about his work on a number of video games, including Immortals: Fenyx Rising, ARK: Survival Evolved, and the two Ori games: Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Gareth Coker is a British composer and producer working out of Los Angeles. He is known for his melodically driven scores, unique soundscapes, and attention to detail and execution in the application of how music emotionally relates to the gamer as they are playing. His scores have garnered numerous awards, including the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Award for Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Composition, two SXSW Awards for Excellence in Musical Score, multiple Game Audio Network Guild awards. 

I had a lot of fun speaking with Gareth Coker about his work on these video games and I hope you enjoy our conversation about them 🙂

How did you get started as a composer for video games?

My first game projects, they all kind of started when I was a student at the University of Southern California. They have a film scoring and game scoring program that is quite extensive. And they do a really good job of hooking you up with a lot of students, you score a lot of short films, and you end up doing student game projects as well. And that gave me a small experience into what goes into producing a video game.

My first commercially released project was a game that didn’t do very well. And that I did for free called inMomentum, which is this hardcore virtual reality racing game. Even though the game didn’t do very well, it did give me an idea of exactly what was involved in producing and shipping a game soundtrack. My big break came from doing a lot of these student game projects. Eventually, the director of the Ori games found me on a website which I was using, and he listened to one of my tracks and thought it might work for the game. And we ended up connecting. And obviously, here we are two or three games later, and several other things later. But at the beginning, I did a lot of small projects and got as much experience as possible.

In general, what’s your process for scoring a video game? I’m sure it varies from one title to the next, but in general what does the process look like?

Generally speaking, and I’m different from other composers, I like to play the game as much as possible while I’m working on it. I think that’s no different conceptually to a film composer watching the film in an early edit with late writers and how things change, games are built in a similar way. The reason I do that, I need to know exactly what the player is going to be experiencing in terms of the moment to moment gameplay. How can I possibly do my best work if I don’t know exactly what the player is experiencing at that moment, especially if the game is trying to tell a story.

You think about a film. You know how the film is going to play out every single time you watch. But you could play the same game three or four times and it might play out slightly differently. So what I’m looking for, it’s the equivalent of spotting in films. Where does the music start? Where’s the music moment? Games have that too. But the difference with games is that music might not change in exactly the same place each time. So what I’m looking for are the best possible points to change the music in a way that isn’t distracting to the player. Because to me, that would break the immersion of the story. But I can only do that if I’m playing the game and understanding exactly what the the player is going through. And it’s from there that pretty much all of my decisions are made.

There are three aspects to the music production process. For me, playing the game allows me to get a feel for the tempo and rhythm of the game. I believe that every single game has a basic tempo and rhythm. If we compare two shooter games, there’s HALO, one that I’ve worked on, and it’s pretty well-known, and compare it with Doom, which I didn’t work on, but it is also a shooter. However [Doom] has a completely different tempo and speed to [HALO]. If you compare the two games and put them side-by-side, you’d recognize that these are the same genre of game but the tempo and rhythm is completely different. If you listen to the music [for each game], the tempo and rhythm and purpose of the music is also very different. So that’s one of the first things, that’s what playing the game gives me, an idea of the flow, and the rhythm and tempo of the music.

The next part, and this usually happens later on in development, but visuals become more established for me to help define instrumentation, and the palette, what instruments we’re going to use, what’s the orchestration going to be? Do I want to use anything a bit more esoteric or want to use any world instruments. All of that, for me is informed by the visuals.

And then of course, the last part is character themes, or story themes and melodic themes. And ideally, you’ve established these fairly early on, so you have your character themes, the instrumentation, and then the tempo, and combining those three pillars, then you can hopefully produce an effective score.

So you would be scoring to gameplay footage as much as possible, then?

Yes. So my process is that I will play the most recent version of the game that I can get hold of that is stable and record myself playing it. I then import that into my music software and I write to that, and I simply keep going until I feel like I have something that works well for me. I also make sure that I have the sound effects and no music, obviously. But I have the sound effects so I can get an idea of how busy the sound effects might be, so I I’m not competing in certain areas of frequency ranges. If we take Ori as an example, there are several different environments in the game. In the first game [The Blind Forest], there’s the volcano environment, it’s obviously going to sound completely different to the frozen environment. They’ve got different sound effects, ambiences and different monsters, etc. But for each one, I just bring them into my music software, and I write to it, and I just keep going until I feel the music works for me. And then we put it into the game almost immediately, and I can get instant feedback from the team to see how well it’s working with gameplay.

At what point in the game’s development are you usually brought in to create the score?

It depends on the developer. I think the game’s composer needs to be brought on earlier, especially if you’re telling a story. In a game, the gameplay mechanics and the rooms are generally built alongside the story because the story needs to work with gameplay. And so that means the story can be rewritten very, very late [in development]. In the case of the second game, we made some story changes four months before the game released, not huge changes, but still a change which had some impact on on the narrative. And I’m very glad we made the changes. But that means you need to have a little bit of flexibility. The reason why I like being involved early is because sometimes decisions that I make with the music can actually impact the story in small ways, because it affects the storytelling. For example we might do a cutscene really early, and they might like the music for the cutscene.

Or we could use that again, somewhere else in a different emotional scene or something like that. It’s much more freeform than film or television or any any linear format, there’s a lot of back and forth, which can be quite difficult to manage, because things are constantly changing. But the earlier you’re bought on, it means that when you get to the end of a project, you basically know the entire game inside out. When you consider how long games are these days, even a short, triple A game is 10 to 12 hours. Sometimes they last much, much, much longer, like 40-60 hours.

So I think that when it comes time to push the accelerate button at the end, in your last year of development when you just need to write a lot of music, if you know the game inside out, you’ve kind of made all of those decisions in the two or three years prior. In the case of both Ori games, I was working on them for four years each, I wouldn’t say I was working on them full time because they’re broken up to give me the space to come in and out of the project as it was being made. I stayed familiar with it. But then as I needed to accelerate, I knew the game really well by the end, so I could just crank out the keys.

For Immortals Fenyx Rising, excluding the DLC, what was your approach for scoring the world of that game? Was any of it based on what real music from ancient Greece sounded like or were you going for a fantasy version of ancient Greek music?

It’s definitely a fantasy version of that world. When you look at [Immortals: Fenyx Rising], it’s so colorful, it’s very exaggerated, going all-out authentic would not work. It would just be too serious for the game. And if you’ve seen any footage of the game and seeing how the characters interact with each other, it’s not taking itself very seriously. It’s meant to be fun. So that gives me room to have fun with the music. That said, I wanted to make sure there was some aspect of ancient Greece in it.

To that end I had several lyres commissioned and built from scratch for me. I also bought another ancient instrument, an aulos. And that sound [of an aulos], it’s one of the most horrendous sounding instruments I’ve ever heard. It’s a really ugly sound. But it was perfect for this section of the game set in the Underworld. So I wanted to make the aulos work in a setting that sounds like the perfect mystery instrument, but I can’t have it sound like it would be played in ancient Greece. So my philosophy with the aulos was, let’s take these sounds, produce them in a modern way to kind of take the edge off and make them a bit more accessible to an audience that is probably going to be playing this game.

But then the other aspect of Immortals is that this is a fantastical game about gods doing very, very epic stuff. And it’s not taking itself seriously. We’ve got the orchestra element and the style I would say is as if we were doing Greek mythology crossed with Fantasia and maybe a bit of DreamWorks.

For the Myths of the Eastern Realm DLC, what is the big difference between using Qin dynasty instruments as opposed to Tang dynasty instruments for the music, as I see the difference is noted.

I mean, first of all, the two dynasties themselves are completely different time periods. I think there’s about 800 to 900 years between them. The Qin Dynasty was from 221 to 206 B.C.E and the Tang Dynasty was from 618 to 907 CE. So many of those instruments [from the Tang Dynasty] didn’t exist in the Qin Dynasty.

So the most ubiquitous instrument that is heard, in literally every Hollywood Chinese themed soundtrack ever is the Chinese violin, the erhu. It’s completely saying, hey, we’re in China, let’s play the erhu. Though you can’t actually use that because it wasn’t around [in the Qin Dynasty]. So I thought this was great because this means I have to do a bit of research. But honestly, they did the research for me, they gave me this amazing list of instruments to use. This is an instrument that is used commonly in modern media but it didn’t exist in the Qin Dynasty. And this is an instrument that is less common, this instrument is never used in modern media. And this is an instrument that didn’t exist during this time period. So the studio was immensely helpful with doing music research, but honestly, it was a learning experience for me, because I thought, wow, there are actually so many different kinds of Chinese music and traditional Chinese music within. One of the things that Hollywood often does is they really like to pare it down to the bare essentials.

