Tag Archives: composer interview

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

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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 🙂

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!

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 🙂

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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Composer Interviews

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The Music of Psychopathy: Talking with Composer Benji Merrison About ‘SAS: Red Notice’ (2021)

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak with film composer Benji Merrison about his work on the film SAS: Red Notice. The film is based on Andy McNab’s novel of the same name and follows a Special Forces operator who comes face-to-face with an army of mercenaries who are intending to blow up the Channel Tunnel.

Benji Merrison is an award-winning composer who went on to obtain a BA (Hons) in Music and an MSc in Music Technology from York University. He also studied Jazz Piano with Howard Riley at Goldsmiths University. His selected credits include SAS: Red Notice, BBC Green Planet, General Magic, Dynasties 2, and Victoria.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about SAS: Red Notice.

How did you get started as a film composer?

Thank you for having me along Becky.

As a child, I grew up with a lot of music around. My Dad had a great vinyl collection and played folk guitar a lot. My mum played piano and so there was an upright in the house. I started getting really into the piano when I was probably five or six. I got a bit obsessed just trying things out to see what sounded good. I spent ages just working out little tunes and things, and then took piano lessons with a local teacher. When I was about eight I got hold of a Roland Juno 6, which blew my mind – I couldn’t believe all the sounds it could make and used to make up imaginary stories in my head as I cluelessly messed around with the knobs and sliders. Funny now, looking back, as it is such a simple synth. I still have it.

Fast forward a few years, and I went on to study classical music, and then a Master’s degree in Music Technology. After working for a few years in motion graphics & audiovisual arts, I started suggesting to clients that I could do the music as well as the motion graphics. So, I started out with small jobs really, which got bigger and bigger over the years.

It’s been a wild ride so far, a very organic process. To be honest, at the start I didn’t even know you could get paid to be a composer, I just muscled to the industry because I thought ‘I can do that, let’s see what happens.’

How did you get brought in to work on SAS: Red Notice?

SAS: Red Notice has been a wonderful project to be a part of, and landing the job was quite a chance thing really. I met the music supervisor at an event in LA and we got chatting about the project and the fact they needed a British composer. Of course, I put on my most over-the-top British accent at this point!
She put me in touch with the producer, Laurence Malkin. Larry rang me up and said, ‘can you be in Amsterdam tomorrow for a screening?’ Slightly flustered, the ‘yes man’ in me kicked in and I was indeed there the next day (this was pre-Covid of course). I think my enthusiasm must have impressed him because after some composition tests to picture, I got the job!

Where did you start with putting the themes together? How did you decide what this film should sound like?


I’m quite an improvisatory composer, so I often approach themes and writing in general by simply jamming and seeing what feels right.
At the start of the scoring process, I had a couple of these improv style sessions with Larry Malkin (producer) and Peter Clarke (music editor). I had a cool Cubase template prepared with loads of interesting instruments all stacked in a session, so I could go from an intimate piano sound to a full orchestra with mad synths and pulses mixed in. I had programmed some midi controllers to do all sorts of things to each instrument, including pitch bending the different layers (some going up, some going down in pitch).
In one of these sessions, we were trying to work out what kind of themes would work for the lead character Tom Buckingham, and also what musical device we could use to represent the unfolding of his psychopathic nature.
I started off jamming a simple ‘English Country Garden’ style riff, whatever fell under my fingers easily, which became the ‘Tom Buckingham’ theme. I then gradually wigged out more and more with the midi controllers until this massive, intense, swarming orchestral sound hammered out!
Larry and Pete were like ‘What was that?!! That sounds like psychopathy right there!’ This developed into cues such as ‘Emergency Response,’ ‘Two Psychopaths,’ and the end of ‘Finding the Player.’ As a matter of fact, quite a bit of the score came from this one improvisation. I find that funny and inspiring.

Did you create themes for specific characters?


