‘DuckTales’ Composer Dominic Lewis on Honoring Nostalgia & Crafting Something Original
Returning this weekend in earnest is Disney XD’s DuckTales, a new spin on a cartoon classic that sees Scrooge McDuck taking globe-trotting adventures with his grandnephews and other allies. As recognizable as those characters are, one could argue that the show’s catchy theme song is even more so. (I’d wager it’s playing in your head right now.) So when I had the opportunity to talk to the composer of the new series, who had a hand in crafting the delightful new theme song, I jumped at the chance.
Meet Dominic Lewis, the man hard at work on making sure the music matches the epic scope of each episodic adventure in DuckTales. Born into a musical family where “there was a lot of love of film, theater, and English literature in the house,” Lewis remarks that his upbringing’s “combination of story and music just seemed like a very natural one,” leading him into a career in music. That career has seen Lewis compose music for feature films like Money Monster, Fist Fight, Rough Night and the upcoming live-action/animation hybrid Peter Rabbit, as well as small-screen hits like Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. We talked about the challenges posed by composing for DuckTales, balancing nostalgia against originality, crafting individual character themes, and more.
After schooling me a bit about English cartoon shows Sharky & George, SuperTed, and BananaMan, the British-born Lewis talked about how the opportunity to compose for the new take on the international sensation that is DuckTales:
Lewis: I met Jay Stutler, who’s the head of music over at Disney TV, a while back and we were trying to work together, but my schedule was preventing it at that point. Then, he called my agent [asking], “Would he be interested in DuckTales?” And that was just a “Yes” right off the bat. I loved DuckTales as a kid. My schedule is nuts, but they were really cool about doing whatever it would take. My mind was already made up, I had to do it.
With a theme song as well known as that of DuckTales, I wondered if Lewis was feeling more pressure or excitement in getting it right:
Lewis: It was more excitement. From seeing the first shorts and animatics, it was clear that they were trying to steer clear of too much nostalgia, to create its own thing. Getting involved with the theme tune was pretty scary … exciting, too, but pretty scary because obviously it’s loved by everyone across the world.
In terms of doing the score, I was just asked to bring what I bring to animation, a sort of floral, orchestral stuff with hybrid instruments wherever they are going to be in the world. I didn’t really feel too much pressure about it because it was going to be different from what Ron Jones did. But at the same time, I’m trying to have some callbacks to what he was doing in the feel and the atmosphere. It was really exciting.
Obviously when it comes out, you feel nervous. Are people going to like it? What are people going to say about my score? What are people going to say about the show? So far, after the release of one and two, it’s been very positive. I’ve had a lot of people tweeting me asking if I can release the soundtrack.
Because I wasn’t familiar with the term, here’s what Lewis means by “hybrid instruments”:
Lewis: Basically, the traditional orchestra doesn’t have band instruments or synths in it, obviously. The triplets’ theme is on a Wurlitzer with drums. If I had orchestral stuff to that, I call it a hybrid because it’s two different styles.
Here’s Lewis’ take on balancing nostalgia vs striving for originality:
Lewis: From my first meeting with all the guys, their slogan was that they wanted to create the DuckTales that you think you remember. Actually, when you go back and watch it, you can’t really understand what the nephews are saying, and it’s all kind of a strange experience because you remember this cartoon as being the best thing ever. But you go back and go, “Huh … it’s not as good as I remember.” So the whole point was to create this show that was what you think you remember.
With the theme tune, I was very lucky to be involved with it. A producer named [Michael] Smidi [Smith] did a fantastic job with it. In my first meeting, they asked me what my thoughts were. I had a few, which were to change some chords, think back to the original, let’s try to get that horn hook line in there somehow—the executives didn’t want to use the brass because they thought it would be too reminiscent of the old one and too nostalgic—but I did try. I tried so hard to get the horns in there. In the end, we end up using that line on strings, which is a nice little change. You still get that really great hook.
Smidi did a really, really great job and they wanted my opinion on it since they knew my love for the original theme song. I kind of tacked on at the end, really, and did a little bit of producing on the string arrangement, added some chugging cinematic strings. But from the very beginning, they wanted this to feel big and cinematic, like little movies. They’ve done a great job. The animation’s fantastic. It says a lot when you can write a massive orchestral score behind a 2D cartoon and it holds it, perfectly.
