Steven Price is an Oscar and BAFTA-winning composer for Gravity who latest score is the Netflix animated film Over the Moon. Here in an interview with Awards Daily, Price discusses the different process involved in working with director and animator Glen Keane and how this process helped express the characters through the music and image. Price also reveals the different instruments used in creating his score. Finally, we couldn’t resist asking about the experience of winning some of the top film awards in the world.
Over the Moon is now streaming on Netflix.
Awards Daily: What visuals did you have on hand when you started composing your score?
Steven Price: Well, I had quite a lot by the time the real writing started. But I started writing a year before that, just on the basis of reading the script, and meeting with Glen Keane. I saw some of the main characters’ designs and saw some glimpse of Lunaria and what they were planning on doing with that, this kind of neon world they were creating. I saw enough to get me excited and start me playing with themes. By the time I came on to write the score proper they were in good shape. The film was quite developed by then so I was working with the animation to quite a degree.
AD: I read that, in your meeting with Glen Keane, he spoke emotions through his characters like the way their hair was or their eyes. Did that change your approach in how you wrote your music?
SP: What was interesting about it is the way he could express to me what characters’ motivations and background were through his own experimenting. It was just this brilliant way of talking to someone involving totally different forms of art—his was drawing, mine was music. It was brilliant in the way it just worked. He would tell me a little detail about the way he drew a curve on an eyebrow of Fei Fei for example, how this was showing him something about her character. When he did that with his line he felt that you got a little inside the character. And it just answered loads of questions for me, so I would then get a sense of what he was going for. He would have done that line, he would have done her hair more spiky, because she’s so energetic and full of vigor.
That said a lot about what her music had to be. It had to be like a coiled spring in a lot of cases; she was constantly looking for adventure, and always thinking. It was brilliant having those conversations with Glen because he has been through it before. He’s already had so many battles in trying to find the characters, So him telling me what he went through, meant that I could get straight into the character he developed. It was a really nice way of working, very different than I’ve done before.
AD: You used a lot of traditional Chinese instruments, namely the guzheng and erhu. What was your experience using these instruments? Had you done something with these before?
SP: I hadn’t specifically worked with Chinese instrumentation before, but one of the things I love about my job is that each project you kinda find different instruments, you find the voice of the film. With something so based on Chinese mythology it was obvious that Chinese instrumentation was a place to look. We were really keen not to go the cliched Hollywood route, to avoid having the western style orchestra with a couple of solo Chinese instruments on top and just call that your Chinese score. But once we had the conversation earlier on about not wanting to do that it led me to use those instruments textually and layered, which I like to do anyways, making the thread of those instruments going right through the score, but not in a conventional kind of way.
So I recorded those instruments you mentioned very early on, and then played with them really, and they became these textures and this world I could play in. When I started building these textures up that helped me write the melodies and that sort of thing. It wasn’t far away from the way I write things for a film in trying to find its voice. It’s just one of those things as a palette that I haven’t explored before. That influenced everything from the scales you wrote and harmonies you wrote and other things, and it was a lot of fun. And brilliant to hear them play as well because these musicians are incredible, and we don’t get to experience that music as much.
AD: Did you have challenges doing this through COVID? Were you in the same studio at all?
SP: Basically my big intense writing period started in January and I went to LA during that period. I spent time with the filmmakers, at that time it was going to be a pretty normal process, and I was going to see them in London in May or June in these sessions that we booked at Abbey Road. Then gradually, as we started going through the process, the pandemic was hitting. For a while we still thought we would be able to record in London. Because it felt like London was opening up in late May, early June, but it was just too soon. It wasn’t safe to do so. So we ended up recording the orchestra for the film in Vienna and that was done remotely, with me sitting in my studio in London and the filmmakers in LA and New York and the musicians all in Vienna. It was amazing how well it worked, because it was terrifying at my end because I’ve always been in the room and I’ve always been able to just go in with the person and say it would be nice if you played it like this. Just these nice, kind of one-on-one chats that make the difference. You couldn’t do those anymore.
But everyone was great, everyone was in the same situation so there was a real spirit about it. A lot of those musicians hadn’t worked in months because of the pandemic so when we did show up with our score for this film, which is so well meaning and so emotional, and the score itself is full of melody, it is quite heartfelt, I think there was a sense of great relief in the room that we’re all getting to do this again even if it was a bit difficult. We did get to record some of the solos back in London and I mixed those in afterward. It was complicated but, looking back on it, there was an enjoyment as well. We have to make music in a time when we didn’t think we’d be able to make music so that was great.
AD: Are things getting easier in London now? I saw that the vaccine has been approved over there. Are you getting back into your studio or over at Abbey Road again?
