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Zimmer, team, alums rundown Pt 5 - RC intro + 2005-07: (B)atmosphere Man Begins (5a)
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• Posted by: JBlough   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Friday, April 29, 2022, at 5:32 a.m.
• IP Address:

This is part of a series. The last 2003-04 post can be found here:


“I don’t want anybody to sound like me. I want everybody to go and figure out their own style and figure out their own life. I don’t want to have to reinvent myself all the time. I expect those other bastards to go and reinvent themselves.”

At some point, the Media Ventures sound ended and the Remote Control Productions sound began. Figuring out when is challenging.

Some have speculated that the easy way to divide Media Ventures-type scores from Remote Control-type scores is the appearance of Lorne Balfe. But he’d been there for a while already (he even still refers to Media Ventures in some later interviews) and had written additional music for several 2004 works.

Frank Lehman, a music theory professor at Tufts, posited that the Remote Control era showed “a hesitance to write anything that is overly catchy, ornate, or goal-oriented. [There’s a] drive to abstract away melodic information [and combine] urgency and stasis.” Zimmer would start to make comments that suggested he was a bit bored with the action mannerisms he was known for and also aware that the commercial imperatives of the business were changing. In 2010 he said, “It’s evolutionary. I wouldn’t be able to write a tune like Gladiator anymore because it feels like it’s inappropriate for where we are. I’m not interested in massive heroic tunes anymore. Now I’m interested in how I can take two, three or four notes and make a really complex emotional structure.” The artist who said in the mid-90s that “you can write the most marvelous textures in the world and if you don’t have a tune it won’t go anywhere” was seemingly gone thanks to a mix of personal preference, his perception of industry trends, and an established penchant for reinvention (both of genres and of himself) to avoid becoming stale. But such pivots aren’t unique to Zimmer in this profession; Jerry Goldsmith got sick of writing action music after the 80s and tried to pivot to more character based dramas.

Technically Media Ventures didn’t exist in 2005 as the company was renamed following a lawsuit. Longtime business partner Jay Rifkin, who’d gone eight years or so without a score mixing credit, would sue Zimmer in late 2003, alleging (among other things) that Zimmer was engaging in under-the-table deals with other composers to avoid sending revenues to Rifkin. Zimmer would countersue in early 2004, alleging (among other things) that Rifkin was embezzling money and extorting others at the company. These allegations ended a collaboration that had lasted over 15 years and had unquestionably altered the U.S. film industry - admittedly, a collaboration that was born of necessity since Zimmer needed a union sound mixer on Rain Main, but also one that was enhanced by a significant investment from Rifkin’s father to create Media Ventures. It would seem a prime example of the old adage “don’t go into business with your friends”, though perhaps in this case the adage is “don’t go into business with old acquaintances with convenient memberships.”

Like the Holst estate’s lawsuit over Gladiator, the Rifkin-Zimmer feud would largely disappear from the public eye shortly after it was announced. Neither has publicly said much if anything since about the other, but while Zimmer has flourished Rifkin has all but vanished, only surfacing in seemingly random jobs - CEO of a Chinese marketing company, a music producer credit on Roland Emmerich’s umpteenth death-to-the-planet bonanza 2012, and a board seat alongside actor Masi Oka from the NBC series Heroes on a 2016 virtual reality start-up, a company which, like Rifkin, has no public record of doing anything since. Contrary to his boastful statements in the expansionist mid-90s days of Media Ventures, it appeared there were actually limits set on what he could and couldn’t do now.

However, while Remote Control became the brand at some point in 2004, the old Media Ventures sound still lingered into that year. So perhaps it’s better to define the Remote Control era’s sound - or at least the inaugural RC stretch from 2005 to 2012 - by its partnerships, the industry dominance of RC and alumni of MV, and everything else that was going on in film music at the time. Old collaborators would remain (Jerry Bruckheimer sustained by Pirates sequels, James L. Brooks and his long-gestating Simpsons movie, Dreamworks, the Scott brothers, Michael Bay), but the Zimmer brand would start to be defined by different directors - Christopher Nolan, Guy Ritchie, and a previously unimaginable re-teaming with Ron Howard. John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams would write some of their best works, with one of them cited by some as the finest achievement to ever come out of this “factory” lineage. Klaus Badelt would write something that outshone all his prior scores for a film that barely appeared stateside. Harry’s brother Rupert, Heitor Pereira, and Marc Streitenfeld got their big breaks. Steve Jablonsky would write something that Hans would call “part of the culture.” Jim Dooley and James S. Levine became established TV composers. And a new wave of apprentices would advance or enter the program - Balfe, DJ Tom Holkenborg, record producer Henry Jackman, electric violinist Michael Levine, London Music Works’ Steve Mazzaro, and the bearded Andrew Kawczynski.

