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The journey a film score takes, from the composer's brain to what comes out of the speakers at your local theater, is a long and complicated process. In the case of the new Pixar film The Good Dinosaur, the work began seven months ago. Audiences will hear it for the first time on Thanksgiving Day.
Brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna started thinking about the movie last fall, and began composing in earnest back in April. At the time, Mychael was in the middle of moving. Since his studio was packed up, he wrote a lot of the score in his son's bedroom on his laptop, beginning with crude recordings called mockups.
"And because the mockups are so devoid of any human feeling or musicality — being synthesized violas and oboes and so on — if they work at that stage, then it's really gonna work when real great musicians play this stuff," he says.
Mychael Danna has some experience at both ends of the process. He's scored more than a hundred films and TV series, and he won an Oscar two years ago for Life of Pi. Both he and Jeff have scored animated films before, but the story of dinosaurs that survived extinction and evolved into sentient beings with their own society gave them new opportunities.
"It really opens the door for a lot of interesting and unusual choices," Jeff says. "Right away we started thinking about pre-Columbian elements and, you know, what can we do with an orchestra that would pick up on this unusual and ethereal setting?"
I met up with the brothers at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. as scoring sessions were beginning. At this point, the mockups are done and the director has approved the music, but there's no orchestra yet. Instead, a lone percussionist stands on the recording stage surrounded by a battery of musical toys, going through take after take with a shaker.
The Danna brothers take to the the control booth, listening for just the right sound. It's a pretty clinical, meticulous process, part of what's called the "pre-record" sessions — seven full days, in this case — where various solo instruments are captured in isolation before the full orchestra comes in.
"The entire process of making a music score is additive, so every little detail becomes part of the whole," Mychael says. "And so you really learn that even the smallest shaker in the background is important."
A week later, they're back on the stage at Warner Bros, but this time with 75 musicians and a whole bunch of cooks in the control booth providing feedback. Jeff and Mychael are joined by director Peter Sohn. He's been an animator at Pixar since Finding Nemo, but this is his debut in the director's chair — and learning how to communicate through music is a new skill for him.
"I was kind of nervous in general about, like, 'Do I need to talk to you in terms of that lingo? Like 'forte' or anything like that?'" Sohn says. "And so, early on, I just started bringing up the characters and the emotion. And that became our commonality."
Sohn and the Danna brothers spend an intense five days with the orchestra, plowing through the score's 75 minutes of material. Mychael Danna says that, with so much going on, he has to remind himself to stop and enjoy the experience of hearing Hollywood's top studio players performing his music. When he does see the orchestra nail it, he gets giddy.
"Animation is so — you know, it takes forever," he says. "And the scoring — they move really fast. It's all about capturing electricity, and everyone feeling it. 'Did you get the goosebumps? Did you feel that?' 'Yes we did. We're moving on.'"
A few weeks later, the Danna brothers are back at Warner Bros., but the room is a lot emptier. The music is completely recorded, and the Dannas work with an engineer for 10 solid days of mixing — making sure, among other things, that that shaker is just prominent enough when combined with the orchestra. They look tired, and Jeff is getting over a cold. I ask if, at this point, they'd be screaming at each other if a reporter wasn't in the room.
"We're both too tired for that," Mychael deadpans. Jeff finishes his thought, laughing: "Yeah, I mean, if that was our relationship, we wouldn't really be working on music together."
After finishing their mix, the Dannas relinquish the score to Sohn, who takes it six hours up the freeway to Skywalker Ranch for the film's final mix. And at this point, Sohn has to cut some music.
"It's always about the movie, what's best for the movie," Sohn says. "And so there have been pieces of music that you unfortunately do have to lose, and Mychael understands completely."
This doesn't make it any easier. Mychael and Jeff Danna often skip the final mix, just because it's hard to watch your darlings get killed. That's another reason why, in the same way they work together, they'll watch the premiere together with family.
"Everything you do, you're being vulnerable, you're expressing yourself, and you're taking risks — and on a stage that's a big stage," Mychael says. "So, you need a sense of trust to do these dangerous things."
"I've collaborated with other people, but it's a lot easier with Mike," Jeff adds. "It's just very natural.