Soundtrax: Episode 2022-6 Special Edition: June, 2022
THE COMPOSERS Present: THE BOYS Presents DIABOLICAL! Interviews with the Show’s Ten Composers
By Randall D. Larson
The 2022 limited animated series THE BOYS PRESENTS: DIABOLICAL is a spinoff from the Amazon Prime super-hero series THE BOYS. Created by Erik Kripke and starring Karl Urban, Chace Crawford, Jennifer Esposito, Elisabeth Shue, among others, THE BOYS is an irreverent and unexpected take on what happens when a group of superheroes abuse their powers rather than use them for good. The series tells the story of the powerless against the super powerful as they embark on a heroic quest to expose the truth about The Seven, and Vought – the multi-billion dollar conglomerate that manages these superheroes and covers up all of their dirty secrets. The series’ third season is scheduled to premiere this Friday, June 3rd.
A limited animated spinoff series, THE BOYS Presents DIABOLICAL, launched on March 4, 2022 on Amazon Prime, brought to life using various animation styles and written by Andy Samberg, Awkwafina, Garth Ennis, Aisha Tyler, and Seth Rogen among many others, revealing unseen stories within THE BOYS universe – mixing a variety of animation styles in stories that range from hysterical comedy to visceral horror.
A digital soundtrack album was released by Madison Gate Records featuring selections of the original music from all eight episodes of the series. The music is by Julie Bernstein & Steven Bernstein (ANIMANIACS), Ryan Elder (RICK AND MORTY), Christopher Lennertz & Matt Bowen (THE BOYS), Sherri Chung (KUNG FU), Leo Birenberg & Zach Robinson (COBRA KAI), Dara Taylor (THE BOYS), and Hyesu Wiedmann (TURNING POINT).
What follows are in-depth interviews with each of these composers about their previous background and their experiences and challenges scoring their episodes of THE BOYS Presents: DIABOLICAL.
Watch the trailer for THE BOYS Presents: DIABOLICAL:
THE BOYS: scored by Christopher Lennertz: A group of vigilantes set out to take down corrupt superheroes who abuse their superpowers.
DIABOLICAL Episode 3: “I’m Your Pusher,” Butcher confronts OD, a drug dealer who deals directly to Vought supes, and blackmails him into giving the Seven a taste of their own medicine.
DIABOLICAL Episode 8: “One Plus One Equals Two,” When Homelander first joins the Seven, he is teamed up with Black Noir to tackle a hostage situation at a chemical plant. When Homelander arrives at the plant before Black Noir, he tries to peacefully resolve things himself; however, things quickly go south.
Q: Matt, I want to start with you to get some background – I believe you started doing additional music in 2006 and you began working with Chris on additional music for MARMADUKE in 2010. Is that correct, and how did you get started with him?
Matt Bowen: That is correct. I had been doing additional music for a friend of Chris’s, and he needed help and he was looking for a trusted recommendation in the heat of the moment, which is always the best time to get recommended! So I got recommended and I was thrilled to be able to work on a team with someone like Chris. MARMADUKE was my first experience with any feature film, and that started our relationship. That was very early in my development; at the time I was pivoting out of the record-making side of things. The reason I moved to L.A. was to be a record producer, and so I was doing that and I was working as an engineer on a lot of major label albums, which was an awesome experience and, in hindsight, really a great Jedi training for a composer-to-be, not that that was my aim at the time. And then the pivot from that to composing had happened, and I still had a lot to learn, so hooking up with someone like Chris was an amazing opportunity because it was a way to work and at the same time he was absolutely one of my primary mentors as a composer.
Q: What kind of a training ground was that for you in film scoring and how was that deployed as you began getting more assignments?
Matt Bowen: That’s a good question, because, especially these days, it’s incredibly common for composers to have studied composition, and I didn’t. I was a lifelong musician – started playing the violin when I was three years old and was in orchestras as a teenager – so the exposure was very much there, but actual training from an education standpoint was not – it was all off-the-cuff and by the seat of my pants. The creating part of music, up until that point, had really existed in a studio with bands when I was working as a producer and engineer.
Q: Chris, what’s the benefit for you of having an additional music composer to help meet deadlines and workloads?
Christopher Lennertz: It’s everything! It’s a life saver, especially in terms of TV schedules. There’s so much music needing to be created so fast, so in terms of being able to keep the quality level at the highest level, and for the showrunners, having a great team is massively important – but I think no more important than it is on a show like THE BOYS because it’s such a band sound through most of it. There’s such a specific sound to THE BOYS’ instrumentation, and that sound is really made up of our band, which is all of the people who work on the show. Matt has been my right hand and partner in crime from day one, in terms of Season 1, as the sound has been developing, Matt’s been there the whole time producing, and he’s an amazing multi-instrumentalist, which, on a show like THE BOYS, to be able to have multiple collaborators who play multiple instruments and play them in a way with the taste that matches in a way that it really brings the sound of the show to life, the sum is so greater than all of its parts. We put all our heads together and our ears together and our taste and our history of my playing in bands in high school covering Metallica and Anthrax and Matt playing cello and Dara Taylor being a vocalist but also having a very strong classical vocal background, all of these things come together. Alex Bornstein is a synth juggernaut who knows more about analog synths than any of the rest of us, so it’s like having this brain trust come together to be able to deliver really intense scores on a TV schedule, especially where there’s an episode that has almost wall-to-wall music, plus songs. It’s freed me up to really handle a lot of the songs and then also allowed us, I think, to create music that really feels like a band making a record every bit as much as a bunch of composers scoring an episode of something.
Q: Matt, you’ve also done some original composing jobs along the way, such as the comedy horror film AMIGO UNDEAD and you also co-scored some documentaries with other composers. How did these opportunities help you in your career?
Matt Bowen: Every project informs the next project – they’re all their own experience. I was asked a question once where I had just done a short film and then one of those documentaries, and they asked “What’s the difference between working on scripted versus documentary?” I told them that even if you were to work on back-to-back documentaries or on back-to-back scripted, those two projects would be wildly different in their musical approach, in the approach of how the director wants to do things, at what point in the project they want you to come on. Every single project is its own adventure.
Q: Chris, when you began to compose THE BOYS in 2019 you brought in a couple of additional music composers and a number of music producers – with you at the musical helm how did you orchestrate – so to speak! – these collaborators in achieving what the series scores need?
Christopher Lennertz: I think the key is that I use the same orchestrators almost all the time, so in terms of orchestration I know their skill sets and I also know they understand what I mean in shorthand. Most of them also work with me on LOST IN SPACE and a lot of my film projects, so to be able to make very quick comments, like, “Oh, this should have a very old school Jerry Goldsmith feel to it” versus something that might be more modern or hybrid. I can say one sentence and they know exactly what I’m talking about and the orchestrations will follow what my intents are. That’s been a real big help in terms of that, and then I’ve brought in a couple of great producers to produce some of the songs with me. Specifically, last year The Math Club produced the song that A-Train rapped [Season 2, Episode 6] and they did an amazing job of that, because I’d said I really wanted it to feel like he lives in the world of Childish Gambino and things like that, and they nailed it, which helped make it feel really authentic. And that’s important, too, because when they have a specialty that’s something that I maybe am not a specialist in, I need to trust their production to make it feel authentic in terms of a sound on a record.
Q: Matt: You are also credited as one of the music producers on THE BOYS series. What can you tell me about doing that as well as composing additional music?
Matt Bowen: As Chris mentioned, we are the band, so those really go hand-in-hand. We’re producing as we’re writing. Luckily the sound of the show is meant to be pick-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps sort of gritty, grungy, and imperfect. So, as Chris mentioned, I’m a multi-instrumentalist, but a jack-of-old-trades/master-of-none kind of thing – by no means do I claim to be at a session level, especially living in L.A. – but we’re constantly creating as we’re writing. They really go hand-in-hand.
Q: Chris, coming in to THE BOYS PRESENTS: DIABOLICAL, having scored the live action series, what were your thoughts – or directions – about scoring your two animated episodes of this series? These are different stories but within the familiar Vought environment…
Christopher Lennertz: When they first approached me about it, and then I brought Matt on as well, their pitch was: these eight episodes are part of this Vought universe but some of them stray pretty far away from the mothership. Some of them are living in the world of very classic animation, almost like a Carl Stalling thing, some of it’s more anime, and what they said to me was, “We want you,” and what ended up being both of us, “to be episode one, episode eight, you need to be our entrance into this world that get’s wider, stylistically, and then you also need to be our exit and you need to take us back, especially since episode 8 really becomes canon in terms of Black Noir’s story and the story of Homelander. And so, our job was to be the link between the mothership sound and this off-the-wall group of shows that could actually get away with so much more because they’re animated. It could have such a bigger palette, sound-wise, and I think they wanted us to ground it and provide an entrance and an exit, or an off-ramp, if you will, to get in and out of the series, but make it feel like these episodes still live in the grander world of THE BOYS universe and Vought.
