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Documentaries Look to Score in Emmys’ Music Race

Composers of non-fiction programming face different musician demands than dramas.

Dolphin Reef Disney+
Courtesy of Disney+

Last year, the Television Academy added a seventh category for music: composition for a documentary series or special, long sought by composers as music for non-fiction programming can have very different demands than that for dramatic narratives.

The streaming services offered numerous docs during the 2019-20 season, from explorations of nature to profiles of politicians. And, like last year, docs that were eligible for 2019 Oscars have been newly entered in this category (including Alex Heffes’ score for “Elephant Queen,” which aired on Apple TV Plus, and Matt Morton’s music for “Apollo 11,” on CNN).

Disney Plus debuted two Disneynature docs that were intended for theatrical release but sidelined because of the pandemic: “Elephant,” with a score by previous Emmy winner Ramin Djawadi (“Game of Thrones”), and “Dolphin Reef,” which featured music by Oscar winner Steven Price (“Gravity”).

Djawadi had not previously done a nature doc, but wanted to because he can’t allow his 6-year-old twins into the studio when he’s scoring violent or sexy scene for shows like “Thrones” or “Westworld.” But, he noted, the filmmakers told him not to treat this tale of an elephant herd crossing Africa’s Kalahari Desert as a doc, but rather as a drama with all its danger and excitement.

Djawadi researched the music of the region, especially its percussion, and conducted a 70-piece London orchestra. But for the evocative vocals, he recorded American soloists and a 16-voice choir. The biggest challenge: “Elephants are very hard to read emotionally. I had to rely on the filmmakers to describe their emotions. They shot this over the course of years, and they could read them perfectly.”

Price, a nominee for last year’s “Our Planet” doc, had a similar experience on “Dolphin Reef,” which followed a dolphin family and various other denizens of the deep around a chain of Polynesian islands.

“The way that Disney have historically done nature films is much more of a family-based thing,” he says from London. “Telling this very ecologically sound story about the interconnection of everything, how the ecosystem needs to work together, that’s all there, but it’s told through these characters. The Disney way of doing it, because it’s so story-led and character-led, leads you to write in a totally different way.”

Price recorded a 76-piece orchestra and 24-voice female choir at Abbey Road. But the various colors required by a mostly underwater story meant the use of synthesizers as well. “These synths that bubble and swirl around, hopefully make you feel like you’re underwater. They were a fun way to give an extra character to the world we were playing in.”

For composer Will Bates, who scored Hulu’s four-part “Hillary” documentary, about former senator and presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, the challenge was “finding the right tone. It was a tonal knife-edge to try and be cautiously optimistic about her life, whilst not slanting it one way or the other.”

Bates created a music-box melody for her childhood, which morphed into a piano theme later on. But for the 2016 election, “I took that piece and took a sledge hammer to it, turning it into a much more fragmented version of itself; it alludes to her earlier ideals.”

The documentary field has long been more open to women composers, so it was no surprise to see that the Apple TV Plus doc series “Home” hired more than one. Amanda Jones scored the “Maine” episode, about a unique, environmentally advanced house in the snowy New England woods. “Coming from the indie rock world, the filmmakers really wanted me to lean into my songwriter sensibilities,” she says.

Jones played acoustic and electric guitar, added retro synths, lent her warm voice to a couple of scenes, and enlisted her drummer husband for a backbeat when necessary. “The sonic palette needed to be cool and hip. I tried to tap into the cultural point of view, mixing it with their surroundings,” she says. “Youthful, fun, organic.”