SP: I’ve recorded another project with social distancing and all the rules in place. We are just on that long road. The vaccine has started to roll out here but there are a huge amount of people who need that vaccine first: the elderly, people working at hospitals. It’s going to take a long long time for it to roll out. We are by no means at the end of this thing, and we have learned so much about how to work during all of this. The studio did close for a period in the spring here but they have been open since July. We just keep practicing the safe measures and gradually it will get easier. We have all learned a lot about how grateful we are for what is the normal sort of work day. We took it for granted so long that you could go into a studio with all these people and not even think twice. We had a shock this year just like everyone else. I think we’ll always be very aware how lucky we are.
AD: It has been in my mind because the London Philharmonic performed for The Game Awards at Abbey Road, and seeing the social distancing in the studio. And it was greatly appreciated because the orchestra is very important for that show.
SP: I know it sounds great, none of us knew when we started going back into the studio what an orchestra playing with social distancing would be, and we’ve had great results. And the players are so happy to be back there’s been a lot of spirit in that place. We are all missing the social side of it where we can have a drink in the bar together afterward. None of that anymore, but hopefully it comes back.
AD: So you had to mix your score with nine original songs. What was the process like mixing your different styles together?
SP: By the time I came on board the songs were already in place, they are always part of the film that I saw. For me the role of the score for this was to make the soundtrack as a whole feel like one piece. The songs are varied, a lot of different things going on. One is more Broadway, another Pop, even a rap piece at one point. So I felt the need for the score was to weave through all those seamlessly. My team recorded the orchestra part of the songs, which I think helped bring things together into the same kind of language. Really the score was there to hopefully weave seamlessly between those songs, but also hold the hand of the audience as we go through this adventure. The score really did follow the lead character, so I got to carry a lot of the emotional moments in the film, which was a great pleasure for me.
AD: The songs were a big surprise for me with all the different variety and it really worked because, if one wasn’t my style, there was always something else there that did work.
SP: I think it reflects how the film takes you from a very traditional Chinese town to this insane kind of world. The Lunaria thing was really bold, and that was one of the things I liked about the film when I first read it, because it wasn’t what you expected. Once you got off the ground you got into this world that was insane. Some of those sequences are almost psychedelic.
AD: You touched on liking to play with different instruments and styles. Is there a genre of music that you haven’t gotten a chance to use yet but you’d like to?
SP: I’ve got a big instinct to do more intimate dramas. I’ve done quite a lot of things on a large scale, space epics, or things like Over the Moon where there’s a big sweep to it. A lot of stuff I’ve done in natural history has had quite an epic sort of scale to it. I love the idea of doing things on a character beat. I’ve done a lot of films recently that have been much smaller in scale and instrumentation. I’ve gotten to play with individual musicians and write for a very specific kind of sound. I enjoy everything that I get to do but that’s on my list of things to endeavor next and I haven’t really done much of that, so I hope that comes up.
AD: As an awards watcher, I just have to ask what was going through your head when you won the Oscar and the BAFTA?
SP: It was just surreal, you know. One little thing about the whole experience was that the film was blessed with a lot of nominations. People on that team had all gotten really close in the time we worked together on the film. So we were all there together, and we were all first timers, at least in the awards world, so we just had this experience together. When the BAFTA happened, we had lost at the Golden Globes so I had no expectations, it was lovely to be there but we didn’t expect to win. So when it did happen it was just great, you just felt pride that such a lovely thing happened for a film that you were really really proud of. That was the thing for all of us. We were really proud of the work we had done, and felt happy that we got the opportunity to be part of it. So the whole thing turned into a lovely experience. Looking back on it I just wished I had looked up more because you are so nervous in those situations you don’t really look around you very much. The experience just sort of flies by you, but it was a really special time and I still find it hard to believe that it actually happened and I am really grateful it did happen.
AD: Do you watch the movies you score after they are all finished to see how everything came together?
SP: Yes, I love that bit, I love the distance that you get. I finished a film last week and I saw the final version of that. When you are so close to finishing the work you hear every little detail. Then, a few months down the line or whenever these films come out, you are a little further away from it. You can kinda start (though it is never exactly the same as if you hadn’t worked on the film because you remember all the little things that went into it) to see it like a viewer, and it is great to see how the whole thing fell together. You can see if that moment you were worried about worked quite well or sometimes the other way around. I really like seeing people’s reaction to things. I think we are all looking forward to getting the theatrical experience back so we do get that sense of people in a room seeing something for the first time. That is what I am most excited about, having films back in theaters, as we get away from this pandemic, and we can start having that shared experience again.