HBO’s new television show, The Babyis billed as a horror series in the vein of the acclaimed movie Get Out. And it’s true. The show, which debuts on the premium channel on April 24, is both terrific and eerie, odd and sumptuous.
But beyond the excellent acting, storytelling, and plot, how does a show like this come together musically? How do the folks in charge of writing the songs, scoring the show, and editing the sounds make everything work to bring those eerie feelings to life?
Well, that’s exactly what we asked the show’s composer Lucrecia Dalt, music supervisors Pete Saville and Zoe Bryant, and music editor Ed Hamilton. So, without further ado, let’s see what they had to say about their work below.
American Songwriter: When you begin composing for a new show, what are the first two to three things you do first? Is it watching the show to get a sense of what’s needed, is it just improvising on a theme or two, or is it it going back to older ideas? What happens first?
Lucrecia Dalt (composer): Once I’ve read the scripts and had a conversation with the creators and directors to understand the energy of the show, I start compiling a playlist with music from other artists as well as mine that I think are in the creative line of it, this is how I start to test if I am in a good direction, also to suggest ideas that I could explore. Then I’d go to create a “sound menu.” These are usually short snippets of sounds to test the first palette, this could be ranging from short recordings of different vocal instruments and percussion to different types of synths or processes. After this I’d start composing the first themes, for this show there was already a creative direction of certain sounds they wanted to explore in the score around extended vocal techniques, weird bodily vocals, and drumming, so the first themes were exploring what I could do using those specific elements.
AS: How did you begin to come up with the sounds and songs for The Baby as the process went along? And when did you know you were done?
LD: The first theme that I developed was for the opening scene. I wanted to explore the idea of a leitmotif, something distinct and memorable, yet simple, that would take many forms throughout the show. I made that line with a clarinet processed with tape delay. I also focused at the beginning quite a lot on trying to find the different sounds that specifically related to The Baby As a character, as he doesn’t have a voice, the possible different sounds that are related to various things he does, and how he affects people. Then, the process was to create themes constantly, I was frequently sending folders with about three or four pieces, which they would then use to tempt the first cuts, this was very helpful to keep filtering what was preferred from what I was offering. Then I would score to picture.
Finishing a score is a joint process; I present raw ideas that respond to what my intuition thinks a scene needs, and then it enters into a collective process of scrutiny that ends up shaping the piece to its final state. The Baby has been a dream project to work on, they reacted very positively to the first ideas I presented, which in most cases I thought to myself – this is going to be a little too radical for TV, but let’s see how they react- it was such a fun project to be part of.
AS: How do you know when something works for a given show—is it clear in an instant, is it work-shopped, do you sleep on it for a period of days? Or do you just know when you know?
Pete Saville (music supervisor): It all starts from discussions with the creators and writers. Then we begin researching and compiling ideas that feel “right” for the show. Sometimes there are obvious starting points like a period, a social or cultural scene, geography, or a character type. But it’s always a process of getting closer and closer to what works by a process of testing ideas against each other, and to picture.
Typically, on an eight-part show, by the time you get mid-way through, what works starts to become very obvious and natural. In a way, the show starts to define itself. Surprisingly, that can actually make it harder to find a perfect cue sometimes, because what you need for a scene can be so specific. But that’s the challenge! And when you do find that perfect cue, it’s obvious because the scene is suddenly amplified. It becomes more than the sum of its parts, which is what we’re after!
AS: When you were thinking about the music supervision for The Baby, what were the crucial sounds or feelings you wanted to hit? How did you know your musical choices would work, in the end?
Zoe Bryant (music supervisor): At the start, when creating “mood-board” playlists for the show’s creators, Sian and Lucy, we were focusing on some very specific types of sound—musicians with unusual vocal talents, such as Inuk throat singers, or Yma Sumac with her extreme vocal range. Sian and Lucy were keen for the show—particularly the score—to have an organic, “earthy” sound. We also explored a more “tribal” percussion sound, with artists such as Babatunde Olatunji. These early steers helped us search and expand as we worked our way through the episodes.
In terms of feelings: right from the start, we discussed the importance of the balance between comedy and horror. It had to be “just right,” particularly with the score. And we already had the perfect composer for this in mind. Lucrecia Dalt, who we knew could tread that delicate line perfectly.
We don’t always know whether a musical choice will work, but you do generally get an initial instinct on whether it is “right” for a show or not—does it feel The Baby or not? As above, it’s a process. Of course, there are the occasional happy accidents—songs that just work. But generally, it is a journey, and music decisions get settled with exploration and time.
AS: What is your role in the final product of a television show? Is it a little bit of everything or are there very specific details you must account for?
Ed Hamilton (music editor): It’s different for each project, and there’s always a good mix of creative and organizational, which is one of the great things about music editing; There’s always variety to the work. The role, as I see it, has two main responsibilities:
The first is to make sure the composer has all the support they need to best allow them to focus on the creative aspects of scoring. This covers everything from being a sounding board to bounce ideas around with, to helping to decipher any notes that come back—it’s never easy talking about music and it’s useful to have multiple heads on sometimes—to looking ahead at other episodes to see how themes and motifs are translating and what development may be needed. Often this will entail full stem edits and re-versioning to get a given cue close to complete ahead of scoring.
Sometimes I’ll attend the final mix if the composer can’t be there—to give them a voice in the room, and to assist the mix engineer with any final music tweaks that may come up. I also work closely with the music supervisors, both on the score, and on any commercial cues ideas that need cutting to picture.
The more administrative side is making sure the composer has all the assets they need from post-production and is on top of picture changes and scheduling. This has become particularly relevant over the last couple of years. With so much work happening remotely, the picture is often in flux until the last minute.
The second part of the role is interfacing between the composer and post-production in the other direction. Making sure that post has all the latest cue versions, all conformed to the latest picture edits and updated on the cue sheets, basically making sure the director, picture editors, and execs can always see where each scene is at musically; the Avid must get fed. I’m sometimes involved ahead of scoring, working with the director and picture editors to try and feel out what direction the score might go in—a process I particularly enjoy once the composer has been chosen, as then we can start to shape using the composer’s palette.
AS: When you finished your work on The Baby, what did you think? How did you know you were done and that it would work properly?
E.H.: Honestly, I’ve loved the show right from the beginning, it’s always felt very good to watch, but with Lucrecia’s score it feels really special. I usually feel the music is working as it should when I watch an episode the whole way through without stopping to tweak the music and get totally taken by the story, that’s when it really feels like television.
Photo via HBO