Q: Yeah. I really like how what became episode three and then episode eight book-end this series by involving Vought heroes very much in the style of the live action series. Matt, what was your experience as you began to score and co-compose with Chris on those two episodes?
Matt Bowen: The creative team which we were primarily working with was Simon Racioppa and Giancarlo Volpe. They were adamant about us following our gut – explore and throw stuff against the wall, which is always a fun place to start. They said “by no means does this need to sound like THE BOYS, and as a matter of fact it shouldn’t ever be on the nose a THE BOYS score. At the same time, it’s available if you feel like you ever need it.” And so for the most part there was some inspiration in the first episode we did, “I’m Your Pusher.” In the second one, “One Plus One Equals Two,” the one that, as Chris said, really became canon, we were able to plant a seed as it bookends at the very end, we were able to very literally comment on the Vought theme from the mothership. That was really powerful for someone like Chris and myself, the way we work; we’re fans of the show, too, so it was pretty fun to geek out from that level and we’re like, Oh! This is the origin story for Homelander and this is the point where he really becomes the sociopath that we know, and it was just this perfect moment to have the freedom to very literally reference that Vought theme.
Christopher Lennertz: I think the other thing that we have to mention is what we did do is use some techniques – like the real bending of pitch that we tend to do a lot on the live action show. We did that a lot of times on the animated show, but we didn’t do it with the same instruments that we would normally use in the live action world. For example, The Great White Wonder’s theme has a very sort of like ‘80s Vangelis vibe to it, but we still used the technique from the live action show to create that sense of dread, warping, and curdling, things going south emotionally and dramatically, and we were able to bring that stuff across while still creating brand new themes and using the ‘80s sound that never would have been appropriate within the live action show – but it became appropriate because of the setting and the character on the animated short. It was like a lot of freedom but it was also the ability, like Matt said, to go back to our bag of tricks at times and make sure that it all played nicely together.
Q: How far along was the animation when you began scoring the episode – what images did you have to work from?
Matt Bowen: At that point the picture was pretty rough. It was enough to get the story along, and with that they sent some images with regard to where they were going, stylistically, so we could know what the world really felt like. So Chris and I went off and wrote some sketches to explore what this new world would be. And by the time we were done writing those and getting feedback from those, then we had received picture that was eighty to ninety percent complete. It was far enough along to really dig our heels in on the scoring side.
Q: Earlier you mentioned the kind of instruments in your band. How would you summarize the palette that you gave, or where asked to give, to these two episodes?
Christopher Lennertz: It’s actually a wider palette than the live action series, and I tend to find that’s generally true in animation because it is a little more make-believe and it’s a little more fantastical. I think we were able to do things like use a lot more synths than we would normally use, and still have some of the orchestral elements – and have some more sound design-y things that happen, too, that we don’t do that much of on the live action show but really seemed to fit where the characters were going in this.
Matt Bowen: I think, also, being in a much shorter form – these were all standalone episodes and they were short, so there was much less need for a continuous, homogenous sound. So the fact that one episode ends up in a completely different place, palette-wise, than it started, is totally fine. I think it adds to the experience.
Q: What was most challenging for you in scoring these episodes?
Christopher Lennertz: For me sometimes when you do related properties, whether it’s a movie sequel or an offshoot of another show, sometimes the most challenging thing is trying to find out what you can do that’s different that still feels like it fits, to the fans. Because, I think, if there is anything I can say about THE BOYS is that the fans love the show, they respect it and they feel they have ownership in the world that Eric Kripke has created and the world that Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson created [in the comics]. For me, there’s always a little bit of fear that somehow we may go too far or we take the wrong turn when we do something. We never want to hear a review saying “Oh, wow, that didn’t feel like it belongs in the world of THE BOYS!” You never want to do that. I really feel like you want to pay respects and continue to expand the world while still making it feel natural in terms of this universe. That, to me, is always the challenging part. You want to give people what they’re hoping for, but that it also isn’t different just to be different. It’s got a real thought and reasoning behind it.
Matt Bowen: That was my exact answer as well. The two episodes we worked on – “I’m Your Pusher” was the one that was actually written by Garth Ennis, and then “One Plus One Equals Two” was the one that’s the most directly canon – so it did feel like there was that added pressure of living in THE BOYS world but still, creatively, this needed to be it’s own thing.
Q: Matt, in terms of new projects, I see you’re now scoring, or about to, a sequel to THE BINGE, a film you scored a couple years ago…? Can you tell me anything about this project?
Matt Bowen: This is, as Chris mentioned, the challenge of working on a sequel. It is a holiday-based project – I believe that’s public knowledge – so it will probably be released somewhere in the Thanksgiving realm. It’s a bit of a bucket list item for me, honestly, as the composer. I’m already off and running on it, and I’m loving working on a holiday movie, being able to heavily reference all those incredible scores, which we’re very much doing, being a holiday-based comedy. I’m doing my own referencing, musically, which is really a ton of fun.
Q: Are you reprising any of the music you did for the first film, to add continuity?
Matt Bowen: Not really – surprisingly. I got done reading the script and I immediately felt that this has a different heart to it. The first film was a little more about friendship, this one is a little more about family, and around the holidays it digs a little deeper. I mentioned that to the director, who’s also the writer, and he immediately agreed. So thematically and sonically I think it’s going to be pretty different.
Q: Chris, what’s coming up for you that you can talk about?
Christopher Lennertz: Obviously, there’s the next season of THE BOYS, and I’m doing a Netflix Halloween horror that’s coming out for Halloween time; the title is in flux right now, but it’s a really cool GOONIES-style fun family Halloween movie, and then I did the score for a movie called 13: THE MUSICAL which is a Netflix movie version of a Jason Robert Brown musical that was on Broadway about twenty years ago. That’s another family film but it’s definitely a musical, a lot of fun, very Broadway. That one’s done and it should be out, I think, August 12th.
Steven Bernstein: We have slightly different stories – we both went to school for composition and I ended up at USC and Julie was at the Dick Grove School of Music. We’re classical orchestrally trained composers.
Julie Bernstein: We both studied classical music… which is funny because when you think of this music [to THE BOYS Presents DIABOLICAL] people don’t listen and think “Oh, I’m listening to classical music” but the truth is they are – sort of very quick bits of it!
Steven Bernstein: After I got my Masters at USC, I went back to the first year of their film scoring program. There I met Fred Steiner who took me under his wing. He was doing TINY TOON ADVENTURES [1990-95] and they were hiring a number of experienced Los Angeles composers and I happened to be one of them. I started orchestrating for him and then I began doing some ghostwriting and got a lot of experience with scoring for animation, especially in the old Warner Bros style. After Fred, I got work on TASMANIA with Richard Stone and that led to ANIMANIACS…
Julie Bernstein: I had an undergrad music degree and then an “overgrad” film scoring program similar to what USC had which was a at a private school called Dick Grove. It was about one tenth the cost of USC, so I lucked out there! The teachers were going back and forth between the two schools – Buddy Baker and some other big names in animation music from a long time ago. I started orchestrating on ANIMANIACS for Richard Stone and then I started writing on it, and here we are today!
Q: When the two of you are scoring together, what’s your process of collaborating?
Julie Bernstein: We don’t actually score together…
Steven Bernstein: We divide up the show into segments, into cues, about a minute to a minute-and-a-half, depending on what’s happening. I’ll be in here, Julie will go off to her writing station, and we’ll share seams – I’ll tell her how and where I end and what key and she’ll take off from there and we’ll start the next cue so it will hopefully be seamless.
Julie Bernstein: We do write the themes together, if we have themes. Like in DIABOLICAL, we had lots of themes that we collaborated on.
Q: Steven you scored a couple of interesting genre horror films, PERNICIOUS and BLOOD LAKE: ATTACK OF THE KILLER LAMPREYS. What can you tell me about scoring these projects and what they needed, musically?
