Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of WarnerMedia
Composer Bear McCreary needs no introduction but honestly it’s hard to not sing his praises. He was named ASCAP’s 2016 TV Composer of the Year. He won a BAFTA for his game score on Sony Interactive Entertainment’s God of War and won an Emmy for his main title theme on STARZ’s Da Vinci’s Demons. Other Emmy noms include his title theme on Black Sails and his score on Outlander. His memorable music is all over series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Walking Dead, Battlestar Galactica , See and now Snowpiercer . His film work includes scores for Godzilla: King of the Monsters and 10 Cloverfield Lane.
McCreary isn’t just talented. He’s also extremely fun to interview! Here, we talk about his inspiration for Snowpiercer‘s score and what it’s like to be an inspiration himself for young composers and filmmakers. We talk about his collaboration with Snowpiercer‘s sound team and how they brought a propulsive score and rhythmic train sounds together, and how he supported the tension and emotion of the story through music.
Snowpiercer: Official Trailer | Premieres May 17 | TNT
You’ve got a knack for writing memorable title themes. Was the main theme for Snowpiercer the first track you nailed down?
Bear McCreary (BM): It was, actually. When I first saw the pilot episode, the first idea I had was to create something musical that would represent the train and physical sense but also the inevitable coming conflict — this sense of charging forward almost out of control, recklessly heading toward fate that is inevitable.
I thought of low strings, celli and basses, and even some synths to create this chugging quality. I hate to make it so simplistic but I thought about the way you’d play with a train set as a kid, and you’d make this chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga sound. We all have this inherent understanding of the rhythm of a train. Of course, the train in the show was a very different technology but I think that propulsive pattern that is in our brain was something that I could draw upon. And it was absolutely an inspiration for the main title theme, which weaves its way throughout the score as a metaphor for the impending conflict.
You may feel like the chugging train motif is too on-the-nose, but I think it fits perfectly!
BM: Thank you. Sometimes the most intuitive and obvious answer to me as a composer is the thing that registers subliminally with the audience. It’s funny that sometimes the source of inspiration can be remembering playing with toys when you were a kid. But it’s that instinct that a composer draws upon to create something that ultimately blends in with the drama and becomes a seamless part of the emotional experience that the audience has. That’s pretty cool.
The creativity you have as a child stays with you your whole life…
BM: Absolutely. There’s a great quote from Quentin Tarantino, who says that when he writes, he tries to remember what he would have thought was awesome when he was 13 or 14, and he tries to channel that. That really struck a chord with me because that’s kind of what I do as well. That was the age that I started to discover the art form of movies and music in particular.
When I write my best music it’s when I revert back to that childlike mindset. I feel that sense of exhilaration, and wonder, and awe.
When I write my best music it’s when I revert back to that childlike mindset. I feel that sense of exhilaration, and wonder, and awe. That is really the exact feeling that I’m hoping the audience can find when they watch a story that I’ve scored.
They don’t call them the formative years for nothing….
BM: Indeed. And we never really change from those formative interests and actually, maybe more than anything else, music especially. They’ve done studies that show that it’s not a coincidence that you think the bands you were into in high school are better than top 40 music now. Everybody alive thinks that. There are actually some biological reasons why certain things graft onto our brains and stay stuck there. That’s fascinating to me. I always return to film music that moved me when I was in high school — that really formed who I am. To this day, it’s still what I go back to.
There’s something about hearing from fans that are either on the younger side or perhaps they’re in college and they say they watched Battlestar Galactica in high school and that’s what inspired them. It’s interesting to think that was me channeling my favorite film scores and putting it into things. For some other composer out there who is in high school, maybe Snowpiercer will be the thing that they take with them. I kind of love that.
It’s crazy to think that a thing that I did inspired this filmmaker in high school to go to film school and now he’s hiring me to do his film.
There’s a filmmaker that I’ve worked with who hired me because he loved my music on Battlestar Galactica, and that is what inspired him to go to film school. It’s crazy to think that a thing that I did inspired this filmmaker in high school to go to film school and now he’s hiring me to do his film.
What am I 90-years-old?? This is crazy.
That was one of the first times I realized that I’m not the upstart generation; that I’m in the middle. That I’m someone who’s been composing long enough that the things that I’ve done are influencing people that are now getting their own careers started. That’s so cool. It’s a weird head trip. In my head, I’m just getting started. But then my professional career started with Battlestar Galactica, and that was more than 15 years ago. So, that’s a long time. And in that 15 years, I’ve been busy. It’s interesting to think about how that evolved. And bringing it back to Snowpiercer, I think this show will resonate with people and be one of those projects that people will talk about for a long time. To be able to be involved with something like that is pretty awesome.
Snowpiercer: Behind The Scenes Look of the Train | TNT
In addition to the train, there are some other really strong aspects to this show, like the cold and ice, and also this contrast between opulence and deprivation. Did those play into your score as well?
