At San Diego Comic Con this year, six influential people spoke at the Building a Science Fiction World: Music, Composing, and More Panel to – you guessed it – talk about working on music and sound in a sci-fi franchise. The panelists were Tree Adams (The 100, NCIS: New Orleans), Gordy Haab (Star Wars: Battlefront II), Gregory King (The Orville, Nightflyers), Adam Lastiwka (The Expanse), Joshua Mosley (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Nick Soole (Transformers: Robots in Disguise). I spoke with the panelists recently to chat about their relationship with music and sound. We got some lovely stories and some answers that just may surprise you. Music and sound are meaningful in different ways to different people but end up bringing us together. Enjoy our roundtable discussion!
Erin Lynch: How did you discover your love of music and/or sound?
Tree Adams: I remember singing in school when I was maybe three or four years-old and they had us do a musical round where each group would sing the same melody, but with each voice beginning at different times, so we had these little accidental cascading harmonies flying around. I began to feel this welling up in my chest and I remember distinctly in that moment when I felt it bloom; the power of music.
Gordy Haab: In the moments after first seeing E.T. at the age of 6. I’m still not sure when I knew, but in that instant music became the largest impact of my E.T. experience. In fact, I don’t recall remembering Elliot’s name, but have always been able to sing all the theme songs even at that young age.
Gregory King: I guess my first clue that I loved sound should have been when I was a kid and made sound effects for all the toys I played with. Guns, lasers, car squeals. I was always making a racket around the house. I had no idea you could make a living at it until I moved to Toronto with visions of becoming a rock star. In trying to find a job at a studio to support myself, I was introduced to two sound supervisors. It was with then, I discovered making and creating sound effects. I was instantly sold.
Adam Lastiwka: I think it was a pursuit of a feeling of fascination and curiosity that I just couldn’t let go. Hearing and playing music fills me with so much wonder and awe. I feel like great musicians are able to create something similar to wizardry, haha.
Joshua Mosley: Music has been a big part of my life from a very young age. I started playing on our family piano around the age of four. So it was a gradual discovery really. Moments I can point to are times (around the age of 8) when I would sit at the piano with either my mom or dad and watch them play. The melody lines and the chord progressions I heard really spoke to me. I would watch and listen intently, and then learn to play what they were playing by ear. I also remember and have heard from my mother, that I would sit through the credits of Return Of The Jedi (which we owned on VHS at the time) often after watching it, just to listen to the score. So, I definitely established a real connection to music in my childhood.
Nick Soole: For as long as I can remember I’ve always loved music, particularly film scores. As a young kid in Australia I used to hear music in Hollywood movies and wonder, “Does anybody else notice how great this is?” I know now that they did!
EL: Who was your inspiration when you started and who’s your inspiration now?
TA: My grandmother taught me piano when I was little, around three or four. My mother played piano as well. She’d play Scott Joplin tunes. We listened to a lot of blues, jazz, and classical music. Then, when I first heard Jimi Hendrix “Axis: Bold As Love,” I fell in love with the guitar, and that was big for me. Now, it’s different because I have to generate so much music so quickly. I look for inspiration everywhere, all the time, from any source available. A film I just saw, books, museums, graffiti, you name it.
GH: John Williams was my first and strongest musical inspiration. And to be honest, he remains so. I’m also very inspired by the many great composers of the concert music and jazz world. From Ellington and Mingus, to Stravinsky and Barber, and so many more.
GK: Doug Grindstaff who created the sounds for the original Star Trek series. That stuff was pure genius. Especially when you consider how limited he was with the technology at the time. Almost all science fiction sound is a derivative of his work, including Star Wars. My current inspiration are the guys who work with me at King Soundworks. Jon Greasley, Yann Delpuech, Dan Gamache, Shaughnessy Hare. All brilliant sound designers and mixers. The work they come up with blows my mind.
AL: Inspiration is a hard one because you never know where it’s going to come from. I find it to be a very opaque feeling that can rise from anywhere, and sometimes in peculiar ways. It’s usually just a tiny glimmer of something that gets your attention, in a way that you have to develop, in order to notice. I have a more slowly ruminating type of inspiration I prefer. I’m not precious about it and I don’t need to “stop everything” to rush and get the idea out. The TV process has definitely formed that. You stockpile ideas and then when you’re working on something, there can be sort of a trigger that opens the vault. It’s sort of a long term thing that is a balance of writing things down, recording and titling recorded ideas in a stimulating way, and keeping your brain and memory in good health.
