(L to R): Composers and panelists Mark Rivers, Tim Kiefer, Ryan Elder, and Tom Howe at “Music in Animation” panel at WonderCon on Sunday, March 25th in Anaheim, CA.
by Aiyonna White
I talked to the creative minds behind some of your favorite music pieces in your favorite T.V. shows! I had the chance to interview Ryan Elder, Tim Kiefer, Mark Rivers, and Tom Howe about composing for animation, comics, and their favorite music genres! I also self-indulgently ask them about choir music and show off my music tattoo as an attempt of camaraderie.
Howe is an award-winning film and television composer and is most known for his work on Wonder Woman and Legend of Tarzan. He has recently worked on the new animated film Early Man.
Q: How’s your Wondercon going? Did you just get here?
A: I just got here, and it’s great. I didn’t realize it was such a big thing. Seeing everyone walking around in their costumes was fantastic. I think Americans do things bigger and better than anywhere else.
Q: Are you from England?
A: I am.
Q: I didn’t know that.
A: Yeah. I’m from there. Lived here four years, though.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about Early Man?
A: Yeah. I came on to that project 10 weeks from when we recorded which was November. My co-writer, who is Harry Gregson-Williams, he called me and asked me if I’d like to co-write the movie with him, and I then flew over to London to meet Nick Park and the team. Hung out there for a couple of days just getting to know everybody, visiting sets, and came back and then we started writing, trying to get things approved because we didn’t have a lot of time before we actually had to record. But the movie was fairly complete by that point. Some things change but a lot of the animation had been done because it takes like four or five years for them to get it together, because it’s very slow. It’s frame by frame filmmaking. It was just a great opportunity to be a part of and a fantastic process.
Q: Can you tell me how you got into composing?
A: My parents are both musical, and…my dad plays the organ, piano, guitar, and things, but he played the organ in church and my mom sung in the choir, so I did a lot of singing when I was younger. I started piano at about four or five or something. I took up the guitar at eight, I think, and then the clarinet later, a few things like that. I studied music and orchestration and things later on. I thought originally I was going to be in a band and be a songwriter. That’s what I really wanted to do, but I got a lot of people asking me to do string arrangements for songs, so I ended up going more in that direction. Somebody who I’d been in college with, who had nothing to do with music, but she got a job at a television channel. She called me they needed some music for a very small thing
they were doing. A two minute long student film that they were putting out that day, and I did that. I’d suddenly found that I’d switched directions from what I thought I was gonna do to writing music for media. After that, that producer went on to do something else and I worked with him, then. One thing sort of snowballed to the other. I always knew I was going to do music, whether it was songwriting or film work or whatever.
Q: What music do you listen to in your free time?
Q: If you like to listen to music in your free time.
A: Funnily enough, because you’re on a film or T.V. show and you’re writing music it can be 18 hours a day for six-and-a-half days a week, sometimes seven when you’re getting near the end. There isn’t really a lot of time to listen to music outside of that, and I almost don’t want to. So I actually I find I listen to a lot of talk radio because I want to hear something but I need it to be almost like white noise that just distracts me rather than something musical. But if I get the chance… I’ve got three kids who listen to all kinds of different things. Usually, it will be whatever they’re listening to, because if we’re driving somewhere in the car, that will take priority over whatever I want to listen to.
Q: You talked a little bit about being in choirs?
Q: I love choir. Do you have a favorite choir composer?
A: Yeah, I love Morten Lauridsen, who I think is amazing. He and actually Eric Whitacre is another guy. Eric Whitacre is quite similar to Morten Lauridsen, but there’s a piece called “O Magnum Mysterium” by Lauridsen and I think it’s fantastic. The really close kind of voice writing. A lot of divisi cuts and clashes but… I don’t think there’s anything like the voice… strings get pretty close maybe, but I think that there’s nothing like just voices for everything, really. For emotion, for written things… one of the films I remember seeing growing up was a film called Cry Freedom. This sort of fantastic African choir, just the sound of it obliterated everything else in the movie in terms of the musical stuff. I thought they were amazing. But those are probably the two that I’ve been listening to, recently anyway. I think they’re both great.
Q: I sang that piece in high school.
Q: I loved it. It was beautiful.
A: It’s great, isn’t it?
Q: It was a lot of work.
A: I was gonna say, it’s not an easy thing to sing. There’s a lot or very close writing that then resolves, isn’t it? You’re clashing for quite a bit. But yeah, it’s a great piece of music.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your role in the Wonder Woman movie?
A: Sure, yes. I was an additional composer on that movie for Rupert Gregson-Williams. That really involves… well, on a movie like that there was, again not a lot of time to put it together, but also there’s a lot of minutes of music. So, I’ll take on some scenes, basically, on Rupert’s behalf and I’ll either take a theme that he’s written-obviously all the main themes are by him and he’s doing the bulk of the movie- and I’ll work that theme into the scene that I’m doing. Or it could be a stand-alone scene that therefore isn’t hugely affecting the arc, then I’ll take that on just to kind of mean that he has not got to do it. So I probably took eight or nine, ten scenes in the movie, something like that. Just try to help out, really. It’s not uncommon on some of these big movies to have one or two other people kind of running alongside you trying to get it all done. Particularly when on a movie of that scale, where the picture’s changing a lot, so there’s a lot of musical conforms to do as well as writing. You’re permanently trying to keep up with the latest version of the picture. It’s just a lot of work that needs to be done. I’ve done that on several different movies for different people, but it’s a great thing to do, I think because you get the experience of working on a huge movie-you’re part of it, your music’s going into the film-but you slightly can stand back from the pressure of being in the firing line as the lead composer if they don’t like it at all. You can learn a lot doing it. It’s good fun. The movie turned out well didn’t it? It was huge. It was very successful.
Q: I loved that movie.
A: Second one’s coming.
Q: Do you read comics at all?
A: I haven’t for many years. A friend of mine collects the original ones and he seems to have an amazing collection of very valuable comics, as well. Do you collect them?
Q: I don’t collect them because I’ve seen that it’s not valuable. But it’s cool to read, I guess. If I really like a piece then I’ll buy it. How much freedom do get when you’re composing?
A: It depends on the project actually. Fairly- initially, anyway- a fairly big degree of flexibility in what you can do and theme ideas, and things. But, fundamentally, writing film music you’re always serving the filmmakers vision, the studio, the other people involved. So you have to respect that. I think sometimes, in the case of like Early Man. I was on for ten weeks, Nick Park was on for six years, so he’s going to have a better idea of what it is and what he wants than I am. I can’t absorb that in that short amount of time, and I have to start writing straight away. I’ve only got ten days before I’m trying to be at the same speed. I think you do get freedom, but at the same time people know what they want and you are trying to serve a higher purpose. Otherwise, you can go write concert music.