Behind the Music with CW3PR – Scoring for Comic-Con’s Favorite Projects

For anyone who’s ever watched the segment on awards shows devoted to soundtrack and scoring, we know what an integral part music plays in telling a story. Without it, scenes and transitions have no emotional impact on the viewer. There’s no tugging of the heartstrings when melancholy notes drift in the air, no warning of impending doom when ominous tones creep into a setting. At the San Diego’s Comic-Con “Behind the Music with CW3PR” panel, an eclectic group of some of the entertainment industry’s most accomplished composers shared, with great enthusiasm and
humor, how they help tell the story fans follow every season.

In turns almost bashful and self-deprecating while ardent and candid, the composers of popular TV shows like Being Human, Fringe, Revenge, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Castle shared their challenges, their discoveries and their processes. While each composer’s approach to writing is uniquely their own, they were all uniformly animated when describing the different instruments they use or the discovered sounds from non-traditional objects.

Kevin Kiner, who has been honored with multiple Emmy nominations and whose recent work includes composing for for the Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars and AMC’s Hell on Wheels shared the story of using a pipe that goes from his water heater to his house. When he blew through the pipe he discovered some cool overtones that sounded like a Native American whistle. His wife wasn’t thrilled about not having hot water for a week but he was able to utilize the sounds when composing for Hell on Wheels. When asked how often he came across difficult challenges in scoring, his immediate reply was “Every day.” Working on a show based on movies scored by the legendary composer John Williams, “There’s an aspect of that sound that I have to stay true to. At the same time we’ve brought our own sound. Our ‘series’ sound,” he explained. “That’s one of the biggest challenges – to remain in the Star Wars universe, and yet push it to something new.”

I was curious to find out how much of the shows’ stories the composers had knowledge of before composing. Kiner explained he could get the scripts if he wanted them, but very often he didn’t need them. His writing process actually starts when the episode is near completion and he starts scoring as he watches the video of an episode.

When asked what dictates what he writes, FM Le Sieur, composer for Being Human explained that what he tries to avoid can also be something he eventually has to embrace but with a twist. “I tried to find that supernatural effect somewhere, you know, the ‘whoosh!’ the ‘something’. With so many supernatural shows being done, you want to avoid the obvious clichés like…using harps.” One of his first challenges in composing for Being Human was actually the success of the BBC version of the show. He didn’t want to listen to what the British did; instead he wanted to give Being Human a clearly American sound.

The common thread between the composers that I found captivating was their intense study of not just the characters but also the relationship between the characters. Le Sieur explained how he tried to score the friendship between the three main characters in the first season before scoring the supernatural aspects of their stories because, as he explained, “the bonding between the characters is something people can relate to more than the supernatural.” Le Sieur said he had to make his composer pitch after viewing only three scenes. He created a score that emphasized the blending the two worlds of normal and supernatural, which won him the composer role. “The show talks to you. When you do a movie, a TV show, you have to listen. If you focus too much on the music, you miss something. We have a story to tell, and I have to listen to that first.”

Le Sieur explained he does ask for information on the storyline at the beginning of the season to help him find direction, but asks not to be given too much as he also loves learning the story as it unfolds. He knows the first time to see something is the moment people remember most and he tries to keep that moment as part of his writing process.

While Le Sieur enjoyed creating a “theme” for each character as well as the group dynamic, iZLER, composer and multi-instrumentalist, known for his film noir-inspired compositions for ABC’s Revenge expounded on creating a theme for certain episodes. For instance, Episode 14 was set on a boat so he wanted to set the entire soundtrack for the show to the rhythm of the S.O.S. Morse code. He went to a junkyard to find “lots of creaky things that you can bow, and bang and scrape” to capture the feeling of being on a boat that was swaying to and fro. While composers work closely with the directors, I wanted to know if he ever got feedback from the actors on how his scoring helps develop their characters. iZLER explained that it depended on how long the project is. The longer the project the more likely the actors will “pass comment on the music.” While admitting to being a bit of a “cave dweller”, busy writing music, he has had opportunity to go on the set of Revenge. He described the cast as “lovely” and found a lot of the actors have musical backgrounds or are “just real music heads”. He knows Madeleine Stowe has classical piano training and he suspects Gabriel Mann may have been in a band. “He carries himself in a certain way like he’s been on stage somewhere,” he joked. “You know how someone stands sideways slightly with their legs parted. Could be nothing, but I have my suspicions.”

I asked Chris Tilton, composer for Fox’s television series, Fringe and Alcatraz just how different it was to compose the soundtrack for the re-boot of “SimCity”. He explained that with video games you get a lot more time, but less direction. “You’re writing music for a ‘feel’ of something” as opposed to the structured sequence that’s found in a TV show or movie. “But your goal is still the same – to help tell a story.”

Robert Duncan, a Canadian composer of film and TV, currently scoring music for ABC’s Castle talked about his start when he composed his first piece when he was a sixth-grader at the Claude Watson School of the Performing Arts. “We were asked to create something using a deconstructed piano. I didn’t know then that I was actually composing something. But I got hooked.” He continues to apply that lesson to this day using traditional as well as unusual objects and instruments to create mesmerizing scores. He was recently nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score) for Last Resort.

After reviewing the videotaped interviews, I was very disappointed to find my camera did not capture Duncan’s interview. As I watched each recording I was reminded of how each composer seemed to get a little loss for words as they tried to find the right way to describe the work they do. Probably not unlike trying to find the right note to complete the melody, or the right instrument to capture the sound. It was fascinating to watch their faces as they tried to put into words the apparent exuberance they felt for their craft. Duncan was no less expressive. All of the composers were asked what advice they would give young musicians looking to make composing a career. Duncan repeated the answer the others gave. “You have to have a passion for music,” with that same boyish gleam in his eyes that his fellow artists shared. I tried to explain that expression to a my friends after the panel. “There’s just something about musicians and the passion and delight they have for their art that makes you fall a little bit in love with them.”

For more on the interviews, please watch for the video links to be added to this story.