JM: Then and now, my family and friends. They inspire me to grow and to be creative every day. Many of my friends and family also happen to be very talented composers, songwriters, and musicians. Hearing their works push me to be better and work harder every day. My wife is definitely my muse.
NS: As a kid, I first noticed John Williams’ music in Star Wars (how can you not?) as well as Danny Elfman’s scores to Beetlejuice the 1989 Batman movie, and Alan Silvestri’s Predator score. When I started actually playing music, (the guitar, drums, and bass) my influences consisted of the whole 90’s grunge genre. Over time I started branching out and discovered more obscure stuff: jazz, thrash metal, experimental music, noise music, 20th-century classical, etc. My love of film music was always there. If I had to point to an inspiration these days, I’d have to say any of my fellow composer colleagues. People I know who do what I do. It’s always inspiring to hear what they’re up to or that they are going through the same anguish of tight deadlines and computer problems etc. There’s a great community out there and it’s nice to be a part of it.
EL: What is one instrument or tool that you can’t live without when you’re working?
TA: I use a lot of different instruments in the ideas stage honestly, so like Macgyver, I could probably make do with a toothpick and beach ball in a pinch! The most important instrument may actually be one’s soul.
GH: The French horn. In my opinion, the French horn is the most versatile voice in the orchestra. It blends equally well with strings, winds and brass. In one instant, it can make a beautiful sound with a vocal quality, and a most visceral and powerful force the next.
GK: A teapot. I love loose leaf tea and drink it all day. Soundwise, it is Pro-Tools. Everything we do is on Pro-Tools. All the sound design, dialogue and ADR editing and mixing happens in that box.
AL: I think my best written and most creative ideas come from acoustic guitars in alternate tunings. A new tuning on an instrument rearranges everything so that it puts you in an explore and discover mode rather than repetition of all your habits.
JM: A piano. It is key for me. No pun intended!
NS: My computers. They are the brains behind everything.
EL: You have to work on a theme, how do you approach it?
TA: It’s different for every project. Sometimes, it’s a melody and it’s just something that comes to you not necessarily when you sit down to write it. You’ve got to wait for it. You may try to render it or work through some ideas in the studio. Maybe you have something pretty cool, but in your gut you know it’s not quite special enough, and then you’ve got to step away and look at it from another angle. That’s when it usually falls out of the sky on to your head. Sometimes, it’s a texture, or a pulse, or an odd flavor that’s the key to capturing the essence of a character, or a relationship, or a world, or what have you. This could be something intellectually motivated or something that you discover through experimentation in the studio. For me, the key is always to grind on it, step away, and then look at it with a fresh perspective. If it’s a melody and it still feels right, you’ll know when you’ve found it.
GH: It all depends on the character or subject associated with theme. I prefer to know as much as possible about what or who the theme is for in advance. And then in many cases, the theme just comes naturally. I also prefer to write themes with no particular instrument in mind. Usually just single note melody on the piano at first. This way it can be easily adapted and reharmonized to be played on any instrument or combination of instruments, as multiple variations will inevitably be needed.
GK: We do more soundscapes than themes, but the approach is probably the same. First, I try to figure out what the point of the scene is and what the mood of the scene is supposed to be. Once I have that mindset I can usually hear what it should sound like in my head. Then, I spend agonizing hour after agonizing hour trying to make it sound on the screen like what I’m hearing in my head.
AL: Depending on the material I’m writing for, I really try to internalize the source through whatever way is going to be most effective. It takes a lot to envelope yourself into the world you’re trying to capture through music. I think the most important part is the concept. First, diluting the material down to what motives it, then using the concept to build flesh around the bones. The concept can be a lot of things, and that’s where your imagination has to kick in. But the point of it is that you are imposing the boundaries of the world, and you now know exactly what confines you can focus on.
JM: First off, you have to ask the question, what are we trying to say, personify, evoke? As far as character themes, who is the character, their mind set, what makes them tick, their story. It all evolves from there. I usually start with a piano, get a solid theme down, and then orchestrate it.
