Press Junket: Class With Professor Michael Giacchino

Back in late March, I went out to Pixar Animation Studios for a press event for Cars 2 and went on to participate in many roundtables with a variety of individuals who worked on the film. Directly after watching some half-an-hour of footage, we were whisked away to sit in on a discussion with the awesome composer Michael Giacchino. He had already been working on the music for the film and was actually set to start recording that weekend. What followed was one of the highlights of the entire junket, as it was almost like sitting in a class with Professor Giacchino teaching students about how to write music and create memorable themes. Class is in session, so get ready to learn from the brilliant Michael Giacchino.

Photographed by Deborah Coleman. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

First up, Michael showed us the opening scene from the film without any music. Then, he played the clip with his music playing alongside, which was a thrilling experience, as we were some of the first people in the world to hear it. I immediately had a feeling that the music in Cars 2 was going to be great. (Listening to the soundtrack now, that has been confirmed.)

I asked him if it was difficult coming onto a sequel when themes and music already exists for these characters. Giacchino said that when he asked director John Lasseter if they were keeping any of the music from the first film, John told him to write whatever was right for this movie. The result was that the music went in a “completely different direction” than the first film – the sequel was just a different movie from the first, so it was a natural evolution. Given the spy-themed story, he wanted the music in the film to echo old spy thrillers. However, there are times in the sequel’s score that revisit moments from the first film.

Photographed by Brett Butterstein. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

I asked Michael another question – this time about the beginning of his process on Cars 2. He said that he and John watched the whole movie together and talked through the entire thing. John pointed out “emotional beats” that were important. Michael also made suggestions, leading to a kind of framework before the musical process even started.

While writing he thought about how it would come across to others – “How do I want you to feel when you’re watching it?”. For example, the opening of the film is a tense moment, so he felt the music needed to say that. He also emphasized the importance of the opening, saying that it set “the sound for Cars 2.” The opening music he played for us here actually went on to become the “theme” of Cars 2 and can be heard in several of the clips that have shown up online, like this one, which was just released a few days ago:

Working at home, Michael put together synth mock-ups on his computer. With the computer’s help, he was able to play the approximate sounds of many instruments, which allowed him to write music without having an orchestra behind him. He remarked that, “It might sound nothing like the real thing,” but it allowed him to show his ideas to the director.

Photographed by Deborah Coleman. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Speaking about new character Finn McMissile, Michael knew that he was essential to the spy theme in the film. He went about creating a “sound” for the character. Finn’s “sound” was envisioned with the help of a British surf guitar. His goal with the spy character was to make his 6-year-old think he was the most awesome car on Earth. After actually watching the opening scene of the film, his son remarked that Finn “was the coolest car [he] saw in [his] life!”.

You could tell that the composer was passionate about writing music. He went on to speak about creating themes. He wanted people to hear music from the film later and be able to easily identify that it came from Cars 2. As soon as he saw the film, he instantly knew the theme. He noted that it is important to set the theme for the film as you start to work on the music. He personally starts on the piano, because he feels that if it works on there it will likely work on any other instrument.

Photographed by Deborah Coleman. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

When asked about the level of intensity in music that he deems okay, he said you need to strike a balance. Putting the characters in jeopardy is necessary since you want to treat the characters like real people. However, you also want to utilize the jeopardy in a fun and adventurous way.

Answering others’ questions, he had more to say about his own process – he tries to write a piece of music that lines up as a whole, so if the footage is taken out, it allows audience members to relive the experience in their heads. He explained that it is essential for the music to guide the audience, as it tells the story of what is going on.

Photographed by Deborah Coleman. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Does the man do research? Not really. He said that he loves all kinds of music and has been able to retain their many aspects through listening to them over the years. As a result, he does not really conduct research when preparing music for films. He simply seeks “the fun” in the music he is writing.

Finally, given the international scope of the film, he said that international flavors are present in the score, but he felt it was about “sticking with the characters musically,” rather than focusing too much on the character’s physical location.

I felt like I could sit there and listen to the man talk about music for hours – he was that captivating. You can listen to Michael Giacchino’s score on the big screen with Cars 2 on June 24!

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