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Emmys 2019: How New Music Category Puts Docus on Equal Footing With Fictional Fare

For years, music in documentary and nonfiction programming competed alongside the music for fictional narratives, but this year, music composition for a documentary series or special is getting its own category — the Emmys’ seventh music category overall. It is a change that couldn’t have come soon enough for many veterans in the space.

“So many documentaries are being made,” says composer Miriam Cutler, who lobbied for the change that was approved late last year. “There are so many outlets for them, cable and streaming, and so much more interest.”

Although docu scores won the Emmy three out of the past 12 years they competed against scores for fictional fare, now the projects are on equal footing in their own category and seeing a surge in submissions: 48 scores are competing in nomination-round voting. One of the reasons this new category was approved, Cutler believes, was the Academy’s “growing focus on increasing diversity in our membership.”

“Because doc budgets are usually smaller, and many are made independently and picked up later for distribution and/or broadcasting, the composers are more diverse: more women, younger, composers of color and different ethnicities,” she says.

Scoring non-fiction can be similar to writing music for a fictional film, “but there’s so much more to deal with. There are different challenges. The stakes are higher. There’s an ethical component. The viewer has to trust the filmmaker, and music plays a big part,” Cutler continues.

Cutler has submitted her music for two high-profile documentaries: “Love, Gilda,” about comedienne Gilda Radner, and “RBG,” the Oscar-nominated film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Both Cutler’s “RBG” score and Marco Beltrami’s score for “Free Solo,” another Oscar-nominated doc from last year, have been declared eligible for the Emmy, Television Academy officials report.

Yet considerable attention has been paid to the expensive nature documentaries, too, especially the music for National Geographic’s “Hostile Planet” and Netflix’s “Our Planet”: Both are high-profile multi-part series with large orchestral scores by English composers better known for their feature-film work.

In “Hostile Planet,” each episode featured a protagonist, from an elephant in the grasslands, to a snow leopard in the mountains, to an orangutan in the jungle, says composer Benjamin Wallfisch (“It,” “Shazam!”).

“There’s a bit of a journey for each of the animals, and we follow their lives, but through that arc we see lots of other habitats and creatures. We gave a thematic approach to these protagonists. We have orchestra in every episode,” he adds, although electronics and vocals are also featured.

For “Our Planet,” composer Steven Price (“Gravity”) employed the 66-piece London Philharmonia. “Each sequence stood alone, and [the filmmakers] aren’t frightened of holding a shot for a long time,” he says. “So some sequences are six or seven minutes long, telling an entire story of an individual creature within an environment. Musically I tried to find a way to give each biome its own voice.”

Both Wallfisch and Price say they were attracted to the projects because of their pro-environmental messages.

“Everything is contextualized in terms of how things are now versus how they were 10 years ago, and these animals have that much more to deal with because of climate change,” says Wallfisch.

“This is literally the most important conversation that we can have,” adds Price. “We were looking to move people, not only with the splendor of the world, but also the fact that we’re losing a lot of it.”

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