For example, how many times have you seen a movie where we get a panning shot of Paris, and then an accordion plays. I understand why they do that, because of the stereotypes and tropes, it’s a thing. But, it’s kind of what I was talking about, we’re going to make it authentic. Let’s at least get the right instruments, let’s get the authenticity and we can still produce it in a modern way. So it was nice, just going that little bit of an extra mile. And not having the erhu makes it sound like its own thing rather than just every other Chinese soundtrack. And funnily enough, if you compare it to my Minecraft Chinese mythology soundtrack, which is set during the Tang Dynasty, you can literally hear the difference. It’s night and day between the two.

Given the role dinosaurs play in ARK: Survival Evolved, I’m surprised more of the music doesn’t appear to focus on the dinosaurs. Was any of it written specifically with the dinosaurs or other prehistoric beasts specifically in mind?

For the original ARK game, the soundtrack came out in 2017, and most of that is combat music for when you’re facing other humans in your territory. The dinosaurs are a feature of ARK, but you can contain them and make them part of your army. So, [with the game and music] it’s less about discovery and more like you can build your own dinosaur army. It’s less Jurassic Park and more “Oh wow, I can ride my own dinosaur.” That’s the difference.

And you have to remember this is an unscripted multiplayer game, which means any footage you’ve seen is unscripted, which means it can result in some truly wild things happening. There’s no limit to the game, but the music is really designed to not convey the wonder of dinosaurs, but actually the awesomeness of controlling a dinosaur army.

Generally speaking, the music that was done for the early part of the game was really just geared towards combat. Now moving forward, that’s going to change particularly with the animated series (author’s note: ARK: The Animated Series is scheduled to premiere in 2022). And so now it’s like, oh, my goodness, I get to write all of the music that I wanted to write for the base game. Because the game doesn’t need that. Because you start the game and you could literally run into a dinosaur within 20 seconds and be wiped out. So the early focus was on combat and survival.

With the TV show, we’ll definitely be exploring some of the other aspects of dinosaur music and the sense of wonder that one would have when encountering them for the first time. And yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing people’s reactions to the TV show, because it has an unbelievable story, which a lot of people don’t fully uncover, because it’s quite a grind to experience the full story in the game. I think my hope is that the animated series kind of condenses the story into into a format that people can digest that would be a really good companion for the game. But also, I think it will stand alone, because the story is so unique. It’s also a new format for me, because I’ve never done a TV series before. And it’s also one of the rare occasions where the game composer actually gets to do the TV show [adaptation].

I know you can’t discuss anything overly specific but, I do have a general question about ARK II, which I understand you’re working on now. In general, what’s it been like returning to the world of ARK? Will the new game’s score be based on the first game or do you start from scratch?

That’s a really good question. So we’ve already shown one trailer of [ARK II]. And if you watch the trailer, it’s an incredibly primitive setting. And there’s ARK Genesis 2 also, which is the final expansion for the first game. If you compare the two settings, ARK Genesis 2, which is the expansion that came out three weeks ago, it’s very futuristic, very sci-fi, for reasons that the game story will reveal. And then ARK II is completely primitive. So going back to the music, we were building on the ARK world and the ARK universe, but you can take just from the visuals, that it will probably be a very primitive sounding score. And a lot more violent. Whereas ARK I is about, “Where are we, it’s a sense of adventure. Oh, I contain dinosaurs,” ARK II is more, “Oh my goodness, this world is harsh.” And everything is very primitive. So it’s more taking what we have and expanding on it. And also trying to give it a different feel where ARK Genesis 2 gave the ARK world a sci-fi feel, ARK II is going to dive into some very, very primitive sounds. I’m doing research on the oldest sounding instruments that I can possibly find.

So unlike Immortals Fenyx Rising and ARK: Survival Evolved, the Ori games are platformer games. Does that format change how you score the game at all, compared to other open-world games you’ve worked on?

It’s funny because Ori is a platformer, but it is also quite open, you can explore quite extensively. The difference is you’re on a 2D plane as opposed to 3D. So you’re always limited to what you can see on screen. And that actually makes it a bit easier. Remember what I was talking about earlier, I play the game to see how the game flows and where music can change. It’s actually easier because there’s less going on, on the screen. So I can be much more granular and specific about what’s going to happen where, but fundamentally the approach is still the same. I play the game, I figure out the tempo, I figure out the rhythms, then the artwork comes in and I choose all the different instruments. And you have a set of themes, Shriek the villain has a theme, all the peripheral characters have themes, and it still gets put together in the same way. It’s all about just finding what clicks with the game in terms of the music, and the only way I know is just to play the games. But I think Ori was the first game where I figured out that was the approach that worked best to me.

What was the inspiration behind the overall sound of the Ori games? It’s a very different sound from the Immortals game and ARK: Survival Evolved and I was curious how you came up with it.

The game has an incredibly unique art style, it’s hand-painted. There’s also the general tone of the game. Other than the truly epic moments, of which there are a handful in each game, it’s generally quite a soft game in comparison to Immortals and Ark, which are, as you know, blood and thunder all the way. And, one thing I found with the Ori games, is that music gives you a little bit of space. It’s difficult to describe, but there’s got to be space in the music to invite you into the world, there’s always going to be something that keeps you hooked in. So most of the Ori music that you hear when you’re exploring the environment, it’s these soft, beautiful, ethereal beds of sound. There are two constants in the exploration music. One is like a gentle motor or rhythm constantly in the exploration music. The reason for that is it’s a platform, and you’re always constantly moving, those little footsteps are constantly pitter pattering away. And the music is designed to push the player forward, because in a platform game, you really always should be moving, you’re generally not standing still in a platform figuring out where to go next.

Now the other thing that you hear on top of that, there’ll always be some kind of melodic element in the exploration music. But the melodic element comes in and out in an exploration track there. And that kind of draws the ear in. If it’s there for too long, then the ear gets tired of it and it starts to distract from the overall gameplay experience because we’re throwing so much at the audience, it’s sensory overload. With new visuals, you pick up a new ability, and you want to try that out. Or now you’ve got to fight a monster. And I don’t want to be throwing too many things where the melody comes in just often enough to keep the music interesting to listen to, and then it goes away. And then you hear a new texture or a new instrument.

A related question, and similar to the one I asked about ARK II, is the music for Will of the Wisps directly connected to the music you created for The Blind Forest or is this wholly new?

So the main connection was with the main theme. I mean, we learned pretty quickly that the main theme is key. I don’t want to compare myself to the great man [John Williams] but if I didn’t use the main themes of the first game it would be like Star Wars not using the main theme for the title role. You like that the main theme was so popular from the first game, so when you started the second game, it’s a new arrangement of the main theme, but it’s still very definitively the main theme from the first game. But other than that, it still feels like Ori but what the comparison I like to make is in the first game, he’s naive, he’s just being born, he’s discovering this world and everything is brand new to him. So it’s kind of a naive, much more gentle sounding score, and it’s got a unique charm, whereas in the second game, Ori’s grown up, and he’s discovering his true purpose in the world.

And what I like to say about the second game is it’s not just Ori that’s grown up, Moon Studios, the developer has grown up into a more mature studio, the themes of the game are more mature. And honestly, myself, I would say I grew up as a composer too. If you compare the two soundtracks, it’s very clear that one is more mature than the other. That doesn’t mean to say that the first soundtrack is not as good, it’s just very different. And it’s funny because I probably wouldn’t write Ori and the Blind Forest the same way, in 2021 that I did in 2014. I’m a different person now. We’re always developing. I think that was it, because that was my big break. And it was the studio’s big break. And we were just kind of figuring it all out as we went along, much like Ori is in the game. So I think there’s that unique synergy and that same unique synergy happened on the second game, because we knew what we were doing. And that led us to be able to better tell the more mature themes in the game, because we were more confident in our storytelling.

I had a great time during the sequel, because it did allow me to explore some of the things that I’d established in the first game as well, and add a little bit more to them. And also developing the main Ori theme just a couple more times, especially in the final scene. The final key scene of the game is really a recap of all the core themes in the game in the space of about three and a half minutes. It actually kind of wrote itself, because I thought, well, everything’s here, I just need to put it in the right order. So it matches and the end of the game was quite fun. Literally, the last vocal notes are pretty much the exact same ones as “Ori Lost in the Storm” from the very first game.

