Bear McCreary – Interview

Ever since the likes of Charlie Chaplin composed his own music for “City Lights”in 1931, in the 1930’s writing soundtracks for films became an art form in itself. The film or TV show soundtrack is critical in capturing a moment, subtly adding to the skill of the actors, working with the visual scene portrayed to deliver everything that the film producers expect, and that the captivated audience want. Some of the masters of this art include Hans Zimmer (of Last Samurai and Mission Impossible), Tyler Bates (300), Richard Gibbs (Battlestar Galactica, and Oingo Boingo Keyboardist), Brian Tyler (Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift), John Williams (Star Wars) and John Barry (James Bond). In amongst this elite group of exceptional composers is Bear McCreary, who penned an incredible score for the hugely successful re-imagination of sci-fi cult TV favourite, Battlestar Galactica.

Bear has also composed soundtracks for Human Target (which sadly was cruelly axed despite being one of the better TV shows being aired at the time), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, The Walking Dead and The Cape as well as scores for well known computer games. Bear’s work is somehow recognisable and yet, not repetitive or just “more of the same”, you’ll hear Battlestar Galactica, and Human Target, you’ll know it’s Bear’s work, but somehow, they are distinctly different.

How did you initially break into scoring television shows? Was it a difficult industry to get into?

Getting into any aspect of the entertainment industry is a real challenge, and there’s no clear way to do it. For me, my first real job in the industry was “Battlestar Galactica.” I had just graduated from the USC Thornton School of Music, where I picked up the skills and training needed. But, most of what I learned about the job I picked up from watching other composers work and rolling up my sleeves and scoring student and independent films on my own. So, though I got “BSG” early in my career, I had done a lot of work to prepare for it.

How did you go about getting involved with “The Walking Dead”?

The series creator Frank Darabont and I had known each other for a couple years. We met because he was a fan of my work on “BSG” and I was a big fan of the films he’s created. So, we were always looking for a project we could collaborate on. “The Walking Dead” was the perfect project for that.

What is the schedule like for scoring a single episode for “The Walking Dead”? Could you give us a walk through on the steps from having the concept to the final mix, and how long do each of these processes take?

There’s no single way it happens, but generally I have about a week for each episode. I’ll sit down with the producers and watch a rough version of the episode. At this “spotting session,” we talk about where music should exist, where there should be no music and what the role of the music should be. After that, I go into my studio, compose the score and supervise the orchestration and preparation. Then, we record all the live instruments in a single day, mix the score and deliver it to the dub stage. During that process, I keep the producers involved in the score, sending them rough sketches and mock ups of what the score will eventually sound like, and make adjustments as needed. It’s a dynamic and collaborative process, which is great because it pushes me beyond my comfort zones, to write music that I wouldn’t be able to write just on my own.

The scoring throughout “Battlestar Galactica” was so incredibly unique to the series, making it stand out from other science-fiction series in the past. What inspired you to make it sound like it does, and how was it done? Where did you find people such as Lilis Ó Laoire?

I was fortunate to work with many incredibly talented musicians on “BSG.” That was part of the thrill. Every time the series went in a new direction, I would use that as an excuse to find a new instrumentalist or singer and try something different on the score. So many of us had so much fun playing together on that score, that I frequently reassemble the “band” and perform the music of “BSG” live in concerts. It’s a pretty unique group of talented soloists.

The use of Bob Dylan’s (more Hendrix’s interpretation?) “All Along the Watchtower” was absolutely incredible, what made you choose that for inclusion in BSG?

I don’t think we used the Hendrix interpretation at all, to be honest. I listened intensely to the Dylan version and tried to reinterpret it as a unique piece of music in the “BSG” universe. Of course, I’ve heard the Hendrix cover of it, but I personally don’t hear any similarity other than both our versions have distorted electric guitars. I would describe my version more as “George Harrison meets Rage Against the Machine and they Travel to India.” The choice of that song was from showrunner Ron Moore, who had wanted to find a home for the song throughout the course of the series. Finally, the storyline took us to the perfect place to use it. It was a really fun experience, since I had complete freedom to change and adapt the song into something original.

And did you ask to do a cameo role on”BSG”, or did they ask you? And how much did you enjoy it?

Being on set for “BSG” was a blast. I was there supervising the music and musical performances in an episode that featured a musician character. I couldn’t resist hopping into costume to be in the background in one shot! Check out my blog entry on that whole experience for more fun details:

Would you be getting involved with scoring the “Battlestar Galactica” prequel, “Blood and Chrome”? If so, how do you think the sound will differ from “Caprica” and “Battlestar Galactica”?

I am involved in the “BSG” prequel, “Blood and Chrome.” The score is nearly finished and will be a unique hybrid of sounds from “BSG,” “Caprica” and new instrumentation that has not yet been heard in the franchise. It’s one of the most exciting scores I’ve ever written.

How did you get into composing for video games? Do you find scoring for video games more difficult than for television and motion picture?

Scoring games has its own challenges and rewards. In some ways, it’s easier, because you’re not scoring to picture. But, in other ways, it’s harder because… you’re not scoring to picture. Ultimately, it’s probably more challenging, because you’ve got all the challenges of character themes and thematic development and you still have to deal with the technical limitations and issues that arise from needing to implement the score. A great game score will not sound right if it’s not written with implementation in mind.

Did you find the scoring for SOCOM 4 a challenging project?

SOCOM 4 was a fun challenge. The game developers and I struggled to make a score that was highly adaptive, one that would ebb and flow naturally as the player went through the game. We wanted to create the feeling that there is a little conductor watching you play and cueing an orchestra. We wanted musical transitions to be musical and not simply crossfades between layers. Ultimately, the score was a huge success. When I played through the game I was amazed at how seamlessly those transitions worked. The music was like a living, breathing character in the game.

What was the most difficult project you have worked on to date?

“Difficult” is a relative term. “BSG” presented totally unique creative challenges, ones that I’ll likely never deal with again. Incorporating “All Along the Watchtower” into the narrative is just one example of many. But, that didn’t make the show “difficult.” That simply inspired me to rise to the occasion and pour my heart and soul into the experience.

You’ve recently been nominated for 5 Goldspirit Awards, including Best Score for Television against composers from series such as Downton Abbey, Sherlock and Terra Nova. How much does it mean to you to get recognition like this, or are you purely driven by just wanting to write great soundtracks?

I’m definitely not driven to get awards, but the recognition from fans and peers is always greatly appreciated. Ultimately, I’m my own harshest critic, so I am driven to write music that I know, in my heart, is good.

What do you listen to? Are you a fan of any other composer’s work?

I frequently listen to the film composers who inspire me the most: Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, John Williams, Danny Elfman and Basil Poledouris. I also really enjoy Queen, Oingo Boingo, Pink Floyd and Dethklok.

Which of your projects has been the most enjoyable to work on?

I think scoring “The Cape” and “Human Target.” In both those cases, I had a full symphony orchestra at my disposal every week. The producers really understood the power that live music can bring to a project, so each episode was a joyful experience. A ton of stressful work, yes, but a joyful experience.

What can we expect from your work on “The Walking Dead” in the future?

My score for “The Walking Dead” will start increasing in scope and ambition. By the end of Season 2, you’ll hear a full string orchestra, which is a huge leap beyond the small chamber group I’ve generally been working with. And as we move into Season 3… who knows? But, I’m excited to see where the series goes and hope to push the score into strange new territory.

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