Interview with Frederik Wiedmann
Often times, the animated spin-offs to live action comic book movies and TV shows are the Not Brand Echh versions of the “real” deals, coming across as a collection of infantile, badly drawn issues – to say nothing about their uninspired music. But since the revolutionary “Batman: The Animated Series,” DC’s 30 minute, and feature-length toons have put true quality into every department of their look and sound. Sure Marvel might still have the cape-up when it comes to conveying flesh and blood super heroes. But the power given to these DC animated adaptations, especially when it comes to their scores, pretty much rivals the music being done in the live action genre – if not often beating their bigscreen rivals’ tunes at that. It’s a muscular level of uncondescending adult melody, action and imagination that’s counted such composers as Kevin Kliesch (“Superman Unbound”), Christopher Drake (“Wonder Woman”), Kevin Manthei (“Justice League: The New Frontier”) and Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion and Lolita Ritmanis (“Teen Titans”) amidst their legion of super-animated scorers.
Now the time has come to induct Frederik Wiedmann for musical duty above and beyond the animated medium for conveying the majesty of both the emerald corps, and DC’s greatest collection of heroes for “Green Lantern: The Animated Series,” and “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox.” One project marks the second half of the first season detailing Hal Jordan’s universal patrol, a mission that’s grown even bigger with trumpeting orchestras, eccentric ethnic instruments, cosmic choruses and an overall emotional arch. Perhaps most importantly, Wiedmann’s turned what could have been thin-sounding kids’ stuff into a powerhouse of exciting sonic colors that take orchestral emulation to a new level. But for “Flashpoint,” Wiedmann swerves into a darker sound for the no-kids-gloves’ tone of DC’s animated movies, conveying breathlessly intense energy as The Flash’s attempts to fix his own history jet the Justice League’ into a nightmarishly warped alternative reality. Conveying these warring members with a menacing, yet exhilarating mix of neo-symphonic anger and desperate suspense, Wiedmann’s twisted take on the JLA runs circles around some of his far bigger cinematic teammates.
Hailing himself from Germany, Wiedmann’s taken a streamlined path to Hollywood, begun at the Berklee College of Music and propelled forward by a BMI Film Scoring Award. Wiedmann’s talent has seen him go from assisting and composing additional music for John Frizzell (“Whiteout”) to following that composer’s penchant for the supernatural when breaking out on his own for a slew of DV-horror, including “Return to the House on Haunted Hill,” “The Hills Run Red,” “Hostel: Part III” and “Lake Placid: The Final Chapter.” Wiedmann’s talent for playing bigger-than-life, supernaturally imbued characters has finally turned to the side of good in the DC Universe, though it’s likely to get a bit darker with the Knight’s new series “Beware the Batman.” Now as he returns to saving the universe, if not Gotham City, Frederik Wiedmann talks about the craft of giving cartoon heroes musical abilities beyond mortal ken.
How do you think assisting John Frizzell for so many years on movies like “Primeval” and “The Reaping” added to your own musical voice? And what do you think the trick is to moving from longtime assistant to sole composer?
Working for John for about 3 years has certainly been the best school I could hope for. I think by the time I left we had been through at least 15 feature films and some TV work – after which I felt 100% ready to tackle my own projects. Berklee College of Music (where I got my BA) was fantastic as well, but there are a lot of things that you don’t really get to learn in College, that I was very lucky to learn with John. I am not sure if working for him has influenced my actual compositions, but it certainly influenced the way I work, which I suppose is a large component in the creative process to some degree. Through John, I’ve become quite the tech guru, which really is a great asset in today’s world of Film Music. He also helped me get my first big gig with “Return To the House On Haunted Hill” – which certainly opened a lot of doors for me.
In terms of moving onto your own projects, I think you just have to wait until you feel ready. I started to be on my own after 3 years of being John’s full time assistant, and I felt ready to do anything. Starting on your own can be very scary of course, especially when leaving a steady job, but its something that you need to face in order to succeed on your own. And the first few months might be tough, but from my point of view, totally worth the trouble!
Were you a comic book fan growing up? And if so, did you have a particular appreciation for the DC universe?
