Thursday, October 15, 2009

John Ottman Scores!

Established film composer John Ottman, whose work you hear in Superman Returns and the Fantastic Four movies, is entering the work of animation with Astro Boy, his first ever animated film score.

Here is a sample, conducted by Diego Navarro and performed by the Tenerife Film Orchestra & Choir.

IF Magazine has got a great indepth interview with Mr. Ottman about his work on Astro Boy. Here's a sample.

"The hi-tech backdrop of the film is merely a setting. The mistake would be to try and modernize the music just because of the modern world. Despite this backdrop, the movie has a classic tone to it, so I thought the score should confirm this - very thematic and emotive. It’s actually a pretty sad story about a rejected boy/robot who’s discovering himself, yearning to be accepted, and then gathers self- confidence to become a hero."
Unfortunately, the interview goes on to confirm that the original Astro Boy theme will not be featured in the film. I feel it's a mistake not to at least put it in the end credits somewhere. But I'm certain the score will sound amazing, and John seems like the right guy for the job.

You can read "E-Notes: JOHN OTTMAN SCORES WITH THE ANIMATED FILM 'ASTRO BOY'" on or by clicking the link below for an archived version.



The favored composer of Bryan Singer and superheroes in general takes off with his first animated score for ASTRO BOY

By DANIEL SCHWEIGER, Soundtrack Editor
Published 10/15/2009

John Ottman can lay claim to wearing far more capes than your normal Hollywood composer- namely being the editor and house musician for filmmaker Bryan Singer, whose dark visions he’s given rhythmic pace to in such films as THE USUAL SUSPECTS, APT PUPIL and VALKYRIE. About the only time Ottman was unavailable to join Singer’s company was when he landed a directing (and of course scoring) gig on URBAN LEGEND 2.

But while Ottman has also been more than busy over the years writing such eclectic scores as CRUEL INTENTIONS, THE CABLE GUY, LAKE PLACID and KISS KISS BANG BANG, it would be Singer’s acclaimed venture to the superhero arena with X-MEN UNITED that established him as a go-to composer for frequently flying protagonists (Michael Kamen would score the merry mutants first outing due to Singer’s commitment on LEGENDS). Since the X-sequel that many view as the best comic book film made, Ottman has bestowed mythic wonder to Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS, set a playfully heroic tone for FANTASTIC FOUR, and then bestowed a more serious sense of cosmic grandeur to its sequel RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER.

But given that these characters began life on the two-color page, it’s ironic that John Ottman hasn’t given the same, soaring sense of musical wonder to their animated cousins, let alone heroes who began life as TV cartoons. Now that one missing piece in Ottman’s formidable composing resume is filled in with exciting style for ASTRO BOY, wherein FLUSHED AWAY director Dave Bowers has rebooted Osamu Tezuka’s classic manga / anime character into an every-country boy of steel. And Ottman blasts off with him for score with gigantic orchestral and choral moments worthy of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, while also finding a tender, fairy-tale heart inside of one of pop culture’s most popular robots. And as Astro finds his place amongst fellow tin men, Ottman also brings in a battery of electronic and Italian music, with robo-combat signaled with by a march worthy of BEN-HUR. This is an ASTRO BOY who flies extra high with Ottman’s exhilarating, epically enchanted sound, one that places the composer on a level with the heroes he’s so often looked up to on the scoring stage. Now Ottman reflects on the score, and boy wonder that finally introduced his music to a whole new cinematic world.

iF: Though you’ve scored plenty of superheroes, you probably aren't the first composer that comes to mind when someone says ASTRO BOY. How did you come aboard the project?

JOHN OTTMAN: I got a call from my agent telling me there was a movie right up my alley called ASTRO BOY, and that they wanted to meet with me. I immediately got excited because it would be a fun thing to do after a year and a half in the ultra-serious, heavy anxiety-ridden trenches of VALKYRIE. That year also coincided with some bad stuff in my personal life. So I really needed to do something “happy” and innocent, both for my musical satisfaction and more perhaps for my own psychological needs. ASTRO BOY would be a total breath of fresh air healing air.

iF: Were you familiar with the ASTRO BOY series before taking the film. And once you did, did you immerse yourself in the cartoons again?

OTTMAN: I remembered the series, but it was just a tad before my time to know it well. I didn’t really immerse myself in the cartoons. Instead I did research on the origins of the characters by getting books about the ASTRO BOY world written by Tezuka Osamu. It’s really pretty fascinating.

iF: ASTRO BOY is the first animated film you've scored. What particular challenges did that make you musically face?

OTTMAN: Well, a story is a story. Just because it’s animated doesn’t necessarily mean the score should go nuts. I’d say all in all it was actually easier for me to score an animated film because the format really flows and lets the music be more overt, expressive and narrative. There are also far less picture changes, so I could just tell my story without having to constantly edit and wreck a cue’s original intent. However, the music never stops, so the challenge was to keep the score going in a fresh direction. With so much music, new ideas are always needed to keep the score evolving – it’s gotta go somewhere; but for some reason, ideas and motifs kept coming to me in the nick of time, which I guess is evidence of having been so elated and moved to be doing ASTRO BOY. I had a smile on my face most the time, and I think you can hear it in the music.

iF: ASTRO BOY is essentially the PINOCHIO story as revised for the far future. How do you think your score fits its fairy tale origins?