I had an amazing time speaking with Gareth Coker about his work on these amazing video games and I hope you enjoyed reading this interview. I want to say thank you to Gareth Coker for taking the time to speak with me and I hope everyone has a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Remembering the Human Element in an Alien Invasion: Talking with Composer Frederik Wiedmann About ‘Occupation Rainfall’ (2021)

I recently had the chance to speak with composer Frederik Wiedmann about his work on the film Occupation Rainfall. Wiedmann has been inspired by film composition since he first heard John Barry’s score to Dances With Wolves at the age of 12. Wiedmann is the composer behind the hit Disney Junior show Miles from Tomorrowland, as well as the critically acclaimed Netflix animated fantasy series The Dragon Prince, which is from the writers of the popular series: Avatar: The Last Airbender. In 2016, he won a Daytime Emmy Award in the category of “Outstanding Original Song” alongside lyricist Mitch Watson, for the song “True Bromance” from Dreamworks Animation’s Madagascar spinoff All Hail King Julien

Recently, Wiedmann composed music for the thriller Hangman (directed by Johnny Martin, starring Al Pacino, Karl Urban, Brittany Snow), and two projects for Millennium Films, Acts of Vengeance (featuring Antonio Banderas, Paz Vega and Karl Urban), and Day of the Dead: Bloodline (starring Sophie Skelton and Jonahon Schaech). His credits also include Universal’s “Doom – Annihilation” as well as the epic civil war drama Field of Lost Shoes (directed by Sean McNamara), Paul Schrader’s feature Dying of the Light, The Damned, and Intruders

In Occupation Rainfall:

 This film takes place two years into an intergalactic invasion of earth. Survivors in Sydney, Australia, fight back in a desperate ground war. As casualties mount by the day, the resistance and their unexpected allies, uncover a plot that could see the war come to a decisive end. With the Alien invaders hell-bent on making earth their new home, the race is on to save mankind.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Frederik Wiedmann about Operation Rainfall!

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me! My first question is, how did you get started as a composer?
Ever since I heard John Barry’s score for “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about becoming a composer myself. This slowly transformed into reality when my studies in Jazz helped me to become a proper composer. And once I completed my BA in FIlm scoring at Berklee College of Music  in 2004, I was ready to go to Hollywood and dive into the industry. After having worked for a handful of busy and established composers in LA, I started my own journey as a film composer, and have since been writing cues every single day. My first film was the Warner Brothers direct to video horror  film “Return to House on Haunted Hill”, which opened the doors to several more feature films of the same genre, as well as many other fantastic projects. 

How did you get involved with Occupation Rainfall?

This happened through a rather unusual way for me. Generally I get work from either my agents, or previous collaborators, or by recommendation. In this case, I got an email through my website from the director Luke Sparke himself, inquiring about my availability. He said he’s heard a lot of my DC scores and has been appreciating them for a while now. So we started talking and he showed me some of the film’s incredible footage.  I signed on to this amazing and hugely ambitious project almost immediately and we were off to the races. I think in my excitement i scored all of reel 1 in just a matter of days, and the rest is history. 

I read that you and the director spotted about 117 minutes of music for this film, which is almost wall-to-wall music. How did you and the director decide on having a score that long, because that is a lot of music to write for one movie.
We both are a big fan of huge, adventurous blockbusters, and some movies we discussed as a musical concept were “Transformers”, “Independence Day”, and even older films like “The Rock” and even “Star Wars”. We both agreed that music can  become a driving force in this film, and almost another character, an element to guide us through this rather intense, and emotional story. It is a lot of music to write, no doubt, and I am sure this amount of music can be intimating for composers. But to be honest, it seems that I generally attracted music-heavy movies with a lot of score, and after having scored so many of these type of films, it sort of becomes second nature and simply a fun and exciting process for me. There are some moments of course where we decided to pull music out., but not that many. 

Was there a lot of collaboration on this score between you and the director on this
score?
Absolutely. Luke is incredibly knowledgeable in film music. He knows a lot about it and therefore could tell me exactly what he envisioned for his film. It almost felt like I’d known him for many years, since we had really great synergy and our ideas complemented each other really well. It is every composer’s dream to work for filmmakers that not only appreciate what you bring to the table, and give you the necessary creative  freedom to “do your thing”, but also know how to guide you and “direct” you in a way that is nothing but inspiring. 


What sets the music for Occupation Rainfall apart from earlier alien invasion films like Independence Day or Skyline to name a few examples?

Good question. I’ve seen all of them, and I am total sucker for this genre (anything with Aliens, sign me up!). What I liked in particular about Occupation: Rainfall was the human component in the story. The script had such wonderfully nuanced characters, that are constantly conflicted with their beliefs and values, and have to decide more than on one occasion how far they will go for the greater good. And this very human and personal dilemma plays a roll not only for our heroes, but also villains (the human ones). I think this is a very interesting topic to focus on in an alien invasion film, something that goes far beyond the Sci-fi and Action/Adventure element. So in terms of the music, I think this becomes very apparent, as there are lots of very emotional pieces, and even our “hero theme” is more about “human sacrifice” than an actual  “superhero”. 

How did working on Occupation Rainfall compare to working on earlier projects like The Dragon Prince, Doom: Annihilation, and the DC animated films, just to name a few examples?
Like I mentioned above, the amount of music was very similar (given the projects mentioned here are a lot shorter generally), all of them have a lot of complex orchestral music. The big difference from let’s say “The Dragon Prince”, which is a mostly “in the box’ score with the exceptions of soloists,  to “Occupation” was that we planned on recording a rather large live orchestra, and during the peak of a pandemic no less (Summer 2020). So besides writing a lot of music and getting it approved in time, I had to account for a lot of time for recordings in London and Macedonia, and for orchestration (done by my partner in crime Hyesu Wiedmann). So suddenly you have 3-4 weeks less for writing since you need a lot of time to get 2 hours + orchestrated and prepared for the individual players, and at least 1 week of recording, and mixing. So that changes things a little in the process, but if you know what you are going to do in advance, and you have people behind you that full support you, it becomes an easy process. 

How much time did you have to score this film?
I had close to 3 months from start to finish, which felt very comfortable. 

Did you create specific musical themes for different characters or ideas?
Yes. One of the first cues I wrote for this film was the hero theme I mentioned above. A theme mostly used for our protagonist heroes, that selflessly try to save humanity, while sacrificing quite a bit themselves. The female lead, Amelia, had a theme which introduces her screen presence, the aliens had a dark and ominous, almost leaning into horror, type theme, and we had a theme for “humanity”, which is also not quite uplifting so to speak, but a nice mix of darkness and optimism that gives the situation humankind finds itself in a nice and authentic color. 

Is there any musical detail that you hope stands out to viewers who watch this film?

I hope the audience will appreciate the thematic treatment throughout, the absolutely fantastic performances of my London Orchestra record at the famous AIR studios, the gorgeous string melodies performed by my orchestra in Macedonia, and the more unique instruments I layered in throughout, like the haunting Armenian Duduk, Japanese Shakuhachi, several layers of solo violins and cellos and dark female vocals, representing the rather scary alien queen.

I want to give a big thank you to Frederik Wiedmann for taking the time to talk with me about Occupation Rainfall and I hope you enjoyed the discussion!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Music to Describe Fear and Music for Superheroes: Talking with Composer Jeremy Turner about ‘Immigration Nation’ and ‘Marvel’s 616’

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak with composer Jeremy Turner about his work on the Netflix series Immigration Nation and his work on the main theme for Marvel’s 616 on Disney+. For both of these scores, Turner is in contention for an Emmy, one for Documentary Score and one for Main Title Theme.

The docuseries Immigration Nation follows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers on raids, at detention centers, and attempting to integrate with local law enforcement. The cruelty viewers see firsthand is gut-wrenching and the score depicts the tension and fear seen on screen. Turner scored the project almost like a horror film to match the devastating and unfortunate reality that many have been oblivious to. The revelations in the doc are uncomfortable and the audience feels the heaviness of the high stakes circumstances so many in this country have been subjected to.

Marvel’s 616, in complete contrast, is an anthology documentary television series that illustrates different pockets of the Marvel Universe. Some episodes revolve around Marvel cosplay, Marvel action figures, and even a Marvel Comics-themed musical.

Jeremy Turner began his musical studies on the piano at the age of 5 and started playing the cello when he was 8 years old. After growing up in Michigan, he attended The Juilliard School as a pupil of Harvey Shapiro and studied chamber music with Felix Galimir. As a composer, his music has been heard around the world, from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House. Noted works include The Inland Seas, composed for violinist James Ehnes and mandolinist Chris Thile and commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Music Society; Suite of Unreason, a commission from the Music Academy of the West for their 70th Anniversary season; and a choral work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Wave Hill in New York.

