Hitting the right notes with Leo Birenberg

Chad White

When you watch a movie, what’s the first thing you notice? Is it the famous or non-famous persons on screen? Or is it the bombastic action sequences or quiet, dramatic moments? The length of the title sequence? For most, it’s all the previously described elements but for others, there’s something more nuanced about a movie or TV show. Musical composition often takes the back row to the conversation of appreciation in a form of media. It’s not isolated (unless there’s no talking or sound effects but even then most people pay attention to the action on screen) so it often goes unnoticed.

Leo Birenberg has been in the music department for his entire adult life. Hard work and a chance meeting with Christophe Beck led Birenberg to score coordination for big time movies like The Muppets, Frozen, and Runner Runner while he’s also done composition for the short lived Big Time in Hollywood Florida and Seeso original Take My Wife. He’s done every form of watchable media so he knows a thing or two about the business. I recently had a chat with him about composing and all the work that goes into it.

I was looking at your background. You’ve worked with amazing people for amazing movies and TV shows. It seemed to me that composers are unsung heroes (unless you’re John William). How has being a composer shaped your career in doing all these magnificent movies and TV shows?

Birenberg: Wow. That’s a heavy question. Yeah, we don’t get the credit we deserve, obviously. End of interview.

[both laugh]

Birenberg: It’s interesting. I’m very young as far as composers go. John Williams is 84 and I clock in at 28. Getting up and getting to work on pretty huge movies and big TV shows is insanely exciting and overwhelming for me. It sort of fits in this broader context of “It takes a village to raise a child…and to make a movie.” Every department interacts and gives their own contributions. Even within the music department, you have a lot of interaction with the cast of players. I was pretty fortunate in my first years working to be mentored by a composer much bigger than myself named Christophe Beck. He pretty much taught me everything I know about scoring movies and I got such a great opportunity to work with him on a lot of stuff.

How did you end up meeting Beck?

Birenberg: When I first moved out to LA, I was doing grad school at USC in this program that’s based in film and television music – which there aren’t many of so a lot of people tend to gravitate towards USC. Actually, Chris did it 20 years before me. I just kind of met him. I was working for an orchestrator in town while I was in school. He introduced me. Right place, right time Chris needed an additional assistant. I showed up and pretty much never left. We just clicked.

What was the jump like from doing CollegeHumor shorts to doing a TV show like Son of Zorn?

Birenberg: It’s surprisingly not that crazy! Within the network of people that make CollegeHumor shorts, – or did at the time – there’s a lot of network with the people who make Son of Zorn now. At the time, I had some friends and colleagues who worked over at CollegeHumor so working with them was a very natural way to do my own stuff when I wasn’t writing movie scores with Chris. I ended up actualy working with some [people I knew]. I did this other show on Comedy Central called Big Time in Hollywood Florida.

Oh yeah.

Birenberg: Which no one watched but it was very hilarious. I highly, highly recommend it if you have three and a half hours to burn. I was working with some friends of my who were also related to that network. It was because somebody wo saw that show, who works on Zorn, emailed me out of nowhere. He was like “This is great! I love this. I even know some of the people who worked on it. You ought to come score our show.” Even though it seems like a big jump on paper, it felt very natural and I like everyone I work with.

With doing Zorn and The Muppets, how do you sit down to decide to compose a score? Do you look at the scene and script and talk to the people behind it who give you an idea and then you go out and do it?

Birenberg: More or less. I’ll just describe the Zorn process because that’s what I’m in the middle of right now. Basically, with Zorn, because of the animate component, things get stretched out a little more timewise on the schedule. What we’ll do is, the whole season is shot. While they were shooting, an animator is on set and kind of add Zorn in. They start editing with that material and come up with an animatic lock of a 22 minute episode. At that point, they turn it over to me and I have a meeting. Me and the executive producer, Eric Appel, sit there and go through the episode.

Sometimes, we have existing themes and material that we want to use -- so we try them out. For other spots, depending on what’s going on in that episode, we say “Well, let’s just try something like crazy synth-wave 80’s for this scene” or “Let’s get some action adventure music for this scene.” We make a list, he goes home and I spend a couple weeks tinkering through it; I’m usually working a couple of episodes at the same time. I just take the scenes one at a time. I’m always working with the picture up – even if I’m just coming up with the initial ideas. For me, I love to have it there as something to inspire. Then, I write everything out. About the time I’m done, they get the first pass of animation back from Titmouse, the animation studio. Then we put it all together and revise those ideas. Once you have animated Zorn in, we might want to change what we do with a scene. We might not need music; it might need a totally different style of music. We do that and then, eventually, the picture is locked, we do a final pass and then that’s it.

Is there a difference when working on an animated show, hybrid animation and live action show and doing a regular live action piece of work?

