The making of “The Grave Bandits” score – Part II

Films are, first and foremost, about characters, so that is the starting point for the music (after all, I don’t know too many people that go to the movies just to listen to the music). So getting a feel for the characters and understanding their motivations is important if we want to come up with meaningful music. There are various aspects to each character–for example, Romy, the oldest of the “grave bandits,” is essentially a good person, but he is also somewhat motivated by greed, and so this aspect finds its way into his musical themes. After the themes for each of the characters are developed, we suddenly have a good amount of material, and a better feel for what the entire score for the film will sound like, even if some of the material winds up being cut or is never used (that is the way things go sometimes).

On to the characters…






Romy and Peewee are the “Grave Bandits,” as they’ve come to be known by the media and the people from the towns they’ve “visited” (i.e grave robbed). When we first meet them, they’re in the middle of one of their operations; Romy is digging up a grave, while Peewee is acting as a lookout from a tree. This is the first time we the audience see the Grave Bandits, and we meet them right after a very intense opening scene, so the first musical cues we hear are lighthearted, playful, and mischievous to lighten the mood a bit (as heard in the track “Meet the Grave Bandits”).


There is also a very sad reality to these characters, and the track “Romy and Peewee” expresses some of that. But despite their situation, both characters still have dreams. The track opens with Romy’s theme on acoustic guitars, and then near the end we hear Peewee’s theme in the piano.





Maiya is one of the first characters we see in the film. When we first meet her, she is being held against her will by a band of pirates, hired by Seabrook, who are looking for the Gemstone. She is the character that reveals the secret of the Gemstone and the Zombies as the story moves along. A lot of the material I wrote early on for the film was Maiya-related, and this did a good job at setting the mood for the rest of the film. The track “Maiya’s Story” has her main themes, which are driven by the woodwinds (flutes) and strings (cellos). Her main theme is played by a Xiao, a Chinese bamboo flute with a beautiful, expressive sound (we hear this around the middle of the track).





Seabrook is a researcher that has become obsessed with finding the Gemstone. When the film opens, we find him with the band of pirates he hired to capture Maiya to force the location of the Gemstone from her. There is quite a bit of Seabrook material that, unfortunately, didn’t make it to the final cut of the film (yup, that’s the way things go). “Red Moon” is a compilation of some of this material. Most of it is in demo form, so please excuse the rougher, unfinished quality to the sound! The track opens with the “Red Moon” theme (btw, the term “Red Moon” comes from a conversation the director and I had about this character’s back story), which is played by the brass. Then we have a few variations of the “Indiana Jones gone bad” theme. One motif that did make it to the film was the up-and-down piano line, which came to symbolize Seabrook’s obsession (the “film version” of this piano line is also heard in “Maiya’s Story”).


In Part III, I’ll discuss some of the action themes–and the Zombie themes! Stay tuned…


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“Terminator: Messiah”

From my Soundcloud page:

” Terminator: Messiah” A track inspired by the Terminator franchise. (Terminator theme by Brad Fiedel). After the intro, my Terminator theme comes in at around 2:10. I tried to capture the flavor of Fiedel’s theme–in particular the “machine heartbeat” percussion sound–without actually ripping it off.

At 6:47, John Connor’s Messiah theme comes in. The goal was to highlight an aspect of the John Connor myth that I don’t think has been emphasized enough in the films or the series.

And I close with Brad Fiedel’s well-known theme. I hope he doesn’t sue me.

This track is a couple of years old. I’ve been listening to some of the older stuff  on my Soundcloud page (organizing my material, trying to decide what to keep, what to clean up, and what to throw away–good-bye, bad wanna-be-Metallica-song-with-bad-guitar-playing-by-me!) when this track caught my ear again. It’s far from perfect, and if I had to re-do it, there are a few things I’d probably change. But I’ve decided that I’d rather move forward and not try too hard to change the past. I’m an endless tweaker, and I could probably spend the rest of my life tweaking, adjusting, re-mixing, etc. the same song, over and over. Also, this track is an example of where I was at the time, so I guess its imperfections give it some charm.

Yeah, yeah. That’s all good stuff, but I still just gave it a quick re-master to clean up the sound a bit! My excuse is that it’s like dusting off the old track… and patching up a few scratches and dings.

I got the idea for this track shortly after watching “Terminator Salvation.” Danny Elfman did an excellent job with the score, and although a lot of people were upset that the famous Terminator theme was hardly in the film (and not at all in the soundtrack album), I was actually pretty glad Elfman did his own thing. More original material = more interesting. So after listening to his work, I wondered what I could come up with. (Also, the excellent “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” TV series was still fresh on my mind, so that played a part in this as well.)

With that in mind, onto the track itself… After a lengthy intro (yeah, I do long intros), we get the “machine heartbeat” theme. I’ve read that composer Brad Fiedel was going for a heartbeat-sounding rhythm in his original score for “The Terminator.” But since it’s not a human heartbeat, the rhythm skips around and doesn’t sound quite natural. Here is my interpretation of a machine heartbeat.

I also wanted to explore the “messiah myth” around the John Connor character. The Terminator films are excellent action movies, but they are also high-tech modern day “prophecy” stories, foretelling the end of the world and the rise of a savior. So near the end of the track, I introduce Connor’s quasi-religious “messiah” theme. I am pretty pleased with the sound of the choir/brass combination–that might be my favorite part of the track!

And yes, I had to end with that familiar theme, in case there was any doubt this was inspired by Terminator.

Some reference material… Three percussion-driven Terminator themes…

Brad Fiedel’s original Terminator theme:

Bear McCreary’s theme for “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”:

And Danny Elfman’s main title theme for “Terminator: Salvation” (percussion theme starts around 50 seconds in):

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…