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We are living in a golden age of comic book stories, with TV shows and movies flooding the market. While there are countless interviews with the leads and directors, the San Diego Comic Con panel “Musical Anatomy of a Superhero” gave the rarer opportunity to pick the mind of some of the genre’s unsung heroes: the composer. Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman v. Superman), Brian Tyler (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ironman 3, Thor: The Dark World), Marco Beltrami (Fantastic Four, Wolverine), Cristophe Beck (Ant-Man, Frozen, Edge of Tomorrow), and Blake Neely (Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow) discussed their process and a little more of what it takes to score for such iconic characters.
When Blake Neely started working on Arrow he said:
I read a script and while they were shooting I just wrote. Wrote and wrote and wrote. For about two weeks. And I wrote this 11 minute suite that was called the ‘Arrow Suite’ and in it was my idea for the sound for the show and the themes I was going to use.
For The Flash, since Barry was introduced in an episode of Arrow, Neely had the advantage of seeing Grant Gustin’s performance to create a theme. After that initial theme, the process for The Flash mirrored Arrow. “I put myself in a room for two weeks, put up pictures of the Flash and just wrote what I thought would be a superhero theme for him.” This process doesn’t always mean smooth sailing:
So the first writing is very much away from the film and then when the film comes in, there’s always a moment of ‘is going to work?’ because you run the film and you put what you wrote up, and I’ve had it where it just doesn’t work, it’s like egh. In fact, that happened on Supergirl. I wrote a big long suite for Supergirl, I got the show, I tried it in a few places and it just doesn’t work. So I started over.
Speaking of Supergirl, Neely said:
I wanted it to be heroic and themeic but I also wanted it to be fun because Arrow is a very dark show. The Flash runs the middle of being dark and light and I think that Supergirl is going to be a pretty light show…She has some fun. But I want, you know her to be powerful…
And for anyone worried Supergirl’s score won’t be treated with the same as Arrow or The Flash because she’s a woman, Neely seemed surprised this was an issue being raised, and was quick to assert, “I don’t approach music with gender at all…It’s modern times, people.”
For Christophe Beck:
Ultimately it’s all storytelling. And the fundamental problems the composer has to solve, or maybe a better way of putting that, the fundamental questions the composer has to answer are the same, you know. Whose point of view is the music taking in this piece of music, this character or that character. And is it literal? If I’m taking a character’s point of view, am I taking that literally, or am I going to play counterpoint to that in some way to create another layer of emotion that maybe can add something that’s not already on the screen and applies to any genre or any style of music. The rest is just mechanics.
Beck had to ask himself other questions when tackling the score for Ant-Man such as, “Okay, what music would be appropriate for a superhero who can shrink to the size of an ant?”. He tossed around a few hypothetical ideas, like speeding up the voices “chipmunk style” or even making miniature instruments and using them to record. Ultimately he decided:
I mean the poster says it all. It says ‘heroes never get bigger’; they’re totally playing on the contrast between the bigness of the story and the smallness of the character. So I couldn’t have any music, really that sounded small because it would diminish the power of that heroism, which is like a big emotion, that’s not a small emotion. And music is more about emotions than about physical size.
Writing the score for one super-hero sounds complicated enough. Marco Beltrami had four to juggle in Fantastic Four:
The most important thing in the movie was having cohesion because they’re four distinct characters, actually five, and making it, you have to be sucked into the story…it was a question of introducing different elements to the characters that would, when they come together, it becomes one theme. It’s not four themes.
He went on to say “…they’re kids, there’s the spirit of innocence, scientific curiosity, that develops.” That’s something Beltrami hopes people will come away with when they hear the entire score. He wants them to, “…get a sense of the film, the wonderment…hopefully without even seeing the movie [people] will feel that.”
