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Taking the Guardrails Off the Music: The Danna Brothers on Scoring ‘My Father’s Dragon’

Mychael and Jeff Danna tell IndieWire about how scoring the animated feature liberated them as composers.

My Father's Dragon

“My Father’s Dragon”

Courtesy of Netflix

The Netflix feature “My Father’s Dragon” is the latest release from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish studio whose traditional, hand-drawn animation has a positively magical effect on its audience. In the case of “My Father’s Dragon,” it had that effect on the people responsible for the film’s score as well.

“The thing about animation is it’s a fantastical, completely created world, so that really takes the guardrails off the music if you’re willing to go there and your director is willing to go there,” “My Father’s Dragon” composer Jeff Danna told IndieWire. His brother and co-composer Mychael Danna added, “Audiences are very sophisticated listeners, especially in live-action films. Everyone has a kind of line in their head where they feel manipulated by the musical score — in our era the line for live-action drama is very different from the line for animation, and I think in this kind of hand-drawn, fantastical animation, there’s latitude for more emotional guidance from the music.”

The story of “My Father’s Dragon,” in which a young boy named Elmer travels to a distant island in search of a dragon and encounters a variety of spectacular settings and creatures, gave the Danna brothers free rein to create one of the most varied and beautiful scores of 2022, with music that deftly moves from a comedic register to moments of sweeping symphonic action and subtle motifs that poignantly draw out the film’s themes of fear and connection. The bold score is the result of the brothers’ second collaboration with director Nora Twomey, who they credit with giving them the space needed to experiment. “I don’t think she ever mentioned music at all,” Mychael said. “Which, to be honest with you, is what a composer dreams about because then we can interpret the director’s intention in the best possible way as opposed to someone saying ‘I think it should be this kind of music.’ We prefer to hear what they’re an expert at: the story, characters, the atmosphere — all of the things the music can live in.”

My Father's Dragon

“My Father’s Dragon”

Courtesy of Netflix

To that end, Twomey’s initial conversations with the composers were all about the ways in which “My Father’s Dragon” explored fear and the ways the characters — and by extension the audience — choose to deal with it in their lives. The Dannas then took that idea and tried to figure out what it would mean sonically. “There is definitely a harmonic aspect to writing something for fear,” Jeff said. “For example, when Elmer is running down the stairs and having a kind of living nightmare, we recorded a bunch of metal slamming around and things that felt almost like the environment intruding into his head. Sometimes you’ll play against picture and play against those things. In this film, we were mostly trying to find different ways to express how Elmer would be overwhelmed.”

When Elmer comes across a giant gorilla, for example, the Dannas employed a rich, powerful brass sound. “That wasn’t necessarily how everybody might have seen him in the story, but it was certainly how Elmer would have seen him,” Jeff said. The desire to find interesting instrumentation to accompany each of the magical figures Elmer encounters on the island led the Dannas to some unusual but highly effective choices: marimbula for The Gorilla King, kalimba for Soda the Whale, hurdy gurdy for the tigers, and recorder for the Cat, among others. These distinctive instruments, along with a highly effective use of vocals recorded at Abbey Road Studios that provided the sound for the island itself, yield a score that never stops surprising or delighting the audience with its aural twists and developments — the perfect musical corollary for the wildly inventive story.

At the core, however, what gives the score cohesiveness is its fidelity to Elmer’s point of view. “It’s all through Elmer’s eyes, and I should add that a lot of this is instinctual,” Mychael said. “You build an intellectual base of concepts, but then, in the same way Elmer learns how to deal with fear, you have to let go and trust your instincts. An example is in that scene Jeff mentioned where Elmer is going down the stairs. There’s a funny rhythm there with a weird time signature, and Nora said, ‘Oh, that’s great because it sounds like he’s about to trip.’ We weren’t thinking that. It’s just following your gut, but once you’ve built this foundation instinct and emotion take over.”

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