Hit­ting All the Uni­ver­sal Notes

Catch­ing up with the com­posers be­hind some of this year’s best an­i­mated movie scores. by Michael Mal­lory

Animation Magazine - - Oscar Focus -

With the check­ered flag about to be waved on the 2019 Academy Award race, the list of like­lies for the Best An­i­mated Fea­ture cat­e­gory not only con­tains sev­eral of the usual sus­pects, but has some fa­mil­iar sounds as well, cour­tesy of their mu­si­cal scores. While the nom­i­nees have yet to be an­nounced, cer­tain films have risen above the pack as top con­tenders, both ar­tis­ti­cally and mu­si­cally.

Not sur­pris­ingly, two big se­quels top the sure-bet list: Dis­ney/pixar’s In­cred­i­bles 2 and Walt Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion’s Ralph Breaks the In­ter­net. Both of their pre­de­ces­sors, 2004’s The In­cred­i­bles and 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph, took home the Os­car for Best An­i­mated Fea­ture. Com­poser Michael Gi­acchino, whose jazz-in­fused score for the first In­cred­i­bles was felt by some to have been snubbed in that year’s Best Orig­i­nal Score race, has re­turned for the se­quel. This time around, though, Gi­acchino made a point of not re­vis­it­ing the past in terms of the mu­sic. “I wanted to take a fresh ap­proach,” he says. “Brad [Bird] and I knew we were go­ing to use the main theme of course, but I still wanted it to have a dif­fer­ent vibe while it stayed in the same vein and char­ac­ter.”

Gi­acchino also had the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate more spe­cific char­ac­ter themes. “I was most ex­cited that I got to write a theme for Elasti­girl be­cause she plays a much larger role in the movie this time,” he says. “For the first film, He­len’s mu­sic came un­der the um­brella of the fam­ily’s theme. The other re­ally fun part was writ­ing the TV theme song jin­gles for each of the char­ac­ters that will show up in the end cred­its.”

Henry Jack­man, who scored Wreck-it Ralph, like­wise re­turned for Ralph Breaks the In­ter­net. While it might seem eas­ier to score a fol­low-up film, since the char­ac­ter mo­tifs al­ready

— Com­poser Masakatsu Tak­agi, Mi­rai

ex­ist and can be reused, Jack­man points out that the op­po­site is true. “There’s about three­and-a-half min­utes of mu­sic that is spe­cific to the first movie,” he says, “but other than that, it’s back to the draw­ing board to come up with a whole new set of ideas and sound.”

Jack­man ex­panded on the meld­ing of tra­di­tional or­ches­tral and elec­tronic mu­sic used to un­der­score the dig­i­tal char­ac­ters in Wreck-

It Ralph. “The dif­fer­ence is, in the first movie they’re in the nos­tal­gic, 8-bit world of stick­ing a coin in an ar­cade game,” he says. “In Ralph Breaks the In­ter­net, as soon as they get to the In­ter­net it is so much 2018 with a lot of the sounds from more mod­ern synths and plug-ins. I wanted to use a kind of har­mony that doesn’t reg­u­larly show up in elec­tronic mu­sic, a kind of chord that pro­duces the feel­ing of won­der you might get if you’re fly­ing over Hog­warts, ex­cept that it’s be­ing used with elec­tron­ics.”

A spe­cific ex­am­ple of such sonic meld­ing is a scene in which John Wil­liams’ “Im­pe­rial March” theme from the Star Wars films dis­solves into a Dis­ney Princess theme. While per­mis­sion to quote Wil­liams’ ac­tual theme was not au­to­mat­i­cally cov­ered un­der Dis­ney’s own­er­ship of Lu­cas­film, the li­cens­ing ef­fort was made to make the “in-joke” work. “Thank­fully, be­cause it’s such a huge film, it wasn’t such a prob­lem,” Jack­man says.

Part of His World

Out of all the lead­ing con­tenders, none fea­tures a more fa­mil­iar char­ac­ter than Sony Pic­tures An­i­ma­tion’s Spi­der-man: Into the Spi­der-verse. Not only has its bold graphic look cap­ti­vated au­di­ences, it also in­formed the mu­si­cal score writ­ten by Daniel Pem­ber­ton. “Com­ing up with a new, orig­i­nal take on Spi­der-man is not an easy thing to do,” he ad­mits, “but I was very in­spired by the look and feel of the film and wanted to try and get that across in the score. I wanted it to com­pletely feel a part of [lead char­ac­ter] Miles Mo­rales’ world.”

Pem­ber­ton says that three el­e­ments com­bined to cre­ate the hip-hop fla­vored score: a stan­dard eighty-piece or­ches­tra, elec­tron­ics and a scratch turntable. “For a lot of this score we did some­thing very com­pli­cated and am­bi­tious,” he says. “We recorded a mix of el­e­ments — any­thing from synth to full or­ches­tra — and then did the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of out­putting them onto vinyl, and re-scratch­ing them into the mix. Then we would edit and remix the track again un­til we had some­thing I was happy with.” To cre­ate a driv­ing per­cus­sive beat, Pem­ber­ton even scratched the sound of an aerosol can be­ing sprayed.