Steven Bernstein: Interesting enough, I found them very similar to scoring animation in a lot of ways. The synchronization is more important, I think, in horror films than they are, maybe, in other genres of live action film, in that the timing of the scares – the BOO! – is really important. You have to set it up right so that it has its intended effect. It’s definitely heightened emotion, so in that regard they’re very similar – so I felt pretty much at home doing those except that the palette was different. I scored them electronically, I had a lot of interesting samples and effects.
Q: Julie you and Steve jointly scored the TV series MAKE WAY FOR NODDY and ANIMANIACS. What were your experiences scoring those projects?
Julie Bernstein: MAKE WAY FOR NODDY goes back a ways! We collaborated that one. That was unusual because we’re two individual composers with very individual styles, just as any two individuals would be. On that, we wrote the themes together and we ended up actually sitting next to each other because we had a lot to write.
Steven Bernstein: It was initially a library; so we wrote walk-and-talk, we wrote action, we wrote all the different necessities… Then there were several specials that were scored individually. So there was a combination; we used a lot of the library for the series, but then for the specials we wrote original music.
Julie Bernstein: And we wrote songs, music and lyrics. That was a little different. And back in the day in ANIMANIACS [1993-98] there were a lot of song parodies. The show made a lot of fun of Disney and things, so the scriptwriters would write words in the rhythms of songs that we all know, and then I would have to change them because we didn’t want to get sued! I ended up writing a lot of songs for that. And now on the new ANIMANIACS [2020+] we write some themes together, but basically we’re in our own corners working on it.
Steven Bernstein: But having worked on the initial iteration of ANIMANIACS, it’s like coming back home.
Q: As a pair of separate composers, your music is definitely very seamless, so you’re able to make those seams work.
Julie Bernstein: That’s the trick! We always have to remember that if I’m starting a cue and he’s ending the one before it, I will let him know where I start, which means he had to back his up because harmonically, melodically, we try to write music in this stuff, even though it’s fast little bits…
Steven Bernstein: And at this point there’s a style established in the show where we know pretty much what the other person is going to be doing in a certain kind of scene…
Julie Bernstein: But we need to check-in and make sure that the keys are there and also, when we’re timing out each scene, it’s really imperative that the last note that we write is right on the beat, because it’s going to overlap with whatever the other person did.
Steven Bernstein: Technically it’s challenging but artistically, too, we have to make sure that they match.
Q: How did you become involved in the first episode of THE BOYS PRESENTS: DIABOLICAL, “Laser Baby’s Day Out?”
Steven Bernstein: That came through our agent, John Tempereau, at Soundtrack Music Associates. He knew our music, I guess, from all the Warner Bros. stuff we’ve done, and for “Laser Baby” they wanted specifically the old Warner Bros./Carl Stalling-like sound, or even the ANIMANIACS-like sound.
Julie Bernstein: Sort of what we’ve been doing.
Steven Bernstein: We didn’t treat it like a horror film. There’s a lot of blood, but it’s comic book blood.
Julie Bernstein: It wasn’t PERNICIOUS! But it was a joy working with those people.
Q: Were you familiar with the series THE BOYS before you came to write this music?
Steven Bernstein: I was. I got very excited when we got the call because I’m a big fan of the series, and it’s such an interesting universe they place this in. So I was very glad to get to work on it.
Julie Bernstein: I wasn’t. I am now…!
Q: As you’ve mentioned, this episode is animated and scored in the classic tradition of Warner Bros cartoons, well, except for all the gore. What can you tell me about scoring this episode and giving it the kind of vibe you’re obviously able to do from your experience with ANIMANIACS?
Steven Bernstein: It didn’t have the heavy importance that maybe the other shorts required. We start with the main character, Simon, who’s just going to work. We wrote this jaunty little saxophone melody for him. Basically we started with the themes – we wrote a theme for the baby, which can work in different guises…
Julie Bernstein: But the whole thing builds and it builds, and it becomes more and more. We got to write some really emotional, climatic type of music. What’s so funny, as you know, is that it will become really awful, and then it’s, aw, really cute! It was like, the baby is cute, so we wrote a cute theme. The baby is so adorable, then the most gruesome bloody thing will happen, and then the baby comes out and it’s a lot of fun again. It’s the contrast the emotional dark music and the light baby music that made in interesting, and fun!
Steven Bernstein: There’s a lot of really great emotional stuff between the baby and her ultimate caretaker, Simon, so we got to emote a bit.
Julie Bernstein: We got to write, pretty much, every emotion there, in a very short period.
Q: And what was it like musically accommodating the baby’s death rays and the perspective of the scientist who tries to rescue her?
Julie Bernstein: For the death ray we came up with something that sounded right to us, a musical effect with an orchestral color… We do tend to write a lot of musical sound effects.
Steven Bernstein: We covered the musical effect – that’s part of the style. They’re meant to accompany the sound effect. I don’t know which one won, at this point! I’m hoping there’s at least a semblance of balance between us and the sound effects! They’re mostly incidental [visual] accidents until maybe two-thirds of the way through the short. Being accidents, we treated them as they came but, later on, when the baby discovers that she can control these rays and Simon is suggesting where she might use them, there was heightened tension and heightened emotion in those instances.
Julie Bernstein: And that added to the effect that we had already established. But, depending on the dub, which we aren’t invited to – and I don’t get why! – the sound effects can be very loud.
Q: How did you work with the animators and showrunner to fit your music to the rapid pace of the animation and story?
Julie Bernstein: I think we we’re pretty used to the rapid pace. In ANIMANIACS and all its cousins we start to write something in one style and then you’re right onto the next, so we’re used to that pace.
Steven Bernstein: A lot of the pacing in the Warner Bros. stuff is eight-frame steps, which is 180 beats per minute, so that’s a tempo that we’re used to operating in.
Julie Bernstein: We try to remember that for the poor players when we’re writing! We write a lot of 16th notes, but when it’s over 180 we try to be careful because it really is asking a lot of the musicians!
Steven Bernstein: In terms of working with the filmmakers, they set us loose. We would preview our cues, and we got a few notes from them, but most of the time they were so wonderful and complementary.
Julie Bernstein: They were really happy, and that made us happy! We would send in what we were doing and they liked it. They’d said “Your short is a classic Looney Tunes approach. From the logo, it’s all based on those older cartoons.” But with a little quirky twist.
Steven Bernstein: And with Vought, there was not much foreshadowing of the bad stuff until we run across the guard, who offers some menace. And it didn’t last long.
Julie Bernstein: And we didn’t want to foreshadow. To be more shocking, we didn’t want to give anything away.
Q: Were you able to use live players or was this accomplished with a digital orchestra?
Steven Bernstein: Live players!
Julie Bernstein: But remotely. This past couple of years we have been working live orchestras, but remotely. We get sent each and every track from everybody’s particular home…
Steven Bernstein: Each of the players is recording in their own home studio, so we get thirty five to forty stripes to assemble and do a little editing if we need to.
Julie Bernstein: They’re all in their own space and we’ve given them a track to listen to, that sounds orchestral, so they can hear what they’re playing with, but still it’s impossible, within their own space, to get it exactly, so we sometimes have to move things over.
Steven Bernstein: We’ll tweak here and there and then we hand it off to our brilliant music mixer, Damon Tedesco, who does his magic and it sounds like everyone’s in the same space. But we’re headed back to the studio for live recordings at the end of this month.
Julie Bernstein: After this past few years, we now know it can be done. It can be put together and it can sound great. We love getting live tracks, and they are live, they’re real people, but being in the same room, like a whole string section plucking, they’re listening to each other and they can do it together. If they’re at home, it’s a completely different thing. There’s nothing like being in the room. So that was a conversation that we had with the DIABOLICAL team, and they asked us what we would prefer [live or digital], and we’re so grateful that they went along with this, live.
Q: What was most challenging for you in scoring this episode?
Julie Bernstein: This is not easy music to write. It’s very challenging because you want the emotion to come through, you want the action to come through, and you want it to make sense, musically, and make it work with the picture and give the people who wrote it what they’re looking for. This is a challenge in and of itself.
Steven Bernstein: The synchronization demands for this and the other kinds of shows we’ve been on is intense. It’s trying to hit the footsteps and the door slams – and in this case, the laser decapitations – while making it sound like it’s inevitable, musically.
Julie Bernstein: That is the challenge to writing animation. What we do as opposed to underscoring dialog or a different type of thing, the challenge is to hit those spots within the music, so that it sounds inevitable. That’s the challenge. And it’s fun to have a challenge!
Q: Is there anything you can say about what might be coming up next for you in film scoring?
