Interview with AVATAR composer Jeremy Zuckerman
This time last week Agents Of Geek got to sit down and chat with acclaimed composer Jeremy Zuckerman. Jeremy is famous around the world as the composer of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend Of Korra, two of Nickelodeon’s greatest television series. When we chatted with Jeremy he explained his process, his inspirations and his love for these two fantastic series and how he feels knowing the end is nigh for this critical and commercial success.
When did you know that Avatar: The Last Airbender had gotten huge?
I was so naive when I started ATLA, I mean I worked for years on commercials but I never knew that much about scoring longer forms of stuff. I had a fair bit of experience but I didn’t really know about how the whole aspect of a score functioned so I was super naive. I think I had a feeling pretty quickly that there was something special, that naivety worked for me. Bryan(Konietzko) was constantly showing me storyboards and describing it and I was like this is brilliant and beautiful. The sketches were incredible and beautiful and I was so inspired, so I really wanted to be a part of this. It was weird, because I had quit my job, which was secure, working for commercials and it didn’t seem like a question but now looking back, wow I don’t know if I’d have the guts to do something like that now. It was a no brainer for me, it could have been economically disastrous for me.
With the style of music in ATLA and Korra lending itself to more Asian origins do you find you have many Asian influences? Are you a fan of anime or manga?
I watched some really violent anime in college, one example was the Legend Of Overfiend, they were movies and I believe there were three or four of them, they were super violent and vaguely pornographic, it was college( we both laugh) and I was like this is crazy and this is awesome. I then watched Ninja Scroll which was awesome and also beautiful but I wasn’t a big anime guy and I actually wasn’t a big television guy which I think Bryan and Mike(Dante DiMartino) liked because they didn’t want anyone who came in with that vocabulary, it was a risky move on their part because there was a lot of stuff I had to learn on the fly. This is all due to music coming in at the right time, leaving at the right time, if it’s building you know or if it’s emphasising. For example, is it supposed to be emphasised or is it supposed to be a juxtaposition, kind of implying something if you know what I mean. Dropping out a dramatic moment or going really big, and that was stuff I never really thought about because I was studying esoteric computer music at CalArts a few years before ATLA so it was a real shift for me…..I think I went off on a bit of a tangent there.
That’s all right, we allow that here, so Jeremy when it comes to the titles of each Book do you sit down with Bryan and Mike and set out how to set the music to fit the journey of the title?
I think in the beginning there was a lot more of that kind of conversation with ATLA, at this point it’s kind of implicit you know what I mean? What’s interesting is I don’t really know beyond the episode I’m scoring what’s going to happen, sometimes they tell me little things. Like they told me during season 2 of Korra what would happen during the end of season 3, ” like oh my god there’s this wheelchair and oh my god” and I was like I’d never seen anything like that. It just goes to show how good the guys are at shaping the story because it all winds up working physically and emotionally, guiding you correctly through all this stuff.Even the way how themes come back, narrative themes come back working beautifully. The reason is the writing is so well done that it allows the structure of the music over the long arc of the season to have some real depth.
The Avatar series is famous for its powerful trailers, do you ever get to work on say the visuals to match up the kind of soundtrack for every season because every time I see an Avatar trailer there is always the unmistakeable build, there’s always the quiet. Do you sit down with Bryan and Mike and the artists and say right we need this to get the tone across for the structure of this season?
With ATLA I had the visuals first but with Korra what was pretty cool was they had me write stuff first then they would edit around the musicand I think that’s super effective because all the phrasing is very natural and things happen musically where they should happen. They do say to me you know it be great if it starts here and goes down to here you know. They give two sentences without micro managing and usually I can take something that I think is musically significant and go with it.
There is of course the famous Leaves from The Vine, Iroh’s goodbye to his son, did you get to sit down with Mako and discuss how this would work?
The schedule is so fast that not everyone gets to sit down and everyone is sort of in their own world. I’ve met Janet Varney and she is super awesome but apart from that I haven’t met any of the other actors through this whole thing. It’s kind of crazy. With Leaves from the Vine Mike wrote the lyrics and sent them to me at the end of, was Leaves from the Vine season 2?
Yes it was, it was when everyone was stuck in Ba Sing Se.
Yes, so it was right at the end of season 1, literally I had finished season 1 and I got a bunch of stuff, and Leaves from the Vine was sent with it along with all the nomad music. You know the hippies?( We laughed remembering those idiotic, fun characters) and Mike said it be great if you could write us this stuff ahead of time so that we the actors can learn this stuff and we can animate to it. They’ll work really well. That foresight is so important when you’re dealing with on-screen music and at times that doesn’t happen so we’ll have to find a way to accompany this strange non melody that the actor made up on the spot. Some people do a really good job of it but it’s never as good as if you wrote it ahead of time so Mike sent this to me ahead of time and they told me what it was and what was happening and they sent me the script I believe and I read this and I knew it was going to be super emotional and then it was crazy because then Mako died and I remember it being really emotional and I remember thinking I had never met him but he was such an important part to the show. That whole last scene for Mako….
I was actually watching it two minutes before the interview because I realized, my god the composer of that song, I’m going to be interviewing him and I have to admit I did shed a tear. It’s just every time you want to feel emotion you guys definitely bring it in that respect.
So are you celebrating your partnership with Benjamin and your company now since it’s been ten years since your company The Track Team started?
