BACKSTAGE – YOUNG JUSTICE: PHANTOMS – INTERVIEW WITH DYNAMIC MUSIC PARTNERS
The World’s Finest: It’s been a treat to have Young Justice back, first on DC Universe with “Outsiders” and now on HBO Max with “Phantoms.” How has it felt to both return to this series and wrap up its latest season?
Lolita Ritmanis: To experience a return to production on a series which had wrapped five years prior, and then, to discover that Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman were developing the next seasons to be even more epic in scope, with deep, complex storylines, tackling important social issues, was really rewarding. Our collaborative process with Brandon and Greg really allowed for the best possible result from our perspective. Young Justice is a dream project in that sense. Every creative twist and turn is intentional, making for a great experience for not only the fans, but us – the composers as well!
WF: As with previous seasons of Young Justice, DMP provided music for all 26 episodes of the season, with some episodes running upwards and over 25 minutes in length. When it comes to starting work on the show, how do you lay out your plan for the season’s musical direction?
Michael McCuistion: Phantoms was a little different in that there were specific story arcs made up of 4 or 5 episodes anchored by a location or specific group of characters. So, we decided to create a musical sub-language for each of the locations that was distinct but still fit within the overall sound of Young Justice. This worked very well and allowed us to treat each story arc as an individual movie musically, with recurring textures and themes that gave each location/story line a unique language.
WF: To follow that, what is the typical schedule for delivering a score, and how does something like an additional song (such as the Zod chant in “Forbidden Secrets of Civilizations Past!”) change things up?
Kristopher Carter: The episodes do have a lot of music, especially compared to the start of our careers on Batman: The Animated Series – those episodes would typically only have around 13 minutes of score. Like most, we had to find new ways to get our work done while sheltering at home from a global pandemic! We met with producers Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti on Zoom with one of us screen-sharing the video, and we found our collaboration and discussions continued pretty much as before. At the initial meeting, called a spotting session, we watch the episode and discuss where the music starts, where it takes a pause, and while it is playing what dramatic and storytelling points it needs to support. Then we have around 8-10 days to create, produce and record the music (each of us tackling 1/3 of the music simultaneously working in our individual studios).
That is actually a very generous production schedule in television, but with the complex stories, action set-pieces, and mandate to create unique electronic soundscapes, every moment of that schedule is used. Songs are almost always produced when the voices are recorded, which happens before the animation is produced and often 8 months or so before the post-production process when the rest of the score is created. For a song that is placed near the end of the season, like the “Zod” chant (co-written with producer Brandon Vietti), we were writing and recording that with the voice artists just as we were beginning work on scoring the first part of the season.
WF: To follow up again, and perhaps a bit more on the technical side; how has new and improving recording and editing software materials and computer studio equipment impacted your work, both in terms of what you can do in front of the mic and behind the keyboard, especially in comparison to how different technology was back in earlier seasons of Young Justice in 2010, or even as far back as Justice League in the early 2000’s?
LR: Technology is constantly evolving. Keeping up with the latest sample and sound libraries can at times be a full time job. The essence of the sound of Young Justice is to really look for unique ways to use technology to our advantage, through thematic “soundscapes,” signature percussive moments, layering of sounds, and the creation of custom textures blending colors, much like that of a painter. With all that being said, musical and sonic choices come back to the story, always the story, and how we as composers may best serve the story. We often use the term “layers” as it seems to work musically as well as conceptually, to emphasize various layers of the story.
WF: You’ve been with Young Justice since day one. How has your relationship with the material and characters evolved over time? And how has getting to be with these characters during their entire journey influenced your approach to them over the years? As they evolve in the show, is it safe to assume you have to change your creative approach?
KC: I always find myself deeply attached to the characters and what happens to them, which I credit to the compelling stories told by the writers and the incredible way the voice actors bring those words to life. As I have watched my own two boys grow and mature over the course of this show being produced, the evolving experience of being a parent has definitely influenced my connection to the characters and how I explore ever deeper levels of examining what they are going through as I compose the score.
LR: I am not the same person I was during season 1 of Young Justice. As the show has evolved and our characters have evolved, so have I. That metamorphosis presents itself in the way in which I experience the story, sometimes going deeper than I would have when this adventure began with season 1.
