Soundtrack: Scoring Disney+'s <I>Black Beauty</I>
Marc Loftus
Issue: November/December 2020

Soundtrack: Scoring Disney+'s Black Beauty

Disney+ recently premiered a contemporary adaptation of Anna Sewell’s classic 19th century novel, “Black Beauty”. The new feature premiered on the streaming service in November and tells the story of a wild horse, born free in the American west and then captured and taken away from family. Her story intertwines with that of 17-year old Jo Green, similarly grieving over the loss of her parents. The two slowly develop a bond that is built on love, respect and mutual healing.
Black Beauty features Oscar winner Kate Winslet as the voice of Black Beauty, and stars Mackenzie Foy as Jo Green; Iain Glen as John Manly; and Claire Forlani as Mrs. Winthorp. The film was directed by Ashley Avis, who also wrote the screenplay. The film was produced by Constantin Film and JB Pictures.

Composer Guillaume Roussel (pictured) created the film’s original score. Here, he shares with Post, his experience working on the film.

How did you become involved with Black Beauty?

“I was introduced to Ashley (Avis) by my friend Jeremy Bolt, whom is also a producer on the film. Ashley and I had our first meeting about a year ago. During that meeting I played her some ideas I had for the score and we talked about the musical direction she wanted to go in. We clicked instantly during this meeting, which really allowed me to let my inspiration ‘speak’. With some projects the timelines are very limited, but with Black Beauty I started very early on in production, which gave me ample time to experiment and try new things.” 

How would you describe your score for the film?

“We tried to come up with music that would speak to a younger audience, while at the same time paying homage to all the great scores we love. During the process, Ashley and I talked about all the scores that impacted us from the ‘90s, so we would reference those. Overall, we wanted to give the score a timeless feel. We never wanted it to be too modern or too old. Black Beauty is such a naturally-driven story, meaning there is no CGI, no effects, it’s all real actors interacting with real animals. The film’s approach is very simple and classic, so we wanted the music to embrace that as well and not be too conceptual. For us, the most important element was to find a theme that played through the movie representing the journey of Jo bonding with her new best friend, Black Beauty.”

How many cues did you write for the film?

“There are probably 40 cues of music for this film. A lot of music!”

About how many minutes of music does that equate to?

“There are 100 minutes of music. I wrote even more music than this, because there was a lot we didn’t use. There was probably over two hours of music I created.”

Can you talk about your recording process?

“I’ve been using my Mac Pro with a software called Cubase. I’m using an iMac to run the virtual sounds library I use to create the mockups, meaning virtual strings, virtual brass, etc. I’ve also been using my 88 keyboard from Icon, and use a simple MOTU 828 interface. I also use HD 600 Sennheiser headphones. Since I have multiple studio rigs at my home, at my studio in Santa Monica and in France, I’ve found it’s easier to work with headphones because when I use them, I don’t have to struggle with sound differences going from one room to another. Sometimes the music can sound different because of the room acoustics, and it really confuses me if I go back and forward between rigs. Using headphones is a more cohesive way of working as far as sound reference, but obviously it has sonic limits, it's not as precise as having great speakers.”

Did you use live instrumentation or an orchestra for that matter?

We were lucky enough to record with the London Symphony Orchestra at AIR Studios in Hampstead, London. This was the first time I have ever gotten to work with them. It was a real treat. Geoff Foster was the engineer and Gavin Greenaway was the conductor. Both are people I have been collaborating with for a long time. We also had the privilege to record with Randy Kerber, one the greatest piano players. He was Oscar nominated alongside Quincy Jones for his work on The Color Purple. We recorded him in Paris with Nicholas Duport as the engineer. It was such an honor to record with all of them. The only down side was not being able to be there in person. I had to stay in LA because of the pandemic, so it was all done through Skype. It was stressful because at that time no orchestras were recording because of the lockdowns. We were one of the first movies to get to record in London with an orchestra after the lockdown was lifted. We got very lucky.”

Did you lean towards any instruments in particular for this score?

“We used the piano as the main instrument. We didn’t want it to have a typical piano sound, so we put a t-shirt inside the piano to make it sound duller. We didn’t want the piano to sound too grand. We wanted the sound to be very intimate, to match the emotional relationship between Jo and Black Beauty. Since Black Beauty is a horse, they only connect through each other’s eyes and gestures. It’s very abstract and intimate. Both Randy and I played different parts in the film. Overall, there is definitely more piano than anything else though.”

Black Beauty is based on a book that has been around since 1877. Were you familiar with the story before you started working on the film?

“No, I’m from France and the story isn’t as well known in France as it is in America. I have seen the 1996 film directed by Caroline Thompson. It’s one of my favorite scores from Danny Elfman. He delivered something so magical with that score, it was a very different side of Danny. When I found out I got the film, I couldn’t go back and listen to the score again, because it would have intimidated me too much. I wouldn’t have been able to write a single note! Danny is one of my favorite composers. He is such an inspiring figure!”

How involved was director Ashley Avis with the score?

“She was very involved. It was a great experience because for the first time I was working with a director, who was also the editor. Because of this we worked very closely and had a lot of exchanges, which was a real privilege. This allowed me to dive into her mind and really create the musical world she envisioned for the film. Creatively, it was the most fulfilling experience I ever had on a movie.”