Hilton Bayfront’s Indigo Ballroom united some of the biggest names in film and television scoring, this past Thursday at SDCC. Titans of the industry, John Ottman, Blake Neely, John Powell, Tyler Bates, and Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) gathered to discuss setting some of the biggest images in pop culture to music. Ray Costa moderated the panel.
Early on, Neely discussed the process of working on the scores for every DC television property (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow), all of which are finally able to cross over on the same network. “You get to take two themes and mash them up[…] It sounds like a lot more work than it actually is.”
Each composer then talked about what themes they usually tried to tackle early on. Powell said that the idea of flight was the most important thing he had to pin down for How to Train Your Dragon. “I know there was a lot of flying, so I knew I better crack the flying.” As an opposite of that, John Powell said it was the action of falling that was the immediate key to cracking that world. A stately comedian, Powell drew the biggest laughs in the room. When asked if he’d tackled falling or flying, Holkenborg referenced a scene from Deadpool, “This is bullet in the ass!”
“Doug Liman, all he really wanted to do was make an indie Bond. And all he wanted from the music was to be everything that Bond wasn’t. Everything that every other action film wasn’t, it was all created from negative space, it was all reactionary. What we would normally do on an action film, we did the opposite; you make it sound big, for Bourne I made [the music] sound small”, elaborated Powell.
Neely, then talked about the compressed production timeline of working in television. For this purpose, a base template of orchestral instruments is essential. “Once you establish the sound of a show, you want to stick with the sound of the show, especially now that I’m doing four superhero shows. If I didn’t have set things and rules, they’re all going to start sounding the same.” Commonalities will exist he said, because it is the style of the composer coming through.
Then the topic came up of dealing with pop or rock music in addition to original scores, in which composers must be weary of having their music compliment these contrasting selections. “These songs are selected by James [Gunn] to solicit emotions that would not happen without them in the film,” said Bates of his work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (due out next year), “When they need to pop, the score has to prepare that in the right way.”
When it comes to film music, no matter what a composer’s tastes, style or influence may be, their scores will always be a slave to the film. This was colorfully exemplified by John Powell. “The key to Bourne was Matt Damon’s ass. The scene where he’s robbing the bank, he’s walking out of the bank and doing it slowly and Doug Liman said, “why is the music so fast? He’s walking slowly.” So the key was the movement of Matt Damon’s buttocks,” he said while making a moving motion.
Lastly, we learned about what each panelist was up to next. John Ottman is taking time off following his work as editor and composer on X-Men: Apocalypse. Powell has Jason Bourne out this summer, while Tom Holkenborg starts work on The Dark Tower this August, and will begin scoring Justice League in the Spring. Tyler Bates is completing a new Marilyn Manson record in addition to his work on Guardians of the Galaxy and John Wick Chapter 2, while Blake Neely will compose all of the current and upcoming DC live action television properties.
All in all, a panel with great insight from some of modern composing’s brightest.