- Hi guys, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
(JJ Wiesler) Hi! Thanks so much for inviting us!
- Looking at your resume, it’s clear you guys enjoy scoring and working on animated projects – what is it about this format and genre as a whole that you guys find so fascinating?
(JJ) With animation, the soundscape is a blank slate. The sound design in particular is not tied to anything in reality. It could be, but there is also room to create a new world since there is no production sound at all. The score in animation is also responsible for setting the scene. And so it provides a unique opportunity for music composition and sound design to really be conceived together and at times for the lines to be blurred. This workflow is something we fine tuned in our work in VR/AR where we often were engaged to score, sound design, and implement a VR movie. Projects like Google Spotlight Stories Duet, Pearl and the one Scot directed called Sonaria were all done in this way. Sound design and music being worked on together. The Trash Truck episode called Garbage Band is also a good example, as the sound design and music are literally the same thing at times.
(Scot Stafford) As a child I was introduced to storytelling and nearly every genre of film and music through cartoons and animated films. From Bugs to Bakshi, humor to epic action. Thankfully as I grew, animation continued to expand our expectations of what it can do. So it’s always been very close to my heart, and I think always will be. I also think I relate to animators. We’re somehow made of the same stuff.
- Just like there’s different animation – do you guys tend to approach every project as differently as possible?
(JJ) Well creatively yes, but we also have our ways. As I mentioned before, in a perfect world we get involved very early and have visibility if not control of the entire audio pipeline, including mix. We do exploratory composition and design along with the visual exploration and “screen tests.” Personally, I like to use new sounds on each project. I’ll buy a new instrument or VI, or try to compose from the piano (which I don’t play well!) rather than the guitar. During covid, I’ve been trying to learn the drums which is teaching me to think differently about music in general and really changing my perspective. In some ways, it’s not what you play but when you play it!
(SS) Not really, because every project tends to be so different. I like to think that each story demands its own score woven from the same fabric as every other storytelling element. I also try to disappear as a composer, and subsume myself in the work. Trying to sound different would be all about me, and I always try to get rid of “me” as soon as I hear it in my music. That’s why I’ve ended up with a range from classical to Cambodian folk to, in Jorge Gutierrez’s SON OF JAGUAR, death metal mariachi. It’s a lot more fun this way, too.
- Speaking of which, let’s talk about Trash Truck – how did you guys get involved in this project?
(JJ) We met Glen Keane when we worked together on Duet in 2017. We had such a great experience with him on that project and became friendly with the whole GK Productions family including Max Keane, Trash Truck’s creator. The first thing we did was start to explore theme songs, while they were doing animation tests and it evolved from there when the show was taken on by Netflix.
(SS) In our first meeting with Glen and Max, they mentioned wanting a very “handmade” feel to the music, which is something we do well and think is important, and often missing from typical children’s programming, which tends to use a lot of synths these days. They wanted to hear real instruments and they knew we could pull it off. Helps to have mandolin, banjo, fiddle and percussion players on our team!
- This being such a fantasy driven series – did you guys choose to go full whimsy or you try to balance that along with a much dramatic tone?
(SS) We followed the story. There were whimsical moments, and very dramatic and emotional moments as well. In general, a good score follows this, and if anything, errs on the side of taking characters at their word. If Trash Truck thinks he’s flying, we make the music fly. If Hank thinks a lizard is a dinosaur, the music and sound say, “it a dinosaur.” I learned this from watching Peter Sellers movies as a kid. Inspector Clouseau isn’t funny because he’s a goofball, he’s funny because, despite being a truly terrible detective, he sincerely believes he’s the greatest the world has ever known. Music that plays it straight tends to get more laughs than music that “winks” or tries to be the gag.
- What are the elements on the show you guys try to focus on and based your score around? Do you guys try to lean more towards the climatic or thematic?
