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Sci-Fi Score Awards Contenders Recruit Veteran Composers for Vastly Different Films

You could say 2017’s standout sci-fi and fantasy scores cover space, shape and size as these four veteran composers tackle each film’s themes from vastly different conceptual origins.

Blade Runner 2049
Music by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer
Vangelis’ music for the 1982 original is so iconic, says co-composer Wallfisch, that the challenge was “how can we take that sonic language and emotional impact, but completely reinvent it?”

Curiously, the star of the 2017-by-way-of-2049 score is (like the Vangelis original) a Yamaha CS-80 synth, which Zimmer bought back in 1970s London and was still in (mostly) working order. “It has a life of its own and every time you play a note, it’s a slightly different pitch,” Wallfisch says with a laugh.

Much of the score, however, was created with contemporary synths, often with sounds inspired by other ‘80s electronic instruments; and some live players and vocalists. “Textures and colors evolve very slowly to match the pace of the film,” Wallfisch says.

With Zimmer, the two composers came up with a four-note theme that represents the key plot point. “It’s a subtle score,” he adds. “Things happen much more beneath the surface. They force the audience to ask more questions than a traditional thematic score would.”

Rolfe Kent
Kent’s fifth film for director Alexander Payne, the sci-fi comedy-drama about shrinking people, may have been the English composer’s toughest assignment yet. “While it was being edited, it was still figuring out what it was. I ended up writing and rewriting. I must have done two and a half scores for this film.”

Payne wanted the feel of “beautiful classical music, not like movie score,” Kent says, and the two looked to the work of Stanley Kubrick for inspiration, with a healthy dose of experimentation: “Write a piece of opera in Norwegian, or go very Erik Satie-influenced, and see if it works,” Kent explains of “the freedom to explore classical repertoire in a way, but with original music.”

Composing the musical theme for the character of Paul, played by Matt Damon, took on a “skipping dorkiness,” says Kent, but reaches an operatic moment when he is alone in his mansion. “I came up with some phrases, translated them into Norwegian and saw how they played,” he says of vocals that recur throughout the score.

Another highlight is the composer’s “Downsizing Waltz,” a Hungarian-style romp that underscores the actual shrinking procedure. “It’s very much in that Kubrick mentality of doing beautiful things against curious images.”

The Shape of Water
Alexandre Desplat
When Guillermo del Toro asked French composer Desplat to dinner two years ago, sushi was on the menu along with the project “The Shape of Water,” which the director had also co-written. Little did Desplat know that he was about to learn about a different kind of fish — an amphibious creature, captured by the American military — and the mute cleaning woman who falls in love with it.

“He wanted the score to be very European — restrained, melodic, sensitive, warm, touching,” Desplat says. “It’s a love story.”

Determined to “capture the sound of water,” the composer chose 12 flutes, which created “a blurred, very strange” and fluid sound. The only sharpness that seeps through are whistling (performed by Desplat and inspired by the character of Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins), and an accordion played like a bandoneon, “with phrases that remind of tango music,” both very precise and clear and subtly nodding to his own South American origins. “The rest is all muffled.”

Del Toro’s romantic fantasy has elements of Cold War espionage and even horror, so the music needed to underscore those passages as well, especially a 10-minute cue for the creature’s escape from custody. But, says Desplat, “the main line to follow was the love story.”

War for the Planet of the Apes
Michael Giacchino
For the final film in the “Apes” trilogy, director Matt Reeves turned again to Giacchino, the Oscar winner (“Up”) whose previous reboots have included three “Star Trek” and two “Mission: Impossible” movies.

In “War,” ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) witnesses his family’s murder, a scene that was “incredibly emotional and complicated,” Giacchino says. “I would sit at the piano for days, thinking about it, exploring anger and loss and sadness. You have to take on these emotions in order to communicate them to an audience. It’s not always fun to do that.”

The film “is at times a Western, a biblical epic, a chase movie, a revenge tale. It’s all of these things mixed into one with apes as the main characters.” Giacchino needed a 100-piece orchestra and 60-voice choir to supply the “mythic, epic feel.” And one of his eight percussionists, Emil Richards, played the same stainless-steel mixing bowls that he did for Jerry Goldsmith on the original “Planet of the Apes” score in 1968.

Yet, “much of the music is simply based on piano [which] gets to the root of the humanity of these characters. They are a reflection of us.”

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