Composing for Animation: An Interview With Ratchet & Clank's Evan Wise

   Animation, it is widely agreed, is the most difficult film medium to compose for. Trying to root the fantastic with emotional reality whilst simultaneously contending with technical considerations - such as constant tweaking of the material one is writing to - make the genre notoriously tricky to navigate.

   For Ratchet & Clank, a newly released family adventure movie, an array of extra factors too further complicated the composing process. The movie's heroes, for example, first came to life as characters in a long-running and much beloved video game franchise which boasts a large and passionate fan-base; a community with very strong and particular ideas about the duo and how they should be presented.

   As a project for which to write one's first full feature film score, there are few more difficult to imagine. Yet, for young composer Evan Wise, Ratchet & Clank became something of an ideal opportunity to make his name with. "I can't think of a better film to have worked on as my first [feature]."

   The animated adventure, starring John Goodman, Bella Thorne, Sylvester Stallone and Rosario Dawson among others, tells the tale of a Lombax named Ratchet (James Arnold Taylor) who wiles away his days in a garage fixing ships. He imagines bigger things - he dreams of the stars and his place amongst them, and aspires to protect peace and order as a member of The Galactic Order. Yet, although he is rejected by his would-be team-mates, fate sides with the Lombax who finds himself in a position to save the galaxy from a gang of evil-doers led by Chairman Drek (Paul Giamatti). Working on the project, Wise notes, was "really a dream come true."

   I was eager to find out more about the movie, the process of composing for it and how Ratchet & Clank differs from the video game series. As such, I was delighted when Mr. Wise was kind enough to volunteer his time to discuss the feature and his role in it.

  The film, which is now on general release, presented Wise with an opportunity to do something astonishing which he had been building up to since childhood. "I've gone to theatres forever," the composer remembered, "and looked at movie posters and seen the composer's name on there". Visiting the cinema to watch Ratchet & Clank with some friends - "It was really the first time I had seen the final, final product in the theatre, you know, on the really good stereo systems they have. I thought it sounded great, it looked great, it was a lot of fun" - allowed Wise the opportunity to search the film paraphernalia for a familiar credit. After years of spotting the names of dozens of world-famous composers, Wise finally spotted his own there too.

   Whilst a new generation of cinephiles and curious youngsters may well find themselves being presented with the name "Evan Wise" as they look to see who created the sounds for Ratchet & Clank, the composer himself remembers a formative name which inspired his own journey into the world of film. There is a large degree of serendipity that the iconic score penned by John Williams, the one which Evan Wise cites as being a key influence, also belonged to a family-oriented, sci-fi adventure.

   "I grew up in the early eighties so I think the E.T. score is still one of my favourites," the composer reminisces. "I love all the themes that everybody can remember from the score, the flying theme and all that." With a tender aside, Wise adds: "But I really like the intimate moments in that film also."

   In the years between first watching Spielberg's immensely popular blockbuster all the way through to the present day, Williams' score has somehow grown in stature and attained legendary, mythical status - Wise represents one of the many who find themselves still awe-struck by the compositions in the movie. "I got to see it [the E.T. soundtrack] performed live at the Hollywood bowl last year," Wise exuberates. "L.A. Phil played the entire score with the film there." Listening with the ear of an adult, and a trained musician too, the intricacies of the performance stuck with him. "You got to really hear some of the details in that score that are really fantastic played live. There's some harp writing in that score which is some of the most intimate, beautiful harp writing I've ever heard."

   Looking to add some of his own sense of wonder to the world, to create his own voice in the composing industry, Wise aimed to create a score of his own filled with such intimate emotion. I wondered what it must be like to be sat in a public theatre as one's name appears on the screen, and one's soul spills out of the speakers, while also maintaining a shadowy anonymity.

   "It's a little bit revealing you know?" the composer replied. "Because a lot of those things were written so personally by myself. Its interesting - its not quite the same as seeing your face on the screen but it feels intimate like that. Like 'oh wow! That's me, that's my work I'm putting out there'." The juxtaposition of the personal and the public must, I assume, be rather strange. "I always feel with film composers there's a little mystery there - there's not a lot of information about all composers, you kind of hear their music and you think: 'What is the personality behind this person? What is the angle they're writing?'"

   Witnessing Ratchet & Clank in the cinema must have been a bittersweet moment for Wise. Having first come on board the project in 2013, the process had come to an end but, as the composer stoically notes: "Its really a work of art that I've put out there [for which] I don't have any control over the avenues that it travels now. Its been a long road to get here but its really a dream come true to realise that a lot of people are enjoying the score and its thrilling when people reach out to me on Twitter or Facebook to tell me."