Steven Bernstein: We’re working currently on Season 3 of the ANIMANIACS reboot. We are finishing up the first episode and starting the second, so that is in our immediate future. We’ve had some possibilities bubble up here and there but nothing definite yet.
Julie Bernstein: I wrote some string quartet arrangements for some jazz singers, and I just want to put that out there… I would love more! I mean, it’s nothing like what we’re doing, and I love it so much! I want to add that this project was such a fun thing to work on. Just the brilliance of it and the funniness, and it’s so dark. When you put something in that’s really dark, and then the cutest thing ever is a baby – and an animated baby is cuter than any baby! – so to put darkness and then cut it with that baby, that is a lot of fun!
Episode 2: “An Animated Short Where Pissed Off Supes Kill Their Parents” – A group of supe teens with abnormal powers live in a reclusive facility. After learning the truth about the origin of their powers following the events of “Over the Hill with the Swords of a Thousand Men” (THE BOYS, Season 2, Episode 3), the teens bust out to get revenge on their parents who abandoned them.
Q: I understand your first scoring work was on a variety of short series in the early 2000s… How did you get your start?
Ryan Elder: Technically, my first scoring work – if you can call it that – was on commercials. I started doing that as an intern in 2000 for a studio in Santa Monica called Emoto Music. While I was there as a salaried employee I was also moonlighting on the shorts that you mentioned for a website called Channel 101, it also does a live screening every month. People make genre comedy shorts, they’re five minutes long and they screen in front of an audience and the audience votes for their favorite, and if you are a top voter getter you get to make the next episode in your series. If you don’t, you’re cancelled. That thing was started by Dan Harmon who created COMMUNITY on NBC and co-created RICK AND MORTY, which I also work on, so I met him there and I also met my friend Justin Roiland there, who was an up-and-coming animator, and worked with them and various other people there on many short little TV shows, in my spare time. It was basically honing my chops in scoring for longer form stuff because I was working on commercials all day. I developed good relationships there that, over the years, have paid off and turned into further work. It all started there.
Q: You’ve become best-known for your work on animated television, especially RICK AND MORTY, which I am a huge fan of. Tell me about your early days on that show and how you developed its music over more than 50 episodes, so far.
Ryan Elder: Yeah! Dan and Justin are the co-creators of RICK AND MORTY and they are my friends. I had done a bunch of work with them on stuff that were just passion projects, so a lot of creative trust was built there – and also I can deliver things on time, and that kind of thing. So when they got a chance to develop RICK AND MORTY for Adult Swim I was a natural fit for them to come in and provide the music. Justin and I had worked together on a different show that didn’t get picked up, and he really loved the theme song I did for that so we repurposed it and rejiggered it for RICK AND MORTY for the pitch. I worked on RICK AND MORTY from the very beginning when it was just an animatic that we were sending to the network to see if they wanted to buy it. For the sound of the show, Justin and Dan were saying, “Let’s do a classic sci-fi adventure movie score. Let’s make the music really big and bold, and like really make the world seem so much bigger than what we’re seeing visually, necessarily, through the music.” And so I dialed up my Jerry Goldsmith – I’m a big fan of PLANET OF THE APES, ALIEN, the original STAR TREK, and was heavily influenced by him on my early approaches. Of course I don’t think I got anywhere near his quality, but, you know, I tried! That’s how the sound of the show got developed. Over the years, we’ve been working on the show for a while, and I like to add new wrinkles every year, new sounds and new approaches as I go along, but it still maintains the DNA of a classic sci-fi adventure film.
Q: That series certainly gave you a number of intriguing opportunities, going all the way to your “Snake Jazz” track, which has become iconic for that show.
Ryan Elder: There’s the score, which is one thing, and then there’s all these crazy songs that, basically, the writers go, “Let’s do the craziest thing that we can think of!” and then it’s up to me to make that happen. Everything from something as simple as “Snake Jazz” to the David Bowie style songs I did in Season 2 that Jermaine Clement sings, which is a whole other bag. So I do get asked to do things that purposely sound bad and then things that need to sound like a real song! So it’s definitely a wide variety.
Q: Other notable animated series you did include THE BOSS BABY: BACK IN BUSINESS and another favorite of mine, INSIDE JOB. What can you tell me about scoring these shows and what was unique about each of them for you?
Ryan Elder: BOSS BABY: BACK IN BUSINESS was the first children’s property that I worked on. I co-pitched with my good friend and co-composer Ben Bromfield. The initial approach was that they wanted a Jay-Z meets 30 ROCK score – the elements are retro ‘90s/2000’s hip-hop with a big band jazz feel. I can do hip-hop in my sleep and my friend Ben can do jazz in his sleep, so it seemed like a natural fit. He had some experience working on children’s animation so we sat down and met with the showrunners. There was such a clear idea on what they wanted, it was like, let’s run with that. And then on INSIDE JOB, we have one season of that out, and I’m also co-composing on that – that was another situation where the brief called for a stylistic approach that I thought, okay, so I know this is going to have some traditional scoring elements. There’s going to be action scenes and drama and suspense and stuff that I feel really comfortable with, but they also really wanted an independent hip-hop vibe, what they called “spooky hip-hop,” but it was really coming from this place of independent label hip-hop stuff. Coincidentally, my brother-in-law is an independent hip-hop producer, Steve Reidell, so he and I pitched on the show together – him bringing the credibility of that, with me bringing the approach that I can do this traditional scoring, and together we’ll be able to come up with something that had its own unique voice.
Q: What brought you into THE BOYS Presents DIABOLICAL and how did you become involved in scoring Episode 2?
Ryan Elder: I’m not exactly sure, specifically, how I got involved. I suspect, since episode 2 was co-created by Justin Roiland, who co-created RICK AND MORTY, that he may have said “Hey, my guy Ryan knows what he’s doing, let’s hire him for this.” They had a ton of freedom for who they got to work on it and how they got to approach it. So I was elated when I got the call because, first of all, I loved THE BOYS, and I knew, giving Justin free reign, it was going to be something really wild! And indeed it was. Very fun to work on.
Q: Now I don’t believe you’d worked with the short’s director Parker Simmons before. How did you and he work together to decide the kind of music this episode needed?
Ryan Elder: It was great working with Parker for the first time. The episode was temped and we talked through the temp and spotted the episode together. It was over Zoom because it was during the pandemic. The shorts are all really different from each other, but with this one, being straight comedy with some elements of horror, I knew that there would be no wrong answers, physically. It was let’s do fun stuff, let’s play to the comedy, let’s maybe play the straight man. Most of the comedy was quirky music or similar. He and I talked through that and decided where the music was going to play it straight and where it was going to be comedic, and then I just went up with it.
Q: This episode is far and away the most deliciously gruesome of the series’ 8 shorts (and that’s saying something!). How did you approach scoring its roaring rampage of revenge?
Ryan Elder: You know, what’s funny, when I used to work with Justin way back in the Channel 101 days in the early 2000s, that was his style of animation. He loved the gory stuff! If you think this was upsetting, you should see some of his earlier stuff! So I was prepared a little bit for the adventure we were going to go on together. My approach is that I think things are funnier, especially really over-the-top things like this, when the music really plays it straight; when the music is like not in on the joke, almost, if that makes sense. These horror moments, which are meant to be so over the top where you’re laughing at how ridiculous they are, are made funnier if I make the music really lean into how over-the-top and gruesome the scenes are. So there’s definitely elements on horror that I utilize later on in that episode.
Q: What were some of your favorite musical moments of this episode?
Ryan Elder: I really love the moment where Papers – the supe who can find any papers – comes out and the music’s really heroic and completely over the top. It’s almost tongue-in-cheek heroic and gets completely undercut when he can’t find the paper he’s looking for. For me, that’s a great moment. And then I also really liked creating the emotional underpinning for the Ghost character, giving her pathos. At the end of the day as we come away from this episode, yeah it’s crazy and it’s funny; it’s a comedy, but we also want to take this character of Ghost seriously. I do feel a lot of people online say that if there was a character from this that could end up in the show, it could be Ghost. That would be an interesting character that could translate over. I found that really interesting; and that was my goal, to make this character the one that we go, oh, this one, this is like a real person, whereas the guy with boobs for a face is goofy, right?!
Q: What images did you have to work from when you started scoring the episode?
Ryan Elder: I got started pretty early on this. That isn’t always the case with animation, but I started working from the animatic, doing sketching because I knew timings would change from animatic to final color. I came up with basic ideas, melodies and things I wanted to do for that, and then reconfigured them once I got color, maybe a month later.
Q: What was your instrumental palette on this – were you able to use live players, or…?
