Talking 'Walking Dead' and 'The Cape' With 'Battlestar Galactica' Composer Bear McCreary (VIDEO)
It's impossible to imagine 'Lost' without Michael Giacchino's distinctive score, or '24' without Sean Callery's pulse-pounding music. The best scores not only add emotion and tension to good stories, they are thoughtful, creative endeavors well worth listening to on their own.
Bear McCreary created a percussive, evocative and operatic score for Syfy's late, great 'Battlestar Galactica.' If you watched the show, you no doubt recall its infamous "poundy drums," its poignant themes and its distinctive rendition of 'All Along the Watchtower,' which became a major thematic element in the show's final season.
These days, among other projects, McCreary is writing the music for 'The Walking Dead' and 'The Cape,' two shows that are not only very different from 'Battlestar' but wildly different from each other. If you watch either show, you know that McCreary is not repeating himself.
"With 'The Cape,' it's very much an adventure of the week," McCreary said. "It's a much more fun, liberated, playful sound. In 'The Walking Dead,' it should be oppressive. I mean, the music of 'The Walking Dead' is not something I want people to listen to while they're having dinner."
I recently visited McCreary as he conducted recording sessions at a studio in Los Angeles (and recorded a bit of that experience, which you can watch below). About a week later, we spoke on the phone about the different approaches he takes for his projects, which also include 'Eureka,' 'Caprica,' 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' and season 1 of 'Human Target.'
The small studio complex was a pleasant environment in every way. There were cookies and sandwiches in the break room, and the staff could not have been more friendly and welcoming. But the recording sessions were intense. About two dozen very focused people sate in the control room that overlooked a recording studio, which held 16 brass and woodwind players (strings had been recorded that morning).
In the studio, McCreary stood at a podium conducting the players. Between takes, he listened to comments from the control booth and gave the musicians his own feedback.
"Horns can be really egregious," he noted at one point. Later, he told one set of musicians that he "felt the nastiness level come down" in one musical sequence. "I want it to go back up."
The video below features McCreary conducting brass and woodwind players on Jan. 14. Further down in this story, there are links to the completed track they worked on that day. There's more commentary on this 'Cape' episode and various other projects at McCreary's site.
At various times, McCreary threw out words like "menacing," "crunchy," "slippery" and "mean" to indicate what he wanted. One lighthearted segment should have a "Carl Stalling" feel, he told a flutist. (Stalling was the legendary composer for Warner Bros.' "Merrie Melodies" and "Looney Tunes" shorts.) After one take, he gave detailed feedback to various musicians, then added, "Horn players ... just keep doing what you're doing," which got a big laugh.
When we spoke later, McCreary said he frequently works with the same musicians on different projects, and that familiarity not only makes for a smooth working relationship but also saves valuable time.
"It helps that all of these players know me both professionally and personally at this point," McCreary said. "They know my personality and they know what I like. They played a little bit on 'Battlestar Galactica,' and we did [the game] 'Dark Void' together, we did 'Human Target,' we've done 'Caprica,' we've done 'Walking Dead' with smaller [ensembles]. When it came time to do 'The Cape,' I said to them in the first session, 'Guys, I'm doing a superhero score, so you know what I'm going to want to hear.' And they did."
The goal with the score for 'The Walking Dead was completely different. McCreary only does about 11 minutes of music per episode of 'The Walking Dead,' which is much less than he normally does for an hour-long show. But the minimalism of the music is, to a large degree, driven by the circumstances the characters of the zombie drama find themselves in.
"The score for 'The Walking Dead' was about unity," McCreary said. "It was about creating one sound, one world, that all of our disparate characters existed in. I wanted to unify them all and to create this sonic world that they are trapped in. [The idea was] that all of their different plot lines and their different story arcs would just kind of intertwine within one sound."
Though he's scored videogames and a feature film, what he enjoys about television is that it allows a soundtrack to evolve, McCreary said. When a TV show is getting off the ground, he closely consults with a show's creative team to make sure they're all on the same page, and of course he's in contact with producers throughout the run of a show. But as time goes on, he gets into a rhythm with each project and he can begin to experiment with and embellish the sonic framework he's built.
"You start with the first episode and you're forming your relationship with the producers and with the musicians and ultimately with the audience," McCreary said. "And as it goes on, the producers start to trust you more; the audience starts to trust you more. The executives start to trust you more, the players learn the sound you're going for. The whole process becomes easier. If you look at the score to the first episode of 'Battlestar Galactica' and compare it to the last episode of 'Battlestar Galactica,' there's a perfect example of evolution in both creative product but also in the relationships behind the scenes that made that happen."
"I have found that television has this unique aspect that makes it feel like a journey," he added. "You are on a journey with these people and I really found that I've been able to create some incredibly beautiful music and it's usually not on the first episode. My scores tend to get better as they go along."
