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From ‘Yellowstone’ to ‘The Twilight Zone,’ Small-Screen Dramas Lure Big-Screen Composers

Until recently, there were two categories of Hollywood composers: those who wrote music for movies and those who wrote music for TV. Those lines were rarely crossed. But it’s a very different world today, as film composers are regularly turning to TV for bigger dramatic challenges.

“There is such great material out there,” says Brian Tyler, who scored the big-screen hit “Crazy Rich Asians” and also composed all nine episodes of the first season of Paramount TV’s “Yellowstone.” “If they, like on this show, allow it to be done in the right artistic way, you can develop the music over a longer period of time.”

Tyler’s score, which combines folk instruments with the large-scale sound of London Philharmonia Orchestra, complements the look and feel of the series, which centers on a powerful Montana ranch family.

“The storyline has the feel of the epic tales of Shakespeare,” he says. “We wanted the music to feel almost mythological, without any of the earmarks of modern music. I didn’t want to go the route of the traditional classic Western score.”

The composer played many of the guitars, dulcimer, bass and percussion himself, providing some of the authentic folk colors of the score, but the darker sounds of cello and orchestra predominate. “It’s chamber music in a sense, a tone that’s very melancholy,” Tyler says. “You’ve got to feel the tragedy along with the love — themes that are very complicated, just like real people.”

Oscar-nominated film composer John Debney (“The Passion of the Christ”) scored seven episodes of Fox’s sci-fi series “The Orville” this season. Executive producer and star Seth MacFarlane called him early in the series’ first season to get him on-board.

“I didn’t want to say no,” says Debney a three-time Emmy winner who describes his usual approach as “muscular and rhythmic.” “It’s so much fun and so creatively stimulating being able to write this big, wonderful music every week. We get an opportunity to write emotional themes.”

MacFarlane “wanted a big orchestral score” from the start, Debney adds. “I think it comes from his childhood, watching ‘Star Wars’ for the first time and then watching ‘Star Trek,’” he notes. Both of those featured bold, swashbuckling music. While the original “Star Trek” shows had musicians numbering in the 20s and 30s, “The Orville” routinely has symphony-sized ensembles in the 70s, 80s and even 90s.

The new “Twilight Zone,” on the other hand, required a very different approach, but still provided new challenges for its composers: As an anthology, each episode demanded a new score. The producers turned to the Oscar-nominated Marco Beltrami (“The Hurt Locker”) and his partner Brandon Roberts.

“The main thing we wanted to do was to keep some of the flavor from the original series, so that you’d know it was ‘Twilight Zone,’” says Beltrami.

One way of doing this was to re-record the iconic theme, originally by French composer Marius Constant, but to update it with “a couple of modern ideas and processed sounds,” Roberts says.

One episode was jazz-based, another featured woodwinds and strings, another the classic ’50s sci-fi sound of the theremin. For the final episode of the first season of what Beltrami calls a “really self-aware ‘Twilight Zone,’” the duo wanted to “mimic the size of the original series.” In order to do so, they brought in 17 players.

“It’s like starting from scratch on every episode, all new themes and musical motifs, a specific sound palette for each,” Roberts says. “We have unique sounds, or processed [electronic] sounds that accompany whatever group we’re using.”

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