Ryan Elder: One of my pitches for the intro theme was like The White Stripes on acid. I wanted to do something that was really ballsy rock and roll but also off-kilter, that felt like something that would never be a radio hit but is compelling in that crazy rock way. And so I played a lot of live bass – I can play bass and guitar – so I played the bass and guitar and I had some drum sounds that I recorded from a friend of mine that I was able to configure within this. So in terms of live instruments, what you hear in the main and the rock stuff is live. The orchestral stuff is all digital orchestra, classical libraries, configured to make it all work together.
Q: What was most challenging for you in scoring this episode?
Ryan Elder: It’s shift-on-a-dime, right?! We go from cooky, crazy music to emotional music with Ghost, to rock and roll music, to horror and heroic music. It really runs the gamut, and getting those transitions to work, without feeling like you’re being jerked out of the emotion, was probably the biggest challenge.
Q: Any other thoughts about working on this show?
Ryan Elder: It was a fantastic experience. I really loved it. You know, it was really fun for me to see and hear what everybody else has done because actually a couple of my friends scored other parts of the short. My friend Matt Bowen, who worked with Chris Lennertz and Dara Taylor, so it was great to see what they came up with too. They had totally different episodes than me.
Q: Is there anything else coming up next for you in film scoring that you can talk about?
Ryan Elder: We’re working on Season 1B of INSIDE JOB. That should be out, I can’t say for sure when, but I’m hoping this year at some point. And then also working on Season 6 of RICK AND MORTY, that should be out hopefully this year as well, although again I don’t know, they don’t tell me anything – I just do my job and keep my head down! Sometimes it airs and I have a surprise and I have no idea it was going to, like I did a few years ago! In any case, those are the two big projects we’ve got coming out. We also have two seasons of BOSS BABY still, which have not been released yet, so those should be coming out too.
Episode 4: “Boyd in 3D” Boyd uses an experimental transformation cream from Vought to seduce his next door neighbor, Cherry. When Cherry starts using the cream as well to become a catgirl, the two become Vought’s hottest power couple. But when their fame puts a strain on their relationship, it'll take more than face cream to fix things…
Q: I understand that you began in the late 2000s, as an orchestrator, vocalist, and additional music composer. How did that provide a live training ground for you in scoring films and television?
Sherri Chung: I started at USC as a Graduate School and I was an assistant to Walter Murphy as an orchestrator. It was not a writing gig, but what was amazing is I got to see from Walter a lot of what he was doing was working with live musicians, every week, for all of his episodes – FAMILY GUY, AMERICAN DAD, and THE CLEVELAND SHOW. I got to really see how you interact with musicians, how you collaborate with them, how you run a session, how you work in the booth when you’re on one side of the glass and the musicians are on the other side. Some times you have to work a little harder in order to get something that maybe you’re not hearing – it’s not translating from the page to the music that they’re playing, and you have to work out that process, if you will. I also saw him work on the movie that he’d done [TED 2]. So a lot of my experience with him, and the orchestration part of it, was really just learning how to do the other parts of what it means to be a film and TV composer, which I believe was really important, but it wasn’t actually the writing part.
And then I was an additional writer for Blake Neely, and also a collaborator. That turned me into as equal as you can get with a guy like Blake. I always think of it as working in your league and working above your league, or out of your league. And I mean that in a very respectful way towards the process of becoming a better film composer. I was doing smaller short projects on my own, either in commercials or short films, documentaries, some feature length – and those are contacts that I’ve gotten from networking on my own and I considered that working in my league. When I was working for Walter and when I was writing for Blake and then writing with him, I always considered those working out of my league. I learned from Blake, and he has such a great style of writing, and a lot of his shows really required a lot of heavy lifting. On those superhero shows that he was doing [CW’s Arrowverse], it required an additional layer of film composing. It felt like I was kind of thrown into the fire, as it were; it wasn’t just like, Oh, here’s a documentary, we just need to keep pace and allow the dialog to come through… No. There’s no dialog here, there’s a battle scene going on between superheroes that couldn’t possibly exist in our plane of existence and so the task of music was so much bigger. Working for and then with both of these composers were the most influential experiences that I had that gave me all of this background and all of this opportunity to learn things, try them out on my own little projects, and then also try them out once I was writing more and doing more things on the shows.
Q: You scored the 4th episode of THE BOYS Presents DIABOLICAL – Were you familiar with the series THE BOYS before you came to write this music?
Sherri Chung: I actually was not! I was familiar with it in the sense that I knew what it was, and I knew the composer, Chris Lennertz, and I have to tell you, it’s really funny because when I started seeing trailers for it, was before it came out, I was like, Omi gosh this is absolutely a show I would watch. I am so into this! I’m embarrassed to say, but I can say this about a lot of shows I’ve been meaning to watch, I just literally have not carved out enough time to do it! So it has not been something I’d been able to watch.
Q: Your episode is fun because it’s both a romance, a shape changing super hero adventure, a story of abusing power and trust, and has a tender denouement with a really startling ending. What directions were you given as for the kind of music the director/producers wanted – and how did your score develop from those discussions?
Sherri Chung: I was really fascinated by the episode for the same reasons. Having heard nothing about it, I just saw it, and I was like, gosh, I really feel like this is so much deeper than it seems. So when I had the conversation with Simon Racioppa [exec producer] and Naz Ghodrati-Azadi [director], it was one of those things where I was like, “Yes, I get it! This is actually more of a commentary…” without them having to tell me, which was really great because that means it was really coming through. I remember talking to them about what I envisioned about it, and they agreed, there needed to be some sort of heart to it, something that makes us really feel for Boyd. I’ll admit, when I first saw it, too, I was like, these people are so out of control, and it was such an exaggeration, but of course it was an exaggeration to get the point across. It was interesting, and it took us a minute to figure out what the right sound was. I think this episode had the most needle drops and probably had the least amount of score in it than other episodes. When that happens, there is a challenge for the score to fit in well in between the songs. Songs and score are doing different things but it did take us a few rounds to figure out and really land on something that felt timeless but also a little bit more relevant to the music of today or the music that Boyd is listening to on his radio or walking on the street. They wanted to make it very relevant to what people might be listening to now. With songs and with score it was a tricky one.
Q: What was your musical palette for this episode?
Sherri Chung: It ended up being guitar and bass and keys, and it was percussive. There was a little funk at the end, which is kind of cool. It’s what I like to score – a song-score – that’s just my little silly coined phrase. I didn’t write songs – there were no lyrics and there wasn’t a whole lot of melody either, but the idea was, where it doesn’t sound like a score, it sounds a little bit more like a vibe and a groove. There was definitely some shaping and scoring in there. It was a very electronic score as well, especially when they have their epic fight in the club. That was one of the first scenes that I wrote, actually, because they just wanted something that was really outrageous and really far outside of the sounds of the score and the palette of the songs that they were licensing. Just something to really be like, now they are not themselves, they are going through withdrawal and they’re turning against each other and it’s just something that’s so outrageous and bombastic. That one ended being a lot more electronic, synth-based, really grungy and gritty.
Q: At what point did you begin writing your score – was the animation completed or were you working from temporary images?
Sherri Chung: Very temporary, and then I would get new cuts that had more color in them. What was cool about this, and I’d worked on animation in other things, too, often times you’re just working from animatics – there’s no color, it’s all very rough drawn, and then I get sent a new version that was a bit more smoothed out and the style of animation comes through a little bit more clearly and the coloring comes in. In animation, you get these tone boards, or color boards, or mood boards, and they’re just stills – pictures and images that you can look at and you can see that Boyd’s going to look like this, and his shirt is going to be this color and his jeans are going to be this, and Cherry’s going to be wearing a leopard leotard and it’s going to look like this. That’s really helpful, too, because, again, being a film composer, it’s very visually influenced – and it changes sometimes even with what instruments will work on something. It’s like, Oh that looks really different now, so I feel an adjustment needs to be made in instrumentation or the music itself.
Q: Is there anything else coming up that you can share at this time?
Sherri Chung: Yeah, I’m doing a movie for Netflix with a director named Vicky Wight. She and I worked together on another film called THE LOST HUSBAND . And that film was based on a book by Katherine Center. HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS is the name of this new movie, and it’s also based on a book by Katherine Center, so Vicky and I get to join forces again for that movie.
For additional information on Sherri Chung see my extended interview with her in the next full Soundtrax column later this month! -rdl
Episode 5: "BFFs" Sky is the outcast new girl in town. After stealing a vial of Compound V from a low level pot dealer, Sky is determined to get powers so she can finally have friends. Killing two birds with one stone, Sky develops the power to create new friends out of poop.