Yes, for some. In particular, there are very clear themes, as mentioned for Tom Buckingham and also for The Black Swans. There are also other thematic elements such as the ‘Church of Psycopathy’ theme we first hear in the scenes in reel one with Will Lewis.
However, it was very clear from the beginning that these themes should gradually subvert, morph and degrade over the course of the movie. It seemed like the most ideal way to represent psychopathy. In addition, I took ideas of those themes, and, for example, shortened them into an ostinato figure, or played them in retrograde or inverted, that kind of thing.
Deconstruction was a big part of the process. This happened both on a thematic level, but also on a sonic and instrumental level. Over the course of the movie, I would take something like a timpani or snare (which very obviously says ‘militaristic’) and I would run them through various effects chains or spectral processing, to become something very new but derived from the same source.
I like this kind of idea, but only when it means something to underline the narrative. In this case, it was a logical and proportionate approach. I also think it worked.

What is your overall process for choosing which instruments to include (or exclude) in the overall mix?

I don’t have a consistent process, it will vary for each score. I always do a lot of exploring, trying all sorts of things out to see what feels right to picture and for the character or storyline. I often like to pair one familiar or obvious piece of instrumentation with another which is more surprising or arresting.

This way the viewers feel a sense of familiarity in one sense, and another which has a degree of tension, surprise, or questioning. This can be a very useful musical device, once clearly defined. You can use the relative push and pull of this pairing to play with the viewer’s emotions, and invoke more nuanced compound emotional states.

Were there any musical ideas you tried only to find they weren’t working out?

Oh yes, many.

In fact, for me, it is a huge part of creating a successful score. I think as you gain more experience, you develop the professional maturity to ditch an idea (however good it is or however long it has taken to write) if it isn’t right for the film. I used to feel anguish at this, but now I find it quite fun to destroy a carefully crafted idea. The thing is, sometimes you learn more from the things that ‘aren’t right’ as you do from the things that ‘are right’. It all feeds into the score as part of the process.

I like to float above the feelings around the creation of music, to hear the music objectively, just as the audience will. Things are either right or not right in that sense. The only important thing is the emotional response of the audience to the film, my own feelings are irrelevant.

To aid this I don’t like to spend long in any stint working on cues, or writing themes. I’ve found over the years that the longer I spend on things, there is a point where I lose perspective and start ‘taking away.’ I like to regularly hear my work as if it wasn’t me who wrote it. That way I am more objective and logical about how others will respond to it.

How long did you have to score the film?

The scoring took place around four months over the late summer/autumn of 2019. It was a pretty intense, but hugely satisfying experience. The recording sessions took place in the Hall at AIR studios in winter 2019, just before the pandemic hit.

It’s amazing to think of the intensity of that period, especially given that the release was put back so far due to the events of 2020. I’m grateful it worked out this way, as it meant we got all the recording sessions and mix completed in time before the restrictions came in.

What was the collaboration process like? How much collaboration was there with producer and writer Laurence Malkin on the score?

There was a lot of collaboration. Larry is a very hands-on producer and likes to be involved with all aspects of the film. I really enjoyed that about the process. We got into a great pattern, where he would come over to the studio every weekend and we’d spend the whole day going through two or three reels, chatting through each shot and working out how we could impact and add value to the storyline through the score. I’d then spend the week revising things, and repeat the process. This all created a score that was very tight and precise to the picture.

Whilst that sounds like it could be a bit regimented, it was quite a liberating and structured way to approach the score, which I really enjoyed. I had plenty of time to experiment and free-flow my ideas, but I had that focus point and second opinion so that I didn’t get too bogged down with a particular idea or section.

In this sense, I’d say it was one of the most collaborative scores that I have completed to date.

Do you have a favorite track? Or any detail that you hope audiences notice?