(JJ) I wouldn’t say it’s one or the other. Each character has a theme and there are both small and large moments emotionally. At first we conceived of Trash Truck as more purely Americana but it sort of morphed into orchestral with folksy instrumentation support. Or maybe the other way around. Basically we needed to use more traditional orchestral instrumentation to support the movement from small to large emotions and underscore the comedy and other plot points.
(SS) Assigning a theme to each character helps the audience relate to them, and follow the story. We transformed several themes as leitmotifs throughout the series, which was super fun and often rewarding. I think people love recognizing things, and also being treated like artistically sensitive and intelligent people. At the same time, getting too clever can work against you, so we often found that something that works emotionally with the scene meant forgetting about themes and just writing music that speaks from the heart of the moment.
- This becoming such a popular show as you also have scored some Academy and EMMY noms – does that put any pressure on you guys as you work or rather the opposite?
(SS) I can easily imagine that happening after a sudden lightning-in-a-bottle success, but our growth has been pretty organic, from doing good, hard work over a couple decades. The hardest thing to do is to earn trust. Once you’ve got that, you can do the real work, which tends to get easier with experience, not harder.
- What would you call the most challenging aspect of scoring shows like Trash Truck?
(SS) The beginning and the ending. The beginning was about finding the main theme and overall tone of the score, which took a lot of time and many failures before getting it right. We found the right “folk orchestra” sound. And on every project you have to uncover the hidden rules of the creator’s aesthetics. What’s too little or too much? Every storyteller has their own rules, and often they don’t know it until they hear it. Probably the last big discovery was the importance of Trash Truck as a central character. In a scene full of characters and facial expressions, his usually contained the spirit Max was going for. So the rule became, when in doubt, follow Trash Truck’s face, and compose to that.
The ending was hard because on a series you really get into a routine with all these amazing people, and it sucks to stop as each episode felt like it got better and better. We counted a lot of lasts towards the end — our last spotting session, last musical cue, last mix — and I felt very Breakfast Club about the whole thing. [Sighs.]
- What else is happening next in your world?
(JJ) It’s hard not to be affected by what’s going on in the “real” world. Last week there was a siege in Washington. We are all stuck at home. California in particular is suffering through a huge covid surge at the moment. it’s scary. But leaving the “elephant in the room” aside, one thing we did over the past 6 months is build out our studio in San Francisco, Decibelle (www.decibellerecording.com) to be able to handle full audio post up to Dolby Atmos with a 7.3.4 monitoring system. The studio had been more focused on hosting music, and scoring sessions, but we found a way to add a film mixing stage in the live room that still allows us to use it as a traditional live recording space. We call it a pop-up Atmos mixing stage. Though when it’s set up, you really would never know you can roll it aside in a few minutes. Everything telescopes under the screen. It is centered around an Avid control surface made of 3 S1s and an Avid Dock, a new Mac Pro with an HD2 system, and an Avid Matrix Studio interface. Monitoring is Barefoot MM-27s up front and JBLs for surround, subs, and elevations. We really couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. When you mix a space designed to capture sound that is full of instruments, it isn’t a sure thing that its the best place to do finishing. But being surrounded by drums, guitars, keyboards and all the instruments in the space while you are placing them within the context of the film or TV show some just feels right. I don’t have great pics yet, but here is a phone shot. Vintage hand sanitizer is key to the sound 🙂
We’ve already mixed four films in the space, including BABA YAGA (directed by Eric Darnell and featuring Kate Winslet, Glenn Close, Jennifer Hudson and Dailey Ridley) and Namoo (“Tree” in Korean), by Pixar alum Erick Oh.
(SS) Very excited about the new Atmos stage at our studio. It allows us to dive more deeply into immersive sound in our own projects, and also brings in a lot of interesting people and projects that create and widen our community. The best thing about Pollen is just how stimulating any given day can be when we see how many cool projects are happening at once here. I’m currently working on three unannounced projects (a short, a series, and a feature) which I look forward to talking about as soon as I can!