The Fang-tastic Music of Vampirina

Jennifer Harmon, ASCAP Director, Film & TV Membership and Etan Rosenbloom, ASCAP Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications  •  September 29, 2017

Have you ever slept in a coffin? Do you fear sunlight? Have you been alive for hundreds of years? If the answer to all three of those questions is “no,” you are probably not a vampire. But even if garlic is your favorite food, you will find much that resonates with you in Disney Junior’s newest series Vampirina. The delightful animated show, which debuts on Sunday, October 1, follows a family of vampires living amongst the mortals after moving from Transylvania to Pennsylvania. As it turns out, young Vampirina (or “Vee”) and her parents have a lot more in common with us humans than you’d think.

One uncommon aspect of the show is its batty music, scared up by ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop with Richard Bellis alumna Layla Minoui (score) and ASCAP Foundation Musical Theatre Workshop alumni Michael Kooman & Christopher Dimond (songs). We caught up with these three supernaturally gifted music creators about their scary good, potentially immortal work on Vampirina.

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After eight seasons of working on the ABC series Castle, and numerous seasons scoring Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce, you're taking on Vampirina, your first animated series. What drew you to this series? 

Minoui: I’ve always been fascinated by the world of vampires. Growing up, I loved reading novels about these dark mystical characters and was particularly obsessed with The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. When I heard about the project VampirinaI was instantly intrigued. After reading the script for the pilot, I found myself moved by the story of Vampirina (aka "Vee"), a vampire girl who has recently moved from the monster world of Transylvania to the human world of Pennsylvania with her family and wants nothing more than to be accepted for who she is. I think we can all relate to her story in one way or another. I immediately knew what a positive impact this show would have on kids and that was something I wanted to be a part of.

Were there any creative challenges in making the transition to animation?

Minoui: Because I was brought on during an earlier stage of the animation, I encountered a new challenge in having to score music to the animatics: storyboards composed of the key frames and dialogue. This was an interesting challenge given that I had only scored live action up until this point, and I felt compelled to bring life, movement and color to the black and white still frames. My main source of inspiration came from the voice actors’ exuberant performances, which really drove the scenes. It was during this time that I began developing themes and finding the right palette of instruments for the various characters. I found it to be an incredible learning experience because it allowed me to better understand the key moments of the picture once I transitioned to writing to the actual animation.

How did you hone in on the sounds and style for your music to Vampirina?

Dimond: One of the true pleasures of working on Vampirina as songwriters is the specificity of the world. The world that Vee and her family inhabit is one that's unlike any we'd ever seen before. It's spooky, certainly, but there is a great deal of depth, heart, humor and joy within it. Capturing the perfect tone in the songs was a challenge, but one that we were excited to take on. The musical world that we've worked to establish is one that we think audiences will really enjoy.

Kooman: We spent a good deal of time talking about how to create songs that are authentic to this world. We wanted the songs to be fun, tuneful and spooky at the same time. It certainly took some time but I really love the sound we've come up with. Something you can only hear on an episode of Vampirina. :)

Minoui: Vampirina is so rich in its storytelling, its vibrant animation, and its out-of-this-world characters, all of which leaves me with a lot to work with musically. Creator Chris Nee and I discussed the importance of creating a fun musical language, a signature palette of instruments to amplify the magical world of our haunted house friends and one that can be differentiated from the "human world." It was my goal to find a palette that was playful and magical in color and texture. This led me to use a lot of mallets, harpsichord, dulcimers and a whole lot of shimmery bell-like textures to keep the score light and fun for our young audience.

The palette continues to evolve as new characters are regularly introduced. One of the highlights in working on Vampirina is the process of figuring out what new musical motifs and instrumentation will best represent each new character. For example, a character who is later introduced in the show is Chef Remi Bones, a French skeleton chef. It was a perfect opportunity to blend traditional French instrumentation into the score while using xylophone as a color to accentuate the bones. In another episode, we have Dragos the disco dancer, where I incorporated the sounds of ‘70s-sounding string samples and retro dance beats.

Aside from being blue and turning into bats on occasion, Vee and her family have a lot of the same dreams, anxieties and emotions as the humans on the show. How did you balance the monstrous and the human in your lyrics and arrangements?

Dimond: Part of what drew us to Vampirina right from the start was the heart of the story. Most of the characters are monsters, sure, but underneath the spooky fun, it's about universal human emotions. In many ways, what Vee and her family are going through are experiences and emotions that we can all relate to. I think that fact is especially true now, with everything that's going on in the world. That's what makes it such an important story to tell.

Those sorts of emotions make for terrific fodder for songs. In fact, as a songwriter, you can't ask for better material than what we've been given on this show. The emotions; the specificity of the characters and the world; the humor, silliness and sheer fun of it all...that's gold for a songwriter.

Kooman: Even though these characters are vampires, mummies, ghosts, goblins and even pirates, they hopefully reflect some aspect of us as humans or the human experience. It's been exciting finding our way into this world and these characters from a lyrical and musical perspective. We have the ability to explore some darker, spookier elements and still find this fun, exciting world of a Disney cartoon.

How do you write a score that conveys that your animated humans are getting spooked while not scaring your human kid audience?