Ha! There are quite a few actually.
A firm favourite of mine (and others who have seen the film so far) is ‘3m23 Emergency Response.’ It’s a real action romp type of cue, but also combines a perfect blend of the distorted, fragmented Tom Buckingham theme along with the ‘Psychopathic String’ signature lines. It is basically ‘orchestral heavy metal’ masquerading as a soundtrack cue, which really appeals to me!

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about SAS: Red Notice!

Cheers Becky, thanks for having me!

I wanted to say thank you one more time to Benji Merrison for taking the time to speak with me about his work on SAS: Red Notice! I hope you all enjoyed this interview!

Have a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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

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Music for Digging into the Past: Talking With Stefan Gregory about Netflix’s ‘The Dig’ (2021)

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Australian composer Stefan Gregory about his work on the Netflix film The Dig. Gregory makes his major feature film score debut with this Netflix drama, based on the novel of the same name by John Preston. Ralph Fiennes stars in the film as real-life excavator Basil Brown, who until recent years was uncredited for his work in unearthing the fossil of an Anglo-Saxon wooden ship on a young widow’s (Carey Mulligan) estate. With this project, Stefan makes the transition to film scoring from the world of composing and sound design for theatre. He studied mathematics in college, but his passion for music (mainly Jazz) overtook and led to him pursuing a career in writing music for theatre productions. 

Enjoy our conversation about The Dig!

How did you get started as a composer?

Improvising and composing were part of how I learnt music from a young age. My dad was a folk musician. My first paid gig was through a friend who worked in theatre, scoring a production of Hamlet for $500 which featured classical banjo and cello.

What was it like making the leap from composing for the theatre to composing for film? Was it a big difference?

It was fairly straight forward, the basic ideas are the same in film and theatre – support the story and the visual world, don’t get in the way of the text, find something that’s missing from the story that you can tell with the music. One difference is that theatre music sometimes needs to be a little bit flexible as the timing can change every night, whereas film music needs to be precise.

There are some subtler differences that are hard to put into words – something about the way we interpret film as truth, because it’s based in photography, even though the footsteps you’re hearing are probably foley. In theatre, we always know it’s fake, because we can look up and see the stage lights and the proscenium arch, so it relies more on the imagination. This changes the way music is interpreted. If you use certain filmic tropes in theatre, they might come across as cheesy or the audience might feel they’re being manipulated, which turns them off. Yet those same tropes work in film, or actually they’re essential because they’re part of the grammar of film. But all this is mostly very subtle.

Did it help that you were working with director Simon Stone, given that you’ve collaborated for a decade together? I have to imagine that would help with any transition from theatre to film.

It does really help to know you director well, as they are your main collaborator. Another flipped way to look at it is: it helps to work with directors whose philosophy and aesthetic you share, and then you’ll end up working together for a decade!

How did you decide on the overall sound for The Dig? It’s not how I imagined a film about an archaeological dig would sound, though I do love the intimacy of the music. I’m also curious about one thing: I read that your initial idea was to create music of the era. What, specifically would that have sounded like? I know you ultimately didn’t go in that direction but I’m curious as to how it differed from what you did go with.

We initially talked about referencing orchestral music of the period, and I did a lot of work on that before I saw the edit. However most of those ideas didn’t seem to work when we put them to picture – the contemporary camera and editing language seemed to beg for a more contemporary score. I avoided using piano for quite a while but eventually I relinquished, and that really helped unlock the whole sound for me. I guess there’s a reason it’s used so much. The strings and orchestra were great for the landscape but piano gave it the intimacy and human touch it needed.

On a related note, when you decided what the film would sound like, where did you start with composing the score? Was it with a single theme that expanded outward or was it more organic than that?

In this case it was a piano piece I wrote that was a breakthrough for me, the tone and style seem right and it suddenly became clear what sort of compositional world was going to work. It wasn’t the theme itself, but certain harmonic ideas in it that I ran with, and the simplicity of the melody. Interestingly, that particular piano piece was cut when there was a big change in the edit, as it resulted in the whole film feeling slightly faster and so that piece was now too languid.

