This week, we celebrate Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino’s 50th birthday with his first ever major career retrospective – welcoming colleagues including J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and Gareth Edwards, for a celebration of Michael’s works from Up to Lost, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and modern sci-fi greats Star Trek, Rogue One, and Planet of the Apes.
In anticipation of his landmark 50th birthday retrospective, Michael sat down with film composition students for an Elgar Room masterclass.
From first ideas to demo, orchestration, copying, scoring, sessions, and the final product, Michael delivered a fascinating discussion on the art and science of film scoring – with his musical colleagues Jeff Kryka, Joel Iwataki, and Warren Brown – revealing the crux of his creative process; emotion, simplicity, collaboration, and above all, fun.
Using one cue, Night on Yorktown from Star Trek Beyond, Michael guided the audience through the entirety of his intricate process – with a ground-breaking orchestral score as the final product.
His first step is to simply watch a scene, keeping track of the exact emotions he feels, which he then translates into a basic starting chord. This point captures the dominant emotion that he sees in a scene, and provides a basis from which to work. In Yorktown, it’s the d minor chord that voices Kirk’s melancholy.
Then, building the first demo, Michael emphasises the importance of communication; while a simple demo may not sound impressive, he sees his role as a communicator in discussing and explaining the particular emotion of a cue to the director – “if there’s something you really believe”, he says, “push it through”.
Organisation and time management are crucial to Giacchino’s process, allowing him to manage the industry’s huge time pressure while enjoying the collaboration and artistry of the scoring – his orchestrator, Jeff Kryka, spends a blistering two weeks translating all of Michael’s ideas into a first orchestration.
“Technology helps” Jeff says – “make sure to learn music notation software, and exactly what each instrument can do”. Michael describes the importance of flexibility and creativity – using bowls to achieve percussive effects for Planet of the Apes, or giving his conductors the flexibility in rehearsal to adjust texture.
At the same time, Michael and his colleagues relish the orchestral traditions – recording all instruments at once using 80 or more microphones and using real, particular instruments. Recording together is “the only way to get a real soulful sound”.
Above all, Michael says, is the collaborative process at the heart of the industry – “film is a group art” he says; young composers should never work alone, and should always consider the context of what they do.
Collaboration is at the heart of it all for Giacchino, because for him, the story and music must go absolutely hand in hand – a lesson he learned on one of his films, The Incredibles, from director Brad Bird, who’s priority for the film was that his story and Michael’s score stayed as close as possible.
It’s a lesson that informs the bulk of his work; leaving his trusted partners to do their own jobs, working closely together to ensure both precision and expression.
Michael, in the rehearsals and sessions, prefers not to conduct, sitting instead with the film director and instantly gauging their feedback.
All photos © Andy Paradise
MICHAEL GIACCHINO AT 50
Join Michael and his many friends for more insights and music.