Birenberg: Sure. Especially in terms of schedule. Animation just takes so long. On a fully animated show, sometimes the schedule between -- not just the music side of things but [everything else included] -- an animated show can take a six months to a year just for a single episode form the point the script is written to when the animation is finished and locked into the sound mix. For me, I’m kind of tackling both worlds. At the same time, we have a sort of spread out schedule because of the animation component. Because it’s a live action show and, with animation, they tend to storyboard it and lock the picture earlier in terms of timing before they actually apply the final animation like rendering in.             

With live action, people are always making tweaks, cut a few frames here, cut a few frames there because you can because you don’t have to render the final shot. Unlike a lot of TV shows, I get multiple versions of picture for a single episode as it’s updating; sometimes it’s because of animation, sometimes it’s because of other things. I’m always updating everything. Also, the animation is a component. A more typical live action TV schedule would be I would get a picture locked episode when they get it done and spend two weeks scoring it and then turn it in and have a little bit of a back and forth. But it would be a one episode every two weeks kind of thing. This is kind of like every episode over the course of eight months and they just happen to be due at different times.

How many projects do you end up doing per year? I look at Beck’s IMDB page and 2015 is full of 20 different things and 2016 has 30 things.

Birenberg: Composers are definitely expected to juggle a lot these days. Especially when you get to Chris’s level and guys like Hans Zimmer who you see doing a ton of movies a year. They have teams of people in the way that I was for Chris where they are writers who are sort of a main extension. It’s all overseen. I currently have nobody working for me. I just do it in my studio. I do a few things a year. This year is mostly Zorn. Earlier this year, I did this other comedy show called Take My Wife which is on Seeso. There was this little period right before Zorn was starting that I did that. To be honest, I can’t even remember what I was working on earlier this year. It feels like forever ago! It’s always a constant cascade of stuff. It depends on the composer and where they’re at in their career but you’re not really working on a ton of stuff at the same time. But it’s all just a nice little cascade that comes when you tackle something.

What kind of music does someone like you in your field like to listen to?

Birenberg: That’s a great question. I listen to everything. Such a broad range. A typical day for me is wake up, don’t listen to music because I’m working on it during the day, go to the gym and probably listen to Taylor Swift, go for a little jog at some point and listen to blue grass, and come home and put some Japanese pop music on while I’m cooking dinner, listen to some classical choir music – I love classical music; that’s my background. I love opera, which I think film is 20th and 21st century opera in a lot of ways. So…everything. I have a very dirty secret that I listen to a ton of bad country while I’m in the car. I think it’s important to listen to a bit of everything because it’s a pallet to draw from. But also it keeps your brain working in different ways when you’re not listening to the same thing.

I want to go back to what you said about movies being the modern day opera. Are you able to turn off your brain while you’re watching a movie [during] say a Christopher Nolan [film] who always has amazing music from Hans Zimmer. Are you able to listen to that soundtrack or do you turn off your brain?

Birenberg: It is so hard to turn off your brain. I think anyone who works in entertainment will tell you this. It is so hard to turn off your brain no matter what you’re watching. In fact, I think it’s a sign of an unbelievable movie if I can sit there and not think about the music. I actually, despite the fact that I work in soundtracks, I don’t listen to a lot of soundtracks unless I’ve seen the movie. That’s important to me. Out of context, you can’t really evaluate decision making or anything.

To me, yeah, if a movie really works for me and I’m really watching it, I probably have turned off my brain – at least until later because I’m so absorbed. However, there are many times when you watch something and you just kind of know [things] like “Oh, I know that conversation that [led to] that music being made.” [laughs] When you work on a lot of stuff and you work behind the scenes, you see patterns to decision making in movies. It’s interesting to identify that on something you haven’t worked on.

Have you seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall? Jason Segal played a composer in that movie. When I asked you about making music, he was sitting in front of the screen as they played the episode [of Kristen Bell’s show] without music and he played it live right there and I thought that was the weirdest thing.

Birenberg: Sometimes I do that. I’m a little less improvisatory. If I’m just starting something and I need to come up with a concept and the pallet and the themes – which are all the most important questions when you’re starting something; you want to make sure your pallet [is good]. I’ll do a much more artistic process where I make some noise, come up with some ideas and walk my dog and sing them back to myself to see if they feel right. And then I go back and do them for real.

When I’m just starting something, like an episode of Zorn for example, once we’ve had that initial meeting where we decide what to try, I just load up the picture exactly as you saw in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and just start writing. The key is you go back thousands of times to add new things, change what you did and get rid of your mistakes. Yeah. Constant process of self-evaluation.

Check out Leo Birenberg’s work, follow him on Twitter and listen to the background music in a show or movie once in a while.