Fresh off the plane from London, film composer Steve Jablonsky is just starting to wind down from his last project. And why wouldn’t he? Working on Transformers: Age of Extinction (which came out just four weeks ago and will very soon be the first movie of 2014 to reach the $1 billion mark) over the last 6 months has been a whirlwind. Like most other Michael Bay pictures it was a mad dash to the finish line but that’s how it goes when you work on projects of this size and scope.
Steve Jablonsky is synonymous with big, bombastic scores yet while the energy and emotion to his music runs high, Jablonsky is very humble about his craft and his experiences. So what’s next for this prolific and hardworking composer after his fourth time out with Optimus Prime and company? Steve has looked over a couple scripts but now he’s enjoying some much needed time off.
We chatted with Steve about working with Imagine Dragons, his favorite Transformers character and crafting the auditory counterpart to the “Bayhem” on the big screen. You know his name, you know the series, so now enjoy our fun and insightful session with Steve Jablonsky.
GST: Steve, I’m jazzed to be speaking with you again. Thanks for taking some time. I hear you just got back from travelling, so how was that and how’ve you been?
SJ: Well, for the last 6 months, I’ve been with Michael Bay doing, well you know what, *laughs* but generally after a big Transformers film I plan a big break afterwards. So I have a few months off to do the little things I need to do.
GST: You have a great relationship with Michael Bay and this score is awesome. But when you finished the trilogy, did you think you were done with Transformers? What were your first thoughts when Michael wanted to continue the series and did you have any hesitation about getting back into it?
SJ: No I didn’t have any hesitation. Michael has done so much for me that whenever he calls, no matter what the project is, I’m happy to do it. It was interesting because he said “let’s treat this as something new”. I knew it was going to be different because of the new cast but Michael wanted something completely new. And I thought that was great because it’s kind of a blessing to do something new, well I speak for myself, but as a composer I don’t want to just take the old music and throw around to see if it works. That might have worked but I thought it would have been far less interesting so I really enjoyed having a blank slate.
Eventually we, very selectively, wove in some old pieces, but for the most part this is all new and I like that a lot more. I know there are a lot of fans who wish we call back more old themes but for being the fourth film in the series we thought it was time to do something different. And I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback that people are liking it. Other people want to hear what they’re familiar with so you can’t please everyone but we’re happy with it and it felt like the right thing to do.
GST: You use the term “call back” which is exactly what I wanted to talk about. There were some portions of the old cues in tracks like “The Legend Exists” and even “Have Faith Prime” that help tie the films together and certainly please some of the older crowd, so to speak.
SJ: Right, we talked about doing that and we picked our moments. There was one really cool moment when Optimus Prime pulls out his sword and that seemed like the appropriate time to go back and go old school! *laughs*
GST: You developed a new sound for this installment and did something different with the album release too. In this case the soundtrack has both an EP and an LP which came out after the movie was released right?
SJ: On films like this, because they’re so huge and there’s so many things that need to come together, this one got a little bit behind, not musically, just visually. The CGI effects were coming in late so everyone kind of got pushed right up to the end. We were frantically working to get it done and I didn’t have time to focus on the soundtrack. So we only started working on that a couple weeks before the movie came out.
It takes a little bit longer than that to compile the soundtrack, do the masters and get it out on iTunes and then have them approve it or whatever their processes is. So we were close, we got it out the week after. But in this case we did something interesting and I thought it was cool that we did an EP to begin with which was just four tracks and really it was just a teaser. Then, shortly after that, the full album came out. The two albums have completely different material.
GST: This fourth film was a little darker than the last three. While Dark of the Moon had a threatening and ominous feel, Age of Extinction felt heavier. The music sounded less heroic and more ethereal and foreboding. What did you want to start with after reading the script or seeing the rough cut?
SJ: That’s funny you say rough cut, because I never really get to see a rough cut with Michael Bay until I’ve been writing for a month or two at least. Generally he’ll call me in when he has a scene or two that he’s happy with. He’ll show it to me and we’ll just talk about it musically and get into some broader ideas. But it’s a slow process. On different films I might sit down with the director and watch through from beginning to end but because of the nature of these Transformers movies, where they’re not really finished until the very end, I don’t get that luxury of watching it from start to finish. I get these little bits and I try to go off of certain keywords when I go back to my studio and start writing.
On this one he just wanted something different, he didn’t tell me to write it to be a certain way. He just said he wanted something different, and I know with him it’s gotta be big, emotional and epic. We hear epic a lot. Now you can’t get overly heroic with these movies because you don’t want to get cartoony, so you just try to keep it noble.