How much time did you have to work on The Dig? Were you impacted by the pandemic? If so, how did you work around it with the recording process?

I was brought on before the shoot and watched the daily rushes. By the time I got properly started though, and had seen rough cut, I think I had about 3 to 4 months to write it. This coincided with the first wave of the pandemic in the UK, so in the middle of the process I and my pregnant partner and 3 year old daughter made the decision to come back to Australia. We had already sent my mother home as a precautionary, who had been helping us with child minding. My partner was now confined to bed with morning sickness, so it was becoming a challenge for me caring for my family and writing my first feature score at the same time. When we arrived back in Sydney on one of the last easily available flights we had to stay on a remote bushland property which turned out not to have phone, internet or even hot water at first. No-one would come to fix the internet and phone for weeks as everyone was in lockdown. It was a beautiful landscape however, and there was a magnificent view of a large river, which was inspiring for the music. The process of collaboration became difficult – I had to drive up a dirt track in a four-wheel drive and upload files over 4G to the director in Vienna.

Then when it came to recording, no orchestras were open for business. Eventually Iceland opened up, and we were lucky to have a fantastic orchestra and team over there who were able to provide online streaming of the session. There were people listening in from all over the world – Sydney, New York, London, Quito and Vienna – to a small studio in a picturesque coastal town a few hours east of Reykjavik. The sessions began at about 8pm Sydney time and went to about 7am. I was a bit tired by the end!

One question that I can’t get off my mind is, and forgive me if this comes out wrong, did you write some of this music to “mimic” what an archaeologist does? A lot of the smaller, more delicate moments remind me of the gentle brushing and probing that an archaeologist has to do to remove these precious artifacts from the ground, and I was wondering if that was done on purpose.

Haha! I love this observation. It wasn’t quite as deliberate as that, but it was scored to picture so probably something was going on in my subconscious.

What’s one thing you hope viewers take away with them when they watch The Dig and hear your score?

I hope they hear the score as part of the cohesive whole experience of the film, and don’t think about it too much – all the elements of film working together sympathetically. As far as the experience, it will resonate differently with different people, and everyone will find something slightly different in it. Certainly there are some big themes in there; life, death, time, earth, legacy, love.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

A few. I like the montage that starts just after the Piggots arrive, and continues under Basil showing little Robert the stars through a telescope, and cuts to the misty morning. I also like the section after they’ve pulled the body from the plane crash, with the sunset and Rory and Peggy – it feels slightly unexpected musically to me.

Thank you again for taking the time to talk about your work on The Dig.

Thank you for your questions!

A big thank you to Stefan Gregory for taking the time to speak with me about his work on The Dig. You can check out the film on Netflix!

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 🙂

Music, Basketball, and One Amazing Coach: Talking with Composer Grant Fonda about The House That Rob Built (2020)

Just recently I spoke with composer Grant Fonda about his work on The House That Rob Built, a documentary film that looks at the life and career of Rob Selvig, the iconic coach of the University of Montana’s Lady Griz basketball team. Underfunded and sidelined by men’s athletics, the Lady Griz bloomed under the fresh Title IX regulations that brought equal funding, scholarships and facilities to women’s collegiate sports. Selvig’s hard-driving style took the team from humble roots, playing before empty stands, and built them into the preeminent women’s basketball program west of the Rockies.

Los Angeles based composer Grant Fonda has collaborated with numerous creatives on a wide array of notable projects, including the acclaimed The Dating Project (dir. Jonathan Cipiti, 2018), the award-winning Down The Fence (Netflix, dir. MJ Isakson, 2017), and the multi-award winning Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton. Grant has been a collaborator in music departments for award-winning composers Thomas Newman and Heitor Pereira on Spectre, Finding Dory, Bridge of Spies, and Minions. He also has worked with with the late James Horner on Titanic Live! and John Debney on a live show for Disneyland’s California Adventure.