Perhaps appropriately, the composition you can hear here, here or here is called "No Journey Too Far." McCreary wrote it for 'Scales,' the Jan. 24 episode of 'The Cape.' (In the podcast introduction of the song, I misspoke; the music didn't come from an episode called 'Dice.')
In the video above, you can see McCreary conducting that piece. And in the 'Cape' excerpt below, you can see how 'No Journey Too Far' turned out when it ended up on the small screen.
A transcript of my chat with McCreary is below. In it, he talks about his exit from 'Human Target,' his favorite superhero score of all time and his working process, among other things.
I watched you conducting the orchestra and after each take you would say, "French horns, don't do this on bar 37" or "The flute needs to do more of this over here." How do you keep all that in our brain? You obviously have to make mental notes about everything on the fly, you're not writing anything down. Is that just a skill you developed over time?
Yeah, it is. Just as a side note, a lot of composers today do not conduct their own work. It's something that used to just be par for the course, and now it's come down to when a composer does conduct their own material, it's almost a novelty. There are a lot who still do it, but there are just a lot who don't.
Back in the earlier days -- I can say this laughing now -- but seven years ago, but I used to be really bad about remembering those things you're talking because I was nervous and I was intimidated and I'm up there waving my arms and just thinking, "Don't look like an [idiot] in front of these people." I'd think, "Oh, that was terrible, gotta fix that note." But it wouldn't stick in my mind and then when we'd get to the end of the take I'd say, "Let's do it again." And then it's, "Oh, there's that mistake, I forgot to say that last time."
That's one of the reasons that my team [in the control room] is so important -- there are things that I don't catch, But as I've done this more and more often. I have gotten pretty good about just being able to make little mental notes and call out changes very quickly. And the fact that I'm conducting means this whole process is accelerated because I don't need to communicate my thoughts to a conductor who then communicates to the orchestra [in many instances, the composer is sitting in the studio's control room during a session and from there gives feedback to the conductor]. I can just call out exactly what I need and take it again.
But the pace is very intense. It seems like you've really got to plan your time well.
We have one session with the orchestra, so if we spend a lot of time on one cue [i.e., track] it probably means that some other cue that's not going to get recorded. One of the things that I am most careful about is gauging how many minutes we can reasonably get through. And you kind of do this by judging the difficulty level. If there's one cue that's really hard, I need to plan: All right, this is gonna take an extra 15 minutes. And so I've just gotten really good at knowing what I'm going to be able to get done in the time that I have. And that's something you have to do on television.
And you're also getting feedback from the rest of the team in the booth, right?
They're giving me really specific notes. "That note was a little flat, that note came in late, we have stage noise." It's all these little details that I might not be catching. If there's one thing I can say about everybody on my team, we are extreme perfectionists. I mean, we are talking about click bleed [i.e., the click track musicians hear in their headphones] and stage noise and bow noise. And I'm telling you, no one will hear click bleed on a cue [that will go with an action scene], but every cue needs to be ready to go on a soundtrack album.
Well, you know, it seems like you have to have players that can't... basically they don't make mistakes. I mean, it was a very intense environment, it was very, very focused. And the players aren't making mistakes, per se.
The players in a lot of cities are very good. The thing about L.A. [musicians] is their studio technique is so refined that they will always play something on the second take the same way as they did on the first take, but with the changes you asked for. So for example, if the take is pretty good and then you want them to change one thing, they're not going to mess up something they didn't mess up before. Every take gets more and more refined.
The experiences I've had in other cities, I've found that even if the players are great, you know, problem A is fixed, but then you have problem B, and okay, it's on the next take, let's fix problem B and then problem A is a problem again. It can be maddening. It really can.
It also helps that all of these players know me both professionally and personally, at this point. They know my personality and they know what I like. They played a little bit on 'Battlestar Galactica,' we did [the game] 'Dark Void' together, we did 'Human Target,' we've done 'Caprica,' we've done 'Walking Dead' with smaller [ensembles].
When it came time to do 'The Cape,' I said to them in the first session, "Guys, I'm doing a superhero score, so you know what I'm going to want to hear." And they did.
It seems like you're going for a very different feel with 'The Walking Dead.' Is 'Walking Dead' with an orchestra? Or do you do that kind of on your own?
No, no. We have an orchestra on 'Walking Dead,' It's just very small. Instead of the 50 or 70 players, it's 10. But it's basically, the section leader [of each part of the orchestra], the principle string players you saw, they are the soloists on the 'Walking Dead.' Basically, I have the best string players in Los Angeles creating this intimate chamber sound.
But a lot of the same things apply: They know what I'm looking for, they know the kind of attitude I want and even though the music is night-and-day different, having that same ensemble every week, you get the sound you want and then each episode they'll bring it again.
