Ludwig Göransson, Disney Execs Talk ‘Turning Red’ Music
“Turning Red,” Pixar’s latest animated adventure, posed some pretty big musical challenges: It’s about a 13-year-old girl, obsessed with a boy band, whose Chinese ancestry literally looms large as she transforms into a giant panda when her emotions spin out of control.
It took a trio of world-class talent: Grammy-winning Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell for the songs and Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winner Ludwig Göransson for composing the partition.
That such high-profile talent is available and willing to contribute to ‘Turning Red’ speaks volumes about Pixar’s musical reputation, which has won five Music Oscars (including ‘Soul’ last year) and 11 other nominations. for either song. or score since the original “Toy Story” in 1995.
Tom MacDougall, chairman of Walt Disney Music, spoke to director Domee Shi — whose personal story of mother-daughter coming-of-age conflict inspired ‘Turning Red’ — and reached out to them all in 2019, before production on the film began. .
MacDougall had been a fan since Eilish’s first hit “Ocean Eyes” and has been impressed, he says, “by how much territory their songwriting and performances have covered” ever since. He remembers Eilish saying she grew up listening to boy bands.
“When Mei is with her friends, what song would they sing? Which one do they all know? MacDougall remembers thinking, “And when they see a boy and they have that heartbeat, what do they hear? they? So when there’s the get-up-and-go song, what would it be? It all went back to the narration.
The hit pop duo ultimately created three songs for the film: “Nobody Like U,” a hit for the film’s fictional 4*Town band; “1 True Love,” a quiet ballad about heartache; and “U Know What’s Up,” a massive stadium hit. All were written in early 2020, shortly after Eilish and O’Connell finished work on their now Oscar-nominated James Bond theme “No Time to Die.”
Finneas is not only co-writer and producer of the songs, he is actually one of the five voices of 4*Town (the others are Jordan Fisher, Josh Levi, Topher Ngo and Grayson Villanueva). “Domee had this idea that it was a diverse group of singers,” says MacDougall.
The songs were the first recordings made by Disney after the COVID industry shutdown in 2020, with the five performers in specially constructed vocal booths on the Fox rating stage. “They looked like gigantic telephone booths,” MacDougall says. “We had baffles and foam tops and specially constructed doors to get them in and out.”
Göransson was hired around the same time, MacDougall says, because “we were going to need a score that embraced a wide range of sounds”. He had just won the Oscar for “Black Panther” when “Turning Red” came out, but in fact MacDougall had hired him years earlier for animated shorts (including 2016’s “Inner Workings”).
Coincidentally, “Turning Red” director Shi won an Oscar for her Pixar short film “Bao” at the same February 2019 ceremony where Göransson won his Oscar. The composer’s wife, Serena, a violinist, had played on the score of “Bao” and had reveled in its touching story. Also, Serena’s mother is Korean and she knew something about the complexity of mother-daughter relationships in Asian families.
“I wanted to score to represent those uncomfortable and confusing feelings that we all encounter on our journey into adulthood,” Göransson said. Variety. “It’s a crazy mix of musical genres, from New Jack Swing to 90s boy bands, traditional Chinese sounds and Western orchestra. I wanted the music to act like a mixtape for Mei.
He wrote a theme for Mei, played variously by the conventional Western flute and the dizi, a Chinese bamboo flute, depending on how she feels; a theme for Mei’s mother, Ming, played by the guzheng, a Chinese plucked string instrument; and music for the panda, “a bizarre and awkward theme” played by the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle, plus a synthesizer and a bianzhong, a set of Chinese bronze bells. The pipa, a Chinese lute, and the percussions of Chinese opera, brought additional colors to the family and its mystical past.
Göransson learned to play the guzheng during his research, although he hired professional soloists at the time of recording. He had seen storyboards and spoken with Shi in 2020, but the actual writing took about eight months in 2021 when he got to see a more finished film.
He combined Chinese sounds with a 75-piece orchestra from Los Angeles. “The addition of an orchestra was the final element. I used them to reinforce the main ideas and make them more cinematic,” he says. The result is wild, raucous fun, with traditional Chinese instruments flavoring an often fast, big-beat orchestral groove that propels “Turning Red” to its satisfying conclusion.
“We had two weeks” in the recording studio, reports Göransson. “Pixar gave us time to experiment with the orchestra, to see what worked and what didn’t.” The result, he adds, was “Everything came naturally and nothing felt forced.”
With “Turning Red” behind him, Göransson now turns his attention to “Black Panther 2,” which is nearing the end of filming in Atlanta. As for Eilish and O’Connell, they have an Oscar date on March 27…but the songs from “Turning Red” will be eligible for next year’s Oscars.