I think that shows in your filmography because you can tell that a lot of heart is being put into the music due to the composer clearly being into it. So, one thing I found interesting is that you, compared to a lot of composers, have done quite a number of video games that I grew up with. You did Crash Bandicoot, for example, with Josh Mancell. And I really wish that more film composers would transition over to video games. I know some like Hans Zimmer and Brian Tyler have done work in both fields, but there are not many. I’m curious, when it comes to doing video games, is there a huge difference between film and it? Cause I remember listening to an interview Lorne Balfe did and he was saying how the biggest difference is, for video games, you’re scoring a lot more music than you’ll ever score in a single movie.
Yeah, he’s correct about that. It has its own set of challenges that I think are exciting. It’s like, you have to write music that has a theme that people can listen to over and over and over again. So you have to make sure that your themes are memorable and enjoyable in some way. Also, it’s tricky because the way you score an orchestra is in segments, and you write your music so that, as the segments are brought in, they change.
Like, let’s say Homer Simpson is running around a food court: you might just have a legato bass line that’s playing long notes. But the music has to be interactive with the player. So when the player finally gets Homer to grab the sandwich he’s trying to grab, then you bring in the string section that are playing eighth notes maybe or quarter notes, and then when he goes over and gets his milkshake, or whatever it is he has to do, it’s still the same piece of music that’s playing, but it has to be at any time. Because the first time the player is playing the game, it might take them 10 minutes to grab that sandwich, but then by the time they’ve played it 30 times maybe it only takes them five seconds to grab that sandwich.
So your music has to be built so that it’s seamless when you drop in the next piece of music, until maybe at the end of the theme that you’re working on: maybe that’s when the 16th notes are playing really fast, and by this time it’s gone from being a legato bass-dominated piece of music to something that’s very active and frenetic or heroic or very scary or wherever you were going. It has to be built with the assistance of an ever-changing player in the game.
Because of this, it is kind of a strange work contract, and it’s a strange way to do art that I love. Because it’s interactive with the audience in a way that you never get to do with a film score. With a film score, you go to Abbey Road, then mix it into the film, and every time you see it it’s the same. With a video game, it’s got these other elements. It changes every single time somebody plays the game. It’s never the same twice.
It’s fascinating to hear how player interaction really influences you as a composer when you’re doing video game scores.
Yeah, you’re thinking about that. You’re thinking about the player that you’ve never met and that you will probably never meet.
[Laughs] No, I had never thought of that before so I’ll be sure to listen for the change in tempo the next time I play a video game. But you mentioned using an orchestra. I thought with video games that you tend to use more synths than orchestras? Has that been your experience or is it the opposite?
When I first started composing in the mid-80s, there was a technological revolution going on that gave a lot of people who were using synths and electronics a leg up so to speak. It was the new sound, and you could also finish it quicker because you didn’t have to book an orchestra and go to a sound stage. So I started off doing a lot of work that was more electronic.
And then, as I got more into animation, I realized that animation in general needs real humans. Cause even the best animation doesn’t look as real as real life. If you film a field where every blade of grass is slightly blowing in the wind, and it’s slightly growing, and there’s insects in there, you don’t see all that but you feel that still. A lot of this is perceived. And when there’s a human in the animation, they can be pretty realistic but they’re still not as real as a real human. And an orchestra, especially a big orchestra, as opposed to an electronic score for animation, helps flesh out and bring life to things.
It’s like, let’s say you have 90 people, and I tend to use larger orchestras for animation for that reason, because 90 people sitting in a room at Abbey Road are initially quiet. But, as they start to play, they’re still breathing and there’s blood going through their veins and they’re not perfect. It’s not sampled, it’s not like the same violin note again and again.
People’s ears are sophisticated enough that they can tell when it’s electronic samples or orchestras. Even with the best samples, if you hear the pieces play over and over again, you realize “oh, that’s the same violin note. I just heard the same pull of the violin note 20 times in a row to make that melody play correctly.” Whereas live players bring life to animation.
So I just did Hotel Transylvania 3 about a month ago in Abbey Road, and that score, just because of what it is, is primarily orchestra. There was some pre-record, but not so much as LEGO. LEGO had a lot of electronics in it, and that was partly because the visuals in LEGO were a whole different animal than the visuals in Hotel Transylvania. In LEGO, you have close-ups of a toy that somebody’s been playing with, and you see scuffed paint on it for instance. And then you pull back away and it’s like “Where’s Waldo?” times 100 where you’re looking at millions and millions of tiny little Lego bricks that are like an ocean wave that’s rolling and crashing and there’s rockets coming in that are exploding and basically it’s a LEGO brick. So I chose to use electronics that included a lot of arpeggios and sequencing pieces that contained very small bits of information. But I mixed that with the orchestra, because it made it stronger. The orchestra could still pay-off for the more emotional moments in the film, while the big brass and percussion of the orchestra came in and supported the electronics during battle scenes.
