Composers of the Year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: “It’s Been an Intimidating Journey”

on December 18, 2020, 12:00am
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On Composing for an Animated Movie

soul pixar disney plus release christmas

Soul (Pixar)

Reznor: Well, we did Soul before we did Mank. We were pretty much finished with Soul.

Ross: They just crossed over at the tail end a bit is all.

Reznor: But Soul was another one where there were years before we had started on that. There was a long lead time. It was a completely different mindset and a completely different set of filmmakers in a rapid process, and I’m not sure how other animated films work, but that staff had a number of things ready for us. For one, getting, as Pixar fans from the outside, to know them and visit the shop and see the culture and be exposed to it and welcomed into it. It was pretty remarkable in the sense that it lived up to whatever expectations I might have had. It was kind of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in a good way, like everyone there seemed to be really into what they were doing.

And there’s a childlike enthusiasm and positivity and openness, where quite frequently during the process, we would start working with very rough animated storylines that do a surprisingly good job of conveying watching the film, with temp voice acting and temp music, and you get a real sense of what the picture’s going to be like. And they’ll show an animatic to the entire team, and I mean hundreds of people and Pete Docter [writer-director of Soul] would sit for three hours and listen to every comment. “Did you like this? Did you like that? That makes sense. Fill up this part.” And two months later, there’s a movie that might have a radically different ending or middle or new character that comes into the meeting. And that’s kind of the fluid process that there might not be later on if you were filming actors on a set.

And what that meant for us was, we scored about six different movies. As we started early on, it’s like, “I can’t wait to see this character” … that doesn’t exist because he’s not even in the film anymore. Or this expansive moment where you’re watching a beautiful scene for a minute and a half, which is now three seconds, because a joked popped up, and now it’s a different thing. So, I think we started a lot earlier last time than we would in the future. But it was fascinating to see the process. And I remember as we were getting into it, they could say, “Let’s see. Trust the process. We’ve come up with a way to do this.” And I don’t mean a factory assembly line, but a strategy of openness and collaboration between not just two or three or four or five people but possibly lots of people.

I remember getting a call from Pete at one point. Probably halfway through when the plot was starting to get nailed down, and he called not to talk about the music we’d done but to be like, “Hey, what do you think about…? You’ve seen the film. Do you know what it’s about? Do you think that’s a believable reaction that the main character would have had? How do you feel?” We were talking about the scene when he [SPOILER ALERT] was on stage and he walks out. The lights and the billboard go off from the marquee, and he’s still alone and didn’t fix anything. I thought for probably half an hour about that. Then I started to see that it felt great to be included not just as music people that they needed but as collaborators whose input and DNA started to inhabit the picture. It was a cool process.

pixar soul Composers of the Year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: Its Been an Intimidating Journey

Soul (Pixar)

Ross: I don’t really have anything to add beyond there is a bit of an amusing aspect. In the beginning, they did want to make sure that we were capable of making optimistic music. We had to do a bit of early writing.

Reznor: I wonder why. I don’t know why they wouldn’t know.

Ross: That is a bit of truth. But, anyway, we managed to cross that hurdle. Like Trent said, the actual animation happens at the very last second, because it’s so expensive. So, when you’re talking about the difference between live-action and animated film, or at least our experience of it, the script is still the script. You know what I mean? The script that we read for Mank was the script. And it’s not going to change. But it’s the notion that you could be, you know, 11 months in, final mix is in three weeks, and there still can be major changes made to what you’re working on prior to that moment of pulling the trigger on the animation. In that way, it is a different process.

On the Risks of Leaving Their Wheelhouse

Trent Reznor Atticus Ross Mank OST score soundtrack stream

Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor

Reznor: I’ve had people ask, “Why would you guys want to do a movie that’s about jazz?” But it was never presented to us that way. It was more about Pixar making a kind of risky, themed movie about a main character who dies right at the beginning, what happens after you die, and what makes your life that you live worth living or what was worthwhile. A lot of the movie is going to take place in the real world, in New York City, and a lot takes place in planes nobody’s ever heard or visited before. And it’s going to kind of be split up between us doing the otherworldly stuff and others doing the jazz-driven, grounded, real-world stuff. Great. That sounds interesting.

So, the way we approached it from the beginning was when [SPOILER ALERT] Joe falls down the manhole and dies, there was a lot of talk and many discussions with Pixar and Pete and Kemp about what temperature is needed. It doesn’t need to be intimidating and terrifying, but it also shouldn’t be completely welcoming. Because it could be any number of things. You’re on a walkway with a bunch of ghosts walking into a vacuum, a hole that sucks you into someplace, and you’re realizing you’re not alive anymore. That can’t feel real good. Until you’re like, “Wow, fuck yeah!”