MM: It’s been an interesting and fun journey growing with these characters! Since the show began more than ten years ago, I really have had the chance to evolve along with them. In the beginning we were establishing a sound for the show that was very focused and distinct for the series. As the show evolved and the characters acquired dimension we were able to expand that sound to include other approaches, write themes and choose sounds to express that evolution. And with the latest season, Phantoms, we’ve expanded the palette even more to include orchestral elements alongside the futuristic sounds and textures, grounding the sound of the series as the characters have matured and come into their own. As composers we always welcome the opportunity to grow and change and create something new—it keeps both us and the show sounding fresh and alive!
WF: The opening title theme has been different each season. For example, Phantoms feels more upbeat and nostalgic, while Outsiders felt ominous. Could you break down your approach, and perhaps theme, to each season’s unique spin on the title sequence theme?
MM: The title sequence was a true collaboration with the producers Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman. They had specific feelings and direction in mind for the opening of the show each season, along with visuals and the overall storyline, and we incorporated their ideas musically to give each season an identity that was in some ways a musical summary of the entire season’s stories in a 30-second theme. It’s a tall order but one we always relish, and it sets the tone for the music we compose for each of the season’s episodes.
WF: Young Justice has some tremendous scale when it comes to story-telling, swinging from something epic like “Leviathan Wakes” to something more emotional like “I Know Why The Caged Cat Sings.” Can you spotlight any episodes that really provided the ability to show your range in terms of just what you can create?
KC: It’s actually easier to fill up a track with orchestration and sonic ear-candy, but in episode 2 “Needful,” Brandon Vietti wanted very spare music to accompany the scenes in the M’hontrr Headquarters, so it was a challenge to find single gestures: a particular ambient drum hit, an answering otherworldly sound that would support the storytelling in the way he wished. Also, in episode 12, “Og Htrof Dna Reuqnoc!” there was a gigantic puzzle to solve: how to weave together all the episode callbacks of the school bus dimension-traveling sequence, knitting disparate musical beats into a cohesive whole, and also creating new score that sounded like a callback for the scene where Black Canary and Green Arrow help the kids off the bus. That sequence was in the original script from season 2 but not ultimately produced in the animation!
LR: In episode 13 “Kaerb Ym Traeh!,” the reunion between Zatanna and Zatara towards the end of the episode provided an incredible opportunity for me to pull at the heartstrings of our audience hopefully without being too over the top. This was a moment that had been building for 4 seasons.
MM: Even individual cues within episodes could show a lot of expressive range. One of the most unusual pieces I wrote for the show was the merry-go-round music that accompanies Zatanna and her protégés as they fly through the city on their wooden horses in “Odnu!” Another was the puppet show music in “Teg Yaer!” during Thirteen’s test of her strength and resolve. And from the same episode, scoring the Lord’s Prayer was a big challenge, especially knowing that Zatara would be speaking the prayer over the music – a delicate balancing act. There have been abundant opportunities in this series to write many different and creatively-rewarding musical cues!
WF: And a fun follow-up, Young Justice goes to some pretty unique places that, quite frankly, don’t exist. Where do you even begin trying to create a musical identity for a fictional place like New Genesis, War World, Atlantis, and so on, when you have real-life example to pull from. Where do you pull inspiration from?
KC: Those kind of requests have cropped up more regularly than you might expect over the course of a career scoring sci-fi and superhero stories! I think it becomes less about finding concrete, real-world inspiration and more about diving into the feelings – what is the emotion you want to feel? And if there is a way to push the boundary of expectation with an unusual sound or instrument, all the better!
WF: Swinging back to “Forbidden Secrets of Civilizations Past!” from question #4 for a moment. It seems as if it’s becoming something of a tradition to have a weird oddball song each season. Invasion has the Reach commercial, Outsiders had the Doom Patrol song, and now Phantoms with the “Zod” chant. How did these ideas come about? What has the process been like from start to finish in crafting these special songs?