Minoui: This was a fun challenge! From the beginning, the creators and I discussed how to best score these delicate moments. In these scenes, I oftentimes score against the picture, turning a potentially frightful moment into a comedic moment. This creates a tone that allows the audience to laugh at the absurdity of the character getting scared rather than accentuating the scariness. 

It's important to keep it light and fun instrumentally during those moments. For example, I avoid instruments in the low registers and any instrument that the producers found to be too scary. For example, instead of using string swells to play a suspenseful moment, I use tremolo mallets and woodwind trills to create the same suspenseful effect. In other cases, it's more about timing. That is when creating space is your best option, and having the music play the reaction of the characters comedically vs. scoring the spooky narrative on screen.  

Did you have an opportunity to hear the songs as part of your scoring process? How did their work shape what you did for the show?

Minoui: The songs are amazing and do a great job in capturing the essence of the storyline in each episode. I've been fortunate to hear the songs for each episode before I begin writing. It is my responsibility to score the transitions into and out of the songs, making them fully integrated into the overall score. Oftentimes, I will adjust the key signature, tempo, etc. in my cues to more seamlessly transition between score and song.

The first couple episodes feature one song each in addition to the theme. How did you decide which moment was ripe for a song? Were there times when that changed in the course of working with the show runner?

Kooman: We found that these characters jumped into songs whenever they become so full of emotion that their words couldn't be contained in dialogue anymore. Songs seem to be a perfect fit for this dynamic, comedic, fun and often zany cartoon world of Vampirina.

Dimond: We're fortunate to get to collaborate with a number of incredible artists on Vampirina. TV is such a collaborate process, and we've been truly blessed with a group of terrific storytellers at every step. The writers of the show, in particular, have been fantastic to work with. Chris Nee and her team have an innate sense for what moments in a story should be musicalized, and they do an awesome job of giving us great material to capture in song.

There have been a couple of times when the song moments have shifted along the way, as we've worked together to figure out how to tell the story most effectively. That type of discovery is truly one of the most exciting parts of the process.

In the first episode, Vee and Poppy listen to a tiny bit of a record by Justin Teether and the Singing Sirens called “Be My Ghoul.” Sounds like a vintage Kooman & Dimond song to me! Did you guys write a lot of “diegetic” songs for the show?

Kooman: Yes! We got the chance to write both songs sung by these fun characters and also the chance to write for some radio pop songs as well. I am personally quite excited to make my debut as the voice of Justin Teether, the vampire world's Justin Bieber. :)

Dimond: That song was a lot of fun to write. We had a blast with it, since, as with many songs in the series, it allowed us to combine elements of the vampire world with the real world. We've had a really good time finding parallels between the two worlds, and finding ways to incorporate different musical styles that audiences recognize from the human world with a vampire twist.

All three of you participated in ASCAP workshops. How would you describe what ASCAP has meant to your careers?

Minoui: The ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop with Richard Bellis taught me the importance of developing a strong team and utilizing all the available resources that truly bring a score to life, including orchestrators, copyists, mixers, music editors and live musicians. Prior to doing the Workshop, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what goes into the full production of a higher budget film score. As a result of my experience, I am now a true supporter of the art of collaboration as I know live musicians and other team members enhance the level of artistry and quality in my work.

Dimond: It's impossible to overstate how influential ASCAP has been to our careers. ASCAP gave us one of the first opportunities we had in New York City when our musical Dani Girl was accepted into an ASCAP workshop. The feedback we got from that experience from people like Stephen Schwartz and Lynn Ahrens was unbelievably influential to us as we learned the craft and honed our songwriting skills.

Not only that, but ASCAP has continued to support us at every step of our careers, in myriad ways, not the least of which has been helping us to develop the ASCAP Foundation Musical Theatre Songwriting Project, a program dedicated to introducing high school students to the fundamentals of songwriting. There's simply no way we'd be where we are right now if it weren't for the incredible support of ASCAP.

Kooman: ASCAP has been absolutely wonderful to us. We owe so much to ASCAP and they've been there for us and our careers ever since the beginning.  We are especially indebted to Michael Kerker of the musical theater department for believing in us and for also connecting us with other departments of ASCAP.

Vampirina has greatly expanded the hallowed canon of songs about vampires. What’s your favorite (that you didn’t write)?

Kooman: “The Monster Mash,” of course. 

Dimond: Michael already claimed "Monster Mash," so I'll have to go with The Mountain Goats' "Damn These Vampires." 

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Vampirina debuts on Disney Junior channel on October 1, 2017.  

Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond are an award-winning songwriting duo for musical theatre. In addition to Disney Junior’s Vampirina, their current projects include the original stage musical The Enlightenment of Percival Von Schmootz (commissioned by the Canadian Music Theatre Project) and Romantics Anonymous (written with Emma Rice), which will premiere in October at Shakespeare's Globe. Visit them online at www.koomandimond.com.

Layla Minoui, a composer known for the remarkable emotional depth in her music, has composed numerous scores for film and television. Working alongside Emmy Award-nominated composer Robert Duncan, Minoui's television credits include ABC's Castle and The Gates, Bravo's Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce and the Disney Channel Original Movie Girl vs. Monster. Her feature film credits include The Sound and the Shadow and The Mad Whale. Minoui currently resides in Los Angeles. Visit her online at laylaminoui.com.