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How Composer Michael Giacchino Got Percussive with Disney’s ‘Zootopia’ Score

How Composer Michael Giacchino Got Percussive with Disney's 'Zootopia' Score


The great thing about composer Michael Giacchino is that he can go from melancholy to high-octane action as a natural progression. But for his first Disney animated feature, “Zootopia,” he got particularly percussive with an array of exotic sounds, perfect for this timely buddy comedy about diversity and inclusion that has already become an instant global hit.

“The general expectation about animated films is that they’re just bouncy, fun, but what really hit me the most after seeing [‘Zootopia’] was that idea of disillusionment and bias and disappointment, both in yourself and in the world around you,” Giacchino reflected. “And what do you do in order to make things better?”

READ MORE: How Disney Captured the Diversity Zeitgeist with ‘Zootopia’

“Zootopia” pits newbie bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) with sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to solve a disappearance that could tear the metropolis apart, where predator and prey have co-existed in such accommodating zones as Sahara Square, Tundra Town, Little Rodentia, Rainforest District and Bunny Burroughs.

“He’s got the biggest percussion section he’s ever worked with before with exotic instruments like onglongs and gamelans, African drunms and South American drums,” said director Byron Howard.
“There’s a great retro vibe to it without trying too hard,” added director Rich Moore.

Giacchino likes to first write a suite that sums up his emotional response to a film. In the case of “Zootopia,” it was a melancholy piano piece about Judy that morphs into the meaning of the mammal metropolis.

“I like to write a piece of music that reflects how I felt about a film as opposed to here’s this action scene, here’s this set piece,” the composer continued. “I wasn’t sure what Byron and Rich were expecting, but to me it sounded a little somber and a little sad.”

“He’ll give you the whole tapestry at once and it’s easy that way because we can see how he’s using themes throughout rather than jumping into an action sequence first or an emotional scene first,” Howard explained.

The suite is most pronounced in two scenes, according to Giacchino. The first time, Nick stands up for Judy when Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) tries firing her out in the jungle and at the end, when Judy proclaims what she’s learned and wants to accomplish to protect Zootopia. “It’s a wonderful scene where Nick opens up to her and we learn why he is the way he is and the disillusionment that led to him becoming a cynic,” Giacchino offered.

When Nick and Judy are being chased in the jungle, you can hear the composer playing a very familiar sounding steel mixing bowl. Likewise, later on when he plays a ram’s horn as well.

“I love percussive instrumentation. I grew up listening to ‘Planet of the Apes’ and other scores and it was fun for me because you weren’t just listening to those scores, but you were also questioning what you were listening to. What are those sounds? And it was always fun to explore that in ‘Lost’ and ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.’ One of the joys about this project was it enabled me to work with percussionist Emil Richards, who worked with Jerry Goldsmith on all of his ‘Planet of the Apes’ scores,” the composer said.

“And Emil was responsible for so many of those sounds and would go around collecting things like mixing bowls and ram’s horns. If it made an interesting sound, he’d either steal it or buy it. And on the past film we had worked on, ‘Dawn,’ he had given me a mixing bowl and a ram’s horn that had been used on the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ as a gift,” he added. “So I used them on ‘Zootopia,’ which was the perfect combination of sounds and weirdness that we can throw in there.”

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