Composer Thomas Newman on Scoring Pixar’s ‘Elemental’

When composer Thomas Newman was having early conversations about the music of Pixar’s “Elemental,” he looked for a connecting thread between the film’s imaginary world, where elements are characters, and the human world. “I looked for similar issues of otherness and how that could be reflected in music, and how we would identify with that through our human ear,” says Newman.

His approach to cracking the score was about applying a “musical color,” and association to the universal themes. When he looked at scenes and the vibrant colors of “Elemental,” what did his ears hear sonically, and did that match what his eyes were seeing?

With 93 credits to his name, and having worked on Pixar movies like “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo,” Newman is no stranger to scoring music for otherness-type characters. Peter Sohn’s story builds a city where earth, water, fire and air are characters, living in their respective communities. But, at its heart, “Elemental” is a story of immigration and love between two opposites.

For Ember (Leah Lewis), Newman says, “Ember has a fiery temper so there was more pluck with her sound. There was a zizzi-style bowing. In contrast, for the water element-based Wade (Mamoudou Athie), it was cooler sounds. I used metals and a vibraphone percussion.”

In one scene, Wade and Ember go to game at Cyclone Stadium to see the Windbreakers in action — think basketball, but in the air and giant clouds. Says Newman, “There are many puns in the movie, and this is one example.” Sohn had suggested using “Kernkraft 400” by German techno artist Zombie Nation. Since Gale didn’t have a cue or motif, it was fitting to use a music cue that is a fixture of sporting events around the world.

But Newman still had to use more music. As the Windbreaks start to fall behind their opponents, Wade starts to rally the crowd. “It’s a Wade moment, and that was the last thing I wrote for the film. It was about finding the tone. Where were these colors and sounds coming from, and how did they relate?”

The sitar, mandolins and brass instruments all fit Newman’s search for coloring the score. However, the electronic wind instrument can be heard throughout, accompanying a male vocalist. “It was about taking certain sounds from the EWI and the vocals and combining them…it gave that sense of color and spirit,” says Newman.

However, the most critical scene he had to get right was the film’s opening sequence that sees Ember’s parents arrive at the port of Elemental City. “That’s a long montage,” explains Newman of the scene that goes from an ocean mist to the boat arriving to the immigration process to finding a home. Says Newman of the six-minute sequence, “The issue was where does this begin, and how was I going to pace it?”

That was the cue he had to get right when it came to the “musical colors.” He says, “The beginnings are the most challenging because you’re laying the groundwork.” So, he came up with the cue “Across the Ocean,” which opens the film, and “Elemental,” which follows Ember as she goes from a baby to young teen who encounters Wade for the first time. This was where he pulled on cultural influences from across the globe using Chinese and Indian instruments to reflect that “Elemental” was a global story.

Listen to the score below.

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