While Beltrami was able to expand on an original vision for the score, Brian Tyler had to keep in mind his predecessor, Alan Silvestri’s work when he took on The Avengers: Age of Ultron. But it wasn’t a problem for Tyler:
My thing is I always want to bring in themes that were before me and to me, to not have the Silvestri theme would have been a crime. It unifies, it throws in some nostalgia in there it makes you feel like you picked up where it left off. If you take that away, you’re kind of taking away the DNA of the movie, so I had to do a lot of new music, I had to do a lot of new themes, there were a lot of new Avengers….so that all had to be there. But it was cool to hark it back.
Not surprisingly, once these composers decide on how they want to approach a score, their processes are wildly different.
For Neely, balancing two (soon to be four) superhero shows isn’t always easy. “I’ve had days where I spent all day writing on The Flash and realized I was using the Arrow theme.” Bringing unique sounds to the shows are not just a solo effort on Neely’s part. He works closely with the sound effects editor:
We’ll talk about registered frequencies he’s using so we’re not doubling up because everything has a tone to it…so if I know what he’s going to do, sometimes he’ll send it to me early. Or if he has a lot of gunshots going off maybe I won’t do percussion because it sounds like extra gunshots, so there’s a lot of discussion about that. But ultimately, when I deliver the music, I separate a lot of elements out, so if anything interferes with something that sound effects are doing, they can get rid of it, or vice versa.
Not only are sound effects a useful tool when creating a shows’ overall sound, but the use of licensed music (ie. popular music) is also helpful for Neely:
I think an audience can get what I would call score fatigue. Because these shows have a lot of music, and you know I’m scoring and scoring and scoring, and then if you can break it up with a song that really works well, then the audience has moments like, ‘okay, I’m not being manipulated’…And then I can come back and manipulate them with the score. It’s a nice breather and not just because I don’t have to write that music, but it’s literally like I can then be more effective because they let me stop for a minute.
Junkie XL also likes incorporating licensed music in his work. “I’m a big fan of that because I come from that world.” It was also a huge part of the soundtrack for Divergent:
What I did with the score was to bridge all the licensed music tracks together but in an original way. When you watch the movie, it didn’t feel like ‘oh there’s a licensed track, oh now we go back to full orchestra, oh okay, there’s a licensed track, now we’re back to orchestra.’ It needed to feel like a seamless experience.
Despite his fondness for licensed music, Junkie XL will go through extreme lengths to create original sounds:
I built this piano for, I actually built it for 300 Rise of An Empire, but I’m using it on every film. So we bought a piano for $25…so we took the piano back, with 2 axes, we just demolished the whole thing. The only thing that was left was the inside harp, that’s how you call it where the strings are. The outer enclosure was completely gone. Then we put it into a new enclosure and we put 3 amps in it and then put guitar and bass pickups.
He then records the guitar and bass pickups and incorporates them into his scores. His innovation was probably what caused George Miller to reach out to him to score Mad Max: Fury Road, which Junkie XL describes as a “really intense process.”:
I was in Sydney eleven, twelve times. The last time I was there for close to fourteen weeks. I moved out with my whole family, with my studio, with my assistants, the music editor, like everybody was there. And I sat with him [Miller] every day from morning to night to tweak the music…Even when I was not there, we had two Skype conferences a week that could last five or six hours per conference…
And while each of these composers’ creative process differs, one thing that unites them all is their passion for music and using that in storytelling. For Beltrami, “The thing that got me into it was Westerns, but there’s not that many made, so I think everything I score is a Western, to make up for it.” But, “I do like superhero movies, I do see a lot of them with my kids.”
Before he was hired to score Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tyler was a fan of the first Avengers:
I remember watching the first one and thinking ‘wow, this is crazy’…to see them [the Avengers] in the same frame fighting it out in the forest, like ‘this is amazing!’ So to me, I think it’s an extra layer of cool factor of just having fun with it. And we do that with the music too. The fact that I ended up scoring Avengers is pretty crazy, and being able to use all those different themes and being able to work with them- I had a ball with it.
And although Tyler has done six Marvel projects in two years, “I would love to keep working with Marvel. So whenever they want me, I’m cool. I’m down.”