I have to admit, the only comic books I was really hooked on as a kid was “Asterix and Obelix,” “Lucky Luke” (which I still love that to this day!), “Tin Tin” and a few issues of “Spawn”. There really wasn’t much DC comic material hovering around in my childhood. I grew up in Germany, and although I am sure these comics existed in my bookstores, I just never really picked those up. Who knows why? Ha! I think I knew a lot about Superman and Batman, who are the most popular DC heroes in Europe, for sure. But I got to know them more through movies and TV Shows (I watched a lot of “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman!!”).
How did you come aboard the DC animation-scoring bandwagon?
I was lucky to be given the opportunity to demo for the new “Green Lantern” animated series that Warner Bros Animation had planned to debut in 2011. I was of course one of many composers to apply for it. It was definitely a long shot for me, since I had neither done a TV show before (Just movies), nor anything animated (besides the wonderful stop-motion short “Nanuq”). So here I was, trying to get into the race with just my music. The DC Universe worked in my favor and I was called in to speak to Producers Bruce Timm and Giancarlo Volpe. They told me then that they were incredibly impressed by how “real” my MIDI orchestra sounded, and that they liked the music I sent a lot. I had to do one more test for them due to my lack of credits in this field, but they decided to give me this shot – which has been an absolute game-changer for me ever since. I did 26 Episodes for “Green Lantern” (each with 22 min of music), which busted my chops immensely and taught my a million things about animation composing. It’s been such a great experience. This really was the starting point for me to become the composer of several DC projects to follow, and it has been nothing but exciting to be surrounded by all these great heroes in my studio.
Before doing animation, you were scoring a bunch of D-TV horror movies like “Blood Farm,” “Mirrors 2” and “The Hills Run Red.”| Do you think they set you up to take on cartoon scores in both technical, and stylistic fashion?
It is hard to tell how my Horror background contributed to animation specifically. But from a technical point of view – absolutely! Knowing how to deal with tight schedules and massive amounts of music (horror films tend to have a ton of score, between 60-80 minutes, at leads the ones I’ve done) has definitely been a great asset. In animation, music is a strong and important character, and generally spotted heavily across the project.
I always try to utilize themes and melodies, especially in my horror scores. And themes play a big part in animated projects as well. So knowing how to handle that has been a great tool. But animation did have a lot more things to hit and accentuate than horror movies, which was something completely new for me. Creating a composition with many hit points, while making it feel seamless, is a daunting task if it’s your first time doing that.
How did you want to musically capture the feeling of outer space for “Green Lantern: The Animated Series?”
The direction I got form my producers was this – Don’t sound like John Williams’ heroic music, but to be orchestral, with “unusual and unexpected” flavors. They wanted a sci-fi / adventure element. A lot of this was a no-brainer, but the sci-fi element was something I needed to reflect on quite a bit. I did not really go back in film history to listen to other sci-fi scores. Instead, I just sat down at my desk to mess around with some ideas. I found certain harmonic progressions that had a distinctive “sci-fi” vibe to them, as well as themes that I would later use for certain characters in the show. For example there’s ominous epic theme for the Anti Monitor. To me, that sounded very sci-fi, without using anything electronic or ambient. I didn’t want to just add those kinds f sounds for the science fiction moments in the show, but to solve this compositionally by worked hard on creating a palette of harmonic progressions and themes that conveyed space, heroes and alien planets, as well as an alien menace.
As DC animation scoring is done on a limited budget, what’s your trick for getting the biggest orchestral sound possible?
I’m always away of how the music mix will sound when I’m composing So of course I use the best orchestral sample libraries out there. But more importantly I think it is important to learn how to write with them. I consider a library an “instrument”. I always need to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of a certain library, in order to know how to utilize it the best. I tend to not write things that won’t sound convincing, which sometimes means a creative compromise. But it’s for the greater good in general, as far as I’m concerned. I also try to use at least 4-5 live musicians on each episode to help get the score to another level. That can be for sweetening sessions or solo sections, depending on the episode. My trumpet player Chris Tedesco deserves a standing ovation for all of this work on the insane trumpet parts!
How do you think “Green Lantern” has grown in the second part of its first season?
