SDCC 2015: Musical Anatomy of a Superhero

Behind every superhero is an identifiable musical theme. Comic Con’s Musical Anatomy of a Superhero panelists Tom Holkenborg (Mad Max: Fury Road), Blake Neely (Supergirl, Arrow, Flash), Marco Beltrami (Fantastic Four), Christopher Beck (Ant-Man) and Brian Tyler (The Avengers: Age of Ultron) sat down in the press room to chat about what it’s like to compose music for superheroes and some particular challenges of the genre. We also got some fun behind the scenes stories.

© Kristen Coveleskie, 2015

© Kristen Coveleskie, 2015

How do you become a score composer?

For Brian Tyler, it just seemed like destiny. Growing up a fan of sci-fi, comics and gaming, Comic Con is a place he would come as a fan. As far as playing and writing music, he started young, traveling the world as a session musician. He was playing in rock bands as a drummer and guitarist, but was also a classically trained pianist. As he put it, “it was like two completely different paths.” Although he wrote music in a variety of genres, it was a requiem that got him noticed by Fox.  Brian’s geeky proclivities ended up being a boon as a composer. When he worked on a couple episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise, he was able to draw from his experiences watching the show to create a more coherent and connecting score.

Several years later, after working on a variety of film and TV projects, Brian is scoring Iron Man 3. From there it was Thor: The Dark World which led to The Avengers sequel. In between that there was another film with characters Brian grew up with, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He also did the music for movies in The Fast and The Furious series as well as work on video games like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty.  The diversity in projects helps to keep things fun and interesting. On what’s next, Brian says he generally doesn’t know that he’s working on a project until it’s imminent, but he’d love to do something Star Wars related.


Unexpected influences

You just need to hear a few seconds of a superhero movie score to know that these composers are greatly influenced by classical and orchestral music, but you might be surprised at how other influences come in to play.

Tom Holkenborg

© Kristen Coveleskie, 2015

A couple of the composers got their musical start as drummers. Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) talked about how being a drummer was crucial when he was directing a twelve person drum circle that was used in Man of Steel, saying “drummers only really communicate with other drummers so that was important to understand that.”  

Christopher Beck spoke of how his favorite progressive pop bands from the 70’s and 80’s (Styx was at the top of the list) might still come across today. He divulged, “the urge to write music in that style has long dissipated, but every once in a while a turn or certain chord progression, I’ll recognize it from I song I listened to when I was sixteen.”

Marco Beltrami talks about his varied influences mentioning the Beatles as well as Academy award winning composers Bernard Hermann and Nino Rota. As a member of The Academy, Marco reviews a lot of contemporary work and is a big fan of what his colleagues are doing. On where composers get their influences Marco said, “One thing about being a film composer is that you take inspiration from a lot of different sources, whether it be pop music, orchestral music, classical music. I’m not alone in being open to many different sources. It’s not restrictive.”

If you wonder why such talented and versatile composers always create the same kind of grand orchestral sounds for superhero soundtracks, look towards another influence – the studios that hire them. Several panelists hinted at the restraints that Marvel (or whomever the “boss” is) put on what ends up in a movie. More than one told stories of their more experimental ideas being toned down or rejected altogether. When asked if they are given any rules to follow, Marco Beltrami responds, “There are not rules. It’s just you’re writing for a studio that has certain expectations. They have a lot riding on the film. They don’t want the music to be the one thing that makes them nervous.”


The unseen challenge

Marco Beltrami

© Kristen Coveleskie, 2015

Often, when composing music for television or film, a composer is given an early cut and can create or tweak the score based on the actions or visuals on the screen. Superhero movies can use a lot of CGI and special effects which are added later, giving these composers the unique test of designing music for something they can’t really see. Marco Beltrami mentioned this as an issue he experienced when writing the score for The Fantastic Four. Specifically, creating music for the planet Zero was a challenge as “there wasn’t any visual reference.”


Music as a spoiler alert

Blake Neely, composer for Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and the forthcoming Legends of Tomorrow has the unique challenge of composing music for characters and a story that isn’t fully mapped out.  Asked how much he knows in advance, Blake responds that he generally prefers to be kept in the dark.  On the importance of not knowing he said, “I want to react to it and score it that way so the audience can also react to it that way.”

On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice to give little clues to the audience that they probably won’t pick up on until they re-watch the season. One musical spoiler that happened in The Flash was when the Reverse Flash’s theme appeared in the pilot right before Barry’s mom died despite the fact that the character of the Reverse Flash wasn’t revealed until much later. On that particular acoustic breadcrumb, Blake let us in on a little secret – “I reverse engineered by scoring the mom’s death and then using that [score] when we found out it was the Reverse Flash. I cheated.”


A blues-y rock Ant-Man?

The composer for Ant-Man, Christopher Beck, talked about a potentially different sound for the film, revealing that there was talk of differentiating Hank Pym and Scott Lang musically with Hank Pym getting a more white collar, heroic sound and Scott Lang starting out with a more blue collar, guitar-driven sound. This idea was eventually scrapped. As Christopher put it, “ultimately there wasn’t enough scenes of a blue collar Scott Lang to make a meal out of that kind of music.” Besides, “They are both heroes. It’s more a passing of the torch than a compare and contrast of two different characters.”


The sonically eccentric Ultron

With so many characters and overlapping themes, Brian Tyler had the task of making Avengers: Age of Ultron a seamlessly sonic story. One of the specific challenges mentioned was writing for the movie’s somewhat unconventional villain, Ultron. Brian revealed his thinking behind Ultron’s theme saying, “He’s tricky because you had to do this vibe where you had to be scared of him and feel that he was a threat, but at the same time you could laugh with him. He’s kind of a quirky guy. You couldn’t go totally arch and be like Vader. You had to have some sense of fun with him.”


Using music to make Supergirl superior

While Arrow and The Flash rely mostly on synthetic music, CBS’s Supergirl will be differentiated not just in tone, but by the use of a live orchestra. Talking about advantages and disadvantages of synthetic versus live scoring, Blake Neely commented “that using a live orchestra takes a couple of extra days, but it simply sounds better.” While Arrow is dark and The Flash is light, Blake says the best word to describe the tone of Supergirl is fun!