A Dissection of the Musical Anatomy of a Comic-Con Superhero
We attended the 8th Annual Panel on The Anatomy of a Superhero and learned about the multiple pains and stresses faced by many modern film composers.
By Lisa Gullickson Published 28 July 2022
Welcome to Comic-Con Returns, our chronicle celebrating San Diego’s most powerful comic book convention and its rebirth after three long years of desolation. In this entry, we break down 8th Annual Panel on The Anatomy of a Superhero and discuss the challenges facing modern film and television film composers.
A thrilling and extremely frenetic riddle of the San Diego Comic–International scam prioritizes which panels to attend. Four days of densely packed back-to-back schedules, from the Marvel Studios panel in Hall H to “Storyboards: The Unseen Art of Hollywood” to “Leather Craft for Cosplay and More,” the perfect jerk lineup feels like 11th grade reckoning. And every attendee has mandatory signs they’re willing to queue for hours for, sacrificing valuable time on the exhibit hall floor. For me, The Musical Anatomy of a Super Hero is one of those panels.
This year marked the 8th Annual Anatomy of a Superhero sign, and the Indigo Ballroom at the Hilton Bayfront Inn was pretty crowded. Maybe the word got out last year, Michael Giacchino (Spider-Man: No Coming Home, Thor: Love and Thunderand much more) called Matt Reeves on his mobile before the announcement that he would indeed be the composer of The Batman. As it rang, he smiled conspiratorially at his delighted audience, “Don’t ruin it.” Of course, many show up hoping to get a piece of exclusive footage as the panelists share their musical snippets, which is always a treat. Nonetheless, I show up to see the camaraderie between these panelists who have the super cool but weirdly specific job of scoring superhero movies.
As a musician, I may be biased, but composing music is one of those mediums that most don’t have the vocabulary to discuss with satisfying specificity. I got my master’s degree in music, so I had to take classes in theory, orchestration, composition, and arrangement. Yet, as a singer, I’ve barely scratched the surface of translating the momentum of pure emotion into sound. However, I composed a somewhat passable arrangement of “Rubber Ducky” for five trombones.
For this reason, I’m sure it’s hard to find a moderator with the expertise to lead this musically anatomical conversation. But at Comic-Con in San Diego, they cleverly got around that inconvenience by having a composer moderate the panel. And since he’s there and all, who better than Michael Giacchino? He could be carrying on this analytical discussion in his sleep or, as he admitted at the start of this year’s panel, a bit hungover.
This year’s panel was stacked – Amie Doherty (She-Hulk: Lawyer), Nathalie Holt (Loki, bat girl), Christopher Beck (Wanda vision, Ant-Man: Quantumania, Shazam: Fury of the Gods), Nami Melumad (collaborator with Giacchino on Thor: Love and Thunder, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds), and Christopher Lennertz (The boys) – and we had a lot of baseball inside. For example, when Lennertz shared the clip he brought from The boys, we could barely hear his score under the heckling of Soldier Boy getting his face smashed by Homelander. Lennertz sheepishly explained, “There was music under there somewhere. I haven’t seen the final mix, but obviously the sound effects are really great. Giacchino digs softly, “It’s a sound effects panel, isn’t it?” but after that, the commiseration of having your hard work buried under rowdy fisticuffs became a recurring motif at their convo.
One of Michael Giacchino’s excerpts included a scene from Thor: Love and Thunder which featured the famous screaming goats, and Giacchino just shook his head, “One day they’re going to let us mix the movies we’re working on.” Would not it be nice ? What do you think? Are there any dubbing mixers here? Amie Doherty had similar heartaches, “We need a support group. You kill yourself on an action scene for three days, and you’re so proud of it. And then you see the final product, and you’re like, ‘there’s music here, you wouldn’t know it.’
After each composer has shared their clip, most of the talk about a superhero’s musical anatomy is made up of questions and answers from the audience, which can sometimes feel like a hot shower with a sunburn. Fortunately, this time around, the interviewers were never too impressed to ask a thoughtful and coherent question. In terms of “musical anatomy”, the questions only went to the surface, sticking to the more obvious aspects of orchestration and theme.