BM: Absolutely. Let me break those apart because there are ways in which I wanted to support the drama and imagery by playing against them.
In the case of our “Tailies,” the protagonists who occupy the back of the train, they are visually in an environment that is very gray and cold and icy. You can see their breath. It’s a wretched environment. I supported them by warming them up, pun intended. But this is language I would use when talking about making characters feel emotional and relatable, and helping us to understand their motivation. I would say, “Let’s warm them up.”
In the case of Snowpiercer, it takes on another level. When you see these characters that are freezing, you want to warm them with the music. You’re telling the audience that despite the environment that they are in, if you zoom in on their faces and their eyes you can see the determination and the bond, the dedication and camaraderie, and these are the things their music underscores at every opportunity. In a way, the music is playing against the imagery. The environment, the set design, is all so impressive (as it should be) and so I wanted to play the opposite.
When you see these characters that are freezing, you want to warm them with the music.
Similarly, with the opulence of the upper class passengers, I kind of made them colder. Rather than making them feel warm and emotional and relatable, I used cooler atmospheric elements to give them a sense of distance from our protagonists. Again, the production design used warm colors like oranges and yellows, from chandelier light being cast on a nice restaurant it looked like. There were these warm colors and I didn’t want to make them any warmer. I used the icy musical colors in the warm environments and warm musical colors in the icy environments.
What were some of the instruments in your palette that helped to create these warm and cool musical colors? Also, did you use real instruments as well as synths?
BM: I used a string instrument called a tanbur for the theme for our world outside the train. You hear it a lot in the first episode and in a few other spots. It has this very haunting, wailing, almost vocal-like quality. I thought of it almost as a funeral dirge, like were mourning the outside world that is not there anymore. So when we see these icy vistas we draw upon this color.
There is definitely some string orchestra in there. We hear those chugging low strings. Even some of the propulsive action/tension elements are created with acoustic instruments.
…a large percentage of the score is done with custom samples and synths, and sound design techniques that often blend in with the sound design of the train.
There are other voices and folk elements. There are some subtle guitar and fiddle kind of colors that makes some of the emotional moments more relatable. With that said, a large percentage of the score is done with custom samples and synths, and sound design techniques that often blend in with the sound design of the train.
In any situation where you’re scoring for picture, the musical soundtrack is only half the soundtrack. I think more than any other show I’ve worked on, Snowpiercer was a balancing act between the sound design of the world and the music.
Highlights from A Sound Effect - article continues below:
Because of the nature of the train, the way the cars behave and the fact that we’re rattling along a track and that literally every scene takes place inside the train, this means there is sort of a percussion track inside the soundtrack even if I don’t write it into the music.
I think more than any other show I’ve worked on, ‘Snowpiercer’ was a balancing act between the sound design of the world and the music.
So it took a lot of collaboration and flexibility on the mix stage, a lot of trial and error for that balance to work out. My hope is that when you watch it, you don’t realize how much music there actually is — that it dissolves into the soundscape of the train cars and moves to the foreground in the more emotional moments.
How far into the process did you get to collaborate with the sound team, to swap sounds or swap ideas, and figure out what this balance might be?
BM: Part of the issue was that we were concurrently developing our ideas. So especially early-on, there wasn’t as much back and forth as I would have wanted, only because it wasn’t possible. However, what was so great was that we did have the opportunity to go back and make some changes as the season went along — to make changes to earlier episodes. So as the season went on, we really found a rhythm. I was working with the sound designer James Fonnyadt; he’d send me material and I’d listen to that on the stage and get ideas. Then we had the chance to go back and fine-tune things.
So especially early-on, there wasn’t as much back and forth as I would have wanted, only because it wasn’t possible.
It was a fun collaboration and it’s always a shot in the dark; you talk to the sound designer and get a sense of what they’re doing and you hear little snippets. But ultimately, it’s not until you get to the mix stage when you can put the actual, finished sound design up against the finished music and then you start to make sense of it. So, in that regard, Snowpiercer had this added challenge for the team on the mix stage, probably more than any other project I’ve ever worked on.
…we did have the opportunity to go back and make some changes as the season went along…
They did an amazing job. It was fun to watch it come together. I went into it knowing that many of the musical ideas that I was exploring would ultimately have to ebb and flow and shift. We’d have to pull some layers out and continue to experiment on the stage until we found that balance that would work.
Did you work with a music editor? Or were you on the dub stage helping to fine-tune the score?
BM: I always worked very closely with my music editor. In this case, it was Michael Baber, who joined me back in the day on Battlestar Galactica. He’s been my primary music editor ever since. We’ve literally done hundreds of episodes of television together; he’s done The Walking Dead with me.