For Age of Extinction I made a lot of new sounds in addition to music. I brought in my brother who set up his drum kit in my studio and we just experimented for a couple days trying some different drum sounds. I piled up these new sounds and started working on ideas and themes to send to Michael to get his input and see what he likes. There is one theme in particular on the EP called “Autobots Reunite”.
I wrote that piece and set it aside. Then later, when I listened to it the next day, I thought it sounded a little too much like the other films. But the next thing I knew Michael had cut it into that scene. I said “I was concerned about sending it to you” but he said, “No, this is great!”. I realized then that I was too concerned that nothing could sound like the old movies. But that kind of opened the door a little bit when he responded positively. So I decided that we could find a line between the old and the new. With Michael there’s only a few guidelines and keywords. As long as it’s “cool”, he says that a lot *laughs*, that’s really my only motivation when I’m working.
And like I said, when I’m writing he will send me scenes and I will just have them loop on my screen just to give me some inspiration. I’m not really scoring them, I just look over them to inspire me while I’m writing. Once the film it is more edited together then I can actually jump in and start scoring. But I start so early with him I can’t start scoring to picture because there really isn’t any picture for me to score yet.
GST: Last time we talked you said sometimes you’d start writing and by the time you saw the actual footage none of it may actually fit the film.
SJ: Yeah, that happened several times on this because when I’m writing, and even when it is to picture, most of the time there were no robots at all. It was just blank space with the camera panning around from explosion to future special effect. You can hear some sound effects but when Michael would ask me to look at the clips I would just have to imagine and write in broad strokes because I couldn’t see anything. That was the most challenging part, just keeping up with picture changes. I would write for a scene and then a week later I would see it re-cut and find I’d have to rework it to better fit the new images…
But it’s the nature of this kind of movie. So much of it is computer generated. There’s so much effects work that it makes it difficult for me and the sound design guys actually because they can’t see what they are supposed to be adding sound to either. We’re in the same boat. At the end, when all the effects have come in, it’s like a frantic rush to get our jobs done. I really kicked it up and every day we’d get three or four rushes of the film with new imagery and so it really amped up the intensity until we basically ran out of time.
GST: You bring up something I also wanted to ask about, when I said “ethereal” I meant that the music was more of a blanket theme. The mood was there but I didn’t feel that was specifically tailored to the beats of the robots and beats of the action. It was kind of like a music video while the chaos played out. So was that because you couldn’t see what you were scoring to?
SJ: That has some to do with it. Michael and I like the approach you’re talking about, but Michael’s action scenes are so big, and there’s so much going on, and so, over the years, we’ve found that if the music is also just raging and hitting everything it’s a little much for the audience. It’s easy for the music to get lost because it’s hitting things while the sound effects are hitting things.
So longer musical phrases that play through cuts of the film are the best choice. They work better because the melodies play through and don’t get lost in the scene. Michael has never been a fan of, and this is a derogatory term I know, the more cartoony scoring approach – where you are playing to every single beat and hitting everything. He’s never really been into that so it’s more about mood and emotion with him…as long as he’s “feeling it”, like he says, that’s the most important thing.
GST: Transformers: Age of Extinction found you working with Imagine Dragons and Skrillex, so what was the breakdown of responsibilities and who worked on what part of the score?
SJ: We were about halfway through the process when I first heard that the Imagine Dragons had written a song for the movie. Linkin Park wrote songs for the last three films and they’re great but it was good to have a different voice for this one, especially since we were trying so many different things. So they sent me the song and I really liked it and I immediately heard what I could do with it in terms of score. I think it was Michael Bay who said “Let’s get them down here. You can meet and see what happens”.
Now for being huge rock stars, those guys are just super nice and down to Earth. Three of them are actually Berkeley graduates and the drummer is a film score graduate, so they are real, real musicians. They totally got into it and aside from the song they wrote, they actually performed on my themes. I played them some of my stuff and they put some really cool vocals on one of the main themes.
GST: The track called “Tessa” right?
SJ: Yeah, exactly. That’s one that I played them and they added vocals and a viola and some other instruments to it. When they were done I took that and put it in several different scenes. I really enjoyed seeing how the music can be made better just by jamming on top of what I wrote. I went to their studio in Vegas and spent a couple days there so when we were done I had this huge library of stuff, their elements, that I could use to finish scoring the movie. Now with Skrillex, he moved into my studio for a week and he did mostly sound design. I don’t think anybody knew quite what he was going to do because all they said was “Skrillex wants to come down” and I said “ok great!”.