Questions of orchestration always intrigue me, ever since I learned that Giacchino used abandoned airplane parts as percussion instruments to compose the score for Lost. Music composition for a standard orchestra comes with a fairly defined palette of sounds, so it’s always fascinating when a composer includes an off-menu timbre. Since Camille Saint-Saëns’ score for The assassination of the Duke of Guise in 1908, film score composers tried to capture that perfect, evocative sound. Something different. And it’s not always easy.
Michael Giacchino described having a moment of orchestration epiphany spoiled by Natalie Holt, “I was thinking about this project I was working on, and I was like, ‘oh, I’m going to do something different with this project. I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to use a theremin and I’m going to do this thing. And then I was like, ‘Oh, Loki is coming by tonight. I’m going to go watch Loki.’ And then I was really pissed off when I watched it ’cause I was like, ‘Damn, Natalie [used the theremin].’ And I had to find something else. Then Holt corrected him with smug pleasure (or maybe I was just smug on his behalf). “No, only the Norwegian folk fiddle, the Hardanger.”
Because they constantly search for something new in the realm of superhero scores, these composers become magpies for noise, keeping a cache of aural treasures for future use. For example, Christophe Beck mentioned that he had a hidden recording: “It’s on my hard drive. He has been there for ten years. It’s called, all caps, “THE MOST AWESOME SOUND EVER CREATED”. And he hasn’t found a home yet, but I’m determined.
Others borrow stamps from other cultures. For example, Christopher Lennertz tried to fit steel drums into his scores, but no dice: “I tried to fit steel drums into probably seven or eight different comedy scores. […] I keep trying. And almost always, they say, ‘I like everything about this tail. [But] What’s that Caribbean thing in the back? Why is there reggae here? One of these days, someone’s gonna let me put on some steel drums. Natalie Holt said: “I have the same with a Gamelan [an indigenous ensemble of Indonesia]. I tried to incorporate that creatively. I even recorded it. And they’re like, ‘no, don’t like it.'” Then it was Giacchino’s turn to be smug, “I used a Gamelan in [The] Batman. He’s hidden under all those sound effects, so you can’t hear him. I could hear it, Michael, and I slapped my hand for my A in “Introduction to World Music.”
Nami Melumad came up with a unique method of finding new tones. She cultivates them herself using sampling software: “I’m a flautist and I record my flute a lot. And you can, with Kontakt, create a virtual instrument from your samples. And many of them are waiting for something. He might appear on Star Trek at some point because I can boldly go where no man has gone before. Melumad had a good laugh with that line, considering she’s the first female composer to add to the Star Trek legacy.
I can’t wait until the 9th Annual Musical Anatomy of a Superhero Panel. My only criticism is that the dissection of superhero movie music doesn’t go far enough. I’d love to see footage of the actual musicians in recording sessions bringing their compositions to life or if they’ve played stems so we can isolate and hear the different layers of musical texture. I would absolutely fall for it and die of excitement if they opened a file from their scoring software and threw it on the big screen. They could highlight repeating patterns or illustrate how they created different harmonic sounds and explain their intent. “Anatomical” is in the title, so let’s open these opuses and get our hands dirty.
One of the many nice things about the greatness of San Diego Comic-Con is that there’s programming to virtually eliminate the nerd itch. Obviously, The Annual Musical Anatomy of a Superhero reaches one of mine. A legion of do-it-yourselfers is manifesting our pop culture. It doesn’t matter if you are a trained musician or not; there is inspiration to be found by starting with nothing but an idea and fumbling around until you have invented something that ignites our imagination. And we humble fans can walk around in front of the mic and ask our questions which all boil down to, “How did you do it? How did you make us believe in superheroes? Some parts of the process may be ineffable but obviously not impossible. Because those morons with the mics did it.
Related Topics: Comic-Con
Lisa Gullickson is a freelance writer and podcaster. When she’s not clicking on Film School Rejects, you can find her talking about comics and self-care on Comic Book Couples Counseling. Accept words of affirmation on Twitter: @sidewalksiren (She/She)