Hopefully you’ve been watching the landmark followup to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet docuseries on BBC America (if you haven’t, you need to. Really.) The new series, 10 years after its beautiful, celebratory original, has modulated to reflect not only the oceans’ spectacular abundance and diversity and our inextricably connected relationship with them, but also the growing alarm that human carelessness might be reaching a point that even our relentlessly self-renewing ocean ecosystems cannot keep up with.
Imagine you’ve been given the formidable task of composing the soundscape for such a far-reaching endeavor. I personally couldn’t, so luckily I got a chance to chat with members of Bleeding Fingers, the music collective responsible for the beautiful score for Blue Planet 2. We caught up with Jacob Shea and David Fleming, who served as the lead composers, and Russell Emmanuel, CEO of Bleeding Fingers and creative producer for this score.
Paste: I’m familiar with some, but not all, of the work from this collective. I’m curious about the super-basics of composing for this program: what was the process, what were the constraints, what were the challenges, how much leeway did the composers have versus how much directive from production staff, that kind of thing?
Russell Emanuel: Good question. You know, these big projects are extremely ambitious. The challenge is like scoring 4 movies at once in one go. You need to assemble a crack team of composer’s assistants, as well as highly talented producers. The main challenges came from the logistics of putting that whole thing together. You know you’re going to be working on something like this for 9 months or so. As the process moves along, the timeline gets shorter and shorter and the challenges seem to get larger. The initial hurdle is assembling the team, but we’re very lucky that the people here came up working for Hans Zimmer, so they’re used to challenging deadlines and juggling numerous projects. These are challenges we have, not just in Blue Planet II, but in every project we do. Everyone wants the music tomorrow, and everyone wants the music to sound finished now. It’s just the everyday stuff. I think with any project like this, it always starts with a luxury of time, and then you slowly progress into the craziness of a deadline.
Paste: I know a lot of composers use animal sounds as “instruments” in composition (Bernie Krause comes to mind). I know that the first time I was on a whale-watching tour during humpback mating season, it was all spectacular to watch but what really blew my mind was when the naturalist on the boat dropped a mic in the water. I can’t imagine not being stunned by the sheer range and volume of communicative noise going on within a few hundred yards of the boat. To what extent were you inspired or influenced by the actual sounds of marine life?
Jacob Shea: With Dave and I, and for Russell at the outset, we wanted to mimic the water itself: to create a tapestry, a texture and a style of writing that was analogous to the undulation of the sea. Something to make you consider the fact that you’re not really on terra firma. The concept wasn’t specifically focused on the animals, but more on going in with our orchestra and recording these high, wave-like gestures and use those as the bedrock of each piece of music.
David Fleming: One thing we would actually do, is stay out of the way of the animals themselves, in terms of the audio that was captured. By focusing more on the connective tissue of “how do we tell the story of the ocean,” and by using this idea of a tidal orchestra, we could let David Attenborough or the animal, whether it be surfing dolphins or a sucker fish breaking open a shell, stand in as the lead instrument that we accompany.
Paste: The sound in general really stands out to me as one of the strengths of the program, which, given the quality of the photography, is saying a lot. Not only “score” per se but the whole soundscape-I’ve been in water with dolphins, parrotfish, turtles; it’s surprisingly noisy down there (in shallow water anyway). Was the entirety of the soundscape you guys or was there a lot of interplay with a larger sound design team? They must have captured a lot of sound with principal photography.
Shea: When we got each episode, Dave and I would make a conscious effort to be aware of the sound effects that were laid in, and to make room for them in our orchestration so that they could live together. In terms of a closer collaboration, I would’ve welcomed it, it just didn’t happen on this one.
Fleming: Although it wasn’t our purview to handle the actual audio, we were always conscious of it, like Jacob said. From my understanding, most of it is sourced, meaning it’s the actual audio being caught from the footage. The technology has changed drastically. Obviously, the camera technology and image quality has gotten so much better in recent years, but what a lot of people don’t realize how good the audio capturing has gotten in camera. I was pretty blown away by some of the sounds they recorded, especially when I found out that they were real and sourced directly.
Paste: I wasn’t actually sure how much of it was sourced directly-that is amazing. So, personally, one of the things that would give me panic attacks about a project like this would be moving-target deadlines! How much time did you generally have to compose, between receiving footage and having to deliver a score?
Shea: I wouldn’t say it was regular. It started out with a decent amount of time, like a month, but by the end of it, it was like 2 weeks or a week.
Paste: Thank God for coffee, I guess.
Fleming: They’ve been really varied. It was all dependent on how much editing they were doing for the footage and how far along they were.
Paste: Right, and I suppose the photography unit is literally at the mercy of the weather among other things, so I’m sure they don’t have as much control as they’d want around when something gets successfully captured.
Emanuel: For any project like this, it starts with the luxury of time and ends with the craziness of a deadline. There’s nothing unusual about that, I guess.
Paste: Did working on this project alter the way you think about marine life, ecosystems, things like that?
Shea: Oh, a hundred percent. A lot of the footage was kind of new to me. I mean, the fact that a trevally has the ability to calculate a trajectory of a bird in flight, then leap out of the water and capture its prey… It made me feel more connected to these animals that you don’t see on a daily basis.
Paste: Yes! I went back to the original series and showed it to my kids-Attenborough seemed fascinated with the trevally in those episodes too, but this was a whole new level of “Wow, did that just happen?”