NS: I try and think about the project a lot. I’m always humming some random tune or vague musical idea in my head anyway, even when I’m not working. I try and direct that obsessive tendency toward the job at hand. Sometimes an idea just pops into my head, and other times it’s more conceptual. A more intellectual idea I’ll apply to a melody or harmony. Other times it’s harder. Sometimes you have to just sit in front of the keyboard and hammer out ideas until you catch something good. I guess the short answer is that it’s different for every project!
EL: What is your favorite piece you’ve ever written or worked on?
TA: That’s always a tough question and my answer could change from day to day. I typically respond by saying MY NEXT ONE! But, maybe that’s a cop out. Here are a few: I’m pretty proud of the final cue for the upcoming season finale of “The 100” which airs in a couple weeks, so I can’t say anything more about it. I really like this horn theme I created for the main character in NCIS: New Orleans, Dwayne Pride. It lives in many incarnations throughout the seasons. I really liked the end theme that we’d reprise every episode for the show “Perception.” It blooms every time and we got to use an orchestra for every episode which was a real treat! I also wrote a piece for Californication that I really liked called “Vaginatown” that was essentially a blend of film noir (like Chinatown) and a 70’s funk track.
GB: It changes daily to be honest. I’m quite partial to the extended suite I wrote around Iden Versio’s theme in Star Wars: Battlefront II. But ask tomorrow and it’ll be a different answer.
GK: In the 1999 film The Insider starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, there is a scene of Jeffrey Wigand, played by Russell Crow, at a golf driving range at night. At this point in the movie he is in a very paranoid state convinced he is being followed, because he is. I created this soundscape that involved a mechanical whirr, made by a machine that picks up balls creating a bit of a hypnotizing vibe. Then, I made layers upon layers in the background of the soundscape, of a distant rail yard with trains shunting. It’s a weird sound with very high pitched squeals and the occasional subsonic thumping. As the scene progresses, I keep building this, and it reaches a crescendo in his [Jeffrey Wigand’s] head until his paranoia reaches its peak and he bolts out of there. The film received eight academy award nominations including one for Best Sound, which is pretty cool considering the movie didn’t have any action in it, not even a single gunshot or explosion. The sound was all psychological, so I’m pretty proud of that.
AL: There is a piece of solo guitar music I wrote called “Baobab.” It’s a fairly unusual piece for me to have written all things considered, but deep down I’m just a really nerdy guitar player. The concept for it was to emulate the sound and playing style of an instrument from Madagascar, called a Valiha, which has a really bright and joyful sound. I wove a guitar string through the strings to give it a resonating characteristic, and then spent a few hours playing with an alternate tuning and trying to record a piece that would evoke that sound and some inspired imagery.
JM: I honestly don’t think I have a favorite piece. Almost every time I sit down to write I am aiming to compose my “favorite piece.”
NS: Hopefully the next one. Always the next one. You have to keep that mindset or you’d just quit. If you don’t feel like you’re getting better as a composer every time you make something new, then why even bother doing it?
EL: Music and sound can be a highly emotional experience. What’s your favorite emotion you like to elicit from the listener?
TA: This could change from day to day. I like doing poignant, emotional cues. They take a lot out of you. I also really like epic, majestic cues. Anything that makes your heart jump out of your chest.
GH: I love scoring complex emotions. It’s one thing to compose “sad” music. Or intense battle music. But it’s another challenge all together to compose music that is equally mournful, melancholy, and nostalgic – but with just a hint of heroism. This is where the real fun is.
GK: Oh f**k, what just happened there? Is that an emotion? If it is, that’s the emotion I like to elicit from an audience.
AL: I think just connection and engagement. Music that is able to draw someone in so they are totally immersed and involved. I think arrangement and structure is a really important ability and doing it well enough to keep someone engaged is something you can’t really theoretically learn, which makes it a bit rare. It’s a very subliminal thing. Is “involved” an emotion, haha?
JM: I honestly just want a listener to have an emotional connection to the story and/or character, whatever that may be. If I had to pick a few, I would say empathy, love, and compassion.
NS: I don’t really have a favorite. Music can make people feel an entire range of emotions. I’d never want to focus on just one. I like making people feel terrified when I’m working on a horror project as much as I like the idea of them crying at the end of a romantic comedy when the couple finally get back together.
EL: What’s your favorite genre to play around in?
TA: I am really enjoying the science fiction genre at the moment. I like action/thrillers as well. I’m also a really big fan of film noir.
