Animation Soundtrack Roundtable: A Chat With The Composers for Ultimate Spider-Man, Tron: Uprising, and The Legend of Korra

The score - the instrumental soundtrack - is a film or TV shows not-so-silent hero. When the good guys win, the bad guys attack, or two characters share a tender moment, a good soundtrack is always there to boost up and amplify the emotion in a scene. Double that for animation, where the score is usually omnipresent. So we were pretty excited to have the chance to sit down with three of the hardest working composers today: Kevin Manthei, composer for Disney XD's Ultimate Spider-Man; Joseph Trapanese, who's work you'll hear on the upcoming Tron: Uprising; and Jeremy Zuckerman, returning from Avatar: The Last Airbender to work on the currently running sequel, The Legend of Korra.

Over the course of the chat, we talked about their different approaches, drawing on old themes versus new ones, and how their takes on the score differ - and intersect:

MTV Geek: Let’s kick it off with a simple one: what, if anything, makes scoring for animation different than live action?

Kevin Manthei: Scoring for animation can be more over the top, the comedy is broader, the action is bigger, the music under dialogue can be played more dramatic or comedic depending on the tone at the moment.  In animation you can get away with doing Carl Staling cartoony music one minute and the next a brooding serious tone followed by big punk rock/orchestral hybrid action music!

Joseph Trapanese: Music is much more functional and important in animation in one simple, distinct way- because the animated environment is usually very different and foreign to our audience we need to pull them into the story more so than in live action. This is especially true in Tron where we are operating on The Grid- we need to help our audience experience the thrill of living inside a computer and to understand the operations and rules of this foreign world.

Jeremy Zuckerman: I don't think there is much difference aesthetically, as the musical styles run the gamut in either medium. But with live action, a scene can often be carried by the actor's performances alone because of the subtleties and complexity of body language and facial expression. Even in the most detailed and technical animation, this is a difficult if not impossible thing to simulate. So there's a greater need for music to support, augment and/or comment on the narrative with animation. But I really like to look for opportunities for subtlety. There may not be as many as in live action but there are still plenty.

Geek: All three of you have very, very different musical styles; what’s your approach to each of your shows (Spider-Man, Tron, and Korra)? What makes these projects unique?

KM: I alluded to it in the last question in which “Ultimate Spider-Man” runs the gamut between intense action, ultra silly cut-aways and typical teen situations and banter.  I have to be able to nimbly switch between all these situations with grace and ease and help tell the story with music. Much of the time the music in “Ultimate Spider-Man” doesn't take itself too seriously. It's there to support the show, the comedy, the characters, and to support the story.

JT: We've worked very hard to find the balance of musical elements- hardware synths, virtual synths, live electric guitar, strings, brass, percussion. It's akin to cooking. The precise combination of musical ingredients determines the flavor, and all the small choices that the chef makes along the way contributes to the musical style and interpretation of the elements.

JZ: Korra is probably the most unique project I've ever worked on. A big part of this is due to the trust of the show runners and the network. And of course the story and it's setting demands something different. The show is set in a fictional Asia-like world in a time period much like the 1920s. The musical inspiration is rich with contrasting styles: early jazz and dixieland, traditional Chinese music, taiko, western string scoring, etc. The challenge has been to make a cohesive style from all these elements. I've really enjoyed finding inspiration from the chinese erhu and zhonghu for my string writing. That's lead to some new and exciting stuff for me.

Geek: There’s a different history behind each of these projects: Tron, you’ve got your score with Daft Punk to work off of; Korra is clearly picking up musical ideas from Avatar; and Spider-Man has the history of Marvel movies and TV shows to work with. How much does the past affect your work with each of these projects?

KM: There is such a depth of resources for what has come before as far as music for Spider-Man.  There have been earlier animated series throughout the decades as well as the recent Spider-Man feature films.  I like to just let all that percolate and then I 'forget it' and see what comes from my own creativity and ideas.  A new angle the producers and I are trying is introducing some punk rock elements for Spidey to represent his youthful disposition and attitude.

