SDCC 2014: The Musical Anatomy of a Superhero Press Room

Michael Moccio ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Editor

Emertainment Monthly got the chance to sit down with some of the best composers of today at SDCC. Joined by big talent like Tyler Bates, Chrisophe Beck, John Ottman, Blake Neely, and Brian Tyler, the members of the press were given the time to ask questions.

Blake Neely has written a wide variety of music, from writing for the Queen of England herself, to the opening of the Winter Olympics, to CW’s The Flash and Arrow, this composer is undoubtedly talented. He was up first in the SDCC press round table.

Blake Neely
Blake Neely

Emertainment Monthly: What’s the biggest difference you feel in composing for The Flash versus Arrow?

Blake Neely: At this point, the hardest thing is I don’t know the Flash like I know Arrow. They’ll introduce new plotlines and characters, but I know who [Arrow] is and I know the feel of the show, because we’ve figured it out slowly for two year. For Flash, it’s going to be changing. I just introduced the sound of it in the pilot, but it’s going to shift and change as I get to know them. Musically, it’s no different because one’s not harder than the other. The Flash is a bit more hopeful where Arrow is a bit more darker. Forgetting whether it’s supernatural or not, Arrow is about loss and identity, but we’re also going to go to some dark places in the Flash. In my opinion, Arrow is closer to Batman, whereas the Flash is closer to Spider-Man. But neither is more difficult than the other.

What kind of challenges do you see in coming up with a soundtrack every week?

I think the biggest challenge I’m actually kind of scared about is am I going to run out of ideas? I think every time I start a show, you just kind of follow the story and get support from the writers who are also feeling the same fear. I fear writers block, because there’s so many shows and so many cues I need to write. And then the other challenge is keeping the audience happy, which the pressure is more on the cast and the writers. But I can disappoint them too. And then the other thing is keeping the worlds apart. So, if I’m writing Arrow on a Tuesday, I need to remember what the harmonic language is and not accidentally write musical cues for Flash.

Do you find it harder to write darker material?

It’s sometimes easier to write darker material when you’re in a happy mood, at least for me, because you can kind of force yourself into a different place. It’s hard to write happy music when you’re in a dark mood, because there’s nothing you can do to get yourself out of that mood. Arrow’s definitely orchestral, but there’s going to be live music, so there are certain things I don’t have to figure out at the computer and can wait until I’m in front of the musicians.

There’s a tendency, I’ve noticed in the past, for the music to reflect a faster tempo if the hero themselves go fast. Do you have to resist that temptation?

The main thing is what’s happening in the scene. If you’ve got all this sound, you kind of listen to the scene. If everything is moving fast, sometimes it’s nice for the music to coast over and be slow, instead of more drawn out. Sometimes you need to add pace to the scene, and music can help move that along. But, in terms of the character, I haven’t been thinking in terms of “fast music,” it’s more about that there’s all this stuff going on inside of him. How do I get that feeling across musically? He’s actually really terrified of his power!

Brian Tyler
Brian Tyler

Brian Tyler has composed and conducted over 60 films. You’ll find many of his scores in the Marvel film franchise, including Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. He’s also written the music for the recently released summer blockbuster Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was up second in the SDCC press round table.

Your music has become really synonymous with Marvel. What does it feel like to basically helm that and creating the “Marvel” music to set the tempo?

Brian Tyler: It’s crazy! I think it all came together with the Marvel Studios fanfare theme that I wrote for the beginning of all the movies. The idea is to unify. There’s this kind of approach to scoring that I like to throwback to old school and they do too. They like what I do and I like what they do and we’re a good family.

Is there anything you can tell about the sound for Age of Ultron?

For Age of Ultron, it’s epic. It’s putting our Avengers into danger they haven’t seen before. I think we haven’t seen the aspect of peril on this level yet. Obviously they were in peril during the last movie, but the feel is more global.

EM: What about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

That, to me, is establishing. This is the first movie, so it has to really establish the theme. For that, it was definitely old school. The template was, to me, a lot like Empire [Strikes Back]. It has that kind of feel and that heroic feel, but also that element of humor. The characters also have to have this nemesis that’s almost indestructible—which is Shredder—and the music has to sound unphased by that. So, hopefully that comes through.

We know that Alan Silvestri did the original score for the Avengers—did you want to expand on his sound or do something different?

I’m always all for continuity. The first time I stepped into this kind of situation was when I stepping in for Jerry Goldsmith on Rambo. I, of course, incorporated two of his themes. To me, it make sense for Final Destination as well. On this, I certainly wanted to build on it and I think all of themes, we’re going to see how they all work together. We just wanted to do something that works for this specific film, but at the same time, I think having that backdrop works with the last movie, but also on its own.

John Ottman
John Ottman

John Ottman has done many films with director Bryan Singer, including X-Men: X2 and Superman Returns. He returns to the superhero genre with the critically acclaimed X-Men: Days of Future Past. He was up third in the SDCC press round table.

You have a classic director/composer relationship with Bryan Singer—at this point, you two must anticipate each other, right?

John Ottman: When you work together for so long, there’s a short hand. We can say “Remember that time when that thing happened…” and that’s all you have to say. You can just shift your eye and they’ll know what you’re talking about. That, and the trust factor. He can trust that I won’t write something that makes no sense. He can relax and enjoy his life. That’s the way it works.

What’s it like having someone else playing with your music during editing?