Q: Leo, I see that you started around 2009 scoring some shorts and documentaries and serving as a score coordinator and additional music composer on a variety of projects? How did you begin and how did these experiences serve as a training ground for the kinds of things you are working on today?
Leo Birenberg: We worked for Christophe Beck on FROZEN, ANT MAN, EDGE OF TOMORROW, and a bunch of comedies in different genres. He does such a wide array of films and genres that it was the best possible place for us to learn. By the time we left there, which was around 2015, we had written so much music in so many different genres. I always think that film scoring is a lot of musical problem-solving, like films and television story structures are often the same, and you see similar structures executed in very different ways for different stories, but learning to solve those narrative and dramatic problems, so to speak, they’re not actual problems, but getting through them. The more you do the better you get at it.
Q: Zach, same question – what was your journey into film music and how did these early experiences prepare you for composing films and series on your own?
Zach Robinson: I’d been interested in film scoring since I was 12 or 13, and I studied film and composition at Northwestern University. I’m from Los Angeles so I moved back from Chicago to L.A., and I was lucky enough to land an internship at Chris’ studio, which is where I met Leo, who was already there. And, like Leo said, everything just grew from there. The internship turned into part-time, then full-time, and we where in the trenches together for a long time there, under the leadership of Chris. All of that, all those skills, provided us with so much support in our own careers leading up to everything from COBRA KAI to DIABOLICAL.
Q: You mentioned writing for ANT MAN. What can you tell me about working with Christophe Beck on this project and what your contributions were?
Leo Birenberg: I think what was really cool about that whole process was seeing the inner workings of the Marvel studio enterprise. ANT MAN feels like a long time ago in the Marvel timeline at this point, and it was very cool to be in meetings and see the kind of brain trust thinking about how the music was contributing, not just to the film but the broader story. I think, in a more specific way, what’s really cool about that score was how fun it was. There’s a fair amount of winking and nodding in it! It’s also interesting, melodically; Chris wrote an awesome theme for it, and the rhythm is so important to it as well as the melody. I think in the pantheon of Marvel scores it’s pretty unique. Zach and I are both proud of having been a part of that.
Q: Zach, how would you address that, as far as using some of Christophe’s themes and working with and around some of that material?
Zach Robinson: Honestly, Leo kind of said it all. Chris had developed a theme and, a lot of the times, as techs or working as an additional writer you’re developing those themes. And there were a few in there – there’s the Ant Man theme, there was the Hank Pym theme, there was a “Powers” theme, and all those had their own personality. I think Leo said this really well, and I think ANT MAN is the most unique sounding Marvel score. I’m not just saying that because I’m biased! It’s small, in a Marvel way, but then it grows and it develops, and it just has this very intimate quality to it that I really appreciate.
Q: Leo, you’ve done some animated shows such as the fantasy spoof TIGTONE and CENTRAL PARK. What can you tell me about scoring these projects?
Leo Birenberg: I always say TIGTONE might be the single-most unique and special show that I have ever worked on. It is totally insane. For people who don’t know, it’s this show on ADULT SWIM and it is a giant spoof of fantasy adventure properties, like World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons. It really makes fun of a lot of those tropes but in only the way that people who are really nerds about Dungeons and Dragons could possibly get, so everyone’s in on the joke. And it’s also absolutely, absurdly, tastelessly violent – but in a really beautiful way! The way they animate it is super unique; the whole thing is like paintings, that they then motion capture the faces on, and they do the most exaggerated and gruesome readings of all the lines, so that everyone’s faces look like they’re screaming all the time, so it’s like all these tortured fantasy souls! That’s really fun to score for a guy who’s a big Lord of the Rings fan! It’s like all dark, moody fantasy that is super over-the-top. I’ve done a bunch of animated shows like that. CENTRAL PARK is the total opposite – it’s like a musical and the score is extremely light and bright, and a lot of times based on the songs in the show. I did a KUNG FU PANDA show and I did a JURASSIC PARK short on Netflix [CAMP CRETACEOUS, 2020], and of all of those TIGTONE is the most insane, and I will always love it for that reason.
Q: You’re both well-known for scoring the comedy action series COBRA KAI - what was that show like for you and what were the musical needs of that show?
Zach Robinson: There were a lot of music needs! We’ve been on the show since Season 1, we got hired in 2017, which is wild. It has really grown from Season 1, which was the closest thing to a half-hour comedy as the description would get it. But then after Season 1 it starts to go a little off the rails, and now we’re recording an 80-piece orchestra for every single episode! It is wall-to-wall action-adventure music, some times in the style of John Williams, mixed with hair metal elements, of course. But it is a total blast, it is so dear to us, we love working with John [Heald], Josh [Hurwitz], and Hayden [Schlossberg], the creators. We’re incredibly grateful that the show has been able to drive so much on Netflix, and we’ve had the ability to play our music live – we went to Spain to perform and we’re going back to Spain to perform in Malaga at Mosman festival. It’s just been an amazing ride, and it just keeps getting bigger and better every single season.
Q: Leo, anything to add?
Leo Birenberg: I would just say that we pour our hearts and souls into the COBRA KAI score. When we finish a season, we are so exhausted – but satisfied exhausted! We need a serious recovery period. I honestly go about my day-to-day life afterwards and I can barely feed myself oatmeal after we finish the finale! It feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity to write something totally unique and insane – and I mean insane in the most loving way possible – it’s like a dream gig.
Q: What brought you into THE BOYS Presents DIABOLICAL with your score for Episode 5, “BFFs”?
Leo Birenberg: Because we do COBRA KAI we know the folks over at Sony, and it started with a very innocent email from Tony Scudellari at Sony, who asked “Hey, do you guys write anime music?” And Zach and I love J-pop and anime music – it’s kind of like a quiet little passion. There’s been a couple opportunities we’ve had in the last three years to occasionally produce a J-pop song for a show, and we always just go insane with it. And to get this email, we’re like, “What do you mean, do we write anime? Of course we write that! Here!” and we sent him a pile of music! It was probably the most confident I’ve ever felt in my life sending music, just being like, “this is exactly what you asked for!” And it was exactly what everyone wanted, so we hopped on a call with the creative team for the show, and we were all on the exact same page. The episode is totally insane, it’s about poop that comes to life. So, again, we felt like the only way to make that really work is to just go as hard as possible – really buy-in to the absurdity, so that’s what we did.
Zach Robinson: In our meeting, every reference that they threw out we totally understood. Madeleine Flores, the director, would be like, “Yeah, I’m kind of thinking about this part being like the Final Fantasy 7 soundtrack, and we’re going “Oh yeh, we’ve got you. We understand!” The episode goes between genres – there is a J-pop song and there’s definitely a lot of anime rock style stuff, there is some sneaky/heist-y stuff, there’s lo-fi kind of chill beat electronic stuff. It was a crazy episode!
Q: Were you familiar with the live action series THE BOYS before you came to write this music?
Zach Robinson: Yeah.
Leo Birenberg: Yeah, I hadn’t watched it all the way down but I was extremely aware of it.
Zach Robinson: We didn’t actually know at first, because we signed an NDA and it had a secret name and stuff, and when we watched the animatic and Compound V showed up, we said “Ohhh! This is THE BOYS!”
Q: This episode is a pretty unique one, with a cool anime visual style. When you first saw the film elements what were your thoughts about the kind of music the episode needed?
Leo Birenberg: One thing that we identified right away and discussed in our spotting meeting is that we have to build the emotional connection between the girl and her poop to make it work! That is the heart the story, and it’s totally essential to buying into caring about the characters and their trials and tribulations. So that was the first thing we wanted to crack, making sure that this is a heart-felt story. That was always in the forefront of our minds when we were sketching it out.
Zach Robinson: The other thing we discussed was writing a song. That was pretty early on in the discussions, that they wanted a song that was thematically connected to the characters. So we approached, lyrically, the song about being friends. “Kimokawaii” is a word I believe that means ugly but cute…
Leo Birenberg: Or, “disgusting little thing that’s cute”
Zach Robinson: Exactly. The other part of that was that we wanted to tie in the song musically to the score. You’ll hear the main melody of the chorus and the song, that is the theme for the episode, and you’ll hear it all over the place. The bridge of the song is the fight at the end where she throws all the poop at The Deep, so it’s all connected.
Q: How did you decide on the musical palette the episode needed and how was that palette created?
