Following our review of Jacob Shea’s and Jasha Klebe’s score for BBC’s Planet Earth II (main theme by Hans Zimmer) we were curious about the process behind the wonderful score and teamed up with to conduct the following interview. Let’s find out who the two composers are and how they experienced scoring the successor of the already iconic first season of BBC’s nature documentary series. To start with, please tell our readers a bit about which personal experiences made you pursue the career of a composer for media.

Jasha Klebe: When I was younger, I was always captivated by movies and the imaginative worlds they could transport you to.  I particularly noticed the music and how it could enhance what was on the screen and guide the audience on an emotional journey.  I was intrigued by the idea that one could take something visual, and create something musical to coexist with the images, to tell a story.

Jacob Shea: I studied composition at UC Santa Barbara. Much of my third year was spent thinking about what I would do after graduation. I had seen a movie called “Thirteen Conversations about One Thing” and I thought the score, written by Alex Wurman, was superb. I reached out to Alex to ask if I could intern for him during my summer break and he was kind enough to have me shadow him. I was amazed at the scoring process – composing with computers, collaborating with directors and session musicians. It looked incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding. I was hooked after that.

BTA: Despite being rather young, both of you can look back on quite a remarkable list of credits already, especially in relationship with Hans Zimmer. How exactly did you get the chance to work at RCP and what did it feel like to suddenly hear your own music in such huge franchises?

JK: I started out with an internship at Hans Zimmer’s Studio, Remote Control Productions. From there that led me to a studio assistant position where I also helped out making parts and chord charts for various recording sessions. At one point, Hans asked me to be the Music Arranger for the 84th Annual Academy Awards, as well as a keyboard/synthesizer player in the orchestra for the show. Following the Oscars, I earned a spot on Hans’ team writing on The Dark Knight Rises, and several other exciting projects.  It was an unbelievable feeling sitting in a theater for the first time and hear music you wrote being played loud and clear!  I was absolutely hooked and knew there was nothing else I’d rather be doing with my life. I feel incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside Hans and learn from him.

JS: The opportunity came about by answering a craigslist ad, oddly enough.  Trevor Morris was renting a room at RCP and he put an ad out looking for a technical assistant. I was fortunate enough to get the gig and luckier still to be invited onto Hans’ technical team some months later.

Hearing something you worked on broadcast to huge audiences is always a thrill. It’s surreal, really.

BTA: What differentiates the The Bleeding Fingers Custom Music Shop from other production houses?

JK: Bleeding Fingers is an incredibly unique setup. You have so many diversely talented composers just down the hall from each other that you can collaborate and bounce ideas off of one another. And with so many different kinds of projects that comes in, you really get to work on a wide variation of musical styles. In addition, Bleeding Fingers really pushes the composers to the forefront of these projects and allows them to truly collaborate with directors and producers of the work that comes in.  All of this, while working out of their state of the art studio spaces and having access to some of the best musicians around.

BTA: While Hans Zimmer contributed the opening suite and the series’ musical epilogue, you two contributed the majority of music to the score of BBC’s Planet Earth II. Were you expected to synchronize closely with Hans or were you granted absolute creative freedom? How did it all begin and how did a typical working day or night look like on the project? Please describe your creative team process behind the score and what you learned from working on Planet Earth II.

JS: Hans is the score producer on the project, so Jasha and I definitely would get feedback on things while we were working.  The great thing about Hans is [and the entire creative team on PEII is] that he really trusted Jasha and I implicitly to score the show.  We would begin to score any given scene the way we thought was most effective and entertaining and would typically revise from there.

Working with Jasha as a team on the score was absolutely incredible. Our writing styles naturally compliment each other and it really allowed for us to give every incredible sequence in the show the detail it deserved. With over 250 minutes of original score in the series, having two composers made a lot of sense.

BTA: While the astonishing diverse pictures of the series provide a lot of ground to write beautiful, nature-inspired music, what were the hardest challenges you had to face in general – apart from writing such a large amount of music? Also, was there a specific sequence that turned out to be particularly tough to score?

JK: I think the greatest challenge was how do we approach such a monumental series as Planet Earth and bring something fresh and exciting to the unique footage of the series. Following the incredible work of George Fenton’s score to the original, we knew we wanted to take it in a different direction to compliment the new approach for the series. Just as the cameras brought you closer to these animals unlike ever before, we wanted to musically do the same. We wanted to blur the lines between what was natural sounds and what was score. We aimed to give each animal its own individual voice, while keeping a cohesion across the individual episodes/habitats.

BTA: Speaking of diversity, one thing that grabbed my attention when listening to the Planet Earth II’s soundtrack was the wealth of tonal and instrumental colors you incorporated in your score. Apart from tracks that take a more traditional orchestral approach, you also managed to seamlessly inweave synthesizers, electronic percussion, ethnic instruments and even electric guitars. How did you decide what tonal color you’d assign to which scene or setting, and how much of a role did the episodes’ pictures play in finding the right instrumentation?

JS: The advancements in filming technology since the original Planet Earth bring the viewer closer to these animals and habitats than ever before. Likewise, Jasha and I set out to make the score feel as immersive and immediate we possibly could.  Sonically, nothing was out of bounds. In fact we spent a few weeks just designing sounds based on audio that was recorded during the filming process (thunder claps, locust swarms, etc.). The instrumentation was largely determined by the keywords a director would use when describing his/her episode. The Deserts director wanted the episode to feel alien and otherworldly, so we incorporated bowed metals and modular synths.

BTA: A relevant portion of the soundtrack includes action music and powerful, trailer inspired cues. While one can really hear your experience in writing this kind of music and even feel the Remote Control spirit, how much of a challenge was it for you to score this music to nature scenery instead of scoring superhero fight scenes and collapsing starships?

JK: A series like this surpasses any action Hollywood movie! This is real life and death for these animals, so for the heart-stopping chase scenes, like the Iguana vs. Racer Snakes, we really sought to convey the immediacy and sheer drama these animals face on a day to day basis to survive. The fact that this wasn’t fiction, allowed us to really push the emotion in these scenes.     

BTA: Working on the score, how important (and difficult) was it for you to make your tracks stand on their own while not interfering with Sir David Attenborough’s captivating monologues?

JS: Sir David Attenborough’s narration is the lead vocal in the soundtrack. We definitely approached the score with that in mind.

BTA: Out of the 47 tracks you composed for the Planet Earth II soundtrack, which ones is your favorite and why? Do you have a favourite visual moment in the series in general?

JK: I’d have to say one of my favorite scenes was the Snow Leopard sequence. The way they captured these marvelous animals thru the use of camera traps high up on the mountain tops was incredible. It felt as though you were writing music for some mythical creature and it lent itself to a truly magical feel for the score.

BTA: Could you two tell our readers a bit about the studio setup(s) you were using on Planet Earth II?

JS: Sure! I’m on Logic 9 and Jasha is on Cubase. We both have several computers running Vienna and a midi fader box to control the samples we use.  We both record guitars through the wonderful Kemper Profiling Amp. I’ve also become a bit obsessed with synths lately and have a Buchla Music Easel as well as a 200e modular setup.

BTA: What projects are you currently working on and can we expect another collaboration from you guys in the future?

JK: Jacob and I are currently working together again on another very exciting project we just can’t quite tell you about yet!

BTA: What would be your N°1 advice you could pass on to aspiring composers who want to improve on their epic orchestral writing skills?

JS: I would say listen to as many purely orchestral recordings as you possibly can. Samples are a great tool, but its important to know how all these instruments organically sit together. For instance, two trumpets playing a decent mezzo forte will likely sound louder than an entire string ensemble at the same dynamic. So rather than turning the dynamic of the sample up all the way, you’d be better off finding a musical dynamic and turning the volume of the instrument up to where it sounds loud enough.

BTA: Thank you for your time, Jacob and Jasha!

Posted by Bernhard H. Heidkamp

Long-time film music enthusiast, living and studying in Bremen, Germany.

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