(Anaheim, CA) For the 15th year, WonderCon hosted a BEHIND THE MUSIC panel, a closer look at the music that brings some of our favorite films and TV series to life. Featured panelists included Joseph Shirley (Composer – Disney+’s The Mandalorian; MGM’s Creed III), Amanda Krieg Thomas (FX Network’s American Horror Story; Netflix’s The Watcher), Will Bates (Composer – AMC Networks’ Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches; SYFY’s The Magicians), Joanne Higginbottom (Composer – Adult Swim’s Primal; Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack) and Gavin Brivik (NEON’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline; Vertical Entertainment’s Wild Indian). The panel was co-moderated by voice actor Aaron LaPlante (Spear on Adult Swim’s Primal) and actor Ravi Naidu (Samir on AMC Networks’ Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches).
During the panel, we were treated to sizzle reels featuring each composer or producer’s work on their featured shows. Panelists discussed music choice and licensing as well as sound creation from scratch and mixing to create soundscapes. Joseph Shirley spoke about layering in character themes with subsequent seasons of shows like The Mandalorian, and in particular the process of creating and expanding Bo-Katan’s theme as she becomes a primary character with a significant story arc.
Joanne Higginbottom spoke about the magic of getting to compose for an animated show with no dialog (Primal), and how the sound and musical elements bring so much of the expression for each character to life. She receives each episode nearly finished but completely silent, and enjoys the opportunity to build the entire sonic world around the beautiful imagery the writers and artists create.
We had the opportunity to sit down with some of the panelists to chat a bit more about their careers, their process when starting a new project, and of course, their top 5 geek loves.
How do you create a world within your work that is new and unique to you?
Joanne Higginbottom: Whenever you have a famous composer like John Williams with Star Wars or ET or whatever, it still sounds like John Williams. You have an overall umbrella sound and that’s so hard to do because especially in my line of work, I’ve worked on Guardians of the Galaxy to Samurai Jack to Fast and Furious and musically and stylistically they are so different. It’s trying to find what’s your taste and what do you bring to that score that’s sort of consistent and what’s your umbrella going to be? And it is very hard. Interestingly I think because I am writing music I kind of accidently do it, because I know what my likes and dislikes are. And even when it comes to using synthesizers and samples I’m like ‘oh cool’ I wanna do this kind of thing, I want to grab that synthesizer. I happen to use that in another score or something so it ends up sounding like me anyway. But my personal favorite thing to do is, I’m classically trained, I went to a conservatory for music and did all that, but I love rock and I love synthesizers. And when you get to do a score that blends all of that stuff together, it’s not just one or another, it’s just the most fun to me. Hopefully that’s what my sound is becoming, a hybrid of that.
Will Bates: I tend sort of always write with a soup of stuff, if that makes sense, there will be like a bed I will create that will be specific to a project and will have those colors in it. And then using that I’ll then pound away at a piano until something good happens and I feel like I have this sort of eureka moment and I’ll find melody or chords or whatever it is for a certain character. And then from there it then the sort of background of what I do and the things I like to write with tend to kind of kick in. In order to find something that has that sort of connection, I’ll make some sort of loop of some sort that will be the inspiration for whatever comes next. And then it sort of automatically ends up having its own identity that way.
Ravi Naidu: It is kind of like a hybrid of a lot of imagination work, putting myself as me, Ravi, in these scenarios and I would do it. And then also within the context of what’s been written in the story that’s told, what parts do I completely connect with and identity with and just naturally bring. And what parts do I need to imagine, or do completely differently. That’s kind of the more fun part, doing stuff that’s not me. Because no matter what, I’m in there. Like, even if it’s a scenario I would never find myself in in real life there are still innate pieces of me in that character. But the really fun part is finding stuff that I would never think of in my real life. And it’s also fun to kind of research other people, like who maybe have experienced stuff like that. Like the stuff being made right now, like all the serial killer shows and things like those. That’s some tough work. Like, did you see Dahmer? I had to stop watching before I went to sleep, it was chilling.
What was your gateway into your work?
Joanne Higginbottom: I was in Wales, so far away from Hollywood. I was lucky enough to get into the Royal Welsh College of Music, I worked very very hard, they only take 5 people a year. So I was crazy lucky to get in, and that place is amazing. The cool thing then is you get private tuition through the whole thing so they can really define the classes you wanna take based on what your likes and dislikes are. And like I just said I really loved the classical stuff and I was composing, I did what was called Creative Music Technology, so it’s pretty composing in the recording studio as opposed to with pen and paper. And I loved the classical stuff and I loved, at the time I was in rock bands and I was writing pop songs and stuff like that too. So the combination of those things to me, it kind of sounded like film music. Because film music is sort of classical music that is a bit more melodic and you can kind of tap your foot to it and you can hum it back. Whereas with maybe some Tchaikovsky you’re not gonna go away whistling it. So musically and stylistically that ticked all the boxes for me. And I literally had one project where I had to pick a scene from any film I wanted and score it two different ways just to show the effect of film scoring. And I picked a scene from Pan’s Labyrinth, ya know when he opens his hands and I thought it was so cinematic and I went with that. And I scored with a choir and then I did another version with synthesizers and I just fell in love. I absolutely felt it.
