Megan McLachlan speaks with Academy Award winner Steven Price about supplying the musical score for Netflix’s documentary series Our Planet.
Netflix’s documentary series Our Planet scored 10 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. It also made history, by becoming one of the first nominees in a new category: Outstanding Music Composition for a Documentary Series or Special.
I had a chance to speak with Our Planet composer Steven Price, who also won the Academy Award for Gravity, about how he scored the environment, what he hopes the documentary does for climate change, and why Richard Attenborough is the soundtrack’s leading instrument.
Awards Daily: How does it feel to be one of the first nominees for the new category OUTSTANDING MUSIC COMPOSITION FOR A DOCUMENTARY SERIES OR SPECIAL?
Steven Price: Oh, it was a thrill! A real surprise. I’ve never been involved in anything at the Emmys before, so that’s a really exciting thing. And really the great thing from my point of view and everyone associated with Our Planet is the fact that it brought a bit more attention to the show. We’re all really proud of the show and the message of the show. So it was a great day. We got 10 nominations for the show as a whole, so lots of people you’ve worked with for a long time, having a nice day together.
AD: Your score for Our Planet is gorgeous. It’s as beautiful and as intricate as our environment the documentary depicts. What inspired you with the score? What was the creative process like?
SP: Really the great thing about the show is that the visuals are obviously amazing, and these people have spent four or five years in the field getting the most amazing footage. And then by the time I get to see these things, everything’s there on screen really. The inspiration all comes from how it looks, the colors—each environment sounds very different to me and made me use different instruments. Within each sequence in the show, there was a very clear story. Everything was planned out so beautifully, that when I got involved, it was a joy. Every couple of days was like starting a new film, but knowing it was going to connect with this big old tapestry of the whole series. It was a lovely, lovely project to work on. The people who run the show were really great with music and support music a lot.
AD: Did you use certain instruments for certain animals or certain things?
SP: It was more the environment that seemed to lead it. The frozen world being so white and reflective made me write in more extended sequences, glacial sounds from strings or woodwinds or more synthetic things. Then you go to the jungle and everything was more intimate, lots of small movements and close-up photography, and that made you write in a different sort of way. More notes, more punctuated. Every time I looked at a new episode, it started off with a whole new look. It was one of the those shows that if I looked at the screen long enough, it told me what to do.
AD: This series was filmed over four years. When did you come in and start working on it?
SP: I had had conversations with the filmmakers when they were starting and then I went in a couple of years into the process and they showed me some early footage. They basically sat me in front of the rushes of some of the sequences they were getting excited about. So I started writing a couple of years before I really started getting involved in the nitty-gritty of all of the episodes. And then it was the last year of the whole process when I was really, really involved in it every day, looking at the final sequences. Because I had been involved for quite a long time, I had been thinking about it in the background. I had this sketch pad of ideas I would note down, potentially for Our Planet if this happens. It was interesting to see which one of those made it to the end.
AD: The music never really stops throughout the film. How challenging was that? Is it like scoring eight movies?
SP: I think it was 6 and a half in the end. There are themes that recur, the Our Planet overall theme. Then within each episode, each film itself, had its own theme that would recur. Really you can never reuse anything because everything in those films was so specific. We wanted it to feel like every scene had been given its full attention. It wasn’t just a lot of music, but there was something great about it. The whole show had a lot of momentum to it. I was scoring a film every month for an eight-month period. If you have a bad day, you knew you were going to fall off the cliff very quickly. It was very, very busy and there were moments in the middle of the series where you thought, “Am I going to make this?” And there was something really exciting about writing music one week and knowing you’re going to record it with this amazing orchestra next week.
AD: Richard Attenborough is also nominated for Outstanding Narrator on Our Planet. When you have a narrator, do you try to tailor the music at all to go with the narrator’s voice?
SP: I see Sir David’s voice as the lead instrument really. He has such a beautiful, musical way of speaking as well. The way he phrases things is really helpful to me. Sometimes I didn’t have his final voice-over when I was writing, but I had an approximation of it, and that was a bit more difficult because you were guessing what Sir David would do. But then in those episodes, you’d record your music and put it up against the picture, and he would go in and do his narration, and he would listen to the music as he was doing that. So he was actually kind of performing against the music, and he’s incredible at placing his words exactly where you’d want him to place them as a musician. He’s really musical in the way he approaches it. So sometimes I have this thing where I have his words first and I work around that, and other times it was the other way around. I like it both ways.
AD: What do you hope Our Planet does for audiences? I love how in the beginning it addresses climate change and to spur the world to change.
SP: The hope for all of us is that it starts a conversation. What I learned from the show is what’s happening in all of these interrelating environments, the trouble we’re in, how things must change on every level. There’s that hope that it being on Netflix and being seen by a lot of people, that that conversation would develop a real momentum. The hope that it becomes a real focus, politically impossible for people to ignore anymore. It was a huge hope that a show like this could make a difference in the real world. And that’s what the filmmakers and I were always talking about during the whole process, and fingers crossed, hopefully things do start to change.
AD: You’ve worked on every kind of project. A superhero film (Suicide Squad), a horror flick (Attack the Block), and of course Gravity, which you won an Academy Award for. Is there any type of movie or project you haven’t worked on that you’re eager to work on?
SP: I spend my whole life basically looking for things that are going to scare the life out of me. The biggest challenge is always the thing you haven’t done yet. I’d love to do a Western or a comedy. I’ve never done a tense thriller. I love my job, and I love the act of sitting there trying to work things out, the weird feeling when the music suddenly starts to talk to the picture in a way where you can feel the whole room lighting up.
Our Planet is now streaming on Netflix.