The company and its graduates would corner the non-Disney/Pixar market for American-made animation music, march more frequently into video games, and perform one of the most consequential rescue jobs in television history. 18 of the top 50 highest-grossing movies released in the U.S. over this time had scores from someone who came through Media Ventures or Remote Control. For the first time ever, a Media Ventures alum would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, though it would come against arguably Zimmer’s most praised work from these years - paradoxically, neither would win the award. And, almost clandestinely, Zimmer would inaugurate the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The revised template for Zimmer and team’s blockbuster sound would befuddle and even repel portions of the film score fan community who lamented the new trends taking over movie music, especially with old stalwarts Elmer Bernstein, David Raksin, and Jerry Goldsmith all passing away only a year before. But it would also win new fans, ones who often appreciated the style and its fit with films they adored; like Bruckheimer and Bay, they may have liked Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark but they did not necessarily approach the medium with an inherent fondness for classical music or much of the film music inspired by it.

This all came as technology was revolutionizing the profession. Gear had been part of the game for a while (recall HGW’s story on needing a bank loan for Roland samplers in the mid-90s), but now more and more producers and directors expected every piece of music to have a fully mocked-up demo on a computer before it was ever recorded, something Zimmer, his team, and his alumni were obviously well-positioned to take advantage of. In a 2006 piece in Variety, composer Alexandre Desplat lamented the increasing prevalence of scores written on synthesizers that “don’t sound very good”, composer John Debney expressed concern that new composers would become overly reliant on software and “forgo the study of counterpoint and harmony”, and John Powell wondered if some creative spark had been lost - “would Elmer Bernstein have written music as great as he did if he’d had to do it all on technology rather than a piece of paper?” Not quoted: Titanic composer James Horner, who hated demos and preferred to work with collaborators who would trust his past record and technical competence.

And it all came as the nature of how music was consumed and shared was again revolutionized over these eight years - arguably leaps and bounds beyond what online piracy and iTunes had already wrought. Record store franchise Tower Records, which was the place that Pinar Toprak had reignited her composing interest by purchasing Zimmer’s The Prince of Egypt on CD and which once advertised its New York City location as The Largest Record-Tape Store in the Known World, was liquidated. Borders, the Ann Arbor-based book and music retailer whose Troy location was where I bought a CD of James Horner’s exquisite Legends of the Fall music in high school, ceased operations nationwide. Music streaming company Spotify was founded, the online video site YouTube launched, and the DVD rental company Netflix started streaming movies online. The iPhone debuted, as did Amazon’s digital music service Amazon MP3 (now Amazon Music). And the explosion of participation in social media sites provided opportunities for old and new score fans to connect and discover material.

It was the age of atmosphere - but also the age of medieval opera, the Shrek franchise getting run into the ground, robot Bayhem, the Ice Age franchise getting run into the ground, three very different X-Men scores, dancing penguins, and whatever the heck Domino was. Oh, and cactus spines. It’s complicated.


Let’s begin with the first few years. The 2003-04 series started with something dull. The 2005-07 series starts with something that could not be more different.

Robots (2005) - ****
John Powell; add’l arranging & programming by John Ashton Thomas & T.J. Lindgren;
orchestrations by B & W Fowler/Moriarty, Brad Dechter, Randy Kerber, John Ashton Thomas, Mark McKenzie & Jon Kull;
featured percussion performed by the Blue Man Group; conducted by Pete Anthony

Robots, the second feature film from Blue Sky Studios, was a modest success with critics and audiences but hasn’t lingered in the cultural consciousness. Like its film, the music from Robots seems a tad forgotten, at least among the animation scores of John Powell. It’s not performed live like How To Train Your Dragon. It didn’t spawn a sequel unlike Ice Age 2 or Rio. But even if it was a lesser score, it would still be important for no other reason than it's the first time Powell worked with Blue Sky, which would employ him on two of those aforementioned films (plus their sequels and the later Ferdinand).

Robots was the first animated movie Powell scored since he was booted off of Shrek, and he used the opportunity to try out more of the zany stuff he was doing in earlier works like Evolution and Rat Race. “I do love Carl Stalling (the master of the Warner Bros style) and Scott Bradley (who did the original Tom & Jerry), and early Disney stuff. But at the same time the Mickey Mouse effect, which is sticking too closely to the action - it’s a terrible thing to do in the wrong way; you can make things funnier, but it doesn’t give you any subtext. Animation has a different set of rules, but you’re doing a story, you’re trying to find the subtext. If the story has subtext, it’s always better to try to pretend it’s a [regular] film.” Depending on how you lean on the spectrum of tolerating Powell’s more outwardly outlandish music, Robots (and a lot of Powell’s future output for this studio) will either feel like what he calls “chaotic wonderment” (something he believes you can get a much greater amount of in animation) or spastic goofball nonsense.

