Composers Tree Adams, Gordy Haab, Adam Lastiwka, Nick Soole, Joshua Mosley and Greg King participated in a panel about composing for sci-fi film, television and games at SDCC 2018.
At SDCC 2018, five science fiction composers and one sound designer working in the film, TV and game industry gathered to talk about the process of building sci-fi worlds through music.
Panelists Tree Adams (The 100, Duskriders), Gordy Haab (Star Wars: Battlefront II), Adam Lastiwka (Travelers), Nick Soole (The Crooked Man), Joshua Mosley (X-Men: Apocalypse) and Gregory King (The Orville, Cosmos, Nightflyers) shared their experiences with composing, collaborating with other composers and directors, participating in fandom, working to strict deadlines and more.
The panel was put together by Defiant PR’s Sabrina Hutchinson and moderated by Hypable’s own Selina Wilken.
Everything we learned about sci-fi composing at SDCC
Opening the panel, Tree Adams talks about working as a composer on The CW’s The 100, and having his music adored and scrutinized by the dedicated fandom scouring every aspect of the series for clues.
“One of the fun challenges [of composing The 100] is that you’ve been given this precious cargo because the fans are very engaged, and they’re very tuned into what’s happening on a thematic level,” says Adams. “They’re really aware of character themes; of themes that we’ve developed for different dynamics or relationships or certain places that they go to. So you kind of need to be very organised about your approaches, so that you get everything right. Whose theme is playing when, at the right times.”
Adams describes this level of feedback as “really rewarding, because I see them get inspired by the soundtracks we’ve released. There are people who will create artwork for each piece, there are people who will do their own versions of the themes, or they’ll send me something that they’ve written inspired by a theme. And so, to me, that’s a really exciting dynamic to be a part of, and it’s super gratifying to have that response back from the people who are fans of the show.”
Continuing to create new pieces and themes for the series moving forward, Adams says, “I feel like I’ve been entrusted with something very precious, and I have to do right by both the show and the people who are fans of the show.”
Gordy Haab describes a similar process scoring the Star Wars game Battlefront II, knowing that he has to create completely original motifs that will be scrutinized by billions of Star Wars fans around the world.
Haab says, “You’re building themes from scratch, and fans start to associate these themes with certain characters … it’s overwhelming, to say the least. Because I’m also a big fan — I would hold any one of these people up here to very high standards if they were scoring a Star Wars project — so I know that all the fans are doing the same for me.”
While Haab admits that it has been a challenge, “it’s also been a lot of fun, to sort of be a part of something I’m already a huge fan of and which already has a big following. Knowing that I’m contributing to something that people love is really cool. It’s a unique opportunity to try to stretch that world, and branch it out ,and do something new within the existing parameters.”
Haab also describes the unique process of scoring a Star Wars project, which has to go through several layers of approval — EA Games, Disney, and of course John Williams — who each get two weeks to look over everything he does. “It’s a constant cycle of getting these huge umbrellas to approve what I’m doing. That is also overwhelming,” he says.
On the other side of this coin is Adam Lastiwka, who was hired on to the project well before they started filming and was therefore instrumental (pun intended) in developing the sound and feel of Netflix’s Travelers from the very beginning. Thus, “for the first time ever, I got to really develop a coherent concept for a show,” says Lastiwka.
He describes this process as “a really unique television experience” — and he would know, having scored over five hundred episodes of popular television series!
Over the course of developing the series, Lastiwka realized that, despite its science fiction premise, Travelers is really a very character-driven drama. So this is what he chose to base his concept on.
Explains Lastiwka, “it is this idea that in the future, in this dystopian world, there are all these people trapped in these domes; different cultures all just kind of meshed into these places. And I thought about what that experience would be like: if they had musical instruments, but they had no idea about the history or the culture behind them, and wouldn’t know how to play them.”
Lastiwka then bought a big collection of instruments from around the world that he was not familiar with himself, and tried to build character themes from those instruments. An example he gives of this is the Chinese violin: “I took another instrument and wove the bow through the strings in a really unusual way,” Lastiwka describes, “and the result was it sounded like there were four cellos aggressively playing at the same time.”
Through this unusual process, Lastiwka developed distinct sounds that “become as impactful as a melodic theme or motif. It felt like the show itself found a unique voice [through] me playing dozens of different instruments from all over the world, building on that concept.”
Nick Soole also developed a unique approach to scoring a project when he worked on Jesse Holland’s Crooked Man, the horror/sci-fi movie produced for SYFY in 2016, by completely separating the character themes from the horror elements.
“I actually scored all the character stuff first,” says Soole. “In classic horror films, horrible things happen. But you don’t care about that happening; you have to care about the people in the movie. So I really tried to split the movie, doing the character stuff first and then coming back to just do the monster stuff, just the horror stuff.”
The character themes and ‘monster stuff’ are “whole different musical languages,” says Soole, “and so I treated it separately. Because if you’re not invested in what’s happening emotionally and the people, then the spooky or fantastical things aren’t as effective.”