It’s funny that you mention it, we haven’t mentioned it yet but we are going our separate ways professionally. We’re ready, we’ve been doing this awhile, we are fairly different aesthetically although we totally get each other. It was sort of a hard decision but it made sense after this, it’ll be easier to navigate new work. Hopefully we’ll work together on other stuff but this was a conscious decision we made. It didn’t feel like it was necessary to have this partnership. At some point it just didn’t make sense any more you know but it was a crazy decision and it’s hard with two people, practical things that make it less flexible career wise. In the beginning it was really important even to have someone in the trenches with you so you can freak out together you know with the pressure and stuff. Now it’s ten years like you said and it makes me sad. It’s a good thing and it’s totally amicable but you know it’s the right decision.
You’ve also brought your work over to the Kung Fu Panda series, Legends Of Awesomeness?
Yes, it’s crazy. I should have something in my contract that states I will only work on a show with legends in its title.
It would be a great little thing to work into your contract. If it’s not legendary you just can’t(We laugh at the absurdity of this)
Right you’ve got to change the title, I’m sorry haha.
So is it much different working on Kung Fu Panda?
Yeah it’s different for a lot of reasons , one of the elements was that it was an already an established property. So I analysed Powells score, they didn’t want us to rip it off but they definitely wanted it to be informed by it and that’s a cool score. It had more traditional Asian influences actually so a lot of times I’d be writing stuff and working with the instrumentalist working on traditional Asian stuff. Whereas Korra is much more of a fusion I think because Korra is not really China you know. It’s an Earth like place but people forget that it’s not so there is a lot of room there and of course no style yet. It’s creatively a little more open. Kung Fu Panda is great and the showrunner, Peter Hastings is awesome. He gave us a lot of room, not micro managing us, really a lot of trust.
He’s legendary himself with all the television series he’s worked upon.
You know he gets it, he doesn’t get stressed out about the little things. He doesn’t sweat it, he knows what’s important in life and sweating over some tiny, little detail in a show isn’t important because the bigger is what makes it great. It could have been a real stressful thing becaue we were doing both shows at the same time for a couple of years but because of his attitude it was not so unbearable. Another difference was Kung Fu Panda was mid strings and synth or orchestral. Whereas Korra was mostly live instruments so Korra is a great deal more work with all the prep and the notation and editing and mixing and all that stuff. Working with live instruments is always preferable unless you’re doing something with electronics.
Do you work with a live orchestra when you’re working on Korra or Kung Fu Panda?
No, I compose on the computer, it’s called a mock up which a synth representation. It’s pretty flat sounding, you try to get the sound good, luckily at this point Mike and Bryan trust me and some times I’ll give them things that sound terrible but they’re like,”no that sounds great”. They reassure me at this point, it’s pretty awesome. So I do the mock up and we get a preview and make up any of those revisions and then send them off to my copyist who makes up all the notations. It’s pretty fleshed out in the score so I try to keep it pretty clear for him so he doesn’t have to think to hard about arrangement. It’ll be pretty clear, violin 1, violin 2, whatever and he does all of the notations and sends them back to me and I analyse it with any little details or anything. Then he makes the parts and we have a three hour session every two weeks where the string players come in and the string players come in and they record three hours and they kill because they are incredible. That same day I edit and mix, I sometimes deliver them next day or the next after that , it’s pretty tight. What’s cool is with the dixie land stuff. If you know a reel book , it is a book that jazz players use. It’s basically just charts, it’s what they read read at gigs and stuff and they just fill it all out and that’s what I’d do for the dixie land stuff. I heard this band and they did a great job man, they did an awesome job so I am super lucky to have these resources in Los Angeles and that was a big thing about Korra because I started to reach out because I was in my own world with Avatar and with Kung Fu Panda it was great bringing in Hang but with Korra it involves a lot more people in the realizing of it, with the performance of the music and that was a big change for me and now that I’ve done it, I never want to go back. Even though the writing is ninety per cent alone in the studio, the recording of it and the realizing of it is because of a lot of people.
It’s crazy I haven’t scored it yet.
Yeah, it’s going to be emotional I think. It was pretty emotional finishing ATLA but yeah I think on some levels I’m ready to try something else but this has been a great project and you know you don’t get a lot of these special, unique, open projects. I’m optimistic for the future but I know this was special. You get attached to the characters you know, which is funny.
The great element of the Avatar series is that you can have another one in a couple years or another one in ten years and they could easily bring you back.
That’s true, any time in their career if they choose to do another they definitely could. I’m sure people would be psyched about it.
Yeah, you can already see it in the comments, people saying how they can’t believe there are only six episodes remaining.
Yeah separation anxiety.
We had it bad when Aang and the gang left, I think it’ll be pretty bad when Korra leaves because it feels like a definite closing of the book.
Yeah and those guys have said they’re not interested in pursuing the series more but you never know, people might really miss it.
Well Jeremy now that Korra is coming to it’s end and you’ve also got Kung Fu Panda, have you got any other projects that you are looking forward to?
I’m not going to say what I’m doing exactly but looks like I’ll be doing this feature documentary which seems pretty special, long time in the making for the producer and that’ll be interesting because documentaries are different musically. They function differently, like I was talking earlier, in a documentary it’s so different as opposed to something like Korra. That’s going to be intense, I was hoping for a break after Korra but it seems after Korra ends the schedule was half of what it seemed so it’s going to be hell for another few weeks. I really need a break, there was a year and a half after ATLA where there was no show but after that I’ve had Korra and Kung Fu Panda which is great but I need a break. i remember actually feeling burning out two years ago and that was during the break so now it’s like(we laugh). I’ve learned that you can go in and out of being burnt out while working, it’s really weird.
Right, well listen Jeremy thanks very much for the interview.Wee’re looking forward to what you bring to the final bunch of episodes and thanks so much for all the memories.
Thanks so much Graham, I appreciate it man.
You can check out Jeremy on Twitter @JeremyZuckerman