Some of those movies have a lot of people involved in them. Like The LEGO Movie, if you counted all the singers and synth parts and all the players it’s probably like over 250 musicians or musical elements that have been put in it as opposed to like a Wes Anderson movie. Some of his early films were very simple and they only had like 16 or 18 musical elements to them.
Now, one of the reasons I was put in contact with you is because the Criterion Collection added The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to their archive recently. Any thoughts you want to share on doing that film all those years ago? It came out in 2004.
Yeah, I’ll tell you a story. If you’ve heard it already, you can stop me because I’ve already told somebody else. By the time Wes and I did Life Aquatic that was our fourth film together and Wes was pretty comfortable just hanging out in the studio. And so he flew me to Italy and I went to see the boat that he had created where there was a cross section of it, you know in the scene where Bill Murray goes “let me tell you about my boat” and there’s this big long unedited shot where they go through the different rooms of it and the narration takes you through and Bill Murray is obviously very proud of this ship, even though they haven’t had the love that Jacques Cousteau had.
But Wes said to me “Mark, I would like the music for this scene to be like what you wrote in The Royal Tenenbaums when Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston are walking through Central Park and it’s the one time where he’s being the nicest he can be. And although she’s already told him that she has a boyfriend and that there’s no chance of them getting back together he’s being really complimentary and she’s enjoying it.” And there’s this music that we called “Scrapping and Yelling” in it that’s a part of the lyrics. But he liked it because it was this kind of a jaunty, optimistic piece of music. And he said “I’d like you to write something like that for the ‘Let me tell you about my boat’ scene.”
So I started writing some music in the studio that night and I showed it to him the next day and he went “no…that doesn’t have the right energy.” So I did that two or three days in a row where I wrote a different piece of the music, and each one he was like “No, it’s not as good as The Royal Tenenbaum’s theme.” And I went home that night, and I’d been doing this artwork where I was taking faces and humans and cutting them in half and flipping them so that they’d be totally symmetrical. And at the time I was really intrigued with the idea that it seemed like, depending on how you’d cut someone in half down the middle, there was one half that would be sweet and angelic looking and then there’d be another half that was kind of their evil side.
Because of that, I was thinking about symmetry, and I took the sheet music for The Royal Tenenbaums song, and I held it up to a mirror and I played it backwards. And I went back to the studio that night and I recorded the “Scrapping and Yelling” song into the verse, I chose the instruments that we’d been using for The Life Aquatic, which were different instruments from the ones we had used for The Royal Tenenbaums, so it would have a Life Aquatic sound to it.
And I played it for him the next morning, and he went “that’s it!” [laughs]. And I was kind of afraid to tell him that he already owned it, I had just played it backwards. So I waited until after we recorded it and then I told him where it came from and he was like “really?” He couldn’t believe that that had happened.
That’s amazing. I’ve heard of other instances where playing the song backwards yielded new results, but it’s still cool to hear how seeing all these half-cut artworks jump-started this surge of inspiration in you, so congratulations on that story. I have one last question that I like to ask all composers I speak to: what are three pieces of music that have had the greatest influence on you? It can be an artist’s album or music composition or video game score.
I have to say, there are three other composers. First, the score for To Kill a Mockingbird [by Elmer Bernstein], but it was also because it was such a great film. I kept thinking that I wanted to be the composer if they ever made another movie as great as To Kill a Mockingbird, because to me that was the best movie ever and I loved the music in it.
And then I would say Mark Isham. He put out an album called Film Music, and it had the scores from Mrs. Soffel and The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the original. I think he recorded this in the early 80s, and I was struck by the way he combined orchestral instruments with electronic music. And I think he’s…I mean, I guess he’s not underrated, but I sometimes feel like not as many people sing his praises as they should.
And then I’d probably say it’s a toss-up between either Thomas Newman, who everybody loves already, or the score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
And so, I think all of those did have an impact on me.
All terrific choices. I also loved TKAM because I had to read the book multiple times over my school life. But all great choices. And of course you, Mr. Mothersbaugh, more than stand among those greats because you’re a terrific composer and you’ve had a huge influence on me and many others. So thank you for all that you’ve done and thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with me.
Oh, my pleasure! Have a good day.
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Mothersbaugh for sitting down with us. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was released on Blu-ray on June 25th, 2018 as part of the Criterion Collection.