The second season of GLTAS had this great love story throughout the last 13 Episodes between the A.I. navigation computer Aya and the Red Lantern, Razer. This relationship was so complex, on so many levels (ex evil red lantern falling in love with a robot… Wow!), that it really was a fun challenge to give this a musical voice. Season 1 focused more on the Red Lantern invasion, so the score was a lot more action-driven and ominous, whereas in Season 2 you can hear a lot of very emotional music, sometimes intimate and sometimes rather epic and grand. Important people die, hearts are broken and so forth. So I think having this rather fragile love relationship going through season 2 really gave a nice contrast to the heavy, intense action moments of this season. Based on my reading of online forums, it seems a lot of fans were very much hooked on this relationship and how this story ends. The finale was a fantastic episode, a good note to end this series on.
Did you find that the more adult approach of the DC animated movies allowed you to take a correspondingly more “mature” approach to “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox?”
Yes absolutely, especially because “The Flashpoint Paradox” is a very dark movie. Its got a fair amount of violence, and the story gets rather sinister at times. The music for this one certainly was a lot more on the creepy side, and even horrific at times. I think I used a lot more dissonant themes and sounds in this show than I did in “Green Lantern.”
Conversely, have you ever had to “tone” down music for “Green Lantern” so it wouldn’t be too frightening for kids?
This was sort of always sitting in the back of my head. There were times when I did something that I thought would be too scary sounding, and I would go back and change it accordingly to be more appropriate for a Saturday morning cartoon. Ironically, many times my producers pushed me again further into the dark musical world, because it really needed to be done that way to be most effective. But yes, in general I stayed away from anything “sound-design-y” or “horrific”, and focused a lot more on themes, harmonic progressions, and phrases.
“Green Lantern’ is also very much a sci-fi “magic” cartoon. How did you want to get that color across with the neo-sorcerous powers at play here?
I really didn’t focus too much about that specifically in a musical sense. I think I wanted the audience to feel that this “magic’ isn’t really that unusual in this particular universe. Green Lanterns can create constructs based on their willpower, and that’s really a normal thing. It just happens to be their choice of weapon.
However, once the blue lantern aspect became relevant towards the end of season 1, the music does have a certain magical quality to it, since this is a power that our heroes did not know of before either, and is quite magical to them as well. You can hear the blue lantern theme at the end of episode 10 and as Saint Walker becomes the first Blue Lantern in the universe.
Do you approach these animated projects as if you were doing a live action show, and / or film?
Absolutely. In fact, that was one of the things I discussed with both teams, on “Green Lantern” as well as “Justice League.” It was important to the creators to never have these feel “cartoon-y” in any way. So no so-called “Mickey-Mousing” or other silly or comedic things that may get in the way of the drama. I very much considered these a feature-length live action film, even a 22 minute “Green Lantern” episode (a VERY compressed feature film for that mater). And therein lays the challenge. Creating approximately 25 hit points in a 1:30 min cue, without it sounding too choppy, cartoony or edited is an art that I had to learn very quickly. It is incredibly difficult, and a lot of it relies on a good knowledge of orchestration. But after over 550 minutes of score for “Green Lantern,” that’s become a natural thing for me.
Despite that, “Green Lantern” also has some more offbeat and lighter moments. Is it particularly hard to play “comedy” in a cartoon like this?
That was a tricky one. I really wanted those musical moments to be just “light”, and not necessarily comedic. I didn’t want to use pizzicato strings, since they have become such a comedy cliché. So I used a lot of light percussion, including my Hapi Drum, as well as different kinds of acoustic guitars, hammered and plucked and ukuleles (mostly pitched down an octave). I feel this did the job of playing the comedic moments in the show in the most cohesive way possible, in tone with the rest of the score. We never wanted anything to be “silly”, just slightly emphasize the jokes.
What would you say is the “sound” of a superhero, be it for live, or cartoon action?
I think any hero needs to have a sense of hope in his or her theme. After all, that’s what they are to us regular humans – icons of hope. So there music has to be heroic of course, it has to be grand, it has to be tragic at times, or even mysterious, but most importantly, it needs to have hope.
What are the biggest challenges about scoring a “team” of superheroes, as opposed to just scoring one?
With several heroes, as in the Justice League, you need many “Hero-themes”. I believe that is the challenge. How do you have many hero themes without making the score a mess? In “Justice League,” the main themes were a big Justice League theme (which worked for all of the heroes, but mostly when the entire Justice league is in action), as well as the theme for Flash, the main hero in this film. Everything else was secondary, and therefore worked well in the arc of the story. Green Lantern really wasn’t that different. Although Hal Jordan is pretty much the protagonist in this show, other characters really had equally important parts that needed a unique musical idea.
