SDCC 2015: From Notes On A Page To An Iconic Theme: Movie Composers Talk Superhero Scores

Credits: Wikipedia/Zimbio/Film Music Reporter

Things you will never disassociate with your favourite films: the iconic two note theme that will leave you terrified of open water from Jaws, the grandiose start to the Star Wars films, the Jurassic Park theme song you still get all the nostalgia feels over when you are sitting in the theatre over 20 years later watching Jurassic World, the tears in your eyes when you hear “Leaving Hogwarts” again at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

Can you picture any one of these things as clearly as me? Well, it might not be one of these in particular for everyone, but just think back to some of your most memorable moments on the big screen; what is something they will probably all have in common: music riding the emotional wave of the scene.

Music in films is one of the most important aspects in the whole filmmaking process. Have you ever watched a film with no music in the background? It feels incomplete, naked, like it needs something more.

At the Musical Anatomy of a Superhero roundtables at San Diego Comic-Con, Marco Beltrami, the composer (along with Philip Glass) of the new Fantastic Four reboot, said that the role of music in film is “supplying the emotional component that might not be visually there so you’re completing the emotional picture.”

“You have to be inspired by something on the screen, you know. If it’s the interaction between characters or it’s the journey of somebody doing something large, it’s the intent,” Beltrami said. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s not even done yet [when creating a score] so you have to sort of see what the intent is, what the scene is supposed to be doing and then just playing the music that fills in that emotion there.”

Which is why, according to Brian Tyler – the composer of Avengers: Age of Ulton, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Furious 7 – you don’t always need the music; for example, if there is an explosion you really won’t be hearing the music so it’s okay to just go out.

“It’s anything so you can get as much music across as possible sonically so you can affect the viewer emotionally otherwise why is music there at all… make musical commentary on what just happened. It’s a bit of a dance, a bit of a tango,” Tyler said.

Mad Max and 300: Rise of an Empire composer Junkie XL likes to play with different tones in his films where he can move his music from one extreme to the next. “For Mad Max I wanted [aggressive music] for certain moments but other moments very small, very timid and it worked out and I think that’s what really, that’s what I really like about working on these movies.”

Will Junkie XL be working on the Mad Max sequel? Unlucky for us there isn’t any official word on if that is actually happening (there was definitely a groan at the table as we had spent the first little bit of the interview geeking out over the film and its soundtrack).

“Listen, George [Miller] and I are talking. Officially he has never said to me that there is going to be a sequel, but I mean, I don’t know. I’m sure George is cooking something up,” Junkie XL said. “I usually find out stuff last.”

Junkie XL is currently working on the score for Batman vs Superman with none other than Hans Zimmer, but he kept pretty mum on that topic only giving us the tidbit that he and Zimmer are having a lot of fun creating that score.

So is there a difference when it comes to making a soundtrack for a superhero movie versus any other genre?

“It’s fun to do a superhero movie because they’re really thematically based and some other movies might be more textually based,” Beltrami, who also composed the scores for many horror films like the iconic Scream soundtrack and Woman in Black, said. “Some of the horror movies are more textually based but I always think sort of thematically and melodically anyway so it’s nice to have a genre where it’s sort of celebrated.”

“There are actually a lot of similarities because in both there’s a lot of playing with the action and they’re both sort of rides. A horror movie is a bit of an audience ride and so is a superhero movie and they have to work on that visceral level,” Beltrami explained about the similarities of the two genres.

“Having said that I think the Marvel Universe, at least the [films] that I’ve done, it’s a little bit different in that it… I think you’re working more with a conventional harmonic and melodic language where in the horror movies there’s almost a license to explore extended techniques and timbres that are sort of creepy and unsettling and things that are maybe more experimental in that way.”

And Beltrami is definitely experimental in his music, and when asked how he decides when and how to use experimental sounds, it’s generally done on a “trial and error” basis.

So what else inspires some of these composers, well other than the legends of the trade, you might be interested to know that Tyler draws from all different types of music, including hip hop.

“I work with a bunch [of hip hop artists]. It’s amazing some of the stuff where people go ‘what’s that orchestral thing you do with that timpani and the backbeat on the chimes’ and it’s like well that kind of comes from you know, hip hop, it just translates to orchestra and I think having those different perspectives and keeping up with that truly can open your mind to different kinds of ways of using even just orchestral music.”

Tyler has had a unique experience with some of his films in that he has been given sequels to compose for where he hasn’t worked on the first film, which is different because when you have worked on two consecutive films you can, “use what’s there but expand it and if you happen to come into a series like midstream like I did with Iron Man I didn’t know what to do.”

“I wasn’t sure but Marvel wanted a total reset for phase two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so it was like ‘okay we need a theme that’s kind of a cross between Star Wars and James Bond and then with Thor: The Dark World in the first movie he’s like a fish out of water on earth but then in the second one he’s like fully a god so we had to hit him with a new theme that was like a deity; he’s come into his own. So it depends on where the storyline is in the series,” Tyler explained.

But sometimes composing for a certain character can be tricky. Tyler joked that finding the balance for Ultron’s character was “impossible”; you want hate him and yet love him at the same time.

“It was like doing music that had that sense of uneasiness but there was a bit of humour to him it felt like playing on the whole puppeteer idea that he’s a carnival-y kind of a [character], a little off kilter,” Tyler said. “His theme can’t be totally evil otherwise you wouldn’t have bought or you wouldn’t have liked him in the way you would have thought he was almost offensive in the way he was being humorous in these scenes, but the music hopefully gives you that license to be ok I can laugh at this too.”

Don’t worry, we definitely got that vibe off of Ultron.

Junkie XL also had to create a theme song for a complex character when it came to Tris in Divergent. He said it would have been different had he been composing for the second movie when Tris is already a bonafide “tough mother fucker,” but in the first film Tris is still finding herself and figuring out life.

“[Tris] starts as this really insecure girl not knowing if she belongs somewhere and then she grows through that film to be a warrior so I had the idea to write the theme that was actually very intimate and very nostalgic because she’s constantly torn between living with her family and brother and she constantly says things like ‘I don’t belong here’ and ‘I need to go somewhere else’,” Junkie XL said.

Music in films holds so much power without people even realising it half the time; it has the ability to make a scene go from good to great to iconic with the simple switch of a tempo and the addition of a new instrument.

Next time you are watching your favourite superhero movie (or any movie really), pay extra attention to the music in the background and get lost in it – let it absorb you – and then imagine how different the experience would be without it.

Melissa LoParco
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