   Wise begun his composing career whilst studying for his Bachelors of Music. "At the time, I was thinking of going into symphony conducting and then I really got to the point where I realised I wanted to do more composition, [I] got really attracted to that - y'know maybe I could lend my own voice to orchestration rather than recreate past works." After graduating, Wise went to study with Hummie Mann, the famous conductor and composer, in Seattle - the experience proved invaluable. "Being with him for so many years and seeing how to really do this... and how to logistically score a film was very important in my training."

   From here, Wise honed his skills creating music for thousand of trailers and adverts, putting into practice all of the elements he had accumulated in his studies. Yet, when I asked about the different approaches one may utilise in scoring a film instead of an advert, the composer is forthright with the honesty of his response: "I would say, for me personally, and this isn't for everybody, its much more artistically fulfilling to score a film. You're so much more tied to the production, you're tied to the director, its a long process. You bond much more over the source material and the work. Not to say I don't enjoy working on the television and ads and trailers, but for those kinds of things its much more short term." With a chuckle he adds: "It's really nice to work on something like Ratchet & Clank where people really appreciate what you're doing.... or not!"







   When the opportunity to score Ratchet & Clank came along, the project seemed tailor-made for a composer who grew up with the sounds of John Williams and one who spent his younger years "watching a lot of Looney Tunes".  I wondered how familiar Wise was with the source material and, furthermore, if he was keen to replicate the sounds found in the Ratchet & Clank series or even to meld the disparate influences of Williams and Looney Tunes into his score?

   "I've always been familiar with the characters and the games. I was in college when the original Ratchet & Clank game came out - I remember seeing it in the dorm and guys playing it in the dormitories and playing it myself a little bit." I wondered whether it would be these people, the ones who played the game on its initial release, he would be targeting his score towards?

   Wise, matter-of-factly, confirms that he intended to approach the music anew: "When I came to write for the films I really wanted it to be a new voice [as] this was a new retelling of the story. I really wanted to develop new themes for these characters and kind of re-start the series in my own voice and I think that the director really appreciated that also and the producers thought that was a good direction to go as well. I  tried to approach it as a score which would be written for a family film (just like anything from Pixar, Dreamworks or Disney animation or anything like that)."

   Indeed, watching Ratchet & Clank confirms that Wise has created a fully fledged action score much more suited to big-screen adventures than simply regurgitating cues found in previous iterations of the franchise. Wise, as he confirmed, was very much concerned with steering clear from the obvious and the rote too. "I try to stay away from what I call 'musical baggage'! Music can always trigger an idea or a thought. So you can always go through music, or a score, and think: 'Oh, they used that there because it was used in something previous'."

   How, then, does Wise manage to escape this pit-falls and create fresh compositions which still engage?

   "A really good example of this was the character Dr Nefarious", the composer notes, referring back to his work on Ratchet & Clank. "He kind of has this 1950s B-movie vibe to him - he's this very over the top mad scientist character. It would have been really easy to use some for the sci-fi sounds from the 50s to score him... but what I tried to do was to stay away from that and use the traditional orchestral setting with him. I came up with these fluttering woodwinds and vibes and piano that  kind of all congregate together to create his sound in this little theme I came up for him. It was one of the most nuanced orchestral pieces I had ever written and I felt really happy with the way that came out and the way that was used on his character. It had almost a cynical, villainous sound to it that I felt was kind of fresh and new that really hadn't been used before."

   He wasn't, I ponder with tongue in cheek, tempted to use a more stereotypical sound like a theramin? Wise laughs at the ludicrous instrument I suggested. "The theramin would have been way over the top almost sounding like Mars Attacks! or something!"

   As our conversation progresses, Wise expands upon his compositional philosophies: "I feel like a lot of composers, and a lot of scores I hear today... the music just falls into the trap of just being musical sound effects for changes. So my process, and my idea and my goal with this [Ratchet & Clank], was to really write music that could be a consistent, fluid listening experiences whilst hitting those key points, tempo changes and action changes and tonal changes throughout the film."



   Wise refers to the temp score which Ratchet & Clank was edited to and which fulfilled the Pavlovian purposes of the 'musical baggage' theory the composer noted eariler: "There were things from Back to the Future, E.T., I think there were cues from Alien in there. There was all kinds of stuff in there but it never felt cohesive to the film. The final score that's in there is much better because it was actually written for this film." Rather than simply writing or using pre-existing "scare" cues, Wise stresses the importance of creating organic ones specifically for the picture in hand.

