Soundtrack: Scoring <I>Heart of Champions</I>
Issue: November/December 2021

Soundtrack: Scoring Heart of Champions

LOS ANGELES — German composer Julian Scherle, who is based in Los Angeles, created the original score for Heart of Champions, a new feature that was released theatrically on October 29th and on video-on-demand November 19th. He used his own love of sports to create an epic soundtrack for the film, which centers on a college rowing team that has decended into turmoil following a last-place finish for a national championship. The film stars Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton and Alex MacNicoll, with Michael Shannon playing a former Army veteran turned coach, who is determined to unlock the team’s true potential.

Scherle is an avid rock climber and translated his experience into the score, listening to the most recent music he’d composed prior to his climbing sessions. When climbing, he would play those musical themes in his head and concentrate on expanding them. The film’s main musical theme came to him while climbing. It is a simple yet heroic piece of music that started on upright piano and eventually grew into a full-size symphonic arrangement with a 60-piece orchestra. He appropriately matched the tempo of the cue to the rowing strokes seen on-screen.

Here, Scherle (pictured) shares insight into his work on the project.

How did you get involved with Heart of Champions?

Julian Scherle: “A friend I worked with in the past reached out and asked if I’d be interested in demoing for a feature he currently was producing. I didn’t really know any details before getting the scenes, so when I saw Michael Shannon pop up on my screen, I think I literally may have gasped! I’m a huge admirer and love him in pretty much every role. After watching the scenes a few times and mentally soaking up the material, I left the studio to go to a nearby wall to climb. While working through a route it clicked. I knew exactly what emotion I wanted to capture. I returned to the studio, wrote two pieces, sent it over and got a call a few days later - while hanging on the same wall - where I was offered the opportunity to write the score for the feature.”

What were the feature’s musical needs?

Scherle: “For me, the main message of the story is - in order to achieve greatness, we need to overcome our differences and come together as a team. That’s a message I can 100 percent get behind, especially in the context of what was going on politically at that time. Musically, I tried to represent the struggle, defeat and physical toll any endeavor can mean. 

“Often times, strength comes from simplicity - breaking things down to the common denominator and rebuilding it from there. In the specific application of rowing, this meant getting into perfect balance and rhythm with your teammates, syncing up with them to become one unit. That’s when your boat starts to  really fly, which I learned is called ‘swing’ in rowing circles. 

“The meditative mental state you can reach while being absolutely focused on a physically and mentally highly demanding task is one of the most rewarding experiences I know from climbing, so although I never sat in a boat, I was somewhat able to relate. 

“In terms of instrumentation, I wanted to have the score feel powerful, epic and poetic at the same time. Although I’m more of an experimental/electronic kind of guy, I love orchestral music. I grew up listening and studying the German masters - which I honestly quite hated back then - so there was no doubt in my mind that this score needed to be orchestral. Luckily the producer/director team was open to that idea and we ended up recording a symphonic orchestra. Although I worked on orchestral productions in the past, this was the first time sitting in the driver seat, and it was an absolutely amazing experience!”

Can you talk about your gear and recording process?

Scherle: “I usually spend a tremendous amount of time in R&D before actually starting into writing. Due to fairly tight deadlines, I had to kick into gear very fast, especially since orchestral recordings require some additional production time. It turned out to be okay though since the score was mostly orchestral anyway. 

“As my main writing rig, I’m using Logic and on my second rig (picture machine) I’m using Pro Tools Ultimate. My assistant and I jumped into action even before the first spotting session and recorded and programmed a number of instruments, mostly smaller percussion elements and guitar/bass based instruments. My weapon of choice is the EXS24 Sampler (now called Sampler) for these types of instruments. Occasionally I use the Omnisphere engine for more advanced sampling. 

“I started with classical piano when I was six, so that’s usually where my writing begins. I have an old upright mic’ed up and always ready to go, so all piano parts were recorded via that. I also love using piano for textural / loop-y stuff. The pulsing sound in Track 2: ‘Race’ for instance, is the same upright and some duct tape / felt. All orchestral mockups were done via Kontakt and a number of different libraries. 

“I’ve spent a decent amount of time writing trailer music in the past, so my programming chops came pretty handy. Although these elements would be replaced eventually, it’s just easier for the creative team to get an idea of what the end result may sound like. I used some outboard gear (500er rack, with some Neve strips, Drawmer and Maag), but mostly just in my recording chain. The mix itself was all done ‘in the box’, in my studio. 

“As for plug-ins, I love Soundtoys, Fabfilter, Plugin Alliance and Relab. When it comes to synth - and most textural stuff - I’m a big fan of analog synth. Using them ‘live’ for scoring is a huge pain, so I’m always sampling once I find something I like. I’ve been doing this for about 10-plus years now, so I have a pretty decent amount of sampled patches to choose from.”