Please enjoy my conversation with Grant Fonda about The House That Rob Built.

How did you get started as a composer?

I’ve been around music for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a classically trained pianist and always encouraged me to make music, even before I started taking lessons. He and my parents fostered creativity by letting me pursue my passions, and I always gravitated back to music, always dabbling in creating my own tunes. One teacher after another said “Hey, Grant, you’re really good at this. You should think about composing for a career.” In a way, I guess you can say that I finally fell out of pursuing a career as a music educator and fell into composing. 

What was your starting point in composing for The House That Rob Built?

As is often the case in this business, it started with a relationship. I had been the composer for Jonathan Cipiti’s The Dating Project and Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton, both produced by Family Theater Productions under the guidance of producer Megan Harrington. Jon and Megan really wanted to get the “team” back together again for The House That Rob Built, so I got the first call! Naturally, I was delighted. 

This might come out wrong, but when you were writing this music, did you think of this primarily as music about basketball first and the man second, or about the man first and the basketball second? Or was it an equal focus between the two?

Without question, Rob as a person, the team as a unit, and the individuals of the team always came to the narrative forefront over the game of basketball itself. I was always thinking about the intensity of basketball, but directors Jon Cipiti and Megan Harrington were quick to remind me that the story was firstly about the heart of the players rather than the game. That heart, legacy, and connection had to translate to viewers without getting lost. 

For the instruments, what did you decide to include in the orchestral mix? I hear a lot of strings, but I know there’s more than that.

You’re right, a string quartet forms the foundation of the score. The only other truly-orchestral instrument in the palette was a felted piano, but the soundscape also features the Nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle) and the voice of the amazing Hannah Rose Lewis. I suppose that you could also say that there’s an “orchestra” of synths –– I wanted the synthetic part of the sonic universe to feel simultaneously organic and forward-thinking while embracing a bit of a retro vibe at times.

What prompted your decision to go out and mix in the actual sounds of basketballs into the music? That strikes me as the kind of decision that will either work really well or not at all (I thought it worked great).

Thanks! That’s awesome. One of the things that kept coming up in our spotting session was the need to capture the intensity of women’s collegiate basketball, but there wasn’t going to be a lot of sound design to help us because reenactments were usually working in tandem with voice-overs, and the sound quality of archival footage was noisy. I had the idea that it’d be interesting to try and blur the lines between sound design and score by incorporating sounds of the court, but I knew it’d be a tough sell unless it was executed perfectly. It had to feel organic without being campy. Jon and Megan loved the pitch in one cue, so as I wrote, those source sounds started to become the backbone of the percussive side of the score. 

Are there other atypical sounds mixed into the score that we should be keeping an ear open for? 

The Nyckelharpa is a fun treat for the ears in this score! We had so much fun recording this at the session, and there’s part of me that wishes I had used it more often. The way that Malachai Bandy (our Nyckelharpa player) emotes in his performances is stunning and really exaggerates the sense of longing and feeling of nostalgic folk music. 

How long did you have to work on this score? Was it a close collaboration with the directors?

I worked very closely with Jon and Megan while writing, partially because I only had 21 days to write the entire score, and then about a week to record and mix it. I think I spent as much time on the phone as I did writing! Like a great coach, Jon and Megan checked in daily to see how they could help inspire me, give thoughtful feedback, and push me to elevate the story in every cue. Sometimes, solitude is a composer’s saving grace while they’re in creative-mode, but in this case, working against the clock with the team amplified the film’s narrative in a sublime way.

Was the scoring/recording process impacted by the pandemic in any way?

It wasn’t, thankfully (we recorded in fall 2019), but we almost did have to reschedule the recording session because my wife started having pre-labor for our daughter the day before the session! I’ll never forget calling Jon Cipiti and saying, “I know this is not the call that you want to get the day of a recording session, but I think that we might be having a baby instead of recording strings tomorrow.” Thankfully, our gorgeous daughter arrived about two weeks later, and the session went as planned.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack/score?