   The score-writing process, I find, is a rather methodical one for Wise. "I will start out writing at the piano and come up with the harmonic rhythms and progressions for themes. So I'll write kind of the structure of the music at that point and then it'll move onto the orchestration process where I'll add a lot of ornaments and flourishes in the orchestration and really make it come alive.

   "I don't have an improvisational technique - a lot of composers talk about that, how they lay down the bass-line and improv the melody. I don't do that - I write and really pay attention to how my voicings within certain sections of the orchestra are constructed. I can walk you through every point in my orchestration and discuss why I chose to do what I did. Nothing is there [just] because it sounded good; there's a methodical reason for everything."

   I was interested to hear about the collaborative process between Wise and the director of Ratchet & Clank, Kevin Munroe. "I couldn't think of a better director/composer relationship to work on for my first big feature film," Wise notes. How, I asked, did the process work? Did Munroe pass musical notes or have any pre-conceived ideas in mind?

   "I scored the film to the picture," Wise recalls, "so it wasn't writing music he [Munroe] was then going to put into the film. The scoring process is that I have the locked picture so I'm writing the music directly in time with the picture so I would just go through reel one, and go through reel two of the film. and as we would go along, he wouldn't so much comment on specific musical ideas but he would comment on tonal ideas - 'let's make this a little larger here' or, a lot of times, 'this is perfect'. I felt creatively everything moved along very, very smoothly. All of the ideas I was implementing Kevin responded to positively."


   Despite Wise's positive statements - "by the time we got half way through I feel like we were just cruising" - it is safe to say that not everything was entirely straightforward when it came to producing the score.

   "Every once in a while the producers were still noting the movie and there would be edits that they would make. And that was probably the most difficult process," the composer recalls. "Sometimes the producers would have screenings of the film at different stages and they would all decide: 'You know what - we should maybe move this scene up a couple of scenes or re-arrange something.' So, when that would happen, it would actually impact my work.  Because I'm writing so tightly to an animated film - [and] scoring animation is probably the most difficult scoring genre there is -  when edits were made or changed to the final cut, sometimes that would kind of null hours of work so I'd have to go back and re-work scenes but that's very, very common. And actually, and I've said this before, the final cut of the movie that is out in the theatres now is the best version of the movie so those decisions were always correct."

   Perhaps more disconcertingly for someone who proudly refers to themselves as a symphonist, it became clear towards the end of the project that Ratchet & Clank's score would not be recorded in the way Wise envisioned: "I had thought up until the last moment that there was going to be an orchestral recording but it turned out there were multiple constraints at the very end, time and budget, and the producers were very happy with what I was turning in already so they didn't see the need to do it."

   This, Wise states, was "probably the down-side to the project". "If I could have funded it [the recording] myself I would have because I feel that this movie and this score that I wrote really deserved to have a live orchestral recording with everybody in the room all at once."


   Although, in hindsight, Wise states that he's "very happy with the way that its mixed and it sounds", the composer notes that in creating the score he had to use a number of workarounds to compensate for the lack of a full orchestral recording. How does one work around obstacles like that I wonder?

   Wise is happy to explain: "A lot of the score is using sample orchestra.So its not really synthetic - they'll do a recording with the orchestra, they'll take each section of the orchestra. They'll take the strings and they'll record every note and every articulation and every dynamic level and then they'll comprise that into computer software where you can use those sounds to create your own score."

   This, for Wise, is again, bittersweet. "Those sample orchestras are getting so good now that I'm afraid in the next ten/fifteen years that producers will start saying: 'Oh wow! Why do we even need to go to London? Or Hollywood or Prague? Why are we even going to record that - what the composer is doing sounds great!' I'm a little nervous that that is where its all headed and I really hope that I'm not starting that trend but I really didn't have any choice!"

   I posit that, were Wise able to handpick any project he could imagine to work on as his next project, his dream would be to create a feature film score with a fully orchestrated, symphonic soundtrack. Wise replies that although he has a few things in the pipeline he can't talk about them just yet. In this moment, I think back on his journey - one which began in a cinema, being enveloped by John Williams' compositions, and how the most recent  chapter concluded with him sat in another theatre too but with his own score accompanying the images on the big screen instead. With Ratchet & Clank, Wise's music took us to space, to the stars - where will he take us, and where will he go, next? The only thing I can say for sure is that I'm certain we'll be seeing his name on movie posters again and, hopefully, even in ten or fifteen years time, we'll be hearing his compositions seeping out of speakers in our theatres, playing back his fully orchestrated, symphonic recordings.

Thankyou

A huge thanks is owed to Mr. Wise for the time he volunteered for speaking with me for this post.

Be sure to check out his website: http://www.evanwise.com/ and his Soundcloud.
And make certain follow him on Twitter here.
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