Leo Birenberg: A lot of synth bells! It’s interesting how not everything hits in anime, and it’s very purposeful, and so we were trying to figure out if we should just blast through this or not even have something for this, maybe something more like in an American-made cartoon where people might want to hit every little thing, where in an anime it’s kind of more of a vibe the where music starts and the music stops, and that is what they’re hitting.
Zach Robinson: There’s a lot of heavy rock in anime, so you’ll hear that and you’ll hear a lot of electronics and electronica beats/chill beats and a little bit of hip-hop. And then J-pop is just synths everywhere. And synth bells!
Leo Birenberg: And also using vocals. I think a huge part of J-pop is using vocals as a synth, where you will record vocals and then constantly be drawing new harmonies, for lack of a better term, with what you’ve recorded. Zach and I are both really influenced by this producer named Yasutaka Nakata, who does a bunch of big J-pop groups that we’re fans of, and he is kind of like a wizard at that stuff so I think this is just like a fun time to be like, hey, let’s try some crazy techniques that we’ve heard on some of our favorite albums.
Q: What did you find most interesting or most memorable about scoring this episode?
Zach Robinson: I loved the fight at the end, when Sky raises her arms and says “Rise up, my turd friends…”
Leo Birenberg: And the drop that happens…
Zach Robinson: Yeah, they all drop down from above onto The Deep! That was a really important moment. And that’s also where we kind of flex our “Yeah, we watch anime! This is exactly how an anime would do it!” I think that’s something we pride ourselves on in general on a lot of projects, that we want listeners and fans to know that we’re in on it…
Leo Birenberg: That’s our “We get it” moment!
Q: Is there anything you can both tell me about what might be coming up next for you, collectively or individually, in film scoring?
Leo Birenberg: We just finished COBRA KAI Season 5, which comes out on September 9th. It’s a big one, and we are very proud of the score!
Zach Robinson: And we’ve got a lot of other stuff this year that hasn’t been announced but will soon, and it’s exciting!
Episode 6: "Nubian vs Nubian" Divorce is complicated. Divorce with a kid, even more so. Superheroes getting divorced with a kid who’s determined for that not to happen? There will be blood.
Q: How did you first become involved in scoring for films and television? What was your initial impetus?
Dara Taylor: The score that really prompted me to start pursuing this as a career was during my sophomore year of college. I’d always listened to a lot of film scores but I was listening to Harry Gregson-Williams’ THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA score, and I was just in my dorm room alone listening and something just clicked and it was like, maybe this was my path. I was studying voice and I knew I didn’t really want to perform, so I was trying to find my way; how do I make music my career? So it was that score, or at least I was listening to that score when the impetus hit me! And then I started doing some student films in college, but, like a lot of other composers, I came up under someone. I was lucky enough to find a fantastic mentor in Chris Lennertz, and I worked with and for Chris for almost six years, and really got to learn the ropes, not just scoring but scoring at that level and for studios and everything that’s involved in the business side of it as well.
Q: How did those early experiences serve as a training ground for what you’d be doing more recently in scoring films?
Dara Taylor: The more content you touch the more you learn, especially when it comes to really listening to the director’s and producers’ vision, and interpreting what they’re asking for, interpreting notes, spotting, interpreting what they’re trying to say dramatically to music. Half of the job is writing, the other half is telling the story, so with each and every one of those projects I was able to learn a little more about storytelling.
Q: A couple of notable projects you did in recent years included the short series BOOKMARKS and the animated series LITTLE ELLEN. Would you tell me a bit about these projects and how you scored them?
Dara Taylor: Both of those are for children’s programming. What I really love about children’s programming and animation, even though BOOKMARKS wasn’t animated, is that you get to be the loudest version of yourself. You’re like “am I going to make a joke here? Yes! Will it be cheesy? Maybe! But it’ll be great because the children will love it.” So it’s about making every moment fun, and that’s something that’s really enjoyable to me in children’s programming.
Q: Among the projects you worked on as additional composer was the series THE BOYS. What can you tell me about working with Chris on that project?
Dara Taylor: THE BOYS, to this day, is still one of my favorite projects I’ve ever been part of. In addition to the show being absurdly wonderful, the music was also a lot of fun to work on under Chris. There’s a lot of experimentation and found sounds and just kind of thinking outside the box – which was a really special experience. It unlocks a more creative avenue when approaching a project.
Q: I think the unique thing about that show is in a world of all of these superhero franchises, THE BOYS kind of turns it on its head and shows what these guys are like when they let their hair down and they’re revealed for who they really are as mean people. What was it like working on a show where you’re showing the dark side of superheroes?
Dara Taylor: The license to be as gritty as you need to be, and just to be loud and noisy. I guess some of that is why I enjoy children’s programming as well – not that THE BOYS is for children, but just the license to be strange – as strange as the show is. I was grateful enough to be in the room a lot while Chris was scoring it and got to listen in on what Eric Kripke was asking for and getting to know him and [producer] Michaela Starr, and really what the heart of this crazy show is.
Q: How did you become involved in scoring Episode 6 of the spinoff animated series, THE BOYS Presents DIABOLICAL?
Dara Taylor: That was really great. I think I made it no secret that I am a super-fan of the show so when they were looking for people to score these episodes I was very fortunate to be recommended by a few people, including Chris and Erik and Michaela, to be part of one of these episodes. So to really have my own corner of this crazy universe was really special to me.
Q: This episode is one of the funniest of the DIABOLICAL yet it’s also got a bit of poignancy from the little girl, Maya’s, perspective. What were your initial thoughts about the short’s musical needs?
Dara Taylor: When I was speaking with the director, Matthew Bordenave, and also Simon Racioppa and Giancarlo Volpe, we all had a conversation about also making this gritty and dark but, realizing how much of a comedy this episode was, and to really, in a way, play against the comedy and play it straight in some places, so the absurdity of how serious they take themselves can really shine. It was also very poignant from Maya’s point of view, and at the same time telling a superhero story and a falling-in-and-out-of-love story. We also have the kind of tenacious audacity of this little girl who’s just trying to get her life together, but you see how growing up in that environment also corrupts her pretty quickly as well!
Q: How did your music shift between the fights, the romance, and the animosity between the two Nubians in this episode?
Dara Taylor: It was really like finding a common thread that we can use in this. There are moments where they’re fighting but they are also falling in love, and that happens at the beginning and at the end, sort of! But this whole idea of fighting bad guys as being a sort of foreplay for these characters lends itself musically to adding some R&B moments and something that’s sort of innately sexual even within all of the fighting.
Q: What was your score’s musical palette for the episode?
Dara Taylor: It was big action orchestra meets some kind of guitar, drum, and bass in addition to some hip-hop elements and vocals, and kind of meshing it all together. It was an orchestral-synth hybrid. It combines the grittiest of the guitars with the over-seriousness of the orchestral but all with this underpinning of lust!
Q: Were you able to use live players or was this accomplished with a digital orchestra?
Dara Taylor: It was a combination of both. I was able to record some orchestral live players to sweeten the synths, and then also record drums. And because also they are the Nubian prince and princess there is also some African drumming in there. I was able to record someone playing a lot of African drums and then also guitars and bass and that whole band side of it as well.
Q: You mentioned Maya, the young daughter, how did you treat her character? This episode had this breakneck speed to it, but within that energy, we see a lot of the story through Maya’s eyes. How did you treat her perspective in the episode?
Dara Taylor: I think the trick to playing Maya was not, for the most part, taking pity on her, because she sees a problem and she’s going to solve it. She’s really on a mission to get her parents back together by any means necessary, so I used a lot of synthetic elements, keyboards, and also some guitars and things to really give her an edge and let me keep that edge without getting too emotional.
Q: The short was also Matthew Bordenave’s first directorial job – how did the two of you work together to establish the style the short needed?
Dara Taylor: We started off with a lot of conceptual conversations about, again, how we should play these characters. What sort of palette are we looking for, how much do we want to get into the emotion versus the comedy, and also where do we let the comedy speak on it’s own? There were a lot of conversations about spotting and placement. Like any comedy, it’s all about finding where music belongs and where it might be too heavy handed and taking it out. Once we established the orchestral/African drumming side of it all, at the beginning kind of evolving into this R&B sound and then coming back up the other end with this really gritty band sound, that’s what we decided to do.
Q: What stage was the animation in when you started – what images did you have to work from?
Dara Taylor: It wasn’t complete animation. It was far enough along to get a lot of the gist of what was happening; I don’t think we were in storyboards at that point, I think most of it was animated but it still wasn’t fully colored and they continued to add a lot more blood into the effects shots.