OTTMAN: The hi-tech backdrop of the film is merely a setting. The mistake would be to try and modernize the music just because of the modern world. Despite this backdrop, the movie has a classic tone to it, so I thought the score should confirm this - very thematic and emotive. It’s actually a pretty sad story about a rejected boy/robot who’s discovering himself, yearning to be accepted, and then gathers self- confidence to become a hero.

iF: How do you think your music plays that lost child within Astro Boy?

OTTMAN: I think rather well! His theme is very innocent, but sort of grows up with the character, becoming more self-assured and heroic. His theme had to be young, yet not cutsie. And above all it had to be emotional to reflect his past, and ultimately joyful to reflect his future. Getting the gig is great, but then you have to think of the theme! I kept experimenting with chords to find what I was feeling, and then stumbled across the beginnings of a melody I instantly loved. I’m glad I had the sequencer in “record!” Sometimes you just know when you’ve really hit upon something. From there I just kept refining it until the structure of the melody told his story. Later I developed a smaller motif for him in moments of reflection, which is even more childlike and innocent than his main theme.

iF: Like all robots, Astro Boy has dreams of being human. How do you think your music gives the character a flesh and blood humanity that gives him a flesh and circuit "reality" that goes beyond him being an animated character, let alone a robot?

OTTMAN: Well, the music takes the character seriously, whether he’s a robot or animated. It’s about the soul of the character, no matter the exterior. Without a character’s inner struggle, it’s hard for me to think of how to write the music. It’s funny you mention the “humanity” part. One of my favorite cues is called “Robot Humanity.” I couldn’t think of a title for it, and then realized the entire scene was really about the humanity shown by so many of the robots in the film as they all come together in the end.

iF: Astro Boy is one of the many flying super-heroic characters you've scored. Why do you think they're drawn to you, and how do you convey the power, and wonder of flight in your music for their films, especially here?

OTTMAN: I guess because the films did pretty well at the box office! I don’t know! I’m just glad to be one of the guys they go to for them, knock on wood. It’s also the way I write I guess, a more orchestral approach. I like timeless scores that don’t sound dated years later. And you really can’t bring complex emotions to the surface or paint a world by using a drum loop. I can’t describe the process except, like I said before, I have to be able to understand the characters in the story, what their “’problem” is, and also understand the general tone of the film and its universe. Once I do, something pops into my head. Obviously the most serious was X2. The FANTASTIC FOUR films were lighter and more “comic book” (with the exception of the emotive Silver Surfer theme). SUPERMAN RETURNS was pretty introspective and epic. ASTRO BOY is joyful and, yeah, more overtly about the wonder of flight than the others. Thanks for noticing that! I really tried to drive home the concept of flight via the orchestrations (mainly with woodwind scales and wispy strings.)

iF: There's a huge orchestral sound to ASTRO BOY. Do you think it's your most "symphonic" score in that respect?

OTTMAN: Acoustically, it’s phenomenal. We recorded at Abbey Road in London. The room just brings out the best of the orchestra, and of course the players are amazing. It was a large group, about 90+. Although some of my other scores have been slightly bigger, I think ASTRO BOY may feel more “symphonic” because it’s so lively, full of string runs and expressive lines, and I just had more fun orchestrating it and utilizing specific colors of the orchestra. And again, that room is the ultimate.

iF: There are many "gee whiz" moments in the score that play like a dynamic combination of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, especially in your use lush strings and choral voices. Was that a conscious salute to the style those composers have used when dealing with wondrous subjects?

OTTMAN: Well you named the two guys I learned from. I think I’ve just absorbed their philosophy and film scoring tastes; how I write comes from that traditional mindset, even though I may not be thinking about it consciously. That’s just what I do. But ASTRO BOY was indeed a great venue and opportunity to write a developed theme and a score based upon it. This allowed the music to have those uninhibited wondrous moments. It’s hard to find films that give rise to that kind of music anymore, and the “throw-back” quality of this film opened that rare door for me. -- Although it’s still cut pretty fast as any contemporary film. I’m waiting for epic films that breath and hold on shots to come back in vogue, like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DANCES WITH WOLVES, etc. John and Jerry, as masterful as they were, were lucky to have been given those canvases!

iF: Did you want to give any tips of the baton to Shigeaki Saegusa's music for the original Japanese 1963 TV series?

OTTMAN: It’s funny. I’m a big believer in resurrecting old themes for franchises in order to give then continuity, but that particular music didn’t really fit at all into the emotional world we wanted for the new Astro Boy. We really wanted it to have a fresh timeless and classic identity. The original theme, as far as I know, didn’t really become iconic like other classic franchises – it’s nothing I’ve never heard anyone humming down the street. So I don’t think we’ve offended too many by giving it a new thematic identity.

iF: Beyond its brass and strings, what are some of the more unusual instruments and orchestrations you've used for ASTRO BOY?