JT: Working on the Tron: Legacy with Daft Punk will always be a highlight of my career. I was very fortunate to be a part of the film for almost 2 years. The goal of the film was to create something unique and special, something that felt new yet classic at the same time. When beginning Uprising, it was important to me to respect what we did on Legacy- I had to find a way to reference it without dampening its impact. So while we have re-interpreted the sound of the Tron world with new colors and themes, we have also brought sounds and textures with us from Legacy, which has allowed us to musically connect the show with its predecessor.

JZ: With Korra, everyone involved in no way wants to relive the past. While we're still in love with the world of Avatar, creatively, we have no desire to repeat ourselves. So there are occasional references to old themes when the story demands it and some new themes are derived from seeds of the past, but Korra feels very different to me, both in style and compositional process. That being said, there have been a couple of times where an old idea naturally found its way into the Korra score and I really like that.

Geek: What about the dominant ideas in the themes? What are you aiming for with each?

KM: “Ultimate Spider-Man's” theme is intended to be very catchy and instantly recognizable. I hope it continues the tradition of the classic animated Spider-Man song in terms of being catchy. The theme can be heard in full on the End Credits as a punk rock tune and throughout the series in a more orchestral way. My general approach to the rest of the score is to keep it a nice mixture between a modern fresh orchestral score with various elements such as punk rock, rock, electronica & other styles combining with the orchestral beds.  I have always been fascinated in combining genres of music to create unique themes.

JT: We have thematic material for most characters in the show. Before I write a theme, I spend a lot of time watching the show and how the character interacts with their environment. A theme is about capturing how their actions affect the world they are in. I like imagining that the character is in the gym- what music is getting them pumped?! Hopefully I'm writing that music for them.

JZ: There are fewer themes in Korra and they are more flexible. For instance, not every character has a clear theme. Many of the themes are more situational and emotion-based. As a result, there is more variation of the material. In addition to melodic and harmonic themes, I'm using certain performance techniques and devices thematically . Compositionally, I'm finding this more enjoyable. And I feel like it allows me to say something more concrete with a cue because I'm referencing something broader than a character on screen. The themes belong more to the show than the characters if that makes any sense.

Geek: I’ve heard quite a bit from live action TV composers about the insanely rushed schedule for working on a live action show - is it the same for animation? Or, given the lead time for producing an animated show (that isn’t South Park), do you have a little more advance time to work? Or, like anything, is it waiting until you finally get what you need at the last second?

KM: With one exception, all the shows I have scored in my career give the composer one week to compose the score.  I like to score the show in 3-4 days to allow another day to work on finishing the previous week's score and to address producer notes.  I love the challenge of creating an awesome score in the span of a week.

JT: Luckily I've been working on the Tron show since before the film was finished! Being a part of a project from day one is incredibly important to me. Music is so essential to a show that waiting until the last second to determine tone and direction of music is a bit like waiting until you're done cooking to figure out what kind of flavor you would like to taste. Even though once I get a locked edit I only have a small window to finalize the music for that episode, I've been working so long on thematic material, sketches, and sounds that I have a lot to draw upon. Writing the score is easy- all the work and thought that goes into it beforehand is the hard part!

JZ: I think the schedule isn't quite as crazy, but that's not to say it's a vacation! It really depends on the scale of your production. If there are live instruments involved than things get more cramped because of days lost doing music prep, recording and editing. And often animation budgets aren't big enough to hire others for those jobs. But the flipside is that by doing it all yourself, you can make interesting creative decisions every step of the way. We have a two week turnaround but with revision and delivery, the episodes overlap.

Geek: Another potentially basic question, but what do you compose and record on now? Is it all digital, or do you use any traditional instruments?

KM: I score everything in my studio using computers, samples, etc. For “Ultimate Spider-Man” and Cartoon Network's “Generator Rex” I use live guitar and live bass guitar on the shows.  It really helps the music pop and come alive.  I also like to work with other solo instruments when needed and have an extensive library of original samples (sounds) I use to populate my scores.