Shea: There is a scene with a walrus that is trying to find a bit of ice to nurse its young baby, and having trouble because there’s just not enough ice in the arctic anymore to find a place to nurse. Seeing the footage is a lot more heartwrenching than just reading about general effects of climate change.
Emanuel: I think anything in the ocean exists in the ultimate situation of “out of sight and out of mind.” We don’t think about marine life that often. We need to understand that these are our neighbors and we have to take care of them. There’s a delicate life-balance on our planet, and I think the more these ecologically responsible programs get out there and are as successful as Blue Planet the more good it will do.
Paste: Yep. Netflix debuted a documentary about coral bleaching last year that did such a good job with this: they pretty much verbatim said “There’s still time to keep coral reefs from dying, but if we don’t, the coral dies. The little fish who depend on the coral die. The big fish that eat the little fish die. And if you think for one second that you as humans are not one of the big fish: Think again.” It was powerful. And the more good programs about the need for better stewardship, the better-but no one else is ever going to be David Attenborough.
So, who would you cite as your own major influences (I know, it’s an annoying question, writers get it all the time. Sorry!)
Shea: I think it’s a tough one to answer because it’s so varied. Part of composing for media is you’re asked to do wildly different things on any occasion, so you come to appreciate all of these styles of music that you may not have honed in on before. You know: Miles Davis, Sigur Ros… there’s too many to mention.
Paste: I got so lucky, my kids fell in love with Sigur Ros and I was spared years of hideous baby-music.
Fleming: Jacob’s right. The fun of being a composer is being able to draw from as many sources as you can, so it’s always changing for me. Nick Cave is one I always go back to. He’s just… artistically there’s so much to be admired. Also, I think Hans Zimmer, for me, is a big one, especially in the way he approaches a project and a score. The concept for me is everything, and to conceptualize and focus it in that kind of way is really inspiring.
Paste: What drew you to this kind of composing? I imagine it’s a very different world from simply writing and recording standalone music.
Fleming: For me, it was always something I was interested in, even when I was younger playing in bands. I like to be able to shape a story in music, but collaboratively with other filmmakers and artists. Obviously, the original love is music but film composing is its own art form in itself.
Shea: Yeah, I studied music in college and took a Summer internship with a great composer and just sort of shadowed him for the summer. It became apparent that scoring was something that had a lot of unique challenges and opportunities. It’s such a great thing to be doing for a living.
Emanuel: I think anyone who’s in our line of work is looking for an easier gig… and, stupidly, I thought that this was going to be it, not realizing how hard these guys actually work. I got connected with Hans 16 or 17 years ago and it was certainly an area I knew nothing about. But, from my point I saw an opportunity to bring a different set of skills to the table. Some are useful, some not.
Paste: Some of you worked on both Planet Earth and Blue Planet 2 do you feel like you have a particular understanding of David Attenborough’s style?
Emanuel: I think with Attenborough’s style, it’s something everybody’s linked with for many, many years. So, it’s organically sort of in our DNA.
Paste: Fair enough.
Emanuel: The beauty about being involved with these natural history projects is that the picture is so beautiful that it allows the composers the freedom to experiment creatively. They’re not making up for pictures that aren’t quite doing the job. It’s beautiful stuff with a world class voice over. Sir David is a national treasure. We know that when he comes and works his magic, in the end it’s going to be spectacular. Our job specifically is to be musically respectful, enhance the picture and try not to get in the way; tell the story and enhance it. The heroes of these movies are the creatures on the screen, really.
Paste: Can you say a little about producing “Ocean Bloom,” the collaborative track between Hans Zimmer and Radiohead?
Emanuel: It all seems like a bit of a blur now. Firstly, a shout out to all the very talented people that worked on this, especially Andrew Christie who did the real heavy lifting for Bleeding Fingers. I got to take a good part of the glory but there was an incredible team behind me. Radiohead couldn’t have been more gracious about us working with their music. I have been involved with similar projects, where you can imagine, there are people being very precious, but when Thom and the team said yes, they literally just got out of our way which was probably the biggest surprise. Then, when we would collaborate, they were just spectacularly generous and complimentary. I know, it sounds Hollywood showbiz, but it’s absolutely the truth.
Paste: Actually, it doesn’t…. it sounds like you got lucky!
Emanuel: Hans is simply a one of kind genius. He’s a creative sniper. When he gives a note it’s always on target, meaningful and makes a huge difference. It was a fantastic experience all around, for me especially.
Paste: What are some of the challenges unique to scoring a documentary versus, say, a drama or comedy?
Fleming: One of the things we tried to do on Blue Planet that I know these guys did on Planet Earth is to not approach it as a documentary, but to approach it as we would any crafted story. The stories in these episodes are every bit as dramatic as any Hollywood film or TV show, maybe more so. I think we see it as a story in its own right.
Shea: Usually with documentaries, the goal was to remain impartial. With Blue Planet it was to highlight this diverse amount of sea life that exists and each individual trial and difficulty that these creatures have to overcome. Our job is to heighten the storytelling.
Paste: Well, mission accomplished, I think. Thanks for giving us a sense of the process. You guys did some beautiful work here.
Blue Planet 2 premiered in the US on BBC America, AMC, IFC, WE tv and SundanceTV on January 20. Previously-aired episodes are available. If you haven’t been watching it… watch it.