PBS's <I>Primates</I>: Emmy-nominated composer Denise Santos
August 24, 2021

PBS's Primates: Emmy-nominated composer Denise Santos

Primates, a mini series on PBS’s Nature program, is nominated for an “Outstanding Music Composition” Emmy at the 42nd Annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards. The BBC Studios production for PBS and BBC is narrated by NyambiNyambi and was filmed across the globe over the course of two years and 28 filming expeditions. From snow-capped mountains to the hot deserts, the mini-series includes many unique species of primates and captures some never-before-seen behaviors.

Adam Lukas and Denise Santos of Bleeding Fingers Music (www.bleedingfingersmusic.com) in Santa Monica, CA, created the show’s original music. Here, Denise Santos shares her experience working on the show.

What is it like being nominated for the work that you have done on Primates?

“At first, I was shocked and doubtful. When I saw the nominee list, I had to call my co-composer Adam Lukas right away to verify that I was seeing it correctly. It took about another half hour for me to really believe it was happening. This being my first nomination ever, it feels like a culmination of all the work I've done in the past 10 years as a composer. I'm just happy to make my loved ones proud.”

What was the experience like?

“It was intimidating! Primates was my first project of its scale, so I was really nervous that I wouldn't meet the expectations it had of me. But working alongside Adam and the rest of our team at Bleeding Fingers gave me the wings that I needed to get through it. And now that I think about it, Bleeding Fingers prepared me for this moment. We usually produce albums for our production music library, Extreme Music, and one of the labels that we write for is our Earth Tones label. Writing for those albums gave me the practice that I needed to tackle more demanding nature documentary projects like Primates.”

What gear did you rely on to compose for Primates?

“I'm on a Mac Pro, using Logic Pro X and a UAD Apollo interface. I'd say 60 to 70 percent of the time, I'm using VSTs and soft synths when composing. But sometimes, I also like to compose on the guitar first. I'm not a virtuoso at guitar, and there's something about the unfamiliarity with the instrument that opens my mind to more ideas and melodies. A lot of happy accidents happen. For Primates, there are a few cues that I played guitar on. Our central concept was for the score to sound intimate, and there's something about a close mic'd guitar that delivers that for me. We also wanted the score to have pop influences, so we layered beats and synths on the music to give it that pop flavor.”

How did you get started and how did you find the right fit for the scenes? 

“In the early stages, we received a few scenes to score and experiment with. I took one scene, Adam took another. We each scored our assigned scenes and collaborated with our producer, Russell Emanuel, on what we thought worked and what we thought had areas for improvement. That was a constructive part of the process and aided us in finding the tone for the show that we eventually applied to the rest of the cues. The great thing about having a co-composer is that we each have our strengths, which helped us assign scenes that played on those strengths.” 

How did you adapt the score to get the most out of each scene?

“The primates that were featured in the show were amusing to score! They are so animated and so smart, so it really wasn't that hard to interpret what was going on. Although I must say, the narration also helps a lot. The research that the BBC team gathered is incredible. They were so good at capturing the life of the primates in their natural habitat. All of that research was communicated in the narration and helped stir our work in the right direction.”

What is your biggest takeaway from working on Primates?

“On the more technical side of scoring, one of my biggest takeaways is to really listen to the narration when writing. It's easy to get carried away with just writing music, but when you're not listening to what the scene's intended message really is, it can stir the scene in a completely different direction. 

“On the more interpersonal level, my biggest takeaway is the importance of clear and even sometimes redundant communication. Projects like Primates have so many moving parts and so many people involved. Proper coordination amongst the team members is the key to making the experience go a lot smoother.”

What are you working on now?

“Since Primates, I scored another BBC nature documentary that is currently premiering on TV! It's called Eden: Untamed Planet. New episodes air every Saturday on BBC America. It has masterful narration by Helena Bonham Carter, and I composed the music alongside Austin Hammonds.”

Where can we follow you online?

“You can follow me everywhere on social media, at your own risk. @denthantoth on Instagram, @DenoiseSantos on Twitter, and @denisesantosmusic on Facebook.”