MM: Generally the songs are originally part of the script, so they are integral parts of the story line long before we’re discussing music with the producers. In the case of Young Justice, each of the songs we’ve written have had an important role to play in the series. Because the songs require vocals which are usually performed by the voice actors, we usually create and record the music for the songs long before we write the dramatic music for the episode. So, we have a pre-production process where we create the song first, using lyrics from the script; then we make guide tracks and record the vocals during their dialog recording sessions, and finally put the finished song together after the vocals are complete. Then, the animation is usually created to fit the now-existing song, which is opposite from the usual scoring process where we write music to existing picture. When the animation is finished we can sometimes tweak the music under the vocals if needed depending on how the picture is animated and the needs of the producers.
WF: To wrap on Young Justice, can your perhaps tease a musical cue or moment from an upcoming final episodes of Phantoms?
LR: I will only say that musically there are moments that reflect the story that must be kept secret until the episode premieres! (How is that for no spoilers!?)
WF: In addition to Young Justice, you also juggle running your own label, Dynamic Soundtrack Records, which released the official soundtrack to Justice League vs The Fatal Five. What was that experience like? Are there any upcoming releases to spotlight?
MM: Yes – we created Dynamic Soundtrack Records to allow us to release music that might not otherwise be released by Warner Bros. or other studios. We want to make as much music available to fans and soundtrack-lovers as possible! We do have upcoming releases which we cannot talk about currently but which have been greenlit; we’ll be sure to announce them when we are able to so that everyone can help spread the word. Our next release will feature music that has never been released but that has often been requested. You won’t be disappointed!
WF: Outside of Young Justice and your assorted super-heroic efforts, are there any notable solo or personal works you’d like to shine a little light on?
LR: Thanks so much for asking about this. All of us have many things going on in addition to our work on Young Justice. I think that working on our craft, being versatile, being open to new creative opportunities makes us better composers. Very recently actually, on April 3rd, 2022 I was awarded a Grammy® award as one of the producers of the symphonic orchestral album, Women Warriors: The Voices of Change. I contributed 3 compositions to this project as well. The music is epic in scope, melodic, accessible, truly a great listen. It is available on all digital platforms. I think fans of film music – Young Justice fans would really enjoy it. Among other things I am working on a solo album which I will be releasing in the late fall.
KC: One of the greatest blessings of our partnership has allowed us each the freedom to explore our personal passions in addition to our collaborations! I have been developing two distinctly different solo projects over the last few years: producing contemporary classical music like my piece for piano and orchestra, “Autumn Ruminations,” which received two Bronze Telly awards for the music video and a Hollywood Music in Media Award nomination for the recording. In a completely other genre, I have been producing club-oriented electronic dance music and DJ’ing under the moniker The Kr Protocol. You can listen to the original music on Spotify, the DJ sets on YouTube and check out @thekrprotocol on your favorite social media platform to keep up with what’s happening next.
MM I continue to be immersed in our collective scoring projects – I get so much creative satisfaction from writing music for those productions. One project apart from DMP that I found extremely rewarding was scoring Griffith Observatory’s planetarium production “Time’s Up!” The soundtrack is currently available from La-La Land Records.
WF: Lastly, can you please offer up a small tease or quick peek at any upcoming projects or events you have scheduled or in development that you can fill us in on?
KC: “Autumn Ruminations” is the first in a set of four seasons-inspired pieces, and my “Winter” episode is almost ready to be released (just in time for Winter … in the Southern Hemisphere!). I mixed the just-released new single from Eurovision-winning-artist Alexander Ryback, and have some new Kr Protocol tracks in process. If you’re in the Minneapolis area, I will be spinning a DJ set during the rave night at CONvergence in August!
LR: Sharing our music at international live concert events was very much on the agenda pre-pandemic. As we return to more and more live events, and postponed events finally are rescheduled, we hope that soon we will be able to announce an exciting live premiere of some of our music from a beloved project of ours.
MM: Our immediate slate includes two totally different top secret new films that we’ve been working on recently. They’ll be released in the forthcoming year, and there are other projects in the pipeline, so stay tuned for those announcements!
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Check out the opening title sequence to each season of “Young Justice” below,
all four written and performed by Dynamic Music Partners!
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