Soul Wears an Old Hat But Opens New Doors for Pixar: Review

Soul (Pixar)

We started working on the film chronologically, so that’s the first cue we really dug into. And we thought part of our process was to think, “acoustic, electronic, sonics, digital, warm, cold? What kind of instrumentation are we thinking about?” And when we approached it like that, we thought that it should sound like everything: not just the sound of an orchestra tuning up but the sound of all nature and sound pleasant, unpleasant, dissonant, and comforting — all tuned together in a series of stems we could bring up and down where it would sound like everything but not white noise, where it would feel like it’s got elements and oomph.

And so, we delivered probably 50 different stem options. If it needs to be a little more warm, there are these three. If it needs to be a little creepier, here are these, etc. It was kind of working as sound effects earlier on as the camera pans around and we’re looking at what’s happening. Just by raising and lowering these stems, we could achieve quite a variety of emotional tones based around one key sitting there, so it didn’t feel like a melody necessarily, but it didn’t feel non-musical either.

I’m pretty proud of how that turned out, because it was really easy to take it the other way, where the first 10 minutes of the film are like Hellraiser. That’s a really unpleasant way to go. But at the same time, it shouldn’t feel like Saturday afternoon at the movies because something pretty heavy is happening. If we get that wrong, the temperature of the whole movie feels misplaced.

On Whether Fatherhood Had an Impact on Composing for a Pixar Movie



Reznor: I’d been a fan of Pixar pre-fatherhood. I’ve always appreciated them and their approach to animation and storytelling. And that was kind of the key. We had actually written down a list of potential collaborators that we might be intrigued by rather than just waiting for the phone to ring. In fact, we proactively kind of write who we’d love to knock on their doors and just say, “If you ever had anything appropriate…” But being a parent kind of adjusts all the emotional dials in ways that are hard to imagine what life was like before. I was in my 40s when I started having kids, and I’ve got five now. Now, I can find myself crying during an insurance commercial. It certainly has changed my sensitivity a lot.

Ross: And I do think, ultimately, that particular film [Soul], in terms of adults and children, the message it delivers is a substantial one. I mean, for Pete Docter to take on a film about the meaning of life — that’s large subject matter. I’m looking forward to my kid seeing it, because what Pete’s made speaks to me, and I would hope my family, in a way that’s kind of important.

On a Classic Movie They Wish They Had the Chance to Score

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Reznor: That question has Atticus Ross written all over it.

Ross: To be honest, there isn’t for me, because the movies that I really love — and really love the score to … Take Taxi Driver. There was only one composer for that movie. Bernard Herrmann made one of the greatest scores of all time, and one can’t disassociate the music from that film or be arrogant enough to say, “I think I could’ve done that…” Do you know what I’m trying to say? It’s impossible for me to remove the music from my favorite movie. So, I can’t dismantle one in that way and say that I wish I could have done the music.

Reznor: Neither of us are very social. And we avoid collaboration just because we’re awkward, and it’s easier to be in our own cave. And the idea of “let’s get together and jam,” that sounds like a terrible idea. And through filmmaking, or being involved in the work, one score allowed us to get into these intense, finite — can range from a few months to a couple years — processes with camps of people. That’s when it’s great; it’s really great. And we leave that feeling easily exhausted, but then aged and smarter, and our minds are expanded, and that infectious inspiration then carries over into making another Nine Inch Nails record or doing something in another field. And we wouldn’t have gotten that had we not had to do these things and gotten into them.

So, when we try to think of projects to take on, what gets us excited is feeling like we’ve immersed ourselves and really done the best work we can. And the idea of trying to find interesting people, interesting camps, immersing ourselves and learning from them and doing battle if necessary. It’s really become fun — and sometimes maddening — that they’re each little mini adventures. I don’t think I would’ve stumbled into the equivalent had the trajectory of my career stayed in rock music

I’m thankful for the rock thing. I’m super glad I can still do it. I’m still excited about it. It’s just nice to have some things that keep it exciting, like would I ever have taken a year to deep-dive into Big Band and ’40s orchestral style? Probably not. But man, I’m glad I was kind of pressured into seeing if I could try to do it. Because it has changed how I think about things and the options that feel available to me. And I’m just grateful. We both feel like we’re still learning and have a lot to learn about a lot of things. This has been a nice avenue to be able to kind of keep things fresh.

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