I love the cue Title IX because of the unusual textures and Hannah’s masterful vocal performances, but my favorite cue in the film has to be Strong, which is featured within the last scenes of the film. This was some of the first footage that I saw, but some of the last notes that I penned. To write it well, I knew that I’d have to draw from other parts of the score and also be emotionally up for the task because the different parts of the narrative come together to pack a wallop. The resulting almost nine-minute-long cue are some of the highest highs and lowest lows that I’ve ever composed, and I still feel a lump in my throat when I watch/hear it, a year and a half later. 

Anything in particular you hope audiences take away with them when they watch the documentary and hear this music?

I hope that people are reminded that inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places and through unexpected circumstances. I hope that they’ll remember that unity can be found and thrive in diversity. And, I hope that viewing and listening audiences will be inspired to invest in the next generation to build things that are greater than their wildest imaginations. 

I’d like to give a big thank you to Grant Fonda for taking the time to talk with me about The House That Rob Built.

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 🙂

Building a Fantasy World Through Music: Talking with Composer Ben MacDougall about Godfall (2020)

Recently I had the chance to talk with composer Ben MacDougall about his work on the video game Godfall, which was released for the PS5 in November 2020. Ben MacDougall is a prolific composer for film, TV and video games, who most recently wrote the original fantasy score for Sony PlayStation 5 launch title, Godfall. His rich and diverse portfolio enjoys airtime on prime-time networks and has been featured on high-profile global TV events such as the Olympics and Academy Awards as well as countless franchises, campaigns and AAA studio projects.

Please enjoy our conversation about the music of Godfall!

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

That depends on how far back you want to go! My first major game project was called Duelyst, which was also a project I worked on with Counterplay Games, but before that I had been writing for linear format projects (advertising, tv, film, trailers etc) for a while.

There isn’t a huge difference, musically speaking, between game music and any other music for media. At the end of the day, it’s your job as the composer to tell a story and help create an even deeper emotional experience for the viewer or player. So I guess you could say it was when I started writing music that told a story.

How did you get connected with Godfall and what did you think of the game’s premise?

It’s hard not to fall in love with a premise as bold and exciting as a brand new, beautiful fantasy land – complete with its own deep lore and history! I already knew the developers from our previous project – which was such a blast to work on that Godfall just flowed onwards from that. Especially from a musical perspective, the opportunity to thematically define a new world is pretty enticing. And did I mention all the colors and light? It’s stunning.

If you’ve played the game or even seen some of the promotional art, then you’ll know what I’m talking about: Aperion looks amazing, and the game was clearly made by really talented artists and programmers who love playing games. Godfall also feels great to play, and a lot of attention has gone into making you as a player feel like you’re actually in the world, rather than just playing a game there.

What was your starting point in putting the music for Godfall together? In other words, how do you decide how an epic game like this sounds? That has to be a daunting task (I’ve seen the launch trailer and the game looks incredible), how do you even decide where to begin?

Well, there’s definitely a poetic answer, and a realistic answer for this one. I am always a fan of coming up with solid themes right at the start, and capturing my initial response to the prompt as authentically as possible. However, when it comes down to it, you write what you’re asked to, when you’re asked to! Luckily, in the case of Godfall, the two went hand-in-hand and the first thing I wrote was the ‘Aperion Theme’, which you can find on the soundtrack as Track 03, called ‘Land of the Valorians’.

From that initial point, for a massive project like Godfall it’s really a question of establishing musical parameters and boundaries. There are different elemental realms in this game, and each of those needed its own sound, so the sensible starting point in planning it out was to define each realm’s sonic identity. I basically created word clouds of adjectives and instruments that I thought would work, based on all the source material I’d seen up to that point. That’s not to say you make a bunch of decisions on day one, and then stick rigidly to them. For me, it’s this framework that allows you to explore outwards ‘with intention’ – as you’re doing it consciously and in the context of a larger plan.

