“That’s what I love about Pixar. It’s always about the story. That’s where every project begins, with the story — not the marketing.” — Michael Giacchino
I’m generally not that excited about filmscores that come out these days, but I know that every summer I can expect at least one that’s a refreshing break from the monotonous norm. This is because of Pixar. The studio that consistently produces the highest-caliber films today also parents many of the best scores because their emphasis on story over spectacle carries over into the production of the music.
Pete Docter chose Michael Giacchino to compose the score for Up, Pixar’s latest film, because Michael had not only cultivated a good working relationship with Pixar during his work on The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but also because he understands his role as a composer to be in subjection to the film’s story and not independent of it.
“It all starts really with just watching the movie and talking to the directors about the emotional arcs of the movie and the character development in the movie.
It [Up] is essentially a love story about Carl and his wife, so it was just about going there and finding out [what] that means. What I ended up doing was doing this very simple waltz that grows and twists and turns through the whole course of the film. As Carl goes on this adventure, everything just changes, [and] the music changes with him and his character as he develops and he grows.” – Michael Giacchino
Where most composers would have taken one look at Up’s beautiful and exotic scenery and hastily plunged into the composition of fanfares and exiting adventure music, Giacchino’s story-based approach to composition allowed him to step back and see what the film is really about. The visual setting for Up is incredibly lush and beautiful, but Giacchino didn’t let that dictate the direction of the music.
As Giacchino stated earlier, the film is really a love story between Carl and Ellie, so the two primary melodies in Up, Ellie’s Theme and Muntz’s Theme, were portrayed in the film as being representative of Carl’s foremost affections and the real life conflict he experienced between the two. Ellie’s theme depicts the simple joys of married and family life, contrasted with the reckless glorification of adventurism for its own sake that Muntz’s theme signifies. Watch how the two play off each other over the course of the film as Carl is emotionally buffeted, torn between childhood affections and the call of duty.
On a stylistic level, a much smaller instrumental sound was utilized than is common today. Whumpin’, thumpin’ percussion was replaced with small string ensembles and woodwinds. How often do you hear a muted trumpet, piano and solo violin in the same scene today? The uniqueness factor alone made the music striking and evocative.
“It’s a very small ensemble for the most part. Stand-up bass, guitar, violin, clarinet — those are the main pieces. We wanted that intimate kind of feel. There’s a tendency in animation to go huge, this idea that just because it’s an animated film it needs overbearing music to convey any emotion. And I’ve always hated that. If it’s a good story, you just need something simple to make it work.” – Michael Giacchino
The lightness and simplicity of the music really adds to the appeal of the film. The fact that you are not hearing an unrealistically large and exaggerated musical construct actually makes it easier to relate to Carl’s character and his struggles.
“Simple melodies are the best” is a statement you have probably heard time and time again. This is generally true, but what most composers don’t tell you is that they’re also the hardest to write. A good composer can write an appealing, unique and memorable melodic idea with the restriction 5-10 notes in a set key provides and come up with a powerful and emotional end product. A bad one has to find “originality” by rejecting every structural element of traditional composition that could potentially let two waveforms sound alike.
Giacchino’s ability to write a simple, catchy melody with appeal is yet another testament to musical proficiency that leads some to tout him as the next John Williams. Though I wouldn’t go quite that far (at least not yet), his focus on story does remind one of Williams more than any of his colleagues or contemporaries. And it’s this focus that’s looking to solidify the working relationship between Giacchino and Pixar as one the most memorable and successful ones in film history. Here’s a quote by another of Giacchino’s close work associates:
“Michael is not only an exceptional composer, he also has an amazing, acute sense of story. He is someone who I talk through story with, who I show early scenes to, who I will show a script at a very early stage to. He is as valuable as a producer as he is a musician and composer.” –J.J. Abrams
The score for Up is fantastic and the best I have heard in a good while. Though popularity is not necessarily the mark of excellence, this film is a favorite with virtually everyone who sees it, and has accomplished a rare feat in making big bucks at the domestic box office while getting high marks from the critics.
Though the film is excellent on its own, I can’t help but wonder how it would have fared without the score that I anticipate being the strongest of the year.