Apple TV+'s <I>WondLa</i>: Composer Joy Ngiaw
June 28, 2024

Apple TV+'s WondLa: Composer Joy Ngiaw

Joy Ngiaw is a Malaysian film and TV composer who achieved acclaim for her score for Apple TV+'s and Skydance'sBlush, which received the Best Music Award from Hollywood Music in Media and an Annie nomination in 2021. She recently composed the score for the adventure trilogy WondLa, which streams on Apple TV+, and is working on an upcoming Mattel animated series titled Barbie Mysteries: The Great Horse Chase, which will premiere on Netflix this fall. 

Here, she shares insight into her experience working on the score for WondLa, an animated series centered around teen Eva, who was raised alone by a robot caretaker in an underground bunker while the Earth recovers from human existence. On her 16th birthday, Eva returns to Earth’s surface, where she finds the planet is now inhabited by aliens, covered with otherworldly fauna and devoid of humans.

"Stepping into the wondrous world of WondLa has been both a profound challenge and an incredible opportunity for me as a composer," says Ngiaw. "From the very beginning, our showrunner Bobs Gannaway and supervising director Andrew Schmidt envisioned a score that would resonate deeply, balancing the epic scale of the narrative with intimate, emotional moments. My goal was to create a dynamic and immersive soundscape that not only supported the storytelling, but also deepened the audience's connection with the characters and their journeys."

Being involved early allowed Ngiaw to dive deep into the scripts and immerse herself in the meticulously crafted concept art, costumes and production design. 

"Having delved into Tony DiTerlizzi’s captivating trilogy beforehand, I already had a solid grasp of the characters and the unique traits of each alien tribe," she explains. "Researching the cultural inspirations behind these characters helped me tailor the instrumentation for each location’s theme. We began by defining the show's main theme, which then served as the backbone of our main character Eva Nine’s journey."

WondLa’s expansive narrative and diverse characters provided a large canvas for musical exploration. For Lacus, a fisherman's village filled with community and family, Ngiaw incorporated African instruments, like the bolon, kalimba, and balafon. The concept art revealed an infrastructure that is textural and intertwined, inspiring her to create a theme that is syncopated and polyrhythmic. In contrast, for Solas, the advanced city of Orbona, she opted for plucky instruments, such as the Korean Gayageum, Sanjo, and Chinese Liuqin and Dan Nhi, enhanced by the grandeur of the Mongolian Choir to underscore its sophistication. The meter of the theme was an unexpected 5/4, creating a distinctly different and otherworldly feel.

"Experimenting with my voice to create unique textures and sound effects also added a distinct sonic identity to WondLa," she reveals. "I recorded layers of different vocal textures/breaths, 'shaaaas,' hums and chants that infused a human element into the score. I used Mojave’s MA-301 microphone and processed these recordings with plug-ins like Soundtoys and Gullfoss for a rich, textured sound. Additionally, transforming everyday objects from around my house into instruments, like using software sampling processing in Cubase to turn a slinky into a percussive element, brought a playful and unconventional approach to my compositions."

Ngiaw also introduced synthesizers to lend a futuristic and otherworldly quality to the score. Antagonist Besteel’s theme features low synths with added processing and pitch bending, creating a sound reminiscent of a monster’s growl. By layering a distorted and processed Chinese Er Hu on top, she achieved a haunting and foreboding sound that  represents the hunter.

"Crafting the soundtrack for WondLa was a journey filled with creativity and innovation, where cultural influences and personal experiences came together to truly connect with the audience," she explains. "Working collaboratively with this team has been wonderful, as it allowed us to freely explore new ideas, from character themes to inventive instrumentation, which enriched the entire creative process. As a composer, being so deeply involved in shaping the storytelling was incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. I'm sincerely grateful for the trust our filmmakers placed in me. We constantly inspired each other, drawing from the stunning visuals, the performances of our talented actors, the script, the animation, and more. Together, our goal was to elevate this epic and captivating world that Tony DiTerlizzi has brilliantly created."

Ngiaw says her hope is that fans and listeners of WondLa not only immerse themselves in the captivating world and narrative, but also experience a profound emotional connection through the music. 

"As they listen to the soundtrack, I aim for the music to transport them on Eva's journey — whether it's experiencing the grandeur of exploring new worlds or delving into the introspection of our characters' personal journeys. I hope the score resonates deeply, leaving viewers inspired, moved and eager to revisit the magical universe of WondLa. The journey with WondLa has been a testament to the possibilities of musical storytelling, and I am genuinely excited for the future creative adventures that lie ahead."