How did you want to musically play the idea of The Flash’s super-speed?
I created this really fast string riff that we hear in its full form towards the end of the film. You hear fractions of it throughout the film, when Flash is running, but it really develops towards the final showdown. I wanted to create a massive driving force with a string orchestra that we recorded here in L.A. So hopefully you can feel the speed of the race when you watch the film.
Could you talk about the role that electronic percussion has in “Flashpoint Paradox?”
We wanted to separate the alternate reality from the real one musically as well. The real reality is scored mostly with a traditional, orchestral, whereas the alternate reality has a more electronic vibe to it. So you will hear a lot of ambiance, electronic instruments, pulses and electronic percussion. We felt the contrast in the music would really help distinguish the two worlds and therefore create a better audience experience.
You use ethnic instruments in unusual ways in both “Green Lantern” and “Justice League.” What was the inspiration for that approach?
This was a discussion we had early on with Bruce Timm and Giancarlo Volpe. As we brainstormed ideas, we realized quickly that we were all on the same page in terms of the musical direction. There really was a great synergy between the creators and myself, which the best environment to be creative in. We came up with the idea to use ethnic (or as we called them “otherworldly”) instruments that we would introduce with either certain characters or planets/aliens. The guardians, for example were represented by the Duduk (played by Chris Bleth). To me, this is a very “old” and archaic instrument, just like the Guardians are. It seemed to fit. Often times I would pitch it down an octave to alter the sound even further. Razer had an electric 5-string violin and electric cello as his lead instrument, (played by Julie Push and Victor Lawrence). Razer needed something with a deep emotional range, as well as a unique and unheard of quality. The Goblins in Season 2 were accompanied by Middle Eastern and Greek Guitars as well as an assortment of ethnic flutes (played by Jimmy Mahlis and Peter Gordon), and the Star Sapphires had hauntingly beautiful (yet seductive) solo vocals performed by Ayana Haviv. The main idea here was to really create some unique textures amongst the large and epic orchestral score, to keep things varied and identifiable.
Both “Green Lantern” and “Justice League” has music that tells us the galaxy, if not the Earth, is on the verge of being destroyed. How do you reach that kind of epic pitch in the music, while “tracking” with the story, something that many other action-heavy scores get lost doing?
It is crucial to find that balance, between emotional depth, and driving the story forward. I think it requires a lot of experience in storytelling to know how to do this smoothly. It wasn’t easy to me at the beginning of my super hero path, but it’s becoming part of my daily life. It really helps to take a moment before writing the episode or the first cue to think about the overall flow of the show, and then make a few global decisions before touching the keyboard. I once read an interesting book on screenwriting by Syd Field that gave me a look into the way writers think about a story. It certainly affected how I think about the structure of my scores.
You’ll next be tackling the animated Dark Knight for “Beware the Batman.” What can you tell us about the show and your approach for it? Will you be using Hans Zimmer’s approach for the movies as a springboard for your scores in a similar way that Shirley Walker keyed off of Danny Elfman’s work for “Batman: The Animated Series?”
The big idea we had was to NOT make it sound like a past Batman adaptation, Christopher Nolan’s or any other. And there have been many! I did a lot of research before starting on “Beware the Batman” and watched a ton of recent Batman shows and movies, and basically learned what “not to do”. But don’t get me wrong, because I just love pretty much any Batman scores that have been composed to date! All of them! But we wanted to try something else. So we listened to a lot of 80′s and 90′s electronic artists and discussed a certain Spy element spin for the music. We also looked at some contemporary, more electronic scores from recent films. I have to admit, it was not easy finding a tone with all this in mind that works with a super hero show such as “Beware the Batman,” but we found something that hopefully distinguishes us from previous adaptations. I think my score will drive the action, and excite our audience.
Volumes 1 and 2 of Frederik Wiedmann’s music for “Green Lantern: The Animated Series” are available now at Lalalandrecords.com (along with several other DC animation albums). His score for “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” will be released this August from the label.
“Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” debuts on DVD July 30th. “Beware the Batman” airs this summer on Cartoon Network.