“I think the visuals are more important in animation because it’s a bunch of visual artists who are making it. There’s a massive allowance of creativity that you really very rarely get in live action. In the cross-town express sequence there’s a mad piece of music.”

Fear not - it isn’t a lesser score. It doesn’t have the heart of the Dragon scores, but its main themes are strong nonetheless and seem to satisfy the “stop making us think we’re looking at something not human as fast as possible” instructions from Antz. It’s not the borderline schizophrenic silliness that the later Ice Age scores could sometimes be, but it’s still a rowdy good time in its more active moments, and it’s much easier to tolerate the rapid shifts in style here even when, say, some bagpipes burst through the mix. It may not have the astonishing set pieces of Chicken Run, but it still has something like Escape, one of those early action gems in Powell’s solo animation career that tosses out a diverse array of propulsive material - hyperactive yet coherent enough to avoid Mickey Mousing. And at least give Powell props for creativity since, according to Germaine Franco, “he wanted to [use] dog and cat toys, so I went to the pet store, and there I was, tapping them all, listening to the pitches. They must have thought I was crazy.”

A Mark McKenzie sighting! Also, this would be the last time T.J. Lindgren would be part of Powell’s team - he would bounce between other composers for a few years before becoming a key part of Danny Elfman’s team.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) - ***
John Powell; add’l arranged & programming by James McKee Smith & John Ashton Thomas;
orchestrated by B Fowler/Moriarty, Brad Dechter, Randy Kerber, Mark McKenzie & John Ashton Thomas;
Germaine Franco as score production coordinator; album edited & compiled by Powell’s assistant Daniel Lerner

Director Doug Liman: “I handed John a scene where a husband and wife are beating the crap out of each other, and I wanted the audience to laugh. That is a helluva challenge to give a composer.”

For me, with the exception of the Latin tango and guitar elements, this work is an almost too-familiar extension of the live action style that Powell had been working on over the last few years. Themes don’t reach out and grab you (save maybe for the final minute or so of the conclusive The Last Adventure), though as Powell had to contend with over 15 songs in the movie he may have been in a Rundown-type situation where that wasn’t the objective of what the filmmakers wanted him to do with his music.

“Doug said to me, ‘This isn’t an action film. This is a film about my parents.’ Instead of an accountant and a teacher, they just happen to be assassins. My job was to hold on to the character of the love between the two people, no matter what was happening. That’s why it’s got this Latin feel. That a good shorthand for the romance and the sexual tension.”

Some folks like this more than I do. But it’s certainly not as masterful as Paycheck, and it’s definitely a step below Agent Cody Banks and Bourne Supremacy in terms of memorability.

Into The West (2005) - ****
Geoff Zanelli; add’l music by Blake Neely & Bobby Tahouri; orchestrated by B & W Fowler/Moriarty/McIntosh, Liz Finch, Rick Giovinazzo,
Ron Goldstein, Anna Stromberg & William Stromberg; conducted by Allan Wilson; album compiled by Phill Boucher; thank you to Hans Zimmer

The first significant entry of the brand into television. RC era discovery #1. No, it’s not the 1992 movie about Irish magical realism. This has Thanos in it.

Similar to 1962’s How The West Was Won, this Spielberg-produced miniseries would tell stories about settlers and Lakota Indians over multiple generations. The six-part “television event” featured an enormous cast, including Gary Busey with a huge mustache. It would be the most nominated program at the next year's Emmys but only win two awards, though one would be for Zanell’s music. “That Pirates credit made a big difference. People who worked on it were vocal in praising my work. I don’t know that I’d have been entrusted to take on a miniseries on my own [otherwise]. I was still in my 20s.”

If you thought Zanelli’s contributions to Pirates were going to inform this, you were dead wrong. There’s not an ounce of harshness or sonic manipulation here. There’s a depth and clarity to the sound of the orchestra - you can hear the bow on the strings (take that, Jerry!) and distinct woodwind harmonies. Like Powell and Gregson-Williams before him, Zanelli was proving you could go to school at Media Ventures but somewhat transcend that sound once you graduated. These guys weren’t cookie-cutter duplicates of Zimmer; many of them were fine with indulging in genre conventions without trying to reinvent the wheel.

“The score is a balancing act between the orchestra and the Native American drums and woodwinds. The two major thematic elements for the Lakota and the settlers were designed to work together at times, and also to work against each other when I needed the tension.”

There’s still a bit of Zanelli’s legacy Media Ventures days in here, in particular The Last Samurai. But the work in its more intimate moments also hews close to the sound of Bruce Broughton’s Western scores of the 80s and 90s, and some of it recalls the dramatic tendencies of James Horner (especially with how ethnic flutes carry melodies on top of the ensemble). As with The Haunted Mansion, it’s a work that’s able to package all of its influences into a coherent whole without dwelling on any of them for too long.