You know, I try to just keep on the composer’s cap and not be a backseat driver to the editor. I’ve been an editor and I know the pressure and I wouldn’t want anyone telling me. Having said that, I’m surprised how many film editors are egoless and ask for advice. So, usually I’ll keep quiet, but if something’s really driving me crazy, I’ll say something. I’ll use a musical excuse to change something I think isn’t really working right, but I learned early on to not rub the editor the wrong way. I have a huge respect for the film editor.

How do you think your work as an editor and director play into your music?

The best film scores are telling a story, especially those of yesteryear and a few of this era, where you can take the soundtrack by itself and hear a story being told—that’s a remarkable score. An editor and director are also trying to tell a story. All I care about when writing the score is giving up my musical ego to make the film work. Because I’m a filmmaker, that’s my number one goal. If it sounds boring on the CD, well the object for me was to make the film work.

EM: So, you’ve worked on Superman, on X-Men, on all these iconic franchises—how does that feel?

Well, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye, I guess! I mean, because of the time I spent on these things, where it’s total life destruction, it’s nice to see they’re hits, because it makes it feel worth it. It’s great to come out of it feeling like it was a success, like the work paid off.

What’s next for you?

A date, maybe? Actually, I have an OKCupid date tonight, so I’m trying my best to get as much in before my next job gets me busy.

Tyler Bates
Tyler Bates

Tyler Bates has composed for iconic films like Dawn of the Dead and 300. His score for 300 sold nearly 400,000 albums, making it one of the most popular score albums of the 21st century. He partners with director James Gunn for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

EM: What can you tell us about the Guardians of the Galaxy?

Tyler Bates: Well, initially, before James even got the film, he called me. I was doing the music for God of War, the video game, and he’s like, “Dude, I think I got Guardians of the Galaxy.” I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was big because he was calling me in England. I thought it was great, because we’d have an opportunity to collaborate on another level, where we develop music in advance and he films to it. He gave me the script and showed me some animated storyboarding to give me a sense of how it’d be filmed. I had about six primary sequences for him to film to and that was great going in to post production, knowing that we had already established some language musically. It’s really about emotion—human emotion—but we also wanted to embrace the movies we had loved as kids and express those melodies unabashedly.

So is this a full-on space opera score?

I’m most commonly known for doing hybrid-type scores, but this is the most purely orchestral one I’ve done so far. Part of it was because there wasn’t a ton of time to do programming, but I knew that going in.

Did you find it difficult to make the music before seeing the filming?

You know, it was great. So, James wanted me to come out to the set and I was out there in October. I met Chris Pratt immediately and he was like “It’s so awesome to have your music pumping through the PA.” James would play the music during the filming. James is really kooky and we’ve been friends for a long time, so he told me, “Why don’t you be a Ravager?” And then he immediately called someone from make-up and in forty five minutes I’m in his shot. We’re at the scene where song “Cherry Bomb” plays in the film and when they cranked it up, I got it. It really contextualized everything.

Since Guardians of the Galaxy is essentially an ensemble movie, can we look forward to individual melodies composed to the characters?

There’s definitely a Ronan theme, which is the dark part of the film. There’s a Guardians theme, which really touches on all of the characters and acts as an umbrella. There’s a theme for Peter Quill and his mother as well, how his relationship with her affected his life. When you see the movie, you’ll see how it all clicks. It’s challenging, but they all are.

Christophe Beck
Christophe Beck

Christophe Beck is an award winning film and television composer, doing music for iconic shows and movies such as Frozen, The Hangover Trilogy, Pitch Perfect, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His most recent scoring credit is Edge of Tomorrow.

What’s the difference between working for live-action and cartoon films?

Christophe Beck: Well, we don’t like to say “cartoon”, we like to say “animated.” To me, it was a bit of a revelation, since I think there’s a real culture difference between animated and live-action films. My only experience so far has been working with Disney. I’m beginning work now on a couple more animated features that will be coming out in the next year or so. I have experience with non-Disney companies, as well. I think its much more composer friendly to be working in animated films. That passion for filmmaking and storytelling just trickles down when you’re working on an animated film. There a lot of “us versus them” feeling in live-action. I’ve spent countless hours listening to directors about how the studio wanted this that or whatever—it’s just a fight.

What about between working on movies and television shows?

There are certainly difference in workflow and schedule, but it’s essentially the same: storytelling through music. In films, the pieces of music tend to be longer and that can tend to be more satisfying as a composer. In television, it can be as short as twenty seconds, which isn’t enough time to really do anything. But I’m asking myself the same questions: what’s important in this scene, what’s important in the context of the greater story? If you can tell stories through music, you can do any of them.

EM: Going straight to Buffy, all these years later, still very popular, so how does that feel to have something so wildly popular?

I’ll tell you one thing: I remember when I was first offered the job to do Buffy. I came in on the second season and I had watched the show a few times. I said to my girlfriend at the time, “Wouldn’t it be so cool to score that show?” And then like, a few months later, I got a call—a friend of a friend recommendation—and I had done a few TV series, but no one was really watching those shows. I remember right after I got the job offer, I was very excited to start. It was TV Guide magazine at 711 and Buffy was on the cover for the start of the second season and I was like “Woah! I can tell people I’m working on something and they’ll know what it is!” It was definitely a key moment for me.

Animation music seems more unabashedly emotional—do you have thoughts on that?

Isn’t it great? I think it’s true, and I was talking with someone over at Disney about it. In an animated film, you have to create everything from scratch. You stick a microphone in a room and get an actor’s lines, you don’t get the sounds or the ambiance—you have to create all that. And that leaves a lot of breathing room for music. They need a bit more help than a live, super-talented, great actor. I think that’s why we find music richer in animated films. There are a few moments in Frozen where I was like “Woah,” very little can go a long way.

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