That was a great opportunity for me, with the orchestra, to just go really big and epic and it holds it great and it works so well. It’s kind of like that 80s adventure throwback: The Goonies, Indiana Jones, all those John Williams scores. But it’s updated, it’s fresh, there are hybrid instruments, there are synths and guitars and drums, stuff that makes it a little bit more accessible for kids.
As recognizable as the show’s theme is, the rest of the characters will be getting their own themes as well:
Lewis: Obviously Scrooge is the most heroic and broad theme that I came up with. It’s sort of like a Scrooge/DuckTales theme, because he is inherently DuckTales … he’s the main event. Then I have a theme for the triplets. I toyed with the idea of having themes for each one, but they’re such a unit. They have their own storylines, but I tend to just mold the triplets theme in a way that reflects that character. Webby has a theme, which is, when I wrote it, kind of very sweet and on the surface of what Webby is, and then it was really cool molding that into her other character, which is this badass action hero. Launchpad has a theme, which is just kind of a bass line on an upright bass. It was a cool one to do because most people’s favorite character is Launchpad—I know he’s mine, because he’s so hilarious—and he’s sort of cool but he’s obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed. I wanted to create this very simple bass line; it’s kind of cool, but it’s kind of plodding, not quite as sharp as he should be.
There are new themes every episode. Every time there’s a bad guy, he’ll have a theme. It’s really fun–so much fun–coming up with stuff.
Lewis tends to shy away from reusing or rehashing old themes:
Lewis: I tend not to do that. I don’t want to mess with people’s memories. I got a message the other day by accident that said, “The moment when Scrooge is opening his Money Bin, is that like a hint to ‘The Moon Theme’ from the Nintendo game?” I was like, “No.” [laughs] If it sounds like it, I guess it’s kind of cool, but no, it’s not. I tend to steer clear of checking out old stuff, because it just means I’m coming at it from a new angle, a fresh angle, so I’m not messing with people’s memories.
But where his inspiration comes from–and where it leads to–is much more original:
Lewis: Everywhere, really. From old 80s movies to Michael Bay. When Webby’s being a badass, she has this Michael Bay vibe, which makes it way funnier because she’s just this tiny little duck who’s kicking ass. Scrooge tends to be a hybrid of that 80s adventure Spielberg-Lucas vibe crossed with the hybrid instruments. Then, the nephews tend to be kind of, not pop music, but … There is actually a lot of pop music in there. We write the source stuff as well, so I have to draw from what’s going on in the Top 40.
Oh, and I think I’ve created a new genre which is “Chinese Big Band.” That will come up later in the series and that was really fun to do. Mixing Nelson Riddle-style music with traditional Chinese instruments, that was really wacky but it worked. It’s really cool.
If Lewis had to choose between composing music for live-action or animation…
Lewis: I think honestly I do have a preference for animation because I love orchestral writing. There are opportunities to write for orchestra in live-action but they’re not as frequent as they used to be. But movies like Money Monster … that was such a great opportunity to try and push the envelope and draw from my electronic music-listening experiences when I was growing up. I haven’t had an opportunity to do a live-action where I could just really go for it orchestrally, drawing from my classical influences. The way that the orchestra is used a lot of the time is [non-traditional.] What Hans [Zimmer] made so huge was basically using the orchestra like a guitar, like a band instrument, which is really, really powerful but I find that I’m way more comfortable using it in a traditional way. Whenever I get a chance to do that, I find that I’m way more fulfilled. At the same time, messing around with synths and doing sound design is cool, too, which is why I mix it up.
Here’s what else is coming up for Lewis:
Lewis: I’m currently working on the new Peter Rabbit movie, which is amazing. I’m very excited about it. That’s keeping me very busy at the moment. It’s not what you think it would be when you think Peter Rabbit. I’m not going to say too much, but it’s not traditional, I’ll put it that way. I’m drawing from my knowledge of popular music over a span of 40 years, from The Beatles to Basement Jaxx, and I’m still very much exploring. It’s nice to be involved so early.
As for DuckTales, be sure to tune in Saturday, September 23rd on Disney XD with two new back-to-back episodes starting at 7:00 a.m. EDT/PDT.