The music wasn’t officially released at the time of the series, though a 40-minute promotional disc was produced. Specialty soundtrack label La-La Land Records would finally issue over twice that amount of music on CD in 2013; that program is also on digital/streaming. It’s a long score, but it’s rarely dull. It also makes for a nice companion piece to Christopher Lennertz’s similar music for the video game Gun from the same year.

Spot The Contributor: future composer of the 2020 Marvel’s Avengers video game Bobby Tahouri appears!

The Promise / Wújí (2005) - *****
Klaus Badelt; orchestrated by Robert Elhai & Jeff Toyne; conducted by Li Xincao

“You have to leave [Remote Control] as soon as you can do your own thing. Instead of doing Pirates 4 I would rather do an independent film in China.”

Chen Kaige is not a name known much in America now, but in the 90s the director had Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin getting prominent placements at the Cannes Film Festival and releases in American theaters. But Chen’s kinky English language thriller Killing Me Softly went straight to DVD in most markets, and few of his subsequent films have received more than a marginal showing stateside. The Promise, a large-scale martial arts love story set in the Tang dynasty, was the first of those; its reviews suggested the director was a bit out of his depth with a fantasy film, though Chen has made quite a few films in this style since then and they have tended to do very well at the Chinese box office.

Klaus Badelt got connected with Chen via one of the film’s producers. “Chen is a superstar in China more than Steven Spielberg is in this country. Wherever I went with him in any restaurant in Beijing there’s a long line of people waiting for autographs. I asked him, ‘I’m very honored, but why ask me to do it?’ ‘[Because] I want this film to reach an audience beyond the Asian world.’” Badelt moved to China and worked on the score for five months.

“[Chen] sent me to explore all kinds of interesting music.” In addition to a large orchestra, Badelt seemed to have pulled in every dang specialty instrument he could get his hands on - dizi flutes, the wooden xiao flute, the xun clay pot, gu drums (China’s equivalent of the Japanese taiko), the plucked guzheng, and the hammered yangqin. He even incorporated an ancient song of the Yi minority peoples (gifted to him by a provincial governor) into the end credits. Chen didn’t want any overly traditional sounds or instruments in the film (he apparently hated the erhu), but “he totally agreed if I used them differently. I wrote [tunes] I would’ve written no matter what the instrument was. That he could live with.” Badelt was able to record some choir but ran out of time to include what he really wanted - a large girls choir for some flashbacks.

“It’s an earth-shattering sound if you have thirty guys hammering the shit out of these drums - datangu, tanggu, banggu, all different sizes of gu.”

This is one of the best East-West fusion scores ever. It’s not just an orchestra with specialty instruments tacked on, and it’s not just traditional instruments with some strings and brass in the background. It is the midway point between those, a beautiful synthesis of Badelt’s army of instruments into a flowing, harmonically rich work that doesn’t betray its Western sensibilities any more than it does its Eastern ones. It sounds like nothing Badelt ever wrote before. Heck, with the exception of the finale (which has a more compressed soundscape at times), it sounds like nothing Media Ventures ever produced. It toggles effectively between ensemble outbursts and intimate moments. Hollywood probably would’ve never let Badelt write something like the virtuosic violin solos in Princess Kite and The Promise.

Badelt spent a lot of time on his themes (it took him two weeks to get the love theme right), and as a result the major identities - one for each major character, plus the love theme - are, to borrow a phrase from Kendall Roy from Succession, “all bangers”. Badelt makes them work in both quieter settings and more gargantuan ones, though, let’s be honest…something like the General’s theme is just so much more satisfying when the brass is blasting it as loud as possible. There is rarely a moment Badelt isn’t doing some new variation on one of these ideas. There is not a single dull stretch; the score is on ALL. THE. TIME.

This is one of the most sensational recordings to ever come out of the Media Ventures lineage. It roars at an impressive volume, and yet there’s tremendous clarity across each section. Specialty instruments and soloists are incredibly well integrated. The location seems to have been partially responsible. “This hall is a brand new remodel of the concert hall of the old China National Symphony. It was so new we had to build the control room. It’s right next to the Forbidden City. When you get there you’re already in this certain mood. The acoustics there are just incredible. I think you can hear it because we didn’t add anything to the recording.”

At the time, this was the only score to come from a Media Ventures alum that was in the same league as The Lion King. It has since been surpassed, but it should not be forgotten (though it is unfortunately absent from digital/streaming services).

“The biggest compliment I had was when [Chen] said ‘Look, many people try to attack the film but nobody in China attacked the music.’”

Badelt also scored Chen’s 2017 Legend of the Demon Cat, though with the exception of a brief video from the recording sessions the music has never been released in any format. Shame.


Next time: Harry Christmas to all! It’s the year of Gregson-Williams, and the other Gregson-Williams, and the score almost done by Gregson-Williams (the one, not the other one).

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