Just as the voting closes for this week’s Oscars, I had the chance to catch up with Ruben Feffer. Feffer is wrapping up a vacation, but he still had time to talk about composing Boy and the World.
The animated feature is nominated for an Oscar. Containing very little dialogue, music is integral to the plot. I spoke to Feffer about the challenges of composing a film purely reliant on its score.
Awards Daily: There’s very little dialogue in the film, so music is integral to the film. What did Ale Abreu tell you about the film.
Ruben Feffer: When we first started, we had a very rough version of the film. Barely animated, barely visible, and hard to understand what was going on in the storyline. We had a sense though of how important the music would be. It was clear that the whole story of the flute would be the way the father would communicate, and the way the boy hears music and follows it. So, that whole aspect of the importance of music was very present from the start. Ale wasn’t sure from the beginning if there would be dialogue or not, so we knew the music would be a character in itself.
AD: How much of a challenge was it composing the score knowing that?
RF: The whole process is one big challenge after another. The responsibility of people understanding and enjoying the movie was on our heads. We were aware of the responsibility. If we had one wrong note, you could change the whole sense of a scene. One wrong note and a dramatic scene becomes comedic. The exact placement of music was a very long discussion and we had many revisions to get to the final result where the music fit in and told the story perfectly. It was even physically challenging.
AD: And it took how long? Two years?
RF : Two years to do.
AD: So, talk to me about working with another composer, how do you divide the work for this?
RF: Gustavo Kurlat and I had already worked together before, so we knew our labor divisions. We actually work like a team, discussing things. A big part of our work is translating what the director wants. So we talked to him about that, talked to each other, did tests, and showed him the work to see if that’s what he wanted.
It’s like a language, translating from the animator, the the language of music and then back. We would sit in and one would hum the melody. My formation is more piano and electronics. Gustavo is more guitar and singing so we really compliment each other.
He would play something on guitar, and I’d do something on the accordion and he’d sing something.
We started by finding the music the flute would play. It had to be realistic. It had to be a simple, catchy and emotive melody. Once we found that and created that, we constructed the rest of the score based on variations of that theme. We’d change rhythm, instrumentation. We’d get the essence of one idea or another. It’s almost like a modular approach.
Another challenge was the musical directing because we had to work with several musicians and groups of artists. We worked with Nana Vasconcelos, who’s a talented Brazilian percussionist. He does vocal percussions. Also Barbatuques did vocal percussions and they did the percussions for Rio.
AD: I was going to say, how was it working with these great guests, and how did that help your creative process?
RF: Actually, it was really challenging, because we wanted one identity where we all follow the story. We didn’t want to over do anything, we wanted to keep subtle. Take Gravity for example, you hear all the music and you’re anticipating something is about to happen. We had to go the other way and not let the music spoil the story. So, that was a challenge.
Also the concept of the integration between sound design and music. The sound design was constructed using musical elements too. It was a wish by the director. He wanted the viewer to be unable to associate what was music and what was a sound effect. So sometimes you’re hearing a flute melody and it’s not really a flute melody but a bird in the forest. That bird is actually a flute melody and it’s part of a bigger melody, and it all fuses together, and it separates again. It’s crazy.
AD: Who influenced your in scoring the film?
RF: From the beginning we researched, we didn’t want the music to be local to any one culture. It wasn’t American, it wasn’t Latin. We researched gypsy music, Japanese music, all these different styles, and we deconstructed a lot of different styles.
AD: Now the film is nominated for an Oscar.
RF: It’s completely awesome. I’m so happy because it’s an Oscar for the film, and the music. Anyone who sees it knows I too get rewarded because the music carries the movie too. I’m really happy.
Also, are you aware the dialogue is inverted Portuguese?
AD: No, I wasn’t. A really good friend of mine is actually Portuguese, and I thought it might be.
RF: No, it’s not. It’s actually inverted because no one can understand it. She won’t understand a single word.
AD: I did wonder about that.
RF: The whole script was written and reversed. We had a great vocal director who made sure you would hear it but no one would understand it, but you would feel it.
AD: That’s absolutely fascinating! Thank you for the chat. Enjoy the rest of your time on vacation.