×

From ‘The Orville’ to ‘Succession,’ TV Maestros Conduct Symphonies of Sound

Composer Joel McNeely stands before 93 musicians on the cavernous Fox scoring stage, his hands raised, about to conduct a musical cue for the season finale of Fox’s “The Orville.”

“Very energetic,” he urges, giving the downbeat. For the next three minutes he leads them through a passage that’s variously mysterious, ominous and dramatic, as images of a spaceship negotiating an asteroid field unspool on the big screen behind them.

Producer-star Seth MacFarlane, seated in the glassed-in recording booth a few yards away, listens intently. After that first take, he says simply, “That was spectacular.”

McNeely’s massive orchestra (a record number of musicians toiling on a weekly network series) is a key element in the production of “The Orville.” A few weeks later, at an “Orville” music event, MacFarlane justified the expense: “When you compare the visual effects budget, or the production design budget, or the costume budget on any show, it’s not breaking the bank to use an orchestra. On a subconscious level, it makes the show important. It makes it matter more.”

Music in TV seems to matter more than ever, especially at the Emmys, which now boasts seven music categories: three for dramatic underscore (for series, limited series or movie, documentary), two for song use (original song, music supervision), and one each for music direction and title theme.

And, with all the choices — from network to cable to streaming — there are just as many sounds in the air.

Nicholas Britell (an Oscar nominee for “If Beale Street Could Talk”) combined classical and hip-hop sounds for the theme of HBO’s “Succession,” about the family struggle for control of a New York-based media empire.

“The music should always feel like part of the fabric of the project,” says Britell. “There was something completely absurd about mixing this sort of late-classical-era kind of music with these huge beats. There’s the stateliness of the minuet and these disproportionately large beats: a strangeness and a counterpoint to that world.”

Depending on the scene, the music ranged from “just piano or a few guitars and banjos to a small chamber orchestra,” Britell says. He worked for seven months on the initial 10 episodes.

The music of “Leaving Neverland,” HBO’s controversial Michael Jackson documentary, eligible in the new non-fiction score category, needed to “sound rich and filmic, fairy tale-like,” composer Chad Hobson says. “The approach was to imagine a walk through a beautiful and magical forest — but as you travel deeper into the forest it becomes darker, more distorted, the limbs of the trees becoming more twisted and sinister.”

Composer Jeff Russo (“Star Trek: Discovery”) was handed a gift with Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy”: the most intriguing and complex of its seven superhero siblings is a world-class violin soloist, and its literally earth-shaking finale is set against an orchestra concert. Russo began writing music even before the pilot was shot, penning a classically styled violin piece for Vanya (Ellen Page) and then a “suite” of music for the Academy that became the basis for all of his themes throughout the season. The seven-minute “Apocalyptic Suite” featured prominently in the last episode.

“I was playing against the storyline,” notes Russo. “I like to play opposite of what you see, and we have this ragtag bunch of misfit and crazy superheroes in this family. What better way to contrast that than with a really beautiful, traditional score?”

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

  • The Handmaid's Tale -- "Household" -

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

    Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the [...]

  • Producer and crew on set. Twelve

    'Driven' Kept Shoot in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria to Help Locals

    Behind-the-scenes featurettes have long enumerated the many obstacles any movie or TV show has had to overcome to reach the theater or TV screen. But few films faced hardships as severe as those overcome by “Driven,” the real-life hero-to-zero story of automaker John DeLorean (played by Lee Pace) and his misadventures with ex-con pilot-turned-FBI informant [...]

  • The Righteous Gemstones Adam Devine, Danny

    How Televangelists, Elvis Inspired Costumes for HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones'

    HBO’s new comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” about a famous family of televangelists whose dysfunction runs far deeper than its Christianity, seems to exist in its own time and place. Set in present-day Texas, the inspiration for the Gemstone family — played by John Goodman, series creator Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam Devine — [...]

  • A Wrikle in Time

    New Zealand Offers Breathtaking Locations, Trained Crews, 20% Cash Grant

    With its heart-quickening vistas and magnificent views, New Zealand is a prime location for savvy investors seeking to maximize the incentive on their next project. Consider the production value of filming amid the daunting heights of the Southern Alps, or along the stunning shores of Lake Gunn. There’s also Auckland, with its magnificent Sky Tower [...]

  • DESCENDANTS 3 - DESCENDANTS 3 -

    'Descendants 3' Choreographer Mixed Dancing, Acting and Sword Fighting

    For a generation of dancers, Jamal Sims is one of a handful of choreographers who’ve pushed the boundaries of dance in film, TV and onstage. With a career that’s included stints working alongside Madonna and Miley Cyrus, he brings his edgy pop style to the dance numbers in “Descendants 3,” which premiered Aug. 2 and [...]

  • Avatar

    Manhattan Beach Studios, Home to 'Avatar' Sequels, Sold for $650 Million

    Hackman Capital Partners has acquired the Manhattan Beach Studios, home to James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, as part of a $650 million deal. Hackman announced Wednesday that it had bought the MBS Group from global investment firm the Carlyle Group. The MBS Group operates the MBS Media Campus — a 22-acre, 587,000 square foot production facility [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content