“Aside from the fact that I had terrible nightmares because I was working on just this scary stuff for a couple of weeks, I think it’s an effective thing,” he says, “and I think that approach can be applied to anything in the science fiction/horror genre; anything with a fantastical side to it.”
Greg King works as a sound designer and recording artist, and has a lot of experience within various subgenres of science fiction. For The Orville he gets to mix sci-fi with humor; for the upcoming Nightflyers it’s horror; for Charmed it’s fantasy, and for Cosmos it’s more realistic, speculative fiction.
“They’re all sci-fi but they’re different types of sci-fi,” King explains. “For The Orville, Seth McFarlane is a huge Star Trek fan, so we were trying to pay homage to the original Star Trek. Nightflyers is the total opposite — it’s gotta be scary. It’s a horror movie and a science fiction show all together. So for that, I had to put myself in a pretty different mindset: where do I want to be spooked, where do I want to be surprised or frightened. So for each project I’ve had to hit the reset button, and start from what the concept of the show is.”
On using silence to build up the scare sequences, King says we can expect to hear that technique a lot in Nightflyers: “They’re alone in this ship, which has moods, and is creating this environment. It’s intimidating and scary and is constantly morphing as the show moves along.”
On X-Men: Apocalypse, Josh Mosley joined veteran X-Men composer John Ottman, which he describes as “an awesome collaboration. I was really fortunate to have John bring me on to X-Men: Apocalypse and help with that film.”
As a newcomer to an established franchise, Mosley had to balance bringing his own sound to the project versus emulating what Ottman had already created. “Credit to John,” says Mosley, “who definitely gave me some freedom to expand on what he had already established. There was a lot of back and forth; I feel like I really got to contribute.”
He continues, “John wrote the X-Men: Apocalypse theme, and then we worked together to create the sound of Apocalypse, which we wanted to be more of an intimate type of thing, instead of this big bad Apocalypse trying to destroy everybody. That was a great experience, a great collaboration.”
Moving on to talk about how much autonomy composers are afforded when working with directors (or other composers), Tree Adams talks a little more about his experience on The 100, which he has scored for the past three seasons.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of me-time before the season starts, typically, to come up with themes,” he says. “I have a meeting with [series creator] Jason Rothenberg, where he breaks out all the story points that are coming up this season. We’ll identify certain characters or relationships that we want to build something special for. And often there is a new element, or a new clan that comes into the world; there’s a new place they’re going to, and that will require a whole other component.”
Once there is some thematic material to work with, they can provide material for the rough cuts, so the editors have something to use as jumping-off points. “In some cases they get used, in some cases they get scrapped, in some cases they become the seed of an idea,” he says. “It’s a dialogue that goes over the course of the process.”
King jumps in: “As a sound designer and recording mixer, I’m working with composers all the time. We’ll collaborate as early as possible, I’ll get the guys to call me and we’ll talk it through, [to make sure our work is] complimentary of each other as opposed to us both trying to accomplish and do the same thing.”
Adams is able to contribute a story from the Wesley Snipes film Hard Luck (2006) which illustrates just such a miscommunication.
He remembers, “I was doing some car chase that culminated in a giant crash. I’d written a piece of music that got so big, and it got even bigger at the moment of the crash. And when we mixed it, we didn’t hear anything I wrote. Because I did it without thinking of the sound of the muscle car. It was a lesson: you gotta anticipate that the other stuff’s gonna be heard, too. You gotta figure out where there is space for you to shine and to contribute.”
Adams has been able to have full autonomy over one project, however: the graphic novel Duskriders, which he is both writing and composing a score for. “10 years ago, I’d just started working on a show called The Middle Man, which was based on a graphic novel,” he recalls. “And I said, I need to write the story that I’m actually scoring. So I went and did that, I wrote this graphic novel, and I scored it. It’s a six-issue arc, and for each new issue, we’re gonna release a score for it. We’ve got other musicians contributing music, too.”
Tips and tricks about sci-fi composing and sound design
During the audience Q&A portion of the panel, Adam Lastiwka goes into the cycle of composing for Netflix series, which (despite entire seasons dropping all at once) is not all that different from network.
“TV itself just works on such a solid schedule, it would be unwise of them to change that format,” says Lastiwka. “You literally have to write 40 minutes of music in sometimes four days. It’s intense, but you get by.”
When asked which film or TV series inspires them, the panelists name Blade Runner, E.T. and Dunkirk as particularly noteworthy examples.
Lastiwka also hat-tips Emmy winner Sean Callery, whose work includes Homeland, Jessica Jones and 24. “He has a major comprehension of how to mix music with psychological impact. It’s sophisticated, it’s impactful; if you watch it, really pay attention to what it’s doing,” he says.
And finally, the artists give a few examples of unusual elements they use in their work. Soole, for example, has a clip of his kids screaming that he tends to use a lot; Haab scored a documentary on the coffee industry and built all the instruments out of coffee cups and coffee machine parts; Adams scours junkyards for junk and trash that he says often gets mistaken for real instruments.
Thank you to Tree Adams, Gordy Haab, Adam Lastiwka, Nick Soole, Joshua Mosley and Greg King for an entertaining and informative panel about composing for sci-fi media at SDCC 2018!