The making of “The Grave Bandits” score (or “What did I get myself into?!”)


I came on board “The Grave Bandits” project in June of 2011. I submitted the last cue for the score sometime mid-October of 2012, via an email at around 3:30 AM late one night. At the time, director Tyrone Acierto was in the Philippines, getting closer to wrapping up the project, so I figured that if I waited to send it until morning, he wouldn’t get it until later that night because of the time difference. So I opted to send it late at night so they’d receive it during their afternoon to save some time. Besides, I’m used to working late into the night every now and then (a bad habit I picked up in college).

Everything that happened between my first meeting with Ty and that last night when I submitted the last audio file is kind of a blur now, but I know there were many, many more nights of working late. By the way, the parentheses in the blog post title is just a joke–for the most part, I think working on this film was a positive learning experience, but I’d be lying if I said that I never asked myself, “Why, WHY did I get myself into this?!” And this wasn’t because I regretted taking on this project–it was more due to self-doubt, since this was my first full-length film project. Self-doubt (and occasional panic) happens to everyone from time to time.

It was during my first meeting with the director that I got my first look at some film footage. On the days leading up to the meeting, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew this was a “zombie movie,” I knew it was a full-length feature, and I knew that it had been shot on location in the Philippines. I also knew that the protagonists were two kids, but other than that, I didn’t know much. Since this was an independent film, I guess I expected it to have a very “low budget” look to it–not that I am knocking independent films. I’ve seen some impressive independent films with modest budgets, but I’ve also seen some pretty bad ones (that look like they were shot with a camcorder or iPhone) and some that tried to be “bigger” than they were (I’m thinking of “mockmusters”…ugh).

The first thing that came to mind when I started watching the footage was, “Wow, this is pretty good.” The footage was still pretty rough, and it was a low-resolution file viewed on a laptop screen, but despite that I could tell that this wasn’t what I was expecting. The sampler was only about 45 minutes long, and I found myself getting into the story right away–and at the end I was left wanting to watch the rest of the film! I am no film production expert, but what impressed me the most was the “look” of the film (the colors, lighting, etc.), and the camera angles and overall directing style. It certainly didn’t look like a modest-budget film to me. (When I finally got a hold of the entire film, I was also impressed by the actors’ performances, but I’ll elaborate on that in a later blog post…). Also, the visuals and locations were simply stunning, with many breathtaking shots of sunrises and sunsets over the ocean.

The other thing that really grabbed my attention were the zombies themselves. They were scary as hell–and having scary zombies is kind of important in a zombie movie!

When watching raw footage of films-in-progress (or deleted scenes in the DVD or Bluray special features) there are points in the movie when we suddenly realize that something is missing–that “something” is usually the music. As I was watching this sampler, it was pretty obvious which scenes would definitely need music, and what type of music they would need (for example, there were several action/scary scenes in the sampler). So I knew that these scenes needed music, and I could kind of hear or feel the “flavor” of the music in my head–the fun (i.e. difficult) part would be to actually come up with the music.

Since there really wasn’t a “locked” film yet, I couldn’t start composing and syncing the music to the picture just yet, so we agreed that a good start would be to come up with some themes for the main characters, a few musical pieces that capture different aspects of the characters. Honestly, this is the part of the process that I enjoy the most. Expressing emotions in music is fun–if we want to express “happiness” or “sadness,” there is musical language we can turn to that most people will understand. But human beings are more complex than that. For example, we might have a hero that goes about his business with great reluctance, or we might have someone that’s excited to leave on a journey, but sad because of what she’s leaving behind. Trying to express combinations of these emotions or ideas in music is challenging, but when the end result works, we wind up with, in my opinion, much more interesting music.

So the characters…

Romy and Peewee – The main characters of the film, orphaned kids that make a living robbing from graves. So right away it’s obvious that the music has to express the sadness of their situation. These characters’ lives is reality for countless children around the world, so the music had to respect that. But since there is a comedy element to the film, there are also some “mischievous” and “fun” themes, especially for Peewee. Romy is a little more complicated, and there are more grown-up elements (like greed and anger) to him which develops later in the film.

Maiya – The girl that holds the secret of the zombies. Ty and I agreed that her theme had to be more “natural” sounding, so no synths and guitars, and more flutes and other woodwinds. Also, Maiya is involved in some pretty intense actions scenes, so her themes had to evolve and become more energetic and active, while still retaining the softer sound introduced with the character. Actually, most of the initial material I came up with was Maiya-related, as one Maiya action theme evolved into another, and another…

Seabrook – The mad scientist hellbent on finding the secret of the zombies. For this character, I thought it would be fun to imagine an Indiana Jones-type of character gone mad, seduced by the treasure he seeks. This approach, and the character’s backstory, led to some interesting material.

The Zombies – Scary, visceral, unnatural… For the zombies, the music was more “sounds” rather than traditional melodic themes, although we did incorporate some interesting musical techniques. Also, I don’t want to give away too much of the story for those that haven’t seen the film, but some characters “turn” zombie at some point in the film, so their themes change accordingly.

The above is pretty much a summary of my notes from our first meeting. I got to work on some of the themes that very evening. Also, I’m pretty sure that evening was the first time I asked myself, “What did I get myself into?!” Before it was all over, I asked myself that many more times, but in the end it was all worth it!

In a later post I will tackle some of the specific themes for each character…