×

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

  • Game of Thrones

    Ireland Lures Filmmakers With Locations, Expertise and a 37% Tax Credit

    Few locations on earth can match Ireland’s proverbial 40 shades of green. In addition to its restful hues, the island nation also boasts alluring lakes, rugged windswept coasts, small charming hamlets, rustic farmhouses of aged stone, hilltop castles and breathtaking expanses of wild scrubland. Bustling and modern Dublin, Ireland’s capital, will be the largest English-speaking [...]

  • UNDONE Animated Series Amazon

    How Animated Series 'Undone' Used a Mix of Techniques to Tell the Mind-Bending Tale

    When Kate Purdy wanted to tell a story about the nature of reality, she knew she wanted to play with perception and time, fade in and out of memories and give voice to visions that only her main character could see. And it wasn’t long before the executive producer and co-creator of Amazon’s new series, “Undone,” [...]

  • John Wick: Chapter 3

    James Cameron, Keanu Reeves Starring in '2nd Unit: Invisible Action Stars' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rootbeer Films has completed “2nd Unit: Invisible Action Stars” with James Cameron, Keanu Reeves, Mark Wahlberg and Halle Berry, Variety has learned exclusively. The film explores relationships between actors and stunt performers — a topic at the heart of Quentin Tarantino’s recent “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Joe Mantegna narrates “2nd Unit: Invisible Action [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    'Hustlers' Costume Designer and DP Joined Forces to Create Gritty Glamorous Look

    Mitchell Travers wonders if anything can really prepare a costume designer for working on a movie in which G-strings, double-sided tape and 8-inch platform heels comprise a complete outfit. But from the moment he began to read the script to “Hustlers,” he was in. “From the third page, I said I didn’t care what [any of the [...]

  • Joerg Pohlman to Leave Camera and

    Joerg Pohlman to Leave Camera and Lighting Company ARRI

    Joerg Pohlman is stepping down from the management board of Germany’s ARRI, one of the world’s leading movie camera and lighting manufacturers. The board will now consist of two people: Michael Neuhaeuser and Markus Zeiler. For the past eight years, every best picture Oscar winner has been shot on an ARRI camera; this year’s award [...]

  • Downton Abbey Movie BTS

    How the Production Crew Added Scope to 'Downton Abbey' for the Big Screen

    The feature continuation of “Downton Abbey” reunites the cast and much of the crew of the period TV series with a mandate to deliver more of the glamour, drama and just plain kindness that prompted millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic to fall under the spell of the sprawling Crawley family. “We wanted [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content