He’s super nice and super talented. It’s awesome to watch him, just like the other guys, and you can see why they’re both so successful. But he just brought his laptop in, I plugged it into my console and that’s literally all he has – just the laptop. He opened it up and just started making these crazy sounds.
He gravitated towards and was having more fun doing sound design. It might seem surprising, but he didn’t do anything that was musical. I used some of the sounds he made on certain tracks but we actually gave pretty much everything else to the sound design team to use as mechanical noises, like doors opening, one robot punching another robot, all kinds of stuff scattered throughout the film.
Since he didn’t do any music, what he started to do was remix a couple of my themes making these great mash-ups and we were like “oh my God, this is so cool!!”. That day his album went to number one on the charts and then he disappeared and went on concert and we never heard from again. *laughs* We’re still trying to get that mix back. *laughs* But he travels like crazy, every day he’s in another country it seems like.
GST: So you’ve finished one trilogy, and this is the first installment in what might be a new series maybe? Has there been talk about what’s ahead?
SJ: Maybe. I literally have no idea. If they do, they haven’t mentioned it to me yet. I don’t even know if Michael would want to do that, but then again, I didn’t think he wanted to do a fourth one and he didn’t either. But they made this one so you never know with him what’s going to happen.
GST: Well don’t worry, I’m not trying to pry any info out of you or get an exclusive. *laughs* I’m just curious about your creative process. I’m wondering, if you knew there would be more films, or a new trilogy, would you start to develop themes to carry through to future installments?
SJ: I think I might run into issues if I started to think like that and plan ahead for movies that may or may not happen. I really just focus on what’s in front of me. But if another movie happens I’ll take what I’ve done and adapt it or do something new or whatever.
I just treat each film as its own thing. If they had told me there will be a 5th and 6th film I don’t think I would have done anything different. If Michael said “I want you to develop a theme that we can bring up in a later film” I may have done that but then again Bay is not that type of person. But it’s a good question, I’ve never been asked that before.
GST: Now while I adore Steamboy and The Island I really think Dark of the Moon is your best work. That said, it’s tough to get much more heroic than the “Arrival to Earth” theme for the Autobots in the first movie, but I love how you’e expanded the sound over the next two films.
SJ: Well thanks Marc. A lot of people dwell on that theme and they always ask me “are you going to write something like that again?” and my response is “not in a Transformers movie” because we will never have a scene like that again. We were introduced to the Autobots in that scene and so at this point we’ve seen so much of them and so much action that we can never get back to that sense of wonder like “Oh my God! I’ve never seen anything like that before”. Every film has been totally different. In that first one we introduced a lot of things so there was more room for lyrical melodies whereas in the other films, it’s just like balls-out action from 10 minutes in and raging action right til the very end.
That’s kind of what the movies are at this point. But I’m glad you like Dark of the Moon so much. It’s funny, I get a pretty even mix of people who like each film’s music. People like them all equally which to me is great because that means there’s something out there for everybody.
GST: Steve, again, it’s been a blast catching up with you and I just love listening to you talk about your work. So to wrap this up I’ve got two quick and easy questions. Do you have a favorite Transformers movie and do you have a favorite Transformers character?
SJ: I really like the one we just did but I think the first Transformers is still my favorite just because we got introduced to these awesome robot aliens from another planet and, like I was saying before, we are never going to get that back. We’ve been kind of spoiled in the other films but that one was kind of special because it was the first. Also, it was just a pleasure for me to work on something that was so highly anticipated. It was a little terrifying having to come up with themes to introduce these reinvented characters to a new audience but still fun and very rewarding.
And favorite character? Well it’s only because I just did this movie, but I think I’d have to say Lockdown. He’s pretty badass. I just missed the Transformers when I was young. My younger brother was all into it so I went into this series knowing what they were, obviously, but not having a connection to any of the characters or the history. So when we started I just found I liked the cooler, more badass guys.
Grimlock is pretty cool but I just like Lockdown. People ask me this all the time and they expect me to say Bumblebee for some reason. *laughs* He’s great too, but I just go for the less obvious answer. And truthfully, I had the most fun writing his theme so that’s probably another reason. He gave me a lot to work with, as far as inspiration goes anyway…
GST: …and his face turns into a cannon! *laughs*
SJ: *laughs*A giant cannon. Total badass! *Laughs*
GST: Well thanks again Steve and enjoy your time off!
SJ: Thank you Marc, great to talk with you again. Have a good weekend!
Thanks again to Steve for his time and input. If you missed it, check out Part I, II and III of our 90 minute session with Steve from last year where we talk about Ender’s Game, Steamboy, his big break into film music and more stories working with Michael Bay.
Transformers: Age of Extinction is currently in theaters and both albums are out now.