Q: What was most challenging for you in scoring this episode?
Dara Taylor: I think, honestly, it was getting the spotting and getting the right tone of the central part of the story. And with a lot of the Maya story line, we found a direction for the beginning and the ending relatively quickly, but it was kind of towing that line of how we play Maya.
Q: What were some of your favorite musical moments of this episode?
Dara Taylor: I think one of them was after the opening fight when they first meet and ascend into the sky and it becomes this slow dance. It’s not what you expect but it seems exactly right for what’s happening. And then I liked the crescendo of the end as it gets more warped and dark and gritty as they pummel Groundhawk before it smash-cuts into lovemaking.
Q: Is there anything you can say about what might be coming up next for you in film scoring?
Dara Taylor: Coming up soon will be a Netflix film called THE NOEL DIARY, which stars Justin Hartley and was directed by Charles Shyer, and that should be out sometime later this year.
Episode 7: “John and Sun-Hee” John, who works as a janitor in the Vought building, learns that his beloved wife Sun-Hee has only days to live before succumbing to pancreatic cancer. John decides he will risk everything to cure his wife. He steals a serum from one of Vought’s laboratories and injects it into his wife. She recovers but, as they flee from Vought agents, side effects go horribly awry…
Q: You’ve worked for many years as an orchestrator, musician, and such since the mid 2000s. What brought you into this world of film music?
Hyesu Wiedmann: I was a classical pianist all my life. Then I fell in love with film music around Junior High or High School at that time, and then I found out that there was a school that teaches film music. So I thought, this sounds really fun, so it took some time for me to convince my parents, because they were set on making me a classical pianist, I played piano since I was four. It’s like a typical Asian family story for their girl, they set my path very early on to be a classical pianist, and that’s all I knew. So it took some convincing, but they let me go. I went to Berklee College of Music to study film music, and that’s how I ended up in this business. I graduated and I came out to L.A. and I started working in 2004.
Q: You’ve got quite a notable filmography of being an in-demand film music orchestrator. How did you learn the craft and get involved in doing that on a regular basis?
Hyesu Wiedmann: I spent my entire childhood playing classical music and I played concerto with orchestras too, so I was familiar with orchestras and always loved orchestras. So it just came very natural to me when I started orchestration at Berklee. It was so much fun, so I just studied at school but also assigned myself to analyzing all the great musicians’ orchestrations and I studied music prep, but when I started in 2004 I knew what I eventually wanted to do was orchestration. That’s how I got into it.
Q: How did you make the jump into scoring films? I know you’ve worked a little bit with Freddie Wiedmann on the documentary series TURNING POINT and then on the film TEAM WORK just last year…
Hyesu Wiedmann: Right. The thing is that I always wrote, it’s just that my writing gigs were a way lower profile than my orchestration gigs, that’s why nobody really knew that I also wrote. But I constantly wrote. I wrote library music too and I wrote songs that eventually landed in films, too. I didn’t have big enough opportunities to show it.
Q: How did you become involved in the poignant “John and Sun-Hee” episode of THE BOYS PRESENTS: DIABOLICAL anthology series?
Hyesu Wiedmann: I was approached by the supervising director, Giancarlo Volpe. He basically said that we have an episode where the main characters are two Korean immigrants and the director is also Korean-American, and we both want someone who understands Korean culture or a Korean composer. And he asked if I’d be interested in sending my demo in. I said “of course!” So I did and that’s how I was brought on board. The funny thing is, I wasn’t aware that I’d been hired until the end of our first Zoom meeting! I thought it was a pitch meeting on Zoom, and I was still in the mix of other composers for the position, but then at the end of the meeting they said, “Alright. I guess we’ll see you at your first presentation!” I sounded very casual, “Yes, sounds good!” and then I hung up in total panic mode! I told Freddie, “Does that mean I’m hired? I’m going to do it? Really?!”
Q: Had you been familiar with the series THE BOYS before you came to write this music for the animated spinoff?
Hyesu Wiedmann: Only part of it. It was a very popular show so I caught the first couple of episodes, but then I decided it was not really my cup of tea, because it was so graphic. Even though I worked on dozens of horror films I still can not watch something that’s really gory. I have sympathetic pain, so it’s really hard for me. So I didn’t watch the whole season. But when I was hired I wasn’t aware that it was part of the show! I think maybe by the second meeting somebody mentioned THE BOYS, and that’s how I found out it was connected! And after that I watched more of the series to see if I should incorporate the style of the music with the series into our episode, but it ended up, because my episode, specifically, is such a standalone episode. It is part of THE BOYS world but the story stands by itself. So I ended up just going my way instead of borrowing the theme or anything like that.
Q: What directions were you given as for the kind of music the director/producers wanted – and how did your score develop from those discussions?
Hyesu Wiedmann: Their direction was, first of all, they said they wanted something experimental. What they didn’t want was very typical Hollywood film music lingo. They wanted to stay away from that. They said it’s not about a superhero – they wanted the music to follow the emotional line of the two characters. So even before I got the reel to start scoring, because they wanted experimental music, I spent a week in the studio creating the sound palette for the episode. Before I started writing the score I had a separate recording session with the Budapest Orchestra to record some aleatoric effects that I would use for the episode. So I had a palette of both electronic and orchestral, which ended up being used in the episode later on. I incorporated those sound palettes into the writing when I scored the episode.
Q: When you began writing was the animation completed or were you working from temporary images?
Hyesu Wiedmann: I didn’t see the complete version of animation until it came out on Amazon Prime! I worked with a lot of DC comic stories for Freddie when I was orchestrating. The orchestration means that the composing part has already been done, but even then I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animation project that had the fully done artwork.
Q: How would you describe your score as it was applied to the storyline you were working with? The whole episode is very poignant. It mixed this horror elements of the creature that’s created but yet throughout the entire thing we’re so sympathetic towards the characters. John had meant well as he hoped to cure his wife, and Sun-Hee winds out redeeming everything at the end.
Hyesu Wiedmann: I followed the emotional line of the two characters. The music basically is one hundred percent on their side. It’s not really objectively scoring what goes on, but I wanted the music to be this added voice of these two characters, even when you see the monster in its full form, the menacing sound that I created for the monster was not composed in a grand way. I wanted to imitate what these characters would feel when they see the monster, being intimidated and scared and at the same time having this heavy heart, because they created it. I wanted it to be intimidating – not from the monster’s point of view but from the characters’ point of view; how they would feel to see something like this. That’s why the sound palette becomes more orchestral towards the end when they get so much more emotional compared to the earlier part of the episode, when they have to make this inevitable decision that is heartbreaking.
Q: What was most challenging for you in scoring this episode?
Hyesu Wiedmann: Creating the sound palette. They wanted something experimental, but that can mean so much! So I asked them, “What kind of experimental do you want?” Navigating that was the hardest, but once I had that palette done, I didn’t have a hard time working on it because the episode was so well-made and I felt like when the story flows really well, even before music, the whole writing process is also a smooth ride. And, especially, it’s because they gave me full freedom. They told me, “Here are the pictures. Do whatever you want to do with it!” They didn’t give me any restrictions, so I was able to experiment so much. It was really fun! Like every composer’s dream job!
Q: Is there anything you can say about what might be coming up next for you in film scoring?
Hyesu Wiedmann: I just wrote a string quartet for some source music that’s going to be featured in a film. I just submitted a demo for a new project, and next up is an orchestration gig that I need to start soon – but I don’t yet know what’s going to come my way next after that.
My heartfelt thanks to all the composers for taking the time out to discuss their musical opportunities in the DIABOLICAL animated world of THE BOYS! -rdl
Interviews are lightly edited for clarity.
And special thanks to Andrew Seth Cohen, Elizabeth Forrest, Britney Thai, and Maddy Myer at Impact 24 PR; and to Adrianna Perez and Kyrie Hood at White Bear PR for their assistance in facilitating these intervews
Randall D. Larson was for many years publisher of CinemaScore: The Film Music Journal, senior editor for Soundtrack Magazine, and a film music columnist for Cinefantastique magazine. A specialist on horror film music, he is the author of Musique Fantastique: 100+ Years of Fantasy, Science Fiction & Horror Film Music and Music from the House of Hammer. He currently writes articles on film music and sf/horror cinema, and has written liner notes more than 300 soundtrack CDs. He can be contacted via https://musiquefantastique.com/ or follow Musique Fantastique on Facebook.