Normally, I do spend a lot of time on the stage but in this case, when I have Mike and his team, they know my music so well. It’s incredibly helpful to have an advocate there who knows my music so well. So in this case, I mostly stayed in my studio and kept working on new music and I’d send my assets over to the music editorial team who was working with the re-recording mixers. So it was a highly collaborative process. But I love that. It’s wonderful when you can trust those editorial teams, who have a huge job in front of them. The show was not an easy one to mix. So it was exciting to be a part of that.
And how about the collaboration with series creator Graeme Manson? Was this your first time working with him, and did he have specific thoughts on what he wanted from the score?
BM: It was my first experience working with Graeme and I had a great experience working with him. He’s a delightful guy. In our spotting sessions, we’d go through each episode very carefully and very thoroughly. We’d talk about the drama and talk about the intentions. He was very clear in his vision and he was a really fun guy to hang out with. Sometimes spots would take forever because we would end up chit-chatting about life and art and 70’s rock music. For some reason, that’s a touchstone for him. He can always bring a discussion around to his favorite rock music from the 70’s. We’d end up listening to some songs, and I’d hear the way he wanted the guitars in that to influence the synthesizers in this. Then we’d realize that we needed to stay focused and keep watching Snowpiercer. It was great. I really enjoyed working with Graeme.
What was the most challenging aspect of this score for you? Was there a particular track that you revisited a lot, or was there an episode that was particularly challenging?
BM: The combination of music and sound design was a challenge for me. Partly because the sound design on this show is so important and so I had to rethink how attached I got to anything I sent over, more so than any project I’ve ever worked on. I had to be prepared to let stuff go and let my synth beds fall behind the sound of the engine or the sound of the world. That was something we could only discover as we went along.
The first half of the season, it was a challenge for me to rewire my brain to think: these are the emotions the scene needs to convey but the environment is important. If you think about it, every conflict is derived from the environment. The narrative themes are derived from the environment. So, that was an adjustment for me.
…the sound design on this show is so important and so I had to rethink how attached I got to anything I sent over…
As it went on, it got easier. But that was the biggest challenge. I’m used to a world in which you establish the sound design and then as the scene goes on, or as the series goes on, the sound design starts to give way to new emotional conflicts — which it did on Snowpiercer, just in a different way. There were so many places where the sound design was vital and we had to make room for it. It was the superstar. That was the greatest challenge for me as I was scoring the series.
There are a lot of scenes with close combat. Were those scenes harder to write for than others because there is a lot of sound design?
BM: The action sequences were very difficult, not only because of the reality of combat and impacts and vocalizations, but because of the fact that it’s all close quarters. We’re not ever cutting wide to a big battlefield and able to achieve an epic grandeur. The camera can only get so far away from the characters, ever. So it creates this need for immediacy in the sound design. I started to find that certain types of sounds cut through better than others. It was often smaller sounds that play very quickly, as opposed to big drums and big orchestras. Those are elements that were muscling around, trying to make too much space for themselves.
It was often smaller sounds that play very quickly, as opposed to big drums and big orchestras.
For the emotional scenes, most of the time it became pretty clear — whether it was tense or beautiful — that the sound of the world could step back into the background. If we had two characters in a car together or the conversation starts to become very tense or emotional, that was a spot where I know that I can take up a little more space. I can use sounds that need to breathe a little more because I know on the dub stage we can pull back the sound design there.
On the combat scenes, that really wasn’t an option. I had to look for more surgical ways of supporting that. That was an interesting challenge.
I loved the piece you wrote for the ocean scene, where Jinju is swimming in the ocean on the train, collecting ingredients for sushi…
BM: It’s a beautiful image. In the first couple episodes, we’re establishing the world and there’s this unexpected beauty that I wanted to comment on.
The ocean-scene music is mid and low frequency heavy, but as Jinju surfaces, it opens up in the high-end. Was that composed that way or was it something the re-recording mixers had added on the stage?
BM: It was a combination of both. The intent was in the music but the mixers made that underwater area special, as if you (the audience) are escaping reality by going in there. We’re not expecting a scene underwater when we’re watching Snowpiercer.
It was creating a sense of wonder, perhaps even magic.
What is something you’d want other sound pros (or enthusiasts) to know about your composition for Snowpiercer?
BM: I’d want them to know — and I hope it’s evident — that as a composer, I love sound designers. With all my sound designer friends we inherently joke with each other about the conflict that exists when we’re both spending a couple weeks of our full time and energy to make the assets that go into a show and most of the time the audience is really only going to track one or the other.
There is this inherent playful boxing match between music and sound design but I value that.
There is this inherent playful boxing match between music and sound design but I value that. I love working with sound designers. I love their ideas and I try to approach them with the same humility and team spirit that they approach me with. I think anyone who has an ear for sound is going to watch Snowpiercer and feel that sense of collaboration. That’s my hope and it certainly was a cool opportunity where sound and music got to blend in exciting ways.
A big thanks to Bear McCreary for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of Snowpiercer and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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