Sound: Scoring Disney's <I>Maleficent</I> sequel
Issue: September/October 2019

Sound: Scoring Disney's Maleficent sequel

Emmy-winning composer Geoff Zanelli ( recently collaborated with director Joachim Rønning to create the score for the new Disney film Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. The two partnered in the past on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and this time, the director challenged Zanelli to maintain the timeless sounds of the Sleeping Beauty tale, which returned to the big screen as a live-action fairy tale back in 2014, with Robert Stromberg directing and James Newton Howard delivering the score.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a sequel to the 2014 box office hit. Maleficent, once again portrayed by Angelina Jolie, and her goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) begin to question the complex family ties that bind them, as they are pulled in different directions by pending nuptuals and dark forces. Michelle Pfeiffer debuts as Queen Ingrith.

In addition to scoring the new Disney feature, Zanelli (pictured, above) also worked with recording artist Bebe Rexha on the film's theme song “You Can't Stop the Girl”. Recently, the composer took time to share his insight into his work on the film and the single.

How did you get involved in creating the score for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil?

“After Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the film's director Joachim Rønning and I kept in touch, so I knew he was gearing up to shoot a Maleficent sequel and we were talking early on about what the score could be. I think it was obvious from those early days that he and I could work together again on this film, and it really stems from having a good experience together on Pirates.

“In a way, it felt almost preordained that I'd score the film, and it really just took a few conversations with the producers and Disney to make it clear that my intent would be to honor the first film and build off of that for the new material in the story.”

Having worked with Joachim Rønning before, was your process any different on this film in comparison to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales?

“Well, on the surface the work was much the same in that I wrote themes first, with the story arc in mind, and presented those to Joachim long before I started scoring any of the scenes.  That's how we did Pirates, but there were some differences as well.

“For one, post production for this film took place in London, so while I was in Los Angeles for most of it, that meant we needed to connect over Skype to review the score in progress. That may not seem like a big difference, but not being in the room with someone does change the way things can go.

“I'm usually watching the director closely during my music playback. You learn things that way! You see where they smile, where they fold their arms, where their feet tap, and all of that is valuable feedback to the writing process.

“That said, Joachim let us aim the camera so I could watch his body language so we were able to mitigate any downside to that way of working. It's getting so common these days to work that way. More than half of my films are posting out of town actually, so sometimes I can get on a plane and have meetings, but usually I need to be in Los Angeles. The industry is changing, and we're all evolving with it!”

How does the score from Mistress of Evil differ from the first Maleficent film?

“The first thing you notice about James Newton Howard's score for the first Maleficent is that he chose ‘timeless’ over ‘trendy,’ and to very good effect. It's the right thing to do with a classic character like this, and it bodes well for the longevity of the film.

“So I used that as a starting point, and in fact I knew I'd be able to draw from those themes when it was appropriate to recall story or character elements from the first film.

“However, there are so many new characters and locations, and the score needed to live up to that. For instance, Maleficent learns that she is one of many Dark Fey when she meets more members of her race. The Dark Fey in the film have all gathered together their disparate tribes to live in exile, away from the human world, and their home is made up of multiple biomes. So there was a sense that their music ought to expand into non-orchestral elements, and it really meant I could use any instrument I wanted to, to represent those different tribes. Whatever serves the story!

“And Ingrith, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, is a new character. She is Maleficent's antagonist in the film, and she really needed her own music. Being a human, that could live in the orchestral world, but it wasn't something I could draw from the original score.

“And Aurora's character developed so much in this one, which necessitated some new music for her in addition to the brilliant music from the first film. Whereas she used to be an innocent child who, in a sense, had the story happen to her, she is now a proactive, headstrong woman and a force to be reckoned with!”

What were the film’s music needs in terms of the number of themes, cues and lengths?

“So I've touched on most of the new themes, though there were a few other elements I needed, like one for the new human kingdom of Ulstead, and a character called Lickspittle. There were 65 cues, and in total around 105 minutes of score for this.”

Is was recorded at the legendary Abbey Road?

“Abbey Road is just a special place to record anything. It's one of the landmarks of the entire world of music, and walking into the building under that white sign with the black letters that says ‘Abbey Road Studios’ actually gives me a tangible, positive shift in mood. You feel like you're doing something special just by being there.

“We had 108 players in the orchestra, all playing at once, which isn't how I usually do it. Nowadays, most of my work gets recorded in stems, strings first, then add the brass, then the percussion, but I wanted to try to make this score lean toward timeless, and one of the ways I did that was by recording it the way things used to be recorded — everyone in a room together, all playing at once. And that means all the balancing had to be done in their performance, not on the mix console.

“This is something that takes a high level of musicianship, of course, so that speaks to the musicians in London, who along with Los Angeles, represent the gold standard for this type of recording.  

“Other than some percussion and non-orchestral woodwind and stringed instruments, the only other thing we recorded separately was the choir — both adults and children — 56 singers in total.

“Peter Cobbin was my recording engineer and Dennis Sands mixed the score. Both of them are giants in the industry, which adds a certain pressure to the proceedings. If it doesn't sound great, it's not because of the recording or the mixing, it's because I didn't give the orchestra the right notes to begin with!”

You also collaborated with Bebe Rexha on the single for the film?

“Bebe Rexha's song was such a fun thing for me to get involved in! I get to work on songs only very occasionally and I always look forward to it.

“For her song, ‘You Can't Stop The Girl,’ I wrote a full orchestral and choir arrangement. This compliments the band and vocal performance that was in progress when I first heard the song.”

Can you describe your writing and recording process?

“My writing process for this, which I touched on briefly, was to write themes, and once those were working for all the filmmakers, to then go and score each individual cue. The actual process of writing music would be awfully boring for anyone to observe me doing. It's really just me hunched over my keyboard with the footage on a monitor two feet away from my face, thinking a lot and going over every bar of the cue in sync with the picture over and over until things are just right.

“For recording, we did the 108-piece orchestra, usually only needing a few takes to get a fantastic performance, and then later in the week I sweetened those recordings with choir and percussion. In particular, some of the percussion needed to be from non-orchestral instruments, a lot of hand drums, for instance, and those are better to record separately in order to have control over the sound in the mix.  

“But the general philosophy of the recordings here was to try and get it all to sound right out in the room, and then trust the microphones to capture it. When Peter Cobbin is recording your score, it seems like that's an easy task, but I'm convinced it's an enormous undertaking for him, every time he records something.”

What gear do you use for writing and recording?

“I have two writing rooms, which are identically outfitted as follows: Cubase for sequencing/MIDI; UAD cards for audio processing in Cubase; ProTools for virtual mixing and video playback; PMC IB2 speakers for monitoring through a MultiMAX; Doepfer keyboard for playing in MIDI tracks.

“And then I have a set of 12 computer servers, all networked, which run a proprietary sampling program that Hans Zimmer developed. Those are top secret!

“Any overflow sounds that I need to load are just in Kontakt, and I get so many commercially available sample libraries and plug-ins that I couldn't begin to list them all here.”

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil opens in theaters October 18th.