OTTMAN: There was nothing out of the ordinary used in the score. Except these days a lot of percussion is synthesized, and I hate doing that. So, like most my scores, it was a full battery of live percussion played right along with the orchestra – which to me, is always fun. We used the Mahler hammer in one cue, a bicycle bell in another, and recorder (old flute) in another cue.

iF: Tell us about your themes in ASTRO BOY.

OTTMAN: There’s quite a few! When you cut down the score for a CD album, some of these motifs get lost. But the full score is chocked full of little themes that flow through to tell the story. First, of course, is the Astro Boy theme. Then derived from this theme is a smaller sadder theme used in the film for when he reflects. Then there’s Tenma’s theme (his father) characterized by a longing solo French horn and warm woodwinds. One of my favorites is the lively motif for Trashcan, the robot dog, characterized by a duet of staccato clarinets and a clanking anvil. President Stone’s theme is a sort of clumsy militaristic riff with bassoons/bass clarinet surrounded by bass drum and cymbal. His theme then gets passed on to The Peacekeeper in a big, brassier version, as this robot sort of becomes an extension of President Stone. Then there’s Zog. He’s an old huge robot from past generation who I wanted to have an ancient but noble feel, mainly characterized by a six note expressive melody on the French horns. For Nathan Lane’s shifty character, Hamegg, I gave a sort of Italian flavored melody that in one way feels warm and clever, but in another, it’s not to be trusted. Its signature is pizzicato strings, mandolin, accordion and a solo clarinet playing the melody. There’s another fun theme for the “RRF” – a rag tag group of three “revolutionary” robots. For them I gave a pirate-esque theme featuring muted trumpets and piccolos. Cora is a smart and tough human girl who forms a bond with Astro. I wrote a pretty theme for her (“Cora’s Call” on the album) featuring a recorder and warm strings to reflect her sensitive side. The Blue Core Theme got a bit lost on the album, but it’s a magical and benevolent choral melody surrounding the power element that gives Astro Boy and other robots life. Within the choral texture, the celli beautifully hint at Astro’s theme. The red core is an unstable energy source, so the music is basically the blue core idea turned on its head with the choir becoming guttural men instead of angelic females. Pieces of the Blue and Red Core Themes are found momentarily in the other cues on the album. There are also other more incidental motifs throughout the score to “personalize” the robots in the story.

iF: There was a point when production of ASTRO BOY shut down during the big economic slump. Did that affect the scoring process?

OTTMAN: The shutdown occurred before I was hired, but it was depressing when I heard about it because I’d had one pitch meeting and felt pretty good. I was excited to perhaps get started soon, and then I got the call that the film shut down because funding was cut off. Weeks later when the film was resurrected, I went in to have another meeting. So I was really on pins and needles simply because I really wanted to dive into this animated world. I guess you could say the shut down affected the scoring in terms of time. By the time I was hired, I could have already been writing for a few weeks. But I still had about 12 weeks to write it.

iF: Even though ASTRO BOY is a "kid's movie, there's also more than a bit of robot-on-robot violence in it. Was there ever a consideration of how dark to make the score? And were you ever worried about making the music too juvenile or "cartoony?" in that respect?

OTTMAN: That was a fear of mine – that executives might get scared if the music took the film too seriously in the action/dramatic sections, and that they would want it to be juvenile. To my relief, the director, David Bowers, never wanted the music to belittle the action and instead to enhance what were seeing on screen. If it’s drama, it should feel dramatic. But the quirkiness of even the bad characters keeps it from being overly heavy. For instance in the scene where Astro is forced to battle a bunch of robots, by giving the robots quirky or melodic material, it made the fighting fun as opposed to tense. Even a kid’s film can feel smarter, and I think even the kids can sense if they’re being pandered to.

iF: After doing so many genre scores for iconic characters, how do you think ASTRO BOY stands out among them?

OTTMAN: When faced with yet another super hero film, I often think to myself how in the world I’m going to think of another theme that sets itself apart. But the smile on my face Astro gave me was a sign I was really stimulated to come up with something new again. Just as importantly, the small behind-the-scenes gang (director David Bowers, producer Maryanne Garger, editor Robert Anich Cole, and music supervisor Todd Homme) were kind, wonderful, “happy” and ego-less. And that that alone was enough to inspire me even more. I feel like I really made new friends on this movie. Even though we had to get through recording 90 minutes of complex score in 5 days, I remember actually enjoying myself at those recording sessions from start to finish – and that’s a first. I even invited friends and family to the sessions, which I never do! All in all, a really memorable time.

iF: Beyond any ASTRO BOY sequels, do you hope to be revisiting any more live-action superheroes in your scoring future?

OTTMAN: Well I do have a mortgage. So hell yeah, bring ‘em on! Seriously, I love writing all kinds of scores, and super heroes are often the most vulnerable and complex characters that beckon stirring music. And I’m really loving animation right now too. There’s such purity to it, and it’s such an imagination-inducing setting for a composer. So yeah, I’d love to be a part of another super hero world anytime.