No stranger to the world of musical composition for animation, Jeff Danna has created music for Disney and Pixar films like The Good Dinosaur and Onward, as well as Warner Bros.’ Storks and MGM’s The Addams Family. But getting the chance to compose for an animated fantasy world from the mind of Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro was an experience Danna describes as uniquely rewarding.
First hired to compose for 3Below, the second installment in DreamWorks Animation’s three-part, 3D-animated Tales of Arcadia action-adventure franchise, Danna went on to work with del Toro and the Tales of Arcadia team on music for Wizards and the recently released franchise finale, Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans, now available to stream on Netflix.
The conclusion to del Toro’s Emmy Award-winning series centers around main protagonist and Trollhunter hero Jim Lake Jr. and his attempt to save the world and everyone he loves from lava, snow, and earth Titans. Brought to life through the magic of The Arcane order–a trio of primordial demigods who wish to maintain the balance between magic and mortals–the Titans seem like unstoppable foes. But Jim gathers his wizard, troll, alien, and human friends, known as the “Guardians of Arcadia,” to join together and combine their skills to bring a stop to the end of life as they know it.
And, for Danna, creating music that brought all these worlds together in one action-packed, emotionally charged finale was the opportunity of a lifetime. We recently talked with the composer about what first drew him to the series with 3Below, the challenge of creating a musical identity for larger-than-life Titans, and the challenges of capturing the deeply emotional and wildly epic moments that came with the end of Jim’s journey.
Victoria Davis: You previously worked on Tales of Arcadia’s 3Below and Wizards as well. What first attracted you to creating music for this series? And how did it feel working on the music for the franchise’s feature film finale?
Jeff Danna: Anytime a composer gets a chance to work in a world that Guillermo del Toro has created, they are going to jump at it. It’s a place of fantastic creatures and amazing stories and all that adds up to the chance to do something really exciting musically. After we had worked on 3Below and moved on to Wizards, it was rewarding to get an opportunity to do Rise of The Titans.
I was able to wrap the story up musically, to revisit themes from the earlier series and bring the whole thing to a very heightened conclusion. It was a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
VD: For a family animated series, Tales of Arcadia has always packed just as much emotion into their stories as they do humor. But in this feature, there was even more emotion, with many favorite characters meeting their ends. How did that influence the music for you? And how did it change the more familiar soundtracks we’ve known throughout the franchise?
JD: It’s true that Tales of Arcadia has always been a mixture of excitement and drama, with great emotions, humor, and real poignancy. Musically, that was a lot of fun to dig into—especially Toby’s storyline—and to have such a deep well from an emotional point of view to follow with the music. It was really gratifying.
VD: One of my favorite musical sequences was during the battle between the lava Titan and Gun Robot at the harbor. How did you come up with the sound for that scene? Were there any influences you drew from?
JD: One of the challenges of scoring the Titans was that there were three Titans that were all sort of the same kind of creature, though they were all a little bit different too. So, I wanted to have that one four-note brass motif that said very simply and powerfully, “This is a Titan.” After that I just subtly changed and customized each Titan to have its own version of that four-note brass motif, while also making sure that it was obvious that this was the world of the Titans that you were entering when they were on the screen.
The battle scenes in this film were about as complex as any I’ve ever done, and I think I’ve done quite a few at this point in time! It is really time consuming to do this moment-by-moment action scoring where you are trying to keep the themes intact while also following the very important storylines of the fight itself—the ups and downs, the punches and the counter-punches. It was a lot of tinkering, but it was a lot of fun to see it up there on the big screen, as we did the other night, and see it all fall together like that.
VD: Considering all the factors at play–like the fact that this is a feature finale to an 88-episode, 3-part fantasy series and that de Toro and his team wanted this finale to be more epic than any Tales of Arcadia story they’d done before—was anything intimidating, or uniquely challenging with the scoring the film?
JD: Animation action music is a real workout. You can work all day and all night and only write a minute of this stuff, so a score like this is very work-intensive. The real challenge in this score was bringing together all these musical motifs that coalesced with the storylines from the film itself and having it all make sense in one movie.
I didn’t want it to be a dog’s breakfast of different styles and ideas. 3Below had its own sound and Wizards had its own sound and Rise of The Titans also had some new ideas. Bringing those three sounds all together so that it made sense, but also clearly referenced the characters of the earlier series, was the challenge. It was a lot of fun, but it took a while to figure it out.
VD: You also worked on the animated film Onward, which has a lot of similar concepts to Tales of Arcadia. How has this latest experience stood out for you among other projects?
JD: There are certainly some similarities between a film like Onward, which is a beautiful Pixar movie, and the fantasy world of a Guillermo del Toro project. The difference is that this was a much longer story. It was four years of work spread-out over 40 episodes by the time all three of those series wrapped up.
This was a storyline where one had to sustain the interest in the music over a big stretch of time. I was always trying to connect with the audience and call them back to the things I wanted to draw their attention to and hopefully, I did a good job of that.
VD: What did you think when you finally saw the music and final animation all put together?
JD: We saw the film all together in the movie theater the other night, and I thought that was awesome. I thought the visual effects were crazy and the film is something Guillermo is very proud of, as he should be!
VD: Looking back on your musical journey with these characters, what will you miss most about composing/creating music for them and their life adventures?
JD: I got quite attached to many of those themes all through the process and I really enjoyed being able to call back something like Aja’s theme for example, when she lands her spaceship Rise of The Titans and Krel sees her for the first time. The themes are like old friends to me, and I’ll miss these characters and this world and those themes. I’m grateful we got to bring it to a proper ending, and this is something I’m proud to have included in the library of my career.