It seems that would be a very particular skill set -- one day they're playing this very lush and adventurous sound for 'The Cape' and then the next day, it's this very spare and almost angular sound for 'The Walking Dead.' All your projects have very different feels to them. Is that another thing you look for -- that they really have to be able to change up their style on a dime?
Yeah, but they are very good at that. The person that [the variety of sounds] challenges the most is me.
I've got to admit, when I started 'The Cape,' it took me a couple of days to just reset my tonal center, because when I was doing 'The Walking Dead,' that was so much about what I cannot do. It was the same with the 'Battlestar' -- it was about limiting my [players and instruments] so I could find the tiniest, smallest ensembles that would give me the biggest impact.
'The Cape' is the exact opposite. If I need carnival music, I'll write some carnival music. "Oh, I need some heavy metal, all right; we'll do heavy metal, full orchestra." Gypsy music, Russian music, I mean, it's boundless. But it kind of took me maybe a week of getting started to get my mind back in that mindset.
What were the limitations on 'The Walking Dead'? Did you set those limits for yourself, or did the executive producers come to you and say, "Definitely don't do this or that"?
Frank Darabont and Gale Ann Hurd [executive producers of 'The Walking Dead'] and I spent a lot of time having discussions about what we want the instrumentation to be and what we wanted the sound to be. But I think ultimately at the end of the day, they trusted me to bring what I thought would be appropriate. So I don't think they would have ruled it out if I brought in accordion or big brass or something.
But I felt that show needed to be restrained. First of all, I only have between seven and 11 minutes of music an episode. [He creates 30 minutes or more of music for other shows he works on]. The score for 'The Walking Dead' was about unity. It was about creating one sound, one world, that all of our disparate characters existed in. I wanted to unify them all and to create this sonic world that they are trapped in. [The idea was] that all of their different plot lines and their different story arcs would just kind of intertwine within one sound.
With 'The Cape,' it's very much an adventure of the week. Where are we going this week? And you know, it's a much more fun, liberated, playful sound. In 'The Walking Dead,' it should be oppressive. I mean, the music of 'The Walking Dead' is not something I want people to listen to while they're having dinner. This was really dark stuff. But appropriately so.
What's your actual process? Do you get a final, locked cut of an episode? Do you read scripts in advance?
Well, it varies. I try not to read scripts, just because so much can change in the tone between the script and the final version. I like to have the first impression; I like to get my ideas based on the actual cut. It's rarely [a final cut].
Once [the episode is close to being done], I can just take it home and start looking at it. [In the early days] I meet with the producers and talk with them about what they want and then I start sketching and coming up with ideas.
To me the instrumentation is the most important thing. Every project I have done, whether it's a film, a game or a show, has a very specific set of instruments that I use on it. I think 'Battlestar' is the most obvious example. I think that the instrumentation of that in many ways kind of over shadowed the actual writing for a couple of seasons. And a lot of people just said, 'Well, it's all those taiko drums.' And yeah, there were taiko drums, but by the fourth season, the instrumentation was so iconic that I need to start doing things melodically and harmonically to start pulling attention away from the taiko drums.
Obviously 'Human Target' went in a different direction in season 2 and I know some fans are still kind of displeased about that. Is that a case of a particular show or just TV in general cutting back on orchestrated music? How does that all work?
All I can say about "Human Target" season 2 is -- I know nothing more than the fans know. I was never brought into a meeting or given any official notice. I mean, I really have no idea. I can only speculate. However, I mean, what I know to be true is that the needle drops [i.e., use of pop music] in a show can become very expensive. I think shows that have a lot of expensive songs can easily spend more than I was spending on an orchestra. So to say it's a purely budgetary thing -- I don't think that's the case at all. I would be very surprised if that was a budgetary decision. I really think that was a creative decision more than anything else. But like I said, I'm only guessing. I don't know any better than you do.
Well, you know, I talked to [new 'Human Target' executive producer] Matt Miller and basically his take was "Bear was great. We wanted to go in the needle-drop direction, and I didn't want to be the guy to say to Bear, 'Hey, do less work on the show.'" You know, from what I understand, he thought that might not be what you wanted to do.
Well, if that's what he said, he's correct in that. My experience on 'Human Target' season 1 was one of the most joyous, creative experiences I've ever had. And I don't think the show needed needle drops. I mean, like I said, [former EP Jonathan] Steinberg and I made a really powerful statement in Season 1 and I'm happy to move on if that's the direction the show's going in.
Well, just in general, are there producers who want live orchestration and who fight for that kind of thing? Or is that kind of going away?
You know, it's hard to say. I don't think it's going away, I'm very optimistic about it. The composers can talk about this all day, but unless the show runner wants to roll up his or her sleeves and make this happen, it's not going to happen. The show runners need to prioritize the music. The show runners that I've worked with that really value music, it's not just about getting the live players, they fight to make sure it is heard over sound effects. They fight to make sure that it is used in the commercial spots to help brand the show. It's always on their radar in the same way that good special effects will be on their radar.