By way of example, the Air Realm ended up being sonically focused around the sounds of a tonal hand-drum, rather than the perhaps more obvious choice of using airy flutes and other wind instruments. There is no way I would have ever thought “Air Realm = Drum” on day one, but within the larger mesh of these loose constraints, the discovery and subsequent decision made sense.

How much time did you have to score Godfall? How did you go about recording with the pandemic going on?

The project has been on the cards for a while – I wrote the first notes for it perhaps two or three years ago at this point. However, late 2019 onwards was ‘go time’.

The pandemic made recording harder for sure – but recording is fairly easy to do ‘socially distant’! For instance, in the sessions I did with soprano, Laurence Servaes, she was in a separate isolated room – along with a rather fancy silent HEPA filter! You can communicate with someone in a recording room really easily, so in that sense not much else changed – aside from the fact that coffee breaks were WAY less fun than usual.

As the score was coming together, did you have any rough game footage to use for inspiration or for the recording process? Or was it more going off storyboards and/or animatics? Or something else entirely? Maybe I’m still conflating the video game process with recording for films, but I keep imagining that at some point a video game composer also has footage to look at in the same way that a film composer does.

A little bit of everything really. Sometimes it was concept art, sometimes play-throughs of different areas of the map. Sometimes its was an entire boss encounter and other times it was just a ton of adjectives or emotional language to describe what was needed!

I’d be tackling different areas of the game that were in different stages of development, so I’d always ask for whatever I could get my hands on and write to that – just by having it on in the background. As game music is a non-linear format, it wasn’t frame-synced or anything (unless it was a cinematic or something that required it), but it was always nice to overlay as much as possible, visually speaking. It makes it really easy to see what does or doesn’t work that way.

Are there over-arching themes in the music? It sounds like the music is connected in more than several places, and I was curious if this was the case.

Yes! There are various themes and motifs that pop up throughout. These include the aforementioned ‘Aperion Theme’, the main ‘Godfall Theme’ and other similarly weighty material – like the different themes for each realm. There are also shorter motifs and sub-themes that pop up a lot – either in their complete forms or in fragments here and there – all in the service of grounding the score to the world and helping to tie everything together.

“The better a score is, the less you hear it” is something that you get told a lot in college. The idea, basically, is that the music exists in the project to assist in telling the story, not to take center stage. The weaving of themes is a useful way to subconsciously guide the audience to a certain conclusion, or give them a sense of where they are, or who someone is, without actually saying it.

There are other little, more subtle touches that I wanted to include too. I clearly don’t want to go revealing everything that’s tucked away in the score, but if you listen to the main ‘Godfall Theme’, (which is effectively Orin’s Theme), you’ll hear that it is very closely related to the theme for his brother, Macros. One is heroic, and one is much darker…. but they share the same DNA. I thought that was a cool thing to do, without being too obvious about it.

Do you have a favorite piece in the soundtrack? Is there one in particular that you hope gamers notice while they’re playing?

Honestly, there is one little (and rather quiet) easter egg tucked away in there that I’m hoping someone finds one day. But that tidbit aside, there is such variety in the score as a whole that there are going to be different moments that resonate differently with different people – especially as everyone has a subtly different experience with the music due to the interactive nature of gaming.

I’ve had messages about bits of brooding Water Realm music, right through to the music in the end-credits, which is a unique take on the main theme. For me though, I’ve always been thrilled with how the track called ‘Song of Aperion’ (Track 28) turned out. The combination of cello and voice – and the purity of the sound still gives me goosebumps.

I want to say thank you again to Ben MacDougall for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Godfall.

Let me know what you think about Godfall and its soundtrack in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Soundtrack Review: Godfall (2020)

Composer Interviews

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