×

Emmys 2018: The Orchestral Arms Race of TV’s Sci-Fi

Some of the most compelling music for television these days is being written for science-fiction and fantasy shows, where the sound palette ranges from orchestral arrangements to eerie vocals and synthesizers, and reflects a wide spectrums of styles.

Christopher Lennertz, who recorded a 53-piece orchestra in London’s Abbey Road for the Netflix reboot of “Lost in Space,” says the music he produced is “testosterone-driven when it needs to be, but it’s very poignant when it comes to the kids and the family.

I didn’t want to hold back on the emotion, the heroism, the sadness, romance or hope.”
Lennertz incorporated a snippet of John Williams’ theme from the original ‘60s series, a nice tip of the hat to today’s most respected film composer back when he was still toiling in TV.

Similarly, Jeff Russo found that he could not launch CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery” without a nod to Alexander Courage’s now-famous fanfare from the ‘60s series.

Russo was inspired by “Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic ideas about the fu-
ture. His 64-piece L.A. orchestra (twice the size of Courage’s original band) was wholeheartedly endorsed by producer Alex Kurtzman — along with Russo’s themes for many of the main characters, the ship and the Klingons they meet.

“Music is another part of the screenwriting process in a way,” Kurtzman says. “Once you embed a theme in the audience’s mind — a musical idea relating to characters or a location — whether they are totally conscious of those themes or not, it affects their emotional reaction to the storytelling.”

The season’s biggest, boldest sound may well have belonged to “The Orville,” creator-star Seth MacFarlane’s lighthearted homage to “Star Trek” on Fox. Composer Bruce Broughton (a 10-time Emmy winner) had 75 musicians for the pilot, while fellow composers (and previous Emmy winners themselves) John Debney and Joel McNeely conducted L.A. orchestras averaging 70 to 85 members for the episodes that followed.

“Seth wants these to have a big, cinematic feeling,” says Debney. “It’s huge for television, and it’s the biggest gift a composer can get.”

McNeely adds: “Seth is a fantastic musician. If he had time, I suspect he could have composed these scores himself.”

The challenge, both note, was finding the right tone, as “we go from funny, comedic scenes to big, adventurous battle scenes,” says Debney.

“The score never references the comedy; Seth wants it always to be played straight,” McNeely says.

English composer Harry Gregson-Williams composed his first TV theme for Amazon’s “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” a fast-moving hybrid of orchestral and electronic sounds. Producer Michael Dinner asked for “a mashup,” Gregson-Williams says. “He wanted it to be quite eccentric. It’s got some harsh guitar, some sweet piano, a classical string section, and a distant, slightly distorted vocal.”

It fell to composer Michael A. Levine to create a “siren song” for the dangerous mermaid of Freeform’s “Siren.” “I wrote that piece before I even had footage of the scene,” Levine says. To sing it, he cast New York singer Mariana Barreto for her simultaneously “down-to-earth and transcendent” vocal quality.

Levine also felt he needed to evoke the sounds of the ocean. A trained violinist, he played “artificial harmonics” on his ciola (a viola whose strings create a darker sound) to suggest whale calls. “Overdub a bunch of them, put some echo on it, and you’re in the sea,” he says.

The small-town, Pacific Northwest setting led him to use several Native American flutes, but most of the remaining sounds for the score were created by Levine in his studio.

More TV

  • Steve Stark

    Steve Stark Named President of Newly Formed MGM/UA Television

    The newly formed MGM/UA Television label has found a president in Steve Stark, who previously served as MGM’s president of scripted television production and development. MGM Worldwide Television Group chairman Mark Burnett made the announcement late Friday, adding that Stark has extended his contract with the studio as part of his new role. “We are [...]

  • Bad Education

    TV News Roundup: HBO Sets Premiere Date for Hugh Jackman's 'Bad Education' (Watch)

    In today’s TV News roundup, HBO Films set the premiere date for “Bad Education” starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney and “Volcano Live! with Nik Wallenda” tapes Chris Harrison and Sage Steele as hosts. CASTING “The Bachelor” host Chris Harrison will host “Volcano Live! with Nik Wallenda” alongside co-host Sage Steele of ESPN, ABC announced. [...]

  • Randall Park Ed Helms

    Randall Park, Ed Helms to Host Hybrid Alternative-Scripted Series 'True Story' for NBC

    Ed Helms and Randall Park are attached to co-host a hybrid scripted-alternative series titled “True Story” at NBC. The hour-long show has received a six-episode order. It is based on the Australian series “True Story with Hamish & Andy.” In the series, everyday Americans sit down with Helms and Park to share their most extraordinary [...]

  • Annie MurphyGlamour Women of the Year

    'Schitt’s Creek' Star Annie Murphy Cast as Lead in AMC's ‘Kevin Can F— Himself’

    “Schitt’s Creek” star Annie Murphy has been cast as the lead in AMC’s upcoming series “Kevin Can F— Himself.” The dark comedy centers around Murphy’s Allison, Kevin’s wife, who escapes her confines and discovers her rage. “Kevin Can F– Himself” probes the secret life of a type of woman we all grew up believing we [...]

  • Vudu

    NBCUniversal in Talks to Buy Walmart's Vudu

    Comcast’s NBCUniversal is looking to add some Vudu into its streaming-video mix. The media conglomerate is in talks to buy Vudu, the Walmart-owned entertainment rental, download and free-streaming service, sources confirm to Variety. It’s unclear what the terms of the pact would be or the timing. News of NBCU’s interest in Vudu was first reported [...]

  • Friends reunion

    'Friends' Cast to Reunite for Exclusive HBO Max Special

    It’s happening: The “Friends” cast is reuniting for an exclusive untitled unscripted special on HBO Max. Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer will return to the original “Friends” soundstage, Stage 24, on the Warner Bros. Studio lot in Burbank to celebrate the long-running series, which ended its run [...]

  • Regina King Watchmen

    HBO Reclassifies 'Watchmen' as a Limited Series, Including 'Possible Future Installments'

    In the ongoing saga of whether HBO’s “Watchmen” will continue after its initial, acclaimed season late last year, the pay cable network announced on Friday that it is reclassifying the show from a drama series to a limited series, including for “any possible future installments.” The move aligns HBO’s awards season campaign for “Watchmen” with [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content