That said, there have been several cases in my career where the producer's enthusiasm toward the music was a result of my enthusiasm for it. So I think composers also have a responsibility to communicate to show runners the difference that it makes. To communicate to them the subconscious effect that is has on the audience. It raises the production level of your entire show in a very powerful way. And some producers maybe hadn't had experience with it or don't realize that it's not going to break the bank to do it.
I feel like there is this sense of inevitability amongst composers that all scores are going to be electronic, but that's simply not true. That's simply not true.
With shows like 'Human Target' and 'The Cape' and 'Walking Dead' -- these are sounds that only need to function in the show, but I think they do say a lot about the way orchestral music can be used. And obviously I'm not the only one, Michael Giacchino is doing a lot of this, Blake Neeley [who scored 'The Pacific'] is doing a lot of this. There's a lot happening on the television front and in many ways, the television side of orchestral music is more liberating and more fun than the feature side.
Why is that?
I think simply because they, the pressure is not there [in movies]. I don't think it's the same environment that you have on TV where everyone is trying to make their deadlines. It just seems like it's easier to do really creative things in television. I mean, look at all the great writers and great actors that are coming to television now. It seems like an exodus of creative people in the past 15 years. Certainly in the past 10 years.
So, partly due to the time pressures, no one is standing over your shoulder and micromanaging what you do? You have more freedom?
I guess what I'm saying is that television does have this going for it: You start with the first episode and you're forming your relationship with the producers and with the musicians and ultimately with the audience. And as it goes on, the producers start to trust you more; the audience starts to trust you more. The executives start to trust you more, the players learn the sound you're going for. The whole process becomes easier.
If you look at the score to the first episode of 'Battlestar Galactica' and compare it to the last episode of 'Battlestar Galactica,' there's a perfect example of evolution in both creative product but also in the relationships behind the scenes that made that happen.
When you're talking about feature films, you have all of the same problems in the beginning of a show. You're forming your relationships, you're working with new executives, you're creating a new sound. And then when it's over, it's over. And on the next movie, you're starting over.
So I have found that television has this unique aspect that makes it feel like a journey. You are on a journey with these people and I really found that I've been able to create some incredibly beautiful music and it's usually not on the first episode. My scores tend to get better as they go along.
It seems like 'The Cape' was a chance for you to really go for that kind of retro, adventurous, classic Hollywood score.
Absolutely. When I first met with [the producers], they said, "Superhero movies have a certain sound, and that is because of decades' worth of experience watching summer blockbusters." And so I said, "We need to do that here. We need to bring that to that sound." And I intentionally looked back, because the scores that are closer to my heart are from the '80's and early to mid-'90's.
I look at Shirley Walker's score for 'Batman: The Animated Series' as the pinnacle of not only the superhero genre, but of television scoring, period. And so when I had the chance to do a superhero show, I knew immediately, like which direction I wanted to take it. I wanted to do what she did.
You have a really popular blog. Is that another way for you to express yourself? Is that kind of an important part of the process for you -- explaining it to fans?
Yeah, it has become one. And I never thought it would be in the beginning. If you go back to the earliest entries, you can see they were pretty sparse. And it wasn't until 'Battlestar' season 4 that I started really getting into specific detail and I really didn't think that anybody would be interested.
But I have found that interacting with fans is just a delightful part of my job that is new to this era. In the dawn of television when, you know, Jerry Goldsmith was just a guy working on 'The Twilight Zone' [this level of interaction would not have been possible]. But to me, that immediacy is really exciting -- to be able to see what fans are responding to, to ask them questions, to see what they think and to apply that to what I am working on at the time.
What fans need to understand is, and maybe they [know] this: They actually influenced me as I was writing the score. I would actually think about the things the people were saying on my blog. Somebody would even suggest, "Wouldn't it be cool if the Boomer theme did this in some scene?" It would just kind of be in the back of my mind. I never thought the blog would ever take on that kind of life. But it really has.
By extension the ultimate interaction with fans is when we're performing music live in front of them. And that to me is [a combination of] the best part of being in the studio, the best part of composing, the best part of playing and the best part of getting that fan interaction online. It all comes together when we get in a crowded room and blast some 'Battlestar' music.
Any more plans for live concerts in the future?
At the moment, we don't have anything booked, but we will be playing again in the future. We will absolutely continue that. It's too much fun.
Is it going to be the kind of thing where you'll go down Comic-Con or just do it in L.A.?
I'm not sure. There's nothing I'm ruling out. I would love to play the East Coast, I would love to play Europe, I would love to play Asia. I get fan letters every day from these places, people asking us when we're going to play again. I would also love to play up in Vancouver, where they shot the show. I'd love to kind of bring it home, so to speak.
Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.