Simon Franglen’s three-hour score for “Avatar: The Way of Water” – a massive, complex tapestry involving orchestras, choirs and world-music soloists from across the globe – is the end product of five years of work.
The London-born Franglen, who is currently on both score and song Oscar shortlists for James Cameron’s hugely popular sequel, was a close friend and colleague of James Horner, the original “Avatar” composer who was killed in a plane crash in 2015.
It was Franglen, an electronic-music specialist who also worked on Horner’s Oscar-winning “Titanic,” who came up with many of the magical sounds for the forests of Pandora in the first movie, released in 2009. Franglen also composed the music for “Pandora: The World of Avatar,” which opened at Walt Disney World in 2017.
Horner had planned to do the “Avatar” sequels for Cameron as far back as 2013, and while there are occasional references to Horner’s original “Avatar” themes in the new film, the vast majority of music is original. “What Jim wanted was a more thematic score than ‘Avatar 1,'” he says. “So we defined certain key themes that he wanted. He also wanted a change of direction in the action music, a more muscular approach, more drive and less orchestral filigree.”
Franglen was ready for this, his longest and most challenging assignment, after working on dozens of movies assisting other composers and doing the occasional score himself over the past 30 years. He won a Grammy as the producer of Celine Dion’s “Titanic” song and was Golden Globe-nominated for co-writing the “Avatar” song “I See You” with Horner and Kuk Harrell.
Cameron insisted that Franglen read all four “Avatar” sequel scripts before starting on the music that would be part of on-screen performances. So the “Songcord” song that Zoe Saldaña sings as Neytiri was the first thing the composer wrote, in early 2018, before shooting began. “I wrote pages and pages of lyrics,” he says, all in the Na’vi language invented for the first film.
“Basically she sings about the family births,” he explains. “The idea is that the ‘Songcord’ is for each person in your family.” What starts out as a sense of “hope and wonder” will eventually turn into music of tragedy and family loss as the film’s story unfolds.
Meanwhile, throughout 2018 and 2019, Franglen was regularly visiting the set in Manhattan Beach, Calif., writing and supervising the on-screen “source” music that Cameron needed for both “Avatar” sequels that were being shot simultaneously.
Then in 2020, Cameron asked Franglen to record some of his new themes with an orchestra, about 25 minutes in all, much of which wound up in the final film. Once the assignment was formally his, Franglen moved his studio down to New Zealand to collaborate more closely with Cameron while he was editing through 2021 and 2022.
He wrote themes for the family, for the Metkayina reef people they join after fleeing their home, for the whale-like Tulkun creatures, for young Kiri, for the bad-guy RDA characters and their leader Quaritch, and more.
And while he used a 100-piece Los Angeles orchestra as the foundation for much of the score, his experiments with vocal and choral sounds, and the unusual instruments he employed for the colorful and otherworldly sounds of Pandora, are even more intriguing.
For the Tulkun, he visited whale researchers at UCLA, listened to whale songs and eventually came up with music for brass and cello, and later high female voices, to lend a poignancy to the relationship between the outcast Tulkun Payakan and Jake’s son Lo’ak.
The choral sounds are a combination of the 16-voice London-based choir Tenebrae, a 40-voice group in Los Angeles, a handful of soloists in both London and L.A. (mostly women), and singers from the South Pacific and New Zealand. “I found some wonderful singers form Vanuatu and the Cook Islands, and from the Maori in New Zealand,” Franglen reports.
He points out that the many underwater scenes have no dialogue and fewer sound effects, allowing the music to make a stronger contribution. “Jim liked the idea of the voices associated with the sea. He loved the almost song-like quality to some of these cues. He would remix these things and ask me to turn up the choir,” he says.
They are often singing in Na’vi “to give it a little more character,” he adds. A variety of wooden flutes, including the long Slovakian Fujara flute, were used for some of the battle scenes involving Quaritch.
Near the end of the scoring process, Franglen reached out to The Weeknd to collaborate on the end-title song, “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength),” which combines elements of Franglen’s score with lyrics by The Weeknd and additional material by Swedish House Mafia. That song is on the Oscar shortlist for a possible nomination.
Franglen says he’s already started work on “Avatar 3.”