Michael, there’s a scene in Ratatouille you scored, where the rat Remy is teaching Emile about the joy of food, and all the different tastes are represented visually as well as by your music… So firstly I wanted to ask you, how do you go about composing the sound of the taste of cheese?
It’s interesting you ask that – Brad Bird, the director, told me about the scene very early on. And at first I was horrified. It sounded so hard and ridiculous all at once. But it really came down to taste. Is it a ‘sharp’ taste? Is it a ‘round’ taste? Is it a ‘thin’ taste? I ended up modelling the sound around those ideas.
Is composing for film then like controlled synaesthesia?
That’s part of it. Brad and I had discussed that aspects of that film should sound ratty, for example, so we used lots of pizzicato on the strings – plucking the strings of stringed instruments. It’s really all about finding sounds that felt like they would come from that world.
Historically cartoons and their orchestral scores have always been so fundamentally entwined. Does composing for animated film gives you a licence to indulge in ‘cartoonish’ music?
People always ask me if doing cartoons is very different from when you’re doing live action. But it’s really all the same to me.
Traditional cartoon music came out of Bugs Bunny and Warner Bros shorts – that was the birth of what we know as cartoon music. Music that just chases around the characters all the time.
The challenge is to not make it about that. You will find little opportunities here and there to go a little crazy and do what you might consider cartoon music – that’s part of it as well – but the big picture is always about treating these characters as if they were people in a live-action film.
Before The Incredibles, you had only worked on TV series and video games, so what was the transition to working on a full-length feature film like?
It was terrifying. Back then if you could have given me any film to be my first film it would have been something exactly like The Incredibles. I’m a huge superhero fan. But every step of the way I kept thinking that I was going to get fired. I kept thinking there was no reason to hire someone like me.
You expected Randy Newman to walk in the door any second?
Exactly. I spent a long time with that feeling. But what I learned over time was that Brad Bird is a rare individual in this town in that he will believe in somebody. He’ll see what they can do and he’ll support that. The traditional way to do things in Hollywood is to find someone and work with them until there’s some sort of conflict and then get rid of them, whereas Brad invites the conflict. He doesn’t want a pushover; he wants somebody that will push back.
It’s such a confident score though. It sounds like it would have been fun to compose.
Oh it was a blast to compose. It’s funny that you say that it’s confident because my personality is one where I just go for it, you know. I think you need a bit of that confidence.
There’s a sequence in Up that won you your first Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition. How did you compose ‘Married Life’, for a scene that encompasses life and death?
That was the first scene they showed me – and it was so emotional. It’s essentially saying: here is what life is, here’s what it’s going to be for you, here’s what it’s going to be like for everyone. It was hard to just be honest about how I felt about that and I remember, watching it for the first time when it was all storyboarded, crying by the end. You just couldn’t help but cry while you watched it. Even when we went to the scoring stage to finally record it, everyone was crying. There was such a truth in there.
[Director Pete Docter] said the melody should sound like something that you might hear from a music box in your grandparents’ house that just sticks with you. I went away and just started with that. When you’re writing an orchestral score it’s very easy to hide behind a lot of fancy orchestration, but to be naked with one melody line is a whole other thing.
Pete told me that even though Ellie dies in the first ten minutes, she can’t fully disappear – her spirit still needs to be there. So we created a melody and a theme that would become that character for the rest of the movie, and then that theme would then bend and turn and twist in many ways. There were always different ways to use it, but it was always a reminder of Carl’s dedication and love of his wife.
So everything you hear is a translation of the gamut of emotions I ran through watching that.
And it can be divorced from the images on the screen and still be powerful. It’s come up on shuffle on my iPod while I’ve been driving around and reduced me to a sobbing mess.
Oh, I hope you pulled over to the side of the road and didn’t hit anybody.
Exactly, yes, it’s quite dangerous. But this idea of listening to soundtracks without having the images in front of you – you’ve talked about how when you were a kid you used to relive the experience of a movie by listening to the soundtrack. Do you think that shaped your understanding of how images can be served by music?
Without a doubt. By doing that, I was understanding how the music changed with different sections of the film. I could listen to that soundtrack and tell you exactly what was going on at every second. It was a great lesson in understanding how music emotionally supports a story. If I had just grown up taking piano lessons and went to music school and studied music theory and composition, I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of what I am able to do today. I grew up watching movies obsessively and I listened to every little bit of film score that I could get my hands on, so I feel like that was my real school, just observing and listening.
So I’ve got to ask, what does a guy like you say to John Williams when you find yourself working on his music with him [for Disneyland’s Star Wars ride]?
That was very exciting for me. He was very supportive of me and always has been. And honestly he was the cornerstone of my childhood as far as music listening goes, as I’m sure he was for many other people as well. I always try to think about how he shaped his career: he got to work on things which he was really in love with. I’ve always tried to do that, to be careful about the people that I work with and the projects that I pick up.
You’ve got a good thing going on with Pixar.
I’m not the kind of person who’ll go and seek out new jobs just to get a new job. I seek out people – and I feel like I have a nice group of people around me that I get to continually work with again and again. So it’s been really nice.
This interview originally appeared in Time Out Sydney in October 2012.