Mag­i­cal Sounds of Ja­pan

For the lead­ing indie con­tender, Fox Search­light Pic­tures’ Isle of Dogs, the mu­si­cal goal was to an­chor the sound of the film in the mu­sic of Ja­pan, where it is set (a dystopian ver­sion of Ja­pan, any­way). “Wes An­der­son con­tacted me a cou­ple years ago and said he had this fan­tasy of do­ing a Ja­panese story where we would use some Ja­panese in­stru­ments,” says Academy Award win­ner Alexan­dre De­s­plat, whose score for An­der­son’s first stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion ven­ture, Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox (2010), was Os­car nom­i­nated. “We tried to cre­ate a magic im­agery of Ja­pan that we fan­ta­size sound-wise.” At the heart of the score were taiko drums. “There’s an en­ergy, a strength to taikos,” he says, “and it’s a real ad­ven­ture for the lit­tle boy [the film’s pro­tag­o­nist Atari], so the mu­sic had to be much stronger than Mr. Fox.” De­s­plat has al­ready been nom­i­nated for a 2019 Golden Globe for his Isle of Dogs score.

De­s­plat adds that he strives to em­ploy mu- si­cians play­ing real in­stru­ments, as op­posed to dig­i­tal or syn­the­sized mu­sic, at all times. “Even though there are some­times elec­tronic el­e­ments they are used as in­stru­ments for sounds that no real in­stru­ment can pro­duce, I never use fake in­stru­ments,” he says. “I like to con­duct be­cause I like to be with the play­ers, to be a mu­si­cian in front of them and spend time with them.”

Iron­i­cally, for this year’s anime con­tender — Stu­dio Chizu and GKIDS’ Mi­rai, set in the re­al­ity of Ja­pan (al­beit with a fan­ci­ful story) — com­poser Masakatsu Tak­agi ini­tially turned to Latin Amer­i­can mu­sic for in­spi­ra­tion! “In the be­gin­ning I pre­pared very dif­fer­ent mu­sic, a more Brazil­ian feel­ing,” Tak­agi says, “but [di­rec­tor Mamoru Hosoda] pre­ferred the mu­si­cal style of Wolf Chil­dren [2012]. Orig­i­nally, I ap­proached the project with a botan­i­cal at­mos­phere, with birds singing and an­i­mals howl­ing, but Ho- soda-san moved in a new di­rec­tion that was more fam­ily ori­ented. He wanted to show his own four-year-old son’s imag­i­na­tion and his own fam­ily’s daily life with some re­al­ism, so he asked me not to make the mu­sic too elab­o­rate.”

Ul­ti­mately, Tak­agi keyed mu­sic not sim­ply to the on-screen ac­tion and pre­sen­ta­tion of the char­ac­ters, but also the hid­den metaphor of a se­quence. “For the scene in which a ju­nior high school girl shows up in a botan­i­cal gar­den, I thought it was ex­press­ing the bound­less and ripen­ing fu­ture hid­den in­side her, a pre­mo­ni­tion of grow­ing up, so the score shows that kind of feel­ing — like be­ing im­mersed in na­ture,” he says, adding that the em­ploy­ment of Re­nais­sance in­stru­ments such as the lute and harp­si­chord pro­vided some scenes with “a more no­ble feel­ing.”

Songs for Sasquatch

Warner An­i­ma­tion Group and Sony Pic­tures Image­works’ Small­foot is one of this year’s few Amer­i­can an­i­mated films not to have a presold fran­chise pedi­gree, mak­ing it some­thing of a dark horse. That said, its small feet left big foot­prints at the box of­fice, which never hurts dur­ing award sea­son (just ask Dream­works, which pulled off a sur­prise nom­i­na­tion last year for The Boss Baby). Com­poser Heitor Pereira says that in cre­at­ing the score he “pushed the thresh­old of har­mony [by us­ing] some odd har­monies and dis­so­nances.” He cred­its di­rec­tor Karey Kirk­patrick, who also wrote songs for the film with his brother Wayne, for al­low­ing him to ex­per­i­ment. “Only later on, when I heard the whole score, I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I can’t believe they al­lowed me to do that!’” Pereira says.

Given the film’s Hi­malayan set­ting, Pereira in­cluded such Chi­nese in­stru­ments as the erhu and also used choral pas­sages. Even more strik­ing were mo­ments when the mu­sic sim­ply stops to let the el­e­ments take over. “The wind and those Hi­malayan moun­tains were part of the sonic land­scape, and at times I would say, ‘Hey, let’s not for­get about the ge­og­ra­phy.’ In many places we de­cided the el­e­ments would be the or­ches­tra.” Work­ing around the film’s dra­matic sound ef­fects, on the other hand, proved more of a task. “The chal­lenge is to make the mu­sic be heard within the sound ef­fects,” Pereira notes. “I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a duel be­tween the mu­sic and the ef­fects, and be sure that the mu­sic didn’t get in the way of the di­a­logue.”

In­ter­est­ingly, glob­al­ism seems to have taken over an­i­ma­tion scor­ing this year. Pereira is Brazil­ian, De­s­plat is French, Jack­man and Pem­ber­ton are Bri­tish, and Tak­agi is Ja­panese. Only Gi­acchino was born in the U.S.A. Maybe that, more than any­thing, proves that, like an­i­ma­tion, mu­sic is a uni­ver­sal lan­guage. ◆

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