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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Eagle Rock and Silver Lake musical duo hit the right note with animated series

Jeremy Zuckerman (left) and Benjamin Wynn/The Track Team

The Legend of Korra, an animated TV series, made its debut this spring featuring the adventures of Korra set against an Asian-inspired landscape. While the series is set primarily in a place called Republic City,  the musical score and sound of The Legend of Korra were created in the home studios of an Eagle Rock composer and a Silver Lake musician and sound designer. Together,  Benjamin Wynn of Silver Lake and Jeremy Zuckerman of Eagle Rock have created a score that weaves traditional Chinese music with elements of American Jazz and even Dixieland.

“That sparser orchestration and the fact that the majority of it is performed live produces a really human sounding score and in my opinion,”  said Zuckerman. “It is a nice break from the larger than life, bombastic action scores that are more expected with the genre.”

The Legend of Korra is one of several animated series that feature the sound created by The Track Team, the partnership formed by Wynn and Zuckerman  Click on the link below for a Q&A to find out how they collaborate and create.

Are musical scores for animated series now your specialty? How would that be different from a non-animated feature?
A: Jeremy – We’ve done mostly animated series in the last several years. It just kind of happened but we’ve been fortunate enough to work on really special, standout shows. While the music sometimes functions a bit differently than in live action scores, I usually don’t feel like I’m writing with limitations one would normally encounter when writing for animation. Especially with ‘The Legend of Korra’ where I feel I can delve as deeply as I’m able into the emotional and technical aspects of the music.

Still, there are stylistic things about how music functions in animation. But we’re always trying to challenge the tried and true. I’m constantly pushing for silence and sparseness. Not great for the royalty statements but it can really benefit the show!

We’ve done a small handful of live action projects and hope to do more. We’re about to start work on an independent feature that should be a bit of a departure for us. We’re really excited about that. There are things we’re itching to be able to try and are waiting for the right opportunity. For instance, Ben and I have studied computer music extensively – we both majored in it in college – and we’re waiting for the score where we can really go to those tools.

What other animated series did you create or work on the musical scores?
A: Ben – Well we haven’t created any animated projects ourselves but we’ve scored and done sound design for quite a handful: “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was the first animated show we did, then DC Showcase shorts for Warner Brothers, now “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness” and “The Legend of Korra.”

How did you end up working with each other?
Ben – We met while attending CalArts. We started hanging out and talking about music – geeking out in general. Then after we graduated we were both working for music houses and I remember asking Jeremy to work on a commercial demo I was doing. Working together was great, so the rest is history I suppose.

Can you explain how you develop and refine a score? I am not sure how you split up responsibilities and tasks.
A: Jeremy – It really differs project to project. For ‘The Legend of Korra’, I am responsible for the musical score while Ben handles the sound design. So we are really in our worlds with the occasional overlap where sound design and music need to work together as a unit. When that happens, we consult each other to verify that our materials combine synergistically and don’t obscure each other. “Avatar: TLA” worked that way, too.

For “Kung Fu Panda,”  Ben and I both composed the music. When we first started working on the project, we spent a lot of time developing thematic melodies, harmonic and rhythmic ideas, motives and instrumentation. We put a lot of effort into creating a clear style for the show. After many episodes, the style has been strongly established so we’re able to divide and conquer effectively. We usually split up by acts and then bring everything together at the end to ensure that the score is cohesive.

Why don’t you work in the same studio? How do you end up “merging” your work?
A: Ben – We worked in the same room for the first season of Avatar. I look back on that time fondly. It was great fun but it had some serious technical limitations. Most of the time I was working on headphones, which is crazy to me now. Once I bought a house I had room to convert the garage into a studio, which is acoustically treated and all that. It’s technically a much better working environment just in terms of being able to trust what I’m hearing coming out of the speakers will translate well to other speakers. Then Jeremy bought a house and did the same thing. And while I miss the Frisbee breaks, etc, we’re pretty used to working apart at this point.

For some of the shows we divide it up so that I do the sound design and Jeremy does the music (like Korra and Avatar), and on Kung Fu Panda we divide up the acts of the show separately and then come together to combine them. These days it’s so much easier to work remotely with things like DropBox and this great iPhone app called “HeyTell”, which turns your phone into a walkie-talkie of sorts. It’s so much more immediate than typing that it feels like we’re much closer than we are most of the time (and we can still goof around like we used to).

How would you describe the score for Legend of Korra? Did you have instructions from the producers about what they wanted or did you come up with proposals?
A: Jeremy – The Legend of Korra score is a fusion of a few ideas. It has elements from Dixieland, traditional Chinese music and western orchestration. The primary instrumentation is string sextet with various solo Chinese instruments. That sparser orchestration and the fact that the majority of it is performed live produces a really human sounding score and in my opinion. It is a nice break from the larger than life, bombastic action scores that are more expected with the genre. I really have to give a shout out to Hong Wang who performs all the Chinese instruments. He is an incredible multi-instrumentalist and working with him has been a huge learning experience.

Bryan Konietzko and Mike Dimartino have given me a really good balance of instruction and space on Korra. It was their concept to blend traditional Chinese with early jazz. While that is probably only 10% of the score, the uniqueness of that idea really gives the score something special. It also put me in a very creative place of experimentation and freedom. I can’t wait to see where we go in the coming seasons.
What’s your favorite thing about living on the Eastside?
A: Ben – I love living in the hills yet having great restaurants and bars just moments away. L.A. is one of the only cities I can think of where you can have a back yard with birds chirping yet be right in the heart of it all.

Jeremy – Ben nailed it. I have wild animals running by my house and can see downtown from my window. The culture is way more down to earth, too (sorry if I’ve offended any West-siders). My neighbors are really interesting and a little crunchy. Love it.

2 comments

  1. The creators of Legend of Korra are also Eastsiders–they live in Mt Washington and Glassell Park.

  2. Lol, as an Avatar fan, I have only known them as “The Track Team” -Interesting article!
    :)

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