JT: We are so lucky to be working in the digital age. We can produce and deliver music much more cost-effectively and with less resources. But the quality of the music always has to be at the forefront regardless of the technology. I've always sought out the instruments and sounds that speak to me and the audience most effectively. My studio is like a small museum- the most recent digital gear and computers on one side, old analog synthesizers on the other, African hand percussion on the other end, a few drum machines and Irish flutes thrown in for good measure… all being recorded into Logic and ProTools.

JZ: I compose in Logic Audio. I try to use as much live instrumentation as possible. When I'm doing an all MIDI score it feels like I'm spending more time trying to get it sound real, than actually composing. Because of the relatively limited number of things that actually sound real when using only MIDI, it influences a composer's writing and I prefer the project and the humans involved to be the only ones doing that. If it sounds bad, I want that to be because my writing is bad not my sample library. ha!

With Korra we use a string sextet and an incredible Chinese instrumentalist named Hong Wang (who also works with us on Kung Fu Panda). He plays dozens of instruments beautifully: dizi, bawy, xun, sheng, xiao, erhu, zhonghu, matoqin, etc. It's been an unbelievable learning experience. Additionally, the foley editor Aran Tanchum is an awesome sax player and our assistant Andrew Prahlow plays a mean trumpet. They've appeared in a few cues as has a fantastic Dixieland ensemble.

Geek: What about original score on a weekly basis, versus re-use of musical cues? And why one approach over the other?

KM: It’s great to be able to re-use themes, battle music and comedy cues when appropriate.  Sometimes it’s a music edit, other times I just re-work the themes into the new music.  The bottom line for me is I have to service the picture and the series the best way - I am open to any means to get that done.

JT: Sometimes you just run out of time for writing! But in all seriousness, drawing upon musical cues from previous episodes helps ground the show. The goal is always to draw the audience into the environment you're creating, and sometimes you can do that musically by playing something familiar- it's like listening to your favorite song again after not hearing if for a while. You're reminded of what you felt when you first heard it.

JZ: With Avatar: the Last Airbender, cues were never reused. And I've realized that I was doing the score (and myself!) a bit of a disservice. I think reuse helps create a strong musical voice for the show. And as a viewer, I love when my favorite cue shows up in a show I watch. So now, I reuse when it's right for the scene but often it's ideas and themes that get modified either slightly or significantly.

Geek: How has the scoring for animation business changed in the past few years?

KM: Like any subset in the entertainment business it seems to ebb and flow.  To me it seems like we are in a moment where there is more going on. It’s exciting!

JT: This is my first animated show, but I can compare it to what I grew up watching. We don't have as much time or budget- we can't bring in a live orchestra each week. Also, animation is much more cinematic. The technology helped push us, but it's ultimately determined by the audience- everyone goes to IMAX films and everyone has great a huge flat screen TV. So the standards are high. This all trickles down to music too- we need to deliver a great sounding mix that is engaging and thrilling. Tron is in surround sound so turn up your hi-fi system!

JZ: I can't really speak for the business as I haven't felt a significant change there. I'm fortunate in that the projects I've done have given me space to do things how I see fit. One thing I'm noticing this time around with Korra, is that a lot more young adults are fans. I think a lot of them are people who were tweens when Avatar was airing. It's really nice to see actually. Like old friends...

Geek: Lastly, anything you want to tease coming up? What should fans be listening for in upcoming episodes?

KM: I am already composing Episode 23 on “Ultimate Spider-Man”.  Expect to see many of the classic heroes and villains from the Marvel Universe showing up.  I have enjoyed coming up with new themes and music for each of them.  I am also looking forward to starting two yet to be announced video games.  Thanks for reading!

JT: We have some great surprises on the show. I think Tron fans are going to be delighted when they see how far we delve into the world- we've been having a blast exploring these characters and developing the Tron environment. Personally I've been doing some pop music production and have some cool projects coming up soon. I'm also scoring a new film that's coming out in 2013, but I can't talk about that yet. Keep your ears open for some new music soon!

JZ: Listen for the Matoqin...

Ultimate Spider-Man plays on Disney XD, Sundays at 11AM; The Legend of Korra Saturdays at 11AM on Nickelodeon; and Tron: Uprising will premiere Thursday, June 7th at 9pm on Disney XD.