Please enjoy my conversation with Jeremy Turner about his work on Immigration Nation and Marvel’s 616.

How did you get started as a composer?

I started writing music when I was a toddler, making up songs on an old upright piano in the basement of our family home. But then got sidetracked for about 20+ years, as I became a cellist in an orchestra in New York and had a performance career that kept my calendar pretty full. Eventually, I got back to doing what I was probably meant to do in the first place, and I’ve been composing ever since.

How did you get involved with Immigration Nation?

Through Shaul Schwarz, who directed the first film I ever scored—Narco Cultura back in 2013.

Given how important the story being told in this docuseries is, how did you decide where to start in putting the music together?

I knew it was going to be a fairly daunting task and would have a lot of emotional ups and downs. So, I just started at the beginning by writing a couple of sketches for the main titles, and that led to some established themes from which we could work with.

I find it very interesting that you chose to score the series similar to a horror film, was that your concept for the musical style for Immigration Nation from the beginning or did you come to that conclusion after trying several different styles?

It’s not all horror of course, but we discussed early in the process what fear might sound like. And much as I tried to leave the cello behind (since it is the instrument that I’m most comfortable with), directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau really wanted the full range of what the cello could bring. At its best it can be heart wrenching, melancholy, and probably is the closest musical instrument to the human voice. But when you start pushing beyond the limits of conventional approaches and experiment with extended techniques, you can draw out some incredibly unsettling tones.

How much time did you have to score Immigration Nation?

I’d say about 3-4 months. It was during the early days of the pandemic, so there were a lot of adjustments made on the fly, in terms of how we would work together and how we would finish.

Are there any musical moments in Immigration Nation that you hope viewers notice?

It’s a strange project to have any sense of pride about because it’s all so real and all so tragic. Honestly, I just hope people muster up the courage to watch it because I think it is something every American needs to see, regardless of what one thinks they might already know.

 Was there any part of Immigration Nation that you had difficulty scoring? Or any part where you decided music just wouldn’t work?

To be truthful, I had difficulty scoring the entire series. Not technically, but just emotionally. The final minutes of episode 5, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through without shedding a tear. But yes, there was a delicate balance to not score a scene that didn’t need to be scored. There is a lot of raw emotion on screen, so we made a conscious effort to not have the music force anything that wasn’t already clearly being felt.

On a different note, how did you go about scoring the title music for Marvel’s 616?

Marvel? Big heroic theme? Less than a minute of music? This is a dream scenario for any composer! 


Were you inspired at all by the Avenger’s theme that recurs throughout the MCU? I may be wrong but I swear I hear a musical resemblance between the two.

I flipped through some Marvel music from scores past to see where I’d be coming from for sure. Always helpful when taking over a shift in the kitchen to know what the previous menu was. But no, the themes aren’t related other than the fact that they are played by a big orchestra.

How much time did it take to compose the title music for Marvel’s 616?

Not terribly long, only in that the actual titles hadn’t been created yet. So, I just wrote a single sketch based on our initial conversations and that ended up being the final music. Yes, I realize that will probably never happen again! 

I want to say thank you to Jeremy Turner for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Immigration Nation and Marvel’s 616.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview and have a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

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Going ‘On My Way’: A Brief Talk with Alex Lahey About ‘On My Way’ and The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

To my surprise and delight, I was given the opportunity to speak with Alex Lahey about their work on the song ‘On My Way’ and its inclusion in the hit Netflix movie The Mitchells vs The Machines.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Alex started playing both guitar and saxophone when she was 13 years old, and studied art and jazz when she first enrolled in university. She broke through in 2016 with her song “You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me”, with her first full-length album ‘I Love You Like a Brother’ following in 2017.

How did you get started as a musician?

I’ve been playing music my whole life, but I really got serious about it when I was in high school and fell in love with playing the saxophone in the school big band. As I was getting into learning the sax, I was teaching myself guitar on the side just as a way to play the punk, rock and pop music I was actually listening to in my spare time. After leaving school and playing in a few bands with mates, I came to realise that I’m a better songwriter than saxophone player and I’ve never looked back.

How did you get connected with The Mitchells vs The Machines?

I was really lucky that my song ‘Every Day’s The Weekend’ got included in The Mitchells quite early on in the production process. So early on that they didn’t have a song for the end credits of the movie! So I got sent a brief of what the director and music supervisor were looking to fill that space with and that’s how ‘On My Way’ came to be.

What did you think of the film’s story?

I loved the story of the film and especially loved the character of Katie. Growing up as a queer kid, it would’ve meant the world to me to have seen a character like Katie on screen and I’m so glad she exists now for all the young people who need someone like her. The themes of family, growing up and being yourself that are so central to the story really resonate with me too.

Tell me about how ‘On My Way’ was developed for the film, what was the process for that song coming together?

As I mentioned before, the song was prompted by a brief the creative team provided me with. Between lockdowns in Melbourne, I took the brief to two artists I’m very close with, Gab Strum (Japanese Wallpaper) and Sophie Payten (Gordi), just as something to do while hanging out for the first time in ages and ‘On My Way’ was born. I guess we had a lot of good creative vibes waiting to be unleashed after so much time without face to face collaboration. Gab and I ended up finishing the recording virtually as Melbourne went back into lockdown. A big shout out must go out to Scott Horscroft who tracked all the drums and mixed the tune for us at The Grove while we were beamed in via Zoom during Stage 4 lockdown!

Aside from ‘On My Way’ were you involved in any other aspects of the music for The Mitchells vs The Machines?

To have both ‘On My Way’ and ‘Every Day’s The Weekend’ included in the film was really awesome. It was so great to be a part of this project in a really meaningful way. I’d never written a song intentionally for screen before and it was so wonderful to be part of the process of bringing this film together, even just in a small way. I hope it’s not the last time I get to be involved in a project like this. 

I want to give a big thank you to Alex Lahey for taking the time to talk with me!

See also:

Soundtrack Review: The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

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Music, Magic, and Dragons: Talking With Composer Philip Klein About Wish Dragon (2021)

I was recently blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Philip Klein about his work on the upcoming Netflix film Wish Dragon (which comes out on June 11th). Klein’s music has been heard in film and television projects for Sony, Disney, Pixar, Lionsgate, ABC and CBS. As a writer, Philip has collaborated with some of the finest composers working in film and TV, including Harry Gregson-Williams, Carter Burwell, Alex Heffes and Fil Eisler. He’s has had the honor of orchestrating for James Newton Howard, Alexandre Desplat, Ludwig Göransson, Richard Harvey, Steve Jablonsky, David Buckley, Stewart Copeland, Peter Golub, John Frizzell and several other amazing artists.

After a steady diet of drum corps and classical music throughout his childhood, Philip’s formal music education took him to Chicago where he studied trumpet and composition at Northwestern University. This classical foundation combined with a deep understanding of modern scoring techniques allow him to seamlessly compliment every project he works on. Selected as one of six fellows for the 2011 Sundance Institute’s Film Composing Lab in Utah, Philip has always had a deep love for the interaction of music and film. He owes much of his success to his mentors in Hollywood, Harry Gregson-Williams, Alan Silvestri, Penka Kouneva and Peter Golub. 

“Wish Dragon” is the story of Din, a 19-yr old college student living in a working-class neighborhood of modern-day Shanghai, who has big dreams but small means. Din’s life changes overnight when he finds an old teapot containing a Wish Dragon named Long – a magical dragon able to grant wishes – and he is given the chance to reconnect with his childhood best friend, Li-Na.

Please enjoy my conversation with Philip Klein about Wish Dragon!

How Did You Get Started as a Composer?

I was a trumpet player for most of my young musical life but I eventually found myself being drawn more to orchestration and composition.  I had a soft spot for film scores at a very young age and would spend hours picking out notes to my favorite themes, so it felt natural to fall into that world when I went to college and beyond.  Once I had scored a few student films I was hooked and moving to Los Angeles was the logical next step.  I’ve had the great fortune of working with some of the most skilled artists in film and music.

How did You Get Involved with Wish Dragon? Was there anything in particular that drew you to the story?

Producer Aron Warner is a dear friend and we’ve both always wanted to work on a project together. One of Aron’s superpowers is curating a team of creatives that all compliment each other.  He felt that director Chris Appelhans and I would mesh well so he reached out and I saw a very early cut of mostly stick figure drawing and early animatics.  Even in its most basic form the story was beautifully conceived and it was clear from conversations with Chris and Aron that the film was going to be special. I did all that I could to convince them that I was the right composer for the film and luckily they agreed.  Chris’ passion for storytelling, the characters and the culture is what drew me in early on; it wasn’t long before I was happily escaping into this world on a daily basis.  