GH: Horror. In fact, it’s all I wanted to do when I first set out to join this industry. Obviously I also enjoy sci-fi fantasy/action adventure.
GK: Right now, science-fiction fantasy. My crew and I are working on The Orville, George R.R. Martin’s Nightflyers, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, and Charmed for CW. So we’re in the process of trying a lot of new things and really enjoying it.
AL: I really enjoy experimenting with electronic music production. Production technique is such a powerful tool to developing music that has a strong emotional impact. When it comes to scoring, I’m going to go out on a limb and say if you’re working in a more self contained way (no collaborators, or teams of assistants) production ability can be far more critically important than composition ability for creating a functional score with an effective emotional impact.
JM: I would say animation, because typically the “playground” is so big and you usually get to write all kinds of fun cues with various emotions extremes.
NS: I guess horror. There are always scenes that focus more on characters and other human concerns within the same genre, so you get to use different elements on each project.
EL: Who’s your most played artist? Or what album have you been listening to lately?
TA: Wes Montgomery
GH: I’m sure if I was to actually look at stats, John Williams would again rank very high. Lately however, I’ve been listening to pop music I loved as a kid before I had the ability to musically over think it. Except now I AM over thinking it, in an effort to figure out why it was so impactful. Michael Jackson’s Thriller for example has been at the top of my list for about a month.
GK: The Tragically Hip, all albums. Oops, Spotify says it’s “The Sherman Brothers Songbook.” Busted.
AL: I keep playing “The National” on infinite repeat. I also really love Bon Iver’s “22, A million”. The production, songwriter, and performances on that album are some of the most creative I’ve heard in years. I also have really been enjoying Jon Hopkin’s latest release.
JM: Lately I’ve been listening to Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar and N.E.R.D. They all always come up with something fresh and unexpected.
NS: I’ve been getting into the band Death Grips a lot lately. Their music just sounds so spontaneous and full of energy.
EL: If you could take on any franchise, which would you want to write for?
TA: Swamp Thing
GH: Well I’ve already tackled my number one; Star Wars. But I’d love a chance to work on one of the films. I’m also a huge Harry Potter fan, so if anything within that franchise ever comes about again, I’d love a chance to share my musical take on it.
GK: I was going to say Star Trek, but we kind of already are by working on The Orville, which is Seth McFarlane’s love letter to Star Trek, so in that case I would settle for Star Wars.
AL: I offered to score Blade Runner for free, but no one got back to me…
JM: That’s a tough one. There are a few, but if I had to settle on one, I’d say Jurassic Park or Jurassic World.
NS: If David Lynch directed a franchise movie, then that one!
EL: Anything you can tell us about your next project?
TA: We’re about to start back on Season 6 of The 100 and Season 5 of NCIS: New Orleans. Hopefully, Warner Bros. will be releasing a soundtrack for this past season of The 100. Then, there is the second issue of my comic/graphic novel series, Duskriders coming out soon on ComiXology. We’ll release a soundtrack on iTunes for the series like we did for the first issue. Then, I’m rolling out a new funk band project this year called Dagnasterpuss, basically just treacherous bar band with horns and nasty grooves. It should be a lot of fun.
GH: As it always goes in the game and film industries, I’m bound to confidentiality. But I can say I have 2 AAA game titles in the works, as well as a brand new, large scale film franchise. All of these will be epic and I can’t wait to announce them officially!
GK: I am working with the brilliant Oscar winning sound designer Jon Johnson on John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. The film is about two Texas Rangers who hunt down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. This is the third film I’ve done with this gang and I’m loving every minute of it. It is a true story, and as is often the case, a true story that is better than fiction.
AL: I’m just finishing an electronic album titled Come Back to Earth with Me, which is kind of a space and science adventure themed album. I wanted to push my technical ability in mixing, sound design, and synth programming/editing, which I feel I did. It’s also a pretty fun album I think! Excited for people to hear it!
JM: Yes. I recently finished scoring the family adventure film Bernie the Dolphin for Lionsgate/Grindstone and AMBI Group. It hits theaters this Dec. 14th!
NS: I’m scoring an indie medieval-horror film called The Head. It’s premiering at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. Look out for it later this year!
Thank you all so much for your time and thoughtful answers! I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing where your careers take you.
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