So from then on I knew it was my dream gig, but how do I make this happen in real life, especially in Wales? I knew that leaving college with just a music degree was not going to solidify me getting a job in Hollywood, they want experience too. I wrote emails to every single university in England I could find that did a film course. So everyone who was making any short films, animated films, directing, anything like that, if anyone wanted any music I’ll do it for free. I need the experience and I want to do it. Cut to a year and half later I did 13 independent films, shorts ya know. Then I started emailing people here and honestly whoever I could find an email for: Hans Zimmer, Tyler Bates (which is who I ended up with) , Howard Shore, everyone. I think I emailed 75 people and I heard back from 2. And I talked to Tyler Bates on the phone and he was impressed that I already had 13 credits under my name and I was still in college. He invited me to come out and do an internship for a month. And I knew I had one month to prove myself and be like ‘I can’t work without you now.’ That’s the goal right? So I came out, worked with him for a month, and thankfully that was the case. And I had to go back to Wales to wait for all the Visa paperwork so about 8 months later I came out. First film I worked with him on as an assistant was Suckerpunch. I Have worked with him ever since. My studio is still at his home, so when working on something on my own or co-composing with him, or something that is completely his and I’m just helping out writing additional music, we see each other every day and he’s been such an amazing mentor.
Will Bates: I’ve always been kind of drawn to film music as a kid, that was like my first love I guess. I sang the whole score of Star Wars to my parents when I was 6 years old. They bought me a violin and I was terrible at it, and then they bought me a saxophone that sort of turned into a thing. And I became a jazz musician for a minute, and then was in a band for a while, did a bunch of techno in London. But the whole time the only way I really knew how to make money was scoring, and I kind of naively thought that scoring commercials would get me into doing movies and tv. Course it’s very separate. I started working at Music House when I was 20, I think, when I was in London and then I moved to New York for about 7 years and then eventually left that place and started my own company. That would encourage more crosspollination between the disciplines, between commercial, film, tv and then after a very long slog eventually I started meeting filmmakers. Eventually ended up scoring a film that went to Sundance. And then that led to another movie that went to Sundance, and that’s when I met Mike Cahill, who was that guy that did a movie called Another Earth, and he went and made The Magicians pilot. And we went and did a whole bunch of television together. So I kind of owe everything to him actually.
Ravi Naidu: It was kind of by accident a little bit. I grew up in Atlanta and I went to an engineering college, Georgia Tech. I have a graduate degree. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I never acted when I was a kid. I was married before and my ex-wife at the time said she wanted to become an actress so I started taking acting classes with her in Atlanta while I was working a full time job. And I just really really loved the classes. And then I started getting to know the community, the acting community in Atlanta and I fell in love with them And then my marriage ended and I just threw myself into spending all my free time taking classes and going to shows, and it kind of just kept going. And then one day I was like maybe I should do this, do this. Growing up in my culture it was never a thing to identify what you enjoy doing in life and try to create a career out of that. Like my dad said you have two choices, doctor or engineer. So my brother is a doctor and I became an engineer. So I did it, I gave them what they wanted for a while and now I’m doing what I wanted.
We are an organization that pairs people together based on their top 5 geeky loves, what are your top 5 geeky loves?:
Joanne Higginbottom: Definitely synthesizers. And I guess, studio gear in general like preamps and microphones and speakers. I get super nerdy about that. I love horror films. Love love love horror films. Grew up on all the Halloween movies, and Nightmare on Elm Street. And I always wanted to do horror so fingers crossed get to do some more of that in the future. Honestly cookies, I really like wherever we go gotta try the cookie place. And then music, of course. I should have put that as number 1.
Will Bates: Wow, let’s see. I really like 8-bit video games, like I grew up with the Amiga and I recently scored a video game and they asked me what games do you play? And I had to say I haven’t played a game since the Sega Genesis. But yeah I love 8-bit games. I love jazz, Miles Davis, Gil Evans. I can’t really get enough of it. I seem to have become one of those people that has a bit of a hi-fi problem, like vinyl and stuff. I think that the greatest things in the world are analog synths, there’s nothing better. And I think I still just love my saxophone.
Ravi Naidu: Anything dealing with flying or space travel. Astronomy. Drums and music. I don’t know if skiing and snowboarding can be considered a geeky love, but I’m obsessed. And meditation and inner growth. Just going deeper within myself to learn as much as about what’s outside of me by learning more about what’s inside of me.
Thanks so much to all of the panelists for taking the time to bring us a little deeper into their process!
WonderCon is produced and operated by San Diego Comic Convention who also organises Comic-Con, the largest comic book and popular arts convention in the world, according to Guinness World Records. WonderCon has a reputation as a fun and friendly convention and is one of the best comic conventions on the West Coast. Like its sister show Comic-Con in San Diego, WonderCon features movie and television sneak peeks, comics, an expansive exhibit hall, and an on-stage costume competition known as the Masquerade.
Contributor: Krystal Kyle
Krystal is a wildlife veterinary technician and passionate geek culture enthusiast. In her spare time, she likes to hike with her dog while listening to film scores and replay the Dragon Age games over and over. She is currently on a mission learning every one of Jaskier’s songs from The Witcher TV series on her guitar.