I saw that you also worked on Raya and the Last Dragon as an orchestrator. Given that both of these films are about dragons, would you say there are musical similarities between the two or did you go out of your way to avoid any overt musical comparisons to Raya?

James Newton Howard wrote a beautiful score for Raya. I lucked out a bit in that I actually finished recording the score for Wish Dragon several months before we began orchestration work on Raya, so my window for being influenced (and intimidated) by James’ writing had passed. James’ score took advantage of musical colors from different areas of Mongolia and Southeast Asia, whereas Chris and I wanted to stick very close to Chinese culture for the color of the score.  Raya has a bit more fantasy whereas Wish Dragon is a bit more comedic. So in that sense, the scores were always going to sound different.

What was your starting point in putting the music for Wish Dragon together? Was there a lot of collaboration with the director during this process?

I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a project where the director was as much a collaborator as Chris was on this film.  The first 3-4 months of the process was just sharing music, videos and thoughts back and forth.  We sent each other any kind of Chinese instrument, folk song, vocal, opera percussion; basically any sound we could find.  Eventually, we started to hone in on the overall palette and approach we thought may work and then I started to experiment with those boundaries in place.  Chris was intimately involved with the music from conception through recording and mixing.  Chris had such a strong vision of what he wanted and needed out of the score, I loved every minute of working through this film with him. 

Were you inspired by any earlier films when putting the music together since this is a reworking of the “genie in a bottle” type of story? Or did you try to put an original twist on it as far as the music went?

While on its surface this film may seem like a “genie in the bottle” kind of story, the film is much more about friendship and redemption than anything.  The spectacle and theatricality of Long’s character sits somewhat behind the genuine connections we follow throughout the film.  While it is important to give a voice to Long’s over-the-top character, we never went too far in making him seem like more of a being than he is.  I think previous iterations of that kind of story maybe put more emphasis on the genie type character and their performance.  So musically, you have to match that kind of energy.  In Wish Dragon, we always wanted more weight to go towards the relationships and arcs of the characters so it naturally kept me away from drawing too much inspiration on other films or scores.  I’ll always be proud of how Chris and I blended these beautiful instruments of Chinese culture with a more Western orchestral palette.  We didn’t want either to ever overshadow the other.

Did you assign themes to the major characters? Or if not all of the characters, did you give a musical theme to Long the dragon?

I’m a huge believer that thematic writing is one of the most effective ways to create memorable emotional moments in a film.  Long has a theme we hear in the first cue of the film.  It’s broad and sweeping, almost always played with the orchestra to give his character scale and drama.  Din’s theme probably recurs most often but is played much more simply and with less fanfare than Long’s.  Much of Din’s scenes take full advantage of the energy from the Chinese instruments we used.  For most of the film Din is full of optimism so his theme is orchestrated with lovely and light, plucked textures.  There are two secondary themes; the first for our baddies and the other for Din and Li Na’s relationship.  For the goons in the film, I used a lot of darker bowed sounds from the Chinese instruments and mixed them into more modern, synth heavy orchestration.  For Din and Li Na, it’s a very simple fluttering synth with a three note motive that echoes their “day by day” mantra.

How did you decide on which traditional Chinese instruments to include in the score? And was it hard blending those instruments with a traditional Western orchestra?

It can be overwhelming at the start of a score like this because my brain and ears want to explore every new color out there.  Unfortunately, I’d still be working on the score today if I didn’t put a bit of a cap on what instruments we should focus on.  Honestly, we spent months early on just listening and me having video calls with players all over the world.  I’d ask them to show me the basics of their instruments, what it can do, and what it shouldn’t do.  Eventually I boiled down my core palette to around 8-10 Chinese instruments that would represent that side of the score.  The orchestra was always in place as it’s difficult to replace the sheer power of that vehicle, but the Chinese instruments became our color and our energy throughout the film.  We never wanted the score to sound like an orchestra blasting away with some Chinese soloists playing on top of them.  Rather, we wanted the two to become more homogenized so that the Chinese world melted into the orchestral.  Blending them together was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had because it opened my ears to brand new textures and colors.  It allowed me to explore a new musical world I had never heard before.  That’s always the most exciting part of working on a film. 

How much time did you have to score Wish Dragon?

I had the great fortune of working on this score for nearly a year.  This gave us plenty of time to truly flesh out all of our wildest ideas, themes and orchestrations.

Do you have a favorite track or moment in the score?

I will always love the scene and cue titled “Everything That Matters.”  It’s such a beautiful, honest moment between Din and his mother and their relationship’s arc in the film.  It was also one of those moments where Din’s theme just seemed to line up perfectly without me having to do much.  That doesn’t always happen, but it’s a pleasant surprise when the notes just seem to fit the film without much ado.  

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Philip Klein about his work on Wish Dragon. You’ll be able to check out the film when it releases on Netflix on June 11th, 2021.

Have a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

The Music of the Deep: Talking with Raphaelle Thibaut about ‘Secrets of the Whales’ (2021)

Just recently I had the privilege of speaking with composer Raphaelle Thibaut about her work on the Disney+ original series Secrets of the Whales. After she was born, Raphaelle suffered from a series of severe ear issues that led to single- sided deafness. At age 4, following doctor’s recommendation, she started an intense piano practice. She then continued studying music for 15 years at the conservatory of Lille, France, where she graduated in 2002. In 2015, she decided to leave her marketing job at Google to pursue her lifelong passion for music and film scoring. She quickly started writing for independent films and music houses. She then began to work for trailer houses and got featured in major Hollywood productions like Incredibles 2 and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.

Secrets of the Whales, from National Geographic, plunges viewers deep within the epicenter of whale culture to experience the extraordinary communication skills and intricate social structures of five different whale species: orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales. Filmed over three years in 24 locations, throughout this epic journey, we learn that whales are far more complex and more like us than ever imagined.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Raphaelle Thibaut!

How did you get started as a composer?
I had a classical music education, starting age 4. I spent long years at the conservatory in France playing the piano and learning everything about reading and performing music. I was obsessed with movies and film music already as a kid which really wasn’t a thing at home so I’m not sure where it came from. I remember using an old recorder to capture sound bites in theaters and playing around with them in my bedroom. I don’t think I was even aware of the concept of film score until I bought my first CDs. I dropped out of music school when I was 18 because I didn’t enjoy the performance part of my training. I think this was an early sign that composing was more my thing. Another early sign was that as a kid, I was very attracted to the composers from the late Romantic era (especially the Russian composers). A lot of the cinematic music genre took inspiration from the dramatism, large orchestra, use of leitmotif, and emotiveness of the romantic era. After music school, I ended up working in Tech but continued to play and compose in my bedroom. In 2015, I finally decided to quit my job to become a full-time composer.

How did you get involved with Secrets of the Whales?
I was approached by two agents very early on in my career as a composer. They believed in me from the very beginning and still are my agents today. A while ago they met Brian Armstrong at Red Rock productions in the UK, who apparently remembered my work the following year when they were looking for a composer for Secrets of the Whales. Initially they were looking to hire multiple composers but I ended up scoring to the 4 episodes so I was thrilled about that.

Was there much collaboration between the director/producers while working on the music?
I was involved right after they were done filming and I started writing in March last year. I continued throughout the pandemic and felt incredibly lucky to do so. I worked closely with the production team at Red Rock Films and indeed more specifically with directors Brian Armstrong and Andy Mitchell. My experience working with them was fantastic. Very empowering. I was able to come up with my own ideas and this allowed me to let go and get my creative juices flowing.

How was your music for this series inspired by Le Grand Bleu?
As a composer and a French person, it was hard not to think of this movie and Eric Serra’s amazing score. As a kid, I was fascinated by those synthetic whale sounds that he recreated for the film. I wanted to have some signature sounds in the score that would evoke the whales, but not imitate them. Both the production team and I wanted to avoid overstepping the existing sounds of animals and nature so I had to be careful about that. I thought of them like additional instruments more than in terms of sound design. Like subtle familiar voices in tune with the music.

What was your inspiration to put the underwater sound world of Secrets of the Whales together? That is to say, how were you inspired by the underwater world of whales when making this music?
I had many issues with my ears when I was a kid; multiple infections that even led to one-sided deafness for a while in my childhood. One thing that remains from this time is that I can’t go underwater, so this just increased the already existing fascination that I have for those animals and places. They are very mysterious, almost mystical to me and I think that at some points in the score my music illustrates that. As a consequence, it almost feels like the deeper we go into the water the more I would use non-traditional elements like synths and processed sounds.

How did you go about making music that sounds like whale songs? They’re so beautiful, was it difficult making music that emulated them?
They are! I was worried that my music would never be able to top this beauty. I think that my strategy was to try to evoke their sounds, not to imitate them. They are already making music when they communicate, so I really didn’t want to overstep that.

What instruments did you focus on when putting the music together? Any non-traditional choices?
The score is hybrid. It sounds mostly orchestral but I actually used a lot of electronic elements to enrich it and ‘make up’ for the fact that there would be no live player at all. Everything has been done on Logic Pro X, using my piano Komplete Kontrol S88, tons of orchestral and electronic plugins, and my voice. It was great to be able to play around with electronic sounds along with orchestral arrangements. This led us to a “versatile” hybrid score and I think we were all happy with the result!

How much time did you have to work on Secrets of the Whales? Did the pandemic affect the process at all
I was involved right after they were done filming and I started writing in March last year. I continued throughout the pandemic and felt incredibly lucky to do so. This was definitely my “Covid project”. The pandemic did affect the process in a way because I didn’t get to meet the team in person yet. But it didn’t affect the creative process because there wasn’t a plan to work with live players apart from me. I actually continued working on the score after the release actually, because we are working on a live concert experience coming in 2022! Secrets of the Whales will feature highlights from the Disney+ original series on a giant screen paired with the triumphant performance of a full symphony orchestra. So I had to write additional music for this.

Do you have a favorite track?
I love The Mourning Mother in the official soundtracks. It was always a special cue for me because it was written for this moment where an orca mother carries her dead calf for days. The fact that she mourns like human beings would and can’t let go broke my heart and marked me greatly.

What’s one thing that you hope viewers notice in the music when they watch this series?
That’s a good question. Probably how the music, despite that it’s very rich and epic, never really overwhelms and leaves lots of room for the narration and natural sounds.

I want to give a huge thank you to Raphaelle Thibaut for taking the time to speak with me about her work on Secrets of the Whales!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Making Unique Music for Superheroes: Talking with Composer Stephanie Economou about ‘Jupiter’s Legacy’ (2021)

Just recently I had the opportunity to speak with composer Stephanie Economou about her work on the upcoming Netflix series Jupiter’s Legacy. Stephanie is the composer of the upcoming Netflix TV series Jupiter’s Legacy, based on the comic series by Mark Millar. She has written the music for the Lionsgate/Starz series Step Up: High Water, as well as the second season of Manhunt: Deadly Games. Stephanie also scored two episodes of the Disney+ documentary series Marvels 616, directed by Gillian Jacobs and Alison Brie. Most recently, she has completed the score for the Assassin’s Creed DLC “Siege of Paris.”

Originally from Long Island, New York, Stephanie received her Bachelor’s degree in Composition from the New England Conservatory of Music and Master’s in Composition for Visual Media from University of California Los Angeles.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Jupiter’s Legacy, which premieres on Netflix on May 7, 2021.

How did you get started as a film and television composer? 

While I was studying composition at New England Conservatory, I ended up scoring a couple of short films directed by some friends I had from high school. After writing mostly concert music up until that point, it felt refreshing to be part of a creative collaboration that challenged me to explore different artistic avenues. I moved to Los Angeles after graduating and pursued my Master’s degree in Composition for Visual Media at UCLA. It was during my time as a student there that I met Harry Gregson-Williams, who subsequently hired me as his assistant. I spent six years working with Harry, composing additional music for films like “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” “The Martian,” “The Meg,” and “Mulan,” to name a few. I like to say that I “grew up” at Harry’s. I was so green when he hired me and he took me under his wing, quite immediately filling that role of the trusted mentor. I learned so many of the skills and tools I possess today from my time with him. He ignited my drive and pushed me beyond the mental boundaries I had set for myself. I think it’s so essential for anyone working in an artistic field to have that kind of guided mentorship.

How did you get involved with the Netflix adaptation of Jupiters Legacy?

I was called in for a meeting by one of the executive producers on the show, Hameed Shaukat. He had heard my music and thought my musical sensibilities might be a good fit for the narrative. They sent over a couple of scripts and a rough cut of the first episode, and after our meeting, I went home and wrote a demo suite inspired by some of the ideas we had discussed. As these things so often go, I was in that “sit and wait” period for a few months while they wrapped up filming, but I was thrilled to have gotten the call that they were ready for music and they wanted to work with me!

Were you familiar at all with the Jupiters Legacy and Jupiters Circle comics before working on this series? If not, did you check them out before working on the score?

I actually wasn’t familiar with the comics prior to starting and I didn’t check them out until the tail end of scoring the season. There was a rather big musical moment in episode seven, where I chose to compose a chorale using the main theme of the show. In an effort to make the moment feel purposeful, I dove into Mark Millar’s original comic series. After locating the scenes in the comics that matched up to the on-screen moment, I took his text as source material, translated it into Latin, and those words became the choir lyrics. It felt like a special way to have the show adaptation and the original comic series come full circle for an impactful musical moment.

How much collaboration was there with the showrunners/directors/producers of Jupiters Legacy when it came to putting the score together?

A ton! I had a somewhat rare experience on this show because by the time they brought me on board, they had really solid cuts of all eight episodes, so we were able to sit down and spot all of them before I even wrote a note of music. This ended up being a critical part of the process because it was important to our showrunner, Sang Kyu Kim, that the whole season feel less episodic and more like a long, feature film. Knowing the pace of the story and understanding the character arcs for the whole season really informed the trajectory and shape of the score. I was able to plan conceptually for certain musical moments later in the season and plant seeds along the way to prepare for those moments. For example, the idea for the choir piece in episode seven was something I had decided on creatively during the spotting session and the producers were really excited by it. Because I knew that’s where I was headed musically, I made vocals part of the tapestry of the score by recording fragments of experimental vocals with the very talented singer, Ari Mason. The vocals range stylistically from Latin chanting, to throat singing, to microtonal patterns, to interlocking rhythmic grunts. They appear rather subtly at first as we watch Sheldon (played by Josh Duhamel) experience increasingly bizarre visions and they grow more prevalent as the season unfolds. I felt by teasing these vocal fragments, it prepared the audience (however subliminally) for the moment we hear the chorale in episode seven. All along the way, the producers (Hameed Shaukat and James Middleton) and showrunner (Sang Kyu Kim) were really involved in the evolution score. They had a lot of trust in my vision for the season and even challenged me to explore the strange and unexpected. It’s incredibly rewarding to have collaborators who instill a sense of confidence in your ideas and respect your creative contribution. I feel incredibly lucky to have had that experience on this show.

Were you inspired by any other superhero film scores (DC or Marvel) when putting the music for Jupiter’s Legacy together?

Admittedly, I kind of wrote the music for “Jupiter’s Legacy” in a vacuum. I intentionally didn’t watch any superhero films/shows or listen to any superhero scores while working on this season. I solely wanted to be inspired by “Jupiter’s Legacy” and the stories its characters were telling. I strongly feel that this show puts a unique spin on the superhero narrative. At its core, it’s a family drama which explores the complexities of our relationships with our parents, children, siblings, and those closest to us. They just happen to also have superpowers! 

While I didn’t attempt to get into a “superhero” mindset per se, I did intentionally lean into the “superhero film music” trope when I sat down to write a theme for Sheldon/The Utopian (which also became the overarching show theme). I wanted his theme to be rather wide in scope, so you’ll often hear The Utopian’s theme on a solo french horn or a big brass section or a full symphonic orchestra. I deliberately crafted his theme this way because I feel that is what we typically associate with the characteristic “superhero sound.” I thought if I painted The Utopian in this stereotypical, mythic superhero light, it would help subvert expectations. While he obstinately tries to uphold the morals of the Union’s Code and maintain a commanding heroic facade, in reality, we most often see The Utopian as a broken down, shell of his former self. He struggles to keep healthy relationships with his children, his wife, his brother, and is rapidly falling out of favor with the public, whom he has fought to protect for nearly 100 years. By leaning into what the audience perceives as a cliched “superhero theme” for his heroic moments, I was able to destabilize that image in his more intimate, fragile moments by exploring that theme on synths, vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano. Being able to write a theme that could expand and contract with his story arc felt like a really important way to shape his character.

Did you create specific themes for each of the heroes?

There are so many compelling characters in this series, so it was essential for me to try and develop themes for many of them. I previously discussed Sheldon/The Utopian’s theme but many others also have musical signatures: for example, Walter has a cello theme, Fitz a clarinet theme, George a plucked dulcimer theme, and Hutch a distorted bass growl sting. Two of my very favorite characters in the series are Chloe and Raikou. They’re both outliers and rebels and I felt their themes demanded a different musical profile. Chloe has an awesome action sequence in episode three and I was really inspired by the sheer magnitude of her powers and Elena Kampouris’ portrayal of her character. I didn’t have a specific idea for what her sound world would be, but when I sat down to write the cue, this industrial rock piece came out, with blaring guitars, synthesizers, and heavy distorted percussion. It just felt like it fit her sensibilities as a rugged, and somewhat lawless character. Chloe, much like her father Sheldon, also has many moments of solitude and darkness, so that same theme heard on guitars and synths is re-interpreted on electric keys and bass to reflect the intimacy of her personal struggles. For Raikou, I was struck with a similar feeling of wanting her sound to stand apart. I called up a trumpet-player friend of mine, Jake Baldwin, and asked “Could you take the mouthpiece off of your trumpet and record some stuttered, bendy motifs?” He met that request with a resounding, “Hell yes!” and came up with some really unique signatures. I took those, heavily effected them, and that’s what became part of Raikou’s sound. 

Additionally, I wanted to compose a leitmotif that could be used cyclically as a thematic microcosm (which I dubbed “the quest germ”), to excite the audience as the pace of our adventure picked up. This motivic cell, often appearing in a five or four-note repeating sequence, becomes a ubiquitous musical signature throughout the score. While we witness firsthand the unfolding of our characters’ epic voyage in the 1930s, their journey continues to evolve in the present day, and thus our “quest germ” becomes an essential part of the DNA of the story.

One of the most unusual motifs that I wrote for the series was the sound for “The Island,” which our characters discover and explore in episodes six and seven. I wanted to give a musical profile to the Island itself to highlight its strange and otherworldly nature. The eerie, bendy signature was created using a shepherd’s horn, rather bizarre vocals (or what I like to call “mouth sounds”), and a trumpet with several of the slides removed (again, Jake Baldwin at his best)! This was often accompanied by high, fast, tapping percussion which was meant to exemplify the supernatural force of the Island mentally invading our characters and pitting them against one another.

What were your instruments of choice when scoring Jupiter’s Legacy? I read that you used a number of regional instruments? Could you tell me more about that?

Yes, there were some really fun sound worlds I was able to explore. In episode six, our characters travel to Morocco, so I utilized some regional instruments like oud, bendir, darbuka, hand cymbals, ney, zurna, fipple flute, saz, and duduk (though that’s actually Turkish/Armenian)! Even though we’re in this new physical space, our main theme is still heard on these lead instruments, so there is a sense of musical cohesion. Apart from the Moroccan instruments, the overall score is a hybrid balance of orchestral instruments and synths. There were some incredible soloists who are featured throughout the score: Ari Mason (vocals), Jon Monroe (guitar), Jake Baldwin (trumpet and brass), Ro Rowan (cello), Bryan Winslow (varied plucked instruments). There’s also some violin and viola which I recorded and of course the fantastic vocalists who made up the choir. I think the score lives in an in-between space where the electronic and acoustic elements coexist rather seamlessly, or at least that’s always the hope! 

How much time did you have to score the series? Did the pandemic affect this at all?

I had about seven months to score the whole season, which is certainly a lot more time than most composers get for a season of TV! I think having those few months to focus on thematic development and hone in on a sound palette was really critical for me. Because of the pandemic, scoring sessions were rather touch-and-go for a while, so I ended up being able to work with all of the soloists through remote recording. Some of them were here in LA and others, like the trumpet player Jake Baldwin, were in Minneapolis, so it was really wonderful to have this roster of artists who were so eager to jump in and breathe life into the music from their home studios. 

The biggest challenge that I faced was when it came time to record the choir. As you can imagine, it was quite stressful realizing I had sold the producers on the idea of the chorale way back in the spotting session (before I had started writing), and then come August/September of 2020, there were no choirs being recorded in person because it was far too risky. In a bit of a panicked stupor, I reached out to choir contractor Jasper Randall, who assured me he would secure nine vocalists each with excellent recording skills. All of the singers multi-tracked their individual parts six times, with a slightly different interpretation and timbre for each take, all from their separate home recording spaces. Once I got their materials back, I shot them over to my mixer, Scott Smith, and a half hour later, he sent me back the most lush, majestic, powerful sounding choir track. I was completely floored by what these brilliant singers were able to accomplish in remote recording sessions. As with any ensemble, being in the same space as your fellow performers is so critical for matching phrasing, dynamics, and just overall emotional interpretation. And these singers were also faced with the challenge of singing in Latin! I was totally blown away by their musicality and the focused effort that they put into this performance. If anything positive came out of last year’s quarantine, it was realizing that, however isolated we came to feel in our separate physical spaces, we were still able to make music and create something special while being apart.

Without spoiling anything (if possible), do you have a favorite musical moment in this series?

Apart from the chorale piece in the final scene of episode seven, I was faced with a really unique creative challenge earlier in that episode. Most of episode seven focuses on the origin story of our original six characters, as we follow them at the peak of their journey in the 1930s to a remote island off the coast of Morocco. It becomes abundantly clear as they traverse through many obstacles on the Island that they are intentionally being challenged and pitted against one another. There’s a strange force that is preventing them from following the clues and getting to the crux of what this Island represents. 

Along the way, they find themselves suddenly trapped in a rock wall formation and it seems as though there’s no escape. As each of the characters place their hands on the wall, a colored light travels up the rock formation and they realize they must all get their lights to turn on in order to break out. The producers wanted there to be a distinctive sound associated with each character’s light and they wanted it to be a musical tone, not something left to sound design. By this point in the season, almost all of our characters had themes I was establishing, so I had the idea to use a small, fragmented motif of each of their individual themes to create their unique wall tone. For example, when Sheldon touches the wall, the first two notes of his theme on french horn are heard, and then a bell-like, synthetic tone evolves out of that motif. When Grace touches the wall, we hear her violin harmonic motif, and her unique tone comes out of that. For George, we hear his plucked dulcimer sound and his tone emerges out of that. The pitch of each tone was carefully chosen so that none of them quite work together harmoniously until the final light from Walter goes on and it completes the harmony to form a fully voiced major chord. Once all of the lights go on, the wall finally opens and they’re able to pass through. I should also mention that, while there were these tonal elements happening diegetically, there was also underscore happening concurrently, so I had to ensure that all of these sonic puzzle pieces were fitting together and creating a convincing landscape for the scene to exist within. Once the walls open up, I didn’t just want these tones to fall by the wayside and disappear, so I took each individual bell-tone and created a randomized arpeggiated sequence that grows as part of the score cue. It was a really fun challenge to design the on-screen sounds and then have it cross the boundary and become part of the fabric of the score, blurring the lines of what we perceive to be sound and music.

In general, is there any musical detail you hope viewers notice when the show premieres next month?

See the previous question!

Thank you again to Stephanie Economou for taking the time to speak with me about her work on Jupiter’s Legacy!

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Heartfelt Music for a Heartfelt Story: Talking with Composer Peter Baert About ‘The Water Man’ (2021)

Just recently I had the opportunity to talk with composer Peter Baert about his work on the upcoming film The Water Man, which is directed by David Oyelowo. In the film, a young boy named Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) sets out on a quest to save his ill mother (Rosario Dawson) by searching for a mythic figure who possesses the secret to immortality, the Water Man. This score marks Peter Baert’s major Hollywood feature debut and will release in theaters on May 7, 2021.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Peter Baert about The Water Man.

How did you get started as a film composer?
I grew up in a musical family , a kind of Belgian sea-side Von Trapp setting. My Dad was a principal at a music school, and also an organist. He definitely nudged us towards classical music careers. However, I diverted slightly from that path and went into sound design and avant-garde electronic music. When my mother died of pancreatic cancer I reconnected with my classical upbringing and started to study classical music and film scoring. That was in 2008.


How did you get involved with The Water Man?
My wife and I own and run a commercial sound studio together in Brussels. One day we were booked for a Penguin audiobooks recording with David Oyelowo. That day, one of our engineers called in sick so I had to jump in to engineer. During the breaks, David and I talked about his work, and about my ambition to compose film music. We stayed in touch afterwards and at some point I asked him if I could pitch on this project that he was producing. He sent me the script and I made 8 cues based on a number of scenes.Long afterwards, David called me to say that they kept coming back to my demo, so I flew out to LA to sit with David and editor Blu Murray in the edit room and eventually I got hired.


Where did you start with putting the score together?
This heartfelt story of The Water Man took me back to two periods in my life. The first reminded me of being in my early teens, always playing in the neighborhood with my friends and going on adventures in a nearby forest. The second transported me back to a day in 2008 when my mom and I found out the diagnosis of her pancreatic cancer. She would be gone in 6 months. At some moment during the composing process the music found me and it glued to the screen. So, it started there, with that feeling and with the script that I’d received to base my demo on. The themes that I wrote for the demo pretty much evolved into the final score.

How much collaboration was there, if any, with director David Oyelowo?
I have a feeling that David kindly guided me through this process. He is an amazing man, very kind and generous. He even invited me into his home when I first came to LA. The Brussels – LA time difference worked well for us, I miss waking up with David’s notes on a cue. Later, when he was shooting in London for the Netflix film The Midnight Sky, he sent me notes from his trailer on set.


What type of music would you classify this score as? Is it adventure film music, YA drama music, or (and I ask this after watching the trailer) a bit of horror music? Or a combination of all of the above?

It’s a bit all of the above, without being a multi-headed animal. I consciously worked with a definite set of sounds throughout the movie. That’s why I used a lot of wooden percussion, some African Marimba in addition to a Concert Marimba, prepared piano..There is an emotional part of the score that blends well with the more adventurous parts.


Are there musical themes for specific characters? I have to imagine there’s some kind of motif for The Water Man himself.

When I read the Water Man Rhyme in the script, I instantly wrote a melody fitting the lines. I recorded that in my demo and later, in the movie that piece was interpreted by Amiah Miller who plays Jo. That rhyme became the Water Man theme and is used throughout the film in different forms.When Gunner is in a happy place we’ll hear Gunner’s Theme, a simple piano melody line based on a simple scale. There is a theme for Mary, that I blended with Gunner’s theme in the final score cue “Prayer.” The relationship between Gunner and Jo has a more playful theme. Amos, the father in the movie played by David, has a more texture approach, like Col Legno cello and electric distorted cello lines.

Were there any types of specific instruments that you focused on in the overall mix? Or specific instruments/sounds for specific characters or ideas?
One of the first things I did when I first saw the film, was ask the assistant editor Kevin Murray for all the non-dialogue takes of the actor who played the Water Man. So, back in Belgium, we’ve manipulated all these cries, and whispers, sighs,… through tape delays, modular synths and so on, to create a Water Man Synth. Later on in the proces, when David proposed to have some Motherly presence in the Forest scene, we also created a Mother Synth.I recorded long notes, and a number of little vocalizations with vocalist Judith Okon… and processed this as well.So in the film I could always use either some Water Man energy or Mother energy.


How much time did you have to score the film?
About 4 months. David called me near the end of October 2019 and we were planning to record in Budapest in March of 2020. However the global pandemic complicated everything and we ended up recording at Galaxy Studios in Belgium in a Covid safe setup with 9 players around mid May 2020. Cues got revised until the very end, as the edit was adapted during lockdown.


Are there any musical details you hope stand out to the audience?
There’s a Swirly Tube somewhere in the score and I played the recorder in the more funny parts between Jo and Gunner. ;-)I hope people will enjoy my style, which is a unique blend of classical and electronics.


Do you have a favorite part of the score?
I like the opening cue “Gunner’s Theme” because it has been with me since the demo. My daughters aged 5 & 7 sang it at home while I was working on it. And when Gunner finds the Water Man’s Hut and draws his Samurai sword, that’s also one of my favourite cues.

I’d like to say thank you to Peter Baert for taking the time to speak with me about his work on The Water Man.

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Writing Music for Planet Earth: Talking with Composer Ilan Eshkeri About ‘A Perfect Planet’ (2021)

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak with composer Ilan Eshkeri about his work on the documentary series A Perfect Planet. This is my second interview with this composer, as we’d previously talked about his work on the hit video game Ghost of Tsushima. Eshkeri attended Leeds University, where he studied music and English literature. During this time he also worked with fellow film composers Edward Shearmur, Michael Kamen and music producer Steve McLaughlin. His extensive catalogue of film and TV scores include Still Alice, Stardust, The Young Victoria, Doctor Thorne, Shaun The Sheep and David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Ilan Eshkeri about the music of this spectacular documentary.

Have you worked on documentaries like ‘A Perfect Planet’ before now?
Yes, this is my fourth collaboration with David Attenborough. What made me to work with him again was the focus of this series on climate which is an issue that is also close to my heart. Silverback, the production team making the programme were also very supportive of my creative approach so the which made the project creatively very satisfying as well as feeling like I was getting an important message out to the world. 

Is scoring a documentary like this very different from working on a film? Or is it mostly the same?
It’s quite different because you are writing 40 short films. You have a sequence about ants that’s a heist or a sequence about whales that’s a love story or a sequence about monkeys that’s about guarding territory and protecting family and so you have to think of each story on its own terms, they have their own completely new themes and instrumentation/sound-world, so it is much more work than writing a film score where you would have a handful of themes or motifs that you re-use. 


Where did you start with the scoring process for ‘A Perfect Planet’? I hear what sounds like a recurrent theme that reappears from time to time, but I wasn’t sure if it was a central or main theme or something else.
My writing process was varied because there were so many stories, I decided to take a hit and run approach… look at a scene and pick up a guitar and put an idea down and immediately move on to another scene pick up another instrument and so on… if I couldn’t come up with an idea immediately I’d leave it out, then I would go back around the whole episode again. 
You are right that there is a recurring theme. I’ve noticed that these kinds of shows tend to go from one piece of music to another without a musical anchor and I wanted to keep taking the audience back to a theme that represented the planet / Mother Nature. The theme comes at the beginning the end and in-between all the set animal sequences. Typically it has voices and piano, voices because it’s connected to nature and humanity and piano because it’s an instrument of the home and I wanted to reinforce the idea of the whole of our planet being collectively our home. 


So, this may be the same question over again but, how did the overall process for scoring this work? Were you given any guidelines for what each segment should sound like or was it pretty much a free rein? 
The film and TV making process always and has always used guide music, it helps the director producer and editor work out what kind of music they need, which can often inform how they’re going to cut the scene. For composers the guide music can be helpful too, music is very hard to describe in words so examples are useful. For a perfect planet I had a very set approach on how I wanted to approach the music and so after th first watch though I worked without reference to the guide in the first instance, and then there were a couple of times where we needed to refer back but not often. I am grateful to the team for supporting my process and believing in it. 


Did you have footage of the animals to watch while you worked or was it described in storyboards? 
I was brought on at an early stage before there was much to see so I could think about it early on but I did a lot of my recording to early clips so this way the music and the editing could evolve together 


How did you decide on which instruments to use for the different animals featured in ‘A Perfect Planet’?
We all have a sense of what is appropriate, there is an unspoken semiotic language that both film makers and audience are aware of, for example, a harp might seem an inappropriate choice for an elephant and a trombone might jar for a butterfly.  As a film maker and a composer you need to take these things into consideration, but rules are there to be broken!


How long did you have to work on the music? Was the process impacted by the pandemic at all?
I recorded the first 2 episodes before the pandemic but recording became very difficult. Orchestras couldn’t come together obviously, especially not wind and brass because of all the blowing. This meant that the post production process had to expand. I was able to put a small amount of strings together in Iceland and then brass and woodwinds individually in the player’s living rooms. It was extremely time consuming to prep, but fortunately the technology exists where we can place those recordings inside of digital acoustic spaces which meant we could make the recording sound very real. I also had to take these limitations into consideration in the writing. It was fortunate that I had taken a more contemporary approach, not straight symphonic, and I like to think that that creativity comes out of limitations, so I enjoyed the challenge. In the end my producer / engineer Steve McLaughlin made it all sound incredible and I think anyone would be hard pushed to tell the difference, It was just incredibly labour intensive.


Was it hard to write for any particular animal?
Yes, one scene in particular at the end of the sunlight episode where there was a huge feeding frenzy in the Ocean with birds, whales and fish, the music I had written was good but something about it was not quite right and the day before recording the director and I decided that to do something completely new it was incredibly difficult to write a 7 minute sequence to end an episode. It is such a short time whilst also prepping for the recording but somehow I managed to make it happen. 

I want to say thank you to Ilan Eshkeri for taking the time to speak with me about his work on A Perfect Planet.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview and have a great day!

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