Sounds of success: Oregon composer makes 'Planes' soar
05:00 AM, Aug 16, 2013
SALEM, Ore. — In the new Disney/Pixar film Planes, Dusty, an acrophobic cropduster from the Midwest, dares to compete against the pros in a famous race.
Rapt kids and parents may not notice that Bulldog, the British plane, makes his entrance to the brass sounds of Rule Brittania. Or that El Chupacabra, the Mexican plane, gets a mariachi-band theme, or that sitars sound when Ishani, the Indian love interest, is near.
The man responsible for these touches and many others Dave Metzger actually prefers that such music stays under the radar.
“It’s an underscore,” he said recently in his studio, surrounded by equipment that translates his ideas to computer files. “If you don’t pay attention, it’s doing its job.”
Metzger knows that job well, because he spent February through early June this year arranging and orchestrating the entire movie, which is in theaters now. This was the 52nd feature film he has worked on to date not counting a long list of Broadway, television and video game projects.
He won Grammys for the Tarzan soundtrack (1999) and The Lion King cast recording (1998). He arranged music for The Tonight Show, Tina Turner and Elton John. Now he seems to be the go-to guy for Disney’s animated features.
His state-of-the-art home office allows him to collaborate for months at a time with Hollywood bigwigs, while still enjoying an expansive view of the South Salem hills.
Here’s how Metzger’s portion of Planes took shape:
He started at Disney Studios in Los Angeles, viewing a rough edit of the whole film to see where snippets of music would start and stop. The director wanted 55 minutes of music, split across about 40 scenes.
“At that point you know what you are up against,” Metzger said.
Then he and Mark Mancina, Metzger’s longtime collaborator, spent weeks working out the details through video conferencing. Mancina, in Carmel, Calif., would play a bit on keyboards; Metzger would enlarge it to orchestral scope from his Salem studio.
“I decide what instruments will be playing while I’m watching the movie,” Metzger said. “I see if the orchestra needs to be bigger or smaller.”
If a scene had lots of dialogue, Metzger avoided using instruments in the same tonal range.
“You get a feel for the weight of a scene, how much instrumentation it can handle,” he said. “If it’s a tender scene, you don’t write for heavy brass.”
Metzger then recorded the music using a computer program. He reviewed it via video conference with the director and producer.
“The director loved everything,” Metzger said. “He changed maybe three notes in the movie. It all flew through.”
Once the music was approved, Metzger converted the work to an orchestral score. He sent these files to a Disney department that split the score into parts for each instrument.
Then Metzger headed south for the Sony Studios, formerly the MGM sound stage. It’s the same place that 1939’s The Wizard of Oz was filmed, said Metzger: “You can feel the history.”
An LA contractor assembled an orchestra of 80, including players that Metzger relies on for the demanding first-chair parts.
Metzger worked with the orchestra from the recording booth for four days, six hours a day, to get the recordings right. He spent a fifth day with a 24-voice choir.
“They didn’t sing real words; it was oohs and aahs,” he said. “It was noble, kind of like the Navy hymn.”
The music producer decided that the credits needed a separate a cappella selection. Metzger rose early the next day and wrote the piece in his hotel.
“I hope the film does well,” he said. “It’s a real nice movie.”
Metzger is wrapping up his 53rd movie project: arranging, orchestrating and conducting the songs for Frozen. The film, an animated Disney version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, opens Thanksgiving day.
Metzger worked closely with Robert Lopez (Tony Award winner for The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
Part of Metzger’s craft involved finding the right instruments to suggest snow, ice and cold. He went with glockenspiel, celeste (an ethereal keyboard instrument), crotales (tiny cymbals) and eerie string harmonies.
Unlike the underscore for Planes, this project involved songs meant to be noticed.
Will people walk out of theaters humming after seeing Frozen?
“I hope so,” said Metzger. “I think there are songs that Bobby and Kristen wrote that have the potential to be well-received.”
Although the music business can be feast-or-famine, it’s all feast looking ahead for Metzger:
—He soon may work with Clint Eastwood on a screen version of the Broadway musical Jersey Boys.
—In September and October, he’ll work on a Broadway version of the 2007 film August Rush, about a parentless musical prodigy. “This is a first step of seeing if it works,” said Metzger; the project will take two years to get onstage.
—In December he starts work on another Disney film, a sequel to one he has worked on (that’s all he can say about it for now).
“I